Our Summer in Yellowstone

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As I’ve said in a previous post, we don’t like traveling in summer. The popular destinations are not only crowded with vacationers but most of the country is too hot for our liking. For these reasons, we like to volunteer somewhere where the weather is cool and an RV spot is provided.

Last summer we volunteered with SEA on the coast of Oregon and this year we’re volunteering with Yellowstone Forever, the official non-profit partner of Yellowstone National Park.  Yes, Yellowstone is crowded but we’ll be staying in an employee campground that’s not only off-limits to park visitors but at 8,000 feet should be cool the entire summer.

No this is not Yellowstone but rather Lathrop State Park near Walsenburg, CO. We stopped here for a few days in mid-May on our way to Yellowstone and soon discovered this would not be our last snowstorm of the season.

No this is not Yellowstone but rather Lathrop State Park near Walsenburg, CO. We stopped here for a few days in mid-May on our way to Yellowstone and soon discovered this would not be our last snowstorm of the season.

We arrived in Yellowstone on May 21. Snow lined the roadways throughout the Park and much of Lake Yellowstone was still covered with ice. The road and campsites within the employee campground had been recently plowed but some shoveling was required on my part to make room for the slides on our motorhome.

Two inches of snow fell on June 13th making for Cindy’s first “white birthday”. She was not a happy camper.

Two inches of snow fell on June 13th making for Cindy’s first “white birthday”. She was not a happy camper. Note the bear spray in her hand.

 

Here I am clearing away snow so we can extend the slides on our motorhome.

Here I am clearing away snow so we can extend the slides on our motorhome.

Bears in Our Campground!

Our employee campground is located in Grant Village on the shore of Lake Yellowstone in the southeast section of the Park. The nearby public campground does not open until mid-June due to excessive grizzly bear activity. Bears roam the lake’s shore in search of carrion exposed by the melting ice and are still cranky following their long winter’s nap.

About a week after we arrived, Cindy and I took Eddie for his last walk of the evening. We walked to the end of the road that passes through our campground to admire the view over Lake Yellowstone. As we turned to head back, a grizzly bear walked out of the woods about 25 yards in front of us. Fortunately Eddie did not bark as I pulled the canister of bear spray from its holster and removed the safety. The bear paid no attention to us (hence no need to use the bear spray) as he crossed the road and disappeared back into the woods.

We didn’t have our camera to capture the grizzly in our campground but were able to photograph these fresh bear tracks near our campsite a few days later.

We didn’t have our camera to capture the grizzly in our campground but were able to photograph these fresh bear tracks near our campsite a few days later.

Nearby Grocery Stores, Internet and Other Necessities

Cindy and I often camp in some pretty remote places so the lack of grocery stores and internet access is a minor inconvenience if we’re only staying a few days. However, doing so for 3 to 4 months is another matter. Cell service throughout Yellowstone is notoriously absent but fortunately there’s a Verizon tower in our campground offering good voice service and so-so data service.

Grocery stores are another matter. While the General Stores throughout the Park sell a limited variety of groceries such as loaf bread, eggs, milk, etc, a trip outside the Park is required to find a full service grocery store. Our choices are:

  • West Yellowstone, Montana (51 miles one way) has two locally owned grocery stores similar to what we find in small towns. The selection of fresh vegetables and meats is limited. West Yellowstone does have free wifi at the library and some good pizza joints. Since West Yellowstone is a gateway town on the edge of the Park, retail options are more or less limited to serving the needs of tourists (fly fishing shops, t-shirts, souvenirs, etc.).
  • Jackson, Wyoming (78 miles one way) has a great Alberston’s plus a a couple of high-end organic grocery stores. This is where we usually shop. The drive parallels the Grand Tetons National Park so the views are outstanding. Higher speed limits and fewer critter jams can make this trip faster than going to West Yellowstone.
  • Cody, Wyoming (101 miles one way) has a nice Albertson’s similar to Jackson but if you need a Walmart (and we do for prescription meds), then it’s the closest option.
  • Bozeman, Montana (140 miles one way) has everything! Costco, Walmart, numerous great grocery stores, brew pubs, Novo Cafe (our favorite place for breakfast), Eddie’s vet,…you name it, they got it. We’ve adopted Bozeman as our home out west and will probably settle down here one day.
Our campsite for the summer. This photo was taken in late June and you can still see some snow in the woods behind the RV.

