Church Trip 2023

Yellowstone National Park

Day 12

Today was our final day staying in Island Park. We spent the day exploring Yellowstone National Park.

Henry's Lake

It was a beautiful morning in Island Park. We left our cabin in the Bootjack neighborhood (“neighborhood” might be a bit of a stretch) and exited the gate at the Henrys Fork River, a tributary of the Snake River.

The sunrise over the river was spectacular – one of the best we’d seen on this trip.


From Island Park, we drove east and then north on the Grand Loop Road/US-89, and went straight to Gardiner, MT, the northwest gateway to the park. In 2022, a 500-year flood ravaged this area of the park, as well as the communities of Gardiner and Cook City-Silver Gate, MT. The damage was still very apparent, and probably will be for decades to come. Click here to read a NPS article about the flood.

To get from Mammoth to Gardiner, you must now drive an old service road that has been repaved. It’s quite long and winding compared to the old road, but it’s impressive that the National Park Service was able to get a corridor reopened so quickly. During our descent to Gardiner, we saw a sizable herd of elk, led by a large bull. 

Our first stop for breakfast in Gardiner didn’t work out, so we stopped at Wonderland Cafe and Lodge to get some scones for later, and then landed at Yellowstone Perk, a local shop that had changed owners since our last visit. It turned out to be a great breakfast stop – we all got bagel sandwiches  that were absolutely delicious. You had a choice of bacon or sausage, and it came with egg, cheese, and a chipotle mayo – Mom and Dad left off the mayo, and they really missed out!

Yellowstone Perk
Gardiner, MT

A tasty stop for breakfast sandwiches and ice cream.

* – Would definitely visit again

** – Exceptional, must visit if you’re in the area

*** – Worth making a special trip to eat there

For more info on food ratings, click here.

After finishing our breakfast sandwiches, we drove up the street to Bears Brew, a local coffee food truck, to grab some significant caffeination for the day. We drove through the Roosevelt arch, dodging elk along the way.

Undine Falls

From Gardiner, we headed east on the Grand Loop Road, stopping at Undine Falls. Lava Creek drops 60′ over three tiers. I felt like this is a very underrated Yellowstone waterfall – especially for being right by the side of the road.

Blacktail Plateau Drive

Continuing east on the Grand Loop Road, we turned off onto Blacktail Plateau Drive, a suggestion given by the GPS audio guide we use for most of our National Parks adventures. The six mile, one-way, dirt road winds up on top of Blacktail Plateau, giving stunning views of the fall colors, surrounding mountain ranges, and occasional wildlife. We only managed to see one bison on our visit, but the foliage alone was worth the side trip.

We all said this was one of our favorite drives we’d done in Yellowstone, especially in the fall.

Lamar Valley

Back on the main road, we continue east past Tower Junction, and entered the Lamar Valley. Herds of bison dot the hillsides here; some get more up-close-and-personal with your car.

We stopped by the Lamar River Bridge, and soon were rewarded with a variety of wildlife spotting. First, I spotted a coyote on the other side of the bridge – wandering down to get a drink from the river.

Thinking we might spot something else, we waiting a while longer, enjoying the scenery as we looked for movement around us.

After a short wait, a herd of bison started roaming down the road, attracting a large crowd of onlookers, some of who didn’t have any choice because the animals were holding up traffic. They came trotting across the bridge, and then broke out into a full gallop. The bison headed almost straight at us, and then veered off and over a hill on the other side of the road. We scrambled as fast as we could (which was not very fast, admittedly) back to the car, and got in just in time before they passed by.

Attempted Lunch

We drove farther east on the NE Entrance Road, and after exiting the park, we entered the sibling towns of Cooke City and Silver Gate (not in that order) with the expectation of finding some lunch. The last time we visited, en route to the Beartooth Highway, Cooke City had a decent selection of restaurants. I wasn’t sure how the flood had affected their food service industry, but online indicators showed that plenty of places were open.

This visit led to two great disappointments. First, I’d read that the Beartooth Highway was already closed for the season, so I hadn’t dedicated a day to driving it. Turns out, it was open after all. Second, pretty much all of the restaurants in Cooke City had closed for the season just the week before. The one restaurant that was open had literally run out of food because they were so busy.

So, that left us very disappointed and very hungry. We calculated our options, and drove back to Silver Gate to stop at a roadside barbecue truck we’d seen on the drive into town. They were also sold out of two-thirds of the menu items, so we just ordered some very expensive (and small) sandwiches and plates. At the recommendation of the cook, we drove about 25 yards to the city park to eat our meal. There was a primitive store selling coffee and ice cream across the road, but upon further investigation I realized it was $10 for coffee and $15 for ice cream, so we quickly moved on.


After finishing our lunch, we dropped a couple postcards off at Cooke City’s post office, and stopped at the Cooke City Montana Museum to view their small but interesting section of exhibits. The museum covered the history of the towns and had many artifacts from life in the old west.

Traffic Delay

Coming back through the Lamar Valley, we were significantly delayed by the construction to repair some of the road damage caused by the flood. After sitting stagnant in two stages for well over an hour and a half, we finally made it back to the Lamar Valley, and headed back towards Tower Junction.

