Yes. Yellowstone is pretty crowded in the summer, but with a bit of luck and some open minded freedom from expectations, we had a wonderful time. Our trip was full of adventurous campsite-seeking evenings, fellow boondocking crazy’s, lots of thermal features, and one of the best backpacking trips we’ve ever had.
I did a bit of pre-planning, but not much. The highest priority in that regard was our backcountry permits. Bryan and I knew we wanted at least 2 nights, and sat down a couple months ago to work out what part of the park would be best, and what hike would be a not-to-long but pleasant challenge for the kids. We chose 3 different options, and indicated that our dates were flexi within couple days. Back in May, I got an email with our permit reservations for our first choice! Excellent. Otherwise, no campground reservations (they were full a long time ago), but I did look up the borders for National Forest land around the Yellowstone so we had some ideas.
Our starting point was Idaho Falls airport where the kids and I picked up Bryan. The three of us have been gone for exactly one month at this point; to Alaska and back! It’s a good time to have Bryan. His flight was delayed a few hours, so we stocked up on groceries without him, and took the camper to a DIY car wash for some much needed tidying. Once he got his bag, he took the steering wheel, which is SO NICE. I’ve been driving for so long, it feels dangerous to be gawking at the scenery from the passenger side.
We drove up over the mountains into Jackson, WY and then north to the Colter Bay entrance for the Grand Teton National Park. By now it was 8 or 9 in the evening; all campgrounds were full. So, we headed east into the Bridger-Teton National Forest and followed a dirt road past a full forest service campground, up and up and up hill until we found an unbelievably mosquito infested place to park for the evening. It was quiet. We slept well and woke early in the morning to return to Colter Bay for some hiking.
Getting into the parks super early morning meant a good parking spot and fewer crowds. We parked at Colter Bay right by a marina, stopped in the visitor center, and headed out for a 3 mile hike along the Heron Pond / Swan Lake loop. The kids were happy to be out and walked along the lake front for a long while until Avi got hot and grumpy. We saw beautiful flowers, stopped for a picnic by the pond, watched some large birds we called Velociraptors cross our path, and tried to catch dragon flies. No moose, and an Avi whose legs were supposedly non-functional made the second half a bit of a patience-practicer. He earned his Jr. Ranger badge, though.
We wanted to rent a canoe, but there was lightening somewhere so we were turned away (also, it was expensive with prices listed by the hour, but a 2 hour minimum sneakily written in small print). It was way more fun in the end to take a big picnic lunch out to the little rocky shoreline: they call it a beach. It’s sort of a pebble beach. The kids swam in the cold water while Bryan and I enjoyed the views of the Teton mountains and yapped about the future (its always looming, you know).
In the evening, we were again thwarted by full campgrounds and found our way along the Grassy Lake forest service road to a random pull out across from a trailhead. There were quite a few camping spots along this road that were closed from a forest fire last year. If you are wondering, I get ideas and locations from an app called ALLSTAYS Camp & RV. Its been great for finding all kinds of options. I also reference another app called RV Parky to compare, but the Allstays is my fave and has easily gotten us in the right place or within a Forest / BLM jurisdiction for boondocking.
Our stay at this spot became extra fun when a big green school bus from New Jersey pulled up and parked across from us. We wandered over and got a tour of the very cool, very spacious, skoolie that is on its way up to Alaska – from whence we’ve just come! This was a serious house on wheels, complete with a rooftop deck. Good luck on the doc, #navigationnowhere.
After those guys showed up, another mini van camper arrived with some French folks who came via Texas, and then a little jeep parked beside us with a Romanian couple. They came over to ‘our place’ for a bit since it was so buggy and they were just sleeping in the back of the car. We chatted about all kinds of stuff and shared notes on other non-National Park camping options. Its a bit of a challenge, but looking ahead and having some google map stars lead this entire group of people together so what first felt like a sketchy boondock turned into an international campground.
For entertainment, we took turns throwing Avi’s giant stick.
Bryan and I woke early to attempt a campground inside Yellowstone. While there are 12 campgrounds in the park, only 5 are reservable as they are owned by the concessionaire, so we were hoping a 5:30 wakeup would snag us a first come first serve site at one of areas nearish Old Faithful. There is a website that supposedly shows real time availability, but its not accurate. We rolled into Grant Village around 7am because the website showed it still available, and the registration folks told us it was full. They also had no clue what this website was or that it existed on the park service .gov website. Perhaps that is because Grant is one of the concession-owned grounds. Whatevs. We drove to Old Faithful, which was empty at 7:30am, and parked right in front of the lodge. While we got breakfast ready for the rousing kids, both Bryan and I checked if the lodge had anything available. At first the answer was no, but as Bryan was coming back out, the front desk worker waved him over. She was so kind to recognize he was looking for a room, and a cabin had just opened up! So, we booked the basic cabin ($108 for 4 people) at the Old Faithful Lodge and had all day to low-stress hang out in the area. Best of luck, ever. I highly recommend trying this or even just booking a single night as it really gives you the opportunity to watch the geysers and relax crowd-free.We started watching the 7:45 Old Faithful eruption with only a handful of other people.
