One Day (and gluten free) in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park was established at the USA’s first national park in 1872, to help preserve and showcase it’s amazing surroundings. It is comprised of 3,500 square feet of pure natural beauty, and is sort of, kind of, in the middle of nowhere. So, doing it all in one day sounds a little much, right? Well, that might be all the time that is allotted to you, and due to our own extenuating circumstances, it was the only amount of time we had to explore. Regardless of your time-limit, any amount of your existence spent in the park will be worth the feat of your travels. Point is, it is possible, and here is how!
Firstly, it is important to pre-plan your trip as much as possible. Some hotels within the park, or just outside of it sell-out a year ahead. Secondly, reserve a car. You will need that, unless you’re doing a day-tour with a company, in which case, this entire article might be entirely worthless to you. I digress…
Arrive/leave from Bozeman, MT (Saturday evening- Sunday morning)
We turbulently flew into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Montana, which is closest to the West Yellowstone entrance. My first thoughts were, why do I feel dizzy, and does it already feel like late Fall in early September? Bozeman sits at nearly 5,000 ft. above sea level, which explains the altitude shock. I also found out that this region only gets a couple of months of true Summer…Brrr. Bozeman is a cute city, and has some great eats. We arrived late at night, and after traveling all day, we were left exhausted and famished (‘hangry’ would be a nice way of putting it). We decided to eat at Blackbird, an exquisite restaurant on the main street in downtown, with some delish local, organic, and gluten-free options.
Out of convenience, we stayed at the nearby Holiday Inn Express and Suites (Bozeman West) which costed us around $150 for the evening. You can almost always rely on a Holiday Inn Express to be clean, right? The front-concierge staff member gave us a Yellowstone map (see photo) and some of his own tips, and somehow, despite being half-asleep, we established a tentative plan of action for the following day. In the AM, we stopped by Cafe M for grade-A coffee and yummy gluten-free breakfast treats. Wish we had more time to explore Bozeman, as the public library looked amazing, and apparently, there are some awesome vintage stores to explore. Oh, well, next time!
En-route to West Yellowstone, MT
This is around a two-hour drive, mostly one lane, and mostly no cell phone coverage. There are only couple of gas stations on the way to make bathroom/snack stops, and a good midway point is Big Sky Resort. My recommendation? Snack up, and enjoy being off the grid for a moment! If you are lucky enough for clear weather, the drive is stunning and it will feel great to sit back and take it all in! Oh, and make sure to bring someone else to do the driving : )
West Yellowstone, MT (Part One)
We were ready for lunch when we arrived outside the entrance of the park. I had heard that food is hard to come by once inside, since there are not many restaurants or cafes, not to mention because it was a long-weekend (= crowds). We decided to make a stop at Serenity Bistro for lunch before heading inside the park. I was excited about their gluten-free menu, which was mentioned on Yelp, only to find out it is only available at night 🙁 I decided to eat french fries and salad, which was… fine. Apparently, their non-gluten free sandwiches were good, according to the family’s taste buds.
Yellowstone National Park, MT/WY
Wow wow wow! But let’s talk fees first. $30 gets your entire carload in for a whole week. If you know you’re going to be a regular, then you can pay $50 for the year, or even better, you can pay $80 for a National Park annual pass and tour the countries’ best. Or, if you are over the age of 62, you can pay just $10 for an Interagency Senior LIFETIME pass, including your entire carload though the elder one does need to be present (thankfully my dad is an old dude, who purchased this lifetime pass a while back, which means we saved $$$ and didn’t have to wait in the enormous line to get in).
I think we underestimated how busy it would be (did I mention that enormous line just to get into the park?), and I am not certain I would recommend anyone visiting over a long-holiday. But again, this area doesn’t get much of a Summer, and I’ve heard that the months of July and August can be brutal, heat-wise. So I guess it’s slim pickings, and most are going to pick the weekend with the most consecutive work days off. Like we did. C’est la vie!
Back to wow-ing you.. It’s even prettier than what you’ve seen on Pinterest, in calendars, postcards, etc. While driving, it can sometimes feel like you’re on a different planet, with its bizarre topography masked by hot spring steam. It is sort of akin to Hawaii or Iceland, in terms of geography. Utilizing the map and some of the tips provided to us, we decided to do the Western Loop, and in five hours we were able to see the Fountain Paint Pots, the Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful (because duh!*), Yellowstone Lake and the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon region, and even got to peak at some wild animals (including moose and buffalo). *see below for maximizing your time to make sure you see an eruption.
Following the map/loop we did the following in order:
Fountain Paint Pots: The Painted Pots aren’t far from the entrance, but it may seem like it, when there is LA-like traffic in a National Park. We realized that the traffic isn’t just caused by the crowd, but because people will completely stop to take a look at the wild animals strolling by. Some people even have the audacity not only to stop, but also to get out of their vehicles and Grizzly Man it up (PLEASE don’t do this. It’s not cool to place your life or the animal’s life in danger, or to cause further traffic).
