A Travellerspoint blog

August 2016

Utah’s spectacular (& crowded) national parks

Quail Creek State Park, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Torrey

semi-overcast 32 °C
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Quite frankly, even at the risk of being very unfair to the state of Nevada, there’s nothing else we did there beyond visiting Las Vegas. And interestingly enough, the nice and interesting landscapes started just after we passed the borderline to Arizona (just for a couple of miles) and then shortly after to Utah.
We had a base plan in regards to where to stay overnight. Freecampsites.net features a nice place just before the entrance to Zion National Park and that’s where we wanted to go. After all, it was Saturday in the middle of vacation season and consequently all reservation campgrounds in the National Park were full and the recommendation for getting a first come – first serve campground was to be there between 5 and 6am: so clearly not an option for us.
As usual, we took opportunities as they came along and wanted to try our luck at a KOA campground close to St. George. On the way there, we passed a Quail Creek State Park and realized that it was beautifully located next to a lake and had nice shaded tables at all campsites. So we tried our luck and could hardly believe it that a) there were still spaces available and b) the single electrical hook up site was still available as well. Great – this way we’d be able to have our air-con running in the can tonight such that temperatures will be bearable.

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After a dip in the lake, Sam impressed me with some great car fixing. He installed the pieces for the doors we had ordered to the KOA in Las Vegas using his small, but flexible tool kit. And now our side door works again – hooray!

The next day, we were quite positively surprised that we still got a campsite at Zion National Park’s South campground. Lucky us… So we immediately reserved for two nights, set up camp and then headed off to explore the Visitor Center and the Pa’rus Trail. Given the heat we eventually took a right turn down to the Virgin River where we spent the rest of the day hanging out in and around the water.
In the evening we invited Ralf, a German motorbiker who moved to the US already years ago after winning a green-card in the lottery. It proved to be an excellent decision to invite him to join us on our site – he has travelled pretty much all of the western states of the US and Canada and was happy to share lots of tips and recommendations with us. So with his help, we were able to get a feeling what to see and visit specifically on our way from Moab to Yellowstone and then onwards from there to Seattle / Vancouver.
The next day was dedicated to exploring the Zion valley. The views of the sheer rock faces to both sides of the valley were really impressive. But less impressive were the masses of people being shuttled by bus from one viewpoint to the next. We chose the Riverside Walk that is leading to the Narrows – a walk that I had hiked already some 23 years ago. And either my memory was playing tricks on me or something about it was different this time. But while I clearly recall other people taking the hike and then continuing onwards through the river (which back then impressed me very, very much), this time it felt that we were walking the streets of a busy city – that’s how crowded it was. Unfortunately not much fun. And even though we might have found a bit more solitude on some other walks, by the time we got back to the shuttle bus, we rather wanted to just get out of the masses and back to our nice campground and eventually to a spot in the river to cool off.

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On our way out of the park in the next morning we got to see some nice vistas of the valley from above. And while very different from the valley floor, we really liked the landscape up there very much. We would have loved to go for the Valley Overview Trail, but due to lack of parking spots and enormous traffic in that location, there was simply no chance at all to do it.

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Thus we continued our journey through some absolutely nice landscapes towards Bryce Canyon. On our way we could not resist the temptation to stop at a German Bakery to get a loaf of ‘real’ German bread – the price was outrageous by German standards, but the taste was absolutely worth it.
Eventually we passed Red Canyon which featured stunning colors even in the midday sun. Soon after we reached Bryce Canyon and once again were lucky to still get a campground in early afternoon. But as soon as the spot was secured, it was time to explore the sights of the national park.

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Unfortunately, some clouds had formed, bringing not only a bit of rain, but also thunderstorms.
Before heading to the main and most popular viewpoints, we took the scenic route to the southern end of the park at Rainbow Point. All of us were freezing and were simply not used to not seeing the sun and getting wet – after all had seen our last 30 min episode of trickly rain in La Paz, Mexico and the last real rain back at Mesa Verde in mid-May.

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By the time we worked our way up again towards Inspiration Point, on the of the main viewpoints in the park, the sun was out again and we got to the probably the best view the park has to offer in perfect light and at pleasant temperatures again.

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Given that our campground was very close to Inspiration Point, we took another hike there later towards sunset and were there just in time for perfect light.

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The other big asset of Bryce Canyon next to its spectacular ‘hoodoos’ – that’s how the columns in the park are called – is the clear and dark nightly sky. Sam took a shot at trying to get some shots of the milky way to match the ones he had taken back in Mexico. He was very pleased with the results and to his big pride even managed to catch a shooting star in one of the pictures.

