Expedition 3: Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks – Bears, Geysers and 2am Fire Alarm

One of my wife’s dream was to visit Yellowstone, enjoy the scenic views, hopefully see some wild life there. After our previous trip to Death valley we were more confident in our little one’s ability to travel. I’ve checked if there were any tent sites available for the end of May, and to my surprise – there were. With a smile on a face I’ve quickly booked one for 3 nights. But once I’ve checked the weather report, my smile vanished: 35F at night with rain and snow… We’re not ready for that yet. So I had to cancel tent site reservation and booked a cabin with heater on KOA campground instead.

Trip planning

Here’s a little insight into how we approach road trip planning. We use spreadsheets! For our Yellowstone it looked like this:

Yellowstone trip plan
Day From To Distance Duration Stay Comments
1 San Jose,CA Elko,NV 550 7.5h Best Western Elko Inn 1930 Idaho St, Elko, NV, 89801
2 Elko,NV  West Yellowstone  420 6h KOA 3305 Targhee Pass Highway
3 Yellowstone KOA Exploring Park
4 Yellowstone KOA Exploring Park
5 West Yellowstone Browning,MT 340 5h Holiday Inn 50 Museum Loop, browning, 59417
6 Browning,MT Richland,WA 480 7h Red Lion Richland drive through Glacier NP, 802 George Washington Way, Richland, 99352
7 Richland,WA Klamath Falls,OR 390 6h  Shilo Inn Suites  2500 Almond Street Klamath Falls OR 97601
8 Klamath Falls,OR San Jose,CA 400 6h
2580

I usually print several copies of it and we set our day destination in GPS based on it. We had 2580 miles planned but ended up doing 3060.

Trip from San Jose to Yellowstone

Trip from San Jose to Yellowstone

Road to Yellowstone

I’ve talked to several people and most of them were recommending to reserve 3 days to get to Yellowstone. But I failed to find anything exciting between San Jose and Yellowstone that would be worth spending and extra day at. And the idea of just checking in the hotel early and sitting there to the end of the day didn’t sound good either. So we’ve decided to do it in two days.

Our first stop for the night was in Elko, NV.  Nice small town. We had dinner at Machi’s Saloon and Grill. Friendly locals were hanging out at the bar and the food was solid. I think they’ve served the largest Rib-eye steak i’ve ever seen.

On the second day we’ve started entering new (for us) territories.

Idaho has nice speed limits (80 mph). Also, Twin Falls surprised us with it’s canyon and … falls.

Twin Falls, Idaho

Twin Falls, Idaho

Twin Falls, Idaho

Twin Falls, Idaho

As usual, cooking lunch on rest areas

As usual, cooking lunch on rest areas

We all really wanted to see wild bears in Yellowstone, but just in case if we miss them, we’ve decided to stop at Bear World, that is being advertised by Yellowstone National Park. It’s a drive-through park, where you can see elks and bears walking and playing around. It is recommended not to stop in bears area as they like to climb vehicles and chewing antennas. Also, the windows have to be up all the time, so picture quality suffers.

Bear World, Elk

Bear World, Elk

Bear World, Grizzly

Bear World, Grizzly

After the drive through section you can go to gift shop, petting zoo, see bear cubs and kids can enjoy some rides.

Bear cubs were amazing.

Did you try having a nap on a tree branch?

Did you try having a nap on a tree branch?

Bear Cubs Having Fun

Bear Cubs Having Fun

After Bear World we kept moving towards West Yellowstone KOA. I’ve noticed a sign pointing directions to St. Anthony Sand Dunes and decided that Tundra TRD Pro should give it a try. We had a small detour and got to dunes.

St. Anthony Sand Dunes

St. Anthony Sand Dunes

I’ve got on a sand to take a picture above. But as I was in a hurry, I did not air down tires. As you might guess, truck didn’t go anywhere after this picture has been taken. It was just getting deeper in sand. But couple minutes of digging and a pair of Maxsa Escaper Buddies solved my problem.

After a little bit more of driving, at about 8pm we’ve got to KOA. Checked in and got keys to our cabin.

West Yellowstone KOA Cabin

West Yellowstone KOA Cabin

Here’s an advice  – when renting cabins, make sure they provide bed linen. We assumed they do, but that was not the case. So we’ve bought some blankets in the store on KOA territory and used the sleeping bag that I though into the truck just in case…

At moments like this you forget about fatigue and difficulties of the day and just enjoy it

At moments like this you forget about fatigue and difficulties of the day and just enjoy it

We’ve never been this much north, so it was a little surprise for us that the sun is staying above horizon for longer period of time. In May the sunset was at about 9.30pm.

Next two days we’ve spent driving around Yellowstone.

Yellowstone Park Entrance

Yellowstone Park Entrance

Wildlife of Yellowstone

The first animal you are going to notice in Yellowstone will be bison. They are everywhere. They walk and sleep on the fields, they cross the roads, they block the roads. You or your vehicle can end up being really close to bisons, but keep in mind that they’re wild animals with enough hitting power to cause some serious injuries or damage to vehicle.

