Tuesday, June 17, 2008


We are at the Mammoth Campground, in Mammoth Hot Springs at the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park (map). Lots to update today, so long post here.

On Sunday morning we finished packing up the hot tub, stowed the rest of our gear, and were on the road at a fairly early (for us) hour of the morning. We had a pleasant and scenic drive north into the park; at the entrance station, we inquired about supplies, as we were running low on many things. They indicated that stores were available at Grant Village and Old Faithful, but not at our intended destination of Madison. They also confirmed for us that no campgrounds were open between the entrance station and Madison.

Too bad, really, because Lewis Lake was beautiful and we would have loved to spend a night or two there. Also, Grant Village had many services, including two restaurants, the aforementioned store, and, more importantly, five bars of digital coverage on Verizon, which I will need tonight for a Red Cross technology class that I am teaching by teleconference to some 60 volunteers. Lewis Lake was scheduled to open Sunday, but is still snow-bound. Grant Village is not scheduled to open until next weekend.

We did avail ourselves of the store, and stocked up on a number of overpriced essentials like tissues, toilet paper, fruit, veggies, and some frozen chicken. The service station also had the ¼" fuel hose I've been needing. While we were there, we had lunch in the little grill attached to the store. The other thing that happened in Grant Village is both of our cellphones sprang to life with oodles of voice messages that came in during the week we were completely out of coverage. Several of which were from the Red Cross trying to see if we were available to be deployed to the massive flooding in the Midwest -- there was apparently some mix-up in my availability record. Oops.

I spent some additional time while we were there talking to our Red Cross chapter to straighten out the availability information. While we could have been deployed sensibly while we were still in Laramie, we're too far now in terms of arrival time, and also too close on the heels of the training we are scheduled to present in Gillette in two weeks. We will go back on the deployment availability list on July 9th, when we are done with the training. While that's too late to be helpful with the current spate of disasters, we'll be available throughout hurricane season, and the flooding and tornadoes now are rapidly depleting the volunteer pool (many of whom have just three weeks to give each year).

Since we did not find everything we needed in the Grant Village store, we also stopped at Old Faithful. While we were there, we walked over to the Old Faithful Inn to see about dinner reservations. Sunday night was already booked, and we settled for the best they had on Monday, which was a 5pm seating. 9pm was also available, but we did not want to eat that late, or to be riding the scooter back to Madison at 10:30 -- the first hours of darkness are when you are most likely to encounter large, scooter-obliterating wildlife in the road. Old Faithful also had good cell coverage, which we took as a good sign.

By the time we arrived at Madison Junction, it was already nearly 3pm. We knew that all the park campgrounds had filled between 7 and 9 Saturday night, and we wanted to arrive no later than this hour. Unfortunately, it was already too late. While the campground was not full, they have a limited number of sites that would nominally fit Odyssey, and they told us they had none left. Now, we did not necessarily believe them, because Odyssey has easily fit in any number of nominal 30' and even 25' spaces before. But this campground is operated and staffed by concessionaires, and they would not let us even walk through and look at the available sites to check.

Without knowing which sites were already reserved, it would do us no good to walk through on our own to argue the point, so, miffed and disappointed, we simply left, not wanting to miss the last spots at Norris, the next campground north. We also noted that there was no cell coverage at all at Madison, and the extensive high tree cover also meant we could not have gotten our satellite on-line. At best, we could have stayed one night, to facilitate our scooter ride back to Old Faithful, before moving on to someplace with both cell coverage and a clear view to the satellite.

We made the 14-mile drive to Norris in a little under half an hour. As we were parking near the self-pay kiosk to walk the three loops (we did not want to get the bus stuck halfway around a loop due to low trees, tight turns, etc.), a ranger walked over and told us there were some 30'+ sites left in Loop C, and we were welcome to drive through and see if any would accommodate us. What a difference in attitude from the surly Xanterra employees over at Madison. As a bonus, the Park Service-run campground at Norris is a tax-free $14, whereas Xanterra charges $18.50, plus tax -- the $5.50 or so that we saved would pay for the extra 28 miles of scooter fuel twice over.

We found three sites in Loop C that would fit us, and we tried the satellite from each. No dice -- the tree cover was just too thick. The only spots with a clear view to the southeast were in Loop A, and they were already taken and also too tight a squeeze for us. The lateness of the hour convinced us we had better just take one, before we got aced out of the park altogether, and, besides, we did not want to get any further from Old Faithful than the 30 miles we already were. We ended up in space 90 (map), which was easily ten feet longer than we needed.

With the lack of cell coverage at Madison and Norris, and the difficulty getting on line, I was getting nervous about my teleconference tonight. I knew we needed to conclusively nail down a spot that would work, but now I had no Internet access with which to do the research. We decided to do it the old-fashioned way, and we pulled my scooter out and rode the 21 miles up to Mammoth, compass in hand, to check out the campground.