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The next morning was dedicated to driving along the Scenic Byway 12. And yes, it was very scenic giving lots of reasons to stop and take pictures. We specifically liked the views of the Staircase Escalante – a very remote wilderness.
We had planned to go all the way to Capitol Reef National Park and therefore did not take any of the many detours the Scenic Byway had on offer. And given all the switchbacks and curves along the way we did not nearly progress as fast as we had anticipated. So eventually after a stop in Bicknell to get a car part exchanged and our parking brake adjusted on the van, we resorted to stay in Torrey for the night. After a couple of days in national park campgrounds it was time again for a proper shower and we looked forward to having some wifi (which was in vain, as it did not really work). Still, the facilities with pool, basketball court and a large area for kids to play ballgames was worth the investment.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:49 Archived in USA Tagged rain lake valley wilderness crowd zion thunder bryce escalante viewpoint Comments (1)

The National Parks around Moab

Capitol Reef NP, Canyonlands NP, Arches NP

semi-overcast 37 °C
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We had a full day’s worth of activities in front of us and consequently started earlier than usual. The first place on our list was the scenic drive in Capitol Reef National Park, the least visited of Utah’s five national parks.
Once more we were impressed by the scenery and the ever changing landscapes around us. But even more so we liked our stop at the orchard on the way out again: it was apricot season and we had lots of fun picking them. In the process, we treated ourselves to eat many of them and eventually could not resist to take five pounds with us.

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After a bit of a break in the shade of large trees next to the river, we continued our journey towards Little White Horse Canyon. After all, we had met a French and a German family who had been equally impressed by the hike and highly recommended it to us. And they promised that it would not be too crowded – which we perceived as a big plus given the many people we had around us in Zion and Bryce National Parks.
Already the way there was very nice and there were lots of photo opportunities along the route.

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By the time we arrived at the trail head, grey clouds were looming over the canyon and we had a bit of concerns as if it was safe to go in or not. But fortunately by the time we had finished lunch, the clouds had left and we were safe to go.
And we really liked the hike. After a bit of a hike along a wash in the glaring afternoon sun, the interesting part started with a bit of climbing over some rocks stuck in the narrower parts of the canyon and soon after we found ourselves in a slot canyon which somewhat resembled Antelope Canyon – except that we had it alone for ourselves and the light was not as perfect as it had been there.

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After our drive it was time for the last stretch of road for today to reach Moab. And it was faster than expected, as it was the first time we were allowed to drive 80 mph on an interstate.
And arriving in Moab also meant taking a bit of a timeout from traveling around. We had booked a spot in the local KOA campground for three nights and used that time to just relax a bit. Our main activities consisted of going to the pool, playing table tennis and mini golf. And we also caught up with our families back home and got the blog entries up to Las Vegas uploaded and published.
While I had really needed that break, Sam was already keen to move on. So eventually we moved on again. Our first stop was in town at the Moab Brewery to get some lunch. The food was excellent and great value for money.
We then headed on to Canyonlands NP and enjoy the grand vistas of the canyons the Colorado and Green River have carved. The part of the park is called Island in the Sky for a good reason – only a narrow bridge allows to access the large table that is surrounded by canyons on all sides.
Then it was time for getting a bit of exercise and we hiked to Mesa Arch which is located in a spectacular spot right along the cliffs going down towards the canyons.

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Our campground was on top of the Canyonlands area, just outside the park and with clouds and thunderstorms approaching we felt a bit exposed. In the end it was not too bad after all. We got treated to a nice sunset and the storm must have decided to change its direction such that we only got a bit of rain.

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The next day we started with a hike of the two trails at our campground before hitting the road and checking out Arches NP. The park is amazing and we loved the different rock formations and obviously the arches. Max’ favorite was Sand Dune Arch – less for the arch, but much more so for the huge sand dune underneath it. Sam even hiked the bit further to also get a glimpse of Broken Arch while we continued enjoying the sand.

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In the late afternoon we even attempted the hike to Landscape Arch – luckily there was already a bit of shade by then. To do this hike at midday temperatures and full exposure to the sun would probably not have been a smart idea. Already along the way we got to see a couple of other arches and nice features.

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Even though the top attraction in Arches is the hike to Delicate Arch – the official landmark of the park and of the state of Utah – we did not attempt it. We were fine with all the other sights we had seen such as Balancing Rock. And we’re pretty sure that this was a wise decision and we were much better off with just retreating to our campground along the Colorado River.

