Crusty Baked Shells and Cauliflower

Matt first made Ina Garten’s Crusty Baked Shells and Cauliflower in February and we knew immediately that this would become one of our go-to dinners. Now, during Quarantine, we’ve made this at least six times and, guess what? It’s what’s for dinner TONIGHT!! Yum.

This dish is SO different from the average “baked pasta.” The panko-encrusted shells are flavored with lemon, garlic and Fontina cheese. The insides of the shells harbor pockets of creamy ricotta and the occasional salty zing of a caper. Tender cauliflower florets melt into the space between shells and make this meal feel lighter and healthier (or at least less unhealthy!). The entire dish is completed with a topping of panko, parsley and pecorino and baked in the oven until golden brown.

For the past 12 weeks Matt and I have been dependent on online grocery availability and we’ve had to get creative with some ingredient substitutions. Can’t find Fontina? Try Gruyère, Emmental or Gouda.  No shells available in the pasta aisle? Cavatappi and Pipe Rigate work well, too. And that time our online shopper delivered PURPLE cauliflower instead of the normal white stuff? No problem… the dish was just a little more colorful that time around!

We typically get one dinner plus three servings of lunch out of each recipe. This is great as a leftover and, according to Ina’s note in the original recipe, can also be made ahead by assembling the dish, refrigerating, and baking just before serving.

Ina Garten’s Crusty Baked Shells and Cauliflower

From Cooking for Jeffrey, adapted slightly

You will need…
Salt and Pepper
1 lb. Pasta Shells
Olive Oil
1 head Cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
3 tablespoons Sage, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons Capers, drained
3 cloves Garlic, minced
½ teaspoon Lemon Zest
¼ teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper
10 oz. Fontina Val d’Aosta Cheese, grated
1 cup Ricotta
½ cup Panko bread crumbs
6 tablespoons Pecorino Cheese, grated
2 tablespoons minced Parsley

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente.  Drain the pasta and transfer it to a very large mixing bowl.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large sauté pan, then add half the cauliflower in a single layer. Sauté for 5-6 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender and starting to brown. Place the cooked cauliflower in the bowl with the pasta before sautéing the remaining cauliflower and adding to the pasta.

Add the sage, capers, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper, 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper to the bowl with the pasta and cauliflower. Stir gently, then add the grated Fontina cheese and stir again.

Transfer half the pasta mixture to a large casserole dish. Drop spoonfuls of ricotta over top of the pasta, then cover with the remaining pasta mixture.

Combine the panko, parsley, grated Pecorino and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle topping evenly over the pasta. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the topping is browned and the edges of the pasta are beginning to get crusty. Serve immediately and enjoy!

OMG BLT Pizza

Iron Hill Brewery has been one of my favorite restaurants ever since Matt and I moved within walking distance to the micro-brewery’s Media location twelve years ago.  I have happy memories of sitting in Iron Hill’s outdoor dining area in June 2008 and sipping fresh beer (a wheat beer at that time, I’m sure) while watching hundreds of runners pass by on State Street in the Media 5 Mile race.

Back then I felt sorry for the runners (why run when you can sit outside drinking at Iron Hill??), but in recent years I’ve become one of those runners! Now I always make a point of looking at the happy spectators in Iron Hill’s outdoor dining area when I race by and Matt and I always have dinner at Iron Hill when the race is over.

One of my go-to entrees is the OMG BLT sandwich, a flavorful, drippy, wonderful combination of bacon, pepperoni, balsamic-dressed arugula, tomato, mozzarella and pesto mayo on a warm and crusty ciabatta.  After I became pregnant last summer I was no longer able to partake in the OMG BLT (though I did consider ordering it without pepperoni on more than one occasion!) and it was one of the dinners I was most looking forward to after the baby was born.

It’s even on Iron Hill’s temporary takeout menu during the COVID-19 shutdown. But we’re super cautious and haven’t ordered any takeout. Good thing we can make our own!

