Roadtrip Day 10: Yellowstone E-W and Driggs, ID

Sunday, 24 September, 2023
Cody and outskirts in the morning
Entering Yellowstone from the East
Mud Volcano & Hayden Valley
A Short Hike along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Leaving Yellowstone to the West
Driggs, Idaho

Yellowstone might be one of the most phenomenal natural preserves in the world, but I’ll admit I didn’t feel that much excitement to see it as I woke up in Cody. It was a crisp and clear Sunday morning, and sure, I was curious what the fuss was about, but passing through Yellowstone felt more like an obligation than a destination. ‘I just happened to be in the area, so I guess; I suppose; ok fine, I may as well check it out’—that was my thought process at this still early point in my journey. But either way, brunch beckoned first.

A couple blocks away from my motel was the Irma Hotel—”Buffalo Bill’s Original Hotel”. Potentially touristy or not, it seemed like a good place for some hearty victuals, which I knew I’d need as I already gotten into the habit of having large breakfasts and dinners but minimal lunches. Despite a fairly nondescript exterior—just a big rectangle of a concrete block building—the interior transports you into another time and place entirely. It was sumptuous and expansive, with antique furniture and museum-piece animal heads and firearms hung on all the walls. The maître d’ was complete with an unaffected Stetson hat. The bar stretched the entire length of the huge dining area. The spread-out tables were half full with mostly retirement-age couples and groups. I couldn’t help but stop and take things in before taking a seat at the bar.

The food was good but nothing that grabbed my attention, which could describe Cody for me as well. The entire town really is a good place for tourists, but gave a vibe of being just a refueling station for vehicles and bodies before traveling in any of the cardinal directions towards more interesting natural wonders. So, I broke my fast while doing some reading (as I always did), then left town for more adventures to the West.

I was glad that Highway 14 didn’t seem to have much traffic that morning when I set out at 10am, which I took to mean that it truly was “off-season” and there wouldn’t be many crowds in the park. The view along the road itself, just like everywhere else I’d been in Wyoming, continued to be stunningly beautiful. Buffalo Bill Reservoir was a shining gem in the hills (although the water level was clearly low), and Shoshone National Forest (actually the first national forest in the country) and the Absaroka mountains looked like amazing destinations of their own.

The East entrance to Yellowstone is just a couple small buildings along the North Fork Shoshone River, about an hour outside of Cody. I breezed through as there was barely any line—although there was a line a few hundred meters back full of all the people who wanted to take pictures in front of the Yellowstone sign. I skipped it since I knew that I’d be entering the park again the next day as well.

All of my rushing and happiness about skipping lines was kinda meaningless though, since I pulled over in a small lot just after the entrance and spent a fair bit of time pouring over the park map to decide just what I was going to see that day. It is a truly gigantic park—larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined!—and realistically it would require a solid week to explore much of what there is to see. But after fretting for a while I ultimately decided to just wing it anyway, since I had no context for how long it would take me to explore any one of the sights.

I also took some time to change into warmer clothing in my car, since despite it being a gorgeously sunny September day, the elevation was a much bigger temperature factor than I’d anticipated. Nearly all of Yellowstone is above 7700 ft (~2300 m)! This was driven home for me as I crested Sylvan Pass (8530 ft / 2600 m) and stopped to touch some snow. I may or may not have made a few snowballs to throw at the hillside for funsies…At least until I noticed the sign warning not to disturb the “unexploded military shells used for avalanche control”.

As I descended into Yellowstone proper and got my first views of the Lake I was struck by the very evident forest fire remnants and new pine growth. I was aware that, despite the scaremongering in popular media, forest fires were not only part of the natural lifecycle of life throughout much of the West, but that planned burns were also routinely used. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see a snapshot of the fire cycle and regrowth in person. As I continued through the massive park and saw many such sections of burnt/new growth intermixed with sections of undamaged old growth, it also made me appreciate the sheer scale of nature and how many “disasters” are actually highly localized.

Photo of Steamboat Point.
The unassuming Steamboat Point.

