Yellowstone National Park is truly a fascinating and surreal place, covering a vast 2.2 million acres. Picture bubbling mud pots, hot pools with rainbow hues, and over 500 geysers, some of which occasionally spit out unexpected items like cinderblocks and decades-old pacifiers. Amidst this natural spectacle, you’ll encounter elk, bighorn sheep, and massive 1,000-pound bison that could toss you into the air without a second thought.
But here’s the twist – the people who visit Yellowstone are just as peculiar. More than 4 million individuals from all corners of the globe flock to the park each year, causing traffic jams with mile-long queues of cars stuck behind bears on the park’s narrow roads. Some visitors take their wildlife interactions to the extreme, from petting bison to challenging them to duels, attempting to load them into cars, and even relieving themselves directly into the famous Old Faithful geyser. Fortunately, the park has its own jail to handle such incidents.
Despite the chaos caused by some visitors, Yellowstone has maintained its status as an iconic representation of the American West since President Ulysses S. Grant designated it the country’s first national park in 1872. Stretching across the northwest corner of Wyoming and reaching into parts of Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone’s sheer size allows for an unspoiled experience if you plan wisely.
Beyond being home to the largest concentration of geothermal features globally, Yellowstone stands out as one of the most ecologically diverse parks. Wolves, reintroduced in 1995, have not only thrived but played a crucial role in revitalizing the ecosystem, becoming a major attraction for tourists. The park offers exceptional opportunities for fishing and paddling on its vast lakes and boasts over 900 miles of trails that lead through mountain ridges, past thundering waterfalls, and into remote geyser basins where encountering another soul is a rarity – a stark contrast to the common belief that fewer than 10 percent of tourists venture more than a mile from the paved parking lots.
What You Should Know Before Your Visit
1. Bring the Right Gear
For a comprehensive Yellowstone experience, having a spotting scope or good binoculars is essential. Often referred to as America’s Serengeti, the park teems with wildlife, from herds of bison and elk to other charismatic megafauna. If you’re not keen on investing in expensive equipment, you can easily rent spotting scopes or telephoto camera lenses from stores in West Yellowstone or Gardiner, Montana. And when you encounter fellow wildlife watchers, remember to approach them politely and ask about what they’re observing.
2. Brace Yourself for Summer Crowds
July and August see around 43 percent of Yellowstone’s annual visitors, translating to approximately 1.78 million people. The popular spots like Old Faithful and the West Thumb and Norris Geyser Basins can get crowded, with Old Faithful often drawing crowds four people deep. Plan to visit these spots early in the morning, and for a quieter experience, head to the backcountry during midday when the crowds thin. The east shore of Yellowstone Lake, accessible via the Thorofare Trail, provides a serene escape.
3. Tailor Your Hikes to Thermal Features
Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, owes much of its fame to its thermal features. Despite the crowds at Old Faithful, exploring the Upper Geyser Basin is a must. Catch the awe-inspiring eruptions of Grand Geyser and Riverside in the same visit. Keep an eye on estimated eruption times posted online or at the visitor’s center. Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin, with the world’s tallest plume, is exceptionally active. Spotting Geyser Gazers running towards Steamboat is a good indicator of an impending eruption.
How to Get There?
Yellowstone is firmly in the grip of the automotive industrial complex, with no public transportation available within the park. You can access Yellowstone through one of its five entrances: West Yellowstone, Montana; Grand Teton National Park to the south; Cody, Wyoming, to the east; Cooke City, Montana, to the northeast; and Gardiner to the north. The major airports closest to the park are Bozeman, Montana, to the north, and Jackson, Wyoming, to the south. Yellowstone’s 466 miles of paved roads make high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles unnecessary.
Best Time to Visit Yellowstone National Park
Most of the park’s roads close from late fall to late spring due to snow and subzero temperatures. However, park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs and Highway 212 from Mammoth to Cooke City remain open year-round. The Lamar Valley, accessible via Highway 212, is excellent for wildlife watching. In mid-December, oversnow travel by skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, or snowcoaches becomes available. Only two hotels, Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins, remain open during winter, but camping is permitted with a free backcountry permit.
March and April offer the best chances to see bears emerging from hibernation and bison and elk calving. In May, wolf pups make their first appearances. Park roads begin opening around April 20, depending on conditions, but some facilities may not open until May, and higher-elevation areas and campgrounds may remain closed until June. Expect fewer crowds in spring, with temperatures ranging from 30 to 60 degrees during the day and dropping to single digits at night.
