Excited, but groggy was the overall mood when my family finally saw the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The seven of us had spent the past two nights in a thirty-foot rental RV (A glorious monstrosity wrapped in a giant photo of Mt. Rainier). On night one we drove through the night, reaching Badlands National Park by mid morning. After a quick hike, we resumed our drive and ended up sleeping alongside a hoard of other RVs in the closest Walmart parking lot to Yellowstone. None of us had showered since leaving Grand Rapids, and we were all getting stir crazy from the long drive.
It almost didn’t feel real when we at last made it the the park. The Roosevelt Arch, seeming like a beacon of hope, rose up from the dried September grass to greet us. We were finally at Yellowstone, a park I have longed to visit as far back as I can remember. Soon, we would head for Mammoth Hot Springs, but our first order of business was to get a family picture with the Yellowstone sign.
Once the obligatory photo was secure, we began the trek south, a journey that would span the next three days and eventually deposit us in Grand Teton National Park.
By the time we reached the Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs, I was itching to get out of the RV and start exploring. Despite the unexpected heat (the forecast had called for much cooler weather than we actually experienced the whole trip), we booked it from the far parking lot over to the hot spring, which we could see looming in the distance for the entire walk. When we got closer I began to fully grasp the true magnitude of Yellowstone. Vince and I visited some geothermal areas when we went to Iceland in 2016, and soaked in some hot springs in Colorado in 2013, but this was completely incomparable to anything I had ever seen.
White limestone terraces towered above us like the steps of a gleaming pyramid, and steam billowed from the earth. The air smelled sulfuric, but not so much as to be overpowering. It can be extremely dangerous, even deadly, to tread on the ground around the geysers and hot springs, so the trail at Mammoth was a boardwalk. We followed the wooden path in all directions, gawking at the unreal landscape, and then we headed uphill.
It was wasn’t a long hike, but it was tiring because of the heat so our pace was nothing less than sluggish, especially when factoring in the frequent stops to stare at our surroundings in awe. Eventually, we reached a dead end which resulted in a view of a massive spring. It’s limestone was mottled with a burnt orange color and turquoise water pooled in its terraces.
This spot was a hub for spectators, so we quickly moved on after taking our turn looking at the spring. From there we descended down a different branch of the trail and got to see some more interesting formations as we went.
Everyone was hot, tired, and hungry when we got back to the RV. We scarfed down a quick lunch, then turned tail and went north once again. Our next stop was the Boiling River. This is a hot spring that dumps out into the glacially fed Gardner River. The water temperature is perfect for soaking where the two extreme temperatures meet, and basking in warm water was exactly what we all needed after two and a half days on the road without a shower.
Before we even pulled into the parking lot for the oasis, we could see a herd of elk dotting the river. My brother Caleb and I couldn’t contain our excitement long enough to wait for the rest of the group so we piled out of the RV and walked ahead to get a good look at the animals. We had seen a big bull elk from the road, but once we were down by the river it seemed as though he had disappeared. There were still plenty of cows and calves, and we watched them from the banks of the river until we heard my brother David’s voice vying for our attention.
David had spotted the bull. This was surprising to no one, since he has the best eye for spotting things out of the entire family. He was always the one to find a dollar dropped on the sidewalk when we were kids, and that has developed into a keen eye for birdwatching (I am guaranteed to see more species when I’m out with him than I am by myself) and wildlife spotting.
The big male had sat down behind a bush and virtually disappeared, leaving only an antler, which camouflaged well with the underbrush, in sight. It was no surprise that Caleb and I had walked right past him in our haste.
Not wanting to surprise a hiding animal, we moved on upstream to the bathing area. The warm water had attracted plenty of other people, and we were quick to join them, picking a spot that had enough space for the whole family.
The water to our backs was hot, and in front of us the water was frigid. There was one intermediary section that was the absolute perfect temperature, and that is where we stayed. Sometimes there would be a rush of too hot or too cold water that would shock us, but everyone enjoyed floating in the river immensely. Afterwards we all felt refreshed, and no one could stop grinning.
On our hike back out of the river valley, we were surprised to see that the bull elk was on the move, being herded away by a park ranger. When we approached the man, he explained that the bull was irritable because he had lost his harem of cows and calves to a larger male the previous night. I made sure to stay where the ranger instructed while snapping a few quick pictures. The bull looked irate to say the least, so we quickly retreated, letting the elk stew over his defeat alone.
Afterwards, we went back out of the park to stay at the only campground we were able to find on a day’s notice. My mom and I went for a run, and then all of us “kids” did yoga as the sun set over the mountains. The next morning was going to be an early one because we would have to hunt for a campsite within the park before they all filled up. We went to bed feeling clean, relaxed, and excited for the next day.
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