Photography, Travel

Road Trip Travelogue Day 4: The Best Campsite in Yellowstone

Finding an available camping spot in a National Park during peak season may seem impossible, but Philip and I proved through experience that you can get one of *the most beautiful* campsites in Yellowstone, even when you fly by the seat of your pants. I would say third time’s the charm, but in our case it was our fourth night in the park that we found campsite W6 at the Norris campground.

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After days of finagling last minute reservations with confused concessioner campground staffers, we finally decided to give the first-come-first-serve campsites run by the National Park Service a go.

We woke up early, drove to Norris, parked in a line of cars and waited in front of the camp office. Even though we were sixth in line, the wait was long. It turned out to be well worth it when the woman helping us beamed and said, “Can I offer you the most beautiful campsite in all of Yellowstone?” Walking out to our site, we could see exactly what she meant: a winding river and open meadow invited us to set up camp and enjoy the scenery. Perched on the edge of the campground we felt like we had the meadow to ourselves. The sounds of the river and singing birds overtook the chatter of nearby campers. I was so happy, I changed into my “cute camping” outfit to celebrate.

The day’s first order of business was paying Ol’ Faithful a visit. I didn’t take any pictures of that geyser but I did document some of the other geysers we saw.

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Chromatophores or colorful bacteria give this hot spot its vivid colors.

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I ate a tiny pizza, this seemed noteworthy.

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When we returned to camp, Philip decided to go fish along the winding Gibbon River. I went out with my camera to capture the last bit of daylight. Even the scary bear signs looked more picturesque at this campsite.

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The camp office looking very much like a cozy cabin.

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A peek at the Gibbon River.

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The meadow catching the last bit of light. I think it was nearly 10 PM at that point.

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The view from W6.

 

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Thank you Yellowstone Firewood!

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Philip’s hat on our campsite picnic table.

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Read my other Road Trip Travelogues here:

Day 3

Day 2

Day 1

 

 

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Photography, Travel

Road Trip Travelogue Day 2: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

After driving into Yellowstone park in the middle of the night and cuddling my bear spray all night long, I had no idea what to expect upon waking up. I know it definitely wasn’t Philip telling me we had to move our tent because the campsite we had snuck onto was reserved for the day.

Luckily, the nice folk who worked at the Madison campground were able to find us another reservation at the Bridge Bay campground. After setting up our tent and making breakfast, Philip and I set out to take in the park. Driving past Yellowstone Lake, it was hard to believe that what we were seeing was real.

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And it didn’t become any more real after we saw our first bison. They may look like lumbering creatures, but the alacrity with which they crossed this river, proved just how swift they really can be.

 

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There is nowhere else I have experienced such wide open expanses. What struck me most about Yellowstone was the grand scale of this wide open nature. You really did feel closer to the clouds at this elevation.

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Our first hike was a loop through the back country starting by Artist Point at the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where there are beautiful views of the falls.

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In the back country they tell you to hike in groups of 3 or more, make noise and carry bear spray. Thinking about all of this while walking a trail close to the edge of canyon made me a little nervous, but the views were worth it.

Luckily, there was a loud prepubescent boy walking on the same trail with his family, so all that made me nervous was watching him walk too far out onto the cliff’s edge.

After noticing trees with scratched and worn away bark, I began to realize that Yellowstone may be the first place I have ever been to that has been shaped just as much by wildlife as it has been by humans.

If you look closely, you may seem some hairs sticking to these claw marks. Philip and I assumed at the time that it must have been grizzly bear hair, but it could have been brown bear or even another animal altogether. I like to think it was grizzly though.

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Later, we would learn from my friend Kate that the larger markings were most likely created by a horned animal like a bison or male elk.

We also saw some tracks! A Google search leads me to believe that these are Bison tracks, feel free to correct me in the comments!

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As we followed our trail loop away from the canyon we entered a wooded area towards Clear Lake. And of course I had to stop to take some pictures of the wild flowers.

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It was pretty marshy where we were headed.

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We could see the natural gases bubbling underwater. And when we arrived at Clear Lake, the water was a vivid turquoise blue caused by chromatophore bacteria.

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I really liked the driftwood on the beach of this small lake. Philip and I sat for a minute on one of these logs but were driven away by the pungent sulphur smell.

Shortly after, the landscape changed completely and we walked along an ashy white plane with very little growing. We walked past this hole in the ground and listened to what sounded like boiling mud. We tried recording the sound but it was too hard to capture the fullness of each plop.

