The officious clerk in the check-in office for Fishing Bridge RV Park in Yellowstone National Park, USA, pushed a piece of paper towards us, and insisted: “We expect you to read this.”
Glancing down the “Do’s and Don’ts” for the campground was the standout item: Be Bear Aware. This included no food to be stored outside our RV, all trash to be disposed of in bear-proof receptacles and, if we were going hiking, we should carry bear spray.
Bear spray? Bear-proof receptacles? Were they serious? Deadly serious, as it turned out. Grizzly and black bears roam Yellowstone freely and visitors need to act accordingly. Even the dog’s food could not stay in the RV’s storage bay; it had to be inside the rig.
That sobering info wasn’t going to dent our enthusiasm for piloting our RV, Indefatigable (or Fati for short), into the heart of America’s first national park, though. Bookings for Fishing Bridge – the only RV park inside Yellowstone offering full hook-ups of electric, water and sewer – are hard to get and we had to be online at 12.01am a year in advance to snag one.
In truth, most of our route planning up until this point, two months and 3,743 miles into our year-long trip, had been predicated on arriving in northwest Wyoming in mid-July for the exact day of our Fishing Bridge booking.
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From a short visit eight years ago, we thought we knew what to expect from this immense tableau of wildlife and geology – 3,472 square miles of untamed wilderness and one of the world’s most extreme environments. As it turned out, we had barely scratched the surface. With our RV, we were immersed in Yellowstone at its most beguiling, from the coyotes yipping at night to the constant backdrop of mountains that reach up 11,000ft, still dusted with snow in places.
The main plateau is where the herds of bison roam in summer, interspersed with pronghorn, elk, deer, wolves and bears. We revelled in this kaleidoscopic wildlife parade, using a newly acquired spotting scope to zoom in on a grizzly with two cubs, a wolf feasting on a bison carcass and a young black bear munching its way across a hillside of wildflowers.
With so little evidence of anything man-made, it was easy to imagine we had travelled back in time to a post-Ice Age scene of sheer, unadulterated nature, a realm purely of animals, birds and the raw undercurrent of the planet’s largest array of geothermal features.
We paid our respects to Old Faithful, the park’s most reliable of its 500-plus active geysers; marvelled at the outlandish colours of West Thumb Geyser Basin; and held our noses at the sulphurous stink of Brimstone Basin, among a welter of seething, bubbling volcanic-induced ruptures in Yellowstone’s fabric, which included the aptly-named Dragon’s Mouth and Mud Volcano.
Fishing Bridge proved the perfect location for daily excursions in our car, including the essential areas of the Hayden and Lamar valleys, the loop around Lake Yellowstone, the Canyon of the Yellowstone and the nerve-shredding Dunraven Pass, with its 9,000ft elevation and sheer, guardrail-less hairpin bends.
With so little evidence of anything man-made, it was easy to imagine we had travelled back in time to a post Ice Age scene of sheer, unadulterated nature
One unforgettable lunchtime was provided by Lake Lodge, where we grabbed a couple of thick ranch beef burgers and took them to the front porch, sitting on rocking chairs and watching bison grazing the open prairie, backed by Yellowstone Lake and the snow-capped peaks of the Absaroka Mountains.
Our research into the best way to enter the park also paid off. Cutting across the northeast corner of Wyoming into Montana along motorway I-90 gave us an essential recce of the north and east entrances, convincing us that the entry via US-191 and West Yellowstone was the most viable in our RV.
It also provided the ideal route to our next destination back in Montana: Glacier National Park. Exiting at West Yellowstone gave us another chance to soak up the scenic splendour of the Gallatin River valley, where much of the 1992 Brad Pitt epic A River Runs Through It was filmed.
A world-class location for fly-fishing, river-rafting and hiking, the Gallatin provided a not-so-micro microcosm of the captivating terrain of two states that make up for the relative paucity of people – Wyoming is the least-populated state in the US, Montana is fourth – with giant helpings of epic countryside.
Rivers, lakes and thick pine forests are the endless currency of western Montana, bringing to mind the Lake District – if the District stretched as far as London and was baked under a 32C summer sun. The hills were reminiscent of the Brecon Beacons – if the Beacons were the size of England, rather than just south Wales.
Glacier soon filled our windscreen as we reached Browning via Interstate 15 and US-89, a mountainous, pine-tree-choked bulk that is so popular reservations are needed to enter the park in summer between 6am and 3pm. The main reason is Going-to-the-Sun Road. This 50-mile stretch of super-scenic highway was completed after a tortuous 12-year construction process in 1933 and is one of the world’s most breathtaking roadways. Not for the faint-hearted, it features a 3,300ft climb to Logan Pass along a precipitous route that is a mere scratch on the towering cliff face.
This granite curtain is swathed in wild flowers in spring and summer and provides much of Going-to-the-Sun Road’s perilous pathway
Although closed to long vehicles, it is serviced by the signature Red Bus Tours, vintage 1930s, 16-seat, open-top buses boasting suitably modernised engines and brakes. The route teeters on the verge of a near-certain-death plunge at multiple points, but the majestic, 360-degree splendour of being immersed in the Rockies eased our feelings of insecurity, notably along the seven-mile extent of the Garden Wall, a 9,500ft ridge that marks America’s Continental Divide.
This granite curtain is swathed in wildflowers in spring and summer and provides much of Going-to-the-Sun Road’s perilous pathway. From its near-vertical sides, the road is practically suspended above the 3,000ft drop, providing an unshakeable symbol of the mountain’s palpable elemental force. It should be said Red Bus Tours have a 100 per cent safety record since their inception in 1936, hence it never felt overtly dangerous; it also provided overviews of other key features, notably the historic 1913 Lake McDonald Lodge, Avalanche Creek, Bird Woman Falls and the Weeping Wall.
Another essential experience was provided by that tasty Montana staple, the huckleberry. This humble fruit is the stuff of multiple state recipes, and we eagerly sampled it as syrup on our pancakes, in a gorgeous fruit pie and, best of all, as the principal flavour of palate-pleasing ice cream.
For all our explorations in and around the park, Lake Five Resort was our base, ideally situated on a beautiful lake just outside West Glacier. Getting there was also an adventure as it included crossing the Marias Pass on the Continental Divide, requiring some careful driving along the steep-sided valley. But here we faced a dilemma. Sticking to our original itinerary, heading west to Washington and Oregon, meant almost 2,000 miles in seven weeks, and a lot of one and two-night stays. With Fati starting to show the strain of our non-stop travel, it potentially put our whole schedule at risk. We needed to slow down, but we were also falling head-over-heels in love with the scenery and towns of Montana and Wyoming.
If we altered course, we could save 1,000 miles of wear and tear on Fati and experience more of these two captivating states and their magnificent landscapes. It was decision time...
How to do it
For driving around Yellowstone, a large RV isn’t ideal. Consider also hiring a car for your stay.
Don’t be tempted to take the north-west entry via Gardiner. The hairpin-strewn new road to Mammoth Hot Springs is a challenge for cars, let alone RVs.
In windy conditions, it is essential to slow down or pull off the road for a while. The side of an RV can be like a sail and blow you sideways.
You can rent bear spray at Canyon Village and Old Faithful in Yellowstone.
An excellent wildlife spotting scope is the Gosky 20-60x80.
A great planning and resource app is called The Dyrt.
In Montana, Cruise America has RV rentals from both Bozeman and Billings.
When things go wrong, consult myrvresource.com.
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