The morning of Day #4 of our Yellowstone trip, Mom and I had originally planned on sleeping in a touch since there was nowhere we had to be early and the sun doesn’t set in Yellowstone in the summer until after 9pm, but the sky looked a touch ominous when Mom woke up to use the restroom around 5 AM, so we decided to go ahead and break camp in case a storm was heading our way (I can take down a tent in the rain, but I’d really rather not if given an alternative). Once we had everything in the car, we drove south on Grand Loop Road towards our next campsite, Grant Village, which we had reserved for the next two nights.
Since the Grant campground wouldn’t open for check-ins until 11am, Mom and I decided to take our time and stop wherever we saw fit along the way. Note: The Yellowstone National Park app is an absolute godsend! It runs without cell service and shows you in real-time where you are on a map of Yellowstone, as well as tourist attractions, campsites, and trails. There are also features to get live geyser predictions and updates on road closures.
Our first stop of the day was Kepler Cascades, just south of Old Faithful. There’s a short boardwalk that leads to a small platform above the Firehole River with a lovely view of the 150-ft. cascades between the evergreens. I wouldn’t say it’s a final destination for tourists, but if you’re around the area, it’s worth a quick stop.
Not going to lie, Isa Lake probably won’t interest most people, but for nerds like me, it’s pretty cool. Isa Lake is the only naturally occurring lake in the world that drains into both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Basically the lake straddles the Continental Divide, which is the hydrological division in the Americas – what separates water that flows to one ocean or the other. Not only does Isa Lake drain into both oceans, it does so backwards – aka the east side flows into the Pacific and the west side flows into the Atlantic.
For the non-nerds, Isa Lake is a good place to stretch your lakes and take a picture with the Continental Divide sign, which Mom and I saw a couple of tour buses doing.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
When we arrived in Grant Village, it was still too early to check-in, so we drove to the nearby West Thumb Geyser Basin, located on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. It was a very chilly morning with temperatures in the high 30s/low 40s, and the wind from the lake made it feel even colder. It felt strange to Mom and I, being from the southeastern U.S. to have temperatures so low in the summer, but we were prepared with extra clothing layers.
West Thumb Geyser Basin got its name from an expedition in 1870 where it was noted that the area looks somewhat like a thumb protruding into Yellowstone Lake. The thermal features are less active nowadays than they used to be, but there’s still plenty to see, and the boardwalk makes it accessible to all.
Yellowstone Lake & Hotel
After we checked into our campsite at Grant and set up our tent, Mom and I decided to do some more exploring. I wanted to show her the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, where H- had worked during her time at the park, so we took Grand Loop Road around Yellowstone Lake. Although the temperature was still chilly, the sky was clear and we got wonderful views of the mountains on the other side of the lake.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel was as I remembered it – large and very yellow. Although it’s the oldest hotel in the park still in use (opened in 1891), the building has undergone several renovations, most recently in 2014. In 2015 it was actually designated a National Historic Landmark! Even if you don’t have a reservation, guests of the park are welcome to check out the gift shop and/or lounge in the spacious front lobby while listening to the Lake Hotel Quartet or the pianist on duty.
After our stop at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Mom and I decided to explore the area between the Lake Hotel and The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone since we weren’t likely to be in that area again for the rest of our trip. First, we stopped at LeHardy’s Rapids on the Yellowstone River, which were named after topographer Paul LeHardy. There are two parking lots where tourists can park to see the rapids, and a short natural surface trail connecting them, allowing people to walk the length of the rapids. We saw a few trout in small pools at the edge of the rapids, but the fast-moving water made it too difficult to get pictures of any kind of quality.
Mud Volcano Area
Next on our drive, we stopped at the Mud Volcano Area. This particular area is located near one of Yellowstone’s caldera vents, so it’s particularly active with fumaroles, mud volcanoes, mud geysers, and “cauldrons.” There’s a steep boardwalk (compared to the other boardwalks in the park) which takes visitors in a loop past all the thermal features for 2/3 of a mile.
Like the other thermal features in Yellowstone, the steam coming out/off of them is super sulfuric and stinky. At one point, Mom and I were walking to Black Dragon’s Cauldron, the wind shifted, and the steam headed in our direction. Mom was in front of me, and as soon as the steam hit her, I heard her exclaim, “Oh God!” in the most guttural, disgusted voice I think I’ve ever heard come out of her. That made me laugh so uncontrollably, I couldn’t cover my nose or mouth in time and got a giant lungful of the foul smell. We laughed about it later, though; after all, it’s all part of the Yellowstone experience.
Sulphur Cauldron is located somewhat catty-cornered across the road from the Mud Volcano Area, and is the most acidic thermal feature in all of Yellowstone. A nearby sign actually described the acidity as one step below battery acid! As such, the smell is indescribably horrific. However, thankfully the viewing platform is quite a bit higher than the cauldron itself, so there’s some distance between you and the smell.
As more proof that thermal features are always on the move in Yellowstone, a small pocket has actually begun to pop up right in the middle of the parking lot! In true Yellowstone form, the parking lot is still open and the thermal area has just been sectioned off with a small wooden fence.
The highlight of the day was actually all of the wildlife we got to see along the way! The morning began outside of Madison Campground with bison grazing with the steam from the Fountain Paint Pots in the background.
We also had a few bear sitings! The first was shortly after Isa Lake where the bear was right on the side of the road. The second was later in the day when we were on ur way back to the Grant campground – there were dozens of cars parked along both sides of the road and rangers directing traffic , as well as keeping photographers and sight-seers at a safe distance. Mom and I got out to look as well and spotted a bear in the distance through a tree line. On the way back to our car, we over heard one of the rangers speaking to someone who had slowed down and rolled down his windows, presumably to ask what was happening. In the dryest tone possible, the ranger said “It’s a black bear, sir. People seem very excited about it. Well…cinnamon colored, but still a black bear.” The memory of the snarky ranger became a running joke throughout the rest of the week.
Finally, as we were leaving Grant Campground, we turned the corner in our car and there was a female elk standing on the side of the road. On the one hand, we were way too close for comfort, but on the other hand, we never left the car and got a great picture, as well as a fun memorable moment. Later, as we were searching for a place to park at Lake Yellowstone Hotel, we saw a male elk lounging in the grass near the Park Ranger Station. We could vaguely see the outline of the antlers of a few others in the trees nearby, but weren’t about to get any closer for a better look.