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Top Shots in Yellowstone National Park

Todd Rightsell takes us on a photographic truck camping adventure through Yellowstone National Park including wildlife encounters, geothermal features, and some of the best hikes in the world.

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One of the primary reasons I purchased my Northstar truck camper back in 2005 was Yellowstone National Park.  I didn’t know much of anything about the place, but I was hell bent on going!

Yellowstone was the best destination decision I ever made, a real truck camper’s paradise.  That first trip literally changed my whole way of thinking about the world and life in general.  The next seven trips to Yellowstone just embedded it.  It’s a truly amazing place.  Put this one on your bucket list!

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Yellowstone National Park is the first, and best, National Park in the country.  This national treasure is the crown jewel of the US Park Service and the envy of the entire world.  The park is also the blueprint for every National Park, not only in the United States, but the world over.

You could literally spend months at Yellowstone (I have) and just barely scratch the surface.  There is so much to do and see in Yellowstone that planning a trip there can be overwhelming.  I’m hoping that the information in this article can help cut through some of the confusion and give you ideas for your first, or next, trip to the park.

Because Yellowstone is such a special place and has so much to offer, it warrants a slightly different approach from the traditional Top Shots format.  So rather than just show you a few photos from this past summer’s stay in the park, I have decided to take you on a journey through the whole of Yellowstone from my own (albeit sometimes different) perspective.

The pictures below offer a glimpse of what you will see as you enter Yellowstone through the main gate and drive the figure eight park road.  I hope you enjoy the tour.

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No matter what direction you approach Yellowstone National Park from, you simply will not believe how beautiful it is.  As you get closer to the park, the anticipation builds as the scenery gets better and better.  Even before I got to the entrance gate, I knew I’d be back again.

Roosevelt Arch stands like a sentinel at the main entrance in Gardiner, Montana.  Before entering the park, take a bit of time to explore Gardiner.  It’s really small, but a neat place with some interesting shops.  Do not plan on buying groceries here.  You‘ll be sorry if you do!

“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”; like the sign says, enjoy it.

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After entering the park through the arch, you will climb steadily uphill to the even smaller town of Mammoth Hot Springs.  The park headquarters is here and, consequently, this is one of the most developed and crowded parts of the park.  The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is here as well as several shops, two restaurants, a visitor’s center, and a gas station.  The main draw however, is the terraced slopes of the Hot Springs, but only when the resident elk aren’t lying around the town square!

The campground at Mammoth Hot Springs is the only campground in the park open year round.  If you feel like braving the -30F temps of February, knock yourself out.

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Traveling south a few miles from Mammoth brings you to the Golden Gate area and Bunsen Peak.  At 8,564 feet in elevation, Bunsen Peak is a great day hike affording panoramic views of the entire northwestern quadrant of the park.  It’s a bit of a grunt to get to the top, but the views from along the trail and the top are well worth the effort.

If you have the stamina to climb the 1,300 feet to the summit, you’ll be treated to sweeping views of Swan Flats to the south and the Gallatin Mountains to the north and west.  In my opinion, this is one of the best hikes in Yellowstone.  The views are some of the best in the park, chances of a wildlife encounter are pretty good, and the summit register at the top is inspiring.  The small notebooks in this steel box date back decades and make for great reading while eating your lunch.

All in all, it’s a great way to spend a half a day or more in the park.  To the top and back is about three miles, or you can make a loop of about seven miles which will take you down the back side of Bunsen Peak and past Osprey Falls before returning to the trailhead.

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The next major stop heading south will be Norris Junction.  This is a really neat area and has a lot to offer.  Maybe that’s why they put a campground here!

In peak season, Norris Junction Campground can be hard to get into because there are no reservations taken.  If you are lucky enough to get in, you should stay a couple of nights.  In the photograph above is Norris Geyser Basin, which is a short walk from the campground.  In the evening, the colors here can be fantastic.

In addition to the geyser basin, the Museum of the National Park Ranger is here as well.  This is a don’t miss.  It is very interesting and usually staffed by a retired park ranger with great stories to tell.  It made me appreciate the the park rangers even more than before.

