I remember sitting in the back seat of a station wagon as a kid, playing word games with my grandma and Aunt Rosie as my parents piloted us down western highways.
Our 1972 Plymouth rambled to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, then on to the pottery-esque presidential faces of Mount Rushmore, the Badlands and Yellowstone National Park.
It’s always an interesting insight to travel a road as a child, then journey there again as an adult.
In June, my family and I traveled the route in a 22-foot motor home, overnighting at Cabela’s, Walmart parking lots and a few campgrounds along the way.
It’s a great way to travel. We could take turns taking naps while the other drove. Our 5-year-old daughter could make her way to the bathroom any time she needed it and help herself to water in the fridge.
But the mode of travel wasn’t the only difference on this western trip. My impressions were different, too.
While my childhood mind mostly remembers Old Faithful as the keynote of Yellowstone, this time I was stunned by the beauty of nature that I probably didn’t entirely appreciate as a kid.
The wonders of Yellowstone
Within 10 minutes of entering Yellowstone’s east gate, we saw cars pulled off along both sides of the road. We stopped to check it out and were treated to a spectacular sight—a mama grizzly bear playing with her cub. They wrestled and rolled and frolicked in the field as onlookers filled their SD cards with images.
The majestic mountains, crystal blue lakes, forests, streams, waterfalls, geysers, colorful waters…
I have never seen such beauty and ecological diversity compressed into such a relatively small area.
Sure, Old Faithful still wowed, but Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States, completely amazed.
Its temperature of 160 degrees matches its depth of 160 feet. First noted by geologists in 1871, the multi-colored magical scenery includes surreal steam and bright shades of the rainbow.
A geological gem, for sure.
Boating in beauty
Since Grand Teton National Park is just a hop away, we spent a day picnicking at Jenny Lake and renting a boat a bit further north. We cruised so near the base of the snow-capped mountains we felt as if we could reach out and touch them.
A bit of caution here, though. If you rent a boat, be sure to pay special attention to your landmarks. It’s a vast area with lots of islands and much of the scenery looks similar. Be sure you mentally bread-crumb your voyage out so you can methodically find your way back to your marina.
We reentered Yellowstone National Park’s south gate and checked into Fishing Bridge, a full-hookup campsite that doesn’t allow campfires. There are tradeoffs for everything. The night prior we camped at Bridge Bay and enjoyed a beautiful view of a small lake, stoked up a nice campfire and roasted hot dogs. But there was no electricity so we had to turn on our propane furnace when the night grew chilly.
Our third day in Yellowstone resembled a wildlife safari. We saw dozens of elk, hundreds if not thousands of bison, even one running through a parking lot so close to spectators that a park ranger ordered visitors to get back in their vehicles and not engage with the wildlife.
A coyote crossed in front of our motor home so close we had to hit the brakes and we saw an antelope roaming the range.
Our 5-year-old’s favorite sight was a baby black bear eating in a field. No mama in view, so those who stopped for photos kept an eye out for her, just in case they had to make a mad leap back into the car.
We hit one of my bucket list items on our final Yellowstone day—swimming in the Mammoth Hot Springs. If you’re going to experience this, wear comfortable shoes. It’s a half-mile hike back to the section of the Boiling River where swimming is allowed. You basically wade over rocks and settle yourself in near where the hot springs feed into the river. The closer you are to the source, the warmer the water is. As you travel down river, the water cools off.
Not anything like I expected, but fun just the same.
If you do this, be sure to hang onto little ones’ hands. The river, although shallow, can be quite swift in spots and the rocky bottom makes for difficult walking.
If you really want to treat yourself to some treacherous but amazing beauty, exit Yellowstone via the northeast gate and take the Beartooth Highway. It’s a whirling, twirling road with cutbacks at elevations of nearly 11,000 feet.
It totally rivals Yellowstone in natural beauty, but with the added thrill of driving on roads that drop off into cliffs—fun in a sports car, more exciting still in a top-heavy motor home.
And for some great late-June fun, we stopped high in the Beartooth Mountain range for a good old-fashioned wild west showdown—with snowballs.