Mammoth is a much different microclimate, and the campground here turns out to have a clear view of the sky from almost every space, and there are plenty of 50'+ pull-throughs. It's also run by the Park Service at a reasonable $14 per night. The down side, though, is they take no reservations. We inquired with the camp host about the best time to get a good selection of sites, which, unsurprisingly, is just after check-out time at 10am. Our cell phones indicated 2-3 bars of digital service, which is adequate.

After we wrapped up at the campground, we retired to an excellent dinner at the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel, our reward for making the 40+ mile round trip on the scooter just to see if I could do my teleconference here. Full and pleased, we headed back to Norris in the last of the daylight (which hereabouts is quarter till ten, at this time of year). We got only about half way before coming upon an immense traffic jam (in Yellowstone, at 9-something in the evening). We struggled and strained to look past the line of perhaps three dozen cars, RVs, and even tractor-trailers, and we finally saw it: our entire conga line was following a herd of bison down the road, and we were all stuck until whenever the bison decided to leave the roadway for greener pastures.

That took about twenty minutes -- bison move very slowly, and the road through this section was bounded by a stream on one side, and a sharp drop-off on the other. In the meantime, crawling along at perhaps two MPH (I stopped frequently and shut off the engine), we had to constantly dodge fresh bison poop and large, umm, puddles in the road. I had to keep a good carlength or so ahead of me so that I could see the "hazards" in time to avoid ending up stopping someplace where I had to put my foot down in them. That prompted some [rhymes with witch] in a Mercedes SUV to cross the double yellow and pass half a dozen cars behind me to try to squeeze into the space in front of us -- I cut her off, and lectured her, through her closed window, about traffic etiquette when following bison herds, advice which is sure to stand her in good stead when she returns to her home in the northeast. Her husband had the good sense to look embarrassed.

When the bison stepped off the road and the conga line of traffic, now perhaps five or six dozen vehicles, started to pass them, we dropped further and further back so we could gun it past them. They were perhaps ten feet from the road, and bison can run 30MPH -- almost as fast as the scooter with both of us aboard. We felt just a tad naked as we made our way past. We did make it back to camp without further incident.

Yesterday morning I moved Odyssey out of the campground before the 10am check-out, and drove about a mile south, behind Louise on the scooter, to the large parking area at the Norris Geyser Basin visitor center. Louise got the dish on line, and had a nice hike around Norris Basin while I rode back up to Mammoth to secure this space. I again brought the compass to spot the satellite, and picked out a nice 50' pull-through with good satellite access and close to the entrance, in case we arrived after dark. The volunteer host staffing the booth seemed a bit confused by the guy on the tiny scooter who wanted a 50' space, but was happy to accommodate me. I put the little "Occupied" tag on the post, and left one of our orange cones in the site before returning to Norris by way of the Mammoth Hot Springs post office (yesterday was Tax Payment day, and I wanted to watch them date our payment envelope).

Between the slow ride both ways, the transaction at the campground, waiting in line at the post office, and putting fuel in the scooter at the Mammoth Conoco station, it was two hours before I returned to Norris. Some of that time was waiting in another traffic jam, this one due to fire crews thinning fuels along the road -- they closed the road down in both directions for fifteen minutes while they felled trees. That put me just in time for lunch, and to spend ten minutes on line sorting out Red Cross availability and to handle some urgent emails. Not enough time to blog, though, as we wanted to get rolling back down to Old Faithful and the other geyser basins in that part of the park.

After securing Odyssey for the day, including posting the FAQ in the front window for the hundreds of park visitors that figured it (by their gawking) to be one of the exhibits, we hopped on my scooter to ride down to the geysers. When we thought we'd be at Madison, our plan had been to ride both scooters, but with Louise's top speed in the neighborhood of 30 and the roads being posted at 45, we decided 30 miles was too far for that (16 miles would have been just barely doable).

After passing Madison (thumbing our noses at the Xanterra concession on our way past), we diverted to the spectacular Firehole Canyon Drive, which is one-way southbound. We stopped briefly at the Firehole River swimming area, currently closed. A few miles south of where that route deposited us back on the Grand Loop road, we turned off onto Firehole Lake Drive, a short one-way loop northbound past the Great Fountain Geyser and White Dome Geyser, the latter of which we were fortunate to see erupt on our drive. We also walked around some of the thermal pools, which I won't even attempt to describe -- you just need to come here and experience this all first-hand.

