The hotel is good but breakfast is not. A poor choice of food, so I end up having two bowls of sugary cereal. I leave by 10 am and by 10 past I’m entering Yellowstone National Park. $35!!! A bit steep, I think, but I think Yosemite was $30 a few years ago.
To start there’s a long drive through Lamar Valley until I reach Tower Junction on the Grand Loop Road. After starting through heavy forest, the landscape opens up. Vast open fields with rivers meandering through, they are home to herds of bison. One or two of which decide to cross the road. Which means the cars have to stop until they decide to move on.
I’m confronted by a deer-like animal stationary in the middle of the road at one point. It was so quick in running away I couldn’t take a photo. The bison herds are plentiful, but mainly in the distance, dots on the horizon, with just one or two near the road. The Yellowstone scenery itself is wonderful as well, a theme throughout the day, although the weather is overcast, with no sun to lighten the gloom.
It takes nearly an hour from leaving the hotel until I get to Tower Junction. I turn left and take my time stopping at various scenic outlooks and other things of interest. There’s lots of stunning scenery, the road climbs and falls, and is quite technical in places. It’s not a straightforward drive, and as I write now with the experience behind me, it has its own characteristics, different to what I will find on the other ‘quarters’ of the Grand Loop Road.
I arrive at Canyon Junction – where my hotel is – and turn right, ending up at Norris Geyser Basin after another 13 miles or so. I realise time is getting on and I’ve hardly done anything of the Loop. I’d read that doing the Loop in a day is a challenge, but maybe I need to get a move on? Whatever, I wander around the geysers at Norris, taking my time. I might never be back, who knows. It’s so weird to see steam just venting out of the ground, and also to marvel at the bizarre rock formations these natural wonders create.
Time however is moving on. And so do I. I stop at Gibbon Rapids – more waterfalls – then pull over a few miles later by the Gibbon River to eat lunch. There are stopping opportunities almost everywhere. You could spend a week here if you stopped at everything that caught your attention. So I continue on past loads of places where there is steam rising out of the ground, and move on to the Midway Geyser Basin. This is an advertised highlight. And hey, it does not disappoint. It is weird.
But astonishing and beautiful. So different to Norris, very different. This geyser pumps 1000s of gallons of boiling water into the Firestone River every hour. 160º F!!! The Grand Prismatic Spring creates these ripples of deposits that are crazily beautiful. The boiling water cascades down multi-coloured rocks, constantly leaving new deposits in a multitude of colours, just amazing.
Back on the road and onwards towards Old Faithful. As I drive the Grand Loop, plumes of steam rise into the air from all over the place. They are just part of the Yellowstone landscape, and many are not designated as official stop or scenic points.
Old Faithful geyser has had a commercial complex built around it. The rock formation where the geyser erupts from is not that interesting. It is still ‘faithful’ apparently, but irregularly so. The eruptions can be between 30 and 180 minutes apart. I quickly decide after about 10 minutes that I’m not going to wait for potentially another couple of hours just to see a plume of water, however famous or unique it might be. Another issue is that it’s now 3 pm and I’m going to run out of time if I don’t move on.
The drive down the west side of the bottom loop is generally open country with regular steaming geysers, some small, some dead – trees near them are calcified at the bottom – but they are random as to where and when they appear. As the road turns east, the forest re-appears. This is relative however, it’s generally always there but its density changes along the route. The road starts to rise as it follows the hills. In geyser territory the land was flat but now its up and down, and the road is twisting and turning whereas before it was mainly straight.
At West Thumb I miss my turn and only realise half a mile down the road. I turn round and notice a bunch of cars parked by the side of the road, which you are asked not to do. So I pull over. 🙂
More Wildlife, A Lake And A River
There is an elk in the woods and everyone’s taking photos. At last, an animal that is not a bison. Driving on, about 200 yards up the road, another elk appears roadside. So missing my turn means I see elk. Sometimes things are meant to be…
Back on the correct road, the splendour of Yellowstone Lake comes into view. The road tracks the lake shore for many miles here. I stop a couple of times to take photos but there are often trees in the way, blocking a decent photo of the Lake. This ‘criticism’ also applies to a lot of the east side of the bottom loop. It’d be nice to see more of the Lake, but hey-ho. Nature, eh?
Beyond Fishing Bridge the road leaves the Lake and now tracks Yellowstone River, which is also mainly caught in glimpses here and there. The drive is great though, with good scenery. There are turnouts to get close to the River but I don’t have time to stop. By the time I’m back at Canyon Junction it’s 4.45 pm and there is still a major portion of the Grand Loop I haven’t done yet.
I think it will take at least two hours to complete the top loop in full so it will probably be dark when I get back here to the hotel. Will I ever come back to the Park? Probably not. And I do want to see Mammoth Hot Springs. So off I set.
I now change my original plan and drive the east top loop section first, in reverse direction from this morning, so I see something different. When I reach Tower Junction again I think that was a good decision and that the ‘up’ direction is better than the morning’s ‘down’ drive. The road from Canyon to Tower is quite tight against the hillside. From Tower to Mammoth is a different drive again, with more open countryside but still challenging roads. The scenery however is amazing wherever I am. I don’t think there’s any spot where you could say “that’s not a very good view.”
