Experiences on a Grand Tour of the Parks of South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Utah By Motor Coach and Rental Car
We spent years trying to plan a trip to Yellowstone. One of our goals was to spend time at The Old Faithful Lodge. It turned out that getting reservations there is a very difficult thing to do. It is almost impossible to book directly with the lodge, as soon as the booking season becomes available, it is virtually sold out. The Park Service suggests booking through a broker where you pay a non-refundable fee, or booking a land tour. We then found out that some travel friends of ours had booked a trip through Yellowstone with Caravan Tours recently and really enjoyed it. So we decided to give this a try, our first land tour.
After leaving the tour in Salt Lake we rented a car and spent a week on our own visiting Moab, the National Parks of Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. This gave us a good perspective to compare the experiences of the organized tour and being on our own.
For an overview of the Caravan Land Tour see below.
Beating The Crowds When Visiting Yellowstone National Park
If you intend to visit Yellowstone, the first thing you need to understand is that the park is larger than the state of Delaware with just nine hotels and a few campgrounds inside the park. For that reason reservations are difficult to come by. Most Park visitors stay at motels in Jackson Hole or West Yellowstone so a lot of time is expended getting in and around the park. As summer advances so do the lines of cars, so getting up early becomes a necessity. Also, if you get into the park late, the parking lots for a number of featured areas can be gridlocked. Not just a lack of parking spaces but serious traffic jams.
After checking out of The Old Faithful lodge we stopped at Lake Yellowstone on our way to the Tetons National Park followed by a night in Jackson Hole Wyoming. The next day we headed off to Salt Lake City with a stop at the Oregon Trail Center.
We both felt as if we had gotten our moneys worth with this tour. We saw sights we may have never visited by ourselves, met some great people, traveled in comfort and spent time at all of our wished for destinations. We would highly recommend Caravan Tours and their Yellowstone trip.
When we visited Yellowstone last summer we had a couple of advantages. First we came on a land tour that included nights at the Old faithful Lodge, which is a difficult reservation to get on your own. We were also in the company of an experienced guide that knew where to go and more importantly, when to get there.
With the summer National Park season quickly approaching and Yellowstone being a favorite destination this is a good time to revisit our experiences.
A number of times as we traveled thru Yellowstone we passed parking areas that were in total gridlock. We saw any number of lines of cars that were just not going anywhere. Following are some thoughts to getting the most out of your park visit.
First you should do some research and make a list of those places you really want to get to. This is our recommendation of the top five locations and how to approach visiting them:
#1 Grand Prismatic Spring – Located in Midway Geyser Basin. This area may be small, but it leaves a lasting impression. In addition to Grand Prismatic Spring, there’s Excelsior Geyser, an enormous geyser crater, and the Turquoise and Opal Pools. You reach the field by a bridge across the Firehole River where boiling water flows into the river and steam rises from around the field. This location is very popular and the secret is to get up early and making this your first stop. On most days gridlock begins to set in around noon.
#2 Old Faithful – Located in the Upper Geyser Basin. The area is the largest concentration of geothermal features on Earth. Though the basins other geysers are less predictable than Old Faithful there is one literally going off all the time. There are also miles of walkways and trails thru the basin that need exploring. The Old Faithful geyser is only a short walk from The Old Faithful Lodge with easy access for the handicapped. With the lodges plentiful parking this a great stop anytime of the day and with a number of good restaurants its a great place for lunch or dinner.
#3 Mammoth Hot Springs – The springs is a large complex of hot springs on a hill of mineral deposits that look like an inside out cavern. It was created over thousands of years as hot water from the springs cooled on the surface and deposited calcium carbonate on the hillsides as it flowed. Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District in Yellowstone National Park is a large complex with a good hotel, restaurants and shops and is a good choice as a base for visiting the park.
#4 Lookout Point (Yellowstone Grand Canyon) – The iconic landscape image of Yellowstone is taken from Lookout Point. Only a short walk from the parking area the trail provides spectacular views up the Yellowstone Grand Canyon to the Lower Yellowstone Falls. This is a must see place but can turn into a traffic jam early in the day. Like Grand Prismatic Spring it is highly advisabe to put this on the list of visits early in the morning.
#5 Lower Geyser Basin – This is the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park. It covers an area of over ten square miles compared to the Upper Geyser Basin one square mile. With its large size, the thermal features in the Lower Geyser Basin tend to be in widely spaced groups. Because of the large area and the number of parking facilities and trails it is much easier to visit and find parking at any time of day. In the Lower Basin probably the easiest to get to and most interesting to hike is the Fountain Paint Pot area which features pools, geysers and bubbling mud pots of different colors.