By the time we wrapped up at Firehole Lake, it was past three, and I was eager to get to Old Faithful so we could see an eruption before our 5pm dinner reservations. I'd been to Old Faithful three times previously, and somehow missed an eruption each time. After getting parked and settled, we learned the prediction was for 4:20 (really), +/- ten minutes, so we headed to the comfy benches on the second-floor porch of the Old Faithful Inn at quarter to four, where we could see the show in comfort with a glass of red wine in hand. (This, BTW, is the only way to go -- if you're early enough, you'll have a choice of shade or sun, and the benches and chairs are wide and have backs, unlike the Park Service benches around the geyser, which, while a hundred yards closer, are all in full sun, narrow, and backless, not to mention the fact that the folks in front of you will doubtless stand up when the geyser erupts.)

The eruption started at 4:30, almost on the dot (we think the Park Service predictions are intentionally "early"), and was spectacular if trite. It looks just as it does in thousands of tourism brochures, photos, and videos. Neither is it the most impressive geyser in the park. Still, it's one of those requisite things to do when in Yellowstone, and I was glad, on my fourth try, to finally catch one. The period, BTW, is now about 90 minutes, and we caught the next one on the dot of 6 as we left from dinner. So I guess I'm really two for four now.

Dinner was very good. We both opted for the "Signature Buffet Dinner," which was the best value on the menu and included soup, salad, large peel-and-eat shrimp, prime rib (a bit overcooked for our tastes) and chicken, as well as a variety of side dishes and bread pudding for dessert. There was also an extensive a la carte menu, which looked nice. After dinner we spent some time admiring the historic lodge, one of the great National Park lodges, in the same league with the Ahwahnee, El Tovar, and the Furnace Creek Inn, some of our other favorites. It's a pity there is no camping close to Old Faithful, as we would like to spend more leisurely time there.

On the return trip, we stopped at Midway Geyser Basin, one of the more spectacular groupings of geothermal features in the park. Again, I can't do it justice here. By the time we returned to the Norris parking area, the place was deserted. On Louise's suggestion, I wandered over to the Porcelain Basin overlook before we headed out.

We had an uneventful but scenic drive over the now-familiar road to Mammoth, arriving here at the campground just at dusk. We blew past the "Campground Full" sign and right up to space 12, where my orange cone was still sitting undisturbed. The camp hosts happened to be standing right there, and looked very confused that a large rig was pulling in so late. It looked like they were about to lecture us on the campground being full, when I stuck my head out the window and reminded them about the guy on the scooter...


  1. Last time I was at Mammoth campground was when I rode my motorcycle there. The campground was full when I arrived but I was able to roll right in, because they have a big open area for bikers and hikers that's always open. Hope they still have that, it was so great to blow past all the RVs (course that was before I was an RVer myself!).

  2. Last time I was in Yellowstone, I got caught in a traffic jam. Cars inching their way between cars parked on both sides of the road, no parking on either side, as their driver's and passenagers, cameras in hand, chased a bear through the brush. Not a clue.


  3. Hi Louise and Sean, your blog is so fun.

    Wanted to pass along that PBS is airing a two-parter called Great Lodges of the National Parks that may include some of your faves -- Furnace Creek Inn is in the mix. The shows are on the national schedule for Wednesdays June 25 and July 2 at 8 p.m., but check the local listings wherever you are roaming!


    Karen G. Read
    Oregon Public Broadcasting (producers of the national PBS program: Great Lodges of the National Parks)

  4. Wow, lots to answer...

    @liveworkdream: There are two sites reserved for motorcycles. There is also a fairly large "bike-in, hike-in" area, but, technically, that's not open to motorcycles (by "bike," they mean "bicycle"). I'm pretty sure they put the "Full" sign out whether those sites are full or not. Most of the motorcyclists we've seen here have taken a full, regular site (usually for two bikes).

    @Leland: I didn't even write about the several times we nearly rear-ended someone with the bus due to their wildlife gawking, or the guy I yelled at while on the scooter. "No stopping on the roadway" is posted all over the park and featured prominently in the newspaper, right along with "Don't approach the wildlife." You're right -- people are clueless (and thoughtless).

    @kgoysich (Karen): I actually thought about hot-linking the PBS page on the Great Lodges program when I wrote "great ... lodges" just to explain what I meant. (I chose not to, because there's really not all that much on the site, except a link to buy the program.) We have seen the program, and I can recommend it to all our readers. We might even tune in, if we're someplace with TV signal.

    You may be interested to know that I volunteered for a long time on the technical crew at the San Jose PBS affiliate, KTEH. I'm still on the staff list, but rarely in town for crew calls. I am a floor director, video shader, and camera operator.



Share your comments on this post! We currently allow anyone to comment without registering. If you choose to use the "anonymous" option, please add your name or nickname to the bottom of your comment, within the main comment box. Getting feedback signed simply "anonymous" is kind of like having strangers shout things at us on the street: a bit disconcerting. Thanks!