Trip Report: Yellowstone National Park
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
September 7 – 17, 2017
“Where’s Bernard?” Wendy asked as we ate Chunky’s Jambalaya at the dinette. She put the emphasis on the first syllable (BUR-nard), imbuing the resident bison with a stately air. Even without the high-brow name, which Darwin chose from a selection Wendy had provided, Bernard was something to behold. Massive and smelling of sweaty horse, he claimed Bridge Bay Campground as his own, lumbering among the loops, flopping down wherever he wanted and staying as long as he pleased.
“Good day,” I could imagine him saying as he crossed the street toward our trailer one morning, stopping briefly to rub his head on a bear box. Fortunately he was moving slowly, since the Park warns visitors to remain at least 75 feet away from bison at all times and there have been 4 gorings at Yellowstone this year. The kids were playing nearby as I rounded the corner of our trailer and saw him fewer than 15 feet away. “Bison…” is all I managed to say to Wendy, who quickly ushered the kids inside the trailer.
This happened around 9am the day before our scheduled departure from Bridge Bay. I zipped up the Dome in response to the images flashing through my mind: Bernard meanders into our tent, all three dogs begin barking, and he gores our trailer or (at the very least) tramples our tent and its contents before exiting.
There I stood, gently pulling the side of the Dome away from the trailer to track Bernard’s movements so I’d know when it was safe to let the kids out again. He sashayed into the campsite next to ours, then into a sandy space nearby, where he dragged his hoof across the ground several times, like a bull preparing to charge. Then he proceeded to flop onto the ground and do roly-polies. What a sight to behold!
As the dust dissipated, it became clear that Bernard had selected his spot for a nice long rest. Perhaps we would’ve found this charming if we didn’t have kids, or dogs, or chores to do—if we were just two adults enjoying a leisurely camping trip. But we aren’t. Our toddlers currently think it’s hilarious to do the opposite of whatever we request, so we may have to yell “Run toward the bison!” if they see one before we do and are out of our immediate grasp. “If you aren’t touching the bison by the count of three, you’ll get a time out!”
Aside from staying far away from bison, another safety tip is not to piss them off. The humans in our family can abide by that just fine; the canines on the other hand, not so much. We were afraid one of the dogs would spot Bernard and start barking, enticing him to come teach them a lesson.
But mainly, we needed to dismantle the R-Dome in preparation for changing campgrounds the next day and due to Bernard’s chosen location, we couldn’t do that without coming within 25 feet of him.
After he’d remained in that same spot for two hours, I stationed myself in a chair just outside the Dome, on “bison watch,” while Wendy broke down the tent and packed it away. My job was to let her know if he ever moved; he didn’t. It was easy in the end.
Bernard moved on about an hour later and the kids were once again free to roam the campsite. It wasn’t until eating our Jambalaya dinner that we saw him again. Wendy and I hadn’t noticed, but the kids often wriggle and look out the window while sat at the table. (Oh how Wendy and I miss high chairs!) Among the cacophony of “sit or kneel,” “do you need help sitting?” and “If you can’t sit still you can spend the rest of dinner in the crib,” Darwin exclaimed “Cow back! Cow back!”
“Is he really back?” I asked Wendy.
“Oh, yep—there he is,” she answered. Back in this morning’s sandpit.
“I hope he goes away before it’s time to walk the dogs,” I said.
“Me too,” Wendy answered, resigned. We knew he’d leave when he damn well felt like it.
After we’d focused on dinner again for a while, Wendy inquired about the whereabouts of our friendly bison. “He’s probably right behind our trailer,” I quipped.
“Oh! He is!” Wendy answered. I turned around to look out my window and yep—he was in the campsite behind ours. But he was just passing through and had left our loop by the time dinner was over.
Caution: Wildlife on Roadway
We had a complicated relationship with Bernard. We wanted him to leave because we were scared of him, but we also missed seeing him. Fortunately, his brethren blanket Yellowstone; we saw more than 200 at a distance and 20 up close. Herds dotted the Hayden and Lamar Valleys. Small groups often gathered at the roadside. Several crossed the road right in front of our car, and yesterday we had to stop in the middle of the street because one was dead-center in our lane, casually walking toward us. Since bison are huge and I was traveling less than 30mph because of recent snowfall, it was easy to stop in time and avoid a collision.
I can understand why car accidents are the number-one cause of injury in Yellowstone. If it isn’t bison serving as oncoming traffic, it’s cars literally stopped in the middle of the road: to see a bison, an elk, a bear. Sometimes the animal is actually in the road or about to cross, so stopping is the prudent thing to do. Other times, there’s no shoulder and people just really want to see or take a picture. Bison were the primary cause of these traffic jams but bears were often at the heart as well. Wendy and I saw three bears from the road, generally in the Mt. Washburn area.
One time a crowd collected at the base of a hill as a black bear walked among the trees. “If he starts running down that hill, oh how those people will scatter!” I heard someone comment sardonically as he walked by our car. And it’s true. They were not 100 yards from the bear—probably more like 10—and what a commotion would’ve ensued if the bear had decided to come down.
We saw it happen yesterday as we drove by Mt. Washburn. This time we were the first people to spot the snow-covered bear walking on the mountainside. (Well, actually Wendy was. She shouted “Bear! Bear! Bear!) As we drove by, he shook the snow off of his coat, looking deceivingly cuddly. After we’d passed, he ran down the hill and crossed the road. It may have been the same bear perched above the crowd days earlier. How the scene would’ve differed if he’d made the same move that day.
