This is the final installment of a 5 part series on Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. We will spend 5 days and nights exploring the natural wonders of each park and the surrounding cities; our travels will take us on a circuitous route from Bozeman, MT to Jackson Hole, WY and back again. In Part 5, we'll spend our last day in Yellowstone split between a Photo Safari Tour and visiting Mammoth Hot Springs. Our morning photography tour will pick us up from our hotel on Yellowstone Lake in a historic yellow bus and take us through various photogenic experiences: sunrise at Fishing Bridge, wildlife spotting in the Hayden Valley, and the rainbow waterfall of Artist Point, to name a few. After, we'll drive from Lake Village to Mammoth Hot Springs, taking in the scenery along the way. At Mammoth Hot Spring, we'll visit the sights, enjoy our last dinner in the park, and spend the night in a cozy cabin. Finally, in the morning, we'll head back to Bozeman for a quick visit to the city before our afternoon flight's departure.
It's day 5 of our vacation, and like every other morning on this trip, we're up before the sun. Today, we have a Photo Safari Tour planned through the park. The Yellowstone Photo Safari Tour offers departures from both the Lake Hotel and the Old Faithful Inn, and I really wanted to fit one in during our stay if possible. Not only do I love all things photography--and a local pointing out the best spots--but this tour is offered on a Yellowstone historic yellow bus. These bright yellow, open-top busses (pictured later in this article) resemble a stretched version of a classic car and were a staple of Yellowstone in the mid-1900s. At one point, the park service had several hundred in operation shuttling visitors around. Today, though, only eight (refurbished) yellow buses are in operation in the park. They are used for certain tours, of which the one we have selected is one.
We meet our friendly tour guide (we'll call him Dan since unfortunately, I cannot recall his name) in the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. The rest of the tour group quickly assembles, as well. There is a wide range of guests on our tour from a mother and child to a young married couple to a senior solo traveler. The ground isn't large, but it's definitely varied.
Dan checks each our equipment as he walks us through today's plan. Our tour this morning will last approximately five hour and take us from Lake Village north toward the Canyon Village area and back. Dan says it may take a bit longer depending on bison traffic as we pass through the Hayden Valley and/or if we find an interesting subject to photograph along the way but that he's in no rush. He wants us to have a good tour. This definitely starts the day off with the right vibe.
Map of Yellowstone
Our tour will broadly cover the north shore area of Lake Yellowstone, the wildlife haven of the Hayden Valley, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, with some other short stops along the way. After we're all loaded into the yellow bus, we're off. Our first stop this morning is the nearby Fishing Bridge to get a view of sunrise. Dan drives very slowly over the bridge in each direction to give us each a chance to get a good shot of the sunrise and its reflection off of the Yellowstone River below. We can't get out here, but the shots we're able to get from out the window of the yellow bus more than suffice.
After, we continue our journey through the nearby marshy area. Here, we catch the sun just beginning to poke over the trees in the distance. In another spot, the puffy clouded sky is perfectly reflecting off of the still water below. It makes for a perfect mirror shot.
Now that the sun is up, Dan's next stop is a combo stop where we do get out of the vehicle. On the quiet roadway, we are able to get shots of the historic yellow bus. Dan stages it well for us, and we're able to capture it as we each take turns practicing shooting some smoking thermal features nearby. Dan says this time of day is great for capturing the details in the smoke and gives us each some. tips in individual camera settings.
As we continue on our drive, everyone is keeping their eyes out for possible wildlife along the roadway. It becomes a bit of a scavenger hunt. Soon, someone spots a White-tailed Deer, and we stop to get a shot. While deer are a fairly frequent sight in Yellowstone, we are all still excited to have our first animal sighting of the morning.
Eventually, we come across an area that has obviously experienced a forest fire. There are rows upon rows of dead trees standing along the roadway. It's a bit of a haunting image. Dan says the fire wasn't all that recently, which you can tell by the fact that new trees have begun to grow in the shadow of where the old ones still stand. It can take over 100 years for a tree to decay after a fire, and they remain standing for quite a long time. The park's stance is to leave nature to its own devices, so for as long as the trees choose to remain standing, they will remain that way.
