In 2009 when Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan premiered their Emmy award winning documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” I was riveted to the screen every Sunday night of its run. All of the parks are beautiful in their own way and I hope to someday make it to all of them, but when it came time to start checking off that list I began with Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, America’s first park.
The park’s sights are accessible from the 140 mile long Grand Loop which is the road that forms a figure eight through the park with picnic areas, overlooks, hiking trails and tourist stops along the way. The Lower Grand Loop is where all the famous tourist sites are: The Grand Prismatic Lake, Old Faithful Inn and Geyser and the Hayden Valley to name a few. It’s also prone to what park officials refer to as “animal jams.” That boils down to everyone pulling over for large animal activity; a herd of bison crossing the road, elk grazing or a moose or bear in the distance. The Upper Grand Loop is another story. It’s a scenic drive that is dramatically different from the geography of the lower loop. The views are sweeping, the roads are winding, the grades are steep and you feel transported to an old movie reel. There are no villages dotting the landscape, no sidebars to civilization. You see what was seen in the late 1800’s when the land was first explored by settlers. You are looking at the land that the Native Americans made their home on for 12 thousand years before the settlers arrived. It’s difficult to come up with superlatives to describe it. It’s the slower side of Yellowstone that Teddy Roosevelt loved with uncrowded overlooks, lots of open parking and a feeling of utter awe.
Yellowstone was founded in 1872 when early conservationists recognized the need to protect its wild beauty for future generations. I am so glad they did! Its 2 million acres and over 3 thousand square miles of forests and prairies are filled with the things that inspire artists, cause people to take stock of what’s important and compel us to promise to return again and again. A record 4,257,178 visitors toured this beautiful park in 2016. That may cause you to pause and wonder if any amount of natural beauty is worth navigating the teaming masses of tourists and I’m here to tell you that the answer is, “Yes!” Here are my tips for navigating Yellowstone.
- Plan ahead. The park has 12 campgrounds. Five are run by a concessionaire and take reservations. The other 7 are run by the NPS and are offered on a first come, first serve basis. I wanted a guaranteed spot and camped at Fishing Bridge, the only campground in the park with full hook ups. I made my reservations in January for a July vacation. The site was very reasonable at $47.50 a night but it was really just a parking lot with no campfires or even picnic tables. The NPS sites that I toured while there were quite large and grassy and offered fire rings and bear lockers for your food. These sites allow tents and generators and have a maximum stay of 14 nights in the park during the peak season of July 1- Sept 14.
- Study the maps ahead of time and prioritize the things you want to see. Try and go to the big things very early in the morning. The roads begin to get congested by 10:00 AM and parking is a real issue at peak season. We did the big tourist things like the Grand Prismatic Lake first thing in the morning and then did the less crowded things later on in the day when traffic is high and parking is a real problem.
- Pack a lunch! The food is typical concession stand fare, expensive and the lines are so long. We took the Dometic travel refrigerator that plugs into the car battery and it was a life saver. We didn’t have to search for ice all the time or clean up soggy food from the melted ice in a cooler and we always had cold drinks. Each day we were able to find a scenic picnic spot and enjoy leftovers from the night before. So civilized!
- Be prepared for any weather. There were mornings that started in the high 20’s and reached into the high 80’s by days end. The sun can be shining one minute and the next minute it is pouring rain. Pack jackets and rain gear in your car when you leave for the day.
- Get advice from the Park Rangers. The Rangers are so knowledgeable and gave us some great tips. One Ranger told us to travel the lower loop in a counter clockwise pattern because most people do it in a clock wise pattern! The Rangers know the best times to see things, the hard to find trail heads and the favorite fishing holes. They can tell you where moose or bear have been spotted recently and how to get the best view of something. They are at your service.
- Rent bear spray. I bought it online ahead of time and was sorry I did because I don’t think it was the best brand. All of the park’s General Stores rent it and show you how to use the can. Chances are the next time you need it, the store-bought can would be expired anyway.
- Wear proper shoes! You know how Grandma had sensible shoes? Well, Yellowstone is not the place to make a fashion statement with your footwear. The trails are lumpy and bumpy and gravel strewn. I can’t count the number of times that I witnessed someone in sandals pouring water from a water bottle over a cut or blister on their flip flop shod foot. I came off the Brink of the Lower Falls Trail and had to take my hiking boots off and shake out the gravel! Don’t let a bad shoe choice ruin your vacation.
- Be patient. The park is crowded in the summer and it belongs to everyone. It’s a huge thrill to see a bison inches from your car. No one is in a big hurry to pull away from that. Most people were very considerate, took a few pictures and moved on so other people could enjoy the experience. Don’t be that person blowing the horn!
- Please take seriously the park’s warnings that bison and other large animals are not socialized animals in a petting zoo. Despite the copious warnings to stay 75 yards away I saw people over and over approach a sitting bull bison to take its picture! You don’t want to make the news by being a cautionary tale.
- Lastly, bring binoculars! I wished at least a dozen times that I had! I wished it when the osprey was feeding her chicks at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I wished it when the moose was on the Hayden Valley grasslands. I wished it when the elk came to graze on the Alpine Lake overlook in Mammoth Hot Springs!! I think I know what I’m asking Santa for this year!!