Yellowstone Day 3 – The River of Babel

August 22nd, 2010

Day three of our Yellowstone/Teton vacation dawned bright and early as we packed up and left our campground at Signal Mountain to secure a site in Yellowstone right around the break of dawn. We had to stop and get gas and ice (and donuts and coffee) so that we didn’t get to Yellowstone until around 7:00 am.

This was the line when we arrived at the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

The line was moving very slowly in part because of an auto accident up ahead.  I am not sure what happened, but we eventually drove by the grisly remains of a pop-up camper that had one side sheered off.  The car that was pulling it was crushed as well.  A woman and a child stood beside the wreckage – the woman was screaming in the face of a ranger while her daughter stood by and looked mortified.  A roll of toilet paper dangled down the side of the clipped off pop-up while the aluminum ribs and insulation littered the side of the road.  From what I saw, it appeared that all the people involved in the wreck were okay.

The top cause of death at Yellowstone Park is car crashes.  This is followed by illness, drowning and falls.  Death by animal attack is rare, but signs in the park warning people of the imminent danger of animal attacks outnumber any other types of signs by about a million to one.  In fact, there aren’t any other type of warning signs.  Only animal danger signs.  Especially bear danger signs.  Which is why my son Drew was so frustrated when by day three we still hadn’t seen any bears yet.  If the signs are right, they must surely be lurking around every corner!

We drove from the south end of Yellowstone all the way to the north end stopping at almost every campground along the way looking for an spot.  We ignored the first few campgrounds hoping to get ourselves more centrally located.  This turned out to be a bad decision.  By the time we reached central Yellowstone, the campsites there were full.  There are about 2000 campsites in Yellowstone for campers with vehicles and 300 back country campsites.  If you multiply 2300 campsites by nine thousand French people, seven thousand Asians and four thousand assorted other Europeans plus maybe a couple hundred Americans and possibly a thousand Canadians you end up with forty two billion people camping in Yellowstone the same night that we were there.

Finally, we reached Mammoth Hot Springs on the northern edge of Yellowstone and our last hope of finding any room at the Inn inside of the park evaporated when we learned that it’s campground was also full.  The Country Doctor located a ranger to get some information about our options for overnight accommodations.  He learned that Gardiner, Montana (just outside the park) had both hotel rooms and campsites available and he also learned that people can camp in the designated wilderness areas of the Park for free.  I could tell by the CD’s voice that this ‘wilderness’ option was very appealing to him.  Not only was it scary, and dangerous, it was also cheap.  Unfortunately, the CD could tell from my voice that the idea of ‘wilderness’ camping was not at all appealing to me as it scary and dangerous and also cheap.

Sensing the danger in my voice, the raised hackles, the attack stance and the flaming eyeballs, the CD wisely opted to drive into Gardiner, Montana where we secured a campsite in a campground on a bluff overlooking the town.

Check it out!  We’re in Montana!  We didn’t even plan to go to Montana and yet here we are!

While the menfolk sat up the tent, I availed myself of a trip to a tricked out, clean bathroom with hot and cold running water and looked forward to a long hot shower later that night.  Then I fired up the camp stove and made us some smoked brats for lunch.

After lunch, we headed back to Yellowstone via the North entrance which is clearly marked by the enormous Roosevelt stone arch.  Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone himself in 1903 during a two week vacation he was taking just up the road at Tower Falls within the park.  Later, a lodge was built to commemorate Roosevelt’s visit.  We would visit the lodge later that day.

But our first stop was the Boiling River.

The hot water from nearby Mammoth Hot Springs runs down from the travertine terraces and joins the icy cold Gardiner river where swimmers can find the perfect temperature to sit and soak after a hard day of traipsing all over the park.

Or a hard day of trying to find a campsite.

This spot was one of the highlights for the kids.

A half mile long hike filters out some of the crowds (including most Americans) so you will bathe primarily with the usual Asians and Europeans.

Languages from around the world will rise over the gentle roar of the hot water splashing into the cold river.  People conversing in German and French and Japanese, with the occasional familiar American tongue joining in.

The boys played for two hours in this river.  They nobly fought the current trying to get from one end of the warm area to the other.  We all really enjoyed it, except for the CD who got tired of relaxing after about ten minutes.  But he was outvoted as the boys were having a marvelous time and I was almost in a coma from the pure bliss of hot water against my skin.  The only thing that would have made it better was a glass of champagne, but food and beverages are banned in this area of the park.

From the river, we headed back into Mammoth Hot Springs which is the site of the first hotel built in Yellowstone.  Mammoth Hot Springs was a military fort and it’s tidy layout is a site for sore eyes for one who long for signs of civilization after too long on the trail.

