Road Trip Day 5: One Day in Yellowstone
This was it! The one singular day I was most excited about, had done the most research on to optimize our time. I’d listened to countless episodes of Explore Yellowstone Like a Local, scoured blogs for the ideal itinerary based on our timeline and the time of year, then sat down and discussed with Rob just how early we were willing to get up to fit everything in. We were committed. (Well, I was and Rob was along for the ride? Just kidding, it was a team effort to come up with the optimal one-day route.)
We planned to be in the park before sunrise per podcast host Teddy Garland’s recommendations to see the wildlife at their most active. Thankfully, still loosely existing on eastern time in a mountain time zone meant this shouldn’t be too challenging. We would start in Hayden Valley and then head up towards Lamar Valley, both known to have lots of wildlife in the early mornings.
After that we would head south to visit the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (another recommended “go early” stop, due to its popularity), and then follow the road around past Yellowstone Lake and start heading west. We decided we would visit some of the geysers later in the day and decide what we felt like doing based on how crowded the areas were. Our hotel reservation that evening was for Rexburg, Idaho – about an hour and a half from the West Yellowstone exit. Yes, it would be a long day of driving, but as long as we started early it shouldn’t be too bad – and would definitely be worth it to be able to experience Yellowstone!
LOL. I hope you read the above paragraph with the appropriate amount of irony, especially if you bothered to read the title of this post! Needless to say, this was a bit of a painful day and a very long day, but one that taught us a great deal about how to plan long road trips and give ourselves more room for the unexpected. Most importantly, it taught us that sometimes the best drives are the ones you weren’t planning to do. (There’s a life moral in there somewhere, but I won’t get too philosophical here.)
Early Morning: Leaving for Yellowstone (and our first mistake)
We were up early and checked out of our hotel by 5:25 am. It was 45 degrees out which was brisk but not unexpected, and we were dressed in layers similar to the day before. We were about ten minutes of town when an oncoming car flashed its headlights at us. Rob commented that was unusual and slowed down a bit as we started to look ahead in case there was something on the road. WHOA – just a minute or two later, we nearly hit a big male elk coming right down the road! We swerved to our left, he swerved to his left, and I found myself looking right at his face out the passenger window. That felt like a good sign! It was going to be a good day full of wildlife sightings, I just knew it.
However, the sign we missed – well, we saw it but didn’t realize what it would mean – was the sign for the status of the Yellowstone Park Road entrances. You see, it should have looked like this:
Instead, the sign was solid red Xs when we drove by. Silly us, we assumed it was just because it was 5:30 am. Really, these roads should be open 24/7 unless there’s a closure due to weather, etc. So we kept driving …
East Yellowstone Entrance – “We’re Closed!”
Approximately an hour later we arrived at the east gate behind a line of cars. Rob said, “Something isn’t right here,” as we started to see a ranger walk up to speak to each vehicle, followed by the vehicle turning around and pulling away. My stomach began to sink as he walked towards us. With not much explanation, he told us they were closed and that we would have to turn around. I spoke up, “If you don’t mind me asking, why are you closed?” He gave me a funny look and said, “Cause we got snow!”
For a couple from the Upper Peninsula, that felt like a silly answer! I knew enough to bite my tongue, but all I could think was, We’re from the UP! We have all-wheel drive and snow tires – let us in!! But we dutifully turned our car around so the ranger could get on with his dismal job.
A few things to know – you lose cell signal about 20 minutes outside of Cody, so we couldn’t have checked our phones to know what was going on, anyway. We should have known something was wrong based on the sign, but everything I had read said the park was open 24/7-365, so in my brain, I reasoned the “closure” was just that the ranger station wasn’t manned in the off-hours, maybe. We later found out they got over 8 inches of snow overnight and it was unexpectedly early in the season, so they were unprepared and therefore unable to clear the roads.
Rob and I found a pull-off shortly down the road and tried to decide our next steps. (I’ll admit, I cried a little.) The entrance/road was closed. We had no idea when it would be open again, and we had no cell signal to be able to check for updates if we stayed close by. On top of that, our hotel reservation for the night was in Idaho (remember, we had pre-planned our lodging for most of the trip before leaving) so if we didn’t make it out of Wyoming today, not only would we be behind schedule and lose a night’s deposit, it could potentially trigger a chain reaction of issues the rest of our trip.
Thankfully, as usual Rob was the voice of reason and reminded me that our “schedule” was not the most important thing. We watched the sun rise between the snowcapped mountains and realized there was, in fact, quite a bit of snow at the higher elevations.
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway
Rob and I realized the only logical option was to head back toward Cody so we could get back into signal and look at Google Maps. We passed that darn sign again at 8:30 and sure enough – it still said all roads were closed! We treated ourselves to Starbucks and consulted the map, deciding to head north via 296 to Cooke City since the northern two entrances were still open based on their live updates. It wouldn’t be the day we planned, but at least we would make it to Idaho by night.
Fun fact – if you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone be sure to bookmark this link for the official maps for Yellowstone including a real-time road status map so you don’t find yourself in the pickle we did.