Matt, baby K and I have still not visited Iron Hill since her birth in early March, but that hasn’t stopped me from craving an OMG BLT.  I contemplated trying to make a copycat version of the sandwich at home, but we’ve only been doing online grocery shopping and good ciabatta is hard to come by.  (With my luck our Whole Foods shopper would helpfully substitute in a rock-hard gluten free, vegan, fair trade dinner roll!) Matt and I make our own pizza all the time so I happily agreed when Matt suggested that we turn my craving into a pizza.

I bet Kenzie wishes she could eat this.

OMG BLT Pizza

Our pizza version of Iron Hill Brewery’s OMG BLT sandwich.

You will need…
6-8 oz. bacon, cut into small pieces
2.5 oz. pepperoni, quartered if it’s the big 3-4 in. diameter slices from Whole Foods
2 Roma Tomatoes
8 oz. Mozzarella cheese
2-3 spoonfuls Basil Pesto
1-2 tablespoon Mayonnaise
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon Balsamic Vinegar
3-4 handfuls Arugula
1 lb. Pizza Dough

Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat to 550°F. Cook the bacon bits over medium heat until brown and crispy, then transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Thinly slice the tomatoes and place them on a paper towel to remove the excess liquid. Shred the mozzarella cheese.

Make the pesto mayo by combining the pesto and mayo in a small bowl.  If you want to get fancy and use a squeeze bottle, add a little olive oil to the pesto mayo until it is thin enough to funnel into a squeeze bottle. (If you’re using the squeeze bottle, make sure your pesto is very well blended otherwise chunks of nuts and garlic will jam up the nozzle!)

Whisk together 1 teaspoon each of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in a medium-sized bowl. Add the arugula and toss well to coat.

Stretch the pizza dough into a 14-16” disc (whatever size fits your stone). Remove the stone from the oven and place the dough on the hot stone. Working quickly, cover the dough with the mozzarella, then the bacon, pepperoni and tomato slices. Bake the pizza until the crust is starting to brown on the edges, approximately 8-12 minutes.

Remove the cooked pizza from the oven and transfer from the stone to a peel. (We do this outside the oven rather than trying to peel it off the stone IN the oven.)  Spoon or squeeze the pesto mayo over top of the pizza, then top with the dressed arugula.  Slice and serve!


How I Became a Mom

It’s my first Mother’s Day. I’ve been wanting to type out the story of how I became a mother but (surprise!) with a 9 week old baby I just haven’t found the time until now.

This morning baby Kenzie woke up at 5:56AM, a full 8 hours after going to sleep in her bassinet next to our bed last night. Kenzie, Piper and I snuck out of the bedroom without waking Matt. I nursed the baby, let Piper out and fed her, made coffee, drank said coffee, pumped more milk for a practice bottle later, and now, at 7:30, I’m happily settled in my recliner in the nursery typing away as Kenzie gurgles and goos at her new crib mobile.

A few minutes ago Matt emerged from the bedroom to say good morning. He thought he was waking up before me and he had quietly slipped out of bed, only to turn around and realize that Kenzie and I weren’t there. Ha! He’s making breakfast strata downstairs so I have a strata’s worth of time to get some of Kenzie’s birth story down before my Mother’s Day breakfast feast. 😀 Onto the story!!

My due date was Friday, March 13th. I felt great for most of my pregnancy but by early March I was starting to feel really uncomfortable. Thinking I still had another 2 weeks to go, I continued to push through my runs, walks, and Pelotons, but bending over to put on my bike shoes was becoming increasingly difficult and my normally boney ankles were puffing up. I remember doing a quad stretch after a short run and being slightly alarmed when the imprints of my fingers were still visible on my ankle afterwards!

On Sunday March 1st I ran a mile and a half. On Monday I did a 30 minute Peloton and on Tuesday I walked and ran while watching the final action scenes from Captain America. On Wednesday morning at work I felt my first contraction. But I wasn’t sure it was a “real” contraction.

In early March we were all just realizing that Coronavirus might be a serious threat, so on that Wednesday I had printed out several signs from the CDC for our workplace about Proper Handwashing and Staying Home When Sick. Every time I had a contraction I got up from my desk and walked to a different area in the office to tape up a flyer. That helped get my mind off of the cramping pain.

