Five nights, four days and 3,472 miles to explore, the world’s first national park. We were on the road early that morning with a booked campsite at Half Moon Lake, Wyoming just about eight hours outside our front door. A little gem we stumbled upon, private beach to most campsites, climbing nearby and breath-taking views if you love how calming being near large bodies of water can be. Arriving at camp by 3:00 in the afternoon on a Friday is ideal for those who love the outdoors and hate traffic. Camping is much nicer when you have time to set up home base, indulge in a brew or two and still have five hours of daylight ahead. However, as peaceful as Half Moon Lake was, it was only our first night and we still had three more hours of drive time till our real adventure began.
The Next morning we were up and out, broke down camp, prepared oatmeal, coffee and hit the road! The four us attending the trip, Sandy our camp chef and shofar, Rick the personal tour guide and navigator and of course yours truly Marin and I along for the ride and drink refills. As we drive north towards Jackson hole I couldn’t contain the excitement in my belly, I have traveled few miles outside of my surrounding states and to be headed towards a place with more historical background than you can imagine while camped on top of an active volcano my adrenaline was through the roof! Pulling up to the Tetons at a viewing site for the first time, comparatively to the Rockies (home in my heart) is very enticing for a thrillist. Two huge prominent peaks, the tallest height of 13,770’ with Grand Teton, Middle Teton and Mount Owen being the most popular. With that site to our left and bison to our right, we headed into Yellowstone national park.
Entering through the West gate, with two lanes of entry during Labor Day weekend on a Saturday requires composure, which as I know firsthand the Upton family is well known for. We eventually get through the entrance, reach the post check-in and are off 50 mph in a 30 as we can’t contain our enthusiasm any longer (joking, Upton’s don’t speed.) We stop and see Lewis Falls, take some touristy snapshots and head to base camp to set up! With over 2,000 campsites available we were lucky enough to have Sandy a return fan there to get us a prime spot, slightly secluded, room for two tents and a meadow of our own! We proceeded to head to Lake Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in the park, canary yellow, very colonial building with what I assumed to be a statue of a bison out front. Turned out to be a very ill bison laying outside the dining area, both awesome to see a bison us so close yet disheartening when you could see his discomfort. It’s eye-opening when you visit the park or talk to anyone employed there and how they really do let nature take its course without interfering.
Sulphur Caldron and Mud Volcanoes were in our future, I could smell them before I could see them. Acidic enough to be battery acid and funky enough to make you gag, the steam that comes off these things are similar to hits of humidity in New Orleans, just disgusting. However, once you become immune to the smell the colors are absolutely magnificent! The mere science behind it all and the fact that you are walking around on top of an active volcano is mind-boggling in itself. How do I put this lightly… The ignorance of some people you see touring the park around the hydrothermal, acidic, sulfurous, hot and not to mention ACTIVE geological features is beyond me. With the sun setting, we decided it was time to seek out some wildlife so we drove through Hayden Valley my favorite place in the park. Bison in Yellowstone are like trees in Colorado, they’re everywhere! Fantastic beasts, don’t love people, hold up traffic and smell worse than Sulphur but they sure are cool to watch. As we are driving through Hayden Valley and everyone is pulled over looking at bison herds we were lucky enough to dodge the crowd and see two swans which were pretty majestic! However, not quite the action we were seeking so we moved on looking for a slightly more aggressive creature, like a bear perhaps. Ironically enough we found one, one might even say we found two bears, grizzlies as a matter of fact. Four hours in Yellowstone national park, driving through Hayden Valley pulled off where we saw some other people gathered and within seconds a grizzly bear comes out of the woods. Five hundred yards off sprints out of the woods, across a river, headed towards a bison carcass that had died there early that morning in a fight with another bison! Words cannot express our levels of excitement as Marty and I are screaming at one another from across the field that we each see a bear! The excitement of the crowds that gather and wildlife watch together in Yellowstone are some of my favorite moments. The amount of knowledge, technology, and excitement that floats around when you are all watching something off of national geographic happen right in front of you is by far one of the coolest things to experience. We are all standing there with our scopes, binoculars, cameras, cell phones anything to capture what we were about to see. A hungry grizzly headed towards the bison, without knowing there was already another grizzly sleeping behind the carcass from earlier that day. The hungry grizzly starts to get close and up pops the one from his nap walking straight towards him. You see this committed hungry bear immediately turn around and head back towards the river, the full bear proceeds to chase him into the water and they both linger on their side of the river for quite a while. Staring at one another waiting to see what happens, the hungry bear starts swimming towards full bear and the fight is on! We then proceed to see two grizzly bears fight in the river, pawing one another in the face mostly starring each other down only for a split second and full bear takes the win, it was an unbelievable way to end our first day in the park.
Isa Lake, straddling the continental divide drains into two oceans the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. It appears to be more of a pond than a lake, however, still pretty cool as we drove past it on our way to the upper, middle and lower geyser basins. All which are a must see when visiting the park, Old Faithful geyser happens to be the most popular attraction in Yellowstone and probably the most advertised but if you follow the boardwalk I promise you won’t be disappointed. The Old Faithful Inn provides free tours of the lodge which we were able to do, super informative, the woman who leads the tour has been doing it for twenty-eight years and she is fantastic! We also had dinner at the lodge that night which was a great way to end the evening followed by a sunset walk along Grand Prismatic Spring.
The following morning, we longed for more wildlife, more action, so we decided to drive through Lamar Valley and see what the sunrise had to offer. Of course, more bison ha it’s actually really comical to watch a 2,000 lb bison run down a hill considering that they have slim, small, short legs. A few miles up the road from the bison you could see people gathering and as we got closer we discovered it was the “wolf paparazzi” wolf fans who follow the packs and keep track of the wolves, their whereabouts, and daily activities. Let this be known that wolves are much more difficult to spot than grizzlies. Turned out to be six wolves, two grays, four black recognized as the Junction Pack, feeding on an old bison carcass. We probably scope hopped for about an hour trying to get better and closer views but with not much action we decided to move on. We started on a hike, few miles down the road from the wolves known as the petrified tree hike, this particular morning was perfect to do so, overcast, still a little brisk outside but not unbearable. The trailhead was off the side of the road and as we started up the trail about ¼ mile in we noticed a heard of bison approaching our left. We continue walking, staying alert as there’s no way we’re going back now and we notice some of the larger bison signaling with their head almost in a wave motion to the rest of the herd to hold back and they all come to a halt. We continue to walk so not come off as a threat and we safely make it past the first hill, now as we continue to walk up the trailhead with bison behind us, and bison to the left of us we encounter a single bison straight ahead. A male, the largest bison of them all simply watching us as we walk up towards him, we decided to wait this one out. There we are posted up on top of a semi-large bolder probably the height of this bison’s stomach but hey, do what feels right, eventually, he moved on with the rest of the herd. Finally, our hike begins, no bison, hopefully, no bears, our only goal is to see these fossilized trees. I know we come off somewhat lucky with all the wildlife encounters but when it comes to directions it’s quite the opposite. We end up not lost per say but on the wrong trailhead for what seems much longer than a 1.5-mile hike to the top, with no petrified trees in sight or signs for that matter. The trail was so poorly marked that we made it up the hard way to see four petrified stumps and then back down three hours later to find out we weren’t far from our destination… Oh well. The rest of the day we toured Mammoth hot springs, the visitor center there, which is awesome and apparently the place to go to see elk? I didn’t see any elk but you could tell their shit is everywhere. Stopped at Norris Geyser Basin, my least favorite of all our site seeing, and then it was back to camp.
Our last day in Yellowstone was a successful one, to say the least, I can’t think of one sight we didn’t stop to see that day. Anything we had missed prior we hit, starting off with Artist Paint Pots, onto Beryl Spring, Gibbon Falls which is a must see. I haven’t seen too many falls in my adventures and this one, in particular, is breathtaking. Lunch by the Gibbon River, Firehole Canyon Drive you name it, we saw it, including some baby osprey and their mom. I think everyone agrees with me when I say we couldn’t have asked for a more outstanding trip. We saw all the licks of wildlife we wanted to see, every time we walked up to a geyser it went off, and we made it through the whole park and all of its main attractions, it was spectacular. Good food, great company, and the sky, as horrific as the fires in the northwest are right now the smoke makes for mesmerizing sunsets and rises. A trip I will not soon forget some of the best advice I have yet to hear about Yellowstone and the best I have to give “Don’t blink.” -Alexis Ortega with Photos by Alexis Ortega and Martin Upton