Yellowstone Your Way: A First-Timer’s Tool kit
Planning a trip to see Old Faithful? Here’s what you need to know before heading off to the world’s largest collection of geysers
Tell a few people you’re going to Yellowstone National Park and you’ll suffer from information overload. Your helpful boss or mother-in-law’s idea of a good time may not match yours, and you could end up with more questions than answers.
When to arrive? Where to stay? And what are the “musts” to see? My husband, Bob, and I learned by trial and error last summer when we drove west in our Class B Sprinter motorhome.
Check your dates and bring warm clothes
My taste buds were primed for a steak-and-baked-beans cookout until I discovered that Roosevelt Lodge Corral activities had concluded on Labor Day before our Sept. 6 arrival. Most people come to Yellowstone in June, July and August, optimal weather months when the park is in full swing (and most crowded).
Campgrounds inside the park open in May or June, and begin closing as early as Sept. 1, along with some visitor services. (Mammoth entrance and campground do stay open all year, but most park roads are closed to auto travel between early November and late April.)
Snow and freezing conditions can happen any time of year, the campground staff told us. We turned on our furnace and added another layer of clothes when September’s mild days dropped into the 30s at night.
There’s no one “best” location, we learned. The park covers 3,472 square miles — more than Delaware and Rhode Island combined —with 310 miles of paved roads. Some people divide their Yellowstone nights between two or three campgrounds to cut down on drive time; others park the motorhome once and explore from a base camp.
We wanted to stay inside the park, preferably with electricity and water, so Fishing Bridge RV Park was our only option. (It has 325 paved, level back-in sites with a maximum RV length of 40 feet.) We were happy with the location along the figure-eight-shaped Grand Loop road that links many of
It was the priciest option ($50 per night in 2014) but delivered on services: full hookups (50 amp) at each site, showers and a coin laundry at the office, and groceries, fuel and LP-gas just outside the entrance. Campers park dinghy vehicles alongside their motorhomes in the double-wide sites, but slideout space is tight.
We reserved ahead online through Xanterra Parks and Resorts. The same concession operates four additional campgrounds on the Grand Loop Road: Canyon, Bridge Bay, Grant and Madison. All have some services, but no hookups, for RVs up to 40 feet and are priced between $22.50 and $27. Some sites are not level, so RVers should bring blocks. Generators are allowed.
Many RVers expand their choices and stay outside the park, adding extra driving time to reach the Grand Loop. Yellowstone Grizzly, for example, is a private campground in West Yellowstone, Mont., just four blocks from the West Entrance, that can handle large Class A’s. Henry’s Lake State Park in Idaho has water and electric sites you can reserve, as do some National Forest Service campgrounds.
Tips for Your Trip
No reservations? Come anyway
On our next trip, we might try showing up before 11 a.m. for one of seven first-come, first-served National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds, also located inside the park ($15 to $20). None have hookups or dump stations, and only Mammoth and Norris allow generator use. Many sites are suitable only for motorhomes up to 35 feet, but there are some long pull-through sites at Mammoth.
Although there’s no dispersed RV camping inside Yellowstone, a lot of public land surrounds the park. For example, Gallatin National Forest has more than a dozen campgrounds (some with electric hookups) and plenty of dispersed sites.
What about Fido?
Strategize your sightseeing
Eventually I winnowed down the overwhelming possibilities into a must-see “three G” list: grizzlies, geysers and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. After being on the road for a few weeks, we were ready to unwind. But we knew we’d be driving for long stretches on the Grand Loop where the speed limit is 45 mph or less, roads are under construction, parking lots overflow and wildlife sightings create “animal jams.”
To ease into it, I booked two bus tours that departed directly from our campground. A full-day “Circle of Fire” tour around the lower Grand Loop introduced us to thermal features and the canyon without traffic or parking hassles. A five-hour Lamar Valley Wildlife Excursion took us directly to prime animal viewing areas at sunset, and spared Bob the chore of driving through construction over Dunraven Pass and back again at dusk.
Refreshed and armed with a new grasp of the park layout, we set out early each of the following days. Starting a 50-mile drive at 7 a.m. gave us a solitary view of Hayden Valley’s trumpeter swans in the fog-bound Yellowstone River. With minimal traffic, we reached Mammoth Hot Springs ahead of the day’s crowds.
