The thermal features of the assorted geyser basins along the Firehole River sent up steam plumes into the dreary sky. It was a fitting Yellowstone tribute for our drive to West Yellowstone to find lunch. Along the way, Elizabeth, Pam and I would get the chance to see some of Yellowstone’s west entrance region. At the Madison junction, the north-flowing Firehole joins the south-flowing Gibbon River to form the Madison River, which cuts through the Yellowstone caldera and heads west into Montana. The Madison Valley is sort of a miniature version of the more famous valleys on the east side of the park, with the river flowing through meadows and stands of trees framed by big ridges in the background. After 20 or so minutes of driving, we entered Montana, this time with a little less fanfare than the day before.
West Yellowstone is a little more civilized, and a little more commercialized, than its neighbor Gardiner. This was evidenced by the fact that the town had a whole stoplight. Very advanced stuff. Leery though we may have been about the ability to find food after our near-disaster the day before, Elizabeth and I immediately found a decent-looking restaurant open inside West Yellowstone’s main commercial area – the Slippery Otter Pub. The Slippery Otter was crowded, which made for a bit of a hackles-raiser in the middle of the Delta variant onslaught. But whatever, it was cold and we could use some warm food. This place delivered. Elizabeth got some chicken noodle soup to warm herself, while I had jalapeno huckleberry wantons (yes) and some huckleberry pop (sort of like grape, but not as sweet). The main courses were interspersed with western meats like elk and bison. It’s a sign of how long this blog series has been that I’m only 70% sure I got an elk burger.
From the Slippery Otter, the three of us did a little gift shopping in the strip adjacent. We checked out some outfitters, and walked through a tourist shop or two, and most importantly, got Elizabeth and Pam some more coffee at Mountain Mama’s Coffee House. Mountain Mama’s was pretty cool because beyond coffee they were selling cute souvenirs and fun foods. I could look through different jerkies while Elizabeth got a feminist national parks shirt. It was fun for everyone, when you look at it that way. Normally I’m not a huge gift shopping guy, but I enjoyed this place. After warming our insides with food and coffee, it was time to get back to the always-rigorous Yellowstone itinerary.
The basic plan for the rest of the day was to drive back to the campsite, stopping at places we felt like stopping along the way. This sort of left things up to interpretation – for example, we’d skipped out on the Fountain Paint Pot Trail at Midway because we were a little behind, and other things ahead like the Artist Paint Pots were fully going to be by choice. Obviously, Elizabeth and I wanted to maximize our choices, which meant we didn’t dilly-dally in West Yellowstone for as long as we could have. Back into the west entrance of the park we went, bound for the Artist Paint Pots.
Along the way, though, we came upon a pull-out for something called Gibbon Falls. The stop at Lewis Falls had gone so well two days ago that I was willing to take a shot on another pull-out, especially since it would cost a grand total of 5 minutes. Gibbon Falls seems to be formed as the river plummets through a weak point in the caldera before reaching the broad plateau at the caldera’s foot. This is definitely in the foresty-mountainy part of Yellowstone. The parking area is pretty large compared to some of the other one-off attractions in the park, but I still was not expecting much when we walked over to the edge. The result was one of pleasant surprise – the river comes in from the mountains beyond and forms a beautiful, 84-foot waterfall tumbling in a wide fan through a pretty steep canyon before opening into the wider plateau beneath you.
The water crashed loudly far below us – the NPS had set up multiple different viewing angles as well, so I could enjoy a more head-on view of the waterfall. It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes to enjoy, but it was in my opinion the best non-Canyon waterfall I saw on the entire trip.
We headed up a few more miles through some of that beautiful foresty-mountainy terrain before arriving at another parking lot on the right. This was one of the stops Elizabeth was most excited for – the Artist Paint Pots.