April 7, 2023
Yellowstone Road Trip: Taking the Scenic Route
By Dawn S.
Your destination is Yellowstone? Excellent! With an Escape campervan, the journey is as much fun as arriving. So why not make the most of your van time and take the scenic route?
I’m so glad we did! After flying into Las Vegas, Nevada, we picked up our Escape campervan (flights were very affordable) and road tripped our way to see the awe-inspiring geothermal features and the abundant wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. We traveled across deserts, over desolate salt flats, rugged mountains and through thick forests to reach Yellowstone from the West entrance in Montana.
Due to campground reservations already booked in Yellowstone, we were on a mission. So, between our sightseeing stops, we tried to get in at least four hours of drive time each day. We drove there in four days, van-camping for three nights, and took time to stop for pictures, hike, picnic, and explore along the way.
Ideally, you could take it much slower, allowing a week or longer, to enjoy more hiking and adventuring. We picked up our van the day prior to setting out and stocked up on groceries, gas, and water before seeing the lights in Las Vegas. One night in the city was more than enough for us, then the real trip began… the ROAD TRIP!
Great Basin National Park
We left Las Vegas early in the morning and took US 93 North toward the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. This lush oasis was the perfect place to stretch our legs and nibble on a breakfast bar. Next up was a photo stop at the Extraterrestrial Highway sign near Hwy 375.
After fueling up, we explored the two small towns along the way and reached Great Basin National Park in the afternoon—just in time to take a tour of Lehman Cave. We drove up Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and claimed a spot for the night above 10,000 ft. at the mountaintop campground. Deer appeared in the clearing as we made dinner. This is a designated International Dark Sky Park, and the stargazing was mind-boggling.
We made an early breakfast at the camp and explored some more of Great Basin National park, including the Bristlecone Pine Trail, and the Visitor Center. Then, we hit the road again, traveling north on 93/Alt93 past Joshua trees and windmills toward the large neon cowboy in West Wendover, Nevada. In this town, you can stand with one foot in Nevada, and one foot in Utah. Some area sights to check out include the Historic Wendover Airfield, Danger & Jukebox Caves State Park Heritage Area, and the Bonneville Salt Flats.
After exploring the western side of the salt flats, drive your Escape campervan right across it on I-80 East. Keep an eye out for the Utah Tree of Life sculpture to your left. We stopped at the rest area in the middle and had lunch under the sheltered picnic tables overlooking the vast white landscape
Where to camp
When you are ready to park the van for the night, you can camp in the Salt Lake City or Ogden area, Antelope Island State Park, or in the Wasatch National Forest. The Box Elder Campground has restrooms. We opted for Antelope Island State Park.
Bison, deer, and pronghorn were abundant on the island. We stopped at a grocery store on our way to camp and grilled out steaks and vegetables in a foil bag for dinner. The sunset was stunning. It burned orange and yellow, and the waters of Great Salt Lake reflected the fiery colors of the sky. We enjoyed a campfire before turning in and slept with the van windows open because it was warm. A strong wind storm howled that night, and we were very glad to be in the van and not a tent.
We wanted to do a lot of driving today. So, we left at daybreak and were treated to a sunrise almost as breathtaking as the sunset the night before. We saw a sign for the “Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge” and made an unscheduled stop to check it out. After exploring the visitor center and doing a small hike, John said, “of course we are doing the 12-mile auto tour!” It was beautiful. We saw white pelicans, herons, ibis, plovers, and numerous other waterfowl.
Somehow, we missed that there were showers available at Antelope Island. They must have been in the day use area. So, as we headed down I-15 North into Idaho, we stopped at a Flying J truck stop for hot showers and to gas up the van. Then, we took I-20 E and turned onto HWY 47, the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway. We stopped in Idaho Falls to see the city center and picked up a map at the Caribou-Targhee Nat’l Forest Visitor Center.
Where to camp
Some possible places to camp in this area include the Caribou-Targhee National Forest (some campgrounds have facilities), Harriman State Park, or Henry’s Lake State Park. We opted for free dispersed camping in the National Forest. We found a great spot with an existing campfire ring in a clearing on a ridge and had a view of the Tetons in the distance. This was my first time camping in grizzly bear country, so I was a little nervous. I kept my head on a swivel, as I cooked our dinner of black beans and rice, wondering if the aroma would attract any curious visitors.
As dusk approached, a thunderstorm rumbled in the distance. It got louder and closer, and we were soon seeking shelter in the van. I was relieved that I didn’t have to sit anxiously outside around a campfire after dark on my first-night camping near brown bears. The thunderstorm brought small hail and a torrential downpour. Once again, I was grateful to be in the warm, dry, security of the campervan, and not a tent!
Side note: My bear nervousness subsided after a few more nights of camping. I was even able to enjoy tent camping in bear country by the time we got to The Grand Tetons the following week.
Be Bear Aware
When you are in bear country, make noise and hike in groups of three or more. Carry bear spray and know how to use it. Be alert for evidence of bears, keep a clean camp, and do not leave any scented items unattended or unsecured.
Almost to Yellowstone
We were grateful that last night’s storm didn’t leave us stuck in the mud. The cool misty morning was a perfect backdrop to take in the raging waters of Lower and Upper Mesa Falls. We refilled our coffee at Henry’s Fork on the Snake River and watched fisherman wading near the banks.
We stopped in West Yellowstone, Montana, the touristy gateway town to Yellowstone National park. There were plenty of shops, and galleries to explore. It’s a good place to pick up souvenirs or gifts, and we found a great camera shop, too. There was an abundance of restaurants to choose from. You can gas up the van and stock up on groceries one last time before you head into the vast, nearly 3,500-sq.-mile wilderness of Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone National Park
You have arrived! Your journey to Yellowstone National Park is complete. Now, it’s time to get up early and explore all that Yellowstone has to offer. Definitely do your internet research ahead of time and try to have a detailed itinerary. If not, a guided tour at the beginning of your visit can give you an overview and some ideas of how you want to spend the rest of your time. Ask park rangers for their suggestions of things to see and do away from the crowds.
I recommend the early morning photo safari tour that leaves from the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. We saw herds of elk and bison, nesting ospreys, a coyote, wolf, bull elk, and three grizzly bears in Hayden Valley during our tour.
Where to camp
Try to reserve your Yellowstone campsites inside the park ahead of time. We stayed several nights in the Canyon Village Campground and spent our last night in the Grant Village Campground. That way, we could easily meet up with a kayaking outfitter early the following morning in Grand Tetons National Park, just south of Yellowstone. You can always camp for free in the National Forests outside of the park boundaries if you can’t get a site inside the park.
Favorite Lunch Spots in Yellowstone
Enjoy a picnic beside Yellowstone Lake at one of the many lakeside picnic areas along Grand Loop Road. Don’t miss Firehole Canyon Drive; there is a swimming hole, and a chance to find a secluded spot for lunch along the river, prepared out of the back of your campervan.
Highlights from our Yellowstone road trip include watching a grizzly through our guides spotting scope in Hayden Valley, seeing so much wildlife on our photo safari tour, hiking along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, searching for swans near the Madison River, the fierce eruption of Beehive Geyser, bubbling mud, and steaming, other-worldly landscapes. I hope you book your campervan and enjoy a road trip to Yellowstone as much as we did! And discover some gems of your own along the way.
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