Traffic crawls along the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park due to bison crossing the road and a bear sighting a few miles ahead.

RealImaginaryWest Day 8 – Buttes, Sulfur & Bear Traffic in Yellowstone

After packing up at the Ponderosa Campground, we got breakfast and hung out a bit in Downtown Cody. Then we stopped by the ginormous Buffalo Bill Center of the West—which was way way bigger than we expected! Next, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, making a quick stop at the Lake Butte Overlook to watch a thunderstorm across Yellowstone Lake. Lastly, we got stuck in bear/bison traffic near the Sulphur Caldron and Hayden Valley on our way to camp at Canyon Campground. This taught us that carpe tempore is the rule when passing restrooms…or trees……

Calm Night in Cody

Today we go from roughly 5,000 feet in elevation at the Ponderosa Campground in Cody, to 7,900 feet at Canyon Village in Yellowstone National Park. Altitude tends to catch up with flatlanders like us above 7,000 feet—also the days and especially the nights are much cooler…eek!

The sun was up around 6am at the Ponderosa Campground, and so was I. We were both fairly well-rested thanks to the calmness of the night. Not only was the weather perfect, but our 60 young neighbors from Teens Westward Bound were awesome too. It was clear that this was a great group of kids! At 6:30 they received their wakeup call from the trip captain: “It’s time to get up, little darlin’s!” she repeated kindly in her North Carolina accent, walking about the camp. I got a chance to talk to her later and ask a few questions. I was especially interested in how they handled inclement weather, as De Smet a few days before was still fresh in mind. They all camped out in the open on tarps and sleeping bags, which meant even less shelter than we had in our tent.

She explained that they had about a week left on a 23-day road trip. They were headed back home to Charlotte, North Carolina through the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, after already touring the Southwest and California. Young people are not selected willy nilly for this program—these were responsible, academically successful youths. The group from the looks was about 70% girls and 30% boys. Everyone was taught to tarp up properly so that nobody got wet or blew away. The whole purpose of the trip, besides seeing the Western United States, was teaching each and every one of them, from high school sophomore to entering college freshman, that they could do pretty much anything they set out to do!

From what I could see, that thought had sunk in. The group was two weeks from leaving home, and they each awoke without a complaint, in spite of possible homesickness, and even if some of them looked like they could have used a couple more hours asleep.

It was time for Becky and I to get started too. We got in rather late and very tired from the big day’s drive from Rapid City and the rodeo the night before. I was so tired I didn’t even get a chance to take advantage of the electricity available here to dump my camera’s memory cards and charge a few batteries. So I took care of that while we packed up the tent. We got ourselves to breakfast at around 7:30 or 8am.

A Few Hours In Cody

Clouds rolled over Rattlesnake Mountain toward the historic buildings of Downtown Cody early in the afternoon. Peter’s Cafe is on the right about halfway to the first traffic light at 12th Street.

Becky picked out this place in Downtown Cody called Peter’s Cafe & Bakery. All of Downtown Cody is very well put together, with plenty of historic architecture along its spacious main street, Sheridan Avenue. Peter’s was in one of the old buildings here, with a standard American breakfast menu at reasonable prices. The bacon strips were huge and everything on our plate was cooked perfectly. They had a couple of book racks with great titles for customers to read while they eat, like How to Stay Humble When You’re Smarter Than Everybody Else, The Joy of Being Broke, and the one that first caught my eye, How to Share a Bad Attitude, all by Ben Goode. Hilarious stuff! I’m gonna have to check this out more when I get home.

Before we left downtown after breakfast, I shot a couple of panoramas and Becky perused some shops. We have plenty of charming old business districts like this back in Ohio, but few are this large and vibrant—and of course none have the Western flair of Cody. I particularly liked 12th & Sheridan because of the Irma—the hotel opened by Buffalo Bill Cody himself back in 1902.

