Yellowstone at Last by Martha Graham-Waldon
Yellowstone was the dream trip we picked to launch our retirement, the quintessential goalpost we set our sights on. Carefully planned for over eight months, every detail was covered. Yet fate had other ideas. And as fate would have it, instead of driving off happily into the sunset, three weeks after his last day, in late July 2018, my husband ended up in the hospital with a near-fatal case of necrotizing pancreatitis. I was forced to cancel everything but ended up with a large credit for the RV rental.
Dan was finally released from the hospital in February of 2019. Surely that summer would be the time to take our trip! But he needed to have some additional medical procedures done that left him weak and nauseous much of the time. Sadly, he told me he didn’t feel well enough to travel. So I called the RV place and asked them to hold our credit for us for one more year.
2020 would be our golden opportunity! Or so we thought… Dan got better but then the pandemic burst on the scene. Still, I was determined to not let it stop us. I rebooked everything for late August and shortened the trip by booking airfare one-way instead of a round-trip train trip. We remained cautiously optimistic.
But the gods must have had other ideas. In the summer of 2020 California erupted in flames and just as we were preparing to leave on our trip, we were forced to evacuate our home, grabbing the suitcases we had packed. We fled like nomads, staying in our RV in a friend’s driveway. Then we pondered what to do. We could not stay in our home, so why not hit the road? So we took the plunge and headed to the airport to fly to Montana.
Our flight to Bozeman was fine and everything went as planned. After picking up our Mercedes RV rental in Belgrade, we headed to Chico Hot Springs outside the North Park Entrance for a relaxing couple of days. We luxuriated in the large, warm mineral pool and reveled in the rare experience of eating inside at their fine restaurant where I indulged in their famous “flaming orange” dessert! Our entrance into Yellowstone took us past the 45th parallel and through the majestic Roosevelt Arch. We had finally arrived! First stop was Mammoth Hot Springs with its boiling step-like formations. It was here that we got our first glimpse of wildlife—large seemingly tame elk grazing in the grass. From there we headed to the famous Tower Roosevelt Hotel and Falls which we discovered were closed but it was a lovely drive and we got to see a petrified tree.
Yellowstone is truly a wonder of the world and a World Heritage Site. The power lurking below its volcanic caldera was created by a massive volcanic eruption most recently 640,000 years ago. Later lava flows filled in much of the caldera, now 30 x 45 miles wide. The geysers bubbling to the surface throughout the park are the result of super-heated water escaping to the surface after being trapped in underground channels. These bubbling cauldrons appeared all around us as we traveled on The Grand Loop Road through the park.
The Grand Loop delivered us to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone where we hiked and stopped for breath-taking photo opportunities such as the iconic Artist’s Point. The canyon is more than 1,000 feet deep, 1,500-4,000 feet wide and roughly 20 miles long and offers endless views. I kept asking Dan to stop with each breath-taking turn so I could hike in to take a closer look and snap photos. Absolutely stunning! Next, we explored Norris Geyser Basin and hiked to the Artist Paint Pots, then out the West Entrance to our campground.
Continuing our tour the next day, we detoured off the Grand Loop to see the 40 ft high Firehole Falls. Then the Lower Geyser Basin, the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone, including the Fountain Paint Pot, Firehole Lake Drive area and the Great Fountain Geyser. Then we continued south to the Midway Geyser Basin best known for the rust-colored panoramic Grand Prismatic Springs. A summer-time rainfall did not dampen our spirits or detract from the wonder of geysers such as the cave-like Dragon’s Mouth Spring where boiling water surged in and out like the lashing of a dragon’s tongue. As we headed back to our campground in West Yellowstone, we were pleasantly surprised to encounter graceful wild swans gliding past us on the Madison River, a peaceful end to a marvelous day.
After checking out of West Yellowstone, we were lucky to have gotten a room at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful where we stayed overnight and witnessed several of its famous eruptions. The famous Old Faithful Lodge sat forlorn and closed so we could only imagine its glory days.
Our final stop was the Yellowstone Lake area where we toured the colorful boiling pools of the West Thumb Geyser Basin. We stayed at the Lake Lodge Cabins. Sadly, Yellowstone Lake Lodge was also closed but we took a peek inside at the large empty halls. We lucked out due to a cancellation and chartered a private fishing boat tour the next day. Yellowstone Lake has the largest population of wild cutthroat trout in North America and angling for trout in Yellowstone Lake has been a popular pastime since the first explorers and tourists visited the park. For thousands of years it was a place where people hunted, fished, and gathered plants. Dan almost caught his own Lake Trout but it wriggled away in a last minute escape!
All along the way the park staff did an excellent job of enforcing social distancing and Covid-19 restrictions. Masks were required everywhere and most people complied except sometimes when outside. If you went inside without a mask, an employee would politely ask you to put yours on. It broke my heart that so many landmarks such as the Old Faithful Inn and Roosevelt Hotel were closed although the amazing wonders of the park made up for my disappointment. We soon tired of snack bar fare however, which consisted mostly of hamburgers (regular, Bison, Salmon, Impossible, fries, salad) in place of the fine dining these icons are known for.
In typical pandemic fashion, there was no sit-down dining throughout the park, just take-out. The hotel lobbies were cavernous halls devoid of any furniture. In the restaurants, we ordered our food and waited on green circles to be paged and then took our food outside. This worked out fine for us in the RV because we could sit and eat while enjoying the view of the lake and elk butting antlers in the meadow through an open door and window.
Nothing could surpass or detract from the spectacular beauty and wonder of Americas’s first national park. We reveled in the sight of steaming geysers giving rise to tendrils of smoke like ghosts in the wind; the bubbling primordial mud and rainbow-colored mountains; the majestic tumbling waterfalls rising high upon the cliff canyon; the contented wild bison, deer, elk and moose grazing peacefully in lush green meadows; the road twisting onward with new wonders at every turn. I knew as I watched my husband happily cast his line out over shimmering Lake Yellowstone in the setting sun, there was nowhere on earth I would rather be.