Camping, Grand Teton National Park, Hiking, Hot Springs, National Parks & Monuments, State Parks, United States, Waterfalls, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park

Falling for Yellowstone: Day 1 – Oxbow Bend, Colter Bay, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Riddle Lake & Lewis Lake

I needed one last big adventure for 2022, and some more time spent sleeping in a tent before the year was up. One thing I’ve been saying the last few years is I needed to visit Yellowstone National Park in the later fall season to see it with moody weather and a lack of people, so without further ado, I planned out a five day, four night trip about a month out for September 30 – October 4. Last minute for me for sure! Yellowstone, I’m coming back to wish you a belated 150th birthday!

My adventure buddy Eric decided to fly in and join me for his first time really seeing Yellowstone, and first time exploring Grand Teton National Park, which we would transition through both going and coming from Yellowstone. After discussing itinerary, Eric was a genius and suggested we get a head start on the seven and a half hour drive from Cheyenne by leaving after work on Thursday evening, aiming to land in Lander for the evening. This would shave a little over four hours off of the drive on Friday, leaving us with more time for exploring and adventures.

Fozzy (my trusty and adventurous Subaru Forester) was quickly packed, and we set out about 5pm from Cheyenne, stopping at Safeway for some groceries and ice (and discovered that just like in March, they only had distilled water for sale?!). The sun sets early this time of year, and most of the drive would be in the dark shortly after passing through Laramie. In Laramie we quickly stopped so I could hug my cat and leave the rest of the bag of ice with my parents as a “gift.”

Eric was fiddling around with my new phone’s camera settings and got this great moody photo as we headed down I-80 west of Laramie.

There is free camping in Lander City Park, a fact I just learned about a month ago. We debated campsites on iOverlander, but decided the park was the best bet, especially with rain in the forecast (I definitely did not want to set up the tent in mud). We rolled into Lander about 9:45pm, tired from a long drive but excited the adventure was underway and that we got the unplanned head start.

You can camp for up to three nights at Lander City Park in RVs, vans, cars, and tents. There are flush toilets and running water on site, and the park lies next to the Popo Agie River. I’ve read it can be quite the busy place in the summer, and though it wasn’t empty when we arrived, we had no tent neighbors close to where we pitched the tent and things were quiet.

Home sweet home for one night in a city park! This was a first for sure.

September 30, 2022

We awoke the next morning and quickly tore down the soggy tent (it had rained heavily the night before). Breakfast would wait until Dubois, about an hour away. Since the Safeway in Cheyenne failed at having drinking water and gluten free bread, we stocked up on that before leaving Lander, along with trading in some grocery points to fuel up with $2.89/gallon gas (it would be about $2 more than that in Yellowstone!).

The morning drive to Dubois was a treat with golden light bouncing off the cloud covered mountain tops. It wasn’t long before I was pulling over and yanking the trusty Nikon D500 out of its bag and squealing about the light on the cloud covered mountains.

When I pulled over to get out the Nikon… a bit of the Wind Rivers poking through the morning clouds.
Eric took over my camera while I drove, and was quite fascinated with this dark butte in the distance.
The butte got closer, and ended up not being as ominous as it was from a distance.
The layers coming into Dubois reminded me of southern Utah.

I love the little town of Dubois, and Cowboy Cafe is a popular choice for breakfast. We had a small wait before a table opened up. I opted for an omelette, and Eric got a scramble with wild game sausage. Portions were huge, and the server even got me a bowl of green chili to accompany my meal once they had some made (I originally wanted a burrito but skipped that when she said they were out of green chili).

Fueling up at Cowboy Cafe.
My forever favorite pun in Dubois
The Dubois antler arch

The drive from Dubois to Grand Teton National Park goes over Togwotee Pass, a beautiful sliver of the planet in its own right. The fall colors rolled by before we dipped into the valley and entered the park.

Hard to keep eyes on the road with scenery like this on Togwotee Pass
Fall colors of Togwotee Pass
Arriving in the first park of the trip, Grand Teton!

Eric and I both bought these little national park adventure journals this spring on our “BeaUTAHful Road Trip,” and one of the things listed for Grand Teton National Park was stopping at Oxbow Bend (and painting with watercolors…). We both needed to check off this item (sans watercolors) so we pulled into the busy turnout and marveled in the fall colors and the thick clouds obscuring the summits of the Tetons, which I kept swearing to Eric really existed.

Oxbow Bend on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. Mount Moran is in the distance.
Foliage at Oxbow Bend.
The view was so pretty I think we need a closer look at Mount Moran…

Because we would have Tuesday as a dedicated day for Grand Teton, after Oxbow Bend we headed to Colter Bay for a quick stop at the visitor center before heading north into Yellowstone. We grabbed souvenirs, passport stamps, and Junior Ranger books, which would be our evening activity during the trip since it was dark early and rainy every night. Hide out in the tent, and do homework! The gift shop sells a copy of the geodetic marker for Grand Teton in patch form, and the cashier gave me a scare when he grabbed a pen and asked me my summit date to write it on the packaging. I panicked, and explained I hadn’t summited yet, and he playfully told me he couldn’t sell me the patch. Ha! I told him I’d wave from the summit over in the next year or two!

