Like everything else at Yellowstone National Park, the eruptions of Old Faithful are worth waiting for – especially in late September.
Visitors watched as the famous geyser began doing its thing. Soon hot gas gave way to a spurt of boiling water that rose 6 feet.
Then it stopped long enough for a young boy to loudly ask, “Is that all?”
Seconds later, Old Faithful spewed water 150 feet in the air, putting on a 3-minute show that ended with cheers and applause of about 200 people.
That the crowd wasn’t 2,000 or more speaks to the joys of visiting Yellowstone in the fall, when the parking lots are full but not overflowing, the bison are free to roam in relative peace and the stores are offering late-season discounts.
Even better, the scenery is breathtaking as autumn colors mix with the evergreens for an unforgettable sight.
As with most good ideas in the Allen home, this one came from my wife, Dannette. Thirty-four years earlier, in 1988, we’d planned a trip to Yellowstone only to have it wiped out by a one of the worst wildfires in history.
This time our timing was near-perfect. Wisely deciding to break up the 8-hour drive from Spokane to Yellowstone, we stopped in Missoula.
After some quality time in Butte, we arrived late in the afternoon and joined the tourists on the main drag in West Yellowstone, Montana. I expected to see souvenir shops; what I didn’t expect was the wide range of excellent dining options, topped off by Häagen Dazs.
We allowed for three full days to see the 3,700-square-mile park, and that wasn’t enough, even with the crowds dropping off.
First things first: We had to see Old Faithful, so we headed in that direction.
The day began with one surprise after another: frost on my windshield, a long line of cars at the main entrance, and our first close encounter with nature.
Barely two miles into the park, I spied a bison ambling alongside the road. “Now’s your chance,” I said to my wife. Fumbling her camera as we pulled alongside, she captured about 3 seconds of action before panicking.
“He’s looking at us …. go!” she half-screamed.
We tore off to Madison Junction, then south along the Firehole River and into the land of geysers. On a hunch, we drove up to Firehole Canyon and were rewarded with beautiful scenery that included wooded vistas and a waterfall.
The stop at Middle Geyser Basin confirmed the decision to tour Yellowstone in the fall. I’m not sure why they call it “shoulder season,” because you’re definitely not standing shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of fellow travelers.
Instead, parking was easy and so was our walk through the fountains and paint pots.
By noon we were at Old Faithful, and again there were plenty of tourists, but I had no trouble finding a good spot in time to catch the first of three eruptions we would see that day.
In fact, I had 20 minutes to spare before the next eruption and made the most of it by touring the area behind Old Faithful. By then the morning chill had given way to temperatures in the 70s.
In between shows, there was plenty of time to grab lunch (a dreadful choice of cafeteria fare) and load up on souvenirs. This being the park’s 150th anniversary, there was no shortage of those. We snagged T-shirts and souvenir mugs.
By day two, we’d seen enough bison in nearby meadows to pass them by, but we had no choice as we drove toward Mammoth Hot Springs.
Two of the big creatures had suddenly climbed up from a ravine and took over both lanes of the narrow road.
Now they were only 10 feet way. This was my big chance, and I stuck my head out the window and shot some great video.
The images at Mammoth were even more inspiring. As we strolled on boardwalks, we could see the glistening sheen of hot water over the rock terraces.
As it turned out, we had saved the best for last by seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on day three.
That was OK. We would have loved to have stayed there, but even in late-season, lodging was a pricey $350 a night – if you could get a room.
No camera could do justice to the waterfalls and deep ravines framed by the yellows and reds of the turning leaves.
We still had time on the way back for another stop at Old Faithful, and it didn’t disappoint.
The trip’s only disappointment was the lack of wildlife, apart from the everpresent bison. We saw no bears or deer, only a couple of elk grazing in a meadow.
I’m sure we’ll have better luck time, and I’m sure we’ll be back soon.
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