Part 1: The Yellowstone Road Trip Part 1 of 3: Getting there – South Dakota and Wyoming
Part 3: The Yellowstone Road Trip Part 3 of 3: The Grand Tetons and Arches
Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is the National Park I wish everyone would visit. Even for the nature adverse, YNP offers up such a vast array of environments, wildlife, and spectacularly unique experiences, it’s difficult to think anyone could leave without having had several mind-shifting moments. Once in the park, the National Park Service has made experiencing YNP quite accessible to all – many of the main attractions are just off the road, and planked pathways provide opportunities for visitors to engage with the park safely. It’s also relatively easy to move beyond enormous crowds – the park is large enough that a 15 minute walk down any path will likely lead to a sense of isolation. There are many travel books on YNP which provide extensive overviews and great detail of every area of the park. Below, in this 2nd of 3 YNP Trip posts, I’ll cover what we loved best in our experiences within the park.
There are two impediments to enjoying YNP. First is the lengthy trek to get there. The first post in this series provides suggestions to enjoying the long journey from the midwest.
The second impediment is the cost of lodging. There is no way around paying a premium during summer months. Our 2 summer trips to YNP have found us making our home-base in the town of West Yellowstone. For moderate, though very dated accommodations, we paid over $200/ night, and this is going back a few years. Booking well ahead of time (think 3-6 months) is necessary – travelers will be testing their luck if they wait until arrival to find lodging. West Yellowstone also provides a chance to stock up on all basic necessities, along with all of the other options you would expect in a “tourist town.” Camping is also an option, though sites fill VERY quickly within the park during peak seasons.
- Crowds – yep, there are tons of people vying for the chance to see buffalo, Old Faithful, and any number of other sites. Timing is everything – the early bird gets the worm in YNP. The good thing is that just walking a few minutes down any path offers significant relief from the crowds.
- Wildlife – everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Who knew buffalo on the roads or bears along the roadside could make for traffic jams equivalent to Chicago’s rush hour. Patience is key. Road closures due to wildlife are frequent. It’s part of the trip. Additionally, don’t try to pet the buffalo. You will see others doing it and you’ll just shake your head.
- Timing – Yellowstone is vast, crowds are large, and as already stated wildlife is everywhere. If you expect to take 1 hour to get somewhere, add extra time – maybe to find parking, maybe because a herd of buffalo decided to gather on the main road. If you are a scheduler, you will want to know ahead of time that you will have to be flexible.
- Follow the warning signs – stay on paths, keep a safe distance from wildlife.
- Plan out what you want to see but be flexible. There is an app with maps and other information from the park service, which didn’t exist a few years back. Chances are it will be hard to see everything you want to, but other opportunities and suggestions pop up during your visit. Go with the flow. Also, plan for very limited to non-existent cell phone service in the park-if you think you might need information throughout the day, write it down or save it on your phone so you can access it offline.
- Bug spray – BRING BUG SPRAY! We usually try to use natural bug repellents, but YNP requires the big guns-go with the DEET.
The ride into YNP from Cody on the east side of the park is still quite a haul (1-2 hours until you’re seeing much of the park), though the beauty of the area grows with each passing mile. Entering the park, visitors ascend quickly with views of Yellowstone Lake. The east side of the park has quite a few stops, many located reasonably close to one another.
Our first planned stop was at the Mud Volcano.The area introduced us to the otherworldly sights and sulfuric smells we’d encounter throughout YNP. Walking trails in the area twist through the delicate mud pots, bubbling from the heat below. This was a perfect introduction to YNP.
Heading north we hugged the Yellowstone River until we approached the Canyon Village, home to the Yellowstone Falls trail heads. Along the way were a number of pull-outs and trails. If your experiences are like ours, you’ll encounter your first buffalo along this route.
There were quite a few options for viewing Yellowstone Falls. Crowds were large and parking was a pain, but the varied views of the impressive falls were worth it. Several of the views require climbs up and down a fair number of stairs. In the right lighting, the falls were amongst the best we’ve seen.
We headed northeast from Yellowstone Falls, we drove parallel to the vast Lamarr Valley, known as America’s Serengeti for its abundance of frequently visible wildlife. We made multiple visits to the area and it felt like we always “just missed it.” Buffalo, bears, elk, are frequently seen in this expansive area, generally near dawn and dusk. Despite our lack of luck with seeing much besides elk, the area is vast and gorgeous.
The Center and West
Our highlights, as well as the majority of time we spent in YNP, took place in the western half of the park. From Mammoth Springs in the far north to the the descent into the Grand Tetons NP on the southern edge of YNP, we could probably have filled weeks on the west side of the park. Distances between stops range from anywhere between 10 minutes and 45 minutes, but visitors will want to have 2 solid days on the west side to get a reasonable overview.
A few of our favorites:
- Artist’s Paint Pots – a fairly extensive area with a large amount of pastel colored, bubbling mud pots. The gravel path intertwines with some boardwalks, which also included some climbing up and down. Plan on at least 45 minutes.
- Grand Prismatic Spring – This spring is one of the most memorable sights I have ever seen – on par with the Grand Canyon in my opinion. There were multiple viewing options. First, a planked path which brought us right up to the scalding waters offered a ground level view of the large spring, along with the surrounding springs. However, for a special treat, about a mile south of the parking for the Grand Prismatic boardwalk, you can find a trail which provides more of a bird’s eye view of the spring. To be honest, both views are well worth the time and the crowds.
- Old Faithful Hiking Trail – Old Faithful is neat, if not quite astounding.
Parking and overflowing crowds distract from the magic of this well-known attraction. That said, the stop at Old Faithful is made unmissable because of the planked path that leads off from the main Old Faithful seating area. Easily a 1-2 hour round trip, the stroll will lead past a dozen or so spitting geysers, colorful hot springs, and odd formations.
The crowds on the path seem to fall off only minutes into the walk. Absolutely surreal and one of the must-sees of the entire National Park system.
- Ice Lake – Located more centrally in the park, off the road between Norris and Canyon Village, this short, primitive trail (maybe a mile each way) was memorable mostly as an escape from crowds at YNP, with the bonus of reaching the secluded Alpine Lake. Gorgeous, quiet, and all to ourselves.
- Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace – Both of the times we were at YNP, the springs were dry, and though the formations were alien, I’m not sure this was the best use of our time. That said, we’re clearly in minority with that opinion, and a friend who recently made their way to the area mentioned the springs are “springier” these days. An added bonus, if you make your way to the area, elk were regularly very visible in great abundance near the parking areas.
- Mystic Falls Trail- Though the falls are not in league with Yellowstone Falls, the trail gets you off the beaten path. If memory serves, the trails provide opportunities for some bird’s-eye views of Grand Prismatic Springs. The entire hike can easily take a few hours, but well worth the time off the congested main loop.
- West Entrance stops along the Madison River – There are a number of pullouts in this wetland area. Despite being bombarded by mosquitos, sunset walks were great opportunities to see elk, along with some of the more relaxed areas of the park.
Overall, YNP offers a bit of something for everyone. The abundance of trails, from boardwalks, to crushed gravel, to primitive backwoods, allows everyone access to parts of the park. While almost all of the highlights have been made easy to get to, the park is expansive enough that it justifies more than a few days simply to graze the surface. If there is one National Park to take the time and make the effort to get to, this is it.