This fall I did a group travel media trip with Austin Adventures which means I received travel, accommodations, food and excursions in exchange for potential coverage.
“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.”
We are sharing a picnic lunch on the outdoor patio at Old Faithful Inn waiting, listening. There’s a clock inside on the main floor that projects an estimated time that Old Faithful will erupt. It is nothing if not faithful, just as it says right in the name.
The crowd murmurs and holds cameras up at the ready, so one by one we migrate closer. Another 15 minutes pass and steam sifts out a little bit at first and then growing ever higher. It’s the kind of natural phenomenon you might not even know you want to see until you are there watching it, realizing the world is so much larger than you imagined and there are so many marvels to experience. If you spent a lifetime looking, you might make a dent in your bucket list.
What is Austin Adventures?
Today is Day Three of my group travel tour with Austin Adventures. Day one was driving and getting to know how this soft adventure group travel experience worked. We left Billings, Montana right after TBEX travel blogging conference ended and drove to Cody, Wyoming to find the Wild West. After a day of white water rafting on Cody’s Shoshone River through rapids like Colter Falls and Plenty Coup we headed over to Buffalo Bill’s Centre of the West, explored the downtown, ate at a restaurant once owned by Buffalo Bill and slept in Cody a second evening, then we packed up to head into Yellowstone National Park.
Austin Adventures is a family-run exclusive group travel experience founded by Dan Austin. They are based in Billings Montana. Austin Adventures runs small group travel experiences around the world. They provide a money back guarantee if you are not satisfied. That should give anyone the confidence to take a trip with Austin.
Is Austin Adventures Right for You?
- Adult adventure vacations
- Solo travel
- Custom adventures
- Family adventure vacations, designed for ages 7 and up.
- Multi-sport vacations, as well as biking and hiking trips.
- Small ship adventure cruising
This Group Travel Experience
The Red Carpet Treatment
Every morning, we start the day feeling like royalty. Literally. Our guide Sam Friedland pulls up to the Cody Hotel and sets out a red carpet and a step stool as we climb into the Austin Adventures Shuttle. On our way from Billings Montana through to Cody we were frequently awestruck by the scenery. One of the members of our group, Jennifer Melroy, of National Park Obsessed has been to Yellowstone before. Of course, the guide Sam has too. I hear them say: “If they are this blown away by the scenery already can you imagine what they will think when they get to Yellowstone?”
What to Expect in Yellowstone
This is my first time to Yellowstone National Park. My TBEX roommate Anita Sane of The Sane Travel has never been there before either. We are all excited to be taking this hosted group travel tour together and we can’t believe our luck to have also scored rooms inside the park overnight. Yellowstone National Park is so busy from May through to end of September that it’s a huge feat to be able to stay inside the park. In fact, less than 1 % of visitors get to stay inside Yellowstone, so plan ahead if that’s your goal.
Off the Grid in Yellowstone
On the way, before we lose wifi, I text and email several people to let them know I’m losing wifi as we head into the park. We’ve been advised to expect that. An hour passes and then the east gate of the park looms up. There are five park entrances to Yellowstone. The west entrance is typically the busiest.
The road to Old Faithful can’t be far, I figure. Lake Yellowstone’s shoreline stretches on for miles along the roadway through the park. North America’s largest high alpine lake is framed by the Absaroka Mountains, so we pause to take it in and capture some photos. Then we drive some more, spotting bison and numerous birds.
That first day in Yellowstone we drive for what seems like an eternity. Of course there are numerous stops and our shuttle is always stocked with a variety of snacks. We are never hungry for long. But as a newbie to Yellowstone I am immediately stunned by how huge this national park is. It spans three states – Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Yellowstone is larger than Rhode Island. It’s impossible to picture the vastness of Yellowstone until you drive it.
Near the east entrance, we pass many different types of trees along the way and Sam, the Austin Adventures group travel guide points out sage, lodgepole pines, aspens, larches, and tallpole pines. Lodgepole pines are quirky trees in that they actually need fire in order to spread and flourish. The seeds in the pine cones are only released when heat from a fire causes them to drop.
