Yellowstone is an alien planet. It’s a fantastical forest of volcanic absurdity and diverse life. A National Park plopped in the caldera of its namesake supervolcano, primed and ready to bork the United States into the history books and pretty much send the planet into a post-apocalyptic economic and humanitarian dystopia. That probs won’t go down for a while, but tip your bartender just in case. They say Saint Peter is pretty adamant about that shit.
Long story short, we only got to spend two days in this wonderland. You should spend more than two days in that wonderland (most recommend a minimum of 5 days). Still, the two days we did spend was like another universe, and Boots and I made sure to take in what we could before we came back to earth.
So if you only have two days in Yellowstone, here’s how we did it. Learn from our experience and mistakes, because two days is a world better than none.
Day 1 – Roadside
Leaving the Tetons felt like the last day of summer camp, if only the pastor’s daughter you made out with behind the chapel were a titanic mountain range, godlier than she could ever be.
Yellowstone borders Grand Teton NP to the north, but the former’s south entrance might as well have been Platform Nine and Three-quarters. The two are worlds apart.
If the Tetons were the pious, pristine, practically perfect summer love, then Yellowstone was the girl on the first day of school with wildflowers strewn about her hair, clad in oversized polka-dotted rain boots and a black leotard with her dad’s wrinkled Flaming Lips t-shirt thrown over it. She was fucking weird and you loved it.
As we made our way into the park, the towering, jagged rocky mountains became rolling green and yellow hills smothered in thick forest (giggity). I navigated the twisted byway and Ky sat shotgun as we finished our mallow-less s’mores (aka breakfast). We were welcomed by a 20-something male park ranger, “Minnesota, eh?” he mused. “I grew up in Saint Paul, lived there till I moved out here. Did it for the money, of course.” Boots moistened.
Coincidentally, we stopped at the first pullout so I could pee. The spot was Lewis Falls, a 20-foot waterfall that fell into a shallow stream I was tempted to deepen. It had a familiar feel, but that feeling proved fleeting as we made our way toward the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, and geysers and hot springs spouted up left and right, lining the park road and signaling the end of bucolic, mountainous landscapes and the beginning of otherworldly geothermal madness.
We dropped by the West Thumb visitor center where Boots thumbed the pages of “Deaths in Yellowstone” and I gathered park intel. Inside hung a sign with an estimated time for Old Faithful’s next show. After checking out the lake, we checked our watches and decided we could make it. We bopped.
We arrived at the Very Consistent Exploding Water Hole and it was fully packed. Humans surrounded the monument, filling the benches and standing room in between. We wiggled our way to the front of the zone closest to the geyser, behind a couple of seated tourists. Clear view. “This is just like standing on the bridge after riding The Wave,” smirked Boots, as she stretched her shower cap over her scalp.
Before we knew it, we were the center of a mosh pit. Strangers’ body parts fusing into our own. Like a nightmare, the couple in front of us began to stand up and it seemed our sightline was headed for the same grave as our personal space. But by the grace of god, they turned out to be two tiny, elderly ladies, and we were spared. Until…
At long last, that sucker blew to a chorus shuttering lenses, its baseline a steady murmur of “oohs” and “ahhs”. Boots and I took pictures and videos while the Grand Ole Faithful did its thing. Despite the crowd, it was honestly a marvel to see and the buildup made it that much more worthwhile (giggity).
(Watch till the end ^^^)
As we bopped out of the parking lot, we were delayed by some meandering buffalo and awestruck soccer moms.
Criss-crossing the continental divide, we made our way to the Grand Prismatic Spring. A cloud of steam blurred the road ahead and we knew we were there. We pulled over and walked along a twinkling stream with fly-fishing dad scattered throughout. Boots moistened.
The spring was all it was cracked up to be and more. Its well-maintained boardwalk led us around the main spring, the turquoise pool, and some other colorful puddles. It was very windy and the waters were decorated with hats and sunglasses.
“Why don’t people just grab them?” I asked. Boots pointed at a sign. It read: Stay on the path. Twelve people have been scorched to death by going in the waters. I tightened my hat.
The wind made the steam blow wildly, at times making it hard to see. But when it did clear, and the painted waters were revealed under those clouds of heat, the effect was awesome.
That shit was also packed. So much so that Boots asked me if I thought she could trip unattended children into the water without it seeming intentional. I laughed. She didn’t. It was time to go.
After having our personal space violated throughout the day, we decided we better figure out a place to camp before it was too late. We called the reservation office.
“Any tent spots available in the park tonight?” Boots asked.
“Let me put you on hold for a second while I check,” responded the operator, before taking a drag of her cigarette, checking her Twitter, and then putting us back on the line. “Nope, looks like were all full.”