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The next morning, we had a very early start to get into Moab, as Sam had arranged for a motorbike tour with a KTM 350. Renting a motorbike and going offroad had been on his list of things to do on our trip. And which place would be better suited for that other than Moab?
And he was happy to having gone. There were lots of offroad trails for motorized vehicles to choose from (and there would have been even more for mountainbikes). His favorite trail was the ‘Cliffhanger’ where at certain instances he had to think through if he dares to go down the steep inclines, as afterwards he’d need to be sure to get up again on his own.

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But also Max and my day was filled with lots of fun. After exploring the local BMX park and enjoying the rides there, we headed to the city pool where Sam met us once he was done motorbiking.
After having excellent food at legendary Milt’s Stop and Eat, presumably one of Moab’s oldest diners (another recommendation we had taken from Jakob’s ’36 hours’ book), it was time to say good-bye to Moab and to head off towards the more northern and cooler parts of the country. Given that it was already quite late in the day, we did not go too far and stopped along the Colorado River again at Hittle Bottom campground. The location of the campground was simply great in what seemed to be an enormous natural amphitheater. The rock formations reminded us a lot of Monument Valley and we got to enjoy them in the great evening light.

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At night we were treated again to a beautiful night sky featuring the milky way and lots of shooting stars. And thanks to the camera suite Otmar sent to Sam, now Sam was even able to experiment with longer lens openings than the 30 sec maximum he had to deal with so far.

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Moab had been a nice place for staying a couple of days. The mix of national parks, adventures and lots of backcountry to explore makes the town a good base for spending some time.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 23:47 Archived in USA Tagged park canyon colorado national pool arch moab koa Comments (0)

Driving towards the Grand Tetons

Dinosaur NM, Flaming Gorge, Big Sandy, Jackson Hole, Grand Teton NP

semi-overcast 25 °C
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After our couple of days in Moab and surroundings our next big destination will be Yellowstone. There is no real must do tourist attraction along the way and we had not been sure for a long time if we should go via Salt Lake City or rather via Flaming Gorge. Ralf, our camping partner in Zion NP, convinced us that we’ll not regret it to pass by the Flaming Gorge and that’s what we wanted to do.
Our first travel day after a couple of days was dominated by the drive to Dinosaur National Monument, one of the biggest sites for dinosaur fossils. The fossil wall showing more than 1500 bones in their original position was very impressive. Unfortunately, the place was not really catering to the interests of kids, such that alternating Sam and I had to keep Max entertained. So we did not stay too long before heading on to our campground for the night.

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Once again we had a day of driving ahead of us with the Flaming Gorge being the highlight of that stretch. While most of the Flaming Gorge is now hidden by the large reservoir, there was still enough left to make a great impression on us.

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Eventually we went along the western shore line and eventually stopped at Big Sandy Reservoir for the night.
We did not expect too much of the location, but were amazed: we found a spot directly above the water. There was no wind at all and the lake lay in front of us like a mirror. And it was so quiet! We’ve been at many locations so far, but this struck us as one of the quietest places we’ve ever encountered. And it was also so remote that it was really dark at night such that once again we got treated to a nice view of the milky way.

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And finally on Friday we arrived in the early afternoon at Jackson, the gateway to the Grand Teton National Park. As we did not have a reservation for the night, we considered ourselves quite lucky to still get a slot in the Gros Ventre Campground along the southern boundary of the park.
We spent the rest of the day just taking it easy at our camp. And we were lucky to have with Terry and Lorrie great neighbors with whom we spent the evening playing Quirkle and Farkle. While Sam and I had been playing card and dice games quite a bit together, it was fun to play with others and to play different games again. So we just enjoyed and ignored our original plan of uploading Sam’s edited pictures and publishing the next blog posts. The posts will have to wait.
We spent the full next day to explore the park. Along the back roads we discovered a herd of bison. They were pretty unimpressed by us and enjoyed grazing against the backdrop of the Grand Teton mountains.

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For lunch we went down to the Snake River such that we could also observe the rafts starting and passing by in the river.
Approaching Jackson Lake and getting closer to the mountains, the clouds started drawing in. By the time we saw the first views of Jenny Lake along the trail we’d been hiking from String Lake thunder startled us and forced us to return to the car. On our way back to the campground Sam took a couple of attempts to catch lightning in a picture and was lucky in one of them.

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We’d been hoping to see some moose on the way back. While we did not get to see any moose, we were rewarded by seeing a rainbow.