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway to Beartooth Highway was easily one of the most stunning drives of our entire trip, and one we wouldn’t have taken had we not been forced into seeking a detour. We drove switchbacks down one side of a mountain and up the next, in absolute awe of the snow-capped mountains as we drove towards them.
Roadside History: The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is named after the Native American chief of the Nez Perce Tribe. Following the Battle of the Big Hole in Idaho in 1877, Chief Joseph fled east through Yellowstone. He and 1,000 members of his tribe ran from the US Cavalry, who were trying to force the tribe onto a reservation so that white ranchers could have their lands. While crossing Yellowstone, the Nez Perce briefly captured several tourists before going north up the Clarks Fork River. The Nez Perce were trying to flee to Canada (an 1800-mile trek), but surrendered after the six-day Battle of the Bear Paw in northeastern Montana. The tribe was stopped only 30 miles from their destination, the Canadian border. (source)
The whole mountain drive was so incredibly scenic, and we hope to drive the rest of the Beartooth Highway in the future.
As we neared Montana, we began seeing signs warning us to expect cows on the road. Rob pulled over and let me photograph them for a bit. Later we saw two cowgirls with their dogs rounding up the cows and herding them on to their next pasture.
At 10:40 am we were 30 miles out from Cooke City, Montana when we got the text alert that the east entrance had finally opened. We were so glad we had opted to just head out and take a different route as we were almost to the northeast entrance.
Yellowstone – Finally!
After refueling in Cooke City we entered Yellowstone at the northeast entrance just before noon. We asked the ranger on duty if they had much snow that morning and she said not more than an inch, but because of the proximity to town the northern two entrances are more reliably open (as well as West Yellowstone).
I knew because we got into the park so late in the day our chances of seeing many animals were pretty low, but we did see a herd of antelope shortly after arriving.
With the change of schedule our priorities shifted for the day. Because of the snow most of the park visitors were all taking the same path we were, sticking to the north and west roads of the park. We realized we needed to start heading toward West Yellowstone sooner than later and make stops as we could instead of sticking to our original plans.
We took a short hike to Undine Falls, then headed to Mammoth Hot Springs. It was quite crowded but still easy to navigate the boardwalk. It was overcast most of the day, but we enjoyed the blue skies and sunshine for a bit. It’s funny how much the weather varies depending on the location!
My Top Yellowstone Moment
As we headed south toward the Norris Geyser Basin, we saw a lot of cars pulled over, so of course we pulled over too. Back a ways in the woods we could see a large bull elk lying down in a patch of sunlight! Rob stayed in the car while I hopped out with my telephoto lens to get a picture. The elk seemed unphased (thankfully) as a few people ventured far too close. (The NPS recommends a minimum of 25 yards for safety.) I got my photo and hopped back in the car just in time as a ranger came through and started scolding tourists.
As we headed south the weather turned and we hit the glut of tourists. We stopped at a couple of the smaller geysers but then decided to start heading towards our hotel.
One of my favorite pictures from our entire trip was this shot of Sawtell Peak in Idaho, which is about 20 minutes south of West Yellowstone. The sun popped back out and I loved how illuminated the orange foliage! We have this printed and displayed in our home.
We spent the night in Rexburg, Idaho at a Quality Inn. It was nothing fancy, but clean, and I wrote in my notebook “best breakfast so far!” Rexburg is a small university town. We picked up takeout from The Red Rabbit Grill for dinner, and that was one of the best chicken sandwiches I’ve had in a long time.
A day in/around Yellowstone: Our Takeaways
We knew it was going to be ambitious to try to see the highlights of Yellowstone in a day, and nature found a way to humble us. 🙂 However, we agree that Chief Joseph Scenic Byway to Beartooth Highway was one of our favorite drives of the entire trip – and one that happened by accident, despite all my meticulous planning.
Will we go back to Yellowstone? I can’t say we will anytime soon, just because there are so many other places we want to explore! If we did go back, here are a few things we would do differently: first – we would plan at LEAST two to four days! Additionally, Cody was the most cost-effective place to stay, but also the farthest distance; it would have been simpler to stay a little closer to save on the early morning drives.
Time on road: 9-10 hours, mileage 365.1.
Resources for your Yellowstone trip:
Explore Yellowstone Like A Local podcast (linked to the one day episode) – Teddy Garland not only gives you advice on different hikes and things to do in and around Yellowstone, but he also has fascinating stories from over his years of living in the area. I still enjoy listening to his podcast.
4 Day Yellowstone Itinerary – Wandermust Family Blog – This felt like really good, thorough coverage to help with planning our trip.
The Ultimate Yellowstone Trip Planning Guide – Dirt In My Shoes – Ash is a former NPS ranger and is one of my favorite national park trip resources.
BONUS – Death in Yellowstone is a fascinating nonfiction read about all the ways people have met their end in America’s first national park – from being caught in a freak avalanche to a photographer who got a little too close to a bison. As a squeamish person myself, I promise it’s not overly descriptive or gory, but will make you think about mankind’s stupidity and maybe give you some fun facts to share on your next road trip 🙂
EXTRA BONUS – Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce – I came across this book while doing research for this post and ended up ordering a copy. I haven’t read it yet but wanted to share and will update once I’ve completed it.
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