When we were checking in to Mammoth Campground the host told us sheíd given us the best site in the camp, and, in hind site, it was true. One of the complaints about this campground is it is situated in between a switchback so you are subjected to the noise of traffic trying to climb the relatively steep incline on both sides of the park. Our site was at the far back corner of the campground so were we not subjected to the traffic noise. And, we were the last site in the camp, perched far up on a hill, overlooking the rest of the campground. We spent many a day just watching camp activity from our observation point.
On the front of the RV there is a side-to-side leveling device visible in the rear view mirror. It took me while to figure out why it is put in such an odd location, but once I figured it out, it made perfect sense. When pulling into a spot you can watch the rear view mirror to pick the most level spot in the site. Then, if needed, you do the final side-to-side leveling by placing leveling blocks at the tires and driving over them. Once disconnected from the truck the RV can be leveled front to back with electric jack stands at the front of the RV. As long as we were in relatively treeless terrain, this worked like a champ. Now that we were in tree territory, we found out finding the sunniest spot in the campsite for the solar panels was more important than finding the most level spot. After two days we bit the bullet and repositioned the RV into the sunniest spot on our site. Another Rving lesson learned.
Five miles north of Mammoth Springs Campground is the town of Gardiner, MT. The north entrance to the park is located just at the edge of town, and is the only entrance into Yellowstone that is open year round. Gardiner was where we went for laundry, hot showers, fuel and food supplies. Hot showers were $4, but they didnít say anything about not sharing, so we did.
To the south, behind our campsite, was a
fairly steep hill leading to the Mammoth Springs section of the park.
Mammoth Springs has a post office, a major security office, hotels, stores, gas
station, and many building dating from the earliest days of the park and itís
cavalry camp. Most of the building in the Mammoth Hot Springs area were in need
of serious maintenance, with the glaring exception being the security building. It
was obviously a recent addition, in impeccable condition, and fairly large
considering itís jurisdiction. Iíd say most medium sized towns would be proud
to have this as a courthouse. There was no shortage of gun toting rangers
coming and going. The security procedures in the park included having your
credentials shown as you were leaving the park, as well as arriving. Certainly
the high state of security seemed to be working as I didnít hear of a single
terrorist incident in the park in our whole two weeks.
Going to Mammoth Springs quickly became the standard walk for Buddy and I. We had a decent three mile loop that we would walk once of twice a day that included a 300í ascent. 300í isnít much for all you iron men out there but it had me huffing and puffing by the time Iíd hit the top. Steering clear of the always present wandering herds of bison and elk was like a chess game as youíd never know if theyíd be around the corner of the next building.
Access to the interior of the park is provided by a system of roads forming an 8 right in the middle of the park. Other access roads branch off of this 8 but they are all short runs to particular spots. The northeast section of this road was closed during our stay so we really only had access to a 6. Virtually all of the short access roads were closed. Most of the observation points, except in the north west quarter of the park, were only accessible by dealing with large amounts of snow and ice. This was all fine with me, as Iíd rather deal with snow and cold than crowds and idiocy.
On our first day in the park we took the access road south as far as Old Faithful, about 1/3 of the way around the park. As we were to learn later, from Old Faithful, south and to the east, the road was opened, but deep snow banks hampered visibility. About a week into our stay we drove as far as possible through the park, able to complete a 150 mile loop. We made one more driving attempt, driving the northern section of the road to the point it was closed.
There seems to be several ways to see national parks and Yellowstone was the most glaring example of this. You can drive through the park and stop at whatever observation point you want, possibly walking as much as 10í to peer over the guard rail. Hikers and bikers are particularly catered to as the system and quality of the trails is exceptional. If you have enough money, the park system is more than willing to level vast areas for the building of hotels and restaurants, run by private corporations, to cater to your national park experience. One thing you canít do, apparently, is bring your dog. Even if one is aware of, and follows, the rules, rangers seem to have no problem letting you know that you, and your dog, are not welcome. Not all the rangers, not many actually, but enough to get irritating.
Yellowstone Park is different from the other parks weíve visited in its vast and impressive geologic oddities, and in the wild animal life that is constantly around. The hot springs and the geysers were all over the park, but you visited them when you wanted to. The animals were always there. Herds of elk moved through the campgrounds on a regular basis. Herds of bison would move past the campground but only a few at a time would move through the park. There was the occasional single bull that would just go wherever he wanted. On a couple of occasions, while walking through the park, Iíd come face to face with one of these lone bulls walking down the road. Being the gentleman that I am, I always gave way, with utmost respect, when I found myself in the path of one of these fellows. The elk were a constant and one had best look around when exiting the RV as there was sure to be one somewhere close by.
One memorable bison occasion was watching a herd of maybe twenty five or thirty bison moving past the campground. The females and young ones were up front with a couple of bulls hanging a bit back, but following the herd. The two bulls started pawing the dirt, then fell down and wallowed in the freshly pawed ground, raising a cloud of dust. They then got up and started butting heads and pushing each other around. Our hillside campsite was a perfect observation point for watching this action.
We talked to many people who were fortunate enough to see bears, but were didnít have any such luck. On our very first days explore we did see a coyote hunting mice in the snow along a riverbank. And sharp-eyed Donna spotted a wolf along another river. Even though we managed to get pulled off the road and back to observe the wolf, it blended in with the woods so well it was difficult to see.
The Grand Tetons (you all know what that translated to, donít you?) are just to the south of Yellowstone and accessible from inside Yellowstone Park. We did make the journey south to see them. I will say they were beautiful, and spectacular, but I would not do the 250 mile round trip to see them again. Maybe weíve been in the Rockies so long were getting a little numbed to the splendor of snow covered mountain peaks. Or, it could be 250 miles of driving inside a national park, even in the offseason, brought us into contact with enough nit-whit drivers to push us over the edge. I canít imagine how frustrating it is to visit a place like this in season.
Even though the park is dependent on an old, narrow, two-lane road, to process the tourist load, they do a decent job of trying to make the best of the situation. Every Ĺ mile there is a sigh asking slower drivers to use the pullouts. And, about every Ĺ mile or so, there are nice, large, easily accessible pullouts. We used them regularly when we were in rubbernecking mode, and itís hard not to be in that mode when you are in an area of the park thatís new. Most people are actually pretty good about using them. But, as we all know, it only takes about 2% of the crowd to screw up the whole system. It never ceased to amaze me how someone can be going 20 mph under the speed limit, with 10 or 15 cars stacked up behind them, and not get the message. And then when frustrated people start risking everyoneís lives to pass said numbskull, they still donít get it. I greatly enjoyed our stay in Yellowstone, but I think Iíd rather drive a cab in New York City than visit this place in peak season.
For staying in one location for two solid weeks, we really didnít do a lot that we couldnít have done elsewhere. Our campsite was so nice it was great to just hang out and relax. Besides the entertainment of watching camp life, the view from our site was spectacular. And itís hard to beat $7 a night. So we did an extreme amount of nothing and greatly enjoyed doing it.
Photos: North entrance, campground, snow dog, Mammoth Springs, Yellowstone, Old Faithful, Old Faithful Inn, bison, elk