One of the most magical aspects of Yellowstone is of course its geological activity. It doesn’t really hit you that you’re traveling over an enormous caldera until you first spy an odd bit of steam coming from an unexpected spot on the landscape, or upon getting your first whiff of wet sulfurous scent blown by an errant breeze. That’s what happened to me as I approached Steamboat Point on the Northeastern corner of the Lake—a minor and unassuming viewing spot. The sound of gently hissing steam, the mild mineral reek, and the stunted growth veiled by drifting vapor forces you to pause and take stock of just how unique this experience is going to be.

That moment of peaceful reflection replaced my former frenetic “let’s see it quickly” feeling with an excited “let’s see it all” desire. I skirted the Northern edge of Yellowstone Lake (the largest high elevation lake in North America, by the way) and came to my first decision point at Lake Village, where the road forked. Basically, Yellowstone’s roads form a large figure-8 shape, with a large Southern lobe and a slightly smaller Northern lobe. The 5 entrances to the park (East, South, West, North, and Northeast) all connect up to various points on the figure-8. I had a fleeting “Königsberg Bridge Problem” moment as I tried to figure out how to see all 8 segments of the looped road most efficiently during my brief two days in the park, but given that I’m neither Euler nor The Flash, I once again realized I had just to wing it, one bit at a time. I chose to head North, since the segment to the South along the Lake didn’t have as many labeled points of interest.

My first stopping point was the Mud Volcano area within Hayden Valley, which is an area of subsidence near the center of the caldera that used to be part of the lake. One thing was immediately apparent—Yellowstone doesn’t mess around when it comes to handling the crowds! Every single point of interest had large parking lots, modern outhouses, and well-maintained wooden trails with excellent signage. The trails at first felt limiting to me, as someone who likes to explore literally off the beaten path and away from your typical tourist, but I appreciated that the trails here were specifically to prevent death and grievous injury, what with all the super acidic, boiling hot, and other maim-worthy features that Yellowstone has to offer.

The variety of geothermal features was surprising to me. Even at this one stopping point, there were over nine different features that were as varied in their sights, smells, and behavior as they were in their names: Dragon’s Mouth Spring gurgled and sloshed; Sour Lake was still and steamy; Grizzly Fumarole was bubbling, muddy scab; Sizzling Basin oozed in a pale rivulet and crusted in an earthtone rainbow of salts and lichens. It was also fascinating to read the informational plaques describing how each feature had changed over the decades, sometimes for unexplained reasons, and detailing just how deadly, toxic, and extreme they were. This trip was definitely making me much more interested in geology.

Every bit of the drive through the park held beauty and wonders. There were random geothermal vents all over the place—you’d just see steam rising from patches of forest, or even bubbling up in the middle of the rivers and streams you pass. Apparently Yellowstone boasts over 10,000 geothermal features and half the world’s active geysers. It made me yearn to explore the backcountry and see what unnamed, rarely-seen features there were out there.

But it wasn’t just the unique geothermal sights that were captivating. Driving through the sagebrush-steppe of Hayden Valley had an otherworldly feel of its own (even without seeing any large mammals). And most of all, the rivers and streams were the definition of unspoiled. They were crisp veins of cerulean cutting through the verdant landscape. They were the Platonic ideal of wild streams—what you always hope to encounter when hiking, but rarely find. One could imagine Tolkeinesque elves having a stately picnic on the riverbank. I know it must seem like I’m overstating this, but seriously, the rivers in Yellowstone were just that pristine and superlative [and by the end of my trip this assessment remained].

At this point (about 2pm) I was itching to go on a hikejog, both to actually get into some small portion of the nature I was goggling at, but also to get away from all the other people I was sharing the roads and viewpoints with. My earlier observation of low traffic upon entering the park was clearly naive, and the gorgeous weather and Sunday vibes had drawn fairly large crowds in over the last few hours.

Photo of Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River.
Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River.

So I aimed for a parking lot near the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River, and proceeded to speedwalk along the paved road to the end of South Rim Drive where it seemed there were some unpaved trails to explore. Along the way I did take some peeks from the multiple viewpoints of the Upper Falls lining the road, but honestly I was really turned off by the crowds—hundreds of people jostling to get the best Instagram selfies. At the end of the road was Artist’s Point, which actually offered quite spectacular views of the Lower Falls, and was less crowded than the fully paved lookouts further upstream. But it still felt too touristy to me, so I took a deep breath, ignored the signs imploring you to travel in groups of 3 or more, checked that my bearspray was accessible, and started up the Artist Point-Sublime Trail.