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Madison Junction is the next major area you will come to as you head south from Norris.  The Gibbon and Firehole Rivers meet here to form the Madison River, which is one of the premiere trout streams in all of North America.

In this photograph you can see the Gibbon River just above its junction with the Firehole.  The park road is visible too.  This was taken from the top of Purple Mountain, which is another great day hike.

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There is a large campground here along the banks of the Madison River.  If you like to fish, this is a great place to spend a few nights.  Within an hour’s drive of this location are several prime fly fishing spots on blue ribbon streams, not to mention the great fishing on the Madison itself right at the campground.

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This photograph was taken about one mile south of Madison Junction on the park road.  In Yellowstone, animals are king.  They pretty much wander wherever they please.  And, just like people, they take the easy way when they can.

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The Firehole River is aptly named.  Scalding hot water gushes into this river 24/7 from the surrounding geyser basins.  The park road runs along the Firehole for several miles as it passes by some of the park’s larger geyser and thermal basins.  There is even a Firehole River swimming area; a great place to cool off in the summer.  This photograph was taken from the footbridge across the river at Midway Geyser Basin.

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Continuing south from Midway Geyser Basin, you will pass several other geyser basins before arriving at Old Faithful.

Old Faithful is the most famous sight in the park.  You’ve seen the pictures, but you have got to see it for yourself to believe it.  Yes, it will be crowded, but when that thing goes off it is unlike anything you will ever see.  It’s mother nature at her best.

The Old Faithful complex is by far the most crowded spot in the park.   The complex is like a small town with inns, shops, a visitor’s center, a gas station, restaurants, and more.  Unfortunately, there is no campground at Old Faithful.

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Even as crowded as the Old Faithful area is, it’s worthy of a full day of exploring.  There are plenty of trails to walk with some of the most amazing scenery (and oddities) you will ever see in nature.

This photograph is just one of the many hot springs you’ll see in the area.  There are several miles of bike trails too.  If you like to ride, be sure to bring your wheels.  I have to admit that it’s probably the best place I have ever found to ride a bike.  Bison notwithstanding.

After leaving Old Faithful, the park road winds up and over the Continental Divide.  This area is mostly wooded and you probably won’t see a whole lot until you get near Yellowstone Lake and the West Thumb/Grant Village area.

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There is an easy walk that leaves from the West Thumb Geyser Basin parking area and climbs to the top of a small ridge overlooking Yellowstone Lake.  It’s only about a mile or so one way and the climb isn’t too bad.  It’s a great walk and gives you a sweeping view of the lake and distant mountains.

Be alert though, and carry bear spray, as this area is prime Grizzly territory.  If that makes you nervous, this is also one of the Ranger led walks from the West Thumb area.  I did this with a Ranger led group one year and had a blast.  We didn’t get to the top of the ridge, as there was a large herd of elk on the trail and they were a bit aggressive as we approached.  The Ranger turned us back.  Nobody complained!

Yellowstone Lake is huge.  When you leave the West Thumb/Grant Village area, the park road follows it for several miles and the scenery along much of the way is fantastic.  Yellowstone Lake is one of the largest alpine lakes in the United States.  The whole thing freezes solid in the winter, something I just can’t imagine after having seen it.  Of course, here in the sunny south our lakes don’t freeze in the winter!

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After you leave West Thumb, the next major area is the Lake area.  Within a few miles you’ll find Bridge Bay Campground/Marina, Lake Village, and the Fishing Bridge area.  This area of the park is good Grizzly territory also, so keep your eyes peeled as you drive.

The picture above was taken around dinnertime in Bridge Bay campground in 2006.  Two huge bull bison meandered through the campground like they owned it and nobody was going to argue with them!  I guess they don’t like to eat their own, because there were plenty of abandoned grills (steaks/burgers sizzling away) left untouched while they just wandered around eating grass.  Pretty amazing.

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In Yellowstone, you just never know what you are going to see next.  This Grizzly bear was feeding on a deer carcass right on the shore of Yellowstone Lake as I drove by.  I had seen a lot of Grizzlies before, but never one devouring a carcass and certainly never one on a lakeshore.  It looked like he was feeding on the edge of the ocean.  The whole scene was surreal.  But that’s what is so unique about Yellowstone.