360-degree panoramas of the central business district of Cody, Wyoming. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

The humble South Entrance understates the magnificence and expansiveness of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Before we left town, we followed a tip to check out the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. We went into the small South Entrance to pay admission, and found out that this museum is so extensive that each ticket is actually a two-day pass! We explained to the lady at the front desk, Rosalee, that not only would we not be here for two days, but we really only had two hours at most before we drove to our campground in Yellowstone National Park. She was very kind and offered for us to take a few minutes to look around without charge, in order to get a feel for all they had there so we could plan to visit on our next trip.

Let me tell you, this museum is first class, and it is huge! It is actually five museums in one. The Draper Natural History Museum explains the geology, animals, and everything else on the prairies and in the mountains of Wyoming. The Plains Indians Museum shares the history of the native tribes who inhabited the West and the effect of United States settlement. There is of course a museum about the life and legacy of the town’s namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody. They also have the Whitney Western Art Museum and the Cody Firearms Museum as well as special exhibitions. The current exhibition was a firearms loan from the Smithsonian, way back East in Washington—which felt a world away after spending a week in the West.

I’d heard the Buffalo Bill Center was a great museum, but that was an understatement! I had no idea it was on par with museums in big cities like New York or Chicago. Everything I saw here was impressive, and certainly a bargain for the price. Next time we pass through Cody, we’re certainly spending quality time here.

Before we left, I shot a couple of 360-degree panoramas outside, including the Main Entrance where the statue of Buffalo Bill stands. Afterward we re-iced the cooler and refueled to head into Yellowstone.

360-degree panoramas outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Heading Up To Yellowstone

It was just after 1pm when we left Cody, and the weather was transitioning from morning blue skies to early afternoon storms. US-14/16/20 is designated as the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway from Cody to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Almost the entire route follows the Shoshone River through the Absaroka Mountains, passing by Buffalo Bill Dam, its giant reservoir, Buffalo Bill State Park, and eventually through the Shoshone National Forest.

Just outside Cody, the US highway enters Shoshone Canyon, snakes its way along the river, passes through three tunnels, and finally emerges just past the dam next to the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. The reservoir provides irrigation for agriculture throughout the area. It’s really gorgeous here, even on a rainy day! There are tall mountains all around with gentle brown and sagebrush prairie sloping gently upward from the lake. There were beautiful houses perched partway up the mountainsides with what I’m sure were spectacular views of the river and reservoir amid the mountains. Most land around the north side of the reservoir was part of Buffalo Bill State Park.

Beyond the reservoir, we passed into Wapiti Valley. There are plenty of guest ranches and campgrounds along the highway here that no doubt take advantage of their proximity to both Yellowstone and Cody. After a relatively straight shot from the reservoir, the valley narrows into a canyon and the road begins to wind as we enter Shoshone National Forest and the heart of the Absaroka Range. The road hugs and criss-crosses the North Fork of the Shoshone River for several miles…

Shoshone Canyon, just downstream from Buffalo Bill Dam

We got excited as we approached these two tunnels…but before we knew it, we’d already passed through more than one tunnel. When we realized another tunnel was hidden in between…we got really excited!

US-14/16/20 along the north shore of Buffalo Bill Reservoir

Driving toward the western end of Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Wapiti Valley

Just inside the Shoshone National Forest near Wapiti Wayside

And finally we saw the sign for Yellowstone National Park! At long last I had been able to achieve a nearly life-long dream to tour one of the largest, finest, most renowned parks in the world! It had taken me almost exactly 38 years to finally make the trip. Almost exactly 7 years ago I made it to my first big western national park, Yosemite, and it was positively magical! I’d hoped that Yellowstone would prove to be in its own way just as majestic, profound, and inspiring.

Entering Yellowstone National Park

The East Entrance gate at Yellowstone National Park. The entrance fee here gets you into both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Alternatively, you can get an Annual Pass like the one we bought back at Badlands National Park that gets you into all of the parks for an entire year.

The first thing I thought about when we reached the East Entrance was that it was very quiet! I expected a lot more traffic, especially in the middle of July. Maybe everyone entered through the North Entrance from Montana or flew into Jackson and entered from the south? I was pleasantly surprised to see that the park was mostly uncongested…and I was happy to know that there was a nice little campsite waiting for us in Canyon Village.

Stone guardrails like this one on the East Entrance Road line the steep edges of most roads in Yellowstone, rather than the metal ones typically used. A park should look prettier anyway, right?

