Our first afternoon exploring the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park was incredible and left me excited for our full days of exploring the rest of the park. The weather wasn’t fully cooperating but it didn’t stop us from getting up bright and early, cruising into the park via the west entrance, and driving the central loop with stops at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and West Thumb.
The beauty of getting an early start is that traffic is reasonable, crowds are sparse, and wildlife are often on the move. We hadn’t driven far before we came across some bull elk. One in particular seemed to have no trouble stopping traffic to cross the road.
It was an otherwise uneventful but lovely drive through Madison and east toward Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. I had looked up some really cool canyon hikes along the stretch of road heading toward Tower-Roosevelt but that entire section of road was closed for repairs so we decided to hike closer to Canyon Village.
We started on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, parking at Uncle Tom Point to check out the 109-foot Upper Falls before hiking the 2.5-mile out and back south rim trail to Artist Point. Along the way we had some great views of the 308-foot Lower Falls, the canyon and its multi-colored walls, and a mule deer!
According to the park magazine, this canyon formed when hydrothermal activity weakened the bedrock, making the stone soft and allowing the river to erode, deepen, and widen the canyon. The Yellowstone River itself is the last major undammed river in the lower 48 states.
It was starting to get busy when we returned from our hike and relocated to the north rim. There are several pullovers and observation points along the north rim, but we actually preferred the views from the southern side.
We skipped over some of the busier pullovers and tried to wait our turn to check out the view at the places we did stop. As you can see from the photos below, people were completely disregarding the signs about masking and social distancing so we didn’t stay long.
We pulled over at a gas station in Canyon Village to make some sandwiches and grab a few other things out of our cooler before driving the loop south toward Hayden Valley.
This area is a popular spot for watching wildlife and sure enough we spotted a bison herd off in the distance. I was able to snap a few shots with our big lens of some bison grazing among the sagebrush.
Another fun stop on the way to West Thumb was at the Sulpher Caldron and Mud Volcano. We parked and walked along the road to overlook some of the steaming (and smelly!) caldrons before heading across the road toward the Mud Volcano.
We started to follow the loop trail but were quickly stopped by a ranger who was asking everyone to turn around and head back to the parking lot. She had a bison on the walking trail up ahead that was not interested in moving so we had to stick with enjoying the spots near the parking lot!
The Mud Volcano was fairly active but the Dragon’s Mouth Spring ended up being our favorite part of this stop. The cave keeps belching steam and hot water and emitting grumblings that certainly make it seem like a dragon is deep in its lair and preparing to emerge!
We finally reached West Thumb Geyser Basin on Yellowstone Lake and took a boardwalk hike among the hot springs along the water. I really enjoyed the variety of hot springs in this area — pools of all different colors, shapes, and sizes, including the brilliantly blue Abyss Pool.
Another unique feature is the Fishing Cone, the mini volcano out in the lake in the photos below. It was documented in early scientific expeditions of the area as early as 1870, and according to the park website, gained its name because visitors would actually catch fish in the lake and cook them in its boiling water from the late 1800s until well into the 1920s!
Despite the cloudy and sometimes rainy weather, we had an incredible day exploring and learning about a variety of geological features throughout Yellowstone National Park. From waterfalls and canyons, to hot springs and geysers, to open valleys of sagebrush and wildlife, there is so much to experience in this national park!