Updated: Oct 20, 2020
In the summers of 2018 and 2019, I got the opportunity to spend one month playing music at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. I've never been one to share a lot on social media, so I feel a little unfulfilled when it comes to sharing about this experience. That combined with not being able to go back this past summer is why I'm writing this!
Truth be told, I'm not sure to what category this post belongs. I haven't lived in Yellowstone long enough to be some sort of expert on it, I am not a professional photographer in any capacity, and I don't even talk about my playing music there. Trying to capture my whole experience or talk about the entire park would entail writing a much longer blog, so this is mostly a hodgepodge of thoughts, pictures, and advice that nobody asked for. But whatever, this is my website, and I wanted to write something about Yellowstone.... so here we go!
I decided to bring along my Dad's old Nikon film camera my second year to see what I could snap. The other photos were taken by my state of the art iPhone 5s (take that, iPhone 12!)
Driving out to Yellowstone was the first solo road trip I had taken that lasted longer than 3 or 4 hours. Since I was to be out West for a month, it was imperative to make sure I had packed all my hiking gear, clothing for all sorts of weather (it has snowed at Yellowstone in late June, after all!), and all the music gear I would need in order to practice and perform. Unfortunately, I've never been one for "organization" or "planning ahead". Exhibit A:
But so the 20 hour drive began - off to play daily 4-hour gigs at the Old Faithful Inn for a month!
One place I've stopped at both times on the road out West has been Makoshika Park in Glendive, Montana. As part of the Montana Dinosaur Trail, Makoshika is Montana's largest state park and home to some pretty spectacular (and sort of odd) rock formations. I wasn't expecting to spend more than an hour or so here when I first stopped; but after getting out of the car I could have holed up there for weeks.
(shoutout to Instagram for having filters)
It was really the first point in my road trip out West that I had encountered rocky, mountainous terrain - I had officially escaped the flatness of the Midwest. Arriving at Makoshika also meant I was only six hours away from...
Here's a quick map of the park. The roads (marked in red) form a figure 8, if the figure 8 in question was drawn by a drunken toddler:
These roads connect all the "junctions" - aka touristy points of interest like Mammoth Hot Springs, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Tower Falls, Lake Yellowstone, Old Faithful (along with other geysers/thermal features), and so on.
Yellowstone is probably most famous for its myriad of geysers and hot springs, namely Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic. I've made a point to not include any pictures of Old Faithful in here because 1) I did not take any good photos of it, and 2) you can find hundreds upon hundreds of spectacular photos of Old Faithful with a quick Google Search. Since I feel obligated to show a picture of something for which Yellowstone is famous, here are a few of Grand Prismatic, the largest hot spring in the park.
The colors of the spring are caused by different species of bacteria that thrive at various temperatures and degrees of acidity...... or something like that. Science isn't really my forte.
Hot take: If you're going to go see Grand Prismatic, go in the morning because the place gets crazy packed after 9 or 10 am. There'll be a lot of steam rising in the morning, but hey, at least you'll be able to stand there for a little while uninterrupted.
Grand Prismatic is located in the Midway Geyser Basin, in between the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins. Although Grand Prismatic pretty much steals the show in the Midway Geyser Basin, the rest of the boardwalk here can be pretty cool...
Excelsior Geyser serving some creature of the deep vibes
The Geyser Basins are one of the most popular destinations for Yellowstone visitors, which makes sense...It's not every day you come across a hot bed containing thousands of unpredictable (and sometimes predictable) geysers and thermal features that sit atop a supervolcano so massive if it erupts, we're all screwed. Cool!
Also, that sulfur smell. I hate it, but then in a weird way I grow to like it?
Sunrise at Old Faithful (okay I lied - here's one photo taken from the top of the Old Faithful Inn), Sunset looking over the Upper Geyser Basin - since I lived near Old Faithful, I would walk the Upper Geyser Basin frequently
tourists, sulfur, and steam on the boardwalks at the Lower Geyser Basin
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon is another must-see attraction when visiting the park. Like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic, visitors tend to flock to Canyon in high numbers, so it might be good to spend time here in the off-peak hours.
One of the best views of the Canyon is at Artist Point (the first photograph in the below collage). If you check out Artist Point, look around the area a bit and find a marked trailhead for "Ribbon Lake" - walking down this path will grant you a more intimate experience with the canyon as not many people explore around here. If you want to avoid attempting to park your car and dealing with tourists completely, hike the South Rim of the Canyon, which ends at Artist Point after you've hiked the Canyon backcountry.
When I was little, I used to play this computer game where Barbie and her friends somehow pooled together enough money to own a riding club with multiple horses. You got to play as Barbie and ride through all the scenic landscapes, including one that had a secret cottage tucked away in an enchanting forest. I always wanted to live in that forest, and hiking through this part of Canyon reminded of it (well, kind of):
And Now for a Totally Random Sidenote:
I am constantly having to remind myself that there's a process to everything. These days I think it's easy to forget this since we're consuming such a high quantity of end results and highlight reels: the "best of"s, the triumphs and successes.
