Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons: Day #3 – Waterfalls, The Grand Canyon, and Madison Campground

While Mom was running her half marathon, I drove back to the cabin and loaded up all of our things in the rental car (checkout was scheduled to happen right about the time she should be finishing).  Then after we cleaned her knee in a West Yellowstone gas station restroom and changed clothes, we headed into Yellowstone, with the plan being to camp the remainder of our trip.

There are 12 campsites in Yellowstone with varying numbers of available sites for a variety of types of camping, i.e. small tents, large tents, group camping, RVs, etc.  Only 5 of the campsites take reservations, while the others are first-come, first-serve starting at 7am MST, so you really have to plan ahead in terms of where in the park you want to be.  For our first night, I booked a small tent site in the Madison Campground – it was nearest the West Entrance, and I knew by the time Mom was done with her half marathon, changed clothes, and we’d eaten lunch, all of the non-reservable sites would have already been claimed.  Tip: You can check out https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm to get information on reservations, see what time campgrounds filled the day before, and get a live look-in to the campgrounds to see if there are vacancies or not.  It pays to check ahead so you’re not scrambling for a place to stay last minute.

Once we had pitched our tent, Mom and I hopped back into the car to explore more of the park, but in the opposite direction than the day before – more towards Norris and Canyon.

Terrace Springs

Mom’s legs were in danger of tightening up due to all of the driving and sitting post-race, so we stopped at Terrace Springs and walked around the boardwalk to stretch.  It’s only a 0.15-mi trail around a small thermal area consisting mainly of springs and small pools, so not very heavily trafficked, but still a nice little area if you want to get away from some of the bigger crowds.

Gibbon Falls

After Terrace Springs, we continued driving down Grand Loop Road and came to Gibbon Falls, which has an 84-ft drop.  Although you can see the falls from the road, there’s also a 0.25-mi paved trail that will take you from the brink of the falls down to two separate overlooks, which have a much clearer view.  Although the trail is short, it’s got a 10% grade, which makes it quite the steep little path.

Artist’s Paint Pots

Much like the Fountain Paint Pots, the Artist’s Paint Pots are a group of thermal features – geysers, vents, and, of course, mud pots.  The trail is part natural surface, part boardwalk, and part stairs, and the entire lollipop loop is 1.0-mi long.

The thermal areas of Yellowstone are caused by the caldera underneath.  Basically, the majority of the park is located over a relatively dormant supervolcano.  The last eruption happened tens of thousands of years ago, but it’s still active enough to cause the geysers, mud pots, hot springs, and fumaroles on the surface.  As a result of being located on the caldera, however, it means the thermal features actually move periodically.  For years a mud pot might be located in one area, but then suddenly it dries up and reappears 10-ft to the west, for example.  We saw the most evidence of that while walking around the Artist’s Paint Pots’ trail – parts of the boardwalk led to areas where I’m sure activity had once been, but were no longer.  However, there was still more than plenty to see.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Our last stop of the day was Canyon Village, which, like Old Faithful, is one of the major hubs of Yellowstone.  Mom and I stopped for ice cream at the Visitor’s Center, picked up some more supplies to wrap up her injured knee, and then drove over to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

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Approximately 20-mi long, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone features two waterfalls – the 109-ft Upper Falls and the 308-ft Lower Falls.  I had been there once before with H- and my brother, but didn’t really remember too much about it, except that it had been our jumping off point for the worst hike I have ever hiked.  Literally, the absolute worst.  H- had a friend she worked with who recommended Ribbon Lake Trail near Artist Point; he apparently hiked it every single morning without fail, which led all of us to believe that it must be pretty special.  Although Ribbon Lake Trail is only 4.1-mi total, I knew it was going to be bad when the path went straight down after the first half mile at a ridiculously steep grade (what goes up, must come down and vice versa).  When we finally reached Ribbon Lake, we were exhausted and the lake itself was a lily-pad covered disappointment – nothing unusual/different/special about it and we still have no idea why H-‘s coworker loved it so much.  On the way back up, I fell and landed in the splits, literally.  Thankfully, I managed not to break, sprain, or tear anything, but I struggled getting back to the trailhead post-fall.  My brother, who was a collegiate athlete at the time of this trip and in top physical shape, still to this day gets super salty/snarky if anyone brings up Ribbon Lake – he hates it that much.  But enough about the past…