By lunchtime I’d posted two or three flyers. Matt and I would usually go home for lunch with Piper, but on that Wednesday I requested lunch at our favorite new Mexican restaurant, Rey Azteca. I figured this might be my last lunch out for a while. (Little did I know… it’s now May 9th and that’s still the last restaurant we went to!!!) I ordered my favorite pork burrito with refried beans and rice and it was delicious.

I posted several more flyers throughout the afternoon at work but didn’t tell anyone except Matt that I was having contractions. A few days before I had downloaded a contraction timer app but all that told me at this point was that my contractions were not coming at regular intervals and were not close enough together to get excited about. After work Matt and I walked up the giant hill in our neighborhood, then I finished off the evening with another walk on the treadmill.

By the time we were watching Jeopardy! my contractions were becoming slightly more regular. I think I timed them at 40-ish minutes apart at that point. This was still a far cry from the “5-1-1” pattern that we had learned about in our birthing class a few weeks before. I needed to wait until my contractions were 5 minutes apart and lasting 1 full minute for 1 whole hour before calling my doctor and going to the hospital. So wait I did.

We went to bed. I got a little sleep until around 11:30 when a contraction woke me up. At first I tried to stay on my side in bed as I timed the contraction (1 minute!) and breathe through it, but that was really painful. Taking a cue from my flyer-posting walks at the office earlier that day, I began to pace around our house during my next contraction at midnight which made the painful minute go by much faster.

By 12:30 I had my pacing routine down. I figured out that it took me almost a full minute to walk a lap from our bedroom down the hallway around the perimeter of our second floor great room and back. I kept up this routine through the next several contractions. By 2AM they were 15-20 minutes apart. Although each contraction was painful I was really hoping the intervals would speed up so I could get this over with!!

Finally at 3:15AM I had a contraction just 5 ½ minutes after the last one. Hurrah! Now to hold out for another hour of this pattern. I did NOT want to go to the hospital too early only to be turned away!!

Shortly after 4AM I woke Matt up to tell him that I was nearing the 5-1-1 pattern. At 4:15 I called my doctor’s office to say things were getting serious. The call center said they’d give the hospital a heads up.

Our plan was for my mom to pick up Piper and watch her for a few days. As Matt got our go-bag into the car I specifically remember thinking to myself “Piper needs a bed for mom’s house!!” so I carried her dog bed down the stairs. That was HARD. Putting on my sneakers was also hard. I asked Matt to tie them. He says I moaned they were “too tight!!!!” even though he’d made them very loose for me.

By 4:47AM we were in the car, making our way towards Bryn Mawr Hospital at what felt like 10 miles per hour. Usually I am a huge stickler for not speeding on the narrow country roads around our house, but on this particular Thursday morning I kept urging Matt to go faster. We saw multiple deer lurking in the shadows next to the road and he wisely pointed out that if we hit a deer it would take a lot longer to get to the hospital. Good point, but that didn’t make the drive any better.

The contractions in the car were the worst yet. I obviously couldn’t walk around to take my mind off of them, so I sat in agony as we got stopped at what felt like every single red light between Newtown Square and Bryn Mawr. Why on earth would a shopping center get the green light at 4:55AM??? Matt was on the verge of going through a red light for a construction zone on Bryn Mawr Avenue when it happened to turn green. Longest drive ever.

We had toured the hospital’s maternity wing two weeks before so we knew right where to park. Matt offered to drop me off but I said I’d rather walk. After all, walking had been the only thing getting me through this long night so far. We parked in the garage and I made sure Matt grabbed my computer bag (who knew how much time we’d need to spend in the delivery room??!). The walk seemed to last forever but thankfully the L&D department knew we were coming and had already opened the big security doors for us. They whisked us to a room and gave me a gown and a stretchy sleeve to put over my abdomen that would hold the various monitors.

By 5:30 I was on the hospital bed and I was REALLY uncomfortable. No one had checked me yet, but I explained that I had hit 5-1-1 around 4AM. From our birth class I understood that it would probably still be HOURS before I delivered my baby. Considering how much pain I was already in at that point I was not looking forward to the next several hours. I had originally thought I would hold off on an epidural and “play it by ear” before making a decision. But when the nurse asked me if I wanted an epidural I figured I’d already played it by ear all night and I readily agreed to one. She said she’d let the Anesthesiologist know so they could start getting it ready for me.