Remember that giant coffee Faith ordered this morning? Apparently she either forgot to order decaf, or [more likely] they forgot to give her decaf, so Walker was wired and had not slept well all day. It was rough going the rest of the afternoon and evening.

We now had a decision to make: how should we allot our time for the remainder of the day? After our sad lunch, we’d planned to go back to Gardiner for a meal, but that was now out of the question because of traffic delays. We decided to see as much as we could, and worry about food after dark.

Calcite Springs Overlook

At Tower Junction, we turned South back onto the Grand Loop Road, and started on a section of the road we’d never been on. The road between Tower and Canyon was closed the last time we visited, so we were excited to see the sights on this “new” stretch.

First, we stopped at Calcite Springs Overlook, which sits above the Yellowstone River. Calcite Springs marks the downstream end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The hydrothermal features in this part of the canyon occasionally cause liquid sulphur and oil to bubble up from underground, leaving black spots on the otherwise yellow canyon.

Tower Fall

Behind the Tower General Store (which was closed for the season), there’s a 100 yard walking path that leads to a magnificent view of Tower Fall. It’s the second most popular waterfall in the park (behind the Lower Falls in the Canyon), and drops 132 feet. The falls are surrounded by unusual columns, from which it derives its name. The falls were one of the original marketed features of Yellowstone to both legislators (for conservation) and tourists (to entice them to visit).

Dunraven Pass

The road climbed higher, approaching Mount Washburn, giving us even more spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.

At Dunraven Pass, just below Mount Washburn, we noticed a crowd of people gathering around some spotting scopes by the side of the road. Down in Antelope Valley, there was a pack of wolves roaming around, playfully preparing for the night’s hunt. I was able to get a few fuzzy pictures with my telephoto lens, but the waning light made photography difficult. It was amazing to see the wolves in person – they are one of the rarer animals to spot in Yellowstone.

Washburn Hot Springs Overlook

We made a quick stop at Washburn Hot Springs Overlook to see a view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from a distance.

Lookout Point

We drove onto North Rim Drive, and parked at Lookout Point, which overlook the “Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River”, if you want to get really technical with names. We got there just in time to witness a picturesque sunset over the falls and the canyon.

Attempted Dinner

Extremely hungry and tired, we pulled into Canyon Village with hopes of finding some food at one of the area’s relatively plentiful selection of eateries. Unfortunately, our fortunes didn’t get any more fortunate. All of the counters were closed, except for one, and the line was at least 100 people long. They had a sign that more or less said they stopped serving in 15 minutes, and if you hadn’t made it through the line, you were out of luck.

Desperate to get some food and get to bed, we scoured the grab-and-go counters for anything that looked filling or appetizing. Mom, Dad, and I each wound up with some cereal and a carton of 2% milk, and Faith got some dry cereal and the last hummus and pretzel container. On the plus side, Faith’s cereal came with a free milk, so using an empty cereal container, we dipped our scones (maple walnut, huckleberry, and strawberry orange) into the milk.

Life lesson: be grateful for the food you have, even if your milk is 2% and your scones are slightly stale from sitting in the car all day. Also on the upside: I got Faith a new hat in the gift shop, which looked like it had more staff than the eatery. 


It was a short drive from Canyon Eatery over to the lodges.  When you book lodging through Yellowstone, you have a reservation for “Canyon Lodge”, but there are in fact seven lodges scattered around. All guests check in at the Washburn Lodge in one slow, grueling line, surrounded by out-of-control children and guests spouting off their daily wildlife sightings like some kind of fisherman’s exaggeration.

We stayed at the Chittenden Lodge, just around the corner from the Washburn. The rooms were nice, but exceptionally tiny (especially the bathrooms). It was next to impossible to find parking, but Dad and I finally managed to secure a space. We had to dodge several bison pies in the parking lot on our way back inside.


Here’s a video from today’s adventures.

The Best Things we Saw Today


The best thing I saw today was… “wolves in the Antelope Valley and the sunrise view at Henrys Fork Bridge”.

The best thing I ate today was… “the breakfast bagel sandwich”.


The best thing I saw today was… “the bison running over the bridge, and Blacktail Plateau Drive”.

The best thing I ate today was… “the breakfast bagel sandwich”.


The best thing I saw today was… “bison coming over the bridge”.

The best thing I ate today was… “the breakfast bagel sandwich”.


The best thing I saw today was… “bison coming over the bridge”.

The best thing I ate today was… “the breakfast bagel sandwich”.


Tomorrow will be our last full day in Yellowstone, and the last full day of this trip. We’ll continue exploring the road between Tower and Canyon, and maybe see a few other sights along the way.

– Isaac & Co.

2 Responses

  1. As before, absolutely beautiful…
    I enjoyed seeing the waterfalls, springs and the wildlife.

  2. Your up close and personal encounter with the bison made me giggle. We went to slough creek in the Lamar valley for my crowd to go fishing. I stayed behind and read a book in the parking lot. There was a parking lot bison whom I believe was blind in one eye because he moved in circles. He kept coming closer so I took my chair back to the car and got in. He literally came to the back of the car. He stayed there awhile and I was afraid to move for fear that I would startle him and he would attack the car. Eventually he moved on but that was much closer than I wanted to be to such a massive creature.

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