The cornerstone of the Greater Yellowstone Area is Yellowstone National Park. Anyone who has visited here has no doubt why these 3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km2) were set aside as the first National Park. The natural beauty alone is enough to inspire any who visit. Snow-capped mountains frame vistas of green grasses and every color of wildflower. Winding clear-water rivers run into expansive high-alpine lakes. The north of the park changes to a high-elevation sagebrush ecosystem and the road is carved high above steep canyons. Add some of the most spectacular wildlife viewing anywhere on the planet and you have a real show stopper.
Within 15 minutes of entering the park, we were caught in a bison jam – a traffic jam caused by a herd of plains bison, including the year’s young, moving right down highway 89, causing both directions of traffic to completely stop for a while. There are bison everywhere. Along with the buffalo are small herds of elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and even black and brown bears and other large mammals.
The main attraction to the park, of course, is its geothermal features. Geysers and hot springs bubble up from far underground (and can be seen boiling on the surface) causing steam to fill the air like an eerie Martian landscape. The bare soils shine in bright oranges, pinks, and greens from minerals, archaic thermal bacteria, and algae.
The most popular geyser, Old Faithful, attracts thousands of viewers a day. It erupts every 60-90 minutes, and during the day you’ll see enormous crowds of people all trying to get pictures and video of the iconic water spout. Taken all together, Yellowstone is an unparalleled adventure for the entire family.
I must say that I have mixed feelings when it comes to Yellowstone. The American public is becoming less and less enthusiastic about nature and the outdoors. Smart phones and Netflix have largely become the nation’s pastime, so seeing hordes of families (from all over the world) show up to camp and hike and view nature in all its splendor is fantastic! On the other hand, sitting in multi-hour traffic jams as thousands of cars compete for parking spaces near Old Faithful in a National Park is infuriating. Even worse are the tourists who brazenly approach wildlife (wild, meaning will stomp or eat you) to take photos or selfies with a bison. This isn’t happening without consequence: an increasing number of Yellowstone tourists are injured or killed by wildlife encounters. This behavior is not only dangerous to people, but also perilous to the animals themselves. Bears often have to be “dispatched”, a euphemism for euthanizing, because people made poor decisions. I seek out public lands for a communion with nature; it’s how I connect with myself and something bigger. The sheer traffic of people, and their belligerence, makes this meditation harder.
What are we to do? Skip visiting the arguably most iconic park in the world? Save for the most cynical among us, no! Here are some tips to navigate Yellowstone National Park with your sanity and sense of wonder intact.
- Visit in May or September. Early or late season trips will not disappoint, although you may encounter snow and inclement weather. Tourists typically arrive in June, with the season in full swing June 15. July and August are reportedly the busiest times.
- Get off the beaten path. Blacktail Plateau Drive is a 7-mile, one-way gravel road that parallels the main road on the east side of the park. No trailers or RVs are allowed, but it’s not a difficult drive. The winding road is a great way to see wildlife. I got out and hiked through fields of June wildflowers and didn’t see another person (check with Park officials first before hiking off trail).
- Make reservations for camping ahead of time or hit the first come first serve campgrounds of the north. The north sees fewer visitors in general. Indian Creek campground and Mammoth Hot Springs campgrounds are good choices. Although the area is built up with restaurants and a lodge, the campground is tucked behind red hills and sage brush and feels secluded.
- If you have a trailer, drop it off at camp before heading out. Vehicles towing trailers cannot drive on many roads to popular destinations, like the Artists’ Paint Pots; trailers cannot be dropped at parking lots or pull outs.
- Get up early (6am or earlier), to beat the crowds at popular features like Old Faithful. Call the Old Faithful Education Center (307-344-2751) for estimated geyser eruption times.
- When stuck in a traffic jam, stop and have a picnic. Besides wildlife-induced jams, there are straight up traffic jams around popular attractions, which can last well over an hour. Heading for Old Faithful, we were stuck, bumper to bumper, while running low on fuel. Jason suggested a pull-out next to the Yellowstone River where we made scrambled eggs and toast which we enjoyed from camp chairs next to the river. We waited peacefully until the traffic jam dissipated and went on our way.
- People watch. Enjoy the diversity of cultures and languages. Appreciate that people are coming out in droves to see one of America’s majestic landscapes. It helps seed an appreciation of nature and is a boost for the economy.
- National Forests and other public lands surround the park. Camp and recreate in these areas for similar landscapes (sans the geysers) and ample wildlife viewing with much fewer people. National Forest campgrounds are also cheaper.
With all of this in mind, I hope you’re able to fully enjoy a first or even return trip to Yellowstone! It is truly a majestic and unique landscape, and it’s no wonder that the U.S. Congress established it as the first national park of the United States, and maybe even the world. And let’s face it, everyone has got to see Old Faithful erupt at least once in their life!