Aside from bears and bison, we saw elk, pronghorn deer, longhorn sheep, a fox, and a coyote during our trip to Yellowstone—all from the roadside.
My Kind of Park
I’ve mentioned before how my preference is to put in as little work as possible to see beautiful things. It’s as though Yellowstone was designed for people like me. The park is huge and accessible via a figure-eight roadway that’s nicely paved. It still takes more than two hours to travel from end-to-end, but the scenery is amazing. Even if you never got out of your car here, you’d still see awesome things.
As the next level up—actually getting out of your car and walking less than a 1/4 mile—you’d see even more beautiful things. Lots of really short, easy trails lead to stunning viewpoints of valleys, canyons, and waterfalls.
Willing to walk more than 1/4 mile? Then there’s even more beauty to behold, all of which is built to accommodate a lot of people and make their journey as easy as possible via paved walkways and boardwalks. Mammoth Hot Springs, the Prismatic Spring (including an overlook), and Old Faithful (and assorted geysers) were all incredible.
Willing to hike? Then I’m sure there’s more but I can’t tell you from personal experience. We’d planned to hike the Mt. Washburn trail—a six-mile trip with a 1,300-ft elevation gain leading to a 10,200-ft summit. In preparation, we consulted a ranger about our bear spray question: to run or not to run after deployment. The answer? Don’t run.
We also learned the spray only lasts about seven seconds, so we were told to go halvsies in case the bear isn’t deterred the first time. Not sure I’d have the presence of mind to stop pressing the button, but now I know to try. I also know I’m supposed to spray in a semi-circle and consider which way the wind is blowing. Then we’re supposed to get the hell out of there (without running of course) because the spray actually attracts bears to the area “in search of a spicy meal,” according the ranger.
Afflicted with anxiety from all the things to remember if we ever need to use our bear spray, and several bear sightings in the area, we decided not to risk it.
Eleven Nights is Not Enough
I love this park. We spent five nights at Bridge Bay and six at Grant. In our 10 days, we experienced sunshine, rain, sleet, and snow. On our first full day here, I left at 5am—drove through the park, mostly in the dark, for two hours—then continued another hour to Livingston, MT to get our car serviced. I thought we might need new brakes or tires, but all was well.
The next few days were sunny, clear, and warm. We explored the Mud Volcano and drove to waterfall and canyon overlooks (like Artist’s Point, Brink of Upper Falls, and Lookout Point). The kids walked the Mammoth Hot Springs boardwalk with us and Emerson decided all thermal pools are “Steam! Hot coffee!” We made a fire and ate hot dogs, ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the bison in the Hayden and Lamar Valleys, and spent a day hanging around camp… with Bernard.
On the 11th, we changed campgrounds and I got to hear my children sing happy birthday to me for the first time. “Happy Birday… Mommy…. Happy Birday to youuuuuuuu.” Heart melting. I opened a present (two Yellowstone t-shirts!) wrapped in brown paper with a strand of olive-colored yarn from Wendy’s most-recent knitting project. We ate steak and salad at a picnic table followed by Hostess cupcakes.
The sunshine continued as we used the nicest campground laundromat we’ve encountered so far, and tired ourselves out exploring Old Faithful (and other geysers in the area), Fountain Paint Pots, and the Midway Geyser Basin (which was incredible).
Then the rain came. It was light in the morning, so we were able to “hike” half a mile to the Prismatic Spring overlook with the kids. If you ever go to Yellowstone and are wondering if it’s worth it: it is. After the morning’s wonderment (Wendy and I literally just kept saying “Wowwww” as we stared at the Spring)—we spent the afternoon trying to help the kids behave despite having only a full-sized bed to play on, where they aren’t allowed to touch the shades, back curtain, TV, or kitchen counter. It wasn’t fun for anyone.
The next day, as the rain continued, the reality of being locked inside an 18-ft trailer with two stir-crazy toddlers led us to drive 89 miles to Jackson Hole, WY. When we arrived and began putting the kids in the stroller, the toll the prior day’s lock-down had taken on us became apparent: We hadn’t brought any shoes or socks for them. Since they weren’t going to walk around, it may seem like that wouldn’t matter. But it was in the low 40s and windy—way too cold to roll around barefoot. So Wendy and I improvised. Darwin’s feet were adorned with my hiking socks (which I found tucked in my boots) and Emerson sported Wendy’s gloves on his feet. We were pretty proud of our parenting comeback until we returned to the car after our long day out and realized we hadn’t brought any water either.
The next morning—our last full day at Yellowstone—we awoke to about an inch of snow on the ground. Since playing outside was still off limits, we decided to spend the day driving around the park again to see what it’s like after snowfall. I’m so glad we did! Bison in a snow-covered valley, a forest of Christmas trees, and—more than 1,000 feet above our own campground—several inches of snow at Mt. Washburn. It was like seeing the park all over again.
It was 24 degrees when we got up this morning. Frost glistened atop the picnic table and the campground was closing for the season. By all accounts, it was time to go. But as we rolled out, part of me wasn’t quite ready to leave.
Yellowstone is my new favorite.
Read the next trip report: Grand Teton National Park and the Buffalo KOA