To round out Yellowstone’s list of favorite sights here are another five.
#6 Hayden and Lamar Valleys – Expansive valleys of open meadows excellent for watching animals. Plenty of parking spots throughout both.
#7 Yellowstone Lake – Home to The historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel featuring fishing and tours of the park, Fishing Bridge and visitors center.
#8 Norris Geyser Basin – This Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas.
#9 Tower Falls– This fall on Tower Creek in the northeastern region of Yellowstone National Park plunges 132 feet before joining the Yellowstone river.
#10 West Thumb Geyser Basin – This small, colorful geyser in Yellowstone National Park also features scenic lake views.
The real secret to getting to see what you want is to get up early and know your destination. Also since Yellowstone is the size of Delaware it helps to select accommodations convenient to getting into the park or better yet stay at one of the parks lodges.
Recommended routes into and thru Yellowstone National Park from each entrance for earliest access to primary locations.
Yellow – West Entrance and Yellowstone Village to Midway Geyser Basin and on to Old Faithful.
Blue – East Entrance and Cody to Lookout Point and Grand Canyon trails
Orange – North Entrance and Gardner to Mammoth Warm Springs on to Midway Geyser Basin or alternately to Lookout Point.
Green – Alternate route from Mammoth Warm Springs to Lookout Point and Old Faithful to Yellowstone Lake and Lake Village.
The Yellowstone Caravan Tour
First, an overview of the tour. Caravan provided accommodations each night, a modern and comfortable motor coach that accommodated 48, a driver and tour guide, admission to all parks and attractions, breakfast each morning and occasionally other meals. Suitcases were tagged and placed inside our hotel room each evening and picked up outside our room in the morning.
The tour started in Rapid City, South Dakota and visited Mt. Rushmore National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Devils Tower National Monument, Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole and ended in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The tour began with a meet and greet with our guide Greg on Wednesday at the hotel in Rapid City. The next day we boarded the bus and headed for Crazy Horse Memorial and after that stopped at Mt. Rushmore. Neither of these sites were on our bucket list but, afterwards, we are glad we visited. Back in Rapid City that evening the town was hosting the first street concert of the season (Thursday evenings) which was a nice surprise.
The next morning we headed west with stops at the Devils Tower and the Little Big Horn Battlefield. The Devils Tower is a natural wonder and truly an impressive formation (think Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The Little Big Horn site offered a historical perspective on the 1876 battle. The Custer National Cemetery was on the same property. Next stop was lunch at the historic Sheridan Inn and a talk on Buffalo Bill. We spent the night in Billings, Montana.
Between stops, one of the interesting aspects of the tour was our guide playing historical or informative DVDs relating to the places we were visiting. Our guide, Greg also shared his knowledge and thoughts in a running commentary throughout the trip.
Day four of our journey was dedicated to the main event, Yellowstone National Park. If you have not visited Yellowstone, no matter what you have heard cannot do it justice. Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs where we encountered some elk and walked trails around the hot springs. The hot springs deposit minerals that form terraces down the hillsides. After a few brief stops, including iconic Yellowstone Gorge, called the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone we arrived at the Old Faithful Lodge for a two night stay. Shortly after checking in we got to watch our first Old Faithful eruption.
The afternoon we arrived at Old Faithful lodge, just outside our window, was a bull bison and, looking down the hill past the general store, there was a steaming field of vents with various geysers going off frequently. Every evening in the main lobby there was live music and, weather permitting, a fire in the massive fireplace. Food is available in the main dining room (menu & buffet), the lobby bar which served light fare like bison burgers and chili, and a deli. Near the main lodge there is a country store with counter service until 5 o’clock and a large cafeteria a short walk away. Between the lodge’s front door and the cafeteria is the Old Faithful geyser, currently putting on a show about every ninety minutes.
The Old Faithful Lodge is a historic site sitting in the middle of the largest concentration of geothermal features in the world (see our Lodge review HERE). The Old Faithful Lodge is situated in a geyser field where half of the world’s active geothermal features are located within one mile of the Lodge itself. The architecture is rustic and grand and the location is difficult to wrap your head around. The grand lobby of the massive log structure stands five stories high, but the guest rooms are primitive by modern standards: no air-conditioning, television or wifi, with spotty cell service and a real 1950s look. Ours had one double bed with a small bathroom featuring a pedestal sink (not much room for toiletries). We didn’t come looking for a resort and the real draw is simply the location.