My husband and I had a wonderful trip to Yellowstone in September. The weather was great every day. Our trip was made even better by taking some of the suggestions/advice found on this forum! The "Yellowstone Treasures" book by Janet Chapple was also a great help. We drove our own vehicle from Iowa to Yellowstone via Nebraska and spent a few days in northern Wyoming and South Dakota on the return trip home.
Day 1 - We knew this would be a long day of driving I-80 across Nebraska. Made a stop at Chimney Rock and stayed the night in Gering, NE just outside Scottsbluff National Monument.
Day 2 - Spent about an hour at Scottsbluff NM. Enjoyed the short drive to the top and the views of the patchwork of fields in the distance. Drove into Wyoming with a lunch stop at Douglas in the small park with the fun Jackalope statue. Central Wyoming from Casper to Shoshoni was very desolate, but the Wind River Canyon between Shoshoni and Thermopolis was beautiful. We stopped in Cody for some food and supplies before we reached our motel at Wapiti.
Day 3 - Exciting day as we were entering Yellowstone for the first time. The drive to the east entrance was beautiful with the mountains and rock formations. Our first lengthy stop was Fishing Bridge, where a large male Bison slowly marched west across the bridge with a line of traffic behind him. We drove north and stopped for a picnic at LeHardy Rapids, but fortunately did not see the "aggressive" coyote the signs warned about. The Mud Volcano area was great and didn't even smell too bad! Drove through Hayden Valley (a lot of bison) and then backtracked south to Lake Lodge cabins. Enjoyed a decent dinner at the Lodge before we walked out to the lake shore before sunset.
Day 4 - Drove to the Old Faithful area. Saw elk along the road north of West Thumb as well as a very large coyote. Our timing was good--we saw OF, Daisy and Grand erupt in the morning. Walked most of the boardwalks--Morning Glory, Punch Bowl and Grotto Geyser were among our favorites. As suggested here, we sat on the porch and ate ice cream (hubby liked the huckleberry, but I stuck with good ol' chocolate). We had a good meal at the lunch counter in the general store, too. In the afternoon, we hiked the Fairy Falls Trail and climbed the hillside where I got a great photo of Grand Prismatic. On the return to Lake, saw more elk and stopped at West Thumb Basin.
Day 5 - We were originally planning to to tent camp, but the forecast called for lows in the teens, so we had called ahead and reserved a room at the Super 8 in Gardiner, MT. In retrospect, we were glad we changed our plans, as it freed up more time for sightseeing. We drove the Canyon-Norris road and went south to Fountain Paint Pots and the Firehole Canyon Drive and Firehole Lake Drive, where we saw White Dome Geyser erupt. Stopped at Gibbon Falls, which was my favorite waterfall in the park. Drove up to Mammoth and before we reached the Upper Terrace, we saw a bull elk in a clearing and my husband got of photo of him in "mid-bugle". Had time to drive the Upper Terrace, where the highlight was Orange Spring Mound, before continuing up to Gardiner.
Day 6 - A cool morning, but it felt great. Returned to the terraces again for more photo opportunities. Drove east toward Tower. We stopped at Undine Falls, where I was initially oblivious to the fact that a pack of wolves was on the hillside in the distance, until a bystander pointed it out to me. More great photos with the zoom lens! Stopped at Petrified Tree and hiked to Lost Lake. I was hoping to see moose (no such luck the entire trip) or a bear (my husband was not so interested in this) but we didn't see any wildlife there except a chipmunk. Drove a ways into Lamar Valley and saw pronghorn and more bison. We didn't have to wait long in the construction area near Tower, except when someone stopped in the construction zone apparently to look at wildlife (we never saw what it was) and held up traffic in both directions, which seemed rude to me. Checked in at Canyon Lodge Cabins. Took a wonderful hike to Cascade Lake in the evening and saw a coyote near the lake.
Day 7 - Spent the entire day in the Canyon area. Visited Artists Point and also hiked down Uncle Tom's Trail where a rainbow was visible below the Lower Falls. We hiked the Clear Lake Trail and were surprised to find some thermal features, including a really good mud pot. We intended to go to Lily Pad Lake, but missed the turn and were probably almost to Ribbon Lake before we realized it. Added a couple of miles to our hike, but it was beautiful. Had lunch at Canyon, which was one of the more congested areas we experienced in the park. In the evening we saw the sights along the North Rim. The Canyon Cabins were roomy and comfortable; the road leading to them was full of potholes, although other drivers didn't seem to notice nor were they inclined to stop for approaching traffic!
Day 8 - Drove to Grand Teton NP. Again our original plan was to tent camp here (Colter Bay), but we changed it. The smoke (which had been a non-factor to this point) was very thick when we arrived that morning and the mountains were barely visible from the Colter Bay Visitor Center. I was ready to turn around, but fortunately hubby said let's go ahead and drive to Moose Junction, as one of the Rangers had heard the smoke wasn't so bad there. I was glad we did. The smoke never completely cleared, but we were able to get reasonably good views of the Tetons in several places. Stopped at Dornan's and had pasta for lunch. Visited the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row and took more photos with a herd of bison nearby. Searched for the elusive moose several times along the way but came up empty. Returned to Yellowstone and exited on the east side. We were able to find lodging in Wapiti again at the Green Creek Inn.
Day 9 - Stopped at the Buffalo Bill Dam, then shopped and did laundry in Cody. We drove east and south to Worland. The wind was howlling and visibility was near zero briefly in stops just north of town.
Day 10 - The wind was much calmer as we drove through the Bighorn National Forest. Stopped at several scenic overlooks and hiked to a Fire Lookout with more great views of the mountains. Traveled on to Gillette, which seemed like a booming metropolis after we had been used to the slower pace in Yellowstone!
Day 11 - Drove to Devils Tower and hiked around the base. We had visited here a few years ago, but well worth a return visit. Took the road through Spearfish Canyon in SD, with stops at all the waterfalls. Even with the dry conditions, Spearfish Falls and Roughlock Falls were running strong. The leaves were starting to turn and the views were gorgeous. Found a hotel in Rapid City and went downtown to see some of the U.S. Presidents statues.
Day 12 - Drove Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore. Walked the trail along the base, which is now all boardwalk, unlike what I remembered from our previous visit. Drove to Sylvan Lake and set up our tent in the campground before hiking around the lake. I had envisioned the campground to be next to the lake (it was not), but still a nice location and we slept great.
Day 13 - Toured the Needles Highway and the wildlife loop in Custer State Park. We had gone quite a few miles along the loop with only a few pronghorn sightings, so I was getting a bit worried when suddenly a herd of bison appeared at the bottom of a hill, along with the beloved begging burros! Fed the burros plenty (though they wanted more) and started the long drive east across South Dakota. Made it as far as Yankton by sunset.
Day 14 - Drove home, with a stop to see Albert the Bull in Audubon, Iowa along the way. We had driven nearly 3,000 miles and were only an hour from home when we hit a deer! Sadly, the deer didn't survive, but we were able to keep driving and arrive home safely. Not a great ending, but it didn't overshadow a tremendous trip!