Taking a fall road trip through Yellowstone National Park is an absolutely unforgettable experience.
In 2011, I set off on a two-month cross-country road trip with one of my best friends, Molly. We left in mid-September from Baltimore, heading first to Pittsburgh and Chicago before heading north to Milwaukee and across the northern Midwest. It was turning from September to October by the time we hit Wyoming, and we were bound for perhaps the greatest American road trip destination of them all: Yellowstone National Park.
One of the best parts about the trip – other than crossing 32 states off my list and sharing the experience with one of my very best friends – was that we ended up experiencing autumn the entire time. It was already fall in Minnesota when we arrived, and by the time we hit the South a month and a half later they, too, we’re starting to feel a chill in the air. (Relatively speaking, that is.) Nowhere was autumn on more glorious display, though, than the Rockies and Yellowstone, where the hint of fall colors only added to the grandeur of this incomparable part of the USA.
We entered Wyoming from the Black Hills of South Dakota (also gorgeous) and spent a night CouchSurfing with an awesome woman named Robbin in the town of Cody. The next morning, after scarfing down multiple of Robbin’s delicious homemade raspberry scones, Molly and I made the hour-long drive to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Unfortunately, our schedule only allowed us two days to explore Yellowstone, including the drive from Cody and the next day’s trek to Helena, Montana. It was an absolute travesty that we didn’t stay longer, but such is life when you have only two months to spare and the entire US to see. As a result of our short time frame, we spent our days wandering the park, mostly by car, and trying to see as much as we could.
We started with some stops along Yellowstone Lake, where the ground cover had turned a lovely, autumnal crimson…
… and soon discovered some active geothermal areas, complete with spouts of steam billowing out from deep within the earth.
We were surrounded by hot springs and boiling pools, and it was crazy to think just how how the water was that they contained.
As we continued along, we were awed but the natural landscapes of Yellowstone. There were so many beautiful rivers and conifer-clad hillsides, all with a hint of fall color.
It made driving a dream, and little did we know it was only going to get better.
Midway through the day, we meandered down to the town of Jackson, which took us through Grand Teton National Park. Along the way, we stopped at a gorgeous viewpoint, which we later found out is rather famous and called Oxbow Bend. It was there that I shot one of my favorite photos I’ve ever captured, and perhaps the best representation of the autumnal glory of Wyoming:
The drive to Jackson was simply stunning, though in retrospect it was probably a little silly of us to drive the whole way down there when there was so much to do in Yellowstone. At the time, though, we were just trying to see as much as humanly possible on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. And I certainly don’t regret the views that we enjoyed along the way.
We spent the night in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, an uninspiring hub of hotels and restaurants that serves as one of the most popular bases for exploring the park. The next morning, we were up bright and early to pack as much in as possible before our drive to Helena.
We began our morning with a drive through one of the main geothermal areas of the park. Every so often, we’d be rolling along and suddenly spot a steam vent or series of them punctuating the landscape. It definitely added to the drama of an already dramatically impressive place.
(Years later, when I traveled to Iceland and passed through Hveragerði, I would be reminded of the awe I felt in Wyoming.)
Of course, the real star of the geothermal show in Yellowstone is Old Faithful, the famous geyser that erupts with mind-blowing regularity every 60-110 minutes. Catching Old Faithful in action was top priority on our second day in Yellowstone, and it did not disappoint.
After Old Faithful, we spent more time exploring the geothermal wonders nearby, including Emerald Pool and the Grand Prismatic Spring.
Finally, we headed north to check out the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the glorious Yellowstone Falls.
By the time the afternoon rolled around, we were seriously lamenting that we had to leave Yellowstone after such little time. The place is so big, so grand, and so gorgeous that it definitely deserved more than the two days we had to give it.
We were so grateful, however, to have had the opportunity to explore this corner of the West, and I would return to Yellowstone in a heartbeat if ever given the chance. I would also love to visit again in the autumn, as not only were the fall colors a glorious addition to the landscapes but the crowds were smaller and the weather was absolutely perfect. Here’s hoping that those two days in 2011 weren’t my last fall road trip in Yellowstone National Park.
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