A herd of elk was grazing on the lawn around the post office and the clinic. One ranger’s job was to place orange cones around the herd so that people would stay back far enough. As the herd moved through the town, the ranger with the cones would pick them up and re-set them in a new spot. I kind of wondered what her official title was.

“Elk Cone Lady”

“Herd Safety Cone Manager?”

“The Cone/Elk/Setter Upper Person?”

“Elk Cone Setter/Vocal Warning Over and Over Again Guide?”

“The Lady Who Shouts at the Tourists While Setting Up Cones around Herds of Elk?”

Or maybe just…

“That Irate Elk Ranger with the Orange Cones”

Hopefully it’s only a temporary assignment for her.

We found a parking space, glad to be rid of the pop-up camper, and set out to climb the travertine terraces.

I only got about halfway up when I spotted a bench and just sat down.  The terraces are interesting, but seeing the steaming pools and marbley pitted rock up close is not that much better than viewing it from a great distance.  The Country Doctor sat down beside me and said, “Have you had it?”


“Why don’t you go back down to the town and we will meet you there.”

He didn’t have to make that suggestion twice.

I hiked back down, got an ice cream cone and enjoyed the terraces from a great distance.

Trust me, my experience was not diminished in any way.

After a while my family joined me.

We all got some ice cream and cold drinks and then with renewed energy, we continued on our tour of the park.

Our next destination was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, but we got sucked off the main highway by a back road that wound through a bit of wilderness.

Even if you drive every road in Yellowstone (which I am sure we did) you will see only 2% of the park.

We saw an elk.

And some gorgeous country.

And encountered our first ‘bear jam.’

A black bear was feasting on some red currant bushes right by the side of the dirt road.  It was almost as if some centrally located control tower had ‘cued the bear’ for the oncoming tourists.

Trust me, we were watching for a safe distance.

We watched the bear for quite a while, partially because we were trapped by the cars in front of us, and partially because it was a bear.

The bear eventually ate all the currants and then he clawed open dead log lying on the ground and a mass of squiggling insects were revealed.  He poked his snout in the insect squirm and took a bite, but then literally turned up his nose and climbed up the hill for more currants.  This was a bear with a very sophisticated palette.  As he ambled up the hillside away from our view, the cars began to pull out and we followed.

We passed an area that showed signs of recent fire.  In an average year, 22 fires are started in the park by lightning.  In 1988, the year that 800,000 acres were burned inside the park, there were 50 fires started by lightning.  Black Saturday occurred on August 20, 1988 a day when hurricane force winds whipped through the park setting 165,000 acres ablaze.  Smoke plumes could be seen from the space shuttle and ashes fell as far as 100 miles away in Billings Montana.  The park is well on it’s way to recovery from the fires of 1988.  Adolescent trees cover large sections of the park while the skeletonized remains of the older trees still stand silent sentry over their younger kin.

We finally arrived at the Canyon which is carved out of yellow stone.

Hence the name of the park.

On our way back to Gardiner, we stopped at Roosevelt Lodge for dinner.  Theodore Roosevelt camped near this area during one of his visits to the park, but he did not stay in the lodge as it was built fifteen years later in 1917.

It’s the smallest lodge in the park and has a laid back atmosphere.  We were able to get a table as soon as we arrived.

The food was excellent and affordable.  Cal and Drew had elk burgers.  Ethan had catfish.  The CD and I shared a bison steak and Roosevelt beans and Jack had spaghetti and meatballs from a plain old regular cow.

I had to take a photo of the sink in the bathroom because it was so cool and maybe I was getting a little obsessed with the idea of hot and cold running water at this point in our camping vacation.

It was just so beautiful!

Soooooooo Beautiful!!!!

Here ends day three of our Yellowstone vacation.  Are you exhausted yet?  Bored?  Sick of nature?  Wishing for a comfortable bed, a modern toilet and a hot shower?  Fortunately there are only four more days to go!

Hwah ha ha hoo hee ho ha ha HWAH!

To see a larger version of any of the photos, simply click on the photo.


  • Kay in KCMO:

    Landssakes, woman! I’m exhausted just reading! All that maddeningly slow driving would drive me over the edge.

    The Boiling River sounds like it would be heavenly.

    This is positively poetic and more than a little poignant: “while the skeletized remains of the older trees still stand silent sentry over their younger kin.”

    And you saw a bear! Too cool.

  • Kathy from NJ:

    Thank you for this post, the pictures are magnificent, you are a fabulous photographer. In the picture before the bear, Calder appears to have surpassed the CD in the altitude department. Or is he just standing on higher ground?

    • Rechelle:

      He’s passed up his dad by a full inch. The CD refuses to accept this fact, but it is clear to everyone else.

  • LucyJoy:

    Gorgeous photos. I love the one of you & the CD at sunset. Beautiful lighting!

