Yes, the crowds are oppressive. Yes, every building caters to tourists. Yes, any RV or family van in the vicinity of northwest Wyoming will end up clogging up traffic as soon as a black bear meanders near the road.
But there’s a reason tourists flock to Yellowstone National Park, and that reason has to do with the land beneath the roads. Under the soil a massive volcano sends geysers and hot springs bubbling up through the cracked earth. In the river valleys, you can meander through herds of bison hundreds strong, or maybe even catch a glimpse of a grizzly or a wolf pack. Something about the scene resonates with the awe that pioneers must have felt seeing the contours of the west for the first time, or the dignity of the native people who lived for thousands of years beside those same marvels. Yellowstone is one of the few places where the Wild West can be seen in its former ecological splendor, with some geological fireworks thrown in for good measure.
Planning a trip to Yellowstone can be overwhelming, as the park contains a diverse array of attractions. On my recent trip to the park, I found a two-day, three-night itinerary allowed time to see most of the park’s highlights.
The roads in Yellowstone create a figure-eight pattern that runs from north to south, with a few roads fingering outwards to the edge of the park. On the west side of the park sit most of the geological attractions—geysers, mud volcanoes, and hot springs—while the east side of the park contains the best wildlife viewing. Each loop of the figure eight, then, contains a good dose of both wildlife and seismic hotspots.
The first two nights in Yellowstone, my sisters and I stayed at Canyon Campground near the Canyon Village. Of the five campgrounds at Yellowstone that accepted reservations (Canyon, Bridge Bay, Madison, Fishing Bridge, and Grant), Canyon Campground seemed the best at accommodating large numbers of campers while maintaining some level of privacy. I found the facilities to be pretty impressive—the campground maintained a large Laundromat and shower rooms, and most loops contained bear-safe dishwashing stations between the male and female restrooms. The campground was also fairly well situated on the “waist” of the figure eight.
We dedicated our first full day in Yellowstone to the upper half of the park. Our first stop was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, located just below Canyon Village. We went a few miles out of our way to visit Artist’s Point at the end of the South Rim Drive. The view was inspiring—high canyon walls of orange and yellow with a river foaming beneath powerful falls. The walls of the canyon provided a good backdrop against which to see birds, such as osprey and Clark’s nutcrackers.
From Canyon, we headed north to Lamar Valley. This valley ended up being my favorite place within the park. The wide grassland creates the perfect habitat for vast numbers of bison, 2,000 of which roam in and out of the valley throughout the year. I especially enjoyed when the bison walked their calves across the road as the cars waited obligingly. The valley is also a great place to see large predators, such as wolves, grizzly, and black bears, although to get the best chance at seeing these predators you’ll want to arrive at either sunrise or dusk.
Next, we drove up to Tower Falls .The falls were pretty, but fairly crowded and not quite as scenic as some other waterfalls within the park.
From Roosevelt Tower, we drove west towards Mammoth Hot Springs. Mammoth is the scene of the park’s headquarters, and it also contains one of the park’s most consistently viewable populations of elk, which seem to favor the grassy stretch between the hotel and the post office. The hot springs just outside of Mammoth contain beautifully sculpted terraces of white minerals with streams of bright orange thermophiles.
The drive south from Mammoth Hot Springs boasted a number of types of scenery, from wetlands to rocky canyons to gently steaming hot springs. The most dramatic scene, though, was that of the Norris Basin on the western waist of the figure eight. A number of geysers and hot springs filled the basin with high columns of white steam, confusing the forest with a war zone. Of these various hotspots, Steamboat geyser is the most famous, although it is by no means as predictable as its cousin to the south. For those who seek to understand more about the workings of Norris Basin geysers, an information center stands near the parking lot.
After stopping by Norris Basin we drove back to Canyon Campground, thus completing the circle just in time for a light thunderstorm with hot chili to follow.
We started off this day by packing up camp and moving south to Lake Lewis campground, a first-come-first-serve that traded flush toilets for a nice lake and a more authentic wilderness feel. On the drive down to Lake Lewis we passed through Hayden Valley, a green river valley where I would have loved to spend more time searching for grizzlies, wolves, moose, or trumpeter swans. Sulfur Cauldron and the Mud Volcano presented some interesting, if slightly grotesque, roadside stops. We also passed by Yellowstone Lake, a large body of water that cut quite an impressive view beneath the distant mountains.
After setting up camp at Lake Lewis, we set out to discover the best-known section of the park: the lower southwest side of the figure eight, home to such big names as Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Hot Springs. This was definitely the most crowded portion of the park, and it was here that I saw the least amount of wildlife (although I understand that wildlife distribution changes as snow piles up in winter).
Old Faithful was, of course, a necessity. Everybody else in the park thought so as well, and as time neared for the eruption I had the absurd feeling that I was waiting on a parade at Disneyland. This feeling continued as my sisters and I, old pros at avoiding parking lot jams, made a beeline for our car just before the geyser finished out its “finale.” Crowds aside, the basin around Old Faithful held a number of other geysers and hot springs that proved interesting, as well as a first-rate interpretive center.
A number of other basins lined the road around Old Faithful, each with their own unique geological features. However, Grand Prismatic Hot Springs, in the Midway Geyser basin, was by far my favorite stop of the day. This hot spring, one of the largest in the world, shown a brilliant turquoise-blue in the center before moving outwards into greens, yellows, and a wide orange rim all dyed by the microscopic bodies of bacteria, algae, and thermophiles. As the day was somewhat chilly a large portion of the pool was obstructed by steam, but from a distance even the steam picked up the oranges and blues from the water below. While we saw the pool from ground level, there was also a trail from Fairy Falls that offered an elevated view of the color display.
Once we had tired ourselves out edging around geysers and hot springs, my sisters and I made our way to the boat launch area near Grant Village. Here, we spread out a blanket on the empty dock and read while the sun sank past the wind and into our skin. Our moment of relaxation complete, we headed back to Lake Lewis for a campfire meal.
Two days in Yellowstone allowed just enough time to check off all of the sites we hoped to see in the park. Had we had more time or better weather, I would have made a better commitment to hiking along the rivers, or would have stayed longer in Lamar or Hayden valley to watch for wolves or grizzlies. I also enjoyed driving south out of the park through the Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, and I would have loved to have spent some more time in that area. As it was, though, I greatly enjoyed my time in Yellowstone, crowds and all.