I have had the good fortune of visiting over 20 of America’s finest national parks, most of them within the last several years. From the crowded roads and campgrounds to the silent solitude of the backcountry, I’ve sampled a bit of everything while in these priceless preserves. For those of you self-medicating your cabin fever with doses of summer trip planning, I thought I would share some practical tips and suggestions culled from my experiences.
Aptly, the first park we will tackle is the first national park ever created, Yellowstone. At minimum, I would give yourself two full days to take in its geologic and biologic splendor. I would also recommend going in June, for although it will be a little chillier, the crowds will be gloriously thinner.
Accommodations: I stayed in a tent throughout my Yellowstone visit, but if a soft bed, shower, and something thicker than a sheet of nylon between you and a grizzly bear are more to your liking, there are plenty of hotels and lodges in and around the park. It wasn’t in my budget when I went, but if you are willing to spend a little more, stay at the Old Faithful Inn for a night or two, it is achingly gorgeous.
Places to see: While Yellowstone can be accessed from any direction, I arrived from the north and passed through the Roosevelt Arch near Gardiner, Montana, a grand brick archway that Teddy Roosevelt himself dedicated in 1903. Coming from this direction, the first mind-blowing stop is Mammoth Hot Springs, an odd collection of travertine terraces and steaming pools of multi-colored algae. Be sure to stay on the wooden walkways, as one wrong step on the thin crust near here can result in your leg being plunged into boiling water, which would likely put a damper on the rest of your trip.
For me, the can’t miss attraction is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. You can stand on the platform right next to the falls and watch the Yellowstone River commit perpetual suicide as it hurls itself over the cliff, but to be truly blown away, make sure you head to Artist Point on the south rim for a breathtaking panoramic view of the lower falls.
Other sights worth taking in are: Tower Falls, Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin (which has the iconic Morning Glory Pool), and Fountain Paint Pot. While these were my favorites, there are endless other geysers, steaming pools, and mountain vistas. You could stay a week and not see it all.
Wildlife: Normally, I would tell you to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as you cruise the park roads, but in Yellowstone, there is one species of megafauna that will be in your line of sight whether you like it or not: bison. The bison in Yellowstone are beautiful and inspiring, but they are also everywhere, including the middle of the park roads. I love these lumbering ruminants and want them protected forever, yet at times their insistence on holding up traffic can be frustrating when you are trying to follow a time schedule.
You will for sure see plenty of bison, and the chances of spying other large mammals are also excellent. Just drive at a moderate speed and keep your eyes open.
Black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, and wolves also patrol the Yellowstone wilderness, but it is the grizzly bear that terrifies and fascinates in equal measure. In the four days I spent in Yellowstone, I was only lucky enough to encounter Ursus horribilis once. A fleeting glimpse of a mother with two cubs was all I caught, but even this brief sighting thrilled me to the core.
Yellowstone National Park offers a smorgasbord of scenic delights. The park roads and well-maintained walkways and trails provide easy access to most of them, so they can be enjoyed by all ages and abilities. Whether you want to hike, fly fish, spot wildlife, or just relax in alpine beauty, there is something for everyone’s taste.