Sunday, September 22, 2013

Touring the lower loop of Yellowstone

September 14-17, 2013
West Yellowstone, Montana
Grizzly RV Park

Before arriving here in West Yellowstone, we had a two-night stay in one of my favorite Western towns, Livingston, Montana. I just couldn’t be that close to Livingston on our way to West Yellowstone without having what Jimmy Buffet described as a “Livingston Saturday night.”  We stayed at Rock Canyon Park, a cozy family-owned park on the Yellowstone River just a few miles from downtown Livingston.  My big plans for whooping it up on Saturday translated into having a fabulous meal at the Murray Hotel restaurant. They did have a band in the bar, but unfortunately the music was electronica—definitely geared toward a younger crowd. We just enjoyed walking around downtown and peering into the classic old bars with their neon lights advertising poker games in the backroom. (One of the best signs said: “liquor up front and poker in the rear.” )

Livingston sits in the heart of what is known as the Paradise Valley and has become a popular place for Hollywood types to buy a big ranch and escape the LA mania. Some of the more well-known entertainers who have lived here or still do are Peter Fonda, Margot Kidder, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, Tom Brokaw, Jane Fonda and Ted Turner, Jimmy Buffet, Jeff Bridges, and a handful of writers including Tom McGuane, Richard Brautigan, and Jim Harrison. There was a time in the 80s and 90s where the classic old bars in Livingston would fill up with these characters, many of whom have been known to live life out loud—shall we say.  There is definitely some kind of mystique about this place that draws me to it.  (Okay, I like cowboys—no mystique there.)

murray hotel

The town of Bozeman, home to Montana State, is only about thirty minutes west of Livingston. Even though I lived in Missoula for seven years, I had never been to Bozeman before. (May have had something to do with the rivalry between U of Mt. and Mt. State—the grizzlies vs. cats.)  While in Livingston, we took a long afternoon to check out Bozeman and we liked what we saw.  It doesn’t have the small town character of Livingston. The downtown is similar to Missoula with a western yuppie feeling, but seemed a little smaller than Missoula. With Yellowstone so close and a great ski area, Big Mountain, just fifteen miles from town, outdoor recreation stores are popular as well as lots of breweries and cafes. Seems like the quality of life in Bozeman would be good with so many outdoor attractions to keep life interesting.  (I took no photos at all!  Guess I needed a break from playing photographer all the time.)

After our little two day stint in Livingston, we headed to the Grizzly RV Park in West Yellowstone.  Several people recommended this park to us, so we just decided to use it as our home base for exploring Yellowstone. The park is certainly the nicest we saw in the area, but it was on the pricey side considering how few amenities they have.

The sites were excellent in every way and the place is meticulously maintained with extremely friendly management. My only complaints would be the price ($60 with a Good Sam discount), no enclosed pet area, and you are limited to using wi-fi for two hours in a ten hour period.  For $60, I would think they could figure out a way to be more generous with the wi-fi.  Another plus for this park is its location—walking or biking distance to the tourist town of West Yellowstone.  We did enjoy being able to walk everywhere in town right from our site.

We arrived to foreboding weather with forecasts for thunderstorms and heavy rain expected for at least two days. Because of the rain, we decided to take a Buffalo Bus tour of the lower loop of Yellowstone mainly to learn more about this part of Yellowstone before we went exploring on our own.

Our tour guide, Brad, was much like a park ranger in terms of knowing the history, geology, geography, and wildlife biology of the park. The tour began at 8:15 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m. giving us ample time to see most of the major sites along the lower loop including a few opportunities to walk some trails on our own at various stops along the way.  Brad was especially excited about the stormy weather and the possibilities of seeing lightning strikes along the way. Us--not so much. It turned out that we had a lot of intermittent sun breaks along with the rain, and yes, some lightning, but the weather didn't really diminish the value of what we were able to experience and see on our tour of  the south loop. 

The first stops we made along the way were for wildlife sightings in Hayden Valley: elk and bison, probably the most common animals to see here.  We enjoyed seeing this big boy whom I am sure my son Brooks would have loved to zero in on with his bow.  (It’s the last week of bow hunting for elk in Oregon and he still has not bagged his annual elk.) 

Next we stopped for a bison jam.  Several were crossing the road causing quite a traffic jam.  Brad said more people are hurt by bison than any other animal in the park.  We learned you want to be extra careful when their tail is up as it means one of three things: love, aggression, or pooping .  Can you guess which of the three applies here?

Brad told us much about the history of Yellowstone with the railroad bringing vacationers to the park and stage coaches taking folks on tours wearing their dusters to stay clean. The feeding of animals was an accepted thing then. They even had big dump sites to attract the bears where tourists would line up to watch the bears eating the park’s garbage.  Gerald Ford was one of the park rangers who had dumpster duty back in the days.  Funny to think of him then going from a park worker to becoming a U.S. President.

Our next major stop was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone where, unfortunately, we had the heaviest rain of the day. My photos did not turn out well here at all, but the cool thing about the rain was that it brought out the colors of the canyon—if you were there in person. There is also a lovely waterfall visible from the canyon boardwalk.

From the canyons we made a stop at Yellowstone Lake and the beautiful hotel on the lake where we had a thirty minute stop to walk.  The lake is impressively large, 20 miles long and 14 miles wide with 141 miles of shoreline—the biggest alpine lake west of the Mississippi. 

One of the surprising things about the hotel is its southern colonial architecture. Apparently, the original hotel was just a big long rectangle building for park workers, so adding the large white columns and porticos for a lakeside hotel almost makes sense. Somehow I only took a photo of the inside of the hotel. You can tell it is not the rustic looking kind of place one might expect to find here in Yellowstone.