We rented a bike for Bryan and took off for a day of thermals. The original road to the lodge is now a bike path and along the way are numerous racks to park and then walk along the boardwalks for closeup views of the geysers and springs. The area is officially called Upper Geyser Basin. We enjoyed this way more than old faithful! The kids marveled at how big Castle Geyser and Giant Geyser were, and loved spotting steam vents along the river. It was a beautiful sunny day, and while there were plenty of people on the trails, it wasn’t super crowded. We waited for Daisy Geyser, which was a favorite; it goes so very high and at the same time we could see Grand Geyser erupting down the hill. We biked all the way to Morning Glory pool, which is as far as the bikes are permitted before looping back to a bike-specific trail that leads up and out of Upper Geyser Basin and across the street to Biscuit Basin. There was NO ONE on this trail; here we were right between two of the biggest concentrations of thermals and tourist with no peeps to be seen and some unlabeled springs steaming alongside us.
Biscuit Basin was crowded; there were cars stacked along the road which made our crossing a little nerve wracking with the kids, but I felt fine simply blocking traffic. We could rack our bikes right at the trailhead and walk the boardwalks around all the pretty bright blue pools. After that, we retraced our route. The whole thing was probably about 5 miles. The park could really improve upon the biking idea to alleviate some car traffic. A nice bike lane or trail from Biscuit Basin down the road to Black Sand Basin and returning to Old Faithful would’ve been a super lovely loop. It’s possible, just on the road, but that did not feel safe with our kids. The area is simply crammed with cars midday.
Our return to the Old Faithful area was fun and uneventful, and by the time we got back it was obvious the crowds and bus tours had descended. We returned Bryan’s bike, participated in some Jr. Ranger Olympics where the kids pretended to have animal skills, and then got ice cream at the Old Faithful Inn to eat up on the second floor deck. Saw Old Faithful erupt again from here, well above the thousand of people who swarmed it. This was now early afternoon, so we were able to get the key to our cabin and went in for a nice nap. It’s a perfect crowd-avoidance tactic. Plus, it was hot. We could see Old Faithful if we took a few steps out our door, and could here a muffled crowd cheering when it erupted.
With the camper beside the little cabin, we easily made some dinner when we woke up. By this time the crowds had thinned – I’m assuming the bus tours have moved on to dinner or overnight accommodations and campers have gone back to their campgrounds for the same. Our evening hike is one of the most memorable! We enjoyed the boardwalks along Geyser Hill. This trail was just out front of our cabin, so we skipped it during the bike ride and shared with only a handful of people at dusk. The walk is very pretty in the setting sun and full of little geysers and colorful springs. We saw a coyote also using the boardwalk and happened upon a lone man watching a tiny sputter. He stopped us and said, “see that? Well its an indicator. Beehive Geyser is going to blow within 10 minutes. You won’t want to miss this!”
So, we sat and waited. This older guy then got on a walkie-talkie and announced Beehive in 10. A clutch of other olds who also had walkie’s and clipboards came out of the woodwork. This geyser doesn’t blow often; maybe once a day, but it is spectacular. It was easily 200ft high and blowing like a jet engine out of it’s beehive-shaped cone. The thing also just kept going and going and going, lasting nearly ten minute! This became our family favorite instantly. DO NOT go see Old Faithful and move on. In fact, if you don’t get the chance to see Old Faithful, but instead visit all the lesser known geysers in Upper Geyser Basin, then you will have seen the better attractions. Old Faithful is neat, but it truly is the rest of the thermal features in the area that make Yellowstone magical.
The sun was set by the time Beehive calmed. We returned to our cabin for towels and visited the fancy shower house which came complete with hotel-provided toiletries and stuff. It made our cabin experience feel a bit like glamping – not a rustic cabin, but more of a nice hotel room in an old shed. There was a sink for toothbrushing and washing, but toilets and showers were elsewhere. We all slept like logs after Bryan did a bit of mosquito-killing. In the morning we noticed a familiar skoolie in the parking lot and stopped to say hi to our buddies from #navigationnowhere They had just rolled in for a crowd-free morning at the geysers and invited us in for breakfast. It was a kind offer, but we were on a quest.
