Published January 27, 2012
This year marks the 140th anniversary of the dedication of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park ever created.
Known for its natural beauty and features like the Old Faithful geyser, it remains among the nation's top visited parks, and had 3.4 million come through its gates last year alone.
Travel experts say if you've never been or haven’t visited in a while, it’s time to go back.
But its some 3,500 square miles of park land, which crosses through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, can seem daunting to navigate --even for repeat visitors.
“I always look at it as sensory overload,” said Dan Austin, founder of the tour operator, Austin/Lehman Adventures – based in Montana. “You’ve got more geothermal features there than the rest of the world combined. You’ve got the wild life (and) Western history. You’ve got geography and geology. It really is a fascinating place – especially for young kids.”
Austin gave Fox News Traveler some “local” tips on how to make the most out of a trip to Yellowstone.
Don’t cut your trip short
Austin says visitors typically spend too little time in the park, and too much time seeing it from inside their cars. Don’t just drive through the park; savor the features throughout. “The gems of Yellowstone are off the beaten path,” Austin said. He recommends planning at least a three-day trip to really see grandeur of Yellowstone.
Visit the various regions
There are five entrances to the park and several different regions within the boundaries. Park experts say the northern region is outside Yellowstone Caldera -- the largest supervolcano on the continent, and is where the wolves were first reintroduced. “It’s more open, more rolling hills, more wildlife,” Austin said. “It doesn’t have the concentration of geothermal features of the southern region.”
The southern region is home to the iconic geysers, such as Old Faithful and Morning Glory Pool. The guides also encourage visitors to explore Yellowstone Lake in the southeastern side of the park – which is the largest high mountain lake in the country.
Staying in the park
The Yellowstone experts agree staying a night or two at various locations around the park will give travelers the opportunity to really see the different areas of the park as well as the unique hotels.
“The properties in Yellowstone are historic, completely diverse and different,” Austin said.
The Old Faithful Inn was built in 1903 and like other hotels in the park has since been renovated. East of Old Faithful - visitors could stay at the first hotel built in the park - the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Austin says the hotels have been kept up, but don’t expect to have a TV, phone or Internet in the park hotels - which claim to be reflective of the natural surroundings.
Tricks for tents
Book your site as far as possible in advance if you’re looking to stay at one of the park’s campgrounds.
“My only caution with camping is that it's really crowded,” Austin said. “You can get back country permits to go out of the campgrounds - and that's great. But if you’re going to sue one of the established camp grounds - they do sell out months in advance.”
For a less crowded experience, the guides suggest pitching a tent outside of the park, but still within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“One of my favorites is Red Cliff,” a campground in Gallatin Canyon, Austin said. “It’s just 35 or 40 miles out of the park and within an hour of the park. Often times, nobody is there.”
Be prepared for anything
The guides say they’ve been in the park when it’s snowing in July. Afternoon thunderstorms are common throughout the summer as well.
“The majority of the park is over 7,000 feet so you're at high elevation in the Rocky Mountains and the weather can change instantly,” Austin said. “Good rain gear, hats, and gloves are all key.”
Plan in advance
Besides booking your hotel or camping reservation in advance, look into the various ranger-led and other programs in the park. Then, decide which opportunities will best enhance your visit.
“There's horseback riding, fishing, boat tours, guided hikes with rangers; take advantage of the great programs within the park,” Austin said. “There's morning wildlife drives. You could look for wolves with a wolf biologist. Don't feel like you have to do it on your own - even if you are doing it on your own. There are great national park-sponsored activities.”
Maximize your time
Both guides say booking a trip with a tour operator to Yellowstone will help guests maximize their time and enhance the educational opportunities within the park.
“We've been running programs in the park for more than 20 years,” Austin said. “We're there every week. We know where the wildlife hangs out. We're introducing you to the park with very educated guides - who are not only great travel companions – but they’re packing your lunch, schlepping your luggage, and checking you into your hotels. They’re educating you about the park - the difference between a brown and black bear. They're educating you about all aspects of the park. So it's a well-rounded immersion into Yellowstone…They're there to see that you have the best experience possible.”