Detour through Yellowstone

We left Bozeman late the following morning, after a very tasty breakfast at Cafe Nova. Rejuvenated, we hit the road back to Wyoming. Our plan was to find some camping, maybe outside of Yellowstone or in the Tetons, and have an easy 4-5 hour drive.

It may sound incredible, but Yellowstone hadn’t been anywhere specifically in our plans. So when we glanced at a map and saw that we could drive through it, we figured why not? It occurred to me then that some people spend years saving for a family vacation to Yellowstone, and I couldn’t help but feel grateful that we just happened to be outside the park.

We paid $50 to get into Yellowstone and another $30 for entrance to Grand Teton National Park, which we’d come across later and did not actually have to pay for.

At the entrance, we scanned a list of campgrounds in Yellowstone. Only one – Indian Hills – did not have the “FULL” sign next to it.

“You can try,” said the ranger at the gate. “But it’s possible that by the time you get there, it’ll be full.”

We practically sped into Yellowstone, flying past Mammoth Hot Springs and a number of panoramic vistas in hopes of snagging a camp site. By the time we reached Indian Hills, about 25 minutes after entering, it was full.

“Damn!” said Laura. “We’ll have to drive out of the park and try to do some dispersed camping in the forest.”

“That sounds fine. Should we try to see Old Faithful?”

“Yeah. When does it erupt?”

I checked one of the handy pamphlets we’d been given at the entrance.

“It says here to stop by a visitor center and they can tell you the next time it’s due to go off,” I said. “Should we go back to the one at Mammoth Springs?”

And so, we turned the van around and drove 25 minutes back the way we came to the Mammoth Springs Visitor Center. Inside, we approached a ranger at the desk.

“Could you tell us the next time Old Faithful is set to erupt?” Laura asked her. She smiled sadly at us.

“No, we don’t know that up here,” she replied mystically. “It’s impossible to predict.”

This seemed strange, since the Yellowstone pamphlet said otherwise. And doesn’t the name alone suggest that it’s faithful to some kind of consistent eruption schedule?

“Well…can you tell us when it last went off? It’s every 90 minutes, right?”

“You wouldn’t make it there in time,” she went on. “It’s an hour and a half away.”

“Is there a visitor center down there?”

“Yes.”

“Could we call them?”

“You could.”

We waited for her to pick up a phone, but she only continued smiling at us and silently willing us to leave her alone. We plodded back to the car, confused and none the wiser about eruption times.

The new plan was this: drive back down the road we’d now covered twice already, arrive at Old Faithful, and decide when we got there whether we’d wait around to see it or continue on to find a campground.

The drive through Yellowstone is a long one, but there is much to see. Both of us were in awe of the diverse landscape of the park. While Yosemite is beautiful and offers tree-lined hiking trails and craggy overlooks, Yellowstone resembles Iceland in its rapidly changing topography; one minute you’re standing on a cliff overlooking a rushing river and a waterfall, the next you’re wandering a boardwalk through mud pots and steaming geysers.

For the first hour or so, we didn’t stop. It was quickly getting later, and we worried we wouldn’t find a camp site after dark. Toward the end, though, Yellowstone’s beauty became too enticing to ignore.

We stopped off first at some paint pots, following a long and meandering boardwalk through roaring vents in the earth’s surface and gently spewing geysers. After, we visited the prism reflecting pool, a colorful pool that apparently appears wondrous on Google Earth. The steam was blowing off of it and into our faces, but occasionally it would clear to reveal shimmering blues, yellows, and reds along the edges.

Z9

Finally, we neared Old Faithful and turned off the main road. The visitor center was astonishing in its size; previous stop-offs merely provided a small parking lot. This place welcomed us with a massive wooden lodge boasting walls of windows overlooking Old Faithful and the geyser field. The parking lots were wide and empty, and stretched around the lodge, a hotel, a bar, a grocery store, and a number of small barracks where we imagined the park staff lived.

Pulling into a spot near the center, Laura and I exchanged tired glances.

“I think we should just sleep in this parking lot,” she suggested, and I was quick to agree. Surely no one would kick us out.

It was 7:30 and the sun was beginning to set as we walked up to the information desk. A friendly ranger named Zoe greeted us.

“Could you tell us when Old Faithful last erupted?” we asked, knowing from our last encounter with a ranger that it was ‘impossible to predict.’ Zoe frowned at us.

“Do you want to know when it last went off, or when it’s going off next?”

“You can tell us that?”

Zoe gestured to the lobby, where a massive clock hung beneath a sign saying “Next Eruption.”

“About an hour,” she said. “8:30.”

In fact, the entire lodge was so dedicated to making guests aware of the predicted time that it was posted everywhere. In the cafeteria, I noticed another sign scrawled over the register. For a national park, Yellowstone lacks communication.

We dined on stir fry, bison chili, and two Old Faithful beers, all beside a bright and expansive wall of windows. At a nearby table, three guys sat charging their phones.

“Where are you guys camping for the night?” we asked them.

“We’re just going to camp out in the parking lot,” they told us, and went on to say that they’d been traveling around the US for the last 54 days in a Penske moving van, towing a chicken car behind them. They were volunteering with MIA, Mental Illness Awareness, and speaking at various locations about their experiences. They invited us to come over later on.

“Just knock on the truck,” they said.

Not totally opposed, we resolved to at least park near them, because if someone was getting towed, it would be the chicken car and not our van.

At 8:30, we went outside to the viewing platform and awaited Old Faithful’s eruption. By now, the sun was just about sinking below the horizon, smearing the sky with gold, orange, and pink, a stunning backdrop to the steaming geyser.

What luck.

We parked our van near the chicken car and slept in the parking lot at Old Faithful. I’ve definitely slept in worse places.

 

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