I still hadn’t actually been examined by anyone at this point to see how far along I was. When the nurse finally checked she made sort of a funny face and went to get another nurse. The second nurse checked and they conferred between themselves, saying something along the lines of “Where’s her cervix? Is she complete?” They explained to me that they couldn’t feel my cervix at all. The meaning of this wasn’t especially clear to me and I was vaguely worried, but the contractions were so painful at this point that I didn’t have time to think through what they were saying. They said they were going to call the doctor in for him to have a look.

It felt like it took forever for the doctor to arrive. I think he came in around 6:10AM. He checked and confirmed what the nurses suspected… no cervix. But what did this mean?? Apparently that I was already fully dilated. The doctor casually asked if I wanted to start pushing. I understood THAT!! No more hours of contractions, waiting for incremental dilation centimeter by centimeter. It was go time!! WOOHOO!

I hadn’t had any medication of any kind at this point. A nurse asked me again if I wanted the epidural. She said something like “Are you sure you still want the epidural? You’re fully dilated so the hard work is already done.” With that hopeful thought in mind I declined the epidural and got ready to push.

The doctor broke my water at around 6:30AM. And then the real work began. In the birth class it seemed like all of the focus was on how difficult contractions and active labor and “transition” were. We had learned that you would spend hours laboring to get to full dilation, then POOF! you push and Ta Dah! here’s your baby! Maybe that was just my emphasis, but I had no idea how hard the pushing stage was going to be.

Luckily a team of supportive nurses made the process easier. Like birthing cheerleaders, they enthusiastically chanted 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10!! during each push. They showed Matt how to hold my left leg and a young female nursing student held my right leg. I watched Matt’s face as I pushed. At one point his eyes got really wide. “I can see her head! She has hair!!” he exclaimed. This spurred me on and I kept up the relentless pattern of two sets of pushes during contractions with what felt like a very (very!) brief rest between.

The time simultaneously dragged on and went by in a blur. There was a shift change at 7AM and a new doctor came in. Two of my original intake nurses said they’d stick around for a while longer even though their shift was over. The TV in the room was tuned to channel 6ABC (my favorite!) and at one point I looked up and there was a picture of a cruise ship and the words Italy and Coronavirus on the screen. I felt sick during a particularly rough contraction and threw up into a baggie that someone shoved into my right hand. And I kept on pushing.

Matt became increasingly excited which really helped motive me. He explained again how they could all see the baby’s head and made a small circle with his index finger and thumb to show “how big” the visible portion of her head was. His circle was about an inch in diameter. “That’s all!???!?!” I asked. I had been picturing much, much more head visible after all of that pushing. “Well yeah, but it was only this much before,” Matt replied, shrinking his finger circle down to the size of a blueberry. Fair enough.

After the hardest physical exertion of my life I gave my final pushes and at 8:07AM my baby girl was born. Everything happened at once. I pushed, her head emerged, her body slipped out behind it, and suddenly my tiny daughter was laying on my chest as everyone in the room cheered. I kept repeating something like “Hello Baby, I’m your momma” over and over again as she started to nurse. She held her lovely, goop-covered little right hand over her face, tiny fingers curling into her eyes as she adjusted to her new surroundings.

Our moms both visited us in the delivery room and then helped carry our gear (including my computer bag!) up to the recovery room. We spent the day getting to know our tiny baby and settled on her name, Mackenzie Grace, at around 5PM. For dinner Matt walked to Wawa and brought me back a meatball hoagie and we had chocolate-covered coconut Easter eggs that we’d brought from home for dessert.

The rest of our time in the hospital was a blur. I had blueberry pancakes from the cafeteria for breakfast, my step-father made a surprise visit, our moms visited again, I figured out how to nurse (which took 45 minutes every 3 hours!), we met Kenzie’s pediatrician, my brother brought us dinner from La Cabra Brewing Bodega restaurant, and before we knew it, it was Saturday morning and we were being discharged with our teeny tiny baby girl.

And I’ll stop there… Piper has come into the nursery and is happily squeaking her fox toy at Kenzie like she wants to play. Time to get our day started for real.

