It is currently blizzarding in central Wisconsin, so I figured it’s time to write about an adventure I had with my brother this past August as we drove from Portland, OR to Port Edwards, WI. The 42 hour route we had planned was ambitious, but how often do siblings get to go on a road trip together?! We wanted to go all out.

I was in charge of planning. Maybe because it was my internship that landed me in Portland, or the fact that it was my car we were driving, or simply because I’m the older sister so obviously I was supposed to plan the route. Anyway, I may have put off planning until a few days before we left. Oops. As I was looking at the part of our trip where we were going to drive through Yellowstone National Park, I started researching hotels. Since this was a budget road trip, I was trying to find relatively cheap hotels. Around Yellowstone. Yeah, that was impossible. Maybe we would have had a chance if we hadn’t been trying to find a hotel five days in advance, but there’s also not much around the park save for the “gateway towns”: the communities that border entrances to the park. We were going to enter through West Yellowstone, MT. There’s a Days Inn, Holiday Inn, and several local motels RV parks, but all were booked when I checked. It was also mid-August, so a prime time to visit the park. No wonder we couldn’t find anything!

Luckily, I had a back-up plan. What if we camped?! Brilliant idea, I know. I was living out of a suitcase all summer and was grossly unprepared to go camping. However, a little craigslist searching got me a $15 tent, and after a Target run I had a queen size air mattress with an electric pump (I invested in one of the double high ones as I decided to use it as my bed when I moved into my apartment two weeks later). I had a blanket and a sleeping bag in the trunk of my car, along with one camping chair I always keep with me. That’s really all you need, right?

Two days into our trip, we arrived in West Yellowstone. It was evening, so we decided to camp outside the park for that night, and then do our research to figure out how to camp inside the park the following night. We found a KOA campground that had a few empty tent sites and rented one on the edge of the campground. It didn’t take long to put up our tent, or realize that the air mattress I bought fit EXACTLY inside the tiny tent. The area of the mattress fit the area of the floor of the tent. How we actually got the whole thing in there I’m not quite sure… We stole some electricity from the back of a cabin nearby to blow up the air mattress. We threw the blankets in the tent, set up the one chair, and boom! We were ready.

We walked to the campground store and bought the essentials: firewood, marshmallow-roasting sticks, a loaf of bread, and marshmallows. We also grabbed a free magazine on the way out to help start our fire. Adding these supplies to our grocery bag containing a half-eaten jar of peanut butter, box of granola bars, and some fruit snacks, we were ready. David and I are pyromaniacs, so we’ve always liked fire (muhahahaha). It didn’t take us long to get our campfire going. Soon, we were roasting bread on sticks to make toast. Peanut butter toast and marshmallows for dinner? Yes, that’ll do.

Before we entered the park the next day and lost all reception, David and I looked up what our options were for finding a campsite within the park. https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm lists all of the campgrounds in the park, those with and without reservations. In reading reviews, we found that it’s best to be at the campsite you want to get into early, since the lines can be long. We’d leave by 7am, getting us into the park (and hopefully in line) by 7:30.

I didn’t anticipate how incredibly cold it would be at night. I figured that by wearing lots of clothes and using the heavy sleeping bag, quilt, and extra blanket, we’d be fine. Hahahaha. When I woke up, my hair was a bit frozen and the inside of the tent was coated with frost. We were NOT doing that again. We threw everything in the car (which was a complete mess as you can imagine) and hopped on the road. The campground closest to the West entrance was Madison, but we saw a sign indicating it was full as we drove past. The next campground was Norris, a little further north, but still on the route we wanted to take our first day. We parked in the small lot and got in line behind about 20 people. The ranger office opened at 8 (if I’m remembering right), so we waited and talked to the people around us. The couple in front of us was from Germany. They had quit their jobs, flew to Canada, bought a car, and were roadtripping the U.S. for 6 months. After that, they’d sell the car and fly to South America to travel there. It’s so interesting how something like that is not unheard of in Europe, but if I were to tell my friends and family that I wanted to quit my job to travel the world, they’d look at me like I was crazy.

