As Yellowstone hotels book up quite early, we wanted to ensure we were able to reserve the spots we wanted. It used to be that reservations for a calendar year opened on January 1st of that year. I learned they have since changed the system to allowing booking for 13+ months beforehand. We booked our rooms in June 2015 for August/September 2016. Suzanne and I went to Yellowstone in 1998 and stayed the whole week at Old Faithful. This meant a lot of driving. For this trip, we decided to spend four nights in a Rustic Cabin at the Old Faithful Lodge Cabins ($100/night total). We had stayed in these cabins in 1998 (and I stayed there in 1991 with my family). They are quite rustic and the bathroom is in a separate building. (I didn’t have any issue with this until I was heading over one night around 3am and was thinking about what animal I might run into.) We then spent three nights in a Western Cabin at the Canyon Village Lodge cabins ($240/night total). This was certainly a step up but certainly should be given the increase in price.
For other plans, we used mostly TripAdvisor to decide on hotels in Alpine (on the way from SLC to Yellowstone) and Salt Lake City. For sightseeing, we had a good idea of what we wanted to do based on our last trip. We did get the Lonely Planet Yellowstone and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks for Kids guidebooks which proved useful.
For flights, I had enough frequent flyer miles to get us free tickets. We really wanted to fly into somewhere other than Salt Lake City, where we flew last time, as it’s an seven to eight hour drive to Yellowstone. Unfortunately, the only other reasonable (in terms of miles or dollars) flights would have us leaving Billings Monday afternoon and not getting back home until 11:30pm. Given that Kyle had the first day of school the following day and would be two hours behind, we didn’t think that was a good idea so Salt Lake City it was. We had originally booked a nice morning flight that was nonstop to Newark, arriving around 4pm. Of course, Delta eliminated that flight and rebooked us on the afternoon flight, getting it at 11pm which were avoiding in the first place. They were eventually able to rebook us onto flights, with a connection, that arrived around 7pm. That was much better.
The trip itself
We had no problems on the flight out. Both flights (Newark to Minneapolis and Minneapolis to Salt Lake City) were on time. It was reasonably quick to get our car in SLC, though the agent announced we could have a pickup truck, a minivan, or a Mustang. I so wanted to take the Mustang but I don’t think it would have been a pleasant trip for Kyle given the amount of driving we had to do. It was nice having the space of a minivan. After getting the car, we drove up to Alpine as a stopover on the long drive to Yellowstone and had a nice evening at the Flying Saddle Resort. I do have to say, dinner pickings were a bit slim in town.
On Sunday, we continued the drive. We stopped in Jackson Hole to pick up groceries and a cooler (the latter at K-Mart — I didn’t know they still existed). We had planned to drive through Grand Teton National Park and then continue north into Yellowstone. However, due to wildfires, the stretch between Grand Teton and Yellowstone was closed so we had to make the several hour detour around to the West Entrance after spending a couple of hours in Grand Teton. Not great, but we had no choice. Driving into Yellowstone from the West Entrance, some of the wildfires were quite close to the road. There was even concern about them closing the West Entrance road on our way in. After a long day of driving, we arrived at our quaint Rustic Cabin at Old Faithful, saw Old Faithful erupt for the first of many times, and grabbed some dinner at the lodge cafeteria.
On Monday we did several of the geyser basins including Upper Geyser Basin (around Old Faithful), Firehole Lake Drive, and Fountain Paint Pots. After lunch we headed to the Junior Ranger Visitors’ Center at Madison Junction where Kyle did a ranger talk and we watched a herd of bison for a while. This was followed by a stop at the Artists’ Paint Pots. When we got back to the cabin, a bison was wandering around and crossed the street in front of our cabin to the one next door and then down the street. He was there for 45+ minutes and quite close. (We were inside our cabin.)
Tuesday was our day to drive to Mammoth Hot Springs. This is a couple of hours from Old Faithful but is also far from Canyon Village so we just bit the bullet and did the drive. We had a nice time, saw a coyote in the morning on the road, and saw our first elk (in Mammoth). On the way back, we stopped at Norris Geyser Basin before having a very nice dinner at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Afterward, Kyle stopped by the visitors’ center to get his Junior Ranger badge.
Wednesday morning we got up fairly early to try and catch Castle Geyser erupting. While we had to wait quite some time, we did see it’s very impressive eruption. After breakfast we did the hike through Biscuit Geyser Basin and up to and back from Mystic Falls. As a diversion, we did the Firehole Canyon Drive, stopping for a while to go swimming in the Firehole River. (Here we met a scientist from Munich who had worked closely with someone who I worked worked with during my postdoc with Gerhard Klebe in Marburg, Germany.) After swimming, we stopped at Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin. I then hiked up to Observation Point overlooking Old Faithful. On the way down, I had a coyote follow me out of the woods.
Thursday was our day to move from Old Faithful to Canyon. As we didn’t have a packed day planned, we started with a wonderful breakfast at the Old Faithful Inn. After checkout, we headed down to West Thumb Geyser Basin, stopped in Lake Village and Fishing Bridge (saw a bison lounging on the beach), stopped by the Mud Volcano area, and rolled into Canyon Village. After visiting the very new and very nice visitors’ center, we headed back out to do sunrise over the canyon at Artists’ Point.
On Friday we did the canyon. After hiking the short but steep Brink of Lower Falls Trail to the brink of the Lower Falls, we drove the rest of the loop, stopped at Upper Falls Overlook and, after a stop for lunch when we realized we forgot our bread, ended up back at Artists’ Point. After lunch back at the cabin, Suzanne and Kyle hung around while I went back and hiked the Red Point Trail and then the pretty tough Uncle Tom’s Trail (500+ steel steps down into the canyon after a bit of a hike down on trails). In the evening, we headed up into the Lamar Valley to try and spot some wildlife. We did get to see a lot of bison, a few pronghorn, a coyote, and a bighorn (on the way back to Canyon). Kyle really wanted to see a wolf, but alas, none appeared.
For Saturday, the only real thing left was Tower Fall. In 1998 you could hike to the base of the falls, but that was disappointingly closed. At this point, we were basically done in Yellowstone. We filled the rest of the day by driving through the Tower-Roosevelt area with hikes to Wraith and Undine Falls and another visit to Mammoth. We also drove the dirt Blacktail Deer Plateau on the way back.
On Sunday, we did our last packing before hopping back in the car for the drive back to Salt Lake City. There, we walked around Temple Square a bit before dinner (at The Old Spaghetti Factory) before heading back to our hotel (a perfectly adequate Fairfield Inn & Suites) and really packing for our flight home. The flights back on Sunday were fine and we even arrived a bit early. We kind of enjoyed stopping in Detroit given that Suzanne grew up just north of the city and we lived in Ann Arbor for several years while I was in grad school at MSU.
Yellowstone is one of the places in the world that I believe everyone should try and visit. It has such an amazing diversity of landscapes and experiences. (It could easily be at least three or four separate National Parks if it wasn’t all in one place.) We had a great time and saw quite a variety of sights and animals. Flying into and out of Salt Lake City was okay in the end. While it would have been great to fly to Jackson Hole or Billings, I don’t think it would have been worth the extra cost or connections. The one thing we might have changed is to cut our time in Yellowstone short by a day as we had seen everything we wanted to by Friday. We found stuff to do Saturday but could have stopped somewhere on the way back to SLC.