Happy Mother’s Day!!

Day 6: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

OK, we didn’t actually see lions or tigers, but we DID see wolves, pronghorn, elk, bison and TWO grizzly bears, so our sixth and final day in Yellowstone was pretty epic. After five days of mountains, geysers, springs, canyons and rivers Matt and I woke up early on Monday, October 14th, excited to drive through the Lamar Valley in hopes of spotting some of the park’s more elusive wildlife.

The wildlife sightings started very early. After a quick and delicious breakfast at Wonderland Cafe in Gardiner we stopped back at our tiny cabin to pick up our suitcases. After a few minutes inside we were ready to “check out” (which simply meant locking the door behind us). I stepped outside and BAM! There was an ELK, RIGHT THERE, nonchalantly munching the grass growing around the cabin’s front steps. (Where did this elk come from?? We had just gone into the cabin moments before!!!) I leapt back inside and Matt and I happily watched the elk and her friends enjoy their breakfast for a few minutes before they meandered far enough away from our door for us to make a safe getaway. Wildlife day was starting out well so far.

We entered Yellowstone NP through the North Entrance and immediately saw several antelope-like pronghorns grazing along the side of the road. Then, as we wound our way through the village of Mammoth, we saw dozens of elk, including one massive buck lounging on the lawn in front of the post office. We took several photos of this guy from the safety of our car (I wouldn’t want to meet those antlers outside my cabin door!) before turning east towards the Lamar Valley.

Although Lamar is known for its wildlife watching we knew that it was fairly unlikely that we’d actually see a wolf or a grizzly bear on our last day in Yellowstone. These predators are much rarer and harder to spot than the bison and elk we had become accustomed to seeing several times a day. Nevertheless, we were determined to make the most of whatever wildlife we did get to see, so we satisfied ourselves by watching the numerous herds of bison roaming through the Lamar Valley.  By mid-morning we had pulled over and I was taking a video of a large herd moving serenely alongside the Lamar River.  Then a white SUV slowed down on the road behind us and the driver yelled out “Hey! There are WOLVES a mile down the road!!”  Bison video immediately forgotten, we leapt into our car and headed east towards the wolves.

Sure enough, a mile down the road there were several cars parked along a gravel road and a cluster of people gathered atop a high, snowy hilltop with tripods and spotting scopes. We parked our car, grabbed our jackets (it was “warm” for that week but still in the 20s), and excitedly climbed the hill, eager to see what was going on.

A couple with a scope greeted us almost immediately and pointed to a (very) distant hillside, explaining that members of the Junction Butte wolf pack had just finished eating some kind of animal carcass and were settling down for a post-meal nap in the sun. The couple generously let us look through their massive spotting scope and we could see the dark spots of the wolves against the snow. Cool!

We soon discovered that the wolves were not the only point of interest visible from our snowy hillside. There was also a grizzly bear who was (barely) visible as he lumbered down a steep hillside about a mile to the south. Again the couple generously let us watch him through their scope (all I could really see was his shadow, honestly) before he disappeared into a copse of trees. We were thrilled to have spotted both wolves and bears so quickly (from the same hillside, no less!) and we stayed and chatted with the couple for a while longer before heading back to our car to see what else the Lamar Valley had in store for us.

We soon came upon a small traffic jam of cars pulled over on the shoulder of the main road. This is usually a VERY good sign for anyone hoping to spot wildlife… but what kind of animal was stopping traffic at this particular moment? We scanned the scrub ahead of us and saw a GRIZZLY BEAR!!! Not a bear’s shadow on a far-off hillside through a scope. No, this was an actual bear, easily visible from our car (safety first!), making his way towards the road in the snowy grass. We watched, transfixed by his lumbering gait, and reveled in our good fortune as he moved diagonally past our car before crossing the road right between the stopped cars ahead of us. Before we knew it he was out of sight and the magical moment was over.

Satisfied that we had checked every animal off of our wildlife wishlist, Matt and I headed south to see the last landmark of the trip, Tower Fall. After the massive Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone I have to admit that the 132-foot Tower Fall was a little underwhelming. But the drive there was easy and we were able to stop at several gorgeous overlooks on our way.

