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Yellowstone National Park: Visiting Advice

July 15, 2009

oldfaithful3I’m finally feeling well enough to incorporate some activities into my life – first stop – Yellowstone National Park! Yay! I’m happy enough to be able to do some short hikes and manage some car camping, nothing too spectacular, it’s enough just to be able to be in that glorious place, that slice of heaven. While I’m dreaming and scheming, I thought I’d share some advice to those folks that are looking for some inside information when visiting the Park.

I worked in Yellowstone Park for 6 seasons, 1978-1982 and then again in 1989, during that time, I was the front desk manager of Canyon Village Lodge, so I think I can speak as some sort of expert. I have several considerations for you as you plan your trip through the Park. To begin, it’s important to realize the scale of the Park – it is huge – as an example, from the Northeast entrance to the South entrance of the park is approximately 102 miles. When you imagine that you’re travelling through mountain passes, curvey roads and then mixing with “bear or bison jams” (cars stopped to see wildlife), just driving from point to point will take a great deal of time. But don’t lose heart, the park is one of the most beautiful places in the world – you won’t mind the traverse. Here’s a great link to Yellowstonenationalpark.com that has the distance map as well as a huge array of interesting information: http://www.yellowstonenationalpark.com/maps.htm

The large distances also create a wonderful opportunity to see the park in “portions”. Consider staying one or two nights in a couple of different locations within the Park. There are countless more lodging options outside the Park borders, but the driving distances involved really prohibit touring the entire Park comfortabley if you’re planning on staying several nights near one of the Park entrances. I recall while working in Mammoth Hot Springs that the drive to Old Faithful would take nearly 2 hours, and this was during the off-season, meaning no traffic to speak of.

Each of the Park’s 8 lodging locations have plenty of nearby attractions, all will have various wildlife wandering about and the grocery and gift shops offer a wealth of kitchey souvenier goodies. For activites beyond sight seeing, I recommend the “Scenic Cruise” on Lake Yellowstone – it’s a fun hour guided boat tour of the lake and inexpensive. Horseback riding is also available in 3 locations: http://www.travelyellowstone.com/dates-of-operation-rates-1724.html#horseback
Bike rental is also available from Old Faithful Snow Lodge: http://www.travelyellowstone.com/Bicycle-Rentals-5498.html

Make reservations early! I started planning our trip more than a week ago, and most of the park lodging is sold out into August. We were lucky to arrange reservations for Xanterra’s campgrounds: http://www.travelyellowstone.com/camping-250.html The National Park Service also operates several RV and Tent campgrounds in the Park, but these are not available for reservations, they are first come, etc. and typically fill up by 11am during peak season. There’s always a mad rush to the next location in the morning, where everyone is driving around in madness trying to capture that night’s campsite. Kind of a bummer when you get caught in that rush. Also, anticipate that you may be in a campground with hundreds of other campers – expect uneven tent sites, the possibility of nearby RV generators, loads of campfire smoke, people playing music and generally being annoying :)

Also, Checking In for whatever camping or lodging in the Park can be a real hassle – If you have the patience, wait until after dinner time to checkin to your room or reserved campsite – this way you’ll avoid standing in long lines and driving yourself buggey.

If you’re planning on seeing Old Faithful, my advice is to see it on a sunny morning, that way you’ll get this gorgeous deep blue sky behind the geyser as it kisses the pretty sky. Just for snicks, here’s the live Old Faithful Webcam: http://www.the-great-outdoors.net/yellowstonewebcams.htm Same idea with viewing the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River in Canyon – you’ll see this astounding waterfall with that same deepest blue backdrop and the water sparkling in the sun. Viewing Norris Geyser basin and Mammoth Hot Springs is perfect for sunset times if the weather has been warm, since both of these locations can be hot in the afternoons.

lakeyellowstones If you’re staying at Lake Yellowstone, try to get up at dawn to see the sun rise over the Absaroka’s, the last time I did this, I heard the call of the wolves in the distance mixed with loons on the lakeshore. The pretty pink clouds turned the Lake into a rosey glowing glass sea – it was one of the most magical moments of my life. The sunset over Mt. Sheridan and the Tetons can be just as captivating as you sit along the lakeshore.

Seeing bears: In my experience, it’s easy to tell when it’s a real “bear jam” when the traffic has stacked up in front of you. I noticed that people get out of their cars when it’s a bear or a wolf, and they tend to stay in their cars when it’s a bison, moose or elk. Best to bring your binoculars too – I worked in the Park for all those years and have only seen a bear twice – one black bear, one mother grizzley and cubs, both were amazing experiences.