Side note, you will see some amazing wild animals grazing the land. If you make it to the pots, the hot springs and their vibrant colors will astonish you (the one time I am all about bacteria). Shout out to the Holiday Inn Express concierge for recommending this one!
Midway Geyser Basin: This was an impromptu stop…meaning, we saw a lot of hot steam and a bunch of parked cars and our curiosity was piqued. Besides the traffic, you may have to park a fair distance away, especially if you plan to see some of these highlights during peak tourist season. So, strap on that FitBit and good hiking shoes! This basin and surrounding hot springs and geysers are amazing. 400 gallons per minute of boiling water pouring out into steam is pretty fascinating to watch. The basin has an easy loop
trail, but even with the hot steam, it was pretty cold. Add a winter jacket to that packing list! While checking out these amazing sites, please make sure to stay safe, and stay on the boardwalks created by the National Park Service. If you haven’t heard, a young man recently lost his life in the Norris Geyser Basin, because he left the boardwalk to hot pot (swim in the springs), and fell in while testing the temperature. Some of these pools are extremely hot (like boiling hot), as well as deep and quite acidic. Again, respect the rules, so that we can continue to enjoy this majestic land together.
Old Faithful: Holy geyser! Did you know the word ‘geyser’ is Icelandic, and is named after Iceland’s ‘Great Geyser?’ This area was hands-down the most crowded, which is also due to the Old Faithful Lodge (a really nice hotel) having food, areas to hangout, and most importantly, heating and bathrooms. By the grace of God, we found a parking spot, since otherwise people were parking a good distance away. Upon arrival, there was unsurprisingly a huuuuuge crowd which only continued to grow as time passed on. Old Faithful generally erupts every 45 minutes, or so. Check online or ask a park ranger for a rough schedule so you time it as close as you can. We got there about 15 minutes before the eruption, and grabbed decent seating. Keep in mind, people can get sensitive about seating politics.
In one instance, as I stood up from the plank to stretch for a moment and move around to avoid frost bite, I really upset the woman behind me, who I was apparently now blocking (someone needs to breathe in some more of ‘em negative ions). You never know when she is going to actually erupt (not the lady I was blocking…but the geyser), since she likes to tease. I think I have a good seven videos from continuously pressing ‘play’, in anticipation that she was going to erupt. Luckily, it was captured at the right time, and it was glorious. You could feel the heat radiating from the blow, and feel the gratitude of not being a foot closer. Glad I got to cross this one of the bucket list!
Yellowstone Lake: Sitting pretty at nearly 8,000 ft above sea level, this lake is the largest fresh water lake over 7,000 ft in North America. If you are doing the loop, you won’t be able to miss it’s 110 ft of shoreline. We took a moment to veer off trail and take in the beauty. Did I mention it is frozen half of the year? I told you this place is cold!
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Grand Canyon of Yellowstone: Not to get it confused with Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, this is a lot more green, and a lot less canyon-y. But wow, what a stark difference compared to the western parts previously visited. The view of the waterfall, with its beautiful trail(s) are fantastic. Great selfie opportunities await!
Two areas I was sad to not have time to visit were the Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone’s Boiling River Swimming Area, where you can soak in the warmth of hot spring water. Always leave some to enjoy for the next time, right?
West Yellowstone, MT (Part Two)
Once leaving the park, our two prerogatives were checking into our hotel/cabin and getting some real calories in (you can only eat so many snacks). We checked into our hotel-like cabin (Explorer Cabins), which is a two-bedroom stand-alone cabin. It has a beautiful communal fire pit outside (that turns on at night, on its own…mmhmm), and we were sad to not have more time to spend enjoying it.
We purchased this through the National Park Reservations website, and the cost was about $460/night. Yes, most things are expensive in the middle of nowhere. For dinner, we returned to Serenity Bistro, to finally have their wonderfully-acclaimed Gluten-free bread and food. Unfortunately, they ran out of gluten free bread and the dinner wasn’t anything to write home about. I wound probably check out a different restaurant, if and when I am there next. While waiting to take our food to-go, we stopped by one of the two grocery stores in town,
Market Place, where we found an entire frozen food section of gluten-free goodies! Wish we would have known about this prior to dropping a pretty penny on very mediocre restaurant food, since our cabin had a full kitchen. At least we grabbed some gluten free graham crackers for s’mores (the cabin included a kit!). We spent the evenings warming up next to the fire, enjoying s’more and talking to our neighbors who shared the flames with us. A perfect evening, to end a perfect day.
I don’t regret the little time we spent in the park, but instead treasure it, and look forward to planning our next adventure there. I hope this helps in planning yours!
As always, Buen Camino!
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