After Tower Fall it was time to say goodbye to Yellowstone National Park and head up to Bozeman, Montana for our flight home. On our way out of the park we stopped in Gardiner for our fourth and final meal at Wonderland Cafe, then followed the beautiful Yellowstone River north to Livingston before turning west towards Bozeman. We spent the night in Bozeman, took an 8:22 flight to Denver the next morning, and we were back home with Piper by dinnertime on Tuesday.

Planning your own trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks? There are TONS of resources out there (not to mention guided tours!), but I found the following to be most helpful when planning our trip:

Day 5: Norris, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Real Food!!

Sunday morning in Yellowstone started off much like the previous 3 days: with sub-freezing temperatures and a frosty windshield, brr! It was October 13th: Canyon Village’s last day of the 2019 season. Remembering how uninspiring the previous morning’s rubbery eggs and french toast had been, I decided in advance that I would simply have a banana and yogurt from the dining hall’s “grab and go” station for breakfast. But alas, Canyon Village was all out of bananas, yogurt, AND milk for cereal! I settled for lukewarm oatmeal with a side of hot cocoa because the coffee machine started spewing out coffee grounds midway through filling up my mug. I promise that I’m not trying to make this post about how bad the food was, but man was I ready to eat some hot, fresh, flavorful food after three straight days in the park!! Luckily my wish would come true soon.

Matt and I said goodbye to Canyon Village and headed west to Norris Geyser Basin. We strapped on our Yaktrax and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the basin’s geysers, springs and bubbling thermal features. The icy boardwalks threaded in and out of eerie fog and, even though we shared the more popular “Porcelain Basin” area with a gaggle of young German tourists, we still felt like we had most of the basin to ourselves.

Towards the end of our walk we came upon an older couple camped out in front of Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser. They explained that while the unpredictable geyser has sometimes gone for years without an eruption, Steamboat happens to be in an unusually active period right now with eruptions as frequent as every 5-6 days. Steamboat had last erupted 6 days before, so this couple was planning to spend their Sunday watching the geyser in hopes that it might put on one of its rare shows. (Keep in mind that it was below freezing out… these were very hardcore geyser watchers!!) 🙂  We hung around and chatted with them for a while as Steamboat puffed and spit hot water (the norm between eruptions) before eventually heading back to the car.  Later I found a web site that tracks Steamboat’s eruptions… looks like it didn’t go off until 3 days later so I’m glad we didn’t stick around to wait for it!!

Next up on our itinerary was Mammoth Hot Springs. On the road north from Norris we got stopped in one of the park’s ongoing road construction projects and had to park our car in a line of traffic for 20-30 minutes. (Which is really not so bad; drivers have been delayed for MUCH longer in bison jams!) I read about Mammoth in our guidebook while we waited and Matt gazed around at the rocky hillsides surrounding us. A young girl wandered by on the shoulder of the road and Matt said “That looks like the climate girl.” I didn’t think much of it at the time but later learned that Greta Thunberg had been visiting Yellowstone on that exact same day and was wearing the same blue jacket we saw this girl wearing. So yeah… oddly we can add Greta Thunberg to our list of notable sightings on our Yellowstone trip!

It was nearing lunchtime by the time traffic got moving so we drove straight through Mammoth (where my iPhone found one bar of service… civilization!!) and continued up to Gardiner, Montana to find somewhere to eat. We stumbled upon a small cafe called Wonderland and proceeded to have THE BEST LUNCH I’VE EVER EATEN. I wolfed down a decadent grilled caprese panini with a side of homemade butternut squash bisque while Matt enjoyed a pastrami sandwich with ridiculously delicious caramelized horseradish onions and a crisp Montana IPA. We had already decided we’d be returning to Wonderland for dinner before lunch was over.

After lunch we headed back into the park to see Mammoth Hot Springs. The lower elevation and bright sunshine made Sunday afternoon in Mammoth our warmest weather yet. We happily peeled off layer after layer of clothes (I think I had started the day wearing four shirts!) as we explored the otherworldy travertine terraces.  The hot springs are constantly changing and in some of the more active areas the acidic water and sulfury clouds of steam were nearly taking over the boardwalks.

