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Yellowstone Grand Loop - upper loop

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
Mammoth Hot Spring

Yellowstone’s Grand Circle is a rough figure "8" shape that forms the interior roads within Yellowstone. The upper loop of the figure "8" circles Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon Junction and Norris Junction then back to Mammoth. It is roughly 70 miles in circumference. The communities of Mammoth and Gardiner, MT, at the Northeast gate, Silver Gate and Cooke City, MT, from the Northeast gate. But if you are connecting from the east gate (Cody), south Gate (Jackson) or west gate (West Yellowstone you will connect to the upper loop through the lower loop.

This is a loop that also closes earlier than other areas of the Park as well as opening latter. Dunraven Pass will closes in early October because of snow and often doesn’t open until late May or June.

Mammoth to Tower

I start in Mammoth but I don’t visit the hot springs until evening; turn east and head towards Tower Junction . You'll drive over Sheepeater Canyon Bridge that crosses the Gardiner River 200 feet below. There are usually plenty of elk and sometimes wolves to be seen between Mammoth and the Gardiner River.

Bull Elk, Full Moon, Yellowstone National Park
Elk silhouette and rising moon at Blacktail Lakes

At the Lava Creek picnic area through the through the Blacktail ponds area watch for two large bull elk which are often seen in this stretch, many bison frequent this area also.

Blacktail Plateau Drive is a nice side trip. This is an 8.5-mile, about 8 miles from Mammoth. It is a one-way, dirt road that is only open at certain times of the year (summer and early fall).

If you bypass Blacktail Plateau Drive and stay on the main road Hell Roaring overlook provides a nice vantage point to spot wolves or grizzlies in the valley far below, but you will need spotting scopes to be able to spot anything.

This stretch between Hell Roaring overlook and Tower Junction is where you watch closely for Black Bears as the five-mile perimeter surrounding Tower Junction is the best Black Bear habitat in Yellowstone.

Watch for a sign for the Petrified Tree. This ½ mile road takes you back to one large remaining stump, five feet in diameter and 20 feet tall. This redwood got petrified after a volcanic explosion 600 thousand years ago it is an amazing sight to see.

This leg of the Upper Loop technically ends at Roosevelt Lodge and Tower Junction but I can’t ever resist heading east and head ten miles into Lamar Valley to stop at the overlooks and watch the bison, elk, antelope, and the grizzlies and wolves that prey on the abundant populations of these ungulates that live there.

Tower to Canyon

Black Bear cub climbing tree north of the Tower Store.
Black Bear cub climbing tree north of the Tower Store.

At the Tower Junction, head south and as soon as you start be very vigilant for Black bears as the next two miles produce more bear sightings than anywhere else in Yellowstone. Calcite Springs is a good place to walk up to the overlook for a photo of a perfect river curve and the Beartooth Mountains beyond. South of Calcite Springs, take the time to view the Yellowstone River Canyon from one of the pullouts over looking the Yellowstone River, in 2018 there was a Paragrin Falcon nest on the near cliff below. With these high vantage points overlooking the river present opportunities see the osprey in a large nest built on the top of one of the rock pillars overlooking the rising trout in the river. Watch for peregrines falcons and mountain goats near the top of the canyon walls across the river and Bighorn sheep are also seen here.

Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park
Tower Falls

A short way past the turnout is the Tower Store and trailhead for Tower Falls. About a quarter of a mile from the parking lot is an overlook for Tower Falls one of the more photogenic waterfalls of Yellowstone and this is a must see. There is also a trail that goes to the bottom of the falls and those that are ambitious enough to do so are rewarded with some great shots or a trout or two. This area photographs best in the morning or on overcast days because of harsh shadows on bright days.

Continuing south, the road winds up the sagebrush hillsides on north side of Mount Washburn looking east down into the Antelope Creek area. Many grizzlies and wolves are seen here because of the wide-open spaces and abundant forage for prey animals that graze here.

After the road crosses a divide where you leave the Antelope Creek Drainage you soon you see Chittenden Road. A side trip up Chittenden Road provides great views in all directions as it ascends Mt Washburn and also offers many wildlife-viewing opportunities.

Back to the main road it continues over Dunraven Pass, the highest drivable point in Yellowstone at 8,859 feet; this is where the bears come for Whitebark Pine nunts in August.

Grizzly bear crossing road at Norris Campground
Grizzly bear crossing road at Norris Campground

From the pullouts below Dunraven Pass, you can also glimpse an incredible view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, and the Absaroka Mountains off in the distance to the east. Grizzlies are often seen here. The road continues down to Canyon Village and the junction to turn west towards Norris.

From Canyon to Norris

While doing the 12-mile segment of the Grand Loop from Canyon toward Norris, about 9 miles west of Canyon Village, There is a Fire Exhibit about the fires of 1988. It is important for all to understand wildfire so this is a good stop.

