Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park
Planning, Travel, USA

RV Road Trip USA – Diary Day 9: Arriving At Yellowstone

We covered more than a thousand miles in four days from when we left Yosemite National Park in California, crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Nevada Desert in a 28ft motorhome to reach Yellowstone National Park before the dreaded snow of Fall would arrive.

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Opal Pool, Natural Hot Spring at Yellowstone National Park.
All photos were taken by myself

But Is It Real?

What a special place! I had to see for myself if it was real; if the photo’s of Yellowstone National Park we see online, and in travel mags are real. What with all the photo editors and apps available these days it’s difficult to tell what’s fake and what’s not.

Photos of Grand Prismatic Springs and all the interesting geothermal features of Yellowstone National Park seem too good to be real, most likely edited and enhanced like so many images out there.

Well, we’ve been there, and we can assure you that what you see is real. The true colors of Yellowstone really are that vivid and my amateur photos, in all honesty, did not do it justice.

Yellowstone's wonders
A beyond impressed me at one of Yellowstone’s volcanic hot springs. I’ve only posted unedited photos that I took myself with my humble Samsung Galaxy Note 8

See It To Believe It

B dreamed of going to Yellowstone National Park as a little boy. Almost all his life he’s known of this amazing place hoping to one day see it with his own eyes. I never knew this about him until just before this trip.

Yellowstone is one of the must-see gems of this world.

Truth is, I only knew Yellowstone National Park must be worth seeing because it features on just about every travel bucket list and in more than enough on- and off-line travel publications to make it stand out. Without any specific expectations, it was only during the planning and research phase that I realised that Yellowstone National Park is one of the must-see gems of our world.

Research completed, I mistakenly assumed that we were well prepared for this part of our USA RV road trip because little can prepare you for the moment you meet Yellowstone face to face.

It was time to approach the gate. We drove up to the south entrance of THE actual Yellowstone National Park (YNP) to finally see it for ourselves.

South Entrance to Yellowstone
South Entrance to Yellowstone
The main route around YNP is visible as a red eight in the middle of this map. Can you see it? Keep this in mind when you read about the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ loop.

Is There A ‘Quiet’ Season?

We went in the off-peak or shoulder season; fall. That’s the only reason why we thought we could pull up at Yellowstone’s south entrance late in September at about 10 am one morning without a single reservation.

After a warm welcome from the ranger at the south entrance, B flashed our national parks pass and that took care of the formalities.

Friendly rangers at Yellowstone NP
Friendly rangers at Yellowstone NP to inspire young Junior Rangers of the future!

The America The Beautiful Pass is a blatant bargain at only $80 if you plan to visit more than two national parks in a year. The real beauty of the card is that it gives you access to more than 2000 American recreational sites, you save money and it makes getting into parks super easy! More Info Here

The Innate Helpful Ranger Nature

The ranger informed us, with the customary big smile, that the campgrounds in the south and in most of the park were either already closed for the winter season or could only accommodate a maximum RV length of 25ft. Our motorhome was 28ft wich left us with limited options. Umph!

Guided by the innate helpful-ranger-nature, he gave us a long list of campgrounds situated inside and outside YNP, together with every possible park map we could wish for. This is done at every gate and it’s all available at every visitor centre.

Note: No need to take heaps of crumpled up unwanted maps from returning Yellowstone RV’rs while you’re on your way there, unless you want to help recylce of course.

South Yellowstone
South Yellowstone

By now, only a few weeks into our 90-day RV road trip, we’ve established that all United States park rangers are friendly and helpful and in our personal experience: without fail! This remained true as we circled YNP and the U.S.

Rangers have access to a live system where they can check the availability of campgrounds inside the park. This system is used, as far as we could tell, at the main entrances and the visitor centres. They can’t make reservations for you, but it’s handy to know that you can ask and check what’s available when you get there.

South Yellowstone
South Yellowstone

Yellowstone Is Bigger Than You Think

On our first day in YNP, we drove about 150 miles in just over 4 hours from Colter Bay in Grand Teton NP, through the south entrance of Yellowstone to Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner at the north entrance.

Yes, Yellowstone is a massive 8,991 km² (nearly 3,500 sq miles) and larger than the US states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

The drive took much longer than expected, mainly due to roadworks but also because we drove slow enough to drink in the weird and wonderful scenery around us.