We explored the historic Mammoth Hot Springs hotel and visitor center before heading back north to Gardiner for the night. On our way to Wonderland for dinner we passed an elk taking a casual stroll on the sidewalk. Welcome to Montana!

And, speaking of elk… for dinner at Wonderland Matt had Baked Elk Chili Mac and Cheese. It was insanely good. If anyone reading this is planning a trip to the northern section of Yellowstone National Park you MUST eat at least one meal at Wonderland. We ended up eating there four times! More on that coming soon in the recap of our sixth and final day.

Day 4: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

It’s a brisk 21° here in Pennsylvania this morning but it still doesn’t feel like this weather is actually cold after our October trip to Yellowstone. Day 4 began in frosty Canyon Village with temps in the single digits. Matt and I were getting used to being outside in the cold by Saturday so honestly the hardest part was just sitting in the rental car waiting for it to defrost enough to make the short drive to the dining hall building. (Then, unfortunately, the breakfast of french toast and strata at Canyon’s cafeteria was cold, soggy, and flavorless, but I’ll address the park food later!)

Lackluster meal behind us, Matt and I headed up to Artist Point once again to gawk at the massive Yellowstone Canyon and Lower Falls in the distance. This time we were prepared with Yaktrax on our hiking boots which made the short but extremely icy walk to the lookout feel much safer.

Next we drove back down South Rim Drive towards Uncle Tom’s Trail, a steep stairway down to the base of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. We were excited to see that our car was the only car in the parking lot – what luck!! But the reason soon became apparent… Uncle Tom’s Trail was closed. At the time we figured this was due to snow/ice on the stairs* so, emboldened by our Yaktrax, we started along the snow-packed trail towards the lookout point, curious to see how far we could get.

The beginning of the trail was fine, but what was not fine was how isolated we felt the moment we started hiking away from the parking lot. We had become accustomed to having a few other tourists around us at all times but this trail was lonely and silent. We thought about all of the “BE BEAR AWARE” warning signs we’d seen around the park and decided to turn back. Just as we arrived back at the parking lot we noticed a couple hiking towards us. I asked them if they were also heading towards Uncle Tom’s Trail and, when they replied that they were AND that they had bear spray, we promptly turned around and headed back towards the waterfall with them.

We had fun chatting with our fellow hikers as we journeyed up the south rim trail. We stopped at overlooks to snap pictures of the waterfall below, but we never did see the actual turnoff for Uncle Tom’s Trail. (Probably because the trail was buried under a few inches of fresh snow!) In the end we found ourselves up at the Artist Point parking lot once again, so Matt and I peeled off to return to our car via the road while our newfound friends continued on to see the famous overlook for themselves.

After lunch at the Canyon Village General Store we drove south to explore the Hayden Valley and mud volcano. The mud volcano area was home to one of the coolest thermal features we saw (and heard!) on the whole trip: Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The spring is inside a cave that constantly spews a column of steam out into the basin around it. The best part was the ominous low rumbling sound that accompanied each “dragon’s breath” of steam. Click below for a video.

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Our next stop was Lake Village on the shore of the massive Yellowstone Lake. We drove by the Lake Lodge (closed for the season) and stopped by the visitor center before soaking up some sun at the edge of the lake. By this point it had warmed up to the 30s which felt downright balmy compared to the weather we’d experienced for the past few days.

We enjoyed the drive back north along the Yellowstone River before again feeling the pull of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  As the sun was getting low in the sky we visited the canyon one last time, this time on the north rim with stops at Lookout Point, Grand View and Inspiration Point.

Although the day ended on a high note scenery-wise, the food was, once again, not the strong point of the trip.  We’d been exclusively eating park food since Thursday and by dinner on Saturday that was starting to wear on me. This was the last night Canyon Lodge was open for the year and several items on the limited menu were already unavailable or running out as we waited. (For example, they ran out of penne partway through making Matt’s entree and brought him a tiny portion of chicken-sausage pasta that was also missing the sausage because they ran out of that, too!!) I understand that it was the last night of dinner service so obviously the restaurant didn’t want to have excess food left over, but after several meals in the park I was ready to get out and eat some “real” food made with fresh ingredients. More on that in my recap of Day 5!!