Old Faithful is located in the Upper Geyser Basin, which you can easily walk around. The Old Faithful Inn has several rooms, a restaurant, a cafeteria and washrooms of course, if needed. Together, we grabbed snacks and sandwiches from the cafeteria and headed outside to watch Old Faithful. Then we received a behind the scenes peak at “the treehouse” that leads to the roof of Old Faithful Inn.
Biscuit Basin is a great spot to see several more geo-thermal features. There are four types of thermal features in Yellowstone: geysers like Old Faithful, mud pots, pools and steam vents or fumerals.
Take note of the signs throughout Yellowstone and be cautious. Over the years, several people have died in Yellowstone getting too close to the hot springs, falling in or thinking they could save pets that fell in. Now there are strict signs posted about not permitting pets on boardwalks and safety advisories are also visible everywhere. Also stay on the trails and don’t climb on things to take selfies.
Grand Prismatic is right up there with Old Faithful as a Yellowstone tourist mecca. We pull in to the main viewing area, which is extremely busy, even in mid September. From the boardwalk, it’s challenging to get great photos. At one point, as we are circling and returning towards the shuttle, a bison saunters straight through the crowd, a visual reminder that this is their home and we are just visitors.
Finding the Best Spots in Yellowstone
Spying a group of people up high on a scenic overlook, with no obvious path to get there, we ask Sam how we can get a better view. Naturally that’s already covered and was the next planned stop today. We drive over to the parking area by Grand Prismatic scenic overlook, hiking across a plain and up an incline and are rewarded with magical views and an overlook that seems to be less busy than the boardwalk. This is one of the best parts of traveling with an Austin Adventures tour guide. Their insider’s knowledge is remarkable.
Our Journey in Yellowstone
We started the day via the east and then went west to see Grand Prismatic and Old Faithful before heading north to Canyon Lodge overnight. Dinner is simple at the Canyon Lodge cafeteria – style restaurant.
President Grant signed the registration that created the national park. The land was under military control until 1916. In 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park in the world.
A Big Apple Pie
“Yellowstone,” Sam says: “is like a big apple pie. In most places on earth, the crust is 40-50 miles thick. Here it is roughly 2-3 miles thick.
This is the kind of educational content we get consistently throughout our trip. Yellowstone might warrant an apple pie comparison but for us on this trip, it is the meat and potatoes of the group travel soft adventure experience.
Earthquakes and Geyser Facts
Three miniature earthquakes happen here every day. We spent two and a half days inside the park and didn’t feel any. Only 200 active geysers exist outside of Yellowstone, scattered in 30 basins around the world. Over 100, or one fifth of the world’s geysers are located within one square miles of Old Faithful.
Austin Adventures Group Travel Facts
On a typical Austin Adventures group travel tour like this one there would be 3-5 families. The Austin Adventures experience takes 12-18 travellers total unless it is a custom experience, always maintaining a 6:1 guide to guest ratio, which is the best in the group travel industry.
While we see a lot in the time we have, I never once felt rushed. The pace of our tour is manageable for all ages and feels like it would be ideal for a guided family trip.
Our Second Day in Yellowstone
You could probably spend two weeks here exploring Yellowstone and never once get bored. Early in the day we wake up and walk to the Canyon Lodge for breakfast, then we pack up again and drive towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. We’d planned a hike on the Wapati Trail but it’s pouring, so we go to the Visitor’s Centre and after roughly an hour the rain turns to snow. Eventually we head to Artist Point instead.
Did you know that all of Yellowstone is a Giant Caldera, or a collapsed crater of a not so extinct volcanic field? Neither did I, until this trip with Austin Adventures.
Artist Point and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River are two of the busiest spots in the park and even on a rainy day there’s a crowd. We battle the crowd a bit in order to see Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River before taking a hike and spying evidence that a young grizzly is nearby.
Our guide is confident hiking here and, as a result we feel comfortable following him. “Here bear. Here bear,” he yells periodically to make sure we don’t surprise any creatures.
