Elephant Back Trail

The story

On our way down to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, we passed the very crowded Elephant Back trailhead. The next morning we passed it again and there were only 2 cars at the trailhead. We decided to turn around and hike the trail since it was a beautiful, clear morning and we were going to spend the next couple of days in the car en route to the Grand Teton’s. I’m glad we stopped! The trail is lollipop style and starts with a fairly flat walk through a lot of fallen trees until it reaches the loop. From there, the trail drastically steepens until the top of Elephant Back Mountain is reached. We took the right path first, going counter-clockwise. Turns out this way is the steeper of the two. After two days of hiking Mt. Washburn, Beaver Ponds and Uncle Tom’s trail, our legs were less excited for the climb than our spirits.

Approaching the top of the mountain, we began getting incredible views of Yellowstone Lake. We realized exactly why there were so many people here the evening before – sunset would be stunning! The lake is beautiful from the shore, but few put in the effort to get to see its beauty from above. We spent a spell at each outlook, trying to burn the snapshot into our eyes.

On the way around and down the mountain, we saw some bear scat on the trail. It was pretty dry, so no need for us to worry. Although there were many “be bear aware” cautions on this trail (and others) we fortunately did not have any close encounters with bears. We took in this hike with only chipmunks and squirrels in tow 🙂

The skinny

Distance: 3 miles
Total climb: 955 feet
Lowest elevation: 7675 feet
Highest elevation: 8630 feet
Path: Dirt

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How to do Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park in a Week

When I was planning my trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, I browsed endless sites telling me that I couldn’t experience everything Yellowstone had to offer in one trip. People far and wide have visited Yellowstone on several occasions and still hadn’t crossed everything off the list. Well, when I plan a trip I don’t do it with intentions of having to come back. The world is full of spectacles demanding to be seen. I don’t want to succumb to the reality that I will never be able to do it all. So I don’t.

If you like to take your time, tinkering around one or two attractions a day, then this post probably isn’t for you. But if you are like me and you want to experience all of the highlights with a good dose of off-the-beaten-path, then this itinerary will let you see more of Yellowstone than you can find anywhere else.

For a thorough trip, I recommend planning 6 or 7 days, depending on how long your drive/flight takes you to arrive. If you’re flying, be sure to check all surrounding airports, not only for saving a buck on your flight, but also to check out the costs of car rentals. I decided to fly into Idaho Falls, Idaho for four reasons:

  1. The arrival time (12:52pm) and departure time (3:16pm) allowed me to maximize my days
  2. Car rentals from the Idaho Falls airport were ~$100 cheaper than at other local airports
  3. Drive time to the West Yellowstone entrance and Jackson, Wyoming were both a manageable 2 hours from Idaho Falls
  4. It allowed me to cross another state of my bucket list (true story)

It’s important to look at the first two of these together. I originally thought I would be getting the best deal by flying into Bozeman, MT. However, after realizing my flight arrived at 11pm when all car rental places were closed meant I would have to stay the night in Bozeman. Not a big deal, I thought. I could just get up early, pick up the rental car and kick off my adventure at dawn. Not so. The car rental did not open until 7am, and if it was anything like car rentals from past experiences, it would have a line 5-6 deep by the time I got there. Also, my return flight from Bozeman to Cincinnati departed at 6am, which meant I would have to either drop off my rental car “after hours” and pay an additional fee, or drop it off by 9pm the night before and lose more precious time that could be better spent.

Which brings me to my next point. The cost of time. After mapping out drive times from Bozeman, Salt Lake City, Jackson, and Denver, Idaho Falls offered the shortest and most even drive times considering we planned to visit the northern most part of Yellowstone all the way south to Jackson. Flights were easily half to a third of the price from Salt Lake City and Denver, but our trip purpose was to experience the great outdoors, not the cramped interior of the cheapest rental car we could get.

Yellowstone National Park divides into four primary hotspots: Southwest, Northwest, Northeast and Southeast. I find that it is easiest to tackle the expanse park by cutting it up into these manageable sections. The route you take through the park is entirely up to you. Depending where your starting hub is, you’ll probably want to start by whichever one is closest to you. Since we came from the western entrance, we started at the southwest section first. This allowed us to do a big clockwise loop through Yellowstone before heading south to Grand Teton National Park. And since the southwest is full of geysers and other geothermal features, we didn’t have to wait long to get a taste of what was in store for us.

