Brilliant colors of sunset over the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and Yellowstone Falls

RealImaginaryWest Day 9 – Hot Springs, Overlooks & Oversights in Yellowstone

Our first full day in Yellowstone took us to Tower Fall in the morning and Mammoth Hot Springs at midday. We grabbed lunch outside the park in Gardiner, Montana, then found some wood and a moose on our way back to Canyon Village. We closed out the day at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and ate a late dinner back at camp.

Our First Full Day

Has a full week already past? Are we only on Day 9? Just yesterday I told Becky that 1 week and 2 hours ago (because of the time change) we left! It also doesn’t seem possible that today was Friday and that we still have more than a week to go…wow…we planned all this??? I don’t know how we did it, but I know we could only have been this successful from working together! I know I couldn’t have done this as well without Becky!

Today’s entry starts with the end. Right now I’m sitting at a biggole fire that took longer than I hoped to build, but I’m feeling content that I am warm, our tent is still good, we haven’t run out of money, and we are doing OK. It’s been tough sometimes and we’ve gotten in each other’s hair occasionally, but we have really enjoyed ourselves over the last week. We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve gotten to see a lot of the country!

I feel like we’ve done really well so far, but today I know my “OMG Yellowstone!” mania pushed Becky way too far. We were up at first light this morning in time for sunrise. We were out before the tourists wake up to clog all the roads and scare away all the animals. And then we ran almost all day without much downtime. It’s almost midnight now, and we still aren’t quite in bed. The original plan for tomorrow was to start early like we did today, but I know I ran Becky ragged, so I doubt it will work out that way.

Enduring the Cold

Let’s rewind and go back to how last night went. Becky was super cold, and had to cover her face with the top in-between blanket. It was by far the coldest night we’ve ever slept in. We’re up around 7,900 feet in elevation here at Canyon Campground, which means the atmosphere is much thinner and the temperature in turn stays much colder—often only in the 60s for a high and down into the 30s at night, even in July. By contrast Mammoth Campground, near the park’s North Entrance, sits at about 6,200 feet and experiences temperatures that are roughly 10 degrees warmer. I was concerned about whether we’d get rain or wind on top of the cold at night, but thankfully the winds calmed after dark and it only rained during the day.

Layers are key to beating the cold. Becky and I both wore at least 2-3 layers up top, and I had two on the bottom. We had two blankets between our sleeping bags and our air mattress to insulate us below, and then another one inside the sleeping bags to keep us warm on top. Without the extra blankets, we would have been unbearably chilly! But as it was, everything was rather comfortable for me, so long as I kept my hoodie up to keep my ears warm.

Yellowstone Mania

Steam rises from Wabash Hot Springs at sunrise.

Tower Fall

The Yellowstone River as it passes out of its grand canyon

Now I wanted to be up early enough to get some photos of sunrise at Yellowstone Falls, which is very close to our campground. Becky agreed that she’d get up at 5:30am and we’d be ready to go at 5:45. We got going right on time. The weather was definitely brisk, but the mostly cloudy sky looked to make for interesting images so long as the clouds didn’t completely block out the sun. After shooting the falls, we planned to go back to camp to shower up, then hit Mammoth Hot Springs and come back to camp again for early dinner and maybe a nap. Later, we’d go back to Yellowstone Falls in time for sunset.

When we drove out to Yellowstone Falls, however, there was a thick blanket of fog over the entire canyon :-(. This would not do, and I wanted to take advantage of the early light, so I decided we’d upend everything we’d planned and drive an hour to Mammoth Hot Springs right away. My mania had kicked in, and it wasn’t even 6am…

A few miles down the road from Canyon Village, we stopped at the Wabash Hot Springs Overlook, since it looked like our last good opportunity to take advantage of the sunrise. As I set things up, it was awesome to watch the sun cast its first light on mountains that had to be miles and miles away.

Things were starting to warm up, but my stomach started asking for food and Becky started asking for coffee…so we stopped by the Tower General Store. It was too early for it to open, so we made use of the time and hiked the short trail to 132-foot Tower Fall.

Mammoth Hot Springs

After I found a snack and Becky found coffee, we got back on the road and made it to Mammoth Hot Springs at about 9 o’clock. Water from geysers miles away travels through porous rock to emerge here as hot springs. Minerals and acids in the water cause these springs to plug up and pop up elsewhere, constantly building and eroding the landscape. Mammoth is an area with a high concentration of hot springs, but these springs are the most common thermal feature found throughout Yellowstone National Park. If the earth was a teenager, Yellowstone would be the face and these hot springs would be the zits. They literally pop up and dry up just about anywhere, transforming areas from year to year and even day to day. It’s common to see a parking lot with a space cordoned off because a new hot spring erupted right in the middle!

