Although more than a month has passed since I visited Yellowstone, the images and the experiences are as clear in my mind as yesterday. (I apologize—life has gotten in the way of writing)
It was time I bade farewell to my brief couple of days in the cute, mountainous Cooke City, MT (Part of the Top 10 of Best small towns by Budget Travel in 2012) and head back south. It was a four-hour drive from Cooke City to Jackson, WY but heck… we knew there was already enough to see in the eastern part of the “Grand Loop” before the drive would be half over. Four-hour drive? We left Cooke City at 10am and didn’t expect to enter Jackson by sunset.
No journey from Cooke City can begin well without stuffing yourselves from the Bearclaw Bakery. We packed Berry Pie slices and Orange Cinnamon Rolls (with real Orange rinds in the dough!) to keep us company for the ride south.
This vast area is probably the most northern part of Yellowstone. There are so many herds of Bison just chilling, frolicking and being bad asses in the valley that you will probably get sick of them (except me as I fought the urge to hug one). We passed this area several times before today and each time our car ran into mini traffic jams caused by Bison crossing the road without a care in the world. The famous Yellowstone Wolf Pack also calls this area home although BF Shoes and I never caught a glimpse of them. No worries, the Bison—carefree giants—were always very amusing to watch.
Lamar Valley barely has any trees. Instead short bushes cover the ground amidst the soft, rolling hills. With the snow-topped mountains looming in the distance and no way to see where the Valley began or ended, you can’t help but feel so small. It’s almost comically futile trying to capture the grandness of the valley with your camera’s zoom lens as you huddle together among your little group of cars.
An empty parking lot had me worried (a sure sign something is visually interesting nearby) so we walked gingerly down the short path to the wooden railings ahead… and stood at the edge of the earth as it yawned loudly. Left and right the looming faces of cliffs tumbled below to reveal the Yellowstone River rushing below. Straight ahead the cliff’s face was lined with different natural designs—signs explained this phenomenon. BF Shoes and I walked down the short path to get some extra angles on the view. I leaned as far as I could against the railing to watch the earth fall beneath me while the chilly winds rushed by my face—a feeling unmatched!
The road south of the Overlook is lined with cliffs rising above the road. It was difficult to see where the road led when suddenly, the land opened up to reveal a large valley broken only by soft, rolling hills. Like Lamar Valley, the Caldera Overlook was supposed to be a great area to spot wildlife. The only thing that came to life were our cell phones which had no reception at all for the past few days… but no time for catching up on texts… the views outside the screens were fantastic!
THE FALLS AND ARTIST POINT
This area’s popularity rounds out the cast of Yellowstone’s most famous. Just head straight for any signs that say ‘Artist Point’ and ignore the others—the number of cars in its parking lot will already signal the treat ahead. The short skip to the vantage point is filled with peek-a-boo views of the Grand Canyon through the trees. Eventually the path veered left… and ohhhh wow this place lives up to its name. From the vantage point you are thrust near the center of the Park’s Grand Canyon and in the distance you can see the Lower Falls Waterfall crashing into the Yellowstone River where it passes by your perch.
The view from Artist Point is almost surreal—in glancing at my photos later it seemed like I had photographed a painting instead of the real thing. Beautiful upon amazing. While the name Artist Point comes from the first explorers admiring the beauty of this location, I prefer to think of it as a reverence to creator God as the artist.
Artist Point whetted our appetites and made us crave more. A small hike (or drive) led us to the overlook of the Upper Falls (where the river eventually feeds into the Lower Falls seen at Artist Point). If your body allows it, take the 324 metal steps down Uncle Tom’s Trail to get an even closer view of the Lower Falls. Going down isn’t the problem—BF Shoes practically ran up the steps later on while I tried to disguise my breathless pauses as photo opportunities. But it was so worth it. Being so close to a waterfall is awe-inspiring. During the ascent back I happened to glance where the Lower Falls met the River just in time to see a perfect little rainbow arch through the mist created.
MUD VOLCANO AREA
After days of being away from the geysers and hot springs Yellowstone is known for, it was almost comforting to see the familiar sight of thin trails of steam ascending into the air much like scattered camp fires dotting a forest. And that’s when the smell of the Mud Volcano area hits you—farts mixed with burnt tires and gasoline penetrate your car- but the giggling, middle-school side of you makes you exit your vehicle. The mile-long boardwalk led us past small pools of blooping, creamy, gray heated mud. One particular hot spring bubbled like water boiling on the stove but the smell was so bad we couldn’t get within twenty feet of the water’s edge. Instead we laughed, gagged, then held our noses and ran.
This area is also home to the Dragon’s Mouth Spring—one of the coolest natural features I’ve seen. Just check out the photo above. A hot spring is streaming out of this cave in pulsing waves while the boiling steam also pours out of the cave making it difficult to see through the darkness inside. What you can’t see is the low rumbling that sounds like a hungry stomach or angry growl (caused by a combo of natural factors I can’t explain). If this cave had somehow been transported to the entrance of a Dragon-related ride at a Universal Studios theme park I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Cool effect. Very fitting. And I would’ve kept walking on. But it’s crazy to think this is NATURALLY made! (Oh God you crazy, artist you.)
AND THAT’S ONLY HALFWAY
We experienced all that before even hitting the shores of the Yellowstone Lake. It was an easy drive and very scenic and very easy to stop and take a break. And did I mention the weather was finally cooperating to allow jeans and shirts? (No more jackets!) Keep your eyes peeled for the final moments of my beautiful Yellowstone trip as my journey slowly led me back to Jackson, WY.