Yellowstone National Park: Visiting AdviceJuly 15, 2009
I’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.
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.