For a close-up look at the often-choppy Yellowstone Lake, we drove to Bridge Bay Marina and boarded the first boat tour of the day, when morning-calm waters mirrored the elegant 1891 Lake Hotel. Park Ranger Lydia Smith narrated with facts about the largest high-altitude lake in North America.
Stay safe out there
A sizable bison lumbered into our campground loop one afternoon like a friendly dog. But appearances are deceiving. “Bison can sprint three times faster than humans can run,” the Park Service warns. “Every year visitors are gored, and some have been killed.”
Rangers hope campers won’t join the list of those who have been harmed. Do not approach or feed wildlife, they remind us. Keep children close. Store food properly, don’t hike alone, and stay on trails and boardwalks.
Avoid falling into the thermal pools and their runoff streams by accident or on purpose, which can be fatal. Yellowstone was shaped by one of the largest volcanoes on earth and it’s still active. Excelsior Geyser, for example, pumps more than 4,000 gallons of boiling water per minute over its crater rim. Should you frolic in its steaming runoff? No. But we noticed that some folks leave common sense at home.
Prepare to be dazzled
Any one feature would be remarkable, but we found the sum of Yellowstone’s colorful parts to be spectacular. Animals roam freely; visitors spot bears, birds, elk, deer, pronghorns, wolves, bison and more. We captured my hoped-for grizzly bear our first day from a distance, through the zoom lens of a point-and-shoot camera.
I’m glad I got to see America’s best-known geyser, Old Faithful, which erupted about every 90 minutes while we were there. But many of the other 10,000 hot springs, fumaroles, bubbling mud pots and geysers were equally captivating. I loved the sparkling Fountain Geyser at Fountain Paint Pot Loop Walk and the travertine Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, which look like smoldering wedding cakes.
On park boardwalks, each visual treat led to another. Dramatic colors are determined by microorganisms or minerals (even arsenic) in the water, our tour guide explained, along with the water’s temperature, acidity and alkalinity. It was a challenge to take it all in from ground level. Grand Prismatic at Midway Geyser Basin, the park’s largest hot springs, measures about 250 to 350 feet across, with stunning orange bands fanning from a turquoise center.
Colors delighted us at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, too, the third “G” on my must-see list. From Artist Point, where visitors flock to see Lower Falls plunge 308 feet to the river, we gazed at volcanic walls tinted yellow, orange, pink and creamy white, a result of hot water and steam reacting with iron and other minerals.
Change is the only constant
Your trip might be affected by smoke or road closings and you’ll see burned trees. Fire is a natural part of the Yellowstone ecosystem that constantly changes. Mother Nature is in charge.
The NPS effects change, too, through annual updates. The 1909 Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs is undergoing a makeover and will reopen in 2015. Cellular service inside the park, currently limited to the Mammoth, Old Faithful, Canyon, Tower-Roosevelt and Grant areas, will increase soon. The NPS gave approval in 2013 permitting Verizon Wireless to build a cell tower to serve the Fishing Bridge and Lake Village developed areas.
On the evening of July 31, 2013, several dozen drenched tourists scored a unique story for the folks back home. After eight quiet years, Steamboat Geyser suddenly roared to life, shaking the ground and shooting steamy water hundreds of feet into the air for nine minutes.
Five weeks later, when we visited, the world’s tallest geyser was back to gurgling quietly on its pile of orange rocks and it might remain that way for decades. That’s part of Yellowstone’s charm. You never know what might happen.
Assume you will return
Once my short list was checked off, I headed off to see more geysers. Because I love history, I made time for the Museum of the Park Ranger and the Old Faithful Inn, a National Historic Landmark built in 1904. You may decide to hike the back country, fish for cutthroat trout, or go canoeing, biking or bird watching. Families can investigate the free Junior Ranger program for kids ages 5 to 12. The main objective: see Yellowstone your way.
It’s easy to overdo it in “wonderland,” but all 300 geysers, 290 waterfalls and 1,000 miles of back country trails probably will be around a while longer. Ask a ranger his or her favorite experiences and jot them down for your return trip.
Until then, pace yourself. Relax to the sounds of a string quartet at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel’s lounge overlooking the water. Sit on the porch roof of the Old Faithful Inn and watch the geyser erupt one more time. Step outside the motorhome and stare at the night sky. Assume you will return.
For More Information
Xanterra Parks & Resorts Campground Reservations
866-439-7375 | www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com