Along the way in, you pass deep into virgin mountains, with the only evidence of the hand of man being the road you’re traveling. Rather than standard metal guardrails, most roads here have stone guardrails that remind you that you’re in a national park! After emerging from the giant mountains of the Absaroka Range, the view opens up and you catch your first sight of Yellowstone Lake. The lake was much much larger than I expected it to be, and the terrain around more mountainous. I don’t know why I expected something smaller…maybe it’s because any video I’ve seen just can’t do this place justice.

The entire landscape is covered mostly with sloping grasslands and forests, with occasional rock outcroppings. This was unlike what I saw frequently in the Sierra Nevada, where bald domes and half domes of sheer granite accompanied by spires decorated the landscape like a castle or cathedral.

Just 16 miles to our campground at Canyon Village! No problem, right!?

We stopped along the way at the Lake Butte Overlook, several hundred feet above the shores of Lake Yellowstone. We got an awesome view of an afternoon thunderstorm making its way down mountains on the opposite side of the lake. The area all around has obviously been burned out by a forest fire in the last few years. It felt like a worthy place to first set foot in Yellowstone National Park. After a few moments to look out and around and shoot some panoramas, we headed back down to the East Entrance Road. The road runs right below the overlook and along beaches on the lake’s north shore before coming into Fishing Bridge. We had some rain down along the beaches just before we caught the Grand Loop Road north to Canyon Village.

360-degree panoramas of the Lake Butte Overlook in Yellowstone National Park. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Traffic Was a Real Bear

Who knew a few animals could cause such a stir?

I was able to fill the frame with this bison, it was so close to the road.

Along the road to Canyon Village, bison and elk grazed peacefully in the meadows. Motorists also sat peacefully with their cars, as we ran into our first traffic jam. So much for the park being uncongested! I knew going in that girdlock was fairly common in Yellowstone, and that it usually had nothing to do with bad driving. More often than not, traffic snarls because animals are close to the road, so massive amounts of people stop to take a look and get pictures. Sometimes the animals are on the road—and there’s no coercing a 2,000-pound wild bison to keep moving—so you just have to wait for them to cross. This traffic jam was stop and go for what seemed like miles though…so something big must have been happening!

A gigantic herd of bison spread all along the road just before the Sulphur Caldron. The smaller lightly colored animals are babies!

Steam erupts in random locations throughout Yellowstone. It made me feel like I’d transported to another planet.

Sulphur Caldron

This parking area has been invaded my a newly forming hot spring! We saw many many instances where this had happened throughout the entire park.

While in traffic, we came to our first thermal feature, the Sulphur Caldron. It’s a loudly boiling and bubbling pot of stinky right next to the road. The sign there said that microbes called thermoacidophiles live in the water here—they actually thrive in the sulphuric acid and heat!!! Remarkable! Becky and I took turns jumping out of the car while the other kept the car inching forward in the stop and go…I mean, might as well, since we were there! Becky did seize a parking space that opened up…but after a short while we got back into traffic.

Hanging with thermoacidophiles at the Sulphur Caldron

Hayden Valley

We spent close to an hour stuck in traffic backed up from Hayden Valley…
What happened when I got bored while stuck in traffic in Hayden Valley.

We finally made our way up to the cause of the traffic jam—a grizzly bear! Where to park…where to park…

The best shot I could get of our mama grizzly bear and her raven “friend”.

By this time, Becky had received a call from nature. Stuck in traffic, there was no way to really get to a restroom. We had passed some a mile or so back, and I thought for sure we’d find one up ahead.

About 15-20 minutes from the Sulphur Caldron, we finally found the source of all the hubbub… Rangers had cordoned off a huge area at the top of a hill and below was the first wild grizzly bear either of us had ever seen! I heard that a young bison had died there a few days earlier, and the grizzly, along with two cubs were working on the carcass. Everyone was kept at a safe distance though, and I was able to get a decent picture or two while Becky dealt with parking the car.