As a result of this constant change, the park service over the years has installed boardwalks with handrails to provide a solid platform for getting safely close to many of the thermal features. There are several boardwalks weaving throughout Mammoth Hot Springs, some of which are handicapped accessible. Mammoth Hot Springs is said to be “an inside-out cave”, as many of the geological formations and processes here are similar. The weather today was almost perfect for enjoying the brilliant orange and white mineral deposits, as you can see in the virtual tour below!

360-degree panoramas of Mammoth Hot Springs. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Lunch in Gardiner, Montana

After we wrapped up at Mammoth, we drove north to see the Roosevelt Arch. I never realized how far up the park really is until we took the winding North Entrance Road down 1,500 feet in elevation to the town of Gardiner, Montana. Much of the road follows the Gardiner River, which meets the Yellowstone River just east of town in a celebration of scenery. The historic Roosevelt Arch sits just inside the park border, although today it was unfortunately surrounded by orange barrels.

Although the North Entrance now is one of many entrances into the park, it is the only one open year-round thanks to the milder climate resulting from its much lower elevation. In the park’s early history, it was the most likely way in, as the Northern Pacific Railroad was the first to bring passengers right to Yellowstone’s doorstep on a spur that terminated here in Gardiner. Today, the railroad is gone, but the town has several gift shops, restaurants, and bars, along with housing and maintenance buildings just inside the park for NPS employees.

We sat down at the Yellowstone Pizza Company, where I got the pizza and Becky got a burger. The food was good, but prices in Gardiner were probably about 20-30% above places back East, and a bit higher than restaurants inside the park. So if you’re on a budget, definitely don’t assume going outside the park will save you money, check first. If you’re really on a budget, I’d recommend buying groceries somewhere along an Interstate highway or in a city big enough to have a Walmart (like Bozeman or Cody). Yellowstone and the regions surrounding it are exceptionally remote with much less population and a very short tourism season, so prices are higher for good reason.

Back to Canyon Village

After lunch, Becky implored me to head back to camp so she could shower. We were still quite a ways away, and with two roughly equidistant ways back to Canyon Village, I of course opted for the one we hadn’t seen earlier in the morning. As much as I did want to get Becky back to camp, I was still obsessed with seeing everything I could. She could have given me a much harder time about this, but was actually rather patient with me.

Anyway…passing through the village at Mammoth Hot Springs, we saw that two female elk had settled in for the afternoon next to the road and a parking lot. We drove the upper terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs on our way south on the northwestern part of the Grand Loop Road. There definitely were not many active hot springs near the road, so if you want to really see the cool stuff, you’ve got to get out on foot or on one of the accessible trails.

Found Some Wood

About halfway between there and Norris, we found a quiet picnic area miles away from any campgrounds. As our campground was picked clean of any large usable firewood, I thought this would be a more promising place to find downed dead wood for tonight. We indeed found ample wood here, and our little pocket sierra saw helped us make short work of a couple of long logs about 4-6 inches in diameter. Becky also had the brilliant idea of putting all the logs and twigs we collected into a blue IKEA shopping bag. These exceptionally rugged bags made the wood easy to move in and out of the car, and kept debris from going everywhere. We maybe spent an hour sawing and collecting here. This was a very tranquil, mostly human-free area, with an occasional passing car. We would have found it very relaxing were it not for the mosquitoes and the fear a bear may find it tranquil as well. The entire time we kept our eyes open and our bear spray handy!

Further down the road, I asked Becky if she was interested in seeing the geysers at Norris. I wanted to make sure she was OK stopping since she had been begging since lunch to get her back to camp. She agreed, but I decided to move on when we saw the congestion just getting into the parking lot.


From Norris we crossed the park on the 12 mile road back to Canyon Village. This road lacks the mountain and lake vistas found on most roads in Yellowstone, but a few meadows and sloughs lie along the way. Just a few minutes before we got to Canyon Village, cars had stopped, so I suspected there must be an animal. Sure enough, a large brown figure stood in a slough about 200 yards away. My first thought was a bear, but the head was way too long. Others there confirmed it was a moose, a female most likely, since it didn’t have a rack. Besides black bears (we’d seen a grizzly the day before) wildcats, and wolves, we had seen all of the large animals in the park! Very cool!

A female moose stands in a slough about 200 yards from the Norris Canyon Road just a mile or so west of Canyon Village.

Back at Camp

We pulled into Canyon Village just after 4pm. Becky and I shopped for dinner, ice, and batteries for the night, and then we went back to our campsite. We hadn’t seen rain anywhere all day long. Our campsite, however, had been completely soaked. For the most part the rain had beaded up on our Coleman Redwood 4-Person Tent, but the tarp underneath had mud, pollen, and tree junk all over it. Unfortunately, water had also somehow made its way into the tent, mostly around the edges, and a bit in the center. I mopped up the puddles on the floor with a towel and made sure the wet parts of the blankets were on top so they could dry out.

We were both tired. Becky got her shower and took her time so she could unwind. I laid down in the tent to catch up on my writing and catch a nap. I don’t know that I slept, but I did feel much more refreshed. This feeling made way for my compulsive mania to take over again…

I knew I was on vacation…but at the same time I felt like this whole trip would make for an awesome portfolio builder. I kept thinking about how I really wanted to get my business going, and how I really enjoyed my photography—and as a result, I had not allowed myself to relax. My thoughts were locked in on photographing this iconic place we were in, all day long. I didn’t want to “waste” a minute, but my mania was taking its toll on Becky, who was struggling to keep up.

By the time I popped out of the tent, it was about 8pm. Due to my poor planning and a general lack of any concept of passing time, I had missed a perfect opportunity to get us both fed by now. All I could think was that sundown was only an hour away and I had almost no time to get to Yellowstone Falls before the best light was completely gone. Of course I hadn’t considered that I’d also want to take advantage of the blue hour after sundown, which would likely get us back around 10 o’clock. This in turn meant I’d have to get a fire going and cook…all in the dark. I wish I’d considered all of this before I laid in that tent. I felt really bad about it later. Becky was just done by the time we got back, and we did not get to bed as early as we needed.

Off to Yellowstone Falls

Either way, off to the North Rim Drive we went. Becky debated whether she felt well enough to go, and decided she would. I stopped at Lookout Point, where I tried my best to shoot a 360 using my 24mm lens on my fairly new Nodal Ninja NN4 panoramic head. As usual I had nobody there with me until I was just about ready to shoot. While I was checking my exposure and focus, I could see the beautiful golden sunlight moving up the trees before going away completely and shifting into the blue hour.

It was at this time that this random lady pointed out away from Yellowstone Falls toward some random rock while I was unrandomly and deliberately absorbed in what I was doing. She said:

“Excuse me, but can you tell me if that’s a bird over there?”

??!???!!?!!!? Really?!?!! I know most people don’t understand photography or photographers, but yeah, just because I have a big looking lens doesn’t necessarily mean I can zoom far, nor does it mean my setup or my time allows me to check it out for you when my camera is pointed in another direction. If she really wanted to know, she had a camera in her hand and she could have just zoomed in on the back screen to see if there was a bird!

All of this stuff flooded through my mind at once. My usual desire to be a Helpy Helperton was overridden by the imminently setting sun and my urgent need to finish setup and start shooting—when she persisted with the question again.

“I’m sorry, I really can’t,” I said directly. I think I might have told her that I’m trying to shoot this before the sun goes down and the good light goes away. I dislike blowing anyone off like that, but photographers shoot their best work in the two hours around sunrise and sunset, and they pass fast!

Becky laughed as this transpired and said she thought I handled it well. Becky told me this lady was looking for an osprey nest she had heard about, but of course, Becky couldn’t help her either. After she left and I was finally ready to shoot, several groups of people came along and frustrated what I thought would be a great unobstructed view…alas…

Lower Yellowstone Falls from Lookout Point in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone at sunset

Red Rock Overlook

Once I completed a sweep at 70mm and another at 24mm, I wanted to go down to the Red Rock Overlook, but I didn’t dare assume Becky was up for that without asking. As it turned out she had already gone partway down the trail and was really interested in going. I switched lenses and pano heads back at the car to lighten my load and we started down.

The sun had completely set by then, so we moved as quickly as we could on the steep switchback. The overlook offered a closer view of the falls, but the trees obstructed good views of the canyon walls on either side of us. I got my 360 shot quickly, then folded up my gear so we could start back up. On the way down, I found that there were a couple of slick wet spots (likely from the rain that made a mess of our tent) so I looked to avoid them on the way up. Sliding on the gravel concerned Becky more, as the paved trail could probably have used some maintenance.

At altitude, it took us a while to scale the switchback…but we made it to the top with plenty of light to spare and our car the only one left in the parking lot. Becky was in good spirits, but I knew I needed to get her fed and to bed ASAP.

360-degree panoramas of Lower Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

By the time we had gotten back and I saw how tired Becky was, I felt really bad! She was really awesome about it, but I knew I had overdone it. We had planned to start early tomorrow like we did today, but I knew that was no longer practical. I got a good fire going, but our wood was a bit green so it took some time and effort with the air mattress blower. I cooked up our bison burgers from the general store and Becky went off to bed close to midnight. I sat up a while longer to finish writing. I felt so horrible about running us ragged all day that I decided that I would let poor Becky sleep as long as she wanted and just take things from there in the morning.

Tomorrow needed to be different, I told myself. I’d made it too hard for Becky to relax. I need to put my girl first and treat her right. I need to slow down and find a balance. I know I can’t tolerate this whirlwind mania myself either…my photography was losing its fun aspect and becoming pure work.

I decided to apologize to Becky in the morning and just talk things out. I feel confident that it’s not too late to correct course and turn this around. It should be easy to take time in the morning while we pack up and move camp to Grant Village.

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