Our full-hookup campsite for the summer. This photo was taken in late June and you can still see some snow in the woods behind the RV.

How We Spend Our Days

Unlike most volunteer assignments offering a free RV site, this assignment does not require couples to volunteer so I’m the only one actually working.  I spend 2-3 days each week working the information desk at the Yellowstone Art and Photography Center located between the Visitor Center and Old Faithful Lodge directly in front of the Old Faithful Geyser. The geyser goes off about every 90 minutes meaning I get to watch it erupt about 5-6 times each day. Park visitors ask me a variety of questions about where to go and what to do in the Park. I offer advice on hiking, wildlife, geysers, restaurants, campgrounds, lodging, etc. I’ve become quite the expert on all things Yellowstone in the past month. What about Cindy? She’s basically a stay-at-home mom taking care of Eddie and me. When she’s not quilting, she takes long walks around the campground and along the lake shore (she always has her bear spray just in case).

On my days off, we both travel throughout the Park looking mostly for wildlife. As a Park staff member, I’ve signed up for the 100 mile hiking challenge. According to the National Park Service, Yellowstone contains over 900 miles of hiking trails (other sources say 1300 miles) and fewer than 10% of the park’s visitors ever venture from the road. I’ve already completed 18.9 miles and have only 81.1 miles to go. In future posts, I’ll describe my hikes and provide photos of what I see along the way.

Here’s a few critters we’ve seen since we’ve arrived…

Cindy and I spend a lot of time watching for wolves. There's a wolf den at this location and we've observed 5 wolf pups less than 10 weeks old playing near the den's entrance. The pups are too far away to photograph so here's a photo of a bison watching fellow wolf-watchers.

Cindy and I spend a lot of time watching for wolves. There’s a wolf den at this location and we’ve observed 5 wolf pups less than 10 weeks old playing near the den’s entrance. The pups are too far away to photograph so here’s a photo of a bison watching fellow wolf-watchers.

Coyotes often appear out of nowhere as we watch for wolves. Someone must be feeding them (a big no-no) since they will approach within a few yards.

Coyotes often appear out of nowhere as we watch for wolves. Someone must be feeding them (a big no-no) since they will approach within a few yards.

We see lots of Black Bears along the roads. This is a Cinnamon Black Bear which sounds like an oxymoron (as in jumbo shrimp).

We see lots of Black Bears along the roads. This is a Cinnamon Black Bear which sounds like an oxymoron (as in jumbo shrimp).

On our drive to Cody WY, we met up with Raspberry (the mom) and Snow (the cub). Raspberry has spent the last 3-4 years along the road east of Fishing Bridge. Rangers suspect she's learned that her cub is safe from male grizzlies since they prefer to stay away from people and the roads. (Male grizzlies will often kill cubs causing the females to go into heat come breeding season.)

On our drive to Cody WY, we met up with Raspberry (the mom) and Snow (the cub). Raspberry has spent the last 3-4 years along the road east of Fishing Bridge. Rangers suspect she’s learned that her cub is safe from male grizzlies since they prefer to stay away from people and the roads. (Male grizzlies will often kill cubs causing the females to go into heat come breeding season.)

Closeup of Snow. Raspberry and Snow are seen so regularly, visitors have decided to name them. Snow is so cute you can't help but want to hug her (a huge no-no btw).

Closeup of Snow. Raspberry and Snow are seen so regularly, visitors have decided to name them. Snow is so cute you can’t help but want to hug her (a huge no-no btw).

A Tree Swallow along my hike through the Old Faithful Geyser basin.

A Tree Swallow along my hike through the Old Faithful Geyser basin.

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2 thoughts on “Our Summer in Yellowstone

  1. Maureen Nigro

    John, Thanks for sharing this post! I love your adventurous spirits! And I love that you find volunteer work in exchange for a living spot. You are living the uncommon life and a life that many only dream of. I’m so happy for you both! Keep up the hiking. You can do the 100 miles. Good luck!

    Reply

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