Got up early to finish out the 2 or so hours left to Crater Lake. It was a steep, foggy drive that made for an interesting morning, but it paid off when we caught a glimpse of the deep blue lake as we approached the parking lot. Unfortunately, this would be the only view of the lake for Luke and myself. When we came out of the visitor center, the view of the lake had been swallowed up by a thick layer of fog. Jesse and Shane were lucky enough to take in the view for a few minuets beforehand, snapping a few pictures before it was too late. Since all the hiking trails were closed due to snow, we decided to try to wait out the fog for another lake view, driving over to Discovery Point (another outlook area). It was at this point that we realized that none of us had packed for the weather there. We knew it would be cold, but not THAT cold. We scrambled to put on the layers that we had while we waited on the bus. After cooking lunch, the fog still hadn't lifted, and we figured that there was little chance it would break, so we headed out a little disappointed. We were also shocked by the amount of snow in the park, driving past 10-15 ft. drifts on the way in and out that made the bus feel pretty small.
We still had some daylight left after leaving the park, so we stopped at Mill Creek to hike out to the waterfalls. It was a cool area, with views of multiple waterfalls from the trails, and boulders by the river that we climbed to get a better view of the rapids. After exploring for a couple hours, we drove out to a Walmart in Medford, where we parked for the night and made dinner. It was early still, so we decided to have a movie night (cute, I know). Ran into Walmart to rent a Redbox DVD, and struggled for 10 mins. or so to find a setup where everyone could see the laptop screen. Not ideal, but we made it work.
The following day was a big day, as we met a friend of ours, Karen, in Ashland, OR to film a news story about our trip. She works as a reporter there, and we had reached out a couple weeks earlier to see if the station was interested in running a story to help us spread the word. Lucky for us they loved the idea, so we spent a couple hours with Karen collecting footage of the bus and doing interviews. We also tried the water from the famous Ashland fountain, which has an....interesting...taste, to put it politely. She put together a great story that aired that night, and we were able to watch it the following day. After filming, we grabbed brunch at Morning Glory, a place she recommended, before hitting the road for Yellowstone.
We spent the past 2 days in Yellowstone, and it was something special. Again, we did in a couple days what could/should be done in a week, but at least we were able to cover a pretty solid amount of ground within the park. We spent the first night at a campground in West Yellowstone just outside the park, entering through the west entrance in the morning. We started with the southern portion, checking out the Grand Prismatic Spring and Geyser basins, including waiting patiently (or maybe a little impatiently) for Old Faithful to erupt. It was pretty amazing to see, a sight we shared with hundreds of other tourists. That was the big downfall of Yellowstone for us - how packed it was. After Old Faithful, we drove along the West Thumb and Yellowstone lakes, stopping to take pictures of the lakes with snow capped mountains in the distance. We drove through Fishing Village and onward to Hayden Valley, where we'd heard we might have a shot at seeing bears or wolves. Didn't see either of those, but saw plenty of bison and elk, which was pretty cool. At one point, we watched as a bunch of bison and their baby calfs decided to cross the road, causing a traffic jam as they walked right in between the cars. We also stopped to check out the mud volcano and surrounding hot springs. Hayden Valley itself was pretty beautiful, with miles and miles of rolling green hills. Kept on going through the valley to get to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which was much less grand than the actual Grand Canyon in terms of width and depth. But what it lacked in size it made up for in incredible colors and a powerful waterfall. We parked and walked to Artists Point for an iconic view that has inspired many famous photographs and paintings. We then hiked to the brink of both upper and lower falls before calling it a day and heading back towards the west entrance. All the campgrounds in and around the park were full, so we settled for a truck pull off on the side of the highway.
In the morning, we got a pretty early start, heading back into the park and making breakfast at a picnic area. Afterwards, we drove up to Mammoth Springs to see the hot springs. It was pretty wild, the rock had formed into colorful step-like pools, with the steaming water trickling down. From there, we started heading east towards Tower Fall, the tallest waterfall in Yellowstone at 132 ft. On the way, we saw some elk and bison, and what looked like a pronghorn. Jesse also supposedly spotted a black bear in the forest, but none of us can confirm that sighting. By this point, it was raining pretty hard, and that continued off and on throughout the rest of the day, which was a bummer. Once at the falls, we hopped out and took a walk to get a quick view. After seeing some of the waterfalls in Yosemite, we were slightly less impressed by the height, but it was still a sight to see. We then drove through Lamar Valley, another of the park's beautiful valleys that was supposed to be a great spot to see bears. Shane and I made it our mission to find one, parking near clearings in the forest and waiting to see if one might wander over. We did this a few times, but didn't have any luck. Saw plenty more bison though, some in large herds and some just chilling by themselves along the road. At one point, one walked right out in front of the bus and stopped, staring us down for a minute before crossing the rest of the way. By this time it was almost 5, so we kept going through the rest of the valley and left the park through the Northeast Entrance to begin the drive to Denver.
Not sure if the GPS knew what it was doing or not, but leaving the park it led us up into the mountains of Montana, which was quite the experience. We topped out over 11,000 ft. of elevation, driving up some of the windiest roads yet in rain and fog. The snow lining the roads made Crater Lake look like child's play, towering over the bus in massive drifts. We made our way slowly and carefully, reaching the top and starting the drive down. Soon after starting the descent, we saw another school bus at a pull off, a bright blue full-length with skis leaned against the outside. We pulled over and hopped out to go check it out. Turns out it was representing a local ski shop, and they let us pop in to take a look. After chatting with a few of the bus travelers for awhile, we let them take a look at our bus and exchanged cards and t shirts. Was an unexpected but cool experience, that we wouldn't have gotten had we not gone through the mountains. Once we made it the rest of the way down, we stopped for dinner and then hopped back on the road, driving until 3am to get to a Walmart outside Casper, Wyoming. Got up this morning to finish out the drive to Denver, currently a few hours away.
Only about a week left to make it back to the east coast, gonna be a lot of driving. It's the home stretch...