Jackson Lake was like nonexistent, and the Tetons were still hiding…
I spy glaciers!
There is a pretty unknown NPS unit hiding between Grand Teton and Yellowstone… the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. This unit was dedicated in 1972 and encompasses 24,000 acres between the two more famous parks to the north and south. Passport stamps for this unit are located in various visitor centers in Grand Teton National Park.

With this being my third trip to Yellowstone in three years, I had to remind myself to break habits… mostly the habit of photographing the same thing in the same exact way. Luckily the moody fall weather was quite a bit different than my previous trips filled with record high summer temperatures. And a big plus, the road over Dunraven Pass reopened in 2022, so I would get to experience something brand new on this trip! My photo count would end up being a lot less than my previous trips, but one thing I couldn’t resist was nabbing photos of thermal features that looked different than they had in my previous trips. I get a bit nerdy about these things, so I was giddy at times for my comparisons!

There was no line to enter Yellowstone, so we entered quickly after photos with the entrance sign. Since we passed through two parks in a matter of an hour, we racked up $70 in entrance fees… making my American the Beautiful annual pass well worth it! The annual federal lands pass is $80, and I think I’ve used it at places totaling several hundred dollars so far this year, once again getting way more than my money’s worth. If you are coming into Yellowstone from the south through Grand Teton, the annual pass is the best bang for the buck if you have any plans for other federal sites in the year the pass is good for.

Hello, favorite volcano in the whole wide world!!!
Hello, favorite tree of mine! (Yes, this is literally my favorite tree!)
Snake River views at the south entrance of Yellowstone
The Snake River Ranger Station is located at the south entrance of Yellowstone and has a passport stamp. Of course I had to stop!

We weren’t back in the car long before coming to one of my favorite spots to visit, Moose Falls. This delightful little waterfall sits on Crawfish Creek, and I’ve never seen it be too busy. Eric and I were the only ones visiting this time!

Moose Falls
Silky Moose Falls
I’m all about the fall colors this year!
We stopped above the Lewis Canyon when I spotted these rapids.

Since our tent was soggy, we decided to stop in at our campground for the evening, Lewis Lake Campground, before continuing on north. This was my first time staying at this campground, and I kinda feel like I fell in love it with! We checked in, and set up the tent so it could begin drying while we continued our adventures.

Lewis Lake Ranger Station

Lewis Lake Campground was reservable in 2022, which I much enjoyed. I reserved walk-in site #W7. The picnic table and bear box was close to the parking, but the tent pad was uphill a decent amount. This gave the site some lovely privacy, though that hill was killer to haul gear up and down. Lewis Lake was one of two campgrounds that was still open this late into the season (Madison being the second). It is not really centrally located, but was perfect for our first and last nights in the park since the south is where we entered and exited. I do also love the vibe of the NPS-managed campgrounds in Yellowstone compared to the commercially ran ones, as they seem more private and generally more quiet. The amenities are a bit more bare boned (no dishwashing stations being the biggest for me), but nothing that is a dealbreaker in my mind. I just need to buy one of those pop up camp sinks!

Lewis Lake Campground Site #W7, which is a walk in site. Though this photo doesn’t depict it, the tent pad is up a pretty steep little hill.
The lovely and secluded tent pad at W7… and the soggy tent.
We popped down to Lewis Lake for a quick peek. The lake is named for Meriweather Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame.

There was probably more new on this trip than I realized, like the Grant Visitor Center, which was closed the last two years I had visited. We once again scoured for souvenirs (I was thwarted in my attempt to buy a collectors edition of the passport stamp book, as their season was wrapping up and stock was low in the gift shop), obtained passport stamps (including our first of several 150th anniversary stamps!), and purchased our Yellowstone National Park Junior Ranger books ($3 each and they come with a YNP pencil!).

Grant Village Visitor Center was closed the previous two years I visited, so happy to finally see the exhibits and get the passport stamps at the actual location!
The exhibit at the Grant Village Visitor Center is dedicated to fire ecology of the Yellowstone area. This particular display was discussing the drought conditions of 1988 and how that contributed to the fire that burned a massive chunk of the park. My first visit to Yellowstone was in 1991, and I mostly remember just seeing black, burnt trees as a result of the 1988 fire.
Yellowstone Lake seen from the Grant Village Visitor Center. Yellowstone Lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7000 feet in elevation in North America and has over 110 miles of shoreline. It is a huge lake.

West Thumb Geyser Basin was next on our agenda, and I was excited to introduce Eric to all the hydrothermal madness our trip would include. This is always one of my favorite geyser basins because the setting is unique being on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. Sadly the entire boardwalk was not open, as the stretch to Abyss and Black Pools was closed off, presumably due to the investigation into the human foot that was found in Abyss Pool this summer… Because Abyss Pool looked dramatically different in 2020 from my 2021 visit, I was hoping to see what it looked like this year, but alas… I wasn’t about to jump the police tape.