The last time I picked up a film camera to shoot photos was back in high school, so I'm definitely a photography novice... and, while I might have taken a photo or two I liked:
yeah, okay, this one's not bad
Here's how most of the film turned out:
In ten years I'll probably look back at the pictures I thought were cool here and think "wow, those are terrible!" It's the same with music - I'll listen to a recording of myself from many years ago and think "yikes!". But it's all part of the process. And not everything I touch will turn to gold; I'm not King Midas.
Okay, sidenote over.
If I ever had to pick a place in Yellowstone where I'd live, I think it'd be Hayden Valley? I'd be right in between the more touristy Canyon Junction (with working wifi!) and the tranquility and solitude of Lake Yellowstone. Also, I could look out my window every morning and see this:
I could put a little house there and call it home:
Hayden Valley's bigger, more sagebrushed sister is the formidable Lamar Valley, located near the Northeastern entrance of the park. Both valleys are said to be good for wildlife watching (at dawn/dusk especially). Lamar....... Lamar just takes my breath away, honestly. The first time I drove up to check it out I ended up pulling over to the side of the road, setting up a lawn chair, and eating my turkey sandwich so I could take everything in. I stayed parked there for hours.
None of these pictures will do it justice, you have to see it for yourself!
Lamar Valley is also home to the bison rut (aka mating season) every August, so if you happen to be driving through there you'll get a good glimpse of what must be thousands of bison. It's incredible. Speaking of bison....
a good old fashioned bison jamb/jam - when there's traffic in Yellowstone, this is normally why
One evening I was leaving my employee dorm for dinner and talking with a friend on the phone. As I walked out the door and started down the gravel path, I felt a presence in my peripheral vision. I had failed to notice a bison grazing near the side of the building a mere 10 or 15 feet from me....
Luckily, I was able to get back inside quickly and he didn't seem too bothered. Just don't get too close to bison, cause, well, they'll mess you right up.
Most of my favorite memories from my Yellowstone experience were while hiking with friends I made while there, which is odd because before this, I had never been much of a "hiker".
I've never felt more insignificant and small (in a non self-deprecating way) than when hiking - being surrounded by a hundred bison in an open field, sliding down snow-covered trails on a mountain, sitting in silent awe of the stretch of land before me.
Some of my favorite hikes were Storm Point, Mt. Washburn, Elephant's Back and the South Rim of the Canyon.
Storm Point, Mt. Washburn, and Elephant's Back vistas
And I must admit: the people I met in Yellowstone were pretty gosh dang cool. Employees come to the park from all over the world, varying in age, background, and life experience. Since I was only living in the park for a month (each year), arriving later than most employees, and working by myself (I played solo every night), I was a little worried I wouldn't make any friends. I ended up being very wrong about that. They made the experience for me.
I obviously did not take the photos that I'm in...
A quick sojourn south from Yellowstone will land you in Grand Teton National Park:
Here's something wonderful about exploring a place like the Grand Tetons: you can stand in one spot, and every way you turn you have a beautiful vista to admire. For example, I took the next three photos standing in the same spot, but just rotating to the right, the left, and then turning behind me:
It's like living in a Bob Ross painting.
I'm not someone who likes to tell people what to do.... but may I for a moment? If you ever are driving in the Yellowstone National Park area and have nowhere to be, please do yourself a favor and leave through the Northeast Entrance of the park. You'll hit up the aforementioned Lamar Valley and eventually (if you're headed east) travel the Beartooth Highway, in between Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana. This is quite possibly the most beautiful highway in all the United States.
The first time I took the Beartooth Highway, I was traveling with my mother. We had decided to take it on a whim when a local suggested I leave through the Northeast Entrance on the way home. After stopping in Cooke City to get some incredible Pad Thai at a little place called Montasia, we began our expedition.
Get yourself some delicious Asian cuisine at Montasia in Cooke City before the Beartooth Pass!
Wow.... we had no idea what we were getting into.
We slowly made our way upward into the mountains, passing little lakes, rocky bluffs dotted with lodgepole pines, and a herd of cattle hogging the road (?!?!), until suddenly.... we weren't trekking upwards. We were on top of the mountains.
I thought that maybe if I jumped high enough, I could have touched a cloud.
I think it might be the coolest thing I've ever seen.
If you made it this far, congrats! This post was longer than I intended, though I did leave some things out, such as: Fountain Flat Drive and Firehole Canyon Drive (the two best little drives in the park), The Old Faithful Inn, the job I had playing music at the Inn (?!?!), the misadventures of attempting to camp in the Grand Tetons, Lake Yellowstone and its epic beauty, total strangers I met on the side of the road that became friends, and employee life in general. Dang, I might have to write another post!
Here's some bonus photos from out West:
Fountain Flat Drive - aka my go-to spot (in between the Madison and Old Faithful Junctions)
Attempting to capture the Grand Tetons on film and it not working out too well
Calcite Springs Overlook (near Tower Junction)
I think this was taken somewhere between the Canyon Junction and Tower-Roosevelt, north of Mt. Washburn and closer to Tower? Or, after further analysis, this could be from the beginning part of the Beartooth Pass, with Pilot and Index Peaks in the right part of the photograph. Either way, it reminds me of the opening scene in the Sound of Music.
Lamar Valley feat. my car
Oh, and one final thought: if you're ever traveling to Yellowstone and need some sort of guide book, pick up Yellowstone Treasures by Janet Chapple. It's portable but incredibly comprehensive.
Thanks for checking this out!