Yellowstone National Park, July Long Weekend 2017

2500 kilometers in 6 days and we maybe spent 8 hours in the park?

Beautiful Kelly Mandeville and I got the van back on the road over the long weekend (Canada Day and Independence Day) and had a pretty fun time in Montana. We saw lots of rivers, ate bbq, enjoyed drink specials, snuck into pools, ate great breakfasts, flirted with mermaids, and saw two parades! It was awesome. We had zero agenda for this trip and only decided on the Yellowstone area a few days before we left.

This is the first trip we've had auto issues -- some engine overheating, but $300 later things were fine. Considering we've driven over 15,000 kms on our trips now, I'm pretty happy with our breakdown and maintenance numbers. We'd intended to drive back home through Kalispell but decided to go the more direct route home with less climbing.

This is the first trip

Yellowstone National Park: spoiler alert, we didn't find it that exciting.

In the last couple of years there seems to have been a re-emergence of interest in the famed Yellowstone National Park -- I'm not sure if they have a new PR company or crafted a wildly new mission statement, but there's definitely been a spike in publicity as evidenced by a full issue of National Geographic magazine and a big push to attract International (Chinese) tourism. 

Regardless, gas is cheap right now, so go for a visit!

Dork aside: Yellowstone is one of the only parks in North America showing a growth in online interest. There's been a pretty severe decline in online interest for many of North America's largest parks over the last dozen years (Grand Canyon in particular).


The Trip

We spent a long time (11 hours) on the road to get to the park, thinking we'd probably spend 3-4 days camping, cooking, lazing, and going on assorted hikes, but we actually only spent 7-8 hours in the park spread over two days. The main tourist sites in the park are nice,  but there's really not a lot else to do.

Yellowstone coles notes: The park was founded in 1872 and was the first National Park in the US, coming in at 8,991 km² spread across Wyoming (mostly), Montana and Idaho; for comparison, Banff National park is 6,641 km² and Grand Canyon National Park is 4,926 km². The whole park is on a volcano that hasn't gone off in over 600,000 years -- if it did, it would be over 6000 times larger than Mount St. Helens; that's nuts. 

There's four or five notable venues within the park (Old faithful, Prismatic Springs, the Grand canyon, a lake, Towerfalls, and assorted hot springs). There's also a lot of really tame bison & elk, rivers and some mountains.

The disappointing part for both of us was that it felt like you were trapped on a small road being shepherded from tourist attraction to next attraction with no opportunity for escape. There were very few areas to turn off for lunches, relaxing or getting a little off the grid. This is probably a good tactic for natural environment preservation but gave it a bit of a "greatest hits" feel -- the hits are nice though :)

Overall, you can bust through the park in less than a day or two. I'd never recommend the park itself as a multi-day destination to people unless you've never seen this type of environment before or are staying at one of the plush hotels beside the larger sites. There were a few camp grounds but we didn't even explore them -- they were packed. There is definitely a lot to see, but you'll be doing it from specific vantage points accompanied by big parking lots and lines of cars waiting to get into them.

We enjoyed the outpost before you get in the park, West Yellowstone (pop. 1,300), a super fun little town that has an ornamental western feel, bbq, chinese food, and some good salad bars. We based ourselves in Livingston which is further away, but only a 40 minute drive to the north gate of the park (more on it later).

Of the major attractions in the park, we found the geysers and prismatic pools to be the most interesting. They're large and colourful, you can smell the sulfur while steam blows across your face. There are definitely times where you have this prehistoric feeling. 

protip: Try to go to see Old Faithful close to the end of the day. We showed up an hour early for the last geyser of the day (it goes off every 90 minutes, check it's official twitter for the best timing) which allowed us to get a "front row" seat on the baordwalk. There, we watched the bison, drank beer, ate charcurie, and enjoyed the temperature start to wane for the day. Our whole drive back to Yellowstone City after the geyser eruption was in this gorgeous mix of velvet painting colours -- the whole valley has the appearance of being on fire, a fun effect from the geyser steam and red sky.

Montana's terrific sign culture?!

A quick walk down Shelby's historic main street.

One of the things I love about Montana is the historic store front signage that seems to be so prevelant -- I'm not sure when or how it emerged, but some of these small cities have so many amazing signs, it baffles the mind.

When you're driving through the state, do yourself a favour when you hit the highway gas turn off, and take a few extra minutes to hit the main historic street. Shelby (pop. 3,300 and only 30 minutes from the Canadian border) has some amazing large scale marquee and neon signs; the photos below are from a single 3 block street  -- only 1 minute from the Exxon station!

Livingston, Montana!!!

This little city (7500 people) is about 40 minutes from the northern entry to Yellowstone.

The fiance and I ended up spending three nights in Livingston, Montana and had a blast! This is a really fun little town that has some great restaurants, happy hours, parks and people. I think we'd both recommend it, and I wouldn't mind going back sometime. It had a real lake town summer vacation feel to it, which doesn't really make sense because it has a railway track going through the middle, is lined by a river on the other side, and is super windy -- travel doesn't always make sense!

This was a great place for downtown camping! We stayed right on the main strip just outside a laundry mat that had free wifi and a very clean bathroom that was open from 5am to midnight -- this is a pretty huge coup when it comes to van life.  During the day we'd trundle off to Yellowstone or the river and at night we'd park downtown hit a happy hour, go for a swim and have a great dinner. We'd normally fall asleep in the back of the van drinking wine and watching Netflix (civilized, right?). Both of us agreed that we'd probably never be able to "regular camp" again after this trip.

Go to Livingston if you're close, enjoy a $2 happy hour and have some good food & beer.

protips: Other Cafe for breakfast; Copper John's for a cheap happy hour in an empty room, plus the hotel has an easy pool to sneak into (or you can pay $6 and use the facilities and the provide a towel); Katabatic for tasty beer; Mark's In & Out for a late night burgers.

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