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And as Max had been very patient over the last couple of days with the lots of driving we had done, he got the full next day to do just activities he likes. So he got to throw stones into Slide Lake and play lots of Lego. The alternating rain and thunderstorms did not allow for too many outside activities anyhow, so this was a fun and relaxing way to fill the day.
Eventually the rain subsided and we headed to Teton Village to take the free gondola up the mountain – a recommendation Lorrie and Terry had given us. By the time we got there, the sun was coming through the clouds nicely again. Already on our way up with the gondola we got to see a couple of marmots and a deer.
We enjoyed the view from the top, but did not wait too long before heading down again. With more than 3000 ft to descend at after 5pm, we rather wanted to get started. Once again we got to see marmots, lots of squirrels and chipmunks. Half way down the mountain, there was a trickle of rain and enough distant thunder to scare us. Luckily enough the sun came back again after a while and we were able to just enjoy the hike down.

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On our way back to the campsite we had hoped to spot some moose in the evening light. But despite some observing, we only got to see lots of deer and no moose. So we’ll just need to wait and see if we’ll see some of them in Yellowstone then, where we’ll head to tomorrow.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 14:51 Archived in USA Tagged mountain lake hike gondola bison bone dinosaur teton silence Comments (1)

Traffic jams in fascinating Yellowstone

Written by Birgit, pictures mostly by Sam

sunny 28 °C
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We left the Grand Tetons early in the morning, as we wanted to have a chance to get a spot for the next two nights at the first come – first serve campground at Lewis Lake. The last two days it had filled by 2pm, so with being there around 10:30am, we figured we should be fine.
While the theory sounds good, practical life proved us wrong. We had not factored into our equation the long waiting time to even get into the national park, nor the fact that on this Monday morning Lewis Lake should already be full at 10:49am. Fine, so a change of plans was needed. We decided to spend our day to explore the south western bit of the park to see Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring and to head out of the park to West Yellowstone to find a campground for the night.
Old Faithful performed as expected: shortly after 1:17pm we were among the big crowd of people watching it erupt nicely. After a couple of minutes, the show was over and within minutes the area was empty again, as people had dispersed in all directions.

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We headed off as well and hiked along the bike path and a boardwalk to see more of the geysers and hot pools of the area. All over the place there was something going on: geysers were spitting steam, hot pools were boiling and there was just a fine note of sulfur in the air.

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At Biscuit Basin the looks of emerald pool were tempting us to take a dip. But looks can be deceiving: we probably would not have enjoyed being boiled in there and anyhow there were enough signs around to tell us that leaving the boardwalk is not only dangerous, but also unlawful. So we enjoyed the looks of the volcanic features without touching or getting closer.

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Our next stop was supposed to be the Midway Basin, the location of the Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately, we were not the only ones with this plan. And many others before us were so adamant to stick to their plan that by waiting in the left lane to turn, they caused an enormous traffic jam which backed up more than a mile. Eventually we figured that with us being stuck in traffic anyhow, Sam should have a goo on foot to see the Spring, while Max and I stayed in the car, inching our way forward very slowly. Eventually Sam got back to the car and we headed on to our last destination for the day, the volcanic features along Firehole Loop Drive.

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And then it was time to leave the park in order to find a place to stay for the night. The drive from Madison junction to West Yellowstone is just 14 miles / 23 km, but it took us well over an hour to cover the distance. We’re not really sure why we were stuck in an enormous traffic jam again, but we suspect that it was either people watching some deer or some deer crossing or standing on the road. Still, no matter what it was, as we were quite tired and keen to get to a campground, we were really happy once traffic started moving again.
We tried our luck at a National Forest Campground north of West Yellowstone, which was full already. As the next free governmental (and consequently affordable) campground would have been over 20 miles further, we opted for a private one 5 miles down a gravel road. It was just already way too late for another long drive.

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At night I tried my luck to still reserve a space in a campground in Yellowstone, such that we’d not have to go through the ordeal of getting out of the park just to get in again the next morning. It seemed that there was still availability at Fishing Bridge RV Park (where we had already a reservation for Wednesday night), but somehow I did not manage to reserve it and half an hour later, even that one slot was already gone. Hmmm….
The next morning, I used the WIFI at the campground and spent lots of time on German tax questions. That is not really what I consider fun and it’s just so energy draining. So I was happy when I was done. And it felt like a reward for the work I had done, when I got a call from someone in Yellowstone welcoming me for this evening to stay at Fishing Bridge RV Park. Somehow I must have managed to reserve a site after all and just did not see the confirmation page or got a confirmatory email.
That was so great news! After our first experiences with traffic in Yellowstone we were already at the point to just spend a day outside of the park without having a reservation inside… But now, as we had a reservation after all, we were ready to hit the road, get some groceries and gas in West Yellowstone and to explore the area between Madison and Norris. We stopped at all the key sites along the way: Terrace Springs, Gibbon Falls, Beryl Spring and Artists Paintpots.

