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Traffic jams in fascinating Yellowstone

Written by Birgit, pictures mostly by Sam

sunny 28 °C
View Around the world 2016/17 on dreiumdiewelt's travel map.

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)

Through the Rockies on our way to the Pacific Northwest

Livingston, Anaconda, Granite, Coeur d' Alene, Spokane, Ellensburg

sunny 24 °C
View Around the world 2016/17 on dreiumdiewelt's travel map.

Our plan was to leave Yellowstone via the Northeast Exit and to drive along the Beartooth Highway. We had already gotten that recommendation from the French couple we had met in Loreto, once more from Ralf in Zion and it was also featured as a spectacular diversion in Janis’ National Park magazine.
Still, after looking at the map and realizing it would be more than a 200 mile / 300 km detour and factoring in that it was starting to rain heavily when we left Mammoth Hot Springs, we decided to skip the Beartooth Pass. I guess that with the over 9000 miles we’ve driven so far and Max still not being a real fan of long drives, we have gotten a bit more conscious about distances and the difference in mileage we can make on small windy roads vs. the interstates.
So the new plan now foresees to leave Yellowstone via the North Entrance, getting on the interstate in Livingston and heading due West via Idaho to Washington. This plan also results in skipping beautiful Glacier National Park in favor of having more time to spend at Mt Rainier and Olympic National Parks. Unfortunately, even with five months to spend in North America, we have to make choices and it’s simply not possible to see everything we’d love to see.
By the time we arrived at our beautiful campground at Mallard’s Rest 42 miles north of the park exit right next to the Yellowstone River, the heavy rain had stopped and there were only the clouds remaining.

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We hoped that by night time they’d be gone such that we could observe the Perseid meteor showers. And we were lucky indeed, around 11 pm most clouds had disappeared and we got to see significantly bigger and lighter shooting stars than so far on our journey – in fact the nicest ones both Sam and I have ever seen so far.
The next day no one of us was keen to leave. So we took it easy and enjoyed our lovely campground for a bit longer. Eventually hunger made us leave after all and Rosa’s Pizza in Livingston came just at the right time to help us out.
Sam had picked the Lost Creek State Park for camping this night via our map. As we pretty much did not have much network reception and internet since back in Moab, we could not check our usual resources. And as our mobile phone seems to have issues since the update to a newer version of the operating system, also our navigation system Scout let us down, as it did not find the downloaded maps on the SD card anymore. So with just the map as a guide, we did not really have high hopes in finding a campground when there was no camping signposted, just binoculars for wildlife watching. We turned around and rather headed to a national forest campground a bit behind Anaconda.
That way Sam also got to tick one more of the items on his bucket list: he wanted to see a ghost town and close to Philipsburg there was ‘Granite’ up the hill. Despite the recommendation to only go up the road with a vehicle with high clearance (which ours definitively does not have), we went up the 4 steep and windy miles making over 1200 ft / 400 m within that relatively short distance. The road was relatively good (much better than what we had encountered in Mexico around Coco’s Corner) and we made it without any issues.
There were still quite a couple of buildings around – all of them in more or less desolate states. After all, the main exploitation of the mine with more than 3000 miners living there had taken place already over 100 years ago. And since then nature was allowed to take over again.

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But as there was not too much to see with many buildings simply being destroyed over the years and probably some wildfires, we left again and made our way down the steep grade. And even though it felt like we had been sitting in the car already for ages, we only really started getting moving once we had reached the interstate.
As we were only going to pass a very short stretch of Idaho (less than 100 miles), we at least wanted to stay there for a night. The plan was good, the execution less so: what had looked on our famous map like a very short 10-mile detour from the interstate to get to a lakeside campground along Lake Coeur d’Alene, turned out to be a tiny windy road that did not end and did not get us to where we wanted. And after an hours’ worth of driving and seemingly just being half way of where we wanted to get to, we turned around with a bit of frustration.
At least we were lucky then to get a spot at the campground at Wolf’s Lodge – at a cheaper rate than the KOA in Spokane we had called and with better services. And the first activity was to use the WIFI and to install the Washington map again on the mobile phone, such that as of tomorrow we’d be able to do better planning again. And then we headed with Max to the kids’ puppet-theater and games evening. He had lots of fun and was really proud once he got his new football as a prize.
The next day I requested to spend a day in a mall. We’ve had enough landscapes and nature around us and this felt just like the right change in scenery and atmosphere. And so the Spokane Valley Mall was the perfect opportunity to see how many Americans spend their Sunday, but as well to get new sandals for all of us.
We spent so much time in the mall that we did not want to go much further to find a place for the night. So when we saw the signs at the interstate in Spokane towards the Riverside State Park, we simply took the exit and eventually got a space at the Pitcher and Bowl area of the park.

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So after having spent most of the day inside, we got the opportunity to hike a bit, to throw stones into the river and building some dams.
The next morning, we eventually headed on towards Western Washington. We were amazed – after weeks and weeks of having poor to no mobile phone reception, we suddenly had continuous excellent phone connection all along the highways even far from the next towns. The last time we were able to enjoy that luxury was probably along the densely populated stretches of the California coast. We used the opportunity to make some calls and research while driving. While I’d consider myself not necessarily dependent on a mobile phone, it still proves to come in very handy when trip planning. And it helps to save tons of money when being able to research free vs. governmental vs. private camping options. So it felt relieving to see that I had my planning tools back at my disposition again.
We eventually stopped in Ellensburg for the night. Even though we were a bit disappointed when we realized that the pool of the KOA was defect and closed, we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had a really nice location under big shady trees next to a very fast flowing river. A nice spot to stay and figure out where to go next…

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 14:51 Archived in USA Tagged town shopping lake river mall drive ghost yellowstone idaho reception Comments (1)

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