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Overall, it was an amazing first day in Yellowstone National Park!

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Travel

Dorky Hats in Death Valley

There’s nothing like waking up to the sound of fighter jets breaking the sound barrier when you can’t remember where you are. After driving all night to arrive in Death Valley for the sunrise, we had set up camp and slept for five hours. Meanwhile, our yellow tent had become an Easy-Bake Oven in the desert high noon.

Turns out those UFO’s Philip and I were keeping an eye out for the night before probably would have been pilots from nearby Mojave military base. Or at least, that’s what they would have wanted us to think ;-P

We were lured out of our cave by the promise of cooler air outside. It didn’t get hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit during our trip, which is quite pleasant for Death Valley, but Philip and I both have icy Scandinavian blood running through our veins.

After slapping some sourdough PB & J’s together, dousing ourselves in sunscreen, and donning our hats, we felt fortified enough to begin exploring the park. You can’t go to Death Valley without stopping at the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin. But we made a few stops along the way.

We took a quick look at the remnants of an old Borax refinery. The most important thing I took away from our tour was that Borax cannot crystallize at temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. So this refinery could not operate during the summer. That’s right, Death Valley consistently gets hotter than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

Our camp neighbor had suggested we stop at the Devil’s golf course. He told us that it didn’t look like much from the road, but once you got out to the fields of crystallized salt, it was the closest thing to another planet as he had ever seen.

He was right, the turn would have been easy to overlook, but with his recommendation in mind, we decided to take the detour. Much like the lava fields of Iceland, “moon like” is the descriptor that comes to mind when looking out over these jagged landscapes.

The sign post warns explorers to climb the salt formations with care as any fall could result in broken bones. Emerging unscathed, we were off to Badwater.

282 feet below sea level becomes much more real when you look up a cliff face and see a tiny sign marking sea level. I have lived near the ocean for most of my life. Even when I studied in Switzerland for four years, I was still living at sea level in a valley surrounded by alps.

I had to chew gum as we drove through the park just to encourage my ears to pop with all the elevation changes we were making. Thankfully, my ears finally equalized by the time we arrived at the basin.

Badwater is another one of those names that gives Death Valley an edgy feel. Just as Death Valley is actually full of life, it turns out the water in the basin isn’t poisonous, just really salty. “Notgreatwater Basin” doesn’t have the same ring to it though.

After peering in the pools of murky water, we walked out as far as we could along the beaming white salt flats. Our goal was to make it further than the other tourists, although we were not willing to go as far as some other dedicated photographers on the horizon.

Once back in the car we decided to pull off onto Artist’s Drive. Before taking a loop through the park’s colorful mountains, we stopped at a view called the Artist’s Palette. This is where we snapped our dorky hat selfie. There were also some beautiful flowers growing in an around this area.

While touring Artist’s Drive I remembered Grizzly Bear’s music video for their song, “Knife.” I now realize it was filmed in Death Valley (possibly by Zabriskie Point?) and clearly inspired by the desert refineries of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

This song is from one of my favorite albums, Yellow House, and I was pleased to find that the rest of the songs perfectly suited the desert landscape. If you ever need a good desert road trip playlist, I recommend including songs by Grizzly Bear, Nick Drake and Jose Gonzalez.

Death Valley is set up to accommodate tourists who want to stay in their cars. With the risk of heat stroke so high, this makes sense to me. Philip and I only wish we had come in a car with tires suited for off-roading or at the very least, one with a full-sized spare so we could get to more remote sights like the Racetrack and Eureka Dunes.

We were surprised by some bold compact cars speeding on unpaved roads. We took it nice and easy and kept an eye out for the numerous road signs warning about road conditions. Rangers warn that the highest number of park fatalities come from single car rollovers.

For sunset, we found a nice spot on the Mesquite Dunes. The sand on these dunes was unbelievably fine and soft. In Death Valley, you are especially aware that this sand is the result of millions of years of erosion. Alluvial fans of eroded rock spill off the surrounding mountains, continually filling up the valley even as it sinks with every tectonic shift.

Even among the extremes of desert life, there’s a strong sense of equilibrium in Death Valley. Being able to see the effect of time on even the most indomitable landscape reminds you that nothing is permanent.

As we laid in the sand and watched clouds drift past, we made plans to get out of the car and experience more of the landscape on foot the next day.

To read more about our Death Valley adventures, stay tuned for more blog posts and read:

No Sleep ‘Till Death Valley

Death Valley Birthday

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