Swimming: Most of Yellowstone’s waters are just too frigid for swimming, but there are three river locations in the park that have waters that are warmed by thermal pools further upstream. The most popular is the Firehole River. You’ll see this picnic road on the drive from Old Faithful to Madison. Moose Falls, is very near the South Entrance of the Park – I haven’t been to this site, but it’s well known among the employees. Up North of Mammoth Hot Springs is Boiling Springs, this is a small swimming area where you can take a dip and feel the thermal springs very near. If the summer is hot, you’ll also see people swimming along Lake Yellowstone’s shore, but this is relatively uncommon.

My best advice: Get yourself on a trail! There are many short hikes at all the locations in the Park. Stop at the closest visitor center and ask the ranger for some suggestions. Of the 3 million visitors that come to the Park, very few get their bodies out there and experience the best of Yellowstone’s experience – the wild. Some of my favorite shorties: Elephant Back (high overview of the Lake), Grebe Lake, Shoshone Lake, Wraith Falls. They’re discussed here: http://www.us.national-parks.net/hike.htm

Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you’d like additional info, I’m happy to help if I can.

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5 comments

  1. I have visited Yellowstone once in 2006. I can not get that trip out of my head. We were lucky enough to see Brown and Grizzly Bear, not to mention all the other wonders of the park. My question to you is how do I go about working the summer there ? I am almost ready to retire and would like to spend my summers there for as long as I can. Any suggestions or contacts would be greatly appreciated.


  2. Thanks for your comment Paul :)

    There are 3 opportunities for working in Yellowstone Park. The company that operates most of the food and lodging concessions in the park is Xanterra. Here is their employment website: http://www.yellowstonejobs.com/ You’ll find all kinds of positions available to you, they start reviewing employment applications in January or February I think.

    The operator of the Yellowstone General Stores also hires a much larger percentage of retired people, many retirees return year after year. I’ve never worked for them, but here is their employment page: http://www.yellowstonegift.com/yellowstone-jobs.html

    The National Park Service also hires for various positions in the park: http://www.nps.gov/yell/parkmgmt/jobs.htm


  3. Hi! I just discovered your blog and I really appreciate you sharing your experience battling CF. I have had CF for 19 years. I’d love to get an update on how your are doing, and how the NT factor and D-Ribose are working for you. Thanks!


  4. Hi,

    My Boy Scout Troop is coming up to Yellowstone in the peak of the high season [ 1st week of July ].
    The scoutmaster of our troop had a question for me [Committee Member] to research: “Jesse, can you do a bit of research and find out a few Tips how we can avoid the large crowds at the following popular spots?” List follows:

    Old Faithful
    Yellowstone Canyon
    Mammoth Hot Springs
    Paint Pots
    Mud Volcano

    So … Your advice, kind sir? (:


  5. Thank you for your comment/question about my Yellowstone visiting advice. When you’re travelling through the Park, you’ll notice that everyone seems to only stop at the major attractions for 10-15 minutes and then move on. So in that sense, other than Old Faithful, you’re not really encountering any crowds that are too much to deal with.

    The only exception is that at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, there are two waterfalls to see, Upper Falls and Lower Falls – Upper Falls is the smaller of the two, and thus has smaller viewing platforms and fewer viewing access points. If you happen to stop when a couple of other bus tours are also stopping, everyone is always kind enough to wait their turn to get on a viewing platform & take their picture.

    As I stated in my article – it’s my opinion that the two things that you want to see in the morning are definitely Old Faithful and the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This is because the morning light adds so much to these experiences – morning light being around 10am. (6am and the whole Grand Canyon will be in shadow).

    Old Faithful is its own world – far more crowded than any other area of the park, attracting all the attention. Morning is a good time for another reason here too – you’re avoiding the lunch crowds that gather between the Old Faithful Lodge and the Old Faithful Inn which are both accessed from an Old Faithful Geyser’s radius. To view the Geyser – get there a good 30 minutes early to grab a set of benches for your group. Scope out the best angle for sun reflections and background shots for your photos too. If you get there too late and the huge crowd has already gathered, I’d suggest touring Old Faithful Inn, or walking along the background boardwalk to other geysers right there. When you think about it, seeing Old Faithful go off will be one of your high points, so you’d like to do it right. Sunset is also another fantastic time to see Old Faithful go off and has much less in the way of crowds. Live Old Faithful Cam: http://www.the-great-outdoors.net/yellowstonewebcams.htm

    You shouldn’t feel as though the mud pots or paint pots are crowded, pretty much at any point. The only exception once again is if you’ve arrived in consort with another bus tour group. Another consideration for all your sight seeing is that during our trip last year, it rained every afternoon like clockwork, often raining as soon as 1pm. That caused us to do everything in the morning, then take naps, do laundry, have long lunches & tent reading in the afternoon.

    I hope you have a great trip – don’t hesitate to write back if you have any other questions.



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