A minute or two after arriving, Becky ran up to me—I was excited and asked if she had gotten a good look at the bear—and her reaction was basically, “Yeah, yeah, I have a dire emergency and need a restroom NOW! And I need you to drive!” Uh-oh!

We ran back to the car and I started driving. Traffic headed north was free-flowing now that we were past the spectacle of the bear. I told Becky we were probably only about 10 minutes away from Canyon Village, which might be the nearest restroom. She said that this would not do—and of course, there was an endless line of cars full of watchful eyes stuck in traffic going the other direction, and nothing but open grasslands with no cover along either side of the road for miles. I drove as fast as I could hoping we’d find something… After a couple of miles I spotted a big pickup truck driving into a pulloff next to a stand of sizeable pines–and what looked like our best bet for a timely little girls tree. Becky ran into the trees and felt human again, while I can only imagine what the couple from the pickup felt. Needless to say, she takes the vastness and unpredictable traffic of Yellowstone very seriously now in order to avoid any further need for improvisation!

Canyon Village

We carried on to Canyon Village with Becky in a much better humor. On the way, I asked her if she knew why I had picked this location to camp. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t explained the meaning behind the “Canyon” in Canyon Village…so I drove down the North Rim Drive and I stopped by an overlook to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls. We got out and took a look…Becky’s reaction was awesome!

Large yellow rocks cover both sides of an extremely deep canyon on either side of the Yellowstone River, with a giant waterfall dropping several hundred feet to the bottom. It is a sight to behold, and one we would head back to enjoy more later.

Tiny little people stand atop Lower Yellowstone Falls.

We proceeded then to Canyon Campground to check in. We were both very concerned about how to camp properly in bear country, as neither of us had ever done so! The attendant there made it very easy for us. She explained that we only want to sleep in our tent with our bedding…as long as we leave all of our extra clothes, food, and toiletries in the car, everything would be fine, since bears no longer tear open cars for food here.

Found Some Wood

They also had boxes of firewood, but they weren’t very big, and they cost almost twice what we normally paid. I asked about whether the park still permitted foraging for wood. She explained that we were more than welcome to do so provided we used only wood that was Down, Dead, and Dry (The Three Ds she called them). The only other requirement was that we only burn pieces that fit in our firepit, so we might need a tool to cut them down.

Well after we set up camp, we committed to locating some good firewood. We were confident that this would be no problem, even though we knew the areas immediately surrounding the campgrounds would likely be picked clean of wood by other campers. About 1,000 or so feet into the woods, we found pieces that looked dry enough, along with some hungry mosquitoes. I started chopping at it with my hatchet, a good one, with handle and blade forged from a single piece of steel. As I covered every inch of exposed skin from the mosquitoes, I thought, “Hey, this is all pine, which is soft wood, this will be easy!”

Well, after chopping out only a few very small limbs, I realized it wouldn’t be. I really needed a saw if I wanted to start a fire with any expedience, and I didn’t have one. I had to find a solution to speed this up!

Knowing as I did from my research that Canyon Village had not only a campground, but also a general store, I thought that perhaps there I could find a saw. I pulled in  and noticed that they have not just a general store and grocery, but also a sporting goods store! I was very very happy to get a Sierra saw for roughly the same price I’d have paid for two boxes of firewood—and we were going to be here for three days—score!

Cooking & Relaxing

I returned after a good look around, where I also decided to grab some Grand Teton Brewery Root Beer. In no time I cut up the wood we’d pulled out of the forest. About ten minutes later, Becky and I had a real fire going. We cooked up our hot dogs, which had lasted all the way from home unopened, and enjoyed ourselves with some mushrooms and vegetables Becky had cooked while I bought the saw.

We sat up a while enjoying the fruits of our labor and some Makers Mark, and decided we’d get started early tomorrow morning and catch a nap later in the day. I wanted to photograph Yellowstone Falls at dawn the next morning, which is around 6am. Then we’d head back to camp for breakfast, and out to Mammoth Hot Springs before lunchtime.

Finally, I did the dishes at a nearby dishwashing station, while Becky set up the bed in our tent. We packed everything in the car except what we needed to sleep, as we were instructed, and turned in for the chilly night in the mountains of Yellowstone.

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