Gardiner, Montana (Yellowstone NP)

Rocky Mountain RV Park

September 7, 2020

Labor Day rolled around, meaning it was time for us to leave Boseman and follow the Yellowstone River south to Gardiner, Montana – right on the Wyoming border and the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park. The arrival of Labor Day also signified that summer was quickly slipping through our fingers and fall wasn’t too far behind. The forecast called for rain and falling temperatures throughout the day, eventually leading to light snowfall as the sun set behind the mountains.

Thankfully, we thought to pick up a space heater from Walmart before leaving Bozeman. This little guy has been a life saver throughout the winter months. Without the space heater we would have had to rely exclusively on our furnace to warm the trailer – and that thing runs through a propane tank like Charlotte runs through a can of tuna.

We also had the good thought to check the forecast ahead of time and hit the road bright and early so we could get settled in at our new spot before the nasty weather showed up (barely).

Our campground for the week was the Rocky Mountain RV Park. Although we were arriving at the tail end of the holiday weekend as most visitors were leaving, we were still lucky to even secure a site. This is the only campground in Gardiner, and easily the closest RV park to Yellowstone’s northern entrance (literally a three-minute drive to the north gate). In fact, we were so close to the park that the wildlife was overflowing into our campground! Here is Charlotte having a stare down with one of many elk that fearlessly strolled the property each day.

The elk didn’t just hang out in the campground – they were all over Gardiner. We had a great time simply walking around at lunch each day and watching these massive animals casually grazing on front yards.

It feels like I’ve used the word “quaint” to describe every other western town we have visited thus far. However, that adjective doesn’t quite apply to Gardiner. The combination of simple rustic architecture and rolling yellow hills made it feel more like a transient, remote outpost than a quite mountain town. But this isn’t to say that we didn’t enjoy our stay in Gardiner. Everyone we met, both in the campground and in town, couldn’t have been nicer. Plus, we were even able to find a place that whipped up a tasty gluten-free pizza (Yellowstone Pizza Company)!

Because we arrived so early on that first day, we decided to brave the elements and venture into the park to check out some of the low hanging fruit just inside the northern entrance – most notably, Mammoth Hot Springs.

This was our first taste of the unique geothermal features that define Yellowstone. It turned out to be a good activity given the cold weather rolling in. Although we had to endure the sulfur smell, we didn’t mind the occasional blast of warm air generated by the bubbling hot springs.

We waited a few days to let the cold front pass before heading back into the park. We really wanted to get back out there but because Sam was time-constrained with work during the week, our options were somewhat limited. Instead of fighting the afternoon crowds, we chose to wake up at five one morning and adventure into the park as the sun was rising. Our destination: Lamar Valley.

The Lamar Valley is famous for its large buffalo herds and it didn’t take us long to spot some. We heard buffalo crossings often created repeated, prolonged delays when driving through the park and this turned out to be 100% true. In fact, we were held up for so long in one place that we began to worry that Sam would be late for work. Fortunately, the herd eventually moved on, and we were able to pass – but not before Sam got to see a few babies up close and personal!

Lamar Valley is also known for the astonishingly successful reintroduction of wolves in the 90’s, which not only transformed the ecosystem of Yellowstone, but also its physical geography. Sadly, the wolves are a bit more skittish than their bovine counterparts and we weren’t able to spot any during our quick drive through the valley. However, we were treated to a lovely sunrise and a few handsome bull elk right along the road near the northern entrance.

Although Yellowstone is a very “drivable” national park, we consider ourselves pretty big hikers, so we had to get our boots on the ground and hit a trail while we were out here. Sam wrapped up work early on Thursday, so we picked out a relatively close hike (Bunsen Peak Trail) and hit the road.

This plan worked out perfectly. The views from the top of Bunsen Peak were fantastic and allowed us to really check out the park from above. The hike getting up there was strenuous, yet still enjoyable and (most importantly) it was quick/close enough for us to make it back in time for opening night of the NFL!

Saturday was our last full day at Yellowstone, so we decided to make the best of it and pack in as many activities as we could. Our first waypoint for the day was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This place really deserves a more distinctive name because it is truly one of a kind. The canyon contains several different iron compounds, and the oxidization of these rocks is what creates the signature dark yellow coloring (see banner image). The canyon is rusting, literally.

After photographing the canyon from every angle, we eventually ran out of vantage points and decided to move along. The next stop on our whirlwind tour was Yellowstone Lake. This massive body of water had so many places to stop along the shore that we had a hard time even picking. After several miles and many “how about here?”s, we finally selected a spot and enjoyed a nice little picnic on the beach.

I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a lunch break. This place was downright serene. The temperature was just right, and the black sand couldn’t have been softer. The only sounds we could hear were the wind through the trees and the waves peacefully lapping on the shore.

We lounged around for awhile before the road beckoned us back into the heart of the park. The next move saw us continuing along the edge of the lake to the Thumb Geyser area. Although it is named after one particular geyser, the cool part about this spot was the sheer abundance of geothermal activity. Everywhere we looked, there were new geysers and hot springs to see – each one deeper and bluer than the last. Neither of us had heard of this area prior to visiting, but we both agreed that it was definitely one of the more underrated spots within the park. Hell, just look at that beautiful shade of blue!

Of course, we had to see the world famous Old Faithful while we were at Yellowstone. Unfortunately, we arrived just after an eruption, so we had to wait the 90 or so minutes for the next outburst. However, it wasn’t all bad – the area behind Old Faithful is jam packed with gurgling geysers, each a unique combination of colors. After waiting on pins and needles for what felt like way longer than an hour and a half, Old Faithful finally got around to erupting, thus allowing us to take our quintessential summer vacation picture.

The last stop on our frantic tour of Yellowstone was the park’s second most famous landmark – the Grand Prismatic Spring. We were simply blown away by Grand Prismatic. The spectrum of colors was unlike anything we had ever seen. In a matter of feet, the spring went from the deepest of blues to the brightest of oranges and every shade in-between. Next time you find yourself at Yellowstone, we highly recommend stopping in the parking lot about three quarters of a mile south of Grand Prismatic and taking the short hike to the hillside view of the spring. We were too tired and chose to skip the hike in favor of the walking platform that runs right next to the spring. Although the spring was amazing up close, we would have loved to see it from a bird’s eye view.

And just like that, our time in Yellowstone was spent. Happily, the next leg of our journey (Grand Tetons, Jackson Hole, and ultimately to Victor, Idaho) took us to the other side of the park so we got to cruise through this majestic country one last time as we made our way further south.