Mammoth Hot Springs
On arrival at Mammoth I am greeted by elk. Lots of them. And an astonishing sight. I can’t really describe the Hot Springs, they almost defy it. The multi-coloured deposits that build the landscape – literally and continually – are incredible. To watch the boiling water spit and fizzle, then trickle down these amazing structures, constantly building and creating new layers of rock, is astonishing.
Time to move on. Despite looking on the way in to ‘town’, I couldn’t see a sign about where to continue my journey. There are even more elk now all over the road. So it’s eyes peeled as they roam anywhere they like, and I make sure I avoid running one over. I see a sign saying “Top of the Springs”, so I take a chance and follow it.
When you get there, you are indeed on top of the Springs, looking down and giving a whole new perspective. You can see much more from here as to what the Springs have deposited over the years. Earlier, I went to read an information board at the foot of the Springs, and an old couple were there as well. The lady was blocking the view and the man told her to move so I could read the board. He then said that they were here 50 years ago for their honeymoon and they couldn’t believe how much the Springs have altered. He said they’ve totally changed in that time and they didn’t recognise the place!
I’m so glad I made the trip here. What a sight. Back on the road, I find my way back onto the west side of the top loop. At first the road is dead straight and flat, and with no traffic, it’s very fast. The landscape here is quite flattish, so again different. I come up to some major roadworks, after which the road returns to ‘normal’, tracking by rivers, through trees and curving around bends. By the time I get back to Canyon Junction it is nearly 7 pm and getting dark. I fill up with gas then drive to the hotel.
Soon, I am not happy. At $260 a night, the hotel is a massive deception. I booked into Canyon Lodge. At other sites in the Park, it was clear that some lodgings had room blocks away from the main centre. There was no such indication on the Canyon Lodge location. I booked Canyon Lodge so that’s where I expected to be staying. But my room is in Washburn Lodge, which is where the check-in is for ‘Canyon Lodge’. So at least I don’t have to leave here and go to one of the other Lodge blocks dotted around the car park.
Next I discover there is no food or drink available in this Lodge. Or in any of the other Lodges nearby. I have booked dinner, as advised, to ensure a table in ‘Canyon Lodge’. So the place does exist. It just does not have any bedrooms. Just a shop, canteen and restaurant. And it is not close by. There is no breakfast included so I need to buy something for the morning. Again, the indication on booking is that there was a shop to buy provisions in ‘Canyon Lodge’. But as I am staying in Washburn Lodge, I need to go to Canyon Lodge to buy breakfast. Then come back to Washburn, then go out again later for dinner. Not happy.
So after dumping my bags in the room, I get back in the car and drive up the road to Canyon Lodge. In the cafeteria I buy the usual suspects for breakfast, then return to Washburn and deposit it in the fridge. Which they didn’t advertise as being in the room, but at least I’m grateful it’s there.
I enquired at Reception earlier and they said it’s about a 5-8 minute walk to Canyon Lodge. However when buying breakfast I saw a minibus shuttle. I approached the driver and he said he does a circuit of all the Lodges every 20 minutes or so. No-one at Washburn mentioned this service existed when I asked about walking time. Dickheads.
Terrible Dinner At M66 Grill
However there is no bus timetable or schedule. So I could go and wait outside, have just missed the bus, and be there for 20 minutes. I decide to walk. I was given a map with various paths on it to get to Canyon Lodge but I soon discover there are no lights on any of these paths. There are in complete darkness. I have to use my phone torch, which is not very effective. Then the paths, which meander through a forest of trees, seem to peter out. There are one or two signs on the trees but none are helpful. More through luck than judgement, I do though eventually arrive at Canyon Lodge.
In their website photos and from the description, dinner looked to be a relatively good dining experience. It is not. The M66 Grill is like an upmarket school canteen. It is an awful place. No atmosphere, or ambience, or any character whatsoever. Yes it’s clean and functional but it truly is a terrible place to eat. It’s like sitting in McDonalds or a motorway service station but with waiter service. I hate it almost immediately.
And I’ve had to walk from my $260 a night motel room to get here. $260 a night for a room. It’s a complete rip-off. I’d booked a table for 8.30 pm but am then made to wait for 10 minutes until one becomes free. Eventually sat down, I order the bison burger. This turns out OK except for the blue cheese dressing on it, which is way too strong, completely overpowering the meat. I scrape most of it off.
The restaurant is supposed to be open until 10 pm. By 9.30 pm however, all the waiting staff are shutting the place down. Clearing everything away, vacuuming the floor, and making lots of noise in the process. I cannot wait to leave this shit-hole, and do so soon after. As I exit the building I spot the shuttle bus on the parking lot. Thank heavens I think, I can get a ride back instead of another adventure through the forest.
The bus leaves almost straightaway and a couple of minutes later I’m back at Washburn Lodge. What a shitty evening. I feel deceived by the whole Yellowstone lodging experience. I knew it was going to be expensive because they have a captive audience. But I didn’t expect the ‘camping’ ambience. The cafeteria where I bought breakfast was just like the Grill: bright lights, bench seating, horrible atmosphere. The final insult is that cell phone coverage is very poor throughout the Park but Washburn Lodge only provides Wi-Fi in the lobby downstairs – and you have to pay for it! On top of $260 a night!! Did I mention I hate this motel? F*** you, Canyon Lodge.
PS. My comments on today’s events during the day are in tomorrow’s diary.