*Now that I’m home and have the internet at my fingertips I realize that Uncle Tom’s Trail is actually closed for a large scale maintenance project, not because of conditions on the trail in October.

Day 3: Geysers and Hot Springs Galore

When we woke up on Friday it was -4° (yes, that’s Fahrenheit). Brr!! We ate breakfast before dawn and asked the receptionist at the hotel’s front desk if he knew when Old Faithful might put on its first daytime show. Based on the last known eruption which had occurred at 6:45AM he recommended that we be ready and waiting outside between 8-8:30. So out we went!

By 8:15 the sun was out and it had warmed up to -2°F. Ha! We were super bundled up and waited with a few brave souls to see the world’s most famous geyser do its thing. Soon enough Old Faithful began shooting a tower of water into the air, creating a brilliant white plume of steam against the perfect blue sky.

Next we headed to Midway Geyser Basin, home of another one of Yellowstone’s most well known sights, Grand Prismatic Spring. Google it and you will see gorgeous images of vivid rainbow colored water that looks like it was photoshopped by mother nature. But unfortunately this was not what we saw on Friday. In the single-digit temperatures the heat from all of the geothermal springs, vents and geysers in Midway had created a frosty, eerie world of fog, steam and ice that obscured most of the colorful attractions. This was pretty cool on its own account, even if we didn’t get to see Grand Prismatic in all its glory!

After leaving Midway Geyser Basin we headed south to Biscuit Basin. Along the way a herd of snowy bison materialized out of the fog. I love this photo of the bison in the snow, so much so that I just ordered a huge canvas of it for our house. (And I’ll share a secret: it’s actually TWO photos stitched together side-by-side!)

The entrance to Biscuit Basin was guarded by another bison who seemed content to hang around and let people from a tour bus get way too close to him as they snapped photos. We skirted around him to access the snow-covered boardwalks of the basin. Biscuit Basin was much less foggy than Midway had been and we soaked in the views of vivid greens, blues and oranges caused by thermophilic bacteria living in the hot springs.

We headed back to Old Faithful to catch its next eruption before venturing into the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin that stretches back behind Old Faithful. As we crossed a bridge over the Firehole River Matt spotted river otters playing in the water. Cool!! They slithered over logs for a few moments before disappearing in the cold dark water. (But not before I got photographic proof that we had seen them!)

Upper Geyser Basin and nearby Black Sand Basin featured spitting geysers and several more colorful hot springs. After having better luck seeing springs at these basins we returned to Midway Geyser Basin a second time with hopes of glimpsing Grand Prismatic, but it was still shrouded by steam and fog. (Granted, it never got warmer than 20° on Friday so I guess it just wasn’t our day to see the spring!)

As we left Old Faithful to head towards Canyon Village for the night we were treated to another great animal sighting. A coyote crossed the road in front of our car and then trotted confidently through the snowy grass right by my open window. What luck! We had now seen moose, elk, bison, otter and coyote and it was only our first full day in Yellowstone.

We reached Canyon Village in the late afternoon. Remembering how the access road to the canyon’s overlooks had been closed the day before, we drove past our lodge to see if South Rim Drive had reopened. It was still very snowy but definitely open! Since we were so close we figured we’d get a sneak peek of the next day’s main attraction. We drove up to the end of South Rim Drive and, after a short but extremely icy walk, we found ourselves at Artist Point taking in a sweeping view of the canyon and the lower falls of the Yellowstone River in the distance. Wow.

Satisfied that we had seen enough for one day, we drove back down the snowy road and checked into Canyon Lodge. Like Old Faithful Snow Lodge, Canyon has no cell service, no TV and no wifi. (Or rather, there is “wifi in the lobby but it’s VERY slow” according to the receptionist… and the lobby was in a completely different building from our room!) So instead of checking emails, Twitter and Facebook Matt and I sat side-by-side together in a booth at dinner and reflected on the trip so far as we scrolled through photos on my iPhone. Not a bad way to end our Friday. 🙂

Next up for Day 4… the Grand Canyon, a bear print (!) and Yellowstone Lake.