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If you head North from the Lake area you’ll soon come to Hayden Valley.  You’ll know it when you get there.  The landscape opens up and the views are amazing.  The Yellowstone River gently flows through the middle of the valley, and the whole area is a hotspot for wildlife.  This place can be like Grand Central Station on a nice summer evening.  The overlooks fill up with wildlife watchers.  But the more eyes the better!  Plus, somebody will undoubtedly offer to let you look through their spotting scope.  They are always proud that they saw something first!

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The large paved overlooks in Hayden Valley are a great place to park for a few hours or even an entire day.  The longer you stay the more you will see.  This (and the photo above) was taken from the same overlook along the road at sunrise.

It was August 11th, and as I was heading in for bed, the family in the next campsite reminded me that the climax of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower was scheduled for very early that next morning.  At the peak it rains meteors at the rate of a hundred an hour or more.  So I decided to head to Hayden Valley and the wide open overlooks for a good show.  Brilliant plan!

I slept for about three hours and got up at 2:00am.  As I was quietly packing up the rig and getting ready to roll, I saw several shooting stars.  Everything was going as planned.  It was going to be awesome!  I drove halfway across Yellowstone from Grant Village to Hayden Valley (never passed a single car) and found the overlook I wanted.  I jumped out of the truck at 3:00am with my camera and tripod in tow.

But before I could even look up at the sky I heard grunts and pawing and snorting in the pitch black night.  Bison!  It sounded like they were really close and there were a lot of them.  So I jumped back in the truck and sat for a while only to realize that during the hour it had taken me to drive across the park, the sky had gone from crystal clear to mostly cloudy.  My plan was falling apart.  But at 3:30am I had nothing to do and nowhere to go so I decided to wait it out and see what happened.  I rolled the windows down and just sat there in the dark listening to the sounds of nature.

It’s amazing what you can hear in the darkness of Yellowstone when it’s really quiet.  I heard geese, bison, coyotes, whatever it was the coyotes were devouring, etc.  The climax came just before dawn when a lone wolf cry pierced the darkness.  It was quickly answered by another and then a whole chorus broke out.  It was chilling to hear in the near darkness.  Although it didn’t go exactly as planned, I did see a couple dozen shooting stars and was able to experience Hayden Valley in a whole new way.

That’s the great thing about truck camping.  You have the freedom and flexibility to make experiences like this happen on a whim.

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It’s easy to see how the, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” got its name.  Instead of showing you the obligatory shot looking upstream towards the falls, I decided to give you a different perspective.  This was actually taken from the top of the falls looking downstream.  The colors here can be amazing when the lighting is right.

This part of the park is known as the Canyon Area and is the next major spectacle heading north from Hayden Valley.  The Canyon Area is the most developed spot on the east side of the park and has a great visitor center, several restaurants, lodges, a large campground, showers, laundry, and some great hiking trails.

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Yellowstone National Park is full of great hikes, but the best one in the park is Mt. Washburn.  This hike is just north of the Canyon Area, near Dunraven Pass, and is one of the prettiest areas of the park.

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The first six times I went to Yellowstone I managed to find some excuse not to hike Mt. Washburn.  It’s literally straight uphill the whole way.  Man was that a mistake.  This is by far the best hike in Yellowstone.

The day I went, the wildflowers were in bloom, the skies were clear, and the animals were out.  This photograph was taken just a few hundred yards from the trailhead looking back toward the parking area.  As you can see, the hike starts out climbing and never stops.  It’s a bit over three miles to the top and uphill every step.  But it’s well worth the effort.

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Along the Mt Washburn trail you can expect to see Mountain Goats, Bighorn Sheep, and, quite often, Grizzly Bears.  It’s one of the best spots in the park to see animals close up.  This Bighorn could not have posed in a better spot.  The canyon behind him is part of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a deep canyon carved by the Yellowstone River.  I was literally about eight feet from this guy when I took this.  I won’t go so far as to say they are tame, but they are definitely used to people.  It’s amazing to be this close to a wild animal in such an incredible environment.