The next side trip is Virginia Cascades. Virginia Cascades road is a side trip 2.5 miles east of Norris Junction on the Norris to Canyon road. It is located along a mile-long side drive to the south of the main road. Virginia Cascades tumbles 60 feet over a relatively gradual slope into a deep canyon.

Near the end of this stretch, the road descends sharply into the Norris Geyser Basin area. The large meadows around Norris Campground are a great place to watch for wildlife.

From Norris Back to Mammoth Hot Springs

Grizzly Sow and Cubs up tree
Grizzly Sow and Cubs up tree by Grizzly Lake Trailhead

In late April, May and early June this section is one of the best places in Yellowstone to see grizzlies as most of the canyon is narrow so the bears you see may be reasonably close.

Heading north towards Mammoth, watch for two pullouts a mile north of Norris campground on the left as you start up the hill. There are no signs, but either of these pullouts offers an incredible view of the steam plumes over Norris Geyser Basin. At sunrise the steam rising from the thermal features silhouetted by the Gallatin Range behind it make a fine scenic photo.

One mile north you will come to Frying Pan Spring, where pools on both sides of the road spew continuous bubbles. Named for the appearance of hot grease on a griddle, these gas bubbles actually ascend through cold, not boiling, water.

Soon you reach Twin Lakes This section of road is a good place to watch for elk fawns in early summer. Obsidian Creek winds its way through this narrow valley while small lakes and forests provide cover for the elk herd that lives here.

Wolf chasing elk at Swan Flats
Wolf chasing elk at Swan Flats

Another place to stop is Roaring Mountain. There is a dull roar from the mountain that is covered with fumaroles spewing steam, it makes a cool photograph when the sun is behind the steam in the morning. Listen for the hissing that made this mountain so famous in the early 1900's. In those days, it could be heard up to 4-miles away. It doesn’t roar as well as it once did.

From the Grizzly Mountain trailhead turnout to Obsidian Cliff is a beautiful meadow section. Obsidian Cliff, an 180,000 year-old lava flow that cooled so quickly that volcanic glass was created. The obsidian was quarried by Indians for spear-points and arrowheads. Tribes from around the whole region used to come here for it. It was a valuable trade item as well, Native American trade routes saw to ti that Yellowstone obsidian got as far as the Ohio Valley for the Shawnee Tribe and possibly beyond.

North of Obsidian Cliff you enter the Indian Creek area, a popular place to take the family fishing as Indian Creek and the Gibbon River are that only waters in Yellowstone you can fish with bait and lures.

Sheepeater Cliff is a short spur road that leads to a picnic area bordered by the Gardner River and basaltic cliffs named for the Shoshone Indians. The Shoshone Indians were known as sheepeaters for their use of bighorn sheep as a primary food source. These large basaltic columns are also home to marmots.

Electric Peak Reflection, Swan Lake
Electric Peak Reflection, Swan Lake

North of Sheepeater Cliff the road then opens up into a large valley called Swan Flats, which is graced with the beautiful Gallatin Mountains including Electric Peak to the west and Bunsen Peak to the north. Stop at Swan Lake and survey the sagebrush in all directions as this is another very active wildlife corridor and in the spring was the temporary of Quadra Mom, a grizzly sow who had four cubs in 2010. Swan Lake is a beautiful place for sunrise photos because you often can find a perfect reflection of Electric Peak in the still water of early morning.

Leaving the Swan Flats you enter into the Golden Gate section a steep and short canyon. Golden Gate was named for the gold-colored lichen on the surrounding canyon walls. At the mouth of the canyon you can see Fairy falls a short but pretty waterfall.

Continuing north you enter through a jumble of rock formation called the Hoodoos, they are a picturesque maze of rocks; although I haven never gotten the great photo I have often hoped for.

The next few miles of roads wind along the upper mountain areas are prime bear country. You can spot White Pines the purveyor of white pine nuts, a favorite bear food as well as huckleberries in the fall. Many elk are seen along here also.

A Grizzly sow and her four cubs crossing log just south of Mammoth Hot Springs.
A Grizzly sow and her four cubs crossing log just south of Mammoth Hot Springs.

The next diversion is the Upper Terrace Drive part of Mammoth hot springs, there are some interesting travertine formations here. You can see active springs and stair-stepping terraces. The Overlook pullout offers an incredible view of the entire Mammoth area and the majestic mountains surrounding it. There is a parking area at the entrance and is a good place to park for evening photographs of the terraces. It is in the evening I prefer to photograph Mammoth Hot springs after the sun goes behind the mountain because the colors of the hot pools are more saturated when direct son isn’t shining on them. Overcast days are good also.

Descending down into Mammoth Village, you can see a mix of original Fort Yellowstone and National Park Service buildings, employee housing, hotels, and stores. Elk run the village at will and it is an odd day when you can’t see them lying under a shade tree in front of a building.

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