National Parks – Yellowstone
Is that a black bear or a brown bear? And remind me, which color are grizzlies?
Either way, we need to respect his space….
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is one of the quintessential destinations for any National Park tour. The shear size of the park is inspiring. The wildlife is majestic. The hydrothermal pools are colorful and alluring. You could spend a lifetime exploring here and still have more to experience.
We spent 6 nights in the park split between Mammoth Hot Springs and Grant Village. Faced with the daunting task of trip planning, we decided to book a hiking tour through the Yellowstone Association. The Yellowstone Association is a non-profit affiliated with the park, funding specific projects in the park that will benefit the wild residents and make visits more enjoyable for their human visitors. We joined the tour for two reasons: first being that it guaranteed 4 nights in the virtually sold out park lodging and second we knew we could learn a lot from an experienced guide.
Early mornings are prime feeding times in Hayden Meadow – alongside the Grand Loop road. First morning out the door and we spot our first bear. The tour guide provided binoculars and had 3 high power viewing scopes. Without these, it doesn’t really make sense to spend time actively searching for wildlife. Most of the animals’ time is spent off in the wild away from the tourist areas.
Wildlife rule number one – if you can get a good photo with your phone, then you are WAY too close (and probably breaking the law). Camera phones are pretty limited in what they can accomplish so relax and enjoy the view.
Wildlife rule number two – don’t stop to take photos unless you can pull the car completely off the road and won’t endanger the animals.
Luckily, with our guide as van driver, it was possible to get some shots of animals as we carefully drove past them.
At first we thought it was just a brown rock. Then he twitched. This bear was busy sleeping off a big meal – on top of the carcass – keeping his leftovers safe from other critters.
A great trick our group discovered was to put a camera phone up to the scope to get some close-ups of the wildlife. It was a bit tricky and none of these photos will win prizes but they are fun vacation memories.
Sad to say but the novelty of the bear siting wore off fairly soon (he was sleeping after all) and we moved on to our first hike.
I was surprised at the care the guides took when we did come across wildlife – especially the bison. We detoured quickly and quietly twice on the way to our lunch spot at the confluence of Hellroaring Creek and the Yellowstone River. These guides weren’t messing around when it came to safety.
Another advantage to the guided hikes was in-depth, local knowledge. This osprey nest was located off the regular trail and high on a ledge overlooking the Yellowstone River. Being spring, we saw the avian homebuilder flying overhead returning with more building materials.
Two fellow tour members work at the Audubon Society – although they were quick to point out that they were not ornithologists. Didn’t matter to us, they both knew a lot about birds and birding. This made for fun stops to watch waterfowl like these beautiful ducks, swans and my personal favorites, pelicans plus the guide’s usual stops for hidden raven nests. We would have missed all of these had we been traveling on our own.
Old Faithful may seem cliche and overcrowded – but it is still fun to go experience the spectacle. After Old Faithful erupts, go explore the trails in this part of the park. You can get much closer to several geysers that rival their more famous neighbor.
Ranger stations will have time estimates for the major geyser stops along the trails. You can build a complete day of hiking between the stops and trails in the surrounding hills.
The Grand Prismatic Spring offers a rainbow of colorful features within the park’s largest hot spring. Chemicals in the water react with the changing water temperatures and microbes to create fascinating panoramas. The boardwalks provide family-friendly viewing. If you have time, hike some of the trails along the periphery to catch the turquoise colors that vary throughout the day.
For our lunch stop on this day, we hiked to Fairy Falls along a beautiful trail through woods scarred by fires.
If you are a little more intrepid – keep hiking along the trail to Imperial Geyser. The geyser eruption is near continuous and you’ll most likely have the place to yourselves. (This also means to take bear precautions along the trail.)
The breadth of landscapes within Yellowstone is astonishing. Our hikes took us on wooded trails, along rocky shorelines and atop canyon ridges. See it all or choose only your favorite setting in this expansive park. As the National Park Service is marketing, you can truly “Find Your Park” within Yellowstone.
The sheer size of the park makes the lodges a wonderful convenience for maximizing time actually in the park. If you are traveling with kids, some pre-planning and hotel hopping can dramatically reduce transit time. Anticipating that you can’t see it all will keep expectations in line with having happy campers in the car! Pick a couple must-sees and consider any additional stops as bonus.
For example, a stay outside the park in West Yellowstone on the night of your arrival can save some dollars before you enter the park. The next day can be spent exploring the Old Faithful area before staying at the lodge or in Grant Village that evening. The following morning you are ready to move on to the Canyon area without a two hour commute back in to the park. One or two more nights in the park rounding out the loop to Mammoth Hot Springs will provide some wonderful, lasting memories. A day or two finishing out the trip back at hotels outside the park swimming in the hotel pool can make for a cost effective, kid-friendly vacation.
Assume you won’t have cell coverage throughout most of the park. Verizon has the best coverage. AT&T was very spotty. Internet is available at some of the lodges but can get expensive since you pay by device for 1, 24 and 72 hour increments. This is an ongoing debate for the National Parks – they really want visitors to be outside and unplugged to truly experience the parks in their natural glory. But, for people like us who aren’t on a traditional vacation, not having access is a problem.
A week in the park gave us a brief overview of Yellowstone’s highlights. It’s well worth a visit and with some pre-planning you’ll be able to make the most of your time in this wonderfully varied landscape.
Watch for an upcoming post that will cover more in-depth some trip planning tools that could help make your National Park visits even more memorable.
What are your Yellowstone memories?