Yellowstone National Park
I don’t know how many people east of the Mississippi can say this, but I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park more times than Disneyworld.
There was always something more magical about Yellowstone than the magic kingdom. It could have to do with observing animals without glass or fencing in between. Maybe the thrill of the not-quite-predictable geyser shows. The rainbow hues of the hot pools. Or enjoying a simple campfire on a clear, starry evening. All of it keeps us coming back to Yellowstone. Recently, my wife and I returned again, this time with cameras, instead of children, in hand.
Situated in the northwest corner of Wyoming, Yellowstone is a challenge to reach. The trains that used to bring seasonal tourists are no longer running, which leaves two main options. Drive (done that – from Connecticut no less), or fly and rent a car. Check here to search for flights and fares from your city. The closest major airport is Salt Lake City, which is 300 miles south of the park. A round trip fare from New York in July is $318. Other options include Idaho Falls (110 miles southwest of the park), Bozeman (90 miles north of the park), Cody (60 miles east of the park) and Jackson Hole (60 miles south of the park). All of these airports have flights year round. FYI, we chose to fly into Jackson Hole, even though the flights and rental car were more expensive, because it was closer and gave us more vacation time in the park. Rental car prices will vary by airport. Check here to search rates at the various neighboring airports. A mid-size rental car, picked up in Salt Lake for a July trip, had a weekly rate of $194. Roads in the park are well-paved, so an SUV or 4-wheel-drive isn’t necessary, unless you’re visiting during the potentially snowy late spring or fall seasons.
Where To Stay
Camping is obviously the cheapest option. Depending on whether you’re tenting or bringing in a pop-up, trailer or RV, and how primitive a site you want, campsites range from $12 to $35 a night. Some can be booked in advance, while others do not accept reservations. Typically, the campgrounds closest to the attractions are no-reserve. Earlybirds have the best chance of scoring a site as they free up.
Note – Signs will be all over the place, but bears do occasionally find their way into the campgrounds. Keep food in sealed containers in the trunk (not in the tent), or hung high off the ground over a tree branch. Don’t bring food, including candy, into a tent. Don’t wash dishes in the campsite.
For those who prefer the comforts of more permanent four-walled accommodations, the good news is that Yellowstone has a combination of affordable and pricey lodging, both inside and outside the park.
Outside of Yellowstone’s gates, the closest towns with lodging include Gardiner, Silver Gate/Cooke City, East Yellowstone and West Yellowstone. Check here to search hotel rates for towns outside Yellowstone. Be careful in choosing where you stay. Yellowstone is a huge piece of natural real estate and the driving distance to the sights can be lengthy. For example, from Gardiner, its 5 miles to Mammoth Springs, 26 miles to Norris Geyser Basin, 56 miles to Old Faithful and 42 miles to Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. From the West Yellowstone, it’s 26 miles to Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, 28 miles to Norris, 30 miles to Old Faithful and 49 miles to Mammoth.
Hotels inside the park can run from an inexpensive $64 a night for a Roosevelt Lodge cabin, to $159 and up per night for The Old Faithful Inn. Visitors to the Inn will be surprised to find that rooms have no TV, radio or Internet access, and many have shared baths. It’s all an effort to recreate the experience from the early days of the park. The rustic log-hewn architecture of the Inn makes it worth a trip even just to walk around inside. The experience of even one night in the historic building, enjoying a cup of hot chocolate by the roaring multi-story stone fireplace, is something not to be missed, although the hotel is already booked solid for most of the summer season.
Yellowstone charges $25 per car for a 7-day pass that includes Yellowstone and the nearby Grand Tetons National Park. Don’t lose the pass, as you’ll need it each time you re-enter either park.
Getting Around Inside The Park
Yellowstone is 3,472 square miles big, so expect to spend some time in the rental car. Also expect to drive slow. The park speed limit is 45 mph, with 35 mph and 25 mph zones sprinkled in. Toss in the frequent traffic jams for bear sightings and bison crossing the road (a real treat) and things slow down even more. There are pull-offs every few hundred yards for sightseeing. Be warned – Yellowstone has raised traffic ticketing to an art form. Speed or park outside the designated areas and your stay will get more expensive in a hurry.
For those preferring not to see their wildlife from behind the wheel, the park has reintroduced a fleet of charming yellow tour buses, throwbacks to the early 20th century. The onboard guides are knowledgeable and seem to have an uncanny knack for being in the right place when wildlife appears. Visitors can also see the park via stagecoach, wagon or horseback.
What To See
Yellowstone can be enjoyed on many levels, depending on your group’s ability and appetite for physical exertion. All of the “marquee” attractions are reachable by car and most are a short walk from the parking lot. Many of the attractions are also wheelchair-accessible. Repeat visitors will tell you that the best way to see the park is to get off the main roads and trails and do some hiking into the back country that makes up most of the park. These hikes, which can run several miles, can yield private viewings of secluded mud pots, geysers, waterfalls and wildlife.
Some of Yellowstone’s best-known attractions are:
Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful geyser basin. Worth at least half a day. Check eruption times and get there early for a seat to watch Old Faithful spout. After the show, take a walk along the geyser basin, where you’ll find dozens of large and small geysers and hot springs that get their multiple color hues from different types of algae. Watch for bison and elk along the trail.
Norris geyser basin. Meandering walkways take visitors past more geysers, hot springs and mudpots. The rising steam and sulfurous odor creates a surreal atmosphere.
Mammoth Hot Springs. Here, multiple rock terraces have been created and continue to evolve from the slow escape of liquefied minerals. The colors streaming from some of the natural structures are especially vivid. Lots of elk in this area as well.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. From various observation points, visitors can see the canyon and its various waterfalls.
Call it morbid fascination, but on my last visit, I bought a book titled “Death In Yellowstone: Accidents And Foolhardiness In The First National Park” by Lee Whittlesey. The book chronicled visitors since the 19th century who had experienced fatal encounters with the wildlife, fallen into Yellowstone’s canyons, and deliberately or mistakenly entered the park’s many hot springs at boiling temperatures.
Through signs and its employees, Yellowstone does its best to remind visitors that they are in a wilderness that, without the proper care and awareness, can turn dangerous. Yellowstone lies in a collapsed volcano caldera and it is the constant volcanic activity that creates the geysers, boiling mudpots and hot springs. While they look pretty and harmless, many of these geothermal features contain boiling temperature water. As they bubble away, the earth’s crust right around them becomes thin and brittle. Stay on the marked paths and wood walkways. Wildlife in the park should be treated with similar care. After a ranger warned about visitors getting too close to the bison and being gored for their efforts, I recall a lady asking (and I’m not making this up) why the park let the animals loose if they were dangerous. Of course, that’s the point. In Yellowstone, visitors can see and photograph bison, bear, elk, deer, antelope, coyote, wolves and eagles in their natural environment. The trick is to view them from a distance that gives the animal its space and gives you ample time to back away if things get too close and personal.
I’ll mention this since my last trip was a photo safari. I strongly recommend visiting Yellowstone with a digital SLR, interchangeable lens camera with the following lenses: a wide angle lens for scenics, geothermal features and landscapes, a normal portrait length lens, and a telephoto zoom. For the telephoto, the longer length the better, since some of the animals, particularly bears and wolves, will only be seen at a distance. Check around and you’ll find that local photo shops will rent a digital SLR kit, including the longer lenses, very reasonably.
Photos copyright Lyle J. Ek