Our time in the Tetons was far too short, but was eventful and beautiful. We left in the morning after enjoying one last shower in the full-hookups of this quiet campground. Flagg Ranch is only a few short miles from Yellowstone’s south entrance. The forest grew more dense as we neared this Yellowstone entrance. Sitting in line to enter the first national park in America, we saw an elk drinking from the river just yards away. The beauty here was unmatched. After entering, the road weaves through trees and hugs tight curves as the river drops further below off jagged cliffs, producing forceful waterfalls. We spotted a bear in the river and dodged the many drivers who pulled to the side for an epic photo of the quieter waters with the Tetons in the distance. We stopped at Grant Village visitor’s center to purchase a fishing license, get information, and enjoy the view. The temperature was still in the 40s, but the sun was slowly burning off the clouds.
We drove past Geyser Basin (we did not stop because we would be back here later on a tour) and headed for a spot we could fish on Yellowstone Lake. There was little traffic and pulling off the road with the camper was easier than we expected. We found a spot that the backcountry office told us we should try for fishing, and pulled over to park. There wasn’t anyone at this turnout that boasted beautiful views of the lake which was a dull blue due to the gray sky. We packed a quick lunch in the camper, then got the fishing items and chairs, and carried them down a short path toward the water. We set up everything and the sun finally came out, but we required our winter coats near the lake as the temperature remained below 50. We tried fishing at this location and ate our lunch, but didn’t catch anything.
We continued our drive around the lake, this time stopping at another turn-out near the sand bar. We later learned that this sand bar was once used as a road for passengers driving to Lake Yellowstone Hotel. A mother elk and her calf were further down the sandbar, enjoying the breeze. We again tried fishing, but it was not successful. The wildlife viewing, however, was exceptional. The elk sauntered closer to us and we stepped further back, leaving the recommended space between us. She was interested in a quick swim and slid gracefully in the icy water, gently making her way to the edge and lifted her giant body onto shore.
We headed on our way, deciding we should begin the drive toward our campground. We were staying at Canyon Campground, a large village campground in the heart of Yellowstone. To get there, we needed to drive half way around the Lake, through Hayden Valley, again nearing the Yellowstone River, and then turning finally into this lovely campground that occupies space very close to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
After driving around the side of the lake, the sun finally fully displayed the brilliance of this lake. It reminded me instantly of Tahoe; astoundingly blue with vibrant evergreen trees and frosted mountains in the background. Our drive then took us away from the lake and we stopped at the Mud Volcano thermal features on the edge of the Hayden Valley. More people were here, and we parked across the street in a parking lot and walked to the thermal features.
We completed the boardwalk loop trail, which gives an excellent introduction and samples of mud pots. Their gurgling was delightful to my son, though the smell of rotten eggs made him plug his nose for the first minute of this boardwalk hike. Informational plaques accompany each of these mud pots and new, gurgling eruptions spring from the earth around every turn. The volcanic history of Yellowstone was never far, despite the tranquility of the park.
We then entered the Hayden Valley, one of two famous valleys in the park for wildlife viewing. A coyote darted across the road in front of our car and we were enthused, but it was quickly overshadowed when, around the next bend, a white wolf bounded down the mountainside toward the road, being chased by an elk at an alarming rate. The wolf bounded back up the mountainside, out of sight again, but its beauty was unforgettable. The impeccable white coat and astonishing agility of this animal were something we did not expect to witness. We had been in Yellowstone only hours, and here was one of the greatest sites we enjoyed.
Bison were everywhere in this valley, stoic and rigid. They could easily fade into the background, as though painted in the yellow wildflowers or on the edge of the mountain range. We saw wildlife photographers taking perfect shots of these mammoth beasts. We also saw the usual tourists dangling their children within a few feet of the animals to capture the perfect photo for next year’s Christmas card.
We pulled over to enjoy a blue heron who we saw several times in our drive across this valley during our stay. There were so many animals in every direction that the park felt like a photo safari. People have written about Yellowstone for over a century and still no words accurately describe the beauty, diversity of terrain, and fascinating geology. Animals of all types have been protected and are observable here, not running away from humans, but living in the same space as humans. The accessibility to observe animals in their habitat, uninhibited by concerns of humans, is a remarkable secret of Yellowstone.
At last we arrived at Canyon Campground. I checked in and was assigned campsite 215. This is a large campground, where the shower building is at the check-in desk at the entrance. Loop J is (clearly by its title) not near the front. These are all no hook-up sites. We filled our water tank before we left Flagg Ranch and we had our generator available in case we needed it. The campground is dense with lodge pole pine as tall and far as you can see. We arrived in our loop to find our site, which was a little more open (though still had the lodge pole pines). We backed into our spot which was fairly level. Many spots at this campground are not level. The campground advertises this, but it is worth noting that virtually every spot will require some number of blocks to level. We were lucky and ours required only two.
After dinner, we headed into Canyon Village to determine the meeting point for our bus tour the next morning. I had selected the Ring of Fire Tour, the longest-running tour in Yellowstone that takes passengers to various stops throughout the park, including Old Faithful, allowing us to enjoy the trip without driving or parking headaches. Canyon Village is comprised of various stores managed by the two park vendors, The General Store and Xantera. A beautiful, new visitor’s center anchors this shopping village, but was closed when we arrived in the evening. We would investigate that later. There was also an ice cream shop which my son demanded we try. The ice cream was delicious, if not pricey. They had flavors such as salted caramel, huckleberry swirl, and the usual chocolate and vanilla. Approximately eight different ice cream types were available. Even though the high was in the upper 50s, we still enjoyed eating this treat outside on a bench near one of the shops.