Sleeping In (Sort Of)
Even though I didn’t get to sleep until midnight last night, I still woke up at dawn, this time with a headache. I get those sometimes, mainly from muscles in my back and neck being messed up by car accidents and too much sitting for work. Usually I apply pressure in the right places and my headache subsides, but today that wasn’t working for some reason…so I just took it slow and endured the pain.
I looked over at Becky, still sleeping. Yesterday we got up at 5:30am, but I had kept us go-go-going so much that we got to bed too late to do it again today. Becky needed recovery time, and I was glad to see her getting it. She and I were both up and about around 8am. I started a fire so we could have a real breakfast and so Becky could make some real coffee. I also took the opportunity to set up my pano rig so I could get a 360 shot of our campsite.
This was just not our morning though. The late morning lighting conditions weren’t working for me, and I kept forgetting steps in creating my 360 shot. Becky’s campfire coffee percolator got too hot on the fire and the handle melted. Our frustrations were getting the better of us. My headache still lingered. We still had a lot of packing to do. And I still hadn’t talked with Becky about how to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s Yellowstone Mania. All this anxiety got us super grumpy, but things were good once we let each other chill out for a few minutes. Once we really got to packing, the day got steadily better.
Packing Up at Canyon Campground
This pack-up was messier than the last one though. It had rained quite a bit while we were out yesterday. We got some water inside our tent, but by now everything was dry. The outside, however, was still wet in spots and the tarp underneath was completely wet with tree debris stuck all over it.
This is where I’d like to leave an endorsement for a $2.07 hand broom and dustpan set I bought over 15 years ago when I moved into my first apartment. It wasn’t great for sweeping my kitchen floor back then, but it works perfectly for so many things when you’re camping! Every time we pack up the tent, I use it to sweep all the fuzz and debris on the floor. I use it to brush off all the bugs, needles, and leaves on the outside of the tent. I can even use the brush to help my tent dry faster by spreading out the water beads.
Unfortunately for my trusty dustpan, I overestimated its abilities. When we arrived, I used it to shovel ashes out of the center of our fire ring and it worked great. I actually made a pile of them next to the ring so I could use them if I needed to put out a fire. Unlike back East, it’s very dry throughout much of the West, making everything from the grass to the brush to the trees quite flammable. As a result, campers are instructed to extinguish all fires before they leave their site or go to sleep for the night, either by dousing with water or covering with dirt. After cleaning out the tent, I thought that I better shovel those dry ashes from our first night onto the fire to put it out. Easy peazy, right?
Well, the rain had soaked my dusty ash pile and turned it into something more like hard clay. I didn’t expect this, and so I dug in hard and shattered my faithful dustpan. 🙁 I was so angry! I still needed this thing for the rest of our trip, and now it was broken. Becky doused the fire with water after this fail, leaving a pool of boiling water but no smoldering ashes behind.
OK, so maybe it was actually after we put the fire out that the day really started to improve. One of the last things we packed up was our tent and tarp. As I folded each part of the tent, I used the hand broom to clear off the tree junk and a towel to wipe it dry. For the last little bit, Becky just held the tent up for me while I brushed and dried it. After the tent was neatly in its bag, I swept off the picnic table at the vacant campsite next to us and draped our tarp over it so I could brush off one side. I then folded it in half to brush debris off of the other side and off the table again. Then I flipped the tarp and cleaned the other side. Finally, I had a relatively clean, dry tarp to fold and put into its bag.
So on a big or a little trip, never underestimate the usefulness of a good hand broom and dustpan!
Back to Yellowstone Falls
Now that our campsite was packed into the car, we drove out to the main road and back over to the parking area near the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls. It was a late start for us, arriving about noon. I wanted to hike in and see more of the canyon, including the Upper Falls. I popped open the trunk and began rummaging through my photo bag, thinking of which pano head and lens to bring.
That’s when I remembered the day before and said to myself, “Screw it! I’m tired, and I need to just relax and have some fun, and stop trying to be a documentarian for every hour of the trip.” I decided I’d bring my camera and only my 24-70mm lens, which is plenty versatile and won’t get me too hung up shooting panos.
I informed Becky of my decision. She smiled and replied, “I like ‘Screw It’ Day!”
She thought it was cool for me to grab a camera and shoot stuff, but that the day be more about us and less about the ‘photo shoot’. I liked the sound of it too.