It was like entering another world. It took just six steps past the trailhead, up the root-puckered single track and around one slight bend, for the sounds of loud conversations, tinny phone speakers, and parking cars to be replaced by the soft crunch of my footsteps, and even that was swallowed by the silence of the still and sylvan forest. The smells of sweaty tourists, cheap snack foods, and car exhaust were replaced by a palpable wave of pure pine scent. I spent my youth exploring Eastern pine and hemlock forests and thought I knew what to expect, but this was something different—think a freshly lit “pine” candle, but kick it up a notch and give it nuances that made fake scents pale in comparison.

The differences probably weren’t nearly as stark as my memory recorded them—most other tourists were quite respectful and quiet, and the air was quite fresh and invigorating all over the park—but I think the contrast was sufficient to sear it into my brain.

As I continued up the trail, inwardly reveling in the vibrancy and peacefulness of the trail, I tried a few times to pick up my pace and jog, but the thin air was still way too much for me. This was really my first full day above a mile’s elevation—Artist Point is at 7641 ft (2329 m), which is already far higher than Devil’s Tower (5112 ft [1558 m]), and even the highest peak in the Black Hills hits only 7242 ft (2207 m)! I hoped that I could acclimatize quickly, given the other hikes I hoped to do in the coming weeks. For now, though, I contented myself with jogging the downhill bits and slowly trudging anything uphill.

There were a handful of other hikers out there on the single track (although no other solo hikers, I did notice as I kept patting my bear spray to make sure it hadn’t fallen out of my pocket), so I was able to both enjoy some solitude as well as get some non-selfie pics thanks to kind strangers.

The view from the aptly named Artist Point, looking West and upstream to the powerful Lower Falls and the beginnings of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, was absolutely postcard worthy. But the views continued to grow more spectacular as I followed the trail along the canyon. Everyone knows about The Grand Canyon in Arizona, to the point where it can make people ignore or forget about many other jaw-dropping canyon systems the world over. I’ll admit my skepticism when I first read “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” on the map, and figured it would be a decently sized, fairly pretty ravine that was only named as it was out of local pride. But no—it is indeed grand, and awe-some, and seems to appear out of nowhere amongst the forests and meadows and hills of the Yellowstone caldera.

Photo of a red squirrel in Yellowstone.
My spirit animal became my spirit guide.

Winded, and conscious of how much more driving I had to do that day, I turned around only about a mile down the trail. Before heading back, though, I was so entranced by the sights and smells of the pine forest that I felt the urge to go a little bit off the trail. This isn’t recommended, of course, but I had my bear spray and a compass, and knew that I just had to turn North if I got lost and I’d hit the gigantic fucking canyon.

Again, taking just a handful of steps off the beaten path, it was like peeling back another layer of onion and entering yet another world. The slight breeze on the canyon’s edge and distant roar of the river both receded and left only silence and stillness in their wake. I was conscious of every sound around me and every step I took, and unconsciously slowed down even more. I felt a surge of adrenaline hit even as my surroundings became meditatively calm. I was disconnected; submerged in timeless nature yet fully present in the now. It was a thrilling, mesmerizing feeling and I felt as if I was going on autopilot.

And then I was suddenly shocked back to more typical rhythms by a loud, squeaky chitter. I jumped and turned around to see a very forward red squirrel charging toward me just a meter away. I know it was likely just a mother protecting a nearby nesting place, but at the time I had the impression that my spirit animal was making sure I didn’t autopilot myself too far or too deep, both physically and metaphysically. I had only been a few steps off the trail but it was enough to drastically re-center my state of being, and the few minutes of that transformation felt like hours. Perhaps there’s a lesson there that it doesn’t take as much experimentation or effort as you might think to have momentous experiences that spur changes in your life.

I giggled, thanked the squirrel, and headed back to the trail and toward the rest of humanity.

