America’s first (and arguably most famous) national park is basically in my backyard: An hour drive, or twenty minutes as a crow flies. Each summer, visitors descend from every corner of the globe to behold it’s splendor. You don’t have to be a geology geek to appreciate it’s raw beauty.
Since moving to Montana we’ve become frequent flyers… as locals, we annually purchase a season pass and zip down as often as is practical. As a result, we’ve picked up lots of “insider tips” to maximize each visit. Aaaaaand, because I’m feeling especially generous today, I decided I’d share them with y’all here– though I’ll preface by confessing that I’m certainly no Ranger Smith.
IF YOU WANT TO SEE…
-from the car: Firehole Lake Drive (visitors need not leave their vehicle to see the features, optimal for those who can’t walk a great deal– wish I’d known this when we took my grandma)
-short walk: Mammoth Terraces or Grand Prismatic; easy boardwalks, some stairs, both close proximity to parking.
-easy hike (altitude will amplify): Norris boast several trails with a wide variety of geothermal action, my fave is Porcelain Basin.
–Old Faithful: Soon as you park, get the ETA on the next eruption. If there’s time to kill get an ice cream cone and check out the museum/gift shops; or hike up to the upper vantage, a short but steep hike for less crowd and a unique eagle’s view of the infamous geyser’s backside.
Bears: Hey Boo-Boo! Head towards the Towers. Often bumbling along roadside, sometimes in trees.
Moose: The Lamar Valley, watch the willows near water.
Bison: Madison in the early spring, the babies are bright orange. In summer we tend to find more in the Hayden Valley.
Elk: Abundant near Mammoth, oft loitering in parking lots and unimpressed by humans.
Trumpeter Swans: Easily spotted on aptly named Swan Lake.
Marmots: Trails behind Old Faithful.
Big Horn Sheep/Mountain Goats: Roosevelt arch area near Gardiner, watch the rock faces.
Pronghorn Antelope: Roosevelt arch area, grazing on the hillside in droves, quite camouflaged.
Wolves: The lone wolf we’ve spotted was actually just outside of West Yellowstone around dawn.
*** The rangers at the visitor centers keep tabs on where wildlife has last been spotted and can generally point you in the right direction, specific to recent sightings.
If you want to swim:
Our favorite spot is the Boiling River, which isn’t on any map. A short, flat walk in to where the frigid snow-melt of the Yellowstone River perfectly intersects with a hot spring, creating a veritable hot tub. (From Roosevelt arch entrance in Gardiner it’s the first set of small, unmarked parking lots just after you cross over the river.)
Gill Point Drive has a sandy beach that’s great for kids, albeit with cold, choppy water.
Fishing Bridge Beach again boasts nice sand ideal for wading and relaxing on the shore.
We’ve still not yet swam at Firehole, but understand it to be a nice swimming hole similar to the Boiling River.
- stagecoach & horseback rides at Roosevelt Corral
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (not my favorite, due to crippling fear of heights/falling, breathtaking nonetheless)
- Beartooth Mountain Pass, a looooong but worthwhile bonus detour– thrilling heights, amazing views, spits you out near Billings, MT.
- the iconic Griswoldian photo-op under the Roosevelt Arch is only at the Gardiner entrance
- visitor centers aren’t redundant– each boasts a unique theme, and if you’re so inclined one can visit them all. (Old Faithful one focuses on geothermal science, the one at Fishing Bridge is a treat for birders, the one in Madison a slice of old time ranger life) #homeschoolbonus
- bucket list item: kayak in and camp on one of the massive lake’s islands
Look sharp– stay on the trails, give critters a wide berth. I nearly ran into this guy when a bee flew into the minivan and my instinct was to swiftly flee from the vehicle, arms flailing.
If you see cars pulled over that’s a good sign something exciting has been spotted. Queue up on the shoulder safely before exiting your vehicle. If a ranger is present, it’s likely a bear.
Mind the altitude, if home is at sea-level you will feel winded when you hike, and you will sunburn.
Pack in, pack out. BYO snacks, jacket, sturdy shoes AND flip-flops, binos, camera, hat & sunglasses, swimsuits, towel, blanket, first aid, water and (duh) pic-in-ic basket… Don’t bank on amenities being readily available– even trash cans are sparse due to bears.
Cell service is spotty at best, if you’ve more than one vehicle in your party bring along walkie-talkies. Mammoth, West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Old Faithful are the best locales for a semi-dependable phone signal.
Any way you swing it, it’s a lot of driving– plan accordingly for pint-sized visitors. Consider the state license-plate game, we routinely spy 40+ states passively checking out plates as we sight-see.
Promise that when you visit you’ll remember you’re a GUEST in the park– the critters, rangers, and active geothermal wonders are residents. Behave yourself accordingly, best manners. e.g. No bison selfies. Stay on the paths. Follow the rules and keep the tomfoolery to a minimum.