A Bug’s Life
Before we got going, Becky made preparations sitting in the passenger seat of our car with the door wide open. While she was looking down intently, I saw this big black bug with giant antennas land on the dashboard almost directly in front of her! In a hopefully unstartling tone I told her, “You might want to look up, there’s a big black bug in front of you.” She sorta freaked out and slowly backed out of the car. I was in no position to reach it. It stayed where it landed for the most part. Becky grabbed a map and tried to scoop it away, but it crawled deeper into the car! It stopped in a little nook on the side of the center console, but it was dangerously close to crevices where it could hide behind the dashboard. This required a better approach, or this thing was going to die somewhere back there and possibly stink up the car (glad it wasn’t ours).
Becky acted fast and cut the top off a big empty water jug we hadn’t yet thrown out. She then easily scooped him up and let him go outside of the car. We kept the scoop in case we needed it again. The bottom of the jug fit a loaf of bread perfectly, so we used it to protect our bread from getting smashed in the back. So I suppose you could say she killed two bugs with one jug!
Brink of the Lower Falls
It’s a 600-foot drop but less than a half-mile hike to get to the top of Lower Yellowstone Falls. This area was far more congested than anywhere else we’d hiked so far. We could definitely tell this was like the Disney World of national parks with the casual manner in which several people took the paved trail. I had three people nearly collide with me on the switchback down, and Becky just missed getting hit in the face with a selfie stick.
In spite of the number of people and the rudeness of a few of them, the top of the falls was incredible! It’s amazing how fast the water moves through the upper canyon toward the Lower Falls. The sound of the water was just enormous. And the view of the canyon with a partly cloudy blue sky above was just awesome and unforgettable!
The North Rim Trail & the Upper Falls
We could have headed back and driven to the Upper Falls, but we continued instead on the North Rim Trail. This 3/4-mile trail had views of the Yellowstone River with far fewer people. This allowed us to enjoy the river’s wild beauty and serenity and hear the sound of its huge waterfalls in the distance.
About halfway along the trail, the trees give way to rocks. A bridge made of lodgepole pines takes you across a stream that rushes down the canyon, under the bridge, through some rocks, and then further down the canyon. This rushing water is Crystal Falls, and it’s easy to see it cascade down the canyon from an overlook just a ways further down the trail. The overlook probably stands out more when hiking from the Upper Falls, but a girl creating a painting of the view made it easy for us to spot.
A few minutes walk from Crystal Falls, you again run into crowds as you pick up the trail from the parking area to the Brink of the Upper Falls. Although not as large or iconic as the Lower Falls, the Upper Falls are an incredible demonstration of water power! From the viewing area at the brink of the Upper Falls, you can look upstream and see the mighty Yellowstone ping-pong back and forth past hot springs and around small boulders as if inside a giant pinball machine. The rapids then fall a few feet down over a shelf of rock that acts like a weir and then plunge! Down they drop 109 feet over the falls! It was a great waterfall in its own right, just with the misfortune of sharing a name with a more spectacular downstream neighbor.
From here we had two routes back to the car. Time was getting away from us, so I wanted to take the fastest one. Option 1 was to go back the way we came, which took us roughly an hour on a winding and hilly trail, parts of which were shared by crowds armed with selfie sticks. Option 2 was to follow the road, which I suspected would be much flatter and straighter since cars don’t do steep hills or hairpin curves as well as people—it would be far less glorious, but had the added benefit of no selfie sticks. I got Becky to buy into walking the road and we arrived back at the car in a mere 20 minutes. Awesome…now onto a late lunch!
One Last Stop in Canyon Village
Canyon Lodge Dining Room
Canyon Village has extensive and modern facilities, including a visitor center, sporting goods store, general store, a deli, a cafeteria, and a restaurant. The restaurant in this case, called the Canyon Lodge Dining Room, is a casual rustic diner rather than a fancy restaurant. While there are tables, you can also grab a quick bite on a barstool, which was just perfect for us this afternoon.
Becky got herself the chicken sandwich she’d been thinking about all week, while I got the cheeseburger. The prices here were actually a couple dollars less than we’d paid outside the park and in South Dakota. The food wasn’t special, but was still of reasonably good quality. Even though it was rather busy and mid-afternoon, the service was good and we didn’t wait long for our food.
While I really wanted to see the South Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone…especially Artists Point…the time approached 4pm. We still needed to collect firewood, drive to Grant Village, set up camp, and cook dinner—and we still hadn’t even seen any of the geyser basins. There was no way I wanted to leave without seeing Old Faithful, so I resigned myself to saving the rest of the canyon for another trip…alas.
Well, this turned out to be one of the best decisions of our trip. But more on that in a bit.