A week earlier when I was in Cleveland I had reached out on Instagram to an old high school friend who I’d only just remembered lived in Idaho. We’d arranged that I could crash at her place after I passed through Yellowstone, so that’s where I was heading for the night. I’d only seen a handful of spots so far today but I was conscious of how far I still had to go, and wanted to have time to actually hang out with my friend and not just show up late at night and crash, so I turned left at Canyon Village and started down the middle leg of the figure-8, heading West toward Idaho.

Along the way I still managed to see quite a few more beautiful sights, even if I didn’t stray far from my car any more. There were fearless and wise ravens hanging in the parking lot, sundry other birds and interesting insects everywhere I looked, and I was ever on the lookout for large mammals. At one point I encountered a long slowdown in traffic along an otherwise less-than-captivating stretch of tree-lined road and was working myself up to being annoyed when I realized it was because of a spontaneous photo opportunity. There was a lone bison slowly sauntering along the roadside, completely oblivious to the stream of aluminum-ensconced humans rolling by just a couple meters away. I scoffed at the other gawking tourists even as I snapped some photos of my own as I crawled by—hypocrisy is only bad when it’s unconscious, right? In any case, they are huge beasts, and I was glad to pass by with the passenger seat in between us.

I made one more brief stop at Beryl Spring, since it was just off the road and the parking lot had space. Even with all the variety I’d seen at the Mud Volcano area earlier in the day, here was yet another different kind of geothermal feature. Beryl Spring is apparently one of the hottest pools in the park, and it was indeed a roiling cauldron, but with a stunning color befitting its namesake.

From when I exited the West Entrance and throughout the 90 minute drive South to Driggs, Idaho I was in a bit of a daze. I kept thinking back to all that I’d seen, smelt, and experienced and playing it back again and again in my mind. I’d started the day not knowing what to expect but also not expecting much—perhaps my contrarianism and desire to avoid what is popular just because got the better of me. But my perspective was irrevocably transformed by this brief first day in Yellowstone. Even the simplest views of golden meadow, enchanting forest, and encompassing sky were breathtaking, and I was thankful to take part in the long history of Native American reverence and 19th century conservationism that Yellowstone represents. I was definitely looking forward to another day in the park!

Photo of Grand Teton behind Driggs farmland.
Grand Teton behind farmland in Driggs.

I finally started to come out of my pleasant daze as I reached the outskirts of Driggs, Idaho. Partially because I was hungry, partially out of excitement to see a friend I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, and partially because I was treated to some unexpectedly stunning views of the Teton range just behind the rolling farmland and forests in town. No wonder my friend had settled here in Idaho!

Pulling into their driveway I was wired with anticipation (as well as that particular edge that long drives always give). I considered Linsay a good friend and we shared many other mutual friends, but we’d never gotten too close in high school, and I hadn’t spoken with her at all until recently reconnecting for this trip. Nevertheless there’s a wonderful phenomenon I’ve noticed where connections made in youth, even peripherally, feel much deeper and richer than most made as one ages, so my anticipation was of comfort and relaxation and nostalgia. …There are probably some lessons there about striving to live with the openness of youth.

Linsay hadn’t changed a bit—she remained a super chill, happy, kind, and beautiful person. We picked up seemingly where we’d left decades earlier, chatting about mutual friends we’d each kept in touch with and what our paths had been in the intervening years. She introduced me to her equally chill and fun partner Aidan, their very thoughtful son, their dogs, and cat. We continued catching up about our lives and travels at a local brewery in downtown Driggs (Citizen 33 Brewery, which I highly recommended!), and the conversation lasted until we were back home again. Linsay and Aidan also had some great recommendations for me for Grant Teton and Yellowstone again the next morning—local recommendations always beat what Google and guidebooks have to say. Eventually I went down to get some writing done and wind down before bed while the dogs kept me company for a bit.

I’d intended from the very beginning of the trip to visit and spend time with friends along the way, and this first friendly blast from my past in Idaho made me more grateful than ever for all of the wonderful people I’d met in life. I was already looking forward to visiting more of my friends in the coming weeks.

Selfie with some of the author's friends in Driggs.
Brewery dinner with old and new friends.

Day 10 Distance: 237 mi (381 km)
Total Trip Distance: 2,706 mi (4,355 km)

Next Up: Passing through Jackson, Wyoming, hiking in Grand Teton, much more of Yellowstone from South to North, and ending in Belgrade, Montana.