We drive through the Lamar Valley, spying mountain goats, a moose and eventually a grizzly bear a long way off up a mountain and only visible with a telescope. In Lamar Valley, there are also wolves and the area has a reputation as the Serengeti of Yellowstone, and while we see hundred of bison and pronghorns, we do not see any wolves that day. Before leaving the park to spend the night in Cooke City, Sam surprises us with wine and cheese on a silver platter.
The Start of Day 3 in Yellowstone
We leave Cooke City at the crack of dawn to head into the park on an extremely cold morning to look for wolves. Wolves were once nearing extinction here before being reintroduced from Canada. On a chilly September morning in the Lamar Valley, we drive until we spy a cluster of people watching a plain with telescopes. Sam pulls over and we spill out.
Only 2 % of visitors see wolves in Yellowstone. On this group travel adventure, we saw a pack waking up.
We ask if they’ve seen wolves and someone confirms there is at least one pack waking up in the valley. While our guide hunts for a spot to park, a couple asks if we want to look through their telescope to see them. This is something I loved about Yellowstone. There were many people who would happily help, pointing out wildlife, or letting you peek through a telescope, if necessary. Austin Adventures also had a spotting scope which we used to view moose and bison.
After our wolf sighting, we leave Yellowstone to get breakfast in Cooke City, Montana. Before leaving Yellowstone for good, we head to Mammoth Hot Springs, an unexpected addition to the trip.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs and terraces is made up of thousands of years old travertine platforms and ash cones, as well as steamy boardwalks. This section of the park is a stunning entry point to the marvels of Yellowstone. Watch out for the elk all over this small village.
A lot of hiking trails begin in the Mammoth Hot Springs area.
Timing is Everything with Beartooth Highway
Leaving Yellowstone is a hard pill to swallow, but we are timing this precisely, hoping to hit Beartooth Pass right around sunset for the best photos. Beartooth Pass is a 68-mile scenic byway winding up and over 10,000 foot mountains. The mountain itself called Beartooth looks exactly like a bear’s tooth. Beartooth Pass is often closed due to weather so we have timed this section of the trip perfectly. Luck is in our favour.
Things to Know About the Tour
Austin Adventures is pretty much an all inclusive affair. On a typical family group travel tour, accommodations, a custom itinerary, meals and fees for any excursions are all included. There is often one night free and one meal that you are on your own for, so bring a bit of cash for that. Also bring cash to tip your guide.
The drive over Beartooth pass is one of those iconic American road trip adventures you must make at least once. It is, of course, scenic, but it’s also a drive that feels like it could have been ripped straight from a James Bond movie with hairpin turns and constant climbs. Million dollar views are everywhere you look on Beartooth.
You Can’t Top Austin Adventures
Adopt the pace of nature. With Austin Adventures, the group travel experience was close to perfect. It never once felt rushed and there’s no question that we gained so much by taking the journey with an attentive and knowledgeable guide.
Accommodations were good, service was amazing, the itinerary was well organized and the guide was incredibly tuned into us and our environment. It’s easy to see why so many travellers return to Austin Adventures year after year. We all left wanting more, but knowing that we’d seen more than we ever expected to experience in Yellowstone.
Austin’s Yellowstone Tour Details:
Austin Adventures runs tours to Yellowstone from Bozeman Montana every week in the summer months. This particular trip was six days ending in Red Lodge, Montana so we could fly out of Billings Montana.
What’s an Austin Adventures Yellowstone Tour Cost?
All prices are in US. There are dozens of trips throughout the world via this family run tour group so pick a spot.
The 2020 fee for a similar trip to Yellowstone is $2898 per adult and $2398 for kids. What is not included? One meal on one of the evenings, travel to the starting point, and tips for the guides ($100 – $150.)
Don’t miss another of my travel companion’s posts here – > Cindy Richards of Traveling Mom Luxury Family Tour of Yellowstone.
Huge thank you to Austin Adventures, and Sam Friedland!