Mammoth, North Yellowstone
A breathtaking 360 degree view from a hill near Mammoth campgrounds in North Yellowstone. Somewhere in the distance only a mile from the north entrance, lies Gardiner, Montana where we spent our first night.
Mammoth, North Yellowstone
The general store in Mammoth, North Yellowstone where you can buy pretty postcards and trinkets, and hot drinks to warm cold hands in fall and winter.

Ready To Role. Or R V? 🙂

Maps steeped and balanced on my lap, we were set to explore, not knowing how long we would stay for or where even. Remember, we were terrified of RV’ing Yellowstone in the snow. So we wanted the flexibility to bail as soon as news of the first expected flake arrived. Therefore, no reservations and this ‘let’s wing it’ approach.

Loving our “adventurous” spirit at this point (she says as her nervous twitch leaves her nearly blind in the left eye), I started to work my way down the list, calling whenever I had cellphone reception. No luck. Our best bet was to try for a first-come-first-serve spot at the next campground, which was Madison Campground and then Mammoth Campground after that. Norris was closed.

South Yellowstone
South Yellowstone in late September (early fall/autumn)

Fingers Crossed

Some campsites inside the park offer same-day sites on a first-come-first-serve basis, but they usually fill up early in the morning.

Madison Campground at the west gate was our first choice for camping because of its central location, but their same-day sites fill up unbelievably fast. Their regular RV campsites were full for the next few nights, but we booked the first available night only three days away. We decided to make our way to Mammoth Hot Springs near the north gate where they still had a few same-day spots available.

Fingers crossed we’d get there in time to camp.

Gardiner, Montana. North Yellowstone
The triumphal Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone’s north entrance. Constructed under the supervision of the US Army at Fort Yellowstone, its cornerstone was laid down by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, Montana. North Yellowstone

Astonishing Amazing Astounding

If you can think of another word that starts with an ‘a’ to describe something that leaves you speechless in a positive way, please comment below? I’d like to add it to this cheesy, yet accurate heading.

It’s strange, eerie even, to see smoke come out of the earth’s surface for the first time, in so many places at once, on either side of the road while gushing geysers can erupt anytime. Just a little further down the road anglers cast their lines into steamy rivers. It could be the perfect setting for the next zombie apocalypse movie. The anglers would be the first to go. Sorry guys.

We looked around open-mouthed, eyebrows raised, big eyes filled with confusion. At first glance, it was not what we expected. Looks of are-you-seeing-this passed between us, all wondering where the heck we are and what the frick is going on? What is this place we’ve driven so far to see?

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park: lush forests on one side and almost wasteland-like scenes on the other.

Super Curious & Excited

We couldn’t wait to get into the long and short of it all to learn what Yellowstone is all about. Neither could I Google the facts because cellphone reception does not live in Yellowstone. Almost as if they planned it, we had to wait to get to the Albright Visitor Centre in Mammoth Hot Springs to learn more.

Why is it called Yellowstone and why does it look so strange with so many geysers, hot springs and the dramatic environmental changes only a short distance apart? You’ll see lush alpine forests and scenic rivers flowing on one side while on the other hand a dead piece of smouldering earth with bare black trees as if a raging fire tore through it only a short while ago.

Thankfully, we only found out the full-scale answers on our last night during a late-night ranger talk under the stars, or we probably would’ve turned around and left sooner.

Just kidding.

(But seriously, if you want to know what I’m on about, read all the way to the bottom and follow the links to the next days’ diary entry post)

Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park
Natural Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Drastic changes in environment with dramatic scenery like this at Yellowstone National Park.

We didn’t stop at any of the view points on the first day, not only because we wanted to find a campsite first, but also because we couldn’t find parking anywhere. I thought this was supposed to be the ‘quiet’ season.

With a unanimous resolve to go back again early one morning to find parking so that we could do the west side of the bottom loop properly, we settled back in our seats, content with our comfortable views from inside the RV. While we crawled along the upper Grand Loop road to Mammoth and stood dead-still for almost half an hour at the roadworks, I made a quick bite to eat and kept the snacks coming. We didn’t have to get creative when nature called either, another perk of travelling in a motorhome.