Canyon Visitor Education Center
Before we left Canyon Village, Becky wanted to take care of something for our friend Jennifer back in Ohio. She had given Becky her National Parks Passport book so she collect a few cancellation stamps for the parks we visited. This required a trip across the parking lot to the Canyon Visitor Education Center. We were in and out in a flash, but the few exhibits I saw in that time were excellent. A huge room includes a giant relief map of the park with its mountains, valleys, and canyons, along with the likely boundary of the giant volcanic caldera that makes Yellowstone so special. While I love maps in general, this one really helped Yellowstone’s vastness sink in—I mean you can fit the area of several small states inside the park and still have space leftover!
On our way out, I asked the ranger if we should drive the 40 miles straight to Grant Village along the river and Lake Yellowstone, or if we should take the more circuitous route, about 20 miles longer through the geyser basins. The ranger responded that the direct route tends to jam up in the afternoon due to bison herds crossing through Haden Valley, while the longer route is the most popular part of the park and tends to crowd with people. Since we had already experienced the bison traffic on our first day in the park, I asked for recommendations on the longer route.
So off we went on another Yellowstone adventure! This time through the geyser basins and many other unexpected wonderful places!
Driving the South Loop
Virginia Cascades—Found Some Wood
The road across the center of the park from Canyon Village to Norris stretches about 12 miles through rather unremarkable forest and grassland, save for an occasional animal sighting. Along the way we spotted a sign marking a one-way road to Virginia Cascades. We investigated, though with low expectations. It was a very quiet road with lots of dead downed trees that looked rather dry, so we stopped to cut some for tonight’s fire. We had to work fast, as we felt a few drops and heard a thunderstorm rolling our way from the west. The loneliness of the area also had us concerned about bears…at least until a few cars rolled through.
After sawing one log, the wind picked up and drops fell more frequently, so we jumped in the car and continued down the road. It wasn’t far from where we got wood that we realized the road ran along a canyon. Just a little further and we saw a beautiful waterfall—Virginia Cascades—yet another waterfall in the park easily accessible by car. Before we took our trip, I’d seen a documentary about a study that expanded the number of known waterfalls in Yellowstone from a few dozen to over 600—so far!
We completed the one-way road and got back on our way toward Norris, where we turned southeast toward Madison. The sky grew darker as I drove through the passing storm. I started feeling super sleepy as I drove, and told Becky that I wanted to switch drivers once we reached Madison.
Before we made it though, the rain had passed and sunshine returned. I thought with clear weather that walking around might help wake me up some. The road wound along the Gibbon River and past Gibbon Falls. I decided not to stop here though, as parking looked as sparse as my energy. I saw a sign for Terrace Spring coming up and I told Becky, “I’m pulling off here…this is probably the most boring part of the park, but we’re gonna stop and look around.” Given the choice, I’d have preferred a more glamorous place to walk around…but it was Screw It Day after all.
As it was, this area actually turned out to be pretty cool! There were pools of steaming hot water bubbling out in beautiful grassy areas rather than the barren rocky places typical of most thermal areas in Yellowstone. The ranger at Canyon Village had mentioned that some hot springs along this route were different from others in the park, but I couldn’t remember all the names she mentioned…this must have been one of them. We could feel the warmth as we walked through clouds of steam coming off the pools. Water ran off from some of the pools turning into steamy little streams flowing down the hillside. We both were impressed in seeing another side of Yellowstone and we were glad to have gotten our blood flowing again.
National Park Mountain & Firehole Canyon
We continued south on the Grand Loop Road past Madison toward Old Faithful. Northbound traffic was pretty congested, but we had smooth sailing. Just past Madison junction I missed a wonderful photo opportunity I wish we could have economically turned around to capture! First I saw the low afternoon sun cast on a beautiful green meadow. Then the Gibbon River flowed across the edge of the meadow in front of a mountain with the most perfectly slanted slope. I saw a sign before we crossed the river that said “National Park Mountain”. The moment I saw it I felt mesmerized, as if I had just experienced a scene from utopia in a perfect moment. It was obvious to me that this place really embodied the beauty, value, and wonder of the entire national park system.
We wouldn’t see much of the park stuck in the traffic going back though…so for now this scene will live on only in my mental image collection…which often surpasses my photographs anyway.
My disappointment didn’t last long though, as we turned off of the loop road onto Firehole Canyon Drive. The name alone sounded awesome, and Becky and I both agreed that this was the prettiest drive we’d taken in all the park! A giant rock wall formed one side of the canyon with all sorts of rocky twists and turns on our side. Eventually it opened up into another stunning waterfall—Firehole Falls. Further down was a big parking area where people were stopping to jump into the water! Between the rocks and rapids in the canyon was a public swimming area that looked positively awesome! We have to come back and spend time here when we return!