Our next stop is a small body of water with a mountain in the distance. Here, we get the chance to work on photographing the mountain's reflection off of the water's surface. Dan has timed the visit here perfectly. The mirror image photographs perfectly--no photoshop needed here!
At this spot, there is also a very small "waterfall" working its way down some rocks. We stop to photograph it, and Dan shows us how to play with the settings on our cameras to get the appearance of moving water in our photos. This is a great spot for a camera setting tutorial, and we each take turns photographing the sights. We also get some wildflower shots before leaving the spot.
Once back in the bus, we pass yet more White-tailed Deer--this time a pair. They seem to be the only animal along our route this morning. Luckily, that's about to change, though.
Next, Dan takes us to a spot where Yellow-bellied Marmots are known to frequent. Yellow-bellied Marmots are one of the largest rodents found in Yellowstone. Dan says they like to sun themselves in the summer in a particular spot near a lake overlook, and he is spot on. There are two of the creatures out enjoying the sunshine right where he predicted. We drive toward the Marmots slowly in the yellow bus so as not to frighten the animals and then stop to photograph the pair out the window.
Shortly past the Yellow-bellied Marmots, we ascend to a viewpoint over Yellowstone Lake. Here, we take a break and get out of the yellow bus to enjoy a light snack and drink while taking in--and photographing--the view. It's a great spot from which to take in the vastness of the Yellowstone Lake--North America's largest high altitude lake.
The view from this spot is superb. It's interesting to see all of the trees in the surrounding countryside without any foliage this time of year--also victims of the previously mentioned forest fire. Between the bare trees and the chilly weather (Yellowstone mornings are typically quite chilly, even in warmer months), it's easy to forget that it's the middle of the summer.
After our short respite, we're back in the yellow bus and on the move again. There's still much to see! We pass yet more marsh grasses (slowly), and in this photogenic spot, we can just make out the mountains far off in the distance.
Shortly after we leave the Yellowstone Lake area, we find ourselves in the Hayden Valley. The bison herd is out in full force today in the grasslands, and it's awesome from a photography perspective. Some of the bison are literally headed straight for our vehicle. It's a good thing we have some sturdy steel between us and these ton-sized beasts. The yellow bus is the perfect vehicle from which to get some prime close-ups.
After a bit of a traffic jam in the Hayden Valley--a fairly common occurrence in Yellowstone--our next stop is Artist Point to view Lower Falls. We visited this sight once before earlier in our trip on our own when we toured the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone, but we're in for a special treat with Dan. He has somehow timed our day perfectly to be at the viewpoint to witness an optical wonder we weren't even aware existed.
When we first arrive, the waterfall looks much like the last time we visited. However, soon Artist Point begins to live up to its name. The water under the Lower Falls begins to softly glow with first one color appearing and then another until it begins to reflect a full prism of colors in the mist below the waterfall. Apparently when the sunlight strikes the spray below the falls in just the right way, a rainbow emerges. It's quite dramatic--and photogenic. Dan was even nice enough to lend the tour group filter for our cameras to capture the colors more clearly. While it definitely helps, even my iPhone is able to capture the magic of this moment without trouble. it's truly a once in a lifetime experience. This experience alone makes the tour worthwhile!
As the magical colors begin to fade, we to work our way back to the historic yellow bus. We have one more stop-off at the Grand Canyon at Yellowstone before we finish up in the area, and it's nearby. We are visiting Upper Falls (another spot we stopped at earlier in our travels). Upper falls is much as we remember it from our last visit, but Dan gives us some camera setting tips to better capture the falling waters in contrast to the surrounding canyon.