I love me a good ol’ baby mud volcano!
West Thumb Paint Pots
Bluebell and Seismograph Pools
Taking an excited geyser geek photo in front of Bluebell Pool has morphed into an annual tradition at West Thumb. I love this hot water stuff!

What is about to ensue is a LOT of photos of hydrothermal features. First off, because I freaking love them. Second off, many of them look different than I’ve previously seen them look and this is my way of documenting them until one day I make a page that has comparison galleries. If you don’t like hydrothermal features, you’re probably reading the wrong blog at this point…

Not sure the name of this one…
Lakeside Spring
The water of Yellowstone Lake is always so clear!
Venting Pool
Lakeshore Geyser continuously splashes away. I noticed this time the northern vent is heart shaped!
Another view of Lakeshore Geyser
Little Cone
Fishing Cone.
Big Cone. Descriptive names, ha!
But I wanna see Abyss Pool 😦
West Thumb Paint Pots. This was the wettest I’ve seen then, probably thanks to all the recent precipitation.
You can see why they get the name paint pots
A little bubbling mud action! Usually this paint pot area is quite dry when I have visited, so I enjoyed seeing some more sloppy action going on.
This feature was a neon green in 2021. Now just boring beige.
Not all hope was lost, I found some neon green!
Speaking of illegal activities… bringing dogs on the boardwalk. Never mind the fact several people have died and many more injured from jumping into thermal features to save their dogs who also jumped into thermal features… Just don’t. Chihuahua gets squirmy, jumps into hot springs, boils to death… it’s just not something any of us want to see… AND we don’t need more of West Thumb getting closed down due to feet floating around in pools.
Surging Spring
Collapsing Pool
Thumb Geyser, which rarely erupts. But fun fact, in 1893 a park employee fell into it (he survived).
Oil Slick Pool
WTLGNN078, which also looks heart shaped. I kept finding heart shaped thermal features on this trip!
Ledge Spring
Percolating Spring, which was quite dry at this time.
Okay, here is ANOTHER heart! This is getting crazy!
Perforated Pool, also quite dry
Ephedra Pool
Blue Funnel Spring
WTLGNN048. This pool was quite stunning looking in 2021… not so much in 2022
Twin Geysers last erupted in 1999. Overall, West Thumb is not as an active geyser basin as others in Yellowstone.
Unnamed feature looking like some chocolate milk
Just some thermal views
One hell of a place to be a pine tree…
Mimulus Pools look like Mickey Mouse every time I see them… except for this time!
I like that the boardwalk goes around this tree

With time left in our evening after chasing all the hot water, we decided we could quickly hike out to Riddle Lake before the sun set too far down. This is a flat and pleasant hike that the NPS lists as 4.8 miles, but we kept it to 4.2 miles by not going as far as the trail dose. There are spectacular views to Mount Sheridan and Factory Hill from the lake. I was hoping we’d be able to squeeze this one, so I am happy it all worked out!

Obligatory trailhead sign photo
Don’t mind me, just finding all the colorful things
Singletrack through new growth forest
An open part along the trail
First glimpse of Riddle Lake
The small critters were out in full force during this hike, and really all week.
A view of Mount Sheridan and the fire lookout on its summit… one of three in Yellowstone.

I’ve had it proven over and over that once you get more than a quarter mile from a parking lot, you can have Yellowstone to yourself, and that was true at Riddle Lake. We saw one solo hiker on his way out, but otherwise enjoyed the lake all to ourselves. There was a small group hiking in as we were almost back to the car. Now, this could be different in the height of summer, but nonetheless… solitude was found away from crowds!

Riddle Lake evening views
Riddle Lake has a hearty amount of lily pads
I’m pretty sure I could’ve sat here forever!
The only company we had at the lake were these ducks
Reflections
One happy hiker!
Just some foliage!

We spent maybe 10 minutes at the lake, and then headed back to the car. Overall the hike took 1 hour 40 minutes total, including stops. It definitely would have been nice to stay longer, but the days are short in the fall and we wanted to get back to camp for dinner and relaxing after a busy day.

Cute little Least Chipmunk
Spy shot of a squirrel!
Heading back through the trees to the car
The evening light was fantastic!
A reminder of a past fire in this area.
I loved these layers of colors in the grasses

Hike for the day complete, it was time for dinner and relaxing. We cooked up some amazing fajitas, much to the jealousy of our neighbors in the campground who had to endure the delicious smells. Then we walked the short distance to the boat launch at Lewis Lake to watch an awesome sunset.

There is thermal activity on the shores of Lewis Lake!
Lewis Lake is a lovely spot to catch suset
Distant storm clouds over Lewis Lake
A little sliver of moon shining through. There was a promising KP index for the aurora (northern lights) during this trip, and little moonlight, but sadly rainy and cloudy weather thwarted any attempts at seeing the aurora.

Tent time! Junior Ranger homework! Sound of raindrops! First day of adventure done!

Junior Ranger homework time in the tent

4 thoughts on “Falling for Yellowstone: Day 1 – Oxbow Bend, Colter Bay, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Riddle Lake & Lewis Lake”

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