  • I am thoroughly enjoying your Yellowstone adventure – it is my most favorite place on earth to visit, so I’m happy to live vicariously through you for a bit.

    That must have been the Blacktail Plateau drive where you saw the bear. We did that drive, and my dear husband taught me how to properly drive+brake on a steep road.

    Your pictures are lovely.

  • Lori:

    Yellowstone is amazing in late summer.
    We’re going through the park next week on our way home from Sheridan.
    If you get up that way again, Cody, Wyoming has a wonderful museum and not far from Cody is the Custer Battlefield.

    Love the pictures.
    Hate see the people.
    Crowds bring out the fight or flight instincts

  • #1 Fabulous picture of you and the CD.
    #2 You went the wrong way! (The Griz with the 4 cubs hangs out on the flats between Mammoth and Old Faithful…but maybe on day 4?)
    #3 Oh.Good.Grief. Please tell me you ate the cornbread with honey at Roosevelt? It is ALWAYS a highlight of my trip. (Followed closely by the warm goat cheese salad at Mammoth and the Caldera dessert. Which I eat every.single.night. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream *sigh* It’s no wonder I gain weight on audits.)

    Mammoth is my least favorite area. Except for the elk and maybe a wolf there just isn’t much to see except stinky stuff.

    Boy, you aren’t kidding when you say the CD packs a load into his vacation. You just did in a day what I would think is at least 2-3 days worth. The drives alone between those places are insane. How about a girl trip next time? We’ll just eat in all the fancy restaurants and stay in all the old hotels with their comfy

    • …beds and fancy showers.

      Sorry – fat fingered submit apparently.

    • Rechelle:

      Yes – ate plenty of cornbread and put a few leftovers in my purse for snacks, but they crumbled and there are still crumbs in there. I know. My purse and my car look like they belong to a person who should be institutionalized.

  • Diane:

    Your pictures are absolutely gorgeous!

  • susan:

    Rechelle – you know who thinks black bears are best??? Dwight Schrute. He would have been in Dwight heaven.

    • Rechelle:

      Beets, Bears, Battlestar Galactica! This was the slogan for this vacation. And also. “C’mon Napoleon! You know we can’t afford the fun pack!”

  • km:

    Rechelle, you look great in your pic with CD.

    The photo after the ice cream cone, when they are all coming back to you, prompted “The A team” music to come into my head.

    Amazing how many foreigners ignore our anti foreigner rhetoric:) DC was almost 90% Indian tourist, when I trudged around there with my two kids.

    As always, your boys are a handsome bunch:)

  • M.R.:

    Enjoying the travelogue! Still waiting for the rafting trip!

  • Heather:

    Oh, Rechelle! Do you realize you are doing the “Pioneer Woman Hip Jut” in the picture of the restroom sink? She does the same thing when she takes pictures of hotel rooms. I swear that woman’s influence is everywhere! I hope you don’t mind my good natured teasing. I love reading your blog.

    • Cassie C.:

      OMG, it’s true! That’s totally the ‘Pioneer Woman Hip Jut’ and a very Pioneer Woman-esque photo!

      • Rechelle:

        Personally, I think her hip juts are far more severe than mine almost as if she was suffering from a spinal injury. I am sure it is because she was a ballerina. A very disciplined and talented and practically world famous ballerina… in Bartlesville Oklahoma – where all the famous ballerinas come from.

        • susan:

          “Identity theft is a serious issue………..MICHAEL!!!!!” Same hilarious episode.

          And yes, bears, beets, Battllestar Galactic is a frequent family mantra with us too.

          Cant wait to hear about your rafting trip. I still recall how funny your SF trip was 2 years ago – move AWAY from the cliff!!!

  • AnnB:

    Serious Bear Envy.

  • Mackenzie:

    Keep it comin! Luvs it!

  • Samantha:

    Great, fun photos! and love seeing the place through your eyes, you never fail to teach and entertain.

    Your family is gorgeous. The one pic with you and your hubby is tres sweet! You are a natural beauty, did you know that? I love your youngest with the wolf -it’s nice to see kids being kids!

  • Looks lke you had a great time with your four big boys! I have three boys.. 3 years, 2 years, and 4 months. I’m stranded!. Your pictures show me what I have to look forward to, and I like it. I look forward to the day I can take my boys camping, instead of watching Caillou. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Rechelle, How glad I am that I’ve found your blog. The photos are great! And to think I was just puttering around trying to figure out who all the Drummonds are! They were raisin’ more than cattle in those Osage Hills! I’ll be back for more visits.

  • Great pictures. Looks like you had a fun and happy vacation and made some good memories.

    And FYI- that is a mule deer, not an elk.