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Continuing north from Mt. Washburn and Dunraven Pass along the park road brings you to the Antelope Creek area.  The views here as you descend from Dunraven Pass are sweeping, and some of the best in the park.  If you time it right, you will be treated to one of the most magnificent wildflower displays you will ever see.  This photograph was taken about a week or so after the peak, but it was still amazing.  It literally looked like a carpet of yellow in spots.  The highest peak off in the distance is Mt. Washburn.

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The Antelope Creek area is another of the prime Grizzly habitats within the park.  This was my first ever Grizzly sighting and one of the most memorable.  I took this picture in early June of 2005 on my first trip to Yellowstone.  I was all alone with this guy for a few minutes before anybody else came along, which was a real treat.

I saw him cross the road and jump in the creek so I pulled over and got out with my camera in tow and my heart pounding.  I was about fifty feet from him at this point and realized that I was way too far from the safety of the truck, and way too close to him.  I retreated a bit.  Actually a lot!  Thank goodness he had zero interest in me.  Since then I have learned to have a bit more self control and awareness of where I am.

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Continuing north from Dunraven Pass and the Antelope Creek areas, you will come to Tower Junction.  The crowds will flock to Tower Falls, a sight worthy of seeing for sure, but the real gem is the view above.  You’ll have to walk a bit, but you will be virtually alone.

This is the view that rewards you after a short two mile walk along the Yellowstone River from the picnic/parking area just past Tower Junction on the Northeast Entrance Road.  The trailhead is easy to find.  Just turn onto the Northeast Entrance Road and cross the bridge over the river, then the picnic/parking area will be on your right as you head up the hill.  It’s a great short hike with awesome views.

The chances of an animal encounter are pretty slim on this hike and the terrain is pretty flat (after the first quarter-mile or so).  Even though you aren’t technically in Yellowstone’s backcountry, you’ll get a sense of what its like to hike there.

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A little further along the Northeast Entrance Road you will come to the Slough Creek Basin.  The campground here (Slough Creek) is my favorite undeveloped campground in the park.  The scenery is amazing and wildlife abundant.  And the fishing along Slough Creek is world class.

I was literally sitting on a rock taking my fishing waders off when this coyote trotted right past me about fifteen feet away.  By the time I got the camera out he was a bit further, so I was lucky to get this halfway focused image.  Notice the tracking collar and radio antenna on him.

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Our last and, I think, best stop is Lamar Valley.  Lamar Valley lies on the Northeast Entrance Road and, because it’s off the main figure eight park road, it gets way less traffic.  In my opinion, this is the best part of the park.  It’s been called the Serengeti of the United States and for good reason.

You will see wildlife here.  The valley is huge, and the scenery even, “huger”.  Is that even a word?  Lamar is home to wolves, grizzlies, bison, coyote, pronghorn, and elk.  If it’s big, walks on four legs, and lives in Yellowstone, you’ll see it here.  Plus, there is a campground on each end of the Lamar Valley.

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Like I said, this valley is literally teeming with wildlife.  This photo was taken on July 8, 2011, as the female bison were starting to gather in Lamar Valley in anticipation of mating.  All those little black dots are actually great big bison.  The Lamar Bison herd numbers about 2,500 or so, depending on the year and how harsh the winter
was.  That’s just a fraction of them in the picture above.  The old males are still off in solitary waiting for just the right moment.

Like Hayden Valley, the large overlooks here are a great place to park for a few hours and just wait to see what you can see.  Plus, if you like to fish, this is the place.  The Lamar River is a world class trout stream and easily accessible from the road.  Just watch out for the bison and whatever else may be around.  They can make getting to the river a bit tricky sometimes!

As you can see, Yellowstone has a lot to offer.  The possibilities for fun and adventure here are nearly endless.  The scenery is better, the animals are bigger, and the experience is bolder than anywhere else in the lower forty-eight.  I hope you enjoy your first (or next) visit to Yellowstone as much as I did.  If you do, you are sure to go back again and again.

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