Around 9:30am, we got into the office, paid our $20, and were given one of the 111 campsites. Those who had camped there the night before had until 11am to renew their spot, so more spots became available as the morning went on. However, nobody actually knew how many spots would be free for the following night since there were no reservations at Norris. But we got our spot! Yay! We decided just to put our names on the post to save it and head out right away without setting up. There’d be time for that later; we were ready to see the park!

Since we only had two days to do all of Yellowstone (we’d have stayed longer if we had time), we decided to do the “bottom loop” on the first day. We started at Norris, went south to Old Faithful, then around through Grant Village, Lake Village, Canyon Village, and back to Norris. Instead of trying to describe the amazing beauty we witnessed, I’ll just post some of the pictures. It was incredible.

It was as we were driving around that we realized something: there are no places to buy food in Yellowstone National Park. Uh oh. This is most of the reason this post includes the words “completely unprepared” in the title. All we had was peanut butter, a few granola bars, a loaf of bread, bag of marshmallows, and some fruit snacks. By the end of that first day, only the bread, marshmallows, and peanut butter were left. Oops. Luckily, we bought sandwiches at Old Faithful while we waited, so peanut butter bread for supper wasn’t too bad. We weren’t starving, I suppose.

That night, we decided to sleep in the car. It was a much better idea. Still cold, but a vehicle is much more insulated than a tent. David got the sleeping bag and the driver’s seat, I got the quilt and the passenger’s. We also didn’t realize that there weren’t any showers, until after David decided to go on a run… The bathrooms had nice toilets and sinks though! So when we got up, we washed up and headed out right away. I didn’t even get dressed. No shame.

A girl working in the gift shop of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel recommended that we leave the park via Mammoth Hot Springs, by Tower Falls, and out the Northeast entrance. She said that road is a lot prettier and usually has lots of bison hanging around, so we took her advice. Again, pictures can speak for me here:

Tower Falls was the last significant place we would be before we exited the park, so we filled up on gas there and… WHAT?! A GROCERY STORE?! Well, kind of. In the gift shop there was not only a place to buy ice cream (of course), but resembled a convenience store! Yay for real food! That afternoon, we feasted. Huckleberry yogurt, turkey to make sandwiches, Moon Pies (you don’t even want to know what those are)… It was fantastic. We’d eaten so many marshmallows by that point that anything of substance was very welcome.

So, thirty miles later we were exiting the park. Honestly, it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The thing is, the Northeast entrance takes you on Highway 212 into Montana, then back into Wyoming… and it has some of the most incredible views you’ll ever see. (Although I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, so I suppose that’s not actually a fair statement.) But if you have a chance to either enter or exit Yellowstone via the Northeast entrance, do it.

So, let’s look at some lessons learned:
1. Camping is cold, even in August. Bring lots of blankets and warm clothes, or plan to sleep in a vehicle.
2. Food is important. We would have brought a cooler if we’d had one; then we could’ve at least cooked some hot dogs or something.
3. Get to the campsite you want early, especially if it’s a small site or in a particularly popular location. There are a lot of reviews online, so make a plan and include backup sites in case your first or second choices are already full when you arrive.
4. The only time you don’t want gas… is when you’re on fire. (Advice from my dad that’s very relevant when driving out West.)
5. Take Highway 212 near the Northeast entrance. You won’t regret it.

Bonus new movie: David MacGyver and the Peanut Butter Conundrum

Have you been to Yellowstone? Do you have any additional tips? If so, send us a quick email and we’ll add to the post.

Travel on, my friends!

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Jenifer Smith

I am a sojourner. We are only on this planet for so long, why spend it all in one place? Let’s go on adventures. Let’s get lost, get found, and get lost again. Let’s learn from the people around us, and then make an impact that changes the world.