*Tip: Make reservations. It was a Tuesday in mid-September, we thought we’d be alright. We were wrong.*
So we made our way out the nearest exit, West Yellowstone, to find camping outside the park. On our way out, we took an offshoot to a buffalo sanctuary that allowed us to get dingle-berry spotting close with the miniature wooly mammoths and their babies. Boots took 214 pictures in 15 minutes.
The road out was scenic, following the Madison River. The town of West Yellowstone was a small, old-western, touristy town. We made it to Montana.
We used our go-to resource for free/cheap camping, freecampsites.net, to find somewhere to sleep. This time it lead us to Cherry Creek, a site about 15 minutes north with raving reviews. Unfortunately, those reviews were dogshit, failing to mention the giant potholes and buffalo and/or bison sized boulders scattered around the road. It was like driving on the moon. We bumped and banged for a few miles in what felt like hours, nearly tire-murdered a skunk, and found nothing but a fellow frustrated traveler pulling a trailer he’d managed to jackknife across the “road” in an attempt to turn around.
“Can we give you a hand?”
The man behind the wheel shook his head, “Not unless you can lift a trailer.”
“I could totally lift that trailer,” whispered Boots. We bopped on.
If that campsite truly exists, we’ll never know. We went another 10 miles down the highway and found a cheap campground. We had been excited to finally get to set up before sunset and kick back, but once again we set up in the dark.
Sprawled across the tent in our sleeping bags, Boots unhooked the lantern from the tent’s ceiling. It was lights out.
I rolled toward her, “Thanks for being my ride or die.”
“Thanks for being mine,” she laughed.
Day 2 — By Foot
Being limited on time and wanting to see as much as of the park as possible, I figured it’d be a good idea to hike Mount Washburn because its high elevation and central location allows for expansive, panoramic views of the park.
“Hey Boots, I think we should hike Mt. Washburn because its high elevation and central location allows for expansive, panoramic views of the park,” I told her. She agreed.
We sipped some coffee and ate breakfast (oatmeal, granola, pb, honey) by the lake that ran along the campground before heading back to the park.
We decided to be proactive and call early to reserve a site this time.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
“Hi we’re looking to reserve a campsite tonight. Anything available?”
“Let me put you on hold for a second while I check,” responded the operator, before unscrewing her flask and ripping a swig of bourbon with one hand while clipping the last bit of hangnail from her big toe with the other. “Sorry, looks like we’re all full.”
The Mt. Washburn hike was about 7.5 miles out and back and climbed 1400 feet, so it wasn’t too steep. On the way up we enjoyed some fun ass flora including pines and firs. We also (spoiler alert!) heard rumors of a black bear boppin’ in the area from various hikers along the trail.
When we reached the summit, we were over 10,000 feet and in the center of the park. Running around the peak, the 360 degree panoramic vistas revealed distant wonders like Dunraven Peak, Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, and even the Grand Teton. We were swinging from Yellowstone’s chandelier.
*Tip: Old Faithful gets off harder than ever in the winter, and you can supposedly see its steam up there too*
Atop the summit was a lookout tower with some neat exhibits, but on top of that was a fire-tower, and that shit was the most dope. Individual rangers live up there, rotating shifts seasonally, and just pretty much keep it low-key until some shit starts on fire and then they’re like, holy fuck ground rangers, some shit is on fire. Idk maybe throw some Dasani on it fam I gotta finish this game of Call of Duty real quick lemme know how it goes. Pretty fascinating stuff.
On the way down we were impeded by an Ewe (female bighorn sheep) and her adorable, possibly disease-spreading offspring who was galloping behind. Naturally, we waited for some elderlies to pass us in order to gauge how protective momma was feelin’. She gave us a little side-eye action but was mostly chill so we bopped.
After the hike we made our way toward the north exit, stopping at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and Yellowstone Falls. The steep 4-mile hike was was uncalled for but the scenery was as good as it gets. It was obvi packed so we made quick work of it, suffering additional rib-shots from the elbows of foreign gramma tourists in the process. But we made friends with a crow so that was pretty wild. Shouts to the Night’s Watch.
Traffic on our way out was a like a McDonald’s drive thru during the beanie babies era, and we figured it was just more Yellowstone anarchy, but we were wrong again. And good thing, because we got to see this beautiful black goddess (and her cubs boppin’ around up in the forest behind her).
Leaving Yellowstone was surreal. The byway was zigzagging and gorgeous, every turn showing off the park’s ecological diversity. The way through and out of North Yellowstone paralleled the drive in, as the world around us seemed to transform by the moment. Without warning we were surrounded by what looked like desert mountains, a southwest vibe in southern Montana. It was strange and stunning, in true Yellowstone fashion.