Mom and I started on the North side and took the paved trail down the Brink of the Lower Falls.  The sign said the trail was 3/8 of a mile with a 600-ft drop, but Mom and I both slightly regret that we didn’t think to use our GPS trackers at the time because the trail definitely felt longer than advertised.  Regardless, in order to descend 600-ft in a short distance means the trail is basically just switchbacks.  Switchback after switchback after switchback.  Just when you think you have to be getting close because you can’t see another switchback, you descend below another row of trees and more switchbacks suddenly become visible.  The first sign you’re getting closer is when you can start hearing water.  When you’re only a couple of switchbacks away, it’s possible to actually look down and see the observation point at the brink.

The Brink of the Lower Falls is quite the sight!  If you can get down there and back up, I highly recommend taking the time to do so because there’s nothing quite like being able to stand at the precipice of so much cascading water.  All I can say is hold on to your camera or phone for dear life because if you drop it while trying to get the perfect shot, you’re never seeing that thing again.

After huffing and puffing our way back to the top of the trail, we drove a little further down on the northern side to Grand View, which as the name suggests, was a spectacular view of the canyon.  Surprisingly there were a lot fewer people at this spot – Mom and I actually had it all to ourselves until we were about to leave when an older couple arrived and asked if we wouldn’t mind snapping their picture.

By the time we finished with the northern rim of the the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, it was getting a little later in the day and Mom was exhausted from her long morning, but we made one more stop to the southern side of the canyon and the aforementioned Artist Point.  I showed Mom the trailhead for Ribbon Lake, which she had heard so much about from me and my brother, and then we walked over to Artist Point itself, which gave us our best view of the day of the Upper Falls.

Madison Campground

When we arrived back at Madison Campground after our day of driving and exploration, Mom and I planned to chill in the tent, reading or playing games, before going to sleep.  However, when we returned to the car from changing clothes in the bathroom, we were greeted by an unexpected surprise – a bison between our tent and the one next to us.  Mom looked at me and said, “Please tell me that wasn’t there when we walked to the bathroom.”  I confirmed he wasn’t, and then we proceeded, along with the rest of camp, to quietly watch him from a distance.  We had overheard a ranger at Canyon Village earlier in the day telling children that for herbivores, like bison and elk, to know you’re a safe distance away from them, you should be able to stick your arm out and completely cover the animal with your thumbnail.  We were probably a touch closer than that, but everyone watching was very careful to give the animal space.  We had a park ranger drive by in a golf cart at one point to make sure no-one was crowding the bison, whom Mom and I had nicknamed Mr. Bison at that point, but then he drove away.  Finally when the bison decided to head in the opposite direction towards our neighbors and the other side of camp, Mom and I could finally go into our tent.

We had been sitting in there for over half an hour, playing the National Park trivial pursuit travel game I had picked up earlier in the day, when suddenly we could hear the bison had returned.  First there was the sound of heavy breathing and chewing.  Then, we could see it’s shadow on the tent wall beside me.  Our tent was on a gravel tent pad, so there wasn’t any concern of the bison trying to get to grass underneath or directly beside the tent, but bison are very large animals that can easily trample or gorge someone if feeling threatened.  Mom and I debated leaving the tent for the safety of the rental car, but didn’t feel comfortable exiting, knowing how close we would be to the bison, concerned about startling him.  It helped too that we could tell he wasn’t displaying any signs of aggression that we needed to be concerned about – thankfully our fellow campers continued to keep their distance and not antagonize him.  So instead of making a quick run for it, we stayed perfectly still and quiet, and after a few minutes, saw him through our front window flap walking away from our site and towards the main road.

The close encounter got the adrenaline going and reminded me of several hours earlier when we were checking into the site.  The gentleman before me in line explained he was camping in a RV and wanted to move sites because another RV’s generators were particularly loud and annoying him.  The rangers advised him that the only remaining available sites were tent sites, and he proclaimed, “You’d have to have major cojones to camp in a tent in Yellowstone!”  That assessment seems a bit dramatic, but tent camping in Yellowstone definitely proved to require a certain amount of confidence in skill, knowledge about the area and large animals, and some general common sense.  Perhaps a few cojones as well… 😉

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