The southwest section is arguably one of the most popular parts of the park considering this is where Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring reside. While each of these are worth a visit to Yellowstone, there is so much more to see. Spend your day working from the south to the north, starting at Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin.

The skinny:

  • Day 1: Southwest
    • Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful, etc.)
    • Midway Geyser Basin (Grand Prismatic Spring, etc.)
    • Fairy Falls Trail (2.5 mi)
    • Lower Geyser Basin (Fountain Paint Pots, etc.)
    • Firehole Canyon
  • Day 2: Northwest
    • Norris Geyser Basin
    • Mammoth Hot Springs
    • Beaver Ponds Trail (5.5 mi)
    • Boiling River
  • Day 3: Northeast
    • Lamar Valley
    • Lamar River Trail (7 mi)
    • South Rim Trail (Uncle Tom’s trail, Artist Point) (4 mi)
  • Day 4: Southeast
    • Mt. Washburn Trail (6.5 mi)
    • Dragon’s Mouth
    • Hayden Valley
    • Elephant’s Back Trail (3 mi)
  • Day 5: South (includes Grand Teton)
    • West Thumb Geyser Basin
    • Grand Teton 42 mile drive
    • Jenny Lake Trail (3 mi)
    • Moose Wilson Road

Beaver Ponds Trail

The skinny

Distance: 5.5 miles
Total climb: 921 feet
Lowest elevation: 6200 feet
Highest elevation: 6800 feet
Path: Dirt

The story

When we arrived in the Mammoth area of Yellowstone, we had aspirations of hiking the Sepulcher Mountain trail. Once we got to Mammoth, there was a stubborn fog that wasn’t going to lift any time soon. We didn’t want to hike the mountain without getting the satisfaction of the view at the top, so a local park ranger recommended we hike the Beaver Ponds trail instead.

The Beaver Ponds trail is a 5.5 mile hike through the sagebrush back country of Wyoming and Montana. If done clockwise, it starts with a steep climb that shares the Sepulcher Mountain trail. By the time we split, we were relieved we weren’t hiking Sepulcher Mountain! The trail starts in the town of Mammoth at an elevation of about 6200 feet. For us midwesterners used to our whopping ~500 foot elevation, the altitude in combination with the incline had us out of breath in no time. We persevered and it paid off! The views of rolling hills of yellow grass and sagebrush were a lot to take in. Atop each hill we snapped more and more photos, each giving a slightly different perspective of a photo already taken.

About halfway through the hike, as we were approaching the beaver ponds, we spotted 4 elk feeding in the marshy woods. There was elk scat along the entire trail, but we were still surprised when we saw the elk about 30 yards away. After all, this was our first day in Yellowstone and to see these creatures in their natural environment was nothing short of awesome. A short while later we ran into a man and woman who had seen “more elk than they could count” just past the beaver ponds and up the hill. By the time we got there, the elk had already moved on. It was a little disappointing but were still on a high from seeing the 4 earlier and the general enjoyment of the trail itself stayed with us.

When we reached the end of the trail, we were overlooking Mammoth and the Hot Springs for one last exceptional view. We made the trek down to town and there was another elk grazing on the lawn of the Mammoth Ranger Station. This was a common event based on the number of signs around town requesting visitors to refrain from approaching and feeding the animals. I can only imagine what it would be like to see elk taking over the lawns of the tiny town. What a sight that would be!

In all, the Beaver Ponds trail was the perfect trail to kick off our Yellowstone adventure. It had challenging climbs, breathtaking scenery and native wildlife that kept our interest the entire way. I would hike this trail again and again if I lived in the area. I greatly recommend it for anyone seeking to experience Yellowstone off the paved road.

Even in Rural Indiana

Sometimes I get restless reading the adventurous travel blogs from around the world. I gaze at the gorgeous photos, with every ounce of me wanting to be right there at that moment. As if that location is the most uniquely beautiful place the world has to offer and the life that comes with it is stunningly captivating.

This weekend I went north to the blue-collar town of Portland, Indiana. My parents have a plot of land there with two woods and a clearing large enough for a good sized pond. They have a golf cart for both fun and function. We splashed around with my nephew and soon-to-be nieces, took turns driving through the various trails of the woods, and finished the night off around a campfire with great company and tasty smores. While driving around under the setting sun, the overwhelming beauty of rural Indiana captured me like the photos of people all around the world. It was in that moment that I realized I didn’t have to be on the other side of the Pacific, or even in a well-known, tourist-laden place. I found that if I just looked for it, I would find God’s beauty everywhere.