As we board the yellow bus to begin our trip back south, it's warmed up enough outside for Dan to remove the canvas top from our vehicle before we depart. He says it may give us a chance to get some standing shots of the Hayden Valley out of the top of the vehicle. My husband is very happy with our tour but a bit disappointed with the one remaining thing we have not been able to check off his Yellowstone bucket list. From day one, he has aimed to see at least one bear. I've been a bit more leery about encountering one (cue the bear spray), but he's been wanting to spot one since we read about their prevalence in the park. He had been hoping to spot one as we drove around the lake early this morning but no luck. His final Yellowstone wish is about to come true, though.
As we travel back toward the Hayden Valley, Dan gets word that a Black Bear has been spotted there feeding on a deceased bison. My husband is excited but doesn't want to get his hopes up. Dan says he will do what he can to get us to within viewing distance as long as the bear is still present, and he's true to his word. He says we can only stand in the bus to take photos out of the roof if the vehicle is at a complete stop--but this doesn't prove to be a problem.
As we enter the Hayden Valley again (this time from the North), traffic is moving considerably slower. Not only are people slowing down to view the massive number of bison this time, but they're also stopping to get a glimpse of the Black Bear feeding way off in the distance. Traffic comes to a complete halt at one point--cue standing up in the yellow bus to get a shot out the top. Luckily, we have a decent zoom lens on one of our cameras. We're just able to capture the bear as we watch.
Dan also gets the opportunity to pull over for all of us to get out to move a bit closer--while still keeping our distance obviously--but our best shots end up being from the higher perch of the yellow bus roof. We are able to get some great bison shots when we get out of the vehicle to move a bit closer to the bear, though (again, keeping our distance from them, as well). After the bear begins to move on--we're lucky we got a chance to photograph it during the short window it was in view--Dan makes the drive back to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel.
In front of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Dan gives us each a chance to get a photo from inside and outside of the historic yellow bus with the yellow hotel in the background. It's the perfect cap to the perfect morning. Dan has created one of the most memorable experiences of our trip with his thoughtfulness and genuine pride in designing a unique adventure. He seems to just inherently understand that although he's done this route countless times, it's our one and only opportunity to experience this photographic journey, and he goes out of his way to make it as memorable as possible.
Once we've said our goodbyes to Dan and the rest of our group, we decide to stop in at the lodge's Dining Room for lunch. Dinner last night was so good that I'm still craving the lamb sliders, and my husband is in the mood for a good salad. We decide we will share one of each. Luckily, there is no wait for a table, and we're quickly sat and place our order. Lunch isn't quite as delicious as dinner was last night, but it's still quite good--and we're quite hungry--so we easily clear our plates.
Lunch complete, we're on the road again. We say goodbye to the shores of Yellowstone Lake and begin our journey northward through the park for the last time. Tonight, our final evening in the park will be spent at Mammoth Hot Springs, and we have a bit of a journey to get there. Since it's our final day, we plan to take in as much the park as we can before it's over.
As we begin our drive north, we pass Mud Cauldron which we visited earlier in our trip. Just past that, though, we spot Sulfur Cauldron--which we have not seen yet--and pull off to take a look. Sulfur Cauldron is a hot spring, but it certainly does not look like an inviting one. It is actually one of the most acidic ones in all of Yellowstone. It's pH is only 1.3 which is on par with sulfuric acid. We stay far above the pool on the roadside path--a smart decision if you ask me!
Continuing north, we pass through the Hayden Valley for the third time today. The traffic is moving now that the bison have moved further from the road, and the bear appears to be long gone. The wildlife in Yellowstone can come and go in the blink of an eye. I'm glad we got the chance to see the bear when we did!
Once we get up toward Canyon village, the landscape's elevation begins to shift. The flat plains of the Hayden Valley give way to more distinctive features. We encounter many more ups and downs on the road, and the scenery becomes more varied and hilly.
We keep our eyes out as we drive for any potential wildlife spotting, and as we turn westward from Tower Roosevelt, we are rewarded with a pronghorn sighting. This is our first and only pronghorn sighting of the trip, so we're very excited. My husband pulls over, and I'm just able to snap a good shot out the car window before the animal takes off, bounding into the brush.