Next up on the tour was visiting the area where most of the thermal features are—geysers, mud pots, and pools. I had no idea this area is basically the top of a large underground volcano, a giant caldera with all kinds of boiling fissures.  At first when I saw the area from a distance, I thought there were small wildfires burning several places in the distance. It’s from all the thermal action of the geysers, springs, and steam pots.  Fascinating geology.  We were amazed to learn that extreme life forms (thermophiles and extremophiles) exist in these boiling springs. The discovery of these life forms was fairly recent—the last thirty or forty years—and has led to major breakthroughs in dna testing and biotechnology.

Of course, Old Faithful was a major stop where there is a whole tourist village built up around it. Frankly, this was my least favorite stop with throngs of people (even post-summer) and lots of buildings with gift shops and expensive cafeteria type food. In every building there is a large clock posting the approximate time of the next blow, within 10 minutes plus or minus.  We dutifully headed out to catch it and sat with at least a hundred other folks waiting for the geyser. It wasn't too faithful this day as it blew eighteen minutes after the posted time.

After our long lunch stop at Old Faithful, we slowly wound our way north to Biscuit Basin and took a walk to one of the best spots of the day, the Sapphire Pool.  What a show of nature. The turquoise color looked like it was painted onto the bottom of the pool.  Our guide explained that the color indicated the extreme heat as pools with orange and yellow rims means the water is cooler in those areas. He said the temperature in this pool was around 200 degrees. 

Our last stop was at the place I was most looking forward to seeing: the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin. I learned that most of the dramatic photos I have seen of this pool were aerial views. We must have been past our timeline as we did not even have time to go on the boardwalks to see the Grand Prismatic. Vic and I vowed to come back here on our own on a sunnier day. We also got a tip from Brad about taking a “social” trail up the mountain to the south of the pool to get the best view.  I was taken, however, with the beautiful iron or rust-colored edges of many of the thermal features.

When we arrived back to our campground about 5 p.m., the thunderstorm was in full swing quite close to the park. The bad part about this is our dog, Jetta, freaks out in thunderstorms.  We knew there was a possibility of storms when we left in the morning, so we put on her thunder shirt and played classical music on the i-Pod. (They have done studies that show playing Brahms lullabies or music that matches the natural rhythm of the heartbeat calms down animals--people too).  After being alone for so many hours, the pooches were sure glad to see us, or I should say glad to see Vic.

We both felt that this tour gave us a much better appreciation for the lower loop of Yellowstone, but we did not want to do a second tour of the upper loop as we were anxious to get out on the trails ourselves. Before coming here we did not realize how large Yellowstone is –150 mile loop with four distinct areas: Mammoth Hot Springs, the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone Lake, and the Geyser Basins. Our plan was to go to Mammoth Hot Springs and find a good day hike there the next day, but it rained even harder with temps in the 40s and 50s.  Stay tuned for Plan B. 


  1. This was an all day tour? Really looks great and a perfect thing to do in the rain. Fabulous elk picture. I could never shoot such a magnificent animal but I guess I couldn't shoot any animal. I didn't know Yellowstone Lake was the biggest alpine lake west of the Mississippi. I was told it was Lake Tahoe was the largest in North America. Guess they are both claiming it. :-) We too found Yellowstone to be a HUGE place with way more than we could do in a week. We stayed at two different campgrounds in the park which only lessened our driving a little.

    1. Yes, the tour was actually nine hours, but included a few long stops where you could explore on your own.

      I looked up the Yellowstone Lake vs. Tahoe Lake controversy and it does seem Lake Tahoe is more frequently identified as the largest alpine lake in the U.S. Yellowstone is the largest above 7000 ft. I think the alpine level is 5000 and Tahoe is somewhere around 6000.

      The size of Yellowstone is a little overwhelming. Next time we might plan a week in each area--if we have the time. :>)

  2. We really like Yellowstone and if we lived close enough we visit every chance we got:)

    1. We have enjoyed it too, but don't think we would like it too much during the summer when it is more crowded.

  3. You had a great guides That was a long day, but you saw so much! When we rode thru Yellowstone in May 2011, the west side wasn't open...Yellowstone Lake was still frozen over. We were on the Harley and nearly froze! Sounds like we need to return. I can't decide which is prettier...the Sapphire Pool or the or the Grand Prismatic Spring. I thought your photo of the waterfall was beautiful...can't wait for Plan B. The same thing happened to us when we were in Durango...5 days of rain!

  4. Great post! RV parks that advertise wi-fi and limit usage just irritate the living snot out of me. When we were at Grizzly it didn't matter, we couldn't connect at all from our site. We're going to have to put Livingston on the list of places to visit. It looks like a cool place for a couple of days. I am sorry it's raining on you!

  5. We are back in the land of the living. Going to try to catch up on everyone's posts.

    We loved Yellowstone. Isn't the Grand Canyon gorgeous. The waterfalls are awesome.

    So sorry about the rain but you still got some beautiful photos.

    1. I wish we had time to hike around the canyon area. The weather definitely dampened my enthusiasm to be out on the trails.

  6. Looks like a nice chill in the air there, can the snow be far behind?

    1. There was snow in the mountains while we were there and more snow is predicted here in the Tetons tonight (9/24). Time to head south!

  7. Was that jeans and a jacket you were wearing? Good thing there are all those hot pools to warm you up! ;c)

    1. We were quite bundled up as we had lows in the 20s at night (!) with daytime highs in the 40s and a fair amount of wind. It did feel good to walk near the thermal pools with these cool temps.


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