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Still, the best came last: a stop at Norris Geyser Basin, which is the hottest one in Yellowstone. It features not only geysers and hot pools, but also fumaroles and mud pools, i.e. all types of volcanic that exist. The landscape was fascinating and we were happy that we had made the stop at Norris.

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From there it was only a short drive via Canyon to Fishing Bridge through the Hayden Valley which is one of the prime spots for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone. We figured that it was perfect timing to go through the valley in the late afternoon / early evening as we hoped to see some wildlife.
And yes, our plan worked out. We got to do much more wildlife viewing than what we expected. It took us over 2 hours to drive the 16 mile / 25 km stretch from Canyon to Fishing Bridge, as we got stuck in a gigantic traffic jam.
While traffic was still moving, we got to see already the first bison in the distance. When traffic first started stopping, we attributed that to the three dark wolves up in the hills and the grey / white wolf just on the other side of the Yellowstone River. But after we had passed the craziness of that bottleneck, traffic did not get better, but worse. It got to the point that we only got to move forward the distance of those cars in front of us which gave up and turned around.

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So we opened our roof and Sam started heating up the remainder of yesterday’s soup. After all we were standing more than driving and when moving our speed did not surpass 2 mph anyhow.
Eventually Sam and Max headed off to get some exercise along the road. With Max biking and Sam running, I soon lost sight of them as they passed the cars in front of me. A bit later I got to see lots of ducks and Canadian wild geese along the river and eventually in the rear view mirror a couple of bison. And to keep myself busy in this somewhat frustrating standstill, I at least took a couple of pictures.

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Some more time passed and, a guy that eventually had started running along the traffic jam just like Max and Sam came back and reported to everyone who was interested the reason for the traffic jam: a big herd of bison was crossing the road somewhere in front of us and as they were not just crossing, but also idling on the road, there was simply no way to move forward. I must say that it was a big relief to hear that it was wildlife stopping us and not necessarily just sightseeing tourists. Even though realistically it is always a combination, as those people close to the wildlife cannot hesitate to take pictures and consequently slow everything down.
A couple of hundred yards / meters before the actual bottleneck Sam and Max waited for me and got back into the car. And eventually we started moving again and got to our campground around 9:30pm, so much later vs. what we had planned for.
After so much driving and so many traffic jams we were a bit hesitant about how to spend the day. The ranger at the information center convinced us that our plan of going to Canyon to see the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a must see item. You should not have come all the way to Yellowstone without having seen that… So after spending a bit of time on the beach of Lake Yellowstone, back we went through the Hayden Valley to do as he suggested. And this time we were held up a bit by sightseeing tourists just stopping in the road or partly blocking the roadway, but it was just so much better than the day before. We did stop ourselves a couple of times at various pull-outs to take pictures and observe the wildlife. We specifically liked to watch the bison. With their huge size they are just impressive and at the same time they are surprisingly fast when chasing a competitor or their preferred female – after all this time of the year is mating season for them.

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The Upper Yellowstone Falls from Uncle Tom’s Point along the South Rim were already quite impressive. But nothing could beat the view of the much higher (300 ft / 100 m) Lower Yellowstone Falls from the bottom of Uncle Tom’s trail. It was quite an adventure to get down the over 300 steps and steep grades, but the view was definitively worth it – specifically as the sun was coming in at such an angle that part of the waterfall looked just light green instead of white.

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After having seen the Lower Falls so close, we still wanted to see how they look from the Artists Point Overview. While the view was nice, we were not too impressed by the crowds of people there and left quickly after having taken a couple of pictures.

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The way back to camp proved to be much more relaxed and fast than yesterday evening and despite a bit of backed up traffic here and there, we got to Fishing Bridge in a mere 35 min.
Our next day in Yellowstone was dedicated to the Northern part which we had not seen so far. So we went up through the mountains along Mt. Washburn and the Yellowstone river to Mammoth Hot Springs. As the campground there was full by the time we arrived, this would be our last day in the park.
So we visited the lower and upper terraces – a phenomenon we had not seen so far. With their lively colors and a constant stream of hot water trickling down the active springs, it was a really nice sight. But also the older and now dormant features were quite impressive – a white and grey landscape surrounding dead trees.

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And with that it was time to say good bye to Yellowstone and to head towards the next adventures.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:00 Archived in USA Tagged traffic lake terrace spring geyser yellowstone elk wolf bison jam sulphur Comments (0)

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