The 18 mile stretch between Tower-Roosevelt and Mammoth Hot Springs is rather hilly, and we have to pay attention to the road (or at least my husband who is driving needs to focus--I mainly just watch the scenery). About two miles before we arrive at Mammoth Hot Springs, we pull off to stop at Undine Falls. The waterfall isn't enormous by any stretch (60 ft. from top to bottom), but it's easily accessible, and the way it cascades over three tiers before its final disappearance into the pine trees below is quite picturesque. We put the skills we learned on our tour earlier for photographing moving water to good use here. It's bittersweet knowing that this is the final waterfall we will see on our journey.
Soon after the falls, we arrive at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. I really wish we were staying in the hotel itself--I checked for reservations pretty much every day from the time we began planning our trip, but I had no luck. It appears that their room are in the midst of a renovation project, so that may have been the issue rather than lack of vacancy. I was able to snag a Frontier Cabin, though.
The cabins at Mammoth Hot Springs are located behind the hotel, and we head to the main lobby to check-in. Cabins come in a selection of a few different options--some more rustic, some less. Our Frontier Cabin comes with a private bathroom and shower (some choices do not). It's obviously a personal choice what people are most comfortable with, but I do not want to be attempting to find a bathroom across the campground at 2am with a bear hanging out in my path--as much as my husband would love the experience of the bear.
Our cabin is perfect for what we need. We have a small porch with a table and chairs, two queen beds, and a small private bathroom. After dropping our luggage and getting settled in, we head over to the Hot Springs to explore.
Map of Mammoth Hot Springs
While it's not too far from our cabin to the Hot Springs' lower terraces, we decide to take the car since the weather is looking a bit iffy at the moment. We briefly visited Mammoth Hot Springs as we passed through the area on the first day of our trip, but we kept to the lower section of the lower terraces to conserve time. So, there's still much to explore.
The weather on our first day was ideal for getting some reflective shots in the springs' shallow pools. We had sunny blue skies and wispy cotton clouds which perfectly contrasted with the rusts, oranges, and greens carpeting the pools of Mammoth Hot Springs below. Today, though, we have some very different weather. The skies are dark and foreboding. It looks as if a large storm is rolling in across the horizon. Between the blackened skies and the grey, powdery landscape we pass through on our journey upward from the bottom portion of the lower terraces, it almost looks as if we are walking atop the moon's surface rather than Earth's.
Initially, I'm disappointed with the weather, but the storm does not yet seem imminent, and the dark skies give us an opportunity to really appreciate the contrasting milky whites and cerulean blues of the terraces below. Even the rust oranges and reds appear to pop against the charcoal grey sky. It provides a unique, contrasting experience from our first visit.
The lower terraces are pedestrian traffic only, and traversing the different boardwalks and overlooks can consume quite a bit of time. The lower boardwalks alone cover about 1.75 miles and a 300 ft elevation gain. We keep a close eye on the weather, but despite the wind picking up, the storm itself seems to remain at bay. We travel to the uppermost area of the lower terraces and stroll across each boardwalk and viewpoint, taking in the surrounding otherworldly scenery.
After we've fully covered the lower terraces, we head back down to our car to explore the upper terraces. The upper loop is technically walkable, but the weather is looking more foreboding by the minute. So, being in the safety of our car seems like the best idea just in case the skies do decide to open up.
The upper terraces consist of a 1.5 mile, one-way loop road that can only be driven in summer (cars only). The going can be very slow, with drivers stopping frequently to take in the sights, but we don't mind. The is the last real sight we have planned to visit in Yellowstone, so we're in no rush.
The first sight we encounter on the upper terrace is not geological in nature. We see a pair of spotted twin fawns ambling along the side of the road with their mother. While we've seen plenty of deer on this trip, we haven't see babies--let alone twins--yet. There's always something new to encounter in Yellowstone if you're on the lookout.
