It’s still possible to get away from the crowds of Yellowstone even on a summer day at high season.
Those of us who have been hanging around Yellowstone for a while are still often appalled at accepting 4+ million annual visitors as “the new normal.” Yellowstone was just busy enough at 2.2 million, where the number stayed for some time.
A peek at the NPS statistics page at https://irma.nps.gov/Stats/Reports/Park/YELL shows that park visitation hit 2 million for the first time in 1965 and fluctuated up and down from just under 2 to almost 3 million, not cracking 3 million until 1992.
Last year a buddy and I did a dark-thirty departure from Livingston at 3:30 a.m., cruising into Mammoth Hot Springs just shortly before dawn and catching a small, respectful crowd of wolf watchers at Slough Creek around 6 a.m. We saw some cool stuff and had to ourselves a nearly empty Lake Hotel dining room for a leisurely breakfast around 9 a.m. and really didn’t hit painful tourist traffic until almost noon in Hayden Valley. But dang, those super-early hours can be hard, and it might be a lot to expect of a traditional vacationing family.
But on Saturday, we found something cool to do that didn’t require a painfully early departure, we got to see some cool stuff, and the feeling of having Yellowstone nearly to ourselves prevailed.
We left Livingston at 6 a.m., well past sunrise in mid-July, and much more do-able than 3:30 a.m. Our destination? Fountain Flat Drive, about 12 miles north of Old Faithful, not quite 100 miles from home.
Fountain Flat Drive veers off to the west off the Grand Loop Road north of Fountain Paint Pots. In the fall, the flats are often covered with a bison herd gathered for the rut and preparing to wait out the upcoming winter months in relative comfort along the thermally heated Firehole River. But on Saturday, it was hot and sunny and not a bison in sight.
These days, Fountain Flat Drive dead ends for vehicles not far from the main road, but hikers and bicyclists are welcome to continue on. There’s lots of parking and a large turnaround. We got out and strolled down to the Firehole River, not far from the parking lot. We saw wildflowers—lupine and salsify and lots of strawberry plants but rarely an actual strawberry—and Canada geese and even a bald eagle on the wing overhead.
And speaking of things on the wing, large, biting flies known as deer flies were out in force. They look like larger, buffer versions of the plain old housefly, except they bite. They move relatively slowly, so they’re particularly satisfying to slap, but if slapping bugs isn’t your thing, bring the bug spray.
With sunscreen, hat, lunch, water and bear spray in our packs, we headed out down the old road. The road crosses the Firehole River and roughly parallels the Grand Loop Road, eventually traveling west of Midway Geyser Basin and ending at a parking lot favored by hikers accessing the shortest distance to Fairy Falls. Fairy Falls plunges 197 feet off Fairy Creek (seen above) and is a popular hike for its easy access, relatively short length and level ground.
From our end of Fountain Flat Drive, Fairy Falls is about a 10-mile roundtrip hike. We weren’t planning to walk that far as the day was hot and thunderstorms were already looking likely in the early morning hours. My old friend Jean and I worked together a very long time ago at the Old Faithful Inn, and we had had many opportunities then to hike to Fairy Falls. So it didn’t feel so necessary today.
We strolled out to a hot spring named Ojo Caliente—Spanish for “hot eye”—that discharges hot water into the Firehole River. Hot springs and geysers up and down the Firehole from the Old Faithful area to Ojo Caliente discharge hot water into the river, warming the popular swimming hole on Firehole Canyon Drive and keeping the water open through Yellowstone’s sub-zero winters.
We strolled and chatted, meeting lots of other hikers and bicyclists. The road is popular for bicyclists—and it’s a wide trail these days more than an actual road, so inappropriate for a road bike – because motor vehicles aren’t allowed. The pace was unhurried, and the people we met were relatively few. The bicyclists were polite.
At the southern end, the road parallels Midway Geyser Basin, home of lovely and multi-colored Grand Prismatic Spring. Just opened: a new trail and viewing platform constructed last year on a hillside that overlooks the spring, providing an elevated view from a safe distance.