While in the Old Faithful area we stopped into the backcountry permit office to pick up the permits I pre-ordered. We all needed to watch a fairly bear-focused safety video before we got the permits. Bryan also bought a Yellowstone fishing permit. So, after a night glamping it in Old Faithful we drove north to the wilder parts of the park. Along the way we visited some must-see spots like Grand Prismatic Spring, Artist Paint Pots, and The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Beautiful places chock full of people. I can’t fault the crowds; I am here, too. My family is also THE CROWDS. Its a testament to the beauty of the area that it is so popular; that people come from other countries to admire this park. I’m just glad not everyone has the guts to go too far past their car or bus. That is where we were heading: the backcountry.
It took all morning to wend our way from Old Faithful to Slough Creek. Our permits allowed two nights at 2S1, and they were amazing. The hike in from Slough Creek Trailhead is fairly steep the first mile and HOT when started midday as we did. The kids were troopers, though, and passed that high point with flying colors. Zoe is an amazing hiker; no complaints, just one step in front of the next with her head up and looking around. Avi whined a bit, then got distracted by the view or the water, and then whined when there was nothing new. I think its just a bad habit to complain. Eventually I got him singing, and he quickened his step, those ailing feet miraculously healed. The hike followed through a bit of forest and out to a wide valley along the Slough Creek. It hugged the treeline, going in and out of shade for a nice reprieve, up and down rolling bench hills, and occasionally losing the creek around a bend. After roughly 4 miles we saw our designated backcountry camp sign, and walked another maybe-half a mile to the site.
2S1 is a beautiful spot right along Slough Creek, which sits low in along an eroded bank. There is a bear box, hanging pole, and fire pit so we could easily store our food and toothpaste with ease plus we could have a camp fire. The folks before us left a bunch of wood, too. A nice flat hilltop had some logs designating a tent site, which was the perfect spot; nice and breezy to keep the bugs out. Bugs there were, too, but mostly just in the evening.
So, we spent three days lounging around in the hammock, building sand castles, watching the resident bison roll around, and exploring downstream. We had a campfire every night. Bryan caught a huge trout. The kids caught big trout. Zoe unearthed some petrified wood. Avi found some elk shed antlers. We found an island sand bank and spent the day. Bryan jumped off a cliff into the freezing water. I got swept downstream (so did one of Avi’s flip flops). It was heaven.
My birthday morning, the local bison was quite close across the creek, so I drug myself out of the tent still snuggled into my sleeping bag and laid on our giant boulder watching him. We bonded. He then crossed the creek into our campsite and wandered around the hill. Happy Birthday, me! After finishing off our food and packing up we also wandered around the hill, back to the trail and hiked out. It was much quicker this way; we didn’t fill the kids’ camelbacks with water. There were more people on the trail going to fish for the day, which was nice as we hadn’t seen anyone for a couple days.
To finish my perfect birthday we went to the Mammoth area of the park and gauked at all the elk wandering around by the post office. The campground was full, no shocker. We still ate at the fancy Mammoth Dining Room – ordering way to much food, yet eating all of it. They even brought me a little berry cobbler and sang a cute happy birthday song set to the tune of Home on the Range. We went in the visitor center and then looked at the mammoth hot spring terraces and chose to walk away. Enough hiking for the day.
Exiting the north entrance to Yellowstone was a fun surprise. It gets arid immediately, and there is a cute town called Gardiner. Much to our delight, parked out front of the Yellowstone Pizza Company was a familiar green skoolie bus. We didn’t stop to visit, but basked in the joy of solidarity with another group of budget-minded road explorers. I silently wished them to be safe, to be happy, to be healthy, and to have a joyful trip to Alaska. See you another time, big green skoolie!
Our stop for the night ended up being the Eagle Creek Forest Service campground just above the town; it was full, but we just parked by the corral in the overflow area which had an incredible view. In fact, we could see all the way to the Mammoth hot spring terraces and watched the little people walk around with our binoculars. There were a few resident elk and bison in the campground, too, and a lady who was there teaching bison stewardship. The kids quite enjoyed hanging out with her watching the bison. Bryan and I quite enjoyed relaxing in our camp chairs watching the world go by.
Bozeman was our next stop and a chance to catch up with some family. We visited the Museum of the Rockies, and loved having some down time in such a cool walkable town. My cousin and his family (and my aunt and uncle) showed us all around the best parts: the BMX course, the farmers market, the university, and (our favorite) their donkeys. A few days in Bozeman was all it took to get Bryan and I talking of Montana as a potential ‘forever’ home….as if we could ever pick a single place, but maybe its in the running as a ‘for a while’ home.