Riding and Camping in Yellowstone: Mountains, Geysers, and Bears … Oh My!

Nov 20, 2017 View Comments by

As I press my tent stakes into the mineral-rich soil of the nation’s oldest national park, I am glad that I didn’t heed the impulse to turn around before even rolling across the western boundary of Yellowstone earlier in the day. The big jugs on my BMW R 1200 GS were getting hotter than I like in the seemingly interminable line of vehicles waiting to get into the park, but I pressed on toward the entrance at a snail’s pace. Now in the shade of towering pines on the banks of Yellowstone Lake, that quandary seems days, not hours, old.The darkness beyond those soaring evergreens sparks other thoughts. “I think you might as well just roll over and let it have its way with you.” My wife’s advice on what to do if a bear were to find its way into my tent didn’t really resonate with me. So I listen intently as the roving park ranger gives me a first-timer’s mini-course on bear safety. Riding and camping in Yellowstone has always been on my bucket list, but I don’t really want it to be the place in which I actually kick that proverbial bucket. I’ll follow the warning to be “bear aware.”

With camp set, it’s time to explore another portion of Yellowstone’s hundreds of miles of splendid roads. More than any other national park that I have visited and ridden, Yellowstone’s road system seems tailor-made for motorcycling. The heart of this network is the centralized Grand Loop Road that is a giant approximation of a figure eight. The 142-mile Grand Loop connects most of the park’s major features. Access roads emanate from it in all directions, affording five points into and out of the park. With a little planning, you can travel Yellowstone and its highlights and never have to repeat a road.

Before setting up in Grant Village Campground, I had entered the park on the beautiful but crowded West Yellowstone side. From there, my first stretch of the Grand Loop was the southwestern quadrant, which threw me into some of the park’s most famous and spectacular places. This portion contains Old Faithful, Fountain Paint Pot, and Lone Star Geyser. Because of the popularity of these famous geological features, the traffic is relatively heavy. The fascinating geothermal turbulence of the area is matched by the heavy human turbulence jockeying for a look.

Now I long for a more tranquil experience for my evening ride. I find just that riding the Grand Loop’s southeastern portion. The majority of this ride skirts the deep waters of the expansive Yellowstone Lake. The lake covers over 135 square miles and sits at a crisp and refreshing 7,795 feet. Traffic is markedly lighter here than what I had experienced earlier in the day and it is a welcome respite from humanity. Even this area’s primary geothermal feature, the West Thumb Geyser Basin, is much less “touristy” than its more famous brethren to the north. West Thumb allows a meandering walk beside hot springs, pools, mud pots, fumaroles, and lakeshore geysers—all with the backdrop of picturesque Yellowstone Lake. My stay is limited to two days, as it is part of a full Great Divide ride of well over 2,000 miles. Because of this, the southern half of the park is my main focus. Basically, I am riding and exploring the bottom portion of that giant figure eight. But on an extended stay in the park—which is something that I will do—northern features like Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Norris Geyser Basin will be must-see highlights.

After miles of riding on the Grand Loop, I return to Grant Village for a burger and fuel and then make my way back to my campsite in the dimming, post-sunset evening. Remaining “bear aware,” I vigilantly place all of my food and other scented items in my sealed tail trunk on the motorcycle and park the bike well away from my tent. As much as I’d hate to see it, I’d prefer for a grizzly to “have its way” with my BMW rather than with me. Thankfully, when I awake to the scintillating Yellowstone sunrise, both bike and tent are intact and I am ready to break camp and explore.

I motor toward the park’s southern boundary through gorgeous stands of pine and aspen trees. The traffic is light and the tarmac is smooth and sweeping. By mid-morning, I am riding out of Yellowstone and beside the blue waters of Jackson Lake with the Teton Mountain Range on the far bank. The snow-laced mountains are some of the most awe-inspiring landforms I have seen in my life, and I get to view them in duplicate as they cast their mirror image on the glassy surface of Jackson Lake. The Tetons stand as towering exclamation points at the end of a great experience.

My time in Yellowstone was too short, but I would say that no matter how long my stay. From the waterfalls to the evergreens to the rumbling of the world’s largest geothermal hotbed, the park is a treasure. I will go on record as saying that there is no better way to experience its grandeur than from the saddle of a motorcycle.

Yellowstone Campground Fast Facts

• There are 12 campgrounds in the park
• Five of the campgrounds require reservations
• Seven are first-come, first-served, and usually fill by early morning
• There are over 2,000 campsites available
• All have flush or vault toilet facilities
• Three of the campgrounds have showers
• Drinking water is usually available at 
all campgrounds
• Campground sizes range from 32 to 432 sites
• Prices range from $15 to $48 per night
• Most are open from late May to October
• Backcountry camping is available by permit
• To learn more, visit www.nps.gov/yell

Tags: , , Categories: Chronicles, Destinations