More than 3 million people from all over the world visited the world’s very first national park last year, but many in Utah only need to drive half a day to see the natural wonders of Yellowstone. Home to half of the planet’s geothermal features, large wild animals like elk, buffalo, wolves and bears, and beautiful rivers, lakes, waterfalls, forests, canyons and mountains, Yellowstone is full of opportunities to make memories that will last a lifetime.
Things to see and do
Wildlife can be found throughout the park, but one of the best places to find grizzly bears, bison and elk is Hayden Valley. The highway from the Yellowstone Lake area to Canyon runs along the western side of this valley. Other good spots include Pelican Valley, which is three miles east of Fishing Bridge, and Lamar Valley, which is about four miles east of the Tower-Roosevelt area. Coyotes are also plentiful in these regions, and they are good places to find larger birds such as bald eagles, cranes, northern harriers and white pelicans.
Many of the park’s larger animals are most active at dawn and dusk, so getting up early or going out in the evening can be especially rewarding if you’re trying to view wildlife. Consider bringing a spotting scope, binoculars or high-zoom camera, as many animals will keep a considerable distance and may be difficult to see with the naked eye. Follow park rules for keeping your distance from wild animals — nothing would ruin a vacation quicker than being gored by a bison or attacked by a bear. Bison especially may seem docile and slow but can be suddenly startled or agitated and can run more than 30 mph despite weighing as much as a ton.
For geyser viewing, you can’t go wrong with Old Faithful and the surrounding area. Old Faithful erupts approximately every 90 minutes, spewing thousands of gallons of water and reaching a height of up to 184 feet. Park rangers can accurately predict the intervals between eruptions for this and five other geysers in the park, and schedules can be found posted near Old Faithful or you can ask a ranger for more information.
Besides geysers, which shoot water into the air, Yellowstone is home to thousands of other geothermal features such as gargling mud pots, colorful hot springs and steaming vents called fumaroles. Most of these hydrothermal attractions are grouped together in basins where heat from underground magma brings hot water and steam to the surface. Many of these basins have easily accessible walkways weaving through the natural wonders. Most have pamphlets available to purchase or borrow that describe the various features and the history of the area. Geothermal areas are scattered throughout Yellowstone — pick up a map from the ranger station as you enter the park or check out one online before you go.
Be prepared for unexpected traffic delays during trips through the park. Periodic construction or accidents can cause congestion, and vehicles frequently stop in the road to view wildlife. On a recent July afternoon, a herd of bison blocked a major thoroughfare for more than three hours, backing up traffic for miles. While major delays are rare, it may be a good idea to keep water and snacks accessible in your car and be flexible with your schedule. You can also avoid being part of the problem by pulling completely off the road when viewing or photographing wildlife or scenery.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a breathtaking gorge in the northeast quarter of the park. Carved by the Yellowstone River and tinged by altered iron content from previous hydrothermal activity, the canyon is believed to be the source of the Yellowstone name. Views of the chasm are a short walk from parking lots on either the north or south sides of the canyon. Hikes to the river and overlooks near the 109-foot-high Upper Falls or the 308-foot-high Lower Falls are much more strenuous. If you venture off the paved path and along either the North or South Rim trails, you will be treated to more spectacular vistas and a measure of solitude. This is true of much of the park — few visitors stray far from the main roads and paved access points, so taking the less-beaten path is often peaceful and highly rewarding.
Just north of the Canyon area is Mount Washburn, home to bighorn sheep and beautiful wildflowers in the summer. The 10,243-foot-high peak can be reached fairly easily from the trailhead at the end of Chittenden Road, which is located roughly midway between Canyon Village and Tower-Roosevelt.
Fishing is allowed in most areas of the park, but be aware of regulations and limits. Leaded tackle is not allowed, and a Yellowstone National Park fishing permit is required for anyone age 16 or older. Barbless hooks must be used at all times, and native species are catch and release only. Non-native fish, such as brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout and lake trout, can be kept in certain areas but must be released in other areas. The native cutthroat in particular is prized by anglers as a good sport fish, but is strictly protected from harvesting due to its dwindling numbers within the park. A PDF pamphlet on Yellowstone fishing regulations can be found at http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/fishdates.htm.
Motorized boats are allowed on Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake, and non-motorized boats such as kayaks, canoes and float tubes are allowed on most of the park’s lakes with a few exceptions. The only easily accessible lakes are Yellowstone, Lewis and Shoshone — the others essentially require you to hike in with your boat. Recreational activities that involve towing, such as water skiing, wakeboarding and parasailing, are not allowed, nor are personal watercraft. A permit is required for all vessels and can be purchased at offices near the lakes and elsewhere in the park.
When to go
Most public roads in Yellowstone are open from May 1 to Nov. 1. The National Park Service website features a road information page (http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/roads.htm) that contains up-to-date details on road construction and seasonal closures.
Winter can be an exciting time to visit as well. Although many roads are closed, snowmobile and snowcoach tours are available from private operators, and the park can also be accessed via snowshoe or cross-country skis as well. A list of winter transportation providers is available at http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/wintbusn.htm.
Where to stay
A number of lodging options are available within the park, including tent and RV camping, private cabins, lodge rooms and luxury suites. Cabins, hotel rooms and a number of the campsites are operated by Xanterra Parks and Resorts and can be reserved ahead of time online (http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com) or by calling 1-866-439-7375. Try to make reservations as early as possible, especially if you plan on staying during summer months, as facilities fill up quickly.
There are several campsites within Yellowstone that cannot be reserved ahead of time, and are therefore excellent for last-minute trips. These include the Mammoth, Norris, Lewis Lake, Pebble Creek, Tower Fall, Slough Creek and Indian Creek campsites. Your best bet for these is to arrive as early as possible on a Monday or a Tuesday, if possible. Checkout is by 11 a.m., but many campers may leave before then. If you arrive in the late afternoon or on a weekend, you may find the only spots left are at the more remote, less-shady campgrounds, or there may be none left at all.
For Utah residents, West Yellowstone, Mont., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Island Park, Idaho, offer the most easily accessed out-of-park lodging. West Yellowstone offers the quickest daily access to the park, as the west entrance is literally one minute east of town. Island Park is a half hour southwest of West Yellowstone and is somewhat smaller with more cabins and fewer hotel options. Jackson has substantially more lodging available than either but is close to an hour and a half away from the south entrance of the park. If you don’t mind the drive, you can enjoy the scenery of Grand Teton National Park on your way to Yellowstone. Just remember that many of Yellowstone’s attractions are an hour or more further from the south entrance, so you will be spending a considerable amount of time in the car.