Shortly past the twins, we see the aptly named Orange Spring Mound. The colorful hues of Yellowstone's hot springs are the result of heat-loving microorganisms called thermophiles that can vary in color (I've talked about them a bit earlier in the series). The temperature and pH of the water determines what type of thermophiles--and thus what color--will thrive in a particular spot. So, Yellowstone's varying geology can be thanked for contributing to the rainbow of colors found throughout the park. In the Mammoth Hot Springs area, oranges are quite prevalent--and this spring is no exception.
We also spot White Elephant Back Terrace and Angel Terrace during our drive. At most spots, we're able to see the sights directly from the car or are traveling so slowly that I'm able to jump out to snap a quick photo before we move on to the next spot. The route doesn't have quite as many sights as the lower terrace, but it's definitely still worth doing.
After completing the upper terrace loop, the skies clear up a bit, so we decide to drop the car back to the cabin and explore the Mammoth area on foot. Starting at the hotel, we spot one of the hotel's most famous sights--the local elk that are so fond of camping out on the front lawn. We stop to check them out. Most appear to be taking a late afternoon nap, oblivious to the tourists milling around them.
From the hotel, we walk down Officer's Row. This is where the Army officers used to live back when Yellowstone was still Fort Yellowstone. Now, the homes serve mostly as park offices and employee housing. The first place we encounter along our route is the Albright Visitor's Center. So, we step inside for a quick visit.
Inside, there are some exhibits and photographs of the park's history on display. The main thing we find interesting, though, is all of the life-sized park animals spaced throughout the exhibit, complete with information on each. The Visitor's Center is definitely the only place in Yellowstone you're allowed to legally get this close to the wildlife!
Yellowstone was occupied by the U.S. Army from 1886-1918. At the height of the Army's presence, 324 soldiers and their families lived here (along with some stationed civilians). At different points during that time, most of the facades along our current route were constructed. Next up on our mini-tour, we pass the Mammoth Chapel. A quaint stone church constructed in 1913, it looks like the perfect place to hold a wedding--complete with stained glass windows featuring park scenes. Once past the chapel, we encounter the cavalry barracks (now offices), and after that, we begin to work our way back north toward the Yellowstone Post Office. The building is rather fancy for a post office--it's actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The entrance is even flanked by two three-ton stone bear sculptures.
[Tour Note: The park actually has a do-it-yourself 0.6 mile walk through the main Army-era sights at Mammoth Hot Springs that you can find here which mimics the route we traveled (it's also the source of the facts above).]
After the Post Office, we find ourselves back near the hotel. It's happy hour time--and the last day of our trip--so we decide to head to the Map Room in the hotel where a small bar is located. On the way back into the hotel, we pass the hotel's Historic Porter Call Board. During the early days of Yellowstone, porters were employed to transport guests' luggage between the rooms and stagecoaches that transported visitors to and from the railroad. Guests were able to press a button in their rooms to signal to the front desk their need for a porter's assistance. The board is obviously no longer in use, but it is a historic artifact of the hotel (and its story--more detailed than this brief recap--is posted next to the board).
The Map Room is so named for the wooden map that takes up much of one of its walls, depicting the United States as of 1936 (i.e. no Alaska or Hawaii). It contains 2,544 individual pieces of wood made up of 15 different varieties. The map quite an interesting piece of artwork, and a must-see if you're visiting the hotel. [Fun fact, the state capitol of Maryland is actually incorrectly labeled as Baltimore on the map.]
After checking out the map, we head to the small bar in the corner of the room to order a drink. I select the happy hour special--a frozen drink the bartender has concocted flavored with huckleberry syrup--and my husband chooses a local beer. After, we find a seat in the spacious room to enjoy our drinks. It's a great spot to relax after a fun day of sightseeing. There is even a piano player seated at the end of the room playing a selection of tunes. It reminds me a bit of the live music in the Historic Yellowstone Lodge. There, the violin suited the atmosphere, and much the same here, the piano music very much matches the vibe of the room.
After our drink, we decide to take a quick trip back to our cabin to freshen up before dinner. The hotel, cabins, and dining room are all in a fairly compact location; so, no car is really needed to get around. Once we're ready, we walk over to the Dining Room for our dinner reservation.
The Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room has a bit more of a laid back vibe compared to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel Dining Room, but the atmosphere suits a national park. Most diners (including ourselves) are seated in comfortable booths spaced throughout the room. The menu features local items, fresh produce, and a few of your typically safe staples. We ask our server for some recommendations--always my favorite way to choose menu items--and settle on a salad to share first, followed by two entrees to split.
We start with the Warm Goat Cheese Salad with added grilled chicken. The goat cheese is served as fried croutons on top of the salad which is an interesting twist. The dish comes with grilled flatbread on the side and is definitely enough for a meal on its own. It's an immense contrast to our lunch salad at the Lake. However, we've already ordered our two entrees, so we're apparently pot committed to a big meal at this point!
For entrees, we have selected the Shrimp and Grits (with chorizo and jack cheese grits) and the Bison Burger with fixings. There are a variety of "fixings" from which to choose, but we have selected sautéed mushrooms and bleu cheese for ours. I make bison all the time at home, and I always select it over ground beef if it's an option. Both dishes turn out to be absolutely delicious--a nice surprise for our last night in the park.
After dinner, we're quite full, but I've read we have to try the ice cream at the Terrace Grill, so we decide to walk over and split one for dessert. We settle on huckleberry (a local favorite) and moose tracks (seems appropriate after our day yesterday). The ice cream is huge, and I'm glad we've decided to share one after an already immense meal.
Quite full, and it not being quite dark yet, we decide to do a bit of perusing in the gift shop before turning in for the evening. I've found that along with the typical tourist swag, there are often a number of more unique items featured in Yellowstone's gift shops. And just like elsewhere in the park, I spot something a bit different. Here, it comes in the form of earrings carved out of antlers.
After some debate, I decided I want a pair--something that will always remind me of our trip through Wyoming and Montana. The display shows how they are made, and I love that they're specifically fashioned from the region (don't worry, no animals were harmed in their making). I select an interesting pair shaped like feathers and painted with different shades of blue--very my style. I'm sure they will get a lot of use back home!
After our mini shopping expedition, we walk back to the cabin to turn in. We have decided to hit the road early tomorrow and stop off in Bozeman, Montana again to get some breakfast before our early afternoon flight. Apparently getting up before the sun is going to be the norm for every morning of this vacation.
So, the next morning we get up in the dark (yet again) and set out toward Bozeman in the dim light of dawn. The scenery is pretty, and the roads are mostly empty. The speed limit along the highways is rather high--80 MPH--and we make very good time.
When we arrive in Bozeman, we search around a bit for a good spot to eat and decide on Main Street Over Easy, a small cafe specializing in breakfast. We each order an omelet which is served with toast and hash browns. The breakfast is very filling--and quite good. It's the perfect fuel for a long day of traveling. We are even able to properly dispose of our bear spray while we're here (you're not supposed to throw it out and you cannot fly with it). One of our servers enjoys hiking; so, we're luckily able to pass it along!
Breakfast complete, we still have a bit of time to burn, and we'd rather not do that at the airport. So, we head over to the coffee shop we enjoyed so much the last time we passed through Bozeman. It's only a short walk across Main Street, a half block down from where we are now.
Wild Joe's Coffee Spot has some great coffee (for my husband) and makes an equally awesome tea latte (for me). We're too full for a pastry right now, but we still decide to select one to enjoy on the flight later. Once seated in the back of the shop on some comfortable chairs, we relax and reminisce about our trip for a bit, waiting until we judge we should be on our way to the airport. I'm sad our travels are coming to a close, but we have so many amazing memories!
Soon enough, our time has officially come to an end, and we're off to the Bozeman Airport for our fight back east. Looking back on all that we've experienced over the past several days, Yellowstone and Grand Tetons may top my list of favorite adventure destinations (so far) in the United States. Both national parks are such spectacular and unique places, and they're right in our own backyard--no passport required. As our flight taxis down the runway for takeoff and my husband closes his eyes for a nap, I'm already busy mapping out which extraordinary national parks I want to conquer next!
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins