RealImaginaryWest 2019 Day 4—Our Return to Yellowstone

Waking In Wyoming


Last night was not my best sleep. The white noise from the river running was wonderful when I was awake, but too loud and too much like howling wind, so I woke up after only short bursts of slumber. I wish I’d put in my earplugs, I think they would have helped. To top it off, my pad deflated, which just made the bad situation with my back worse.

While the humidity was not much indication, this was our first night at altitude, as Ayres Natural Bridge sits at about 5,000 feet. Usually it’s pretty dry here, but the forecast dew point was actually close to our overnight low. Thankfully, though, dew wasn’t too bad a problem as our tent was dry on top. Since we’re now rather high, it’s time for the peeing to begin, as we have to drink ample water to stay hydrated.

So now you know what motivated me to get up at 6am. After this, I thought about the park gate—didn’t it say they lock the gate between certain hours? Sure enough, the checkin slip says the gate is *locked* from 8pm to 8am—and my notes indicated we needed to leave by 7am! So does that mean we’re stuck here until 8??? Since I didn’t feel a bit like trying to get more sleep and I didn’t know if I should wake Becky up, I needed to investi-gate!


I didn’t want to leave Becky without the car or wake her up, so I decided just to hoof my way to the gate and determine the situation before proceeding. I guess my attempts to get into better shape before we left paid off, since I had hardly any trouble at all hiking the 1/2 mile or so uphill at 5,000 feet to the gate. Turns out it’s electric, and a car parked in front will trigger it—so we can leave anytime we want—fantastic! Now to go get back to Becky and start packing up camp.

By the way it was a beautiful morning, even though a bit overcast. The clouds and the colored light of the rising sun really made the mountain in the distance to the Southeast look dramatic! My hike also caused me to cross paths with several creatures, including a big black beetle and several rabbits.

Breaking Camp

By the time I returned, Becky was already astir and ready to help break camp. We got everything put together by 7am, but I had to take advantage of the much brighter light to get some photos and video before we left…which didn’t happen until about 7:20 or so.

Pit Stop In Casper

We stopped just inside Casper for gas, mostly so I could clean the windshield and of course, pee again. I really picked the wrong gas station though…an older gentleman stood outside the restroom…and there was a handwritten “OUT OF ORDER” sign on the men’s room door. He sheepishly went into the women’s room, and then came out saying something about the flapper on the toilet…oh man. I walk in, see the cover off of the toilet tank and decide I’ll figure it out, and tried to close the door. Seriously??? The door was not properly hung, so I couldn’t close it! I didn’t have the time to monkey with it, so I closed it as much as possible and hoped for the best. I did have to make sure the flapper in the tank didn’t get hung up on the lever pulling it open, but otherwise everything went fine after that.

I ran back outside to work on the windshield and apologized to Becky for picking the worst possible gas station. I guess it was clean…but they really need a handyman to get things in proper order. Becky came back a couple of country songs later (the pickup truck song really got me working faster) and we got back on the road.

A New Route To Yellowstone (For Us)

Now the usual road to Yellowstone for a lot of people from the East is to cross South Dakota and most of Wyoming on I-90, and then to take either US-16 from Buffalo or US-14 from Rochester. We did that route with US-16 on our first trip back in 2015, passing through Ten Sleep Canyon and Cody. Since we were coming through Casper farther south this time, we would continue to follow US-20 and pass through Cody again. This would give us an opportunity to see some new parts of Wyoming.

I-25 between Douglas and Casper mostly follows the North Platte River, with mountains off in the distance, mostly to the south. After we diverged to stay on US-20, the road basically passes through barren lands without much of a view of anything but grass, sagebrush, and an occasional oil or gas well until you get to Shoshoni.

Hells Half Acre

Our first stop, Hells Half Acre, breaks up this drive. This rugged canyon actually sprawls 320 acres, and appears to have at some point had a building there, but all that’s left now is the foundation.

A multilayered jagged rock wall in a canyon with mountains in the distance against a blue sky
Hells Half Acre on US-20/26 west of Casper, Wyoming

Wind River Canyon

About 20-30 minutes down the road we reached Shoshoni, where US-26 continues west toward Jackson and Grand Teton National Park, and US-20 breaks off to the north toward Cody and Yellowstone through Wind River Canyon. Before entering the canyon, we saw some gorgeous views of the mountains to the west and to the north, as well as the Boysen Reservoir. The drive through the canyon was very scenic, with the Bighorn River on our left side and high mountains on both sides. It was beautiful, but not quite as scenic as Ten Sleep Canyon on US-16.

A mountain rises with a sheer rock face high above a canyon, with a shorter rock face rising to the right. A river flows through the center and cars move along a road just above and to the right of it.
Wind River Canyon along the Bighorn River and US-20 between Shoshoni and Thermopolis, Wyoming

Thermpolis & Hot Springs State Park

Thermopolis, as the name suggests, gets its claim to fame from the hot springs on the northeast edge of town in Hot Springs State Park. The State of Wyoming runs a bath house with modest indoor and outdoor pools that are open to the public for free. There are locker rooms for changing and showering. All you have to do is sign in and shower up, and you get 20 minutes to soak in 104-degree mineral water. The locker room showers offer absolutely no privacy…so if your very shy about showering and dressing in the open, you might want to investigate one of the nearby commercial bath houses. Becky and I thoroughly enjoyed our soak in the Wyoming sun. I was most worried about feeling cold on the way back from the pool, but honestly the water was so warm and the air just right at 70 degrees that I didn’t feel cold at all.

Onward to Cody

After we got ourselves back in order, we headed back into Thermopolis to continue straight into Cody via Wyo-120, rather than stay on US-20 which heads north through Worland along the Bighorn River. Becky wanted to get lunch/dinner in Cody, so I hunted for good restaurants. Based on Google Maps, there were tons of highly-rated eateries in town—but nothing even cracked 3.5 on more foodie-oriented Zomato. In fact just about every restaurant was between a 3.0 and 3.4 with no outliers. I guess the tourists and locals are all happy with what they get, so the service everywhere is probably fine, but I saw nothing to make me think anywhere would have outstanding quality nor poor quality food.

Millstone Brewery & Pizza Company

So we drove down Sheridan Avenue and stopped at the Millstone Brewery & Pizza Company. Becky ordered the Cobb salad and I got a medium pepperoni pizza. Becky was not enthralled with the salad, but the pizza was decent. It had a thick crust, but not too thick, and it had plenty of sauce and pepperoni with just the right amount of cheese. It filled me up faster than I expected, so I had quite a bit left over.


Since we were now far enough into the Northwest US, it was inevitable that Becky would want to search for her favorite road trip beer—Rainier, which is the only beer Walt Longmire has ever drank, and all he ever will. They only sell it in the Pacific Northwest, and into Montana and Wyoming. We were told a liquor store called Libations, 3 blocks down from where we ate, was the place to go with the best beer selection. They were indeed right! Not only did they have Rainier (which is along the lines of Pabst Blue Ribbon in both price and quality, but they also had a good selection of local craft brews from Wyoming, surrounding states, and across the country. Besides the Rainier, we picked up a six-pack of Bomber Mountain, an amber ale by Black Tooth Brewing in Wyoming. After one last stop to refuel and clean the windshield, we continued west on US-14/16/20 to Yellowstone National Park.

Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Shoshone National Forest

Lots of people excitedly tell me that they’re going to Yellowstone and my first question of curiosity is “Where are you staying?” Usually the answer is “Jackson!” I have yet to have someone say Cody, but the same is true—it’s at least an hour *just to get to the entrance gate!* After that, it can be another hour just to really get somewhere inside the park, and maybe another hour or two to get somewhere specific on the other end of the park. The place is huge, the speed limit never tops 45 mph, and the best gateway communities are separated from the park by either Grand Teton National Park to the south, or Shoshone National Forest from the east—both of which are pretty drives, spectacular even—but they are pretty long drives too. The lesson—get accommodations in the park of you can (save your pennies and plan ahead) or stay in Montana at either West Yellowstone or Gardner, since they’re literally on the very edge of the park, which saves you an hour of driving.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, our drive along the Buffalo Bill Reservoir and through Shoshone National Forest was quite different from our first trip! Our first trip was very overcast, while this trip had mostly clear skies and a completely different look to everything.

A jagged mountain rises up to a clear blue sky
A mountain along US-14/16/20 in Shoshone National Forest

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Lake

We pulled through the East Entrance sometime after 5pm with ease. The beauty of Yellowstone Lake without an overcast sky and impending rain like our first time was awesome! We stopped for a few minutes at Steamboat Point, where fumaroles bellowed steam just between the road and the lake.

Steam rises from a fumarole along the steep shore of a large blue lake with mountains and a partly cloudy blue sky in the distance.
A fumarole steams (left) at Steamboat Point on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake


Not far down the road though, major road construction snagged us big time. Almost the entire road past Fishing Bridge to the junction with the Grand Loop Road was stripped of asphalt and in long sections only open to one lane. If we’d had more time, we’d have taken the Grand Loop Road around Lake Yellowstone and past Old Faithful, but instead we took the shorter route through Hayden Valley to Canyon-Norris Road. This made me nervous because we were heading through when the entire bison herd often migrates across the road—that’s cool to see, but it’s not great when you’re running out of daylight!

Three young bison lie in tall yellow grass with an adult bison. A blue river flows in the distance below them.
Bison chilling out near the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park’s Hayden Valley

As it was, we spotted only a few bison along the way, with only minor traffic snarls. We pulled into Madison Campground around 7pm, which isn’t bad considering our stop along Yellowstone Lake. Checkin was no trouble, and we had camp set up fast enough to cook burgers before sunset.

She Came In an Air Stream

As we finished dinner, one of our site neighbors came over with her ukulele. Any story that starts with a random person and a ukulele has to be a good one, right? Well, Nancy in the Air Stream RV next to us came over and asked if either of us played any instruments. Neither Becky nor I are skilled musicians, though Becky learned some piano when she was a kid. I told her I really didn’t play anything but the kazoo (which is a bit of a joke).

Anyway, we had some interesting conversations after she attempted to play and we attempted to sing “Born To Be Wild”. Nancy and her husband were retired now if I remember correctly, so they spend a lot of time in their RV now, though they’re from around Sacramento. Becky was just about to do dishes when she came over, so Nancy offered to let Becky use the sink (and warm water!) in her RV. When they returned, we all sang as she played “Home On The Range” and then our inebriated neighbor Nancy returned to her Air Stream for the night.

Turning In

This made an entertaining end to a good night. Now it was time to settle into bed with an overnight low in the mid to upper 30s. Becky and I both wore our Mylar-lined base layers with a couple additional layers up top as well as wool socks. Becky added a blanket inside our sleeping bag for extra warmth. Hopefully it would be enough to keep us comfortably warm, so we could get up well-rested to explore Yellowstone tomorrow!

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