Oh, Yellowstone. You were the first true national park established in the country, beating out Yosemite. (In 1916, Yosemite was apparently a poorly-run state park, inspiring the federal government to create the NPS.) You get 4.5 million visitors every year. And while you’re beautiful and unique and worth seeing exactly once, you were a real let down.
Anyone who’s read my power rankings knows that I considered this park the least strong of the National Parks we saw this summer. While it’s great, the limited access to the volcanic areas creates tons of crowds and traffic there. If you do go, I recommend going for one day, early in the morning, and hitting as many spots as you can before it fills up. Even better, get someone else to drive you around the park. Then go see the Tetons!
Here’s the map of some places we checked out in the park. I also penciled in the famous 142-mile “figure 8” of roads connecting the 5 main entrances. The west side of the park has the volcanic hot spots and the east side of the park has more mountains, scenery, and big animals. I did hear there’s great fishing in the park at Yellowstone Lake, but we didn’t get a chance to check it out.
While the park is beautiful and has great wildlife, it’s really famous for being a giant volcano. Most of the southwest corner of the park is within the volcano’s caldera, and that’s where you see all the volcanic activity in the various geyser basins. Side note, the whole place is relatively flat, which I’m sure is part of the reason there’s so many roads everywhere.
Since the park is so popular, all the entrances, especially West Yellowstone and Gardiner, MT, get long lines by about mid-morning. Campsites fill quickly. Further, many of the volcanic areas have small parking lots that also become traffic jams by lunchtime.
It’s $30 to enter the park, but only $50 if you want a combined pass for Yellowstone and Grand Teton. There’s 12 campsites in the park, 5 can be reserved and 7 are first come first served, and fees range from $15-$27, depending on the sites. Backcountry camping permits are $3 per person per night.
On the backcountry camping topic, (warning: rant alert) we were incredibly disappointed by the rangers at the Mammoth Visitor Center. Our usual MO in a backcountry office is to walk in, tell them we’re looking to go out for 2-4 nights and like to hike about 15 miles a day, and get a recommendation based on current conditions and permit availability. It sounds crazy but it has worked EVERYWHERE. Except Yellowstone. We were told that there really aren’t many long, looping trails in the park, since most campsites are within 5-10 miles of the road and areas don’t connect with each other. Further, the rangers seemed unwilling or unable to help us figure out a good plan. Worse, the trail head to one of our campsites was currently under construction, so we had to circle around a bit to find it, and the rangers either didn’t know or didn’t mention we’d need to reroute.
Anyway, back to the positive parts… The coolest thing about Yellowstone, is seeing the four different types of volcanic activity: geysers, springs, fumaroles, and mudpots. Geysers like Old Faithful are the most famous, but the prismatic springs are more stunning. Geysers form when boiling hot springs get stuck in narrow rock spaces, creating a build up of steam and pressure, which expels water out through surface vents, creating space and cooler temperatures in the system and ending the eruption. Prismatic Springs get their color from microbes, which vary in color depending on the temperature and the pH of the water. Fumaroles are like geysers that only produce steam and mudpots are areas of boiling mud.
If you do visit, check out this great article from Outside Bozeman magazine recommending a more low key way to experience the Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin. It’s on the path to the Fairy Falls, which is mentioned as a top five day hike in the park. It was a very gentle day stroll, and you can even take your bikes along the path for the first mile, which I recommend since the hike is flat and rather boring.
Aside from the geysers, you can also see lots of big mammals in the park. Just to continue with my theme of harping on the traffic, watch out for bear-jams, when folks stop on the road to see bears, but also for actual bison blocking the road. Bison are the largest land mammals in North America. And they are goofy looking animals.
I know I usually talk about our adventures in the park, but the truth is that we were pretty frustrated with the park. We car camped at Mammoth and back country at Mallard Lake. We stopped at many geyser basins and visited a lot of boardwalk sightseeing areas. There, I took a lot of pictures of the amazing spots. Adam just walked around threatening to yell, “The whole place is going to blow”.
Overall, while our visit wasn’t the best, I know these are one of a kind volcanic sights. Everyone should probably see them once, just try to temper your expectations for the park.