Yellowstone National Park is truly awesome. A volcanic, mountainous, wildlife paradise whose awesomeness is matched only by it’s size. 2.2 million acres holds a LOT of awesome. It is our family’s personal favorite place which is why we have spent over 3 months exploring the park over the last 4 years of our travels. Yellowstone keeps calling us back. And we will follow…
We took an early morning trip into the park to try to see the wolf pack in Hayden Valley. We got across the park by 6am. That morning we saw at least 6 wolves frolicking around together. Two wolves swam across a lake after standing on the shore howling for a while. One of those wolves passed by us about 50 feet away. While we were ejoying the wolves a grizzly bear came along and plodded around a green hillside for about 45 minutes, digging for grubs not 100 yards away from us. After all of this we headed home only to come across a large male moose in plain sight not 25 yards from the road. This was an exceptional morning and we have the “National Geographic” level footage to show for it. We were home by noon for lunch! This kind of adventure keeps us coming back to Yellowstone.
Yellowstone was Americas first National Park and with good reason. There is so much variety here. In fact to describe this park as one place almost does it a disservice. It could easily be several National Parks- each different from the rest.
There are the thermal areas- with their geysers blasting hot water and steam and their pools with rainbow colors- so beautiful that you have the terrible urge to dive in, but the Park Rangers say no, so you don’t. Then there is of course, the fact that you would melt and then dissolve.
There is the 136 square mile Yellowstone Lake which is ginormous and pristine and has over 140 miles of coastline to explore.
There are the rivers and waterfalls cutting through the park and creating spectacular eye popping views. There are the fertile valleys, which roll for miles, bracketed by dramatic mountains and cliffs.
And then there is the wildlife…ohhh the wildlife. For wildlife viewing we have not found another place to rival this park. Finding Yellowstone National Park animals is fairly easy. Huge herds of American Bison and Rocky Mountain Elk can be easily seen on almost any drive through the park. Several species of deer can be seen throughout. If you are lucky you may also spot a moose – we did!
Grizzly and Black Bear are regularly encountered. Recently re-introduced Grey Wolves are growing in numbers and are regularly seen by those who know where to look. Just ask around- you’ll find your way. Coyotes are also seen following the larger herds.
Deer, Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Goats also inhabit the park as do several species of large cats- although much less frequently spotted. Most people who DO spot them…are eaten!
There are also over 300 species of birds including large raptors like Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles as well as the largest population of inland Cutthroat Trout in the country, for which anglers flock each year.
Yellowstone can be visited throughout the year, although vehicle access is severely limited during the winter months- ya know- on account of the 975 feet of snow! Outside the road from the North Entrance (Gardiner, MT) to the Northeast Entrance (Cooke City MT)which is plowed, all other entrances into the park and roads are closed. Travel into the park in winter is done by snowmobile or snowcoach.
The entrance fee is $35 per vehicle or $30 per motorcycle. If you plan to visit another National Park, do yourself a favor and buy an annual pass – you will save a fortune!
There are 5 entrances – one for each direction of the compass, with 2 on the northern boundary. Available services vary at the different entrances. Which entrance is best really depends on what parts of the park you want to visit and what kind of accomodation and services you want around.
The West Entrance is the busiest as it gives the quickest access to Old Faithful Geyser, the parks most famous sight. There is a thriving, yet still small (and VERY) tourist driven town of West Yellowstone at the parks entrance with lots of places to stay, camping, and shopping/restaurants.
Do yourself a favor and steer clear of the busy, yet awful tasting pizza place and walk a little further down to the Slippery Otter Pub and enjoy a bite for dinner. We had burgers and even tried a bison burger and boy were they good.
The North Entrance has the town of Gardiner and runs into the uber thermal Mammoth Hot Springs which has it’s own nice little town. There are also many places to stay and eat. (HINT- there is a herd of elk that inhabit the town of Mammoth Springs during the summer.)
The Northeast entrance from Cooke City MT heads right through the Lamar Valley which is a very popular area for spotting a LOT of wildlife- Bison, Elk, Wolves, Mountain Goats etc. Cooke City is very small, but open year around. It is best known for its connection to the Beartooth Highway which is one of Americas most scenic drives. The Beartooth Highway does close in the winter.
The East entrance enters from Cody WY (53 miles away) and heads along the Shoshone River to the top of Yellowstone Lake and to the popular areas of Fishing Bridge, Hayden Valley, and West Thumb. There is the town of Wapiti is about 25 miles out of the park and offers quite a few places to stay- mainly fishing related as the river runs right through the town. But there are some very nice lodges there.
The South Entrance has no real town around it, but it does connect directly into the Grand Teton National Park, so you can see both parks easily from that location. There is a lodge with cabins and a campground near the entrance to the park. The South Entrance will take you in to West Thumb and Yellowstone Lake, and is also good for visiting Old Faithful and the Geyser Basins.
