After a fantastic visit to Jackson and Grand Teton NP, it was time to move on. The next day we left early (are you sensing a theme here?) to drive up to Yellowstone. From Jackson, it takes roughly an hour and a half to the southern gate if you’re not stopping enroute in the Tetons. After the requisite photo next to the Yellowstone NP sign, we continued on to Yellowstone Lake for our mid-morning charter cruise. A private charter cruise on the lake can either be simply scenic or an opportunity for fishing. We had our own captain, and the boat could seat up to six (plus Paul and Julie’s dog Otis!). Our daughter was keen to fish, and our $40 fishing license was worth every penny! We tried our rods at catching some of the invasive lake trout who prey on the native cutthroats. For perspective, the NP service puts out nets and pulls in 150,000 invasive lake trout per month during the summer and destroys them! There is a slow recovery in progress, but there is much work to be done.
Back to the fishing, our seven year old daughter was first to get a bite and she pulled in a 10-lb lake trout BY HERSELF!! (ok, I was holding the rod but she reeled it in by herself!) This fish was the largest our awesome captain Patrick had seen in the 2 years he had been on the job! She then went on to catch a (2-lb) native cutthroat (catch and release) and also caught one more lake trout! Patrick filleted the lake trout on shore and split the bounty of fresh fish with Paul and Julie for an at-home feast for later. In addition to some awesome fishing, we also spotted a breeding colony of American white pelicans, which nest on some of Yellowstone Lake’s small islands. It’s a boat trip we won’t soon forget and I’d highly recommend it for those looking to break up the driving and/or for some activity on the water while in Yellowstone.
After a lakeshore picnic lunch replete with an elk herd nearby, we continued on to the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Yellowstone. This was the first place outside of Jackson where we felt like it was over capacity, as we had successfully avoided the bulk of the crowds thus far. It was interesting and enlightening to see the total difference between my visit a year ago in October 2020, when it was devoid of visitors. Paul and Julie had us visit for a clear idea of why it’s so critical to get going early in the day. Speaking of which…
The next day had a 4am (!) wake up and 4:30am departure in store for us to get from Gardner to the Lamar Valley for wildlife viewing. The sunrise this time of year was around 5:45 and Gather Away wants travelers there before sunrise for the best game viewing. And like they planned it, we were on wolves in the Little America Valley – we heard their melancholy howls first – before the sun popped over the horizon! Soon Paul had located the Junction-Ute pack – one of the largest in the park – through the scopes. It was great fun to watch the puppies greeting and playing and roughhousing with each other. It’s amazing how much like dogs their wild cousins are!
After about an hour we moved into the Lamar Valley which was full of bison as is typical. As it turned out, where we parked happened to be on a popular bison path and we found ourselves having to dive into the van each time a bison got a little too close for comfort! After finding a less trafficked parking spot, Paul set up the scopes and quickly spotted a grizzly, then a nice herd of pronghorn and shortly thereafter, a lone wolf in the distance. Julie set up a bountiful and delicious breakfast spread for us as we surveyed the beautiful and very busy scene below us in the valley.
By mid-morning it was beginning to get visibly busy, with more and more cars/vans parked on the side of the road. Paul and Julie had a long drive back to Jackson and we were tired after the early and exciting morning, so we said our goodbyes (it was hardest for our daughter to say goodbye to Paul and Julie’s dog Otis!). We returned to our hotel in Gardiner, MT for lunch and a rest (Gardiner is the tourist town at the northern gate of Yellowstone. See my review of the town and a few recommended properties in my October 2020 Yellowstone trip report HERE).
With the park mobbed by visitors in the summer, most major attractions (geothermal or wildlife areas) are overrun by mid-morning and well into the late afternoon. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting an early morning start is critical to beating the crowds! Afternoons are for hiking, boat cruises or scenic drives – the crowds will be at the sites or congregating at wildlife sightings. After our lunch and siesta, we decided to check out the Yellowstone Hot Springs, located outside the park about 10 minutes from Gardiner set along the banks of the Yellowstone River. While the administrative building where you enter isn’t that impressive from the outside (a bit mobile home-esque), once you exit the locker rooms, it’s a beautiful oasis complete with three pools (two hot and one cold), beautifully manicured gardens and a lawn area with several gazebos. Spending several hours soaking in the warm/hot pools (with the occasional cold water plunge too!) is the perfect antidote to an early and busy morning exploring the park. Highly recommended!
Our second to last day, we went to Mammoth Hot Springs. On this day, we were without Paul and Julie and while we endeavored to leave at the crack of dawn, we got to the park gate at 7:30 and . . . there was a ¼ mile long line to enter – turns out we were about 60-90 minutes later than we should have been (we knew better!). But after about 10 minutes, we made it through the gate and into the park (like us, luckily most vehicles have a park pass and are simply waved through). We arrived at Mammoth around 8am. Again, appearances can be deceiving. From the parking lot or when driving by, Mammoth looks like just a big hulking hill of off-white limestone. But spend an hour exploring the entire complex of approximately 50 hot springs and the place really comes to life, literally! The white travertine rock (a type of limestone) is accentuated by algae living in the warm pools, which have tinted the rock various shades of brown, orange, red, and green. There are two “terraces,” an upper and a lower terrace, each with a network on boardwalks. We hiked the entire 1.5 miles of terraces from the lower to the upper and back, taking in the incredible variety of formations and colors. For those with limited mobility, time or energy, the upper terraces can be accessed separately by car as well.
Following our “warm-up” walk around the hot springs, to escape the growing crowds, we enjoyed a beautiful 5-mile loop hike recommended by Paul that started and ended in Mammoth. It was thankfully crowd-free (except for a handful of hikers for which we were thankful – read on!) with varied terrain, landscapes and great views. On the hike, we even crossed the Montana state line and back (to Wyoming), while on the trail!
Thankfully, Paul prepared us for what to do when hiking in bear country. We had bear spray and he had prepped us with a thorough safety talk. We weren’t expecting a bear but sure enough, halfway through the hike, we caught up to two other families that had spotted a bear cub browsing on the trail ahead and were contemplating what to do. We didn’t see mama bear, which was disconcerting and a recipe for being super cautious. The bear cub wasn’t concerned or wasn’t aware of our presence. After waiting and waiting and observing from a sensible distance, the sow appeared, totally unconcerned. While our group collectively held our breath and our hearts pounded, she ambled up the hill to the top of the ridge (+/- 75 m away), looked back at us and continued over the ridge. The sense of relief was palpable among the group! Her cub was still browsing, so we decided as a group to continue, looping around the cub at a distance with our bear spray at the ready. As we approached, the cub finally noticed us and instantly took off up the hill after its mom. We felt well prepared for this absolutely thrilling, and somewhat terrifying, moment!
Our final day in Yellowstone once again had us up early for a visit to Old Faithful. Even with an 8am arrival there were people there. The Old Faithful basin has tons of cool geothermal features, and once you get away from the geyser itself, the crowds thin out. After about an hour, we drove up to Grand Prismatic and a few other features and it was shoulder-to-shoulder jammed with people. Lesson learned – we should have gotten to Old Faithful at 7am!
Our two weeks on the road were epic and fantastic, and we made forever family memories. Our time in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem was a huge highlight, as having a guide really elevates any natural experience, and Gather Away has three of the best photography/naturalist guides I’ve encountered anywhere. Combine that with fabulous service and it’s a winning vacation recipe. It’s great to remember that when we can’t get away overseas, there’s plenty to explore in the USA, and Gather Away gives guests the kind of world-class experience, attention to detail and delightful surprises you expect to find on a safari abroad, right here at home.