Yellowstone National Park often ranks high on the list when it comes to locations people want to visit in their lifetimes.There’s good reason Yellowstone became the first national park in the world in 1872. Its exploding geysers and bubbling mudpots offer a rare view of Earth’s mysterious hidden plumbing. It’s one of the last places in the world where you can see the American buffalo roam free beside bears and wolves. A tour within the park’s 2.2 million acres is like visiting Jurassic Park. The forces of nature still rule here; people are only visitors, and they seem insignificant next to a 50-million-year-old petrified tree, one of the park’s countless wonders.
Visiting Yellowstone is not as easy as it was 20 years ago. The park recorded more than 4 million visits in 2018, the third busiest year on record. Touring the park during the peak season of June, July and August, you can expect to be surrounded by people from around the world. It’s best to plan up to a year in advance, because finding last-minute accommodations at campgrounds and lodges in the park is tough.
After visiting the park in early June, I wanted to offer some advice to would-be travelers.
Arriving from the Inland Northwest
There are five entrances to Yellowstone National Park. Coming from the west, you can drive to Butte, Mont., and drop down to enter at West Yellowstone or head east through Bozeman to enter at Gardiner, Mont., the park’s north entrance. Both towns offer lodging.
We spent the night in Butte, where rooms were more affordable, and the next morning drove 21/2 hours to Gardiner. Gardiner is the park’s only year-round entrance. In January 1995, people lined the streets here cheering and clapping as wolves were reintroduced to the park after a 60-year absence. The town had a facelift in 2017, with $22 million in renovations to upgrade the city.
At the park entrance, we paid $35 for a seven-day pass for a private vehicle. For those on bicycle or on foot, the pass costs $20. We entered behind some bicyclists, and I thought about them two days later when the park was struck by a June blizzard. Prepare for any kind of weather whenever you visit the park. It can snow year-round.
From the north entrance it’s only 5 miles to Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the park’s major attractions. Elk casually lounged on the green lawns of the historic hotel there, one of the park’s nine lodges which all together contain more than 2,000 rooms. Rustic is the rule. Televisions, radios and air conditioning aren’t available in park lodging. The park also has 12 campgrounds with more than 2,000 sites. Reservations are taken at five of the campgrounds; the rest are first-come, first-served, with availability updated online.
On our first day, we traveled through the park, exiting at West Yellowstone, spending the night in the nearby town of Island Park, Idaho, where the crowds weren’t as dense.
Touring the Park Part 1: The Animals
As mileage goes, it’s not that far from one end of the park to the other, but if something is 20 miles away, do not expect to get there in 20 minutes. Speed limits are 45 mph or less, and you’ll frequently be stopped by herds of animals and herds of cars slowing to a standstill while people view and photograph animals. Leave your road rage at home, because it will ruin your vacation.
Good walking shoes are a must for touring the park’s attractions. Our first stop was the white limestone hills of Mammoth’s Travertine Terraces, criss-crossed with a maze of sun-bleached boardwalks. The parking lots were chock full, and it took some circling to find a space, which became a common theme. We watched a park ranger motion camera-toting tourists away from an elk. People entering the park are told they must stay 25 yards away from elk and bison (the length of two buses) and 100 yards from bears and wolves (five buses). It’s a constant struggle to enforce this rule, and every year there are tourists who get gored or trampled. However, the thing that causes the most injuries and deaths in the park are the hot springs. People have been boiled to death and dissolved. Signs throughout the park warn of the dangers of leaving the trail.
After touring the terraces, it was time for lunch, and we ate in the car because I wasn’t sure how long it would be before we stopped again. There are so many marked attractions in the park, it can be difficult to know where to spend your time. Before we went, I downloaded a narrated tour of the park through the GyPSy Guide app which was extremely helpful (see sidebar). There are also many guide books available. If you plan to hike in the park, which is the best way to escape the crowds, a book devoted to area trails would useful. You’ll also need to carry bear spray.
The northern part of the park is a dependable place to see wildlife. The Lamar Valley is the best place to see bears, wolves, bison and antelope, the second fastest animal on earth, we learned from our app. Within an hour, we saw a bear. It was possibly a grizzly, but I forgot to bring binoculars, so I couldn’t tell for sure. A little while later we saw a black bear eating an animal on the side of the road. The best time to see animals is at dawn or dusk, when they are most active.
Touring the Park Part 2: Hydrothermal Marvels
The southern side of the park is where the hydrothermal action is at. In the pre-park years, trappers told stories of smoking rivers, fire and brimstone which many dismissed as tall tales. Three mountain ranges surround the region, making it difficult to access. It wasn’t thoroughly explored and charted until the late 1800s. Today we know Yellowstone’s fiery personality is fueled by an underground supervolcano.
Old Faithful Geyser isn’t the biggest geyser in the park, but it’s the most popular and famous. Its viewing area is the most accessible and visitor-friendly, with seating, a museum and ranger station that tracks eruption times. You can also find the eruption times for several other reliable geysers in the park. Old Faithful erupts about 20 times a day, and hundreds of people line the boardwalk to watch each time.
Another site worth visiting in the Old Faithful area is the Old Faithful Inn, the most requested lodge in the park. The seven-story tall building was constructed from local trees and rocks in 1903-04. It is considered the largest log structure in the world. A massive stone chimney towers in the center of the open lobby, which is framed by branching tree limbs climbing upward. It’s rustic and charming. You can take a free tour or relax in one of the lobby’s chairs, dine at the inn’s restaurant or order coffee from its cafe while you bathe in its one-of-a-kind atmosphere.
Geysers are just one of the park’s thermal features. Others include hot springs in all the colors of the rainbow, fumaroles which are steam vents that whistle, hiss and burp as they release the hottest air in the park; and mud pots, which are acidic hot springs with a limited water supply.
All these hydrothermal marvels can be seen at Norris Geyser Basin, the oldest and hottest geothermal area in the park. It’s also one of the hottest in the world. Its white-crusted Porcelain Basin is an apocalyptic, other-worldly landscape. Wooden boardwalks ford green streams and cerulean blue pools. Plumes of steam billow in the wind, and the smell of sulphur fills the air.
These are just a few highlights from our three-day visit to the park, not long enough to thoroughly enjoy it. There is so much more to see, from hissing mountains to stunning waterfalls. There’s no way to see it all in one visit.