Our final day in Yellowstone National Park dawned sunny and warm.
I rousted then-13-year-old Madi Rose earlier than she’d have liked.
It wasn’t difficult to determine my daugher would have rather stayed curled up in bed instead of heading out on another day of exploring Yellowstone.
But she rolled out of bed and we hit the road. We had a lot of the park left to see!
We’d spent an afternoon exploring Mammoth Hot Springs’ geothermal features, and then a day wandering through the many hot springs and geysers on the way to see Old Faithful put on its show.
Our last day, we’d head east on the north side of the park, and then south toward Hayden Valley and Yellowstone Lake.
Primary goal for the day: see some animals.
Yellowstone is known for its bison, bear, elk and a growing wolf population.
I’d told Madi I’d treat her to a steak dinner on the way home if we spotted a bear.
We’d heard what a pair of off-duty park rangers said was a mother black bear and her two cubs as she knocked over a tree for grubs while we were cooling off at Obsidian Creek, a quarter mile from our Indian Creek Campground home base, the night before.
Of course Madi, always eager for a steak dinner, asked if hearing a bear was the same as seeing a bear.
Nice try, but to her chagrin, I told her no.
We grabbed gas and a breakfast sandwich in Gardiner, Montana, just outside Yellowstone’s north entrance, and headed back to Mammoth to then travel east along the northern edge of the park.
In Mammoth, traffic was at a standstill as a herd of elk had descended on one of the most populated areas of the park.
Unperturbed by the human visitors and vehicles, they casually walked across the road, and filled the grassy median between the road.
As we slowly made our way through the herd, some visitors got out of their cars for a photo with the magnificent animals. A few of them were getting a talking to — or a ticket — from park rangers for getting too close to the elk.
People are warned to stay 25 yards away from elk and bison, and 100 yards from bears and wolves, while in the park.
Hard to do when a herd of elk is walking right past your car!
But we stayed in our car, and soon headed along Grand Loop Road toward Tower Junction, where we’d then turn south.
Enjoying the beauty of the ever-changing Yellowstone landscape, we stopped at Undine Falls, a three-tiered, 98-foot waterfall along Lava Creek, and a petrified tree just off the main road.
We reached Tower Junction and then Tower Falls, a 132-foot waterfall along Tower Creek, just as the creek enters the Yellowstone River.
After a hike to the overlook of the falls, we noticed a group of people watching a dark figure on a hillside across the Yellowstone River.
Some thought it was a bison, others a bear.
I told Madi to wait there, and I hurried back to the car for the binoculars to get a better look.
And sure enough, there was a grizzly bear meandering around the hillside, a good mile away.
That made Madi happy, her steak dinner was secured!
We then headed south and up Mount Washburn, which rises to 10,243 feet and provides views of much of the north-east portion of the park.
Once off the mountain, the road again followed the Yellowstone River into Hayden Valley. We’d skipped the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone attractions along the way — we couldn’t see everything and the crowds were huge.
Hayden Valley opens into grassy fields along the Yellowstone River, and we spotted a bison rolling in a dust wallow across the river.
Another animal checked off!
Bison were a fairly common sight in the valley, with a group located just off the main road near a parking area. We were far enough away from them to feel safe, but close enough the see the majesty of the huge animals.
Farther down the road, the two-lane road was at a complete stop, and word made it down the line of cars that there was a wolf in the field between the road and river.
Sure enough, the big white wolf appeared as it loped across the field.
I hadn’t expected to be lucky enough to see a wolf!
We stopped at Fishing Bridge at the north end of Yellowstone Lake for lunch, and explored some of the glimmering lake before heading back north.
We’d passed the Mud Volcano after driving through Hayden Valley earlier, but didn’t stop as we were ready for lunch.
But we wanted to see the features and headed back after our lunch.
It was well worth it!
Staying on the boardwalk, we saw the Mud Cauldron, Mud Geyser, Churning Cauldron, Black Dragon Cauldron, Grizzly Fumarole, Dragon’s Mouth Spring and, of course the Mud Volcano.
The slowly burping mud pots were fascinating to watch, and the sound coming out of Dragon’s Mouth Spring was spooky.
Back in the car and its air conditioning on the hot day, we headed back to camp, stopping for a last cool swim in Obsidian Creek.
We took in a ranger’s presentation on bears that evening, made S’mores around the campfire, and hit the sack for our last night in Yellowstone.
The next day, we reluctantly packed up camp and made another trip through Mammoth Hot Springs, this time on our way home.
The drive took us north to Livingston, Montana, where my former colleague and friend Don Davis once lived, as we hit Interstate 90 and headed west.
We made it to Missoula and decided to stop for the night.
Madi wanted a cool swim, and then her steak dinner, of course!
On the final leg of our trip the next day, an exhausted Madi woke from a nap, turned to me and asked, “Dad, can we go back to Yellowstone again sometime?”
In a trip full of awe-inspiring experiences, THAT question just might be the highlight.
And there’s a lot of Yellowstone still to see.