Summer is peak season, and around 70 percent of Yellowstone’s 300 backcountry campsites are reservable by mail from April 1. The remaining sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis up to 48 hours in advance ($3 to $15 per person). Plan ahead, as rooms in the park’s nine hotels are often booked a year in advance. Afternoon thunderstorms are common, with average temperatures around 70 degrees.
Fall is the ideal time to visit Yellowstone. With diminished crowds and mosquitoes, animals are more active, engaging in rutting behaviors and preparing for winter. September offers crisp weather, while October may bring snow. Temperature ranges are similar to spring.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park?
In the Park
Yellowstone’s nine hotels, offering over 2,000 rooms and cabins, are managed by concessionaire Xanterra. The Lake Yellowstone Hotel, the park’s oldest and most upscale, provides a historic experience. The Old Faithful Inn, also on the National Historic Register, boasts the title of the largest log structure globally. Camping is an option, with 12 campgrounds offering 2,178 sites ($15 to $30). Five campgrounds, including Pebble Creek and Slough Creek in the Lamar Valley, are reservable.
Beyond the Park
Sage Lodge, opened in 2018, provides a stylish alternative just a 35-minute drive north from the park. Situated on a 1,200-acre ranch overlooking the Yellowstone River, Sage Lodge focuses on activities such as fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and culinary experiences. Pet-friendly and equipped with a spa, the lodge offers a luxurious retreat.
Activities in Yellowstone
Hiking opportunities in Yellowstone are diverse, ranging from easy walks to challenging trails. Short walks like the Mystic Falls Trail near Biscuit Basin and the Wraith Falls Trail near Mammoth Hot Springs provide stunning views without requiring a full day. The Seven-Mile Hole Trail in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone offers a challenging full-day hike.
Spring is the ideal time to bike Yellowstone’s roads before they open to cars. The park allows biking on established roads, and the spring shoulder season ensures fewer vehicles. The 12-mile stretch from Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris Geyser Basin provides a scenic ride.
For a unique perspective of Yellowstone, paddle to Shoshone Lake Geyser Basin. Accessible only by water, this three-day adventure takes you through serene landscapes and offers the chance to witness geothermal features from a different angle.
4. Horseback Riding
To add a touch of the Old West to your Yellowstone experience, consider a horseback riding trip. Guided rides are available, and you can explore picturesque areas like the Lamar Valley.
Wildlife Programs with Yellowstone Forever
For wildlife enthusiasts, Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit supporting park research and educational programs, offers guided wildlife programs year-round. These programs delve into the park’s ecosystem, and specialized events like the winter Lamar Valley Wolf Week provide unique insights into the lives of Yellowstone’s inhabitants.
1. Culinary Experiences
When it comes to dining, Yellowstone’s eateries prioritize quantity over gourmet quality due to the high volume of visitors. However, sustainability is a focus, with 60 percent of food purchases incorporating eco-friendly attributes. For more diverse and upscale dining options, consider exploring eateries outside the park, such as the Grill at Sage Lodge or the Wonderland Café in Gardiner.
2. Side Trips
If you find yourself with extra time, a detour to Chico Hot Springs, an hour north of the park, offers a relaxing soak and a dose of local history. Alternatively, Grand Teton National Park, just 6.9 miles south of Yellowstone, provides another opportunity for exploration, with its iconic jagged peaks and pristine lakes. The Beartooth Highway, northeast of Yellowstone, offers a scenic drive through towering mountains, glaciers, and alpine lakes.
The Yellowstone Supervolcano: Separating Fact from Fiction
Now, let’s address the looming question: What if the Yellowstone supervolcano actually erupted? While the idea is indeed apocalyptic, the likelihood of such an event is very low. Yellowstone’s supervolcano has had only three massive eruptions in its history, with the last one occurring 664,000 years ago. There’s no indication of an imminent super-eruption, and even smaller eruptions are rare.
In a hypothetical scenario of a super-eruption, the consequences would be severe. Ash could spread for thousands of miles, damaging buildings, crops, and shutting down power plants. However, the odds of this happening are incredibly slim. Yellowstone has been behaving normally for the past 140 years, and there’s a possibility it might never have another large eruption. The Earth’s long timeline and the slow migration of the volcanic hotspot beneath Yellowstone suggest that even if an eruption occurs, it could be on a much smaller scale.
While the potential for a Yellowstone super-eruption captures our imagination, the reality is that such an event is highly unlikely. Yellowstone National Park remains a captivating destination for those seeking a connection with nature, diverse wildlife, and the allure of the American West. So, pack your bags, plan wisely, and embark on an adventure to experience the wonders of Yellowstone.