This summer some three million folks will stream into Yellowstone National Park. They’ll bring with them more than a million cars and RVs, causing periodic traffic jams. Their children will cry in public places, and a not-small number of them will spend less time looking at scenery than at the screens of their digital cameras. So why would anybody want to join the country’s biggest tourist throng? Simple: Because Yellowstone, aside from being America’s first national park, has all the goods for the classic American summer vacation. From its geysers to its gargantuan waterfalls, the park’s natural highlights are worth braving the crowds. Though if you know where to look, you’ll find solitude here, too. By Brian Kevin
This summer some three million folks will stream into Yellowstone National Park. They’ll bring with them more than a million cars and RVs, causing periodic traffic jams. Their children will cry in public places, and a not-small number of them will spend less time looking at scenery than at the screens of their digital cameras. So why would anybody want to join the country’s biggest tourist throng? Simple: Because Yellowstone, aside from being America’s first national park, has all the goods for the classic American summer vacation. From its geysers to its gargantuan waterfalls, the park’s natural highlights are worth braving the crowds. Though if you know where to look, you’ll find solitude here, too.
5…Smell the sulfur, feel the spray
The Upper Geyser Basin surrounding Old Faithful Village contains a full one-quarter of the world’s geysers, plus a mess of colorful hot springs and the reliable namesake spouter itself. Old Faithful erupts every hour to hour-and-a-half on a complex cycle, spraying water an average of 150 feet and sprinkling onlookers on the observation deck. Rangers post predictions for Old Faithful and other consistent geysers in the temporary visitor center (307-344-2750) — a new, amped-up interpretive facility opens in August.
Intense heat from subterranean magma pools makes Yellowstone’s thermal features possible, and geysers occur when hot, pressurized water escapes from underground chambers like soda from a shaken-up bottle. Predicting eruptions is tricky, and a serious geyser-gazer could stroll the boardwalks all summer without seeing every one erupt. Don’t miss highlights like Beehive Geyser, with its 200-foot spray, and Castle Geyser, surrounded by a huge cone made from dissolved mineral deposits.
The 107-year-old Old Faithful Inn looms above the basin like a feudal castle. Its six-story lobby, made from hundreds of pine beams and ornately carved logs, is one of the park’s most photographed spots. The inn is also Yellowstone’s most popular lodging, so expect to book a year in advance (866 439 7375, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com, $96–$231 a night). Even non-guests can grab a table on the second-floor balcony to watch Old Faithful erupt — you’ll avoid the crowds, and you can sip a cocktail from the lobby bar.
4…The other Grand Canyon
The seemingly bottomless Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River follows the east leg of the Upper Grand Loop Road, and roadside overlooks allow glimpses into its dizzying depths. Start at Canyon Village, where paved roads and hiking paths lead to the canyon’s head at the Upper and Lower Falls. The 308-foot Lower Falls is almost twice the size of Niagara and jaw-dropping from any angle. Artist Point on South Rim Drive is the most popular lookout, but it’s worth the steep hike down to Red Rock Point on North Rim Drive for a dramatic view from inside the canyon. The 109-foot Upper Falls is a bit like whatever painting hangs next to the Mona Lisa — another masterpiece overshadowed by its famous neighbor.
For an equally impressive falls that often goes unnoticed, hike a mile north from the signed Glacial Boulder Trailhead on the North Rim Drive. On the far canyon wall, a thin white ribbon called Silver Cord Cascade tumbles more than 1,000 feet over the lip of the gorge.
At the canyon’s north end, Tower Falls (2 miles south of Tower Junction) is a smaller waterfall surrounded by imposing stone pinnacles. From here, intrepid hikers can descend into canyon to check out ochre-tinged cliff faces and riverside hot spring. Afterward, grab a bowl of bison chili in the dining room of the dude-ranch–style Roosevelt Lodge (Tower Junction, 866-439-7375, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com, lunch entrees $7–$10). Don’t worry — the meat comes from farm-raised “buffers,” not Yellowstone’s iconic herd.
3…Walk on the wild side
Watchable wildlife flourishes in Yellowstone like no place else in the lower 48. From the roadside wolf sightings to the resident elk herd strolling the parking lots at Mammoth Village, this place makes other parks look like second-rate petting zoos.
Hayden Valley is the place to find bison during the summer and fall. It’s a kick to see a 2,000-pound bison wallowing on its back — the maneuver is sometimes known as a “taking a dirt bath” — but the sheer power of these massive animals is no joke. Yellowstone’s 3,000 bison make up one of the world’s last genetically pure herds, America’s only continuously wild herd since settlers almost wiped out the species during western expansion.
Around dawn and dusk, wolf-watchers line the roadside pull-outs in Lamar Valley, along the park’s Northeast Entrance Road. With a good set of binoculars and a lot of patience, lucky visitors can watch one of Yellowstone’s dozen or so packs bring down an elk. If you’re not ready for a solo safari, the Yellowstone Association (406-848-2400, yellowstoneassociation.org) offers multi-day wolf-watching trips with park ecologists for $200–$250.
Be warned: a docile-looking elk or bison can do as much damage as a snarling grizzly. Visitors on foot should keep 100 yards away from predators and twenty-five yards from other critters.
2…Traverse a travertine terrace
The village at Mammoth Hot Springs is the park’s historic headquarters and home to a small mountain of otherworldly thermal terraces. Morning and afternoon ranger programs explore the hot spring formations, formed when underground limestone dissolves in the hot water, and then crystallizes to form a glittery mineral called travertine. Check in at the Albright Visitor Center (307-344-2263) for a full schedule of ranger activities.
While at the visitor center, take a moment to admire the watercolor reproductions in the Moran Gallery. Thomas Moran was a genteel Eastern painter who roughed it along with one of the earliest Yellowstone surveys in 1871. His elegant paintings helped convince Congress to designate it as a National Park a year later, and several Moran originals now hang in the Smithsonian.
Skip the dining room at Mammoth and grab lunch or dinner in the gateway town of Gardiner, Montana, just outside the park entrance gate, five miles north. With its dusty, Wild West storefront, the Sawtooth Deli (220 Park St., 406-848-7600, sandwiches $5–$8, dinner entrees $10–$20) doesn’t look like much, but their sandwiches and barbecue have legions of fans among locals and Park Service types.
1…Take an alpine detour
No trip to Yellowstone would be complete without at least a day’s detour into the adjacent Grand Teton National Park. Yellowstone’s much smaller cousin is an alpine playground for hikers and mountaineers, with one of the most recognizable skylines in America. Thanks to a quirky fault line, the snow-capped peaks of the Teton Range shoot straight up from Jackson Hole’s valley floor, as high as 13,770 feet above sea level, without any foothills to block the view. Devote a full afternoon to cruising the park’s two main roads, and make sure the camera battery is fully charged.
Grand Teton has fewer interpretive attractions than its northern neighbor, but the modernist and eco-friendly Laurance S. Rockefeller Center (4 miles south of Moose on Moose–Wilson Rd., 307-739-3654) is worth a stop, especially for families. Teens will dig multi-sensory exhibits like the darkened audio chamber that echoes with bird calls and other park sounds.
Take in some of the park’s best Teton views on a scenic cruise around the crystal-clear Jenny Lake. Cruises are $15 for adults, $7 for children. Jenny Lake Boating (South Jenny Lake Village, 307-734-9227, jennylakeboating.com) also rents kayaks and canoes for $15 an hour, and going motor-free is the only way to really experience the silence and solitude of one of the country’s last wild landscapes.