There is a LOT to do within Yellowstone National Park. With such a large footprint and so much to see, simply driving around is certainly a viable option. There are so many roadside stops, viewpoints, amazing vistas and roadside animal sightings, you really never have to leave your car. But for those who are adventurous enough to get out of the Prius, there is a whole world of things to see and do.
Yellowstone offers a huge variety of hiking trails covering over 900 miles. There is certainly something for everyone. Day use trail hiking is open to the public and does not require a permit.
Backcountry hiking and camping are also available with permits. Fees are $3/person/night. Reservations for many of the 300 campsites are a very good idea during the busier times of the year (summer months). When hiking in Yellowstone always carry bear spray and be very careful.
There are a number of fairly short designated biking trails scattered throughout the park. Biking is also allowed on all public roads and parking areas. However, there are NO BIKE PATHS and the roads are narrow, so be advised. During the summer there can be a TON of traffic and the last thing people are looking for in Yellowstone- is bicycles!
Boating, canoeing or kayaking in Yellowstone’s many lakes can be a wonderful and relaxing way to enjoy the scenery, or catch some yummy fish. Permits ( $5-$10) and inspections are required for both motorized and nonmotorized boats backcountry permit is required for all overnight trips.
Yellowstone offers tremendous photography opportunities for both professional and amateur photographers. Stunning vistas around every corner and ample wildlife sightings make for fabulous photographic mementos. Just make sure you are careful when getting that one of a kind selfie. If you do end up on the end of a bison horn, it’s on you, dude! Many deaths and injuries occur each year from people getting too close to the wildlife, or too close to the edge. Be safe! OH, and NO DRONES ALLOWED!!! Thank you, Yellowstone.
Yellowstone has a fantastic Ranger Program that runs year around. From educational lectures, to informal meetups along the trails, to Guided hikes, there are ample opportunities to meet and talk to the parks Rangers. They are super cool, friendly and very knowledgeable. The Junior Ranger Program is also a worthwhile endeavor while you are in the park as well. You will learn a lot, and even get a badge at the end. Our kids just beam with pride when they get to hang out with a Park Ranger and they have collected all of the patches and their badges.
Oh, in case you forgot, all of this AWESOMENESS sits on top of a MASSIVE VOLCANO. It is so big that a full scale eruption would cover the western US in 3 feet of ash and send an ash cloud around the globe. But don’t fret- it is not due to erupt for at least another couple of hundred thousand years.
So while we are waiting, why not take advantage of the over 10000 geothermal hot spots that are currently visible for you to enjoy. The most famous- Old Faithful gets most of the attention, but there are so many more hot springs, fumaroles, and geysers that are so cool to see. Many are right along the roads and have boardwalks to take you to the best viewpoints. No swimming, please!
OK, so fishing sounds like a strange pastime in a park that is based on conservation, however the anglers in Yellowstone actually do a great deal to help out with the conservation efforts of the 16 species of fish found here, especially the world famous Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. Many of the rivers here are quite wide and quite shallow, making the park a haven for fly fishermen. West Yellowstone alone has about 947 fly fishing shops. Did I exaggerate?
As mentioned earlier, Yellowstone National Park is home to a huge variety of wildlife, and many are very easy to encounter. The easiest way is to just drive around and look out your window. Bison are nearly everywhere in the park, depending on the time of year. Elk in large numbers are also easy to find. With a little luck you may come across a “bear jam.” That is a traffic jam caused by a bear sighting near the road. Just park and follow the crowd. Then quickly size up who you can outrun should the bear charge. See this article on When Where and How to see Yellowstone National Park Animals.
Simply driving through this amazing park is an amazing way to enjoy the scenery and have several animal encounters. From our car we have seen bears, bison, elk, deer, coyote, moose and many more. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but a driving tour is not a bad way to go- especially if you are short on time.
Yellowstone is well traveled and therefore well supported by all kinds of tourism operators. There are guided tour options for almost ALL of the activities listed above. There is a good list on the Park Website.
In or near Yellowstone there is accommodation for everybody. As mentioned above, depending on which entrance you wish to use, there are varying amounts of accommodation available. Summer months fill up fast, so book early…like 3 years early…
There are 9 lodges within the confines of the park itself. They are located at all of the main road intersections. Only Mammoth and Old Faithful Lodges stay open in the winter. The 9 locations total 2000 rooms. Book WELL in advance if you wish to stay inside the park.
RVing and camping at Yellowstone is huge. There are 12 campgrounds inside the park which total 2000 sites. These campgrounds were developed some time ago, so only one park (Fishing Bridge) has hookups. Larger rigs as well are a bit of a problem. 5 of the campgrounds are reservable and the rest are FCFS.
Outside the park there is very good support for campers with multiple options outside any entrance. The best campground we have found is at Henrys Lake State Park in nearby Idaho.
So there is just about everything you need to know about Yellowstone National Park. If this park is not on your bucket list, you are missing out. Make this one a priority – you won’t be disappointed and best of all, the kids might actually put their gadgets down!
Have you visited Yellowstone National Park? What was your favorite thing to see?
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