We rejoined the loop road again and stopped at the Fountain Paint Pots, which the ranger recommended. Among the eponymous boiling mud pots were hot springs and even a couple of geysers. One geyser constantly spewed water and steam sideways along one side of the boardwalk. Another smaller geyser erupted every 15 minutes, and then calmed down to just steam. As with other thermal areas in Yellowstone, this one had undergone quite a bit of change over the years, as interpretive signs showed with old pictures.
Also, every thermal area we saw had signs cautioning visitors to stay on the trails. Most thermal areas are constantly undermined by underground water and steam, leaving the surface very thin and brittle while looking otherwise normal. I read that a group of geologists had set out to investigate a thermal area in the backcountry and met with disaster from falling through the crusty ground to boiling hot mud and water. At least one geologist suffered severe burns all over his body! Another tip about thermal areas is that they no longer allow dogs on the trails—as our domesticated furry friends do not understand the nature of these places. One man said he saw a dog die a pretty horrible death after it jumped for a swim into a pool of hot acidic water—his owner jumped in after him and got burned too. Suffice it to say, leave your dog with someone back at the parking lot and stay on the trail yourself—it may save you and your best friend from getting more from Yellowstone than you bargained for!
From the Fountain Paint Pots, we drove the loop road to Firehole Lake Drive. This led through more of Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin, with lots of steaming holes in the ground but nothing erupting. The Great Fountain Geyser was surrounded by a huge pool of water, making me think it must be an impressive show. It only erupted every six hours, though, so we moved on.
We pressed on without stopping after this, passing up the Midway Geyser Basin. The ranger recommended we see the Grand Prismatic Spring here, but time was already running short. Becky and I agreed that we needed to get to our campsite so we could shower, cook, and get to bed. We made the decision to get a bright and early start and see Old Faithful erupt first thing tomorrow morning.
From Old Faithful Village, the Grand Loop Road crosses the Continental Divide twice. Besides the giant signs with tourists taking pictures, these crossings are rather unceremonious at only a little over 8,000 feet in elevation. Between the two crossings you can catch a glimpse to the south of Shoshone Lake, a tributary of the Snake River and the Pacific Basin. Just before you reach West Thumb Village, you begin to see Yellowstone Lake. Grant Village is two miles down the South Entrance Road along its shore.
There was a fairly long line at the check-in station at Grant Village Campground. From the puddles you could tell it had rained here during the day. Since Becky and I weren’t sure how easy the wood we cut earlier would burn, we bought another box of firewood. We then trekked way back to the J Loop for our campsite, which turned out to be close to the restrooms and dishwashing station. We found Grant Village Campground to be much flatter and less-densely wooded than Canyon but pleasant and quiet nonetheless. We took a few minutes to pitch our tent right away so we wouldn’t have to do it later in the dark. We both got back to the showerhouse around 7:30pm.
And of course, we discovered a new dilemma—I had somehow misplaced our shower card. For reservable campgrounds in Yellowstone, like Canyon and Grant Village, you receive a spiel about packing all food, toiletries, and other odorous items either inside hard-sided cars, RVs, or bear-proof boxes, and then they give you a shower card. Each night at a campsite comes with two free showers, and this paper card has your name and dates of check-in and check-out along with how many showers you get and how many you’ve used. I couldn’t find ours anywhere in the car, so I was afraid I’d dropped it somewhere and we might have to pay instead. We pulled into the check-in parking to see if it was lying on the ground somewhere…and came up empty. I then went back to the girl who checked us in, Sarah, and asked if I’d left my shower card behind. She asked if I was Lee Hawkins, and then handed me our shower card! Yay! Apparently I had dropped it on the ground and someone was kind enough to leave it at the check-in station! THANK YOU!
After our showers, we got back to our campsite around sundown. I got to work on the fire while Becky set up our bed. The logs we’d cut earlier and the box of wood we’d just bought were nice and dry. Besides that, I was finally getting much better at cutting logs down into kindling with the hatchet—so getting a fire going was really easy for a change. Becky cooked up a can of chicken chili from Trader Joe’s and I made pepperoni pizza sandwiches in my pie iron.
Showered and well-fed, we cleaned up our camp and went to bed around 10pm. Grant Village is almost as high as Canyon Village at 7,800 feet, so it would be another chilly night dropping into the 30s. I am very happy we got to bed at a much better time tonight. I’m even happier that I managed to relax much more than yesterday and we still got to enjoy so much of the park! Tomorrow we’d try to do it again… Our plan is to pack up our campsite at dawn and see Old Faithful first thing in the morning. Afterward we’d head south to visit our trip’s fourth national park—Grand Teton.