Awhile ago, I saw a photo in Sunset magazine of The Old Faithful Inn and I thought "that's where I want to spend my 40th bday". It was May of 2015. I mapped the drive to Yellowstone- 14.5 hours (long, but do-able), and then went to book a room for September of 2015. All sold out. Anywhere near within the park? All sold out. So we went instead to Lassen, because of a different photo in Sunset of Bumpass Hell (what can I say, they have pretty photos). That turned out to be the most epic, perfect way that I could have spent the day and all was well.
Still, I wanted to get to Yellowstone. Shortly after the Lassen trip, I found an available cabin for the Yellowstone Lodges by the lake in the park available for 3 nights on and around my birthday this year. And that, is where we were last weekend!
We have done quite a few California wilderness adventures, including Yosemite and other areas that are bear terrain, but nothing as wild as Yellowstone. I am a research nerd when I am spending trip money to go to a new place; I always want to make sure that we are seeing the highlights and having the best experience we can for the time that we are there (Virgo). To that end, I got a book, rented a documentary and did some online research. The documentary had an amazing line in it about Yellowstone being the most preserved wild land that we have in this country and said that it was America's Serengeti. There are Black and Grizzly bears, wild Bison (Buffalo), Wolves, Moose, Elk, Fox, etc. There is literally a line in the maps and guides that they give you at the entrance that says, "We cannot guarantee your safety."
However, over 3 million people visit the park every year and there are only a handful of stories about people falling into geysers and hot springs or being thrown by a bison. The guidelines are to stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 from bison, elk and other wildlife. We did find ourselves closer in Mammoth Hot Springs, since there are elk lounging around all over the town, but other than that, we made a point of listening to those rules, and hey- we're back home and alive, so apparently they're good guidelines. We actually did see a few people break the rules and saw a bull elk fake charge a guy who was way too close on the side of the road (probably about 10 feet away), which was a really terrifying and humbling site (we are little comparatively).
The park is ginormous, it's the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined (told you I did homework). To that end, we planned our days by geographic areas. The first day (my birthday), we went to Old Faithful (which I kept calling Old Yeller the entire trip), and the geyser basins. I had heard that O.F. was underwhelming in person, and can report that the people who told me that are jaded. It was fantastic. It's a geyser that maintains a schedule and has for the 100 years that people have been keeping track of it. It goes off guaranteed every 60-90 minutes and can be predicted within a 10 minute window based on the length of the last eruption. A friend from Milwaukee lives in Montana now and drove down to meet us (thanks, Mark!), and put it best when he said that "nature doesn't work like that" (and he should know, he's a Geologist). The walk around the upper and lower basin was one of the most amazing walks of my life. It is filled with colorful hot springs, geysers going on and off, fumeroles streaming steam into the air, bison sunning by trees... it is otherworldly and stunning.
We drove around the area after and stopped off at loads of smaller sites, any one of which would be a major attraction in nature if it wasn't cold in Old Faithful's shadow. Nearly every book of National parks has a prominent photo of something called the Grand Prismatic in it. I had read that from the basin, it's impossible to see the scope of it, it's the largest hot spring in the US and the 3rd largest in the world. It is a vibrant rainbow of colors going from almost neon blue in the center to orange at the edges. The colors are formed by the types of micobacteria that can live in the various temperatures surrounding the hot blue center. The day we went, it was a bit cold and I basically felt like Michael Jackson with the strong wind and blinding steam coming off of it. It was so fun even though we really couldn't see much of anything. We tried to find two different trails that I read about to see it from above, but all seemed to be closed. I just now looked that up and that's because they were- they are constructing a walkway to view the top since the other trail was an unofficial "social" one.
Later that day, we took one of those "social" trails (i.e. unofficial-ish, but well-worn) to the top of a hill behind the Biscuit Basin. Here's one instance of not really following park safety rules- when on any hike in Yellowstone, they urge you to take bear spray. It's $50 to buy, and there are rentals around the park that we happened to not run into before this. When we saw other hikers with bells on, it occurred to me that we should really have that spray on us. I looked around and observed that our surroundings looked exactly like the created habitats made for bears at the zoo, which is a wee bit unsettling since we were in their house this time. Mark and Mike thought we were fine, but I like my face, and didn't want it eaten off by a grizzly; so I sang the whole hike at the top of my lungs (the most apt selection being 'I Wanna Be Like You' from the Jungle Book- thought they may like that). And, as it turns out, it totally worked because we are alive and saw no bears (you're welcome Mike and Mark).
We topped the day off with a cocktail (delicious Old Fashioned) in the vaulted ceilinged lobby of the Old Faithful Inn to the sounds of a pianist and cello player who at one point played a Led Zeppelin song (which happened to be my father's favorite band if you believe in signs from the other side). It was another perfect birthday.