A group of bisons walking on the road in Yellowstone

A group of bisons walking on the road in Yellowstone

More Yellowstone Bisons

More Yellowstone Bisons

The second animal you most likely to spot will be elk.

Yellowstone Elk

Yellowstone Elk

We were lucky to see a grizzly bear eating grass. It was too far to get a good picture with a lens that I had.

Yellowstone Wild Grizzly Bear

Yellowstone Wild Grizzly Bear

Yellowstone Wild Fox

Yellowstone Wild Fox

We’ve also seen a pair of black bears eating grass.

Yellowstone Hydrothermal Features

A lot of boiling pools, mud volcanos, magic colors. Most areas are well developed and allow close pedestrian traffic to see the attraction. Unfortunately, in most cases you can not see all of the beauty when you’re so close. And Quadcopter flying is not allowed to see those pools from up high.

Eruption of Old Faithful Geyser

Eruption of Old Faithful Geyser

Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs

Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs

When water runs out of the pool it creates unique pictures on the ground

When water runs out of the pool it creates unique pictures on the ground

Paint Pots, Yellowstone

Paint Pots, Yellowstone

Kate Watching Hot Pools

Kate Watching Hot Pools

Another boiling pool

Another boiling pool

Yellowstone, Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone, Grand Prismatic Spring

There’s Yellowstone Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center near West Yellowstone entrance. We had to check it out as kids love seeing animals that close

Yellowstone Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Yellowstone Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Someone got fish

Someone got fish

We've learned that grizzlies eat almost everything: carrots, apples, potatoes. In their natural habitat a lot of food is hidden under rocks. In this discovery center bears have to find or catch their food.

We’ve learned that grizzlies eat almost everything: carrots, apples, potatoes. In their natural habitat a lot of food is hidden under rocks. In this discovery center bears have to find or catch their food.

I have to mention the weather at Yellowstone. It was constantly changing. We could see all seasons on the same day: rain, snow, sun. Make sure you wear layers.

It’s hard to express all the beauty of Yellowstone in pictures. We all enjoyed time spent there.

We’ve spent 3 nights in cabin at KOA and then departed towards Glacier National Park. On our way there we’ve stopped at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. They offer a 2 hour long tour that we took. It starts with a little bit of uphill hike and then you spend about an hour walking in the caverns. There are electric lights installed throughout the cave, but at certain point our guide turned off the light and demonstrated how tours were led with a candle light about hundred years ago. You almost couldn’t see anything. And then she blew out the candle and we’ve spent 10 seconds in complete darkness.

Driving North through Montana

Driving North through Montana

Kate at the age of 4 really enjoyed the caverns. Mark at the age of 10m didn’t like them that much.

Lewis and Clark Caverns

Lewis and Clark Caverns

Julia and Mark on Beaver Slide

Julia and Mark on Beaver Slide

At about 7pm we’ve arrived at Holiday Inn Express in Browning, MT.Had dinner, did our laundry and went to sleep. At 2am the fire alarm went off and hotel staff was running from door to door asking everyone to leave the building. So we’ve put some clothes on, wrapped kids into blankets and went outside. We haven’t seen any smoke or fire. And it was about 40-45F outside, so we’ve got into the truck to stay warm. In about 10 minutes all guests were called back into the hotel. So much needed sleep got interrupted with no real reason.

The next day we were ready to enjoy Glacier National Park. The plan was to enter it at St. Mary entrance and drive through to West entrance. But ranger at the entrance informed us that the road through the park is closed. It was only open for about 12 mile form St. Mary entrance side and about 15 miles from West Glacier side, leaving the section of only about 10 miles closed.  So instead of the optimal drive thought the park we had to 12 miles, turn around, drive to another park entrance and do 15 miles there.

Glacier National Park was wonderful. We also took a boat tour on lake McDonald.

Entrance to Glacier National Park

Entrance to Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park, St. Mary Lake

Glacier National Park, St. Mary Lake

Glacier National Park, Going to the Sun Road

Glacier National Park, Going to the Sun Road

Glacier National Park, McDonald Lake

Glacier National Park, McDonald Lake

Boats are Fun!

Boats are Fun!

Fun even for little ones

Fun even for little ones

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park was the northernmost point of our trip and now we were on our way back home.

When we were in Oregon, we’ve also stopped at High Desert Museum. Really good place to stretch your legs and give kids have some fun.

Mt Shasta greeting us in California

Mt Shasta greeting us in California

3000 miles and 7 states in 8 days. A lot of fun and a lot of driving.

Spending time with families priceless. You realize that kids grow up and change, their personalities become stronger. It is our duty, as parents, to show them the world, introduce them to challenges outside of home comfort so that they can make their own right decisions later in the life.