Mammoth, North Yellowstone

Albright Visitor Center – Mammoth, North Yellowstone
Male Elk in rut at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone NP
Male Elk in rut fighting at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone NP. They go to Mammoth Hot Springs each fall (autumn) to mate. The males are grumpy and easily agitated so be careful and stay a good clear distance away from the herd. You can see our RV in the background

Mammoth Hot Springs

By the time we reached Mammoth Hot Springs, it was late in the afternoon and herds of Elk freely roamed while Rangers were on-post outside to keep an eye on things for everyone’s safety.

Elk at Mammoth Hot Spring
Elk at Mammoth Hot Spring in fall for mating season.

Visitors must keep a safe distance from Elk and any wild animals at all times because they ARE wild and can be dangerous, but people still go up too close! Why would you? Some visitors are a handful and give the Rangers all their days to ensure safety for all.

I say ‘them’ because we saw ‘them’ do it. Tourists with big cameras who think the biggest deer with the tallest antlers will calmly pose for a close up as if in a zoo behind a fence. Or something to that effect I suppose. Luckily, a ranger was nearby to stop one of ‘them’ from being gored (yes-yes, overly dramatic, I know) in front of our eyes by a huge male in rut.

Elk at Mammoth Hot Spring

Elk in Mammoth, North Yellowstone. I was safely inside the RV or standing behind something far away from where I could zoom in to photograph all the Elk.
Male Elk in rut at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone NP
Our rented El Monte RV parked near the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

No Luck. Keep Looking

At the Albright visitor centre, they confirmed what we feared; that Mammoth campground was now full and that we’d have to find an overnight spot in Gardiner, a characterful rodeo town situated right by the North gate in the state of Montana.

Sadly, we just missed their rodeo season because I would’ve loved to have seen one.

The Two Bit Saloon in Gardiner, Montana near Yellowstone
The Two Bit Saloon in Gardiner, Montana near Yellowstone
Gardiner Rodeo - This is cowboy country!
Gardiner Rodeo – This is cowboy country!

After we got the kids each a Junior Ranger book at the Albright Visitor centre and discovered more about Mammoth Hot Springs from the cool exhibits, we took a quick walk over to the Mammoth Hot Springs terrace for a sneak peek. We didn’t go onto the walkway as we still had to find a campsite, so we made our way to Gardiner, Montana where we eventually found space at Yellowstone RV Park for the night.

Distance Traveled: 150 miles (5-6hrs)

Yellowstone National Park was named after the Yellowstone River

Gardiner, Montana. North Yellowstone
Yellowstone RV Campsite, Gardiner, Montana. North Yellowstone
Mammoth. North Yellowstone
Yellowstone RV Park, Gardiner, Montana. North Yellowstone

Yellowstone RV Park, Gardiner – North Yellowstone

It’s a smallish campground with gravel pull-through and back-in sites. They are unique in that they have premium sites overlooking the Yellowstone River. Although it cost much more than campgrounds inside YNP, we can recommend it for RV’s because they get the basics right, it’s close to Mammoth (6mi), and you’re next to the Yellowstone River.

Unless you have a dog, you don’t want to end up taking the last spot next to the doggie-walk grass patch, like us.

They have more amenities for RV’rs than in-park sites, such as free cable TV, wi-fi, full hookups, clean showers and laundry facilities which makes it good value for money. I’m not sure how the big rigs coped, but access was fine for our 28ft motorhome and we were parked next to an A-class motorhome the size of a bus.

We give Yellowstone RV Park in Gardiner, Montana a 4️⃣ / 5.


Our rating system is a simple number system of 1 to 5:

5️⃣ Excellent
4️⃣ Good
3️⃣ OK, But Explore Other Options If You Can
2️⃣ Bad. Worse Than Expected
1️⃣ Terrible. Avoid


NOW READ:

Diary RV USA Road Trip Days 10-13: Yellowstone National Park

14 Helpful Tips For Your Visit To Yellowstone National Park

FOR YOU TO PIN

Tips To Visit Yellowstone National Park
Tips To Visit Yellowstone National Park
Tips to visit Yellowstone National Park
Tips to visit Yellowstone National Park

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2 Comments

  1. I love your wonder and excitement at experiencing Yellowstone for the first time! That opal pool really does look like an opal. The elk are incredible too. Thanks for sharing your introduction to YNP.

  2. Thank you Cynthia! The names of the geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone adequately describe their main characteristics and yes, opal pool fits 100%. Glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for reading and commenting.

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