Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (mostly)

yellowstone hot spring

There’s a reason Yellowstone National Park gets over three million visitors a year.

It’s amazing!

My most recent visit there was 2011, and it was only two days long. Not nearly long enough, but it sure made me want to go back—preferably for a whole summer someday!

Why is it so great?

THE WILDLIFE. Yellowstone is very well known for its abundant and visible wildlife. Elk, American bison, grizzly bear, black bear, wolf, bighorn sheep and deer are all prevalent. And of course on down the food chain too—coyote, fox, beaver, otter, pica, eagles and hawks, water fowl, etc.

It’s a definite treat to see these critters in a (somewhat) natural habitat—note the bears walking along the boardwalk below! Each year though, park visitors are injured by them, so it pays to be cautious and use some common sense (such as not trying for a photo op with a bison, as one injured visitor found out this summer!)

Bears at Mammoth Hots Springs

THE MOUNTAINS. I’d been to Yellowstone as a kid, but only remembered the hot springs, the wildlife and the Yellowstone Grand Canyon. I didn’t remember the beauty, the mountains, the rivers and waterfalls.

There are mountains everywhere in the Park, complete with snow in the higher elevations. There are many picnic areas just off the roads, so many scenic stopping places for breaks.

THE WATERFALLS. Not just the “biggie”—the 300-hundred foot Lower Falls at the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, although that is certainly impressive and a must-see. Tower Falls is also beautiful, cascading 132 High Falls at Yellowstonefeet down into a canyon.

We pulled off onto one side road along the obscure Firehole Canyon and found a beautiful falls and river there too. That would be a great walk even right along the road.

YELLOWSTONE GRAND CANYON. All I can say is “Wow!” It’s so true that it’s much more spectacular in person than looking at a picture.

The power of the waterfall (we could stand literally right above the crest of it). The depth of the canyon. The beauty. There’s the Upper Falls too, which might be better to see first 🙂

THE GEYSERS AND HOT SPRINGS. Old Faithful is, of course, the most famous. We saw it erupt twice during our visit to the area. Very cool. But there are hundreds of others too.

Yellowstone hosts the largest geyser and hot spring collection in the world, thanks to the “super volcano” beneath the earth’s crust there. A little disconcerting certainly!

Anything not so great?

The crowds!

Like I mentioned at the top, three million visitors a year flock to this Park from all over the world. And 69% of them visit in June, July and August. Here’s an interesting graph that shows visitor stats.

If you go in July you can expect to be there with almost 800,000 others! If you’d like to try it without the rush hour-like traffic, steer clear of the summer months. Even September gets almost 400,000 people on an average year.

Yellston fires

Things to know before you go

This Park is vast—almost 3,500 square miles—with many attractions beyond the top two or three. It pays to:

  • Have a plan of attack before you go. Look at a map and pick out some of the places you don’t want to miss. Then plan out a route that’s realistic.
  • We only had two days last time. So we drove up the South Entrance and stayed to the west side the first day. We had motel reservations in Gardiner, Montana—just outside the North Entrance. Then back down the east side the 2nd day from north to south. I’d plan on more than two days!
  • When we were there in 2011 the same Park Pass covered both Yellowstone and the Tetons. Now due to budget cuts that’s no longer the case. But if you have the time you definitely want to see both Parks (they’re adjacent). It’s well worth the extra cash for the Tetons too.
  • You’ll need an additional permit for fishing, boating or backcountry hiking. For more on fees and passes visit the National Park Service website.
  • Being that it’s the mountains, plan for changing weather including rain, snow and heat—all in the same day!
  • Again, use common sense when dealing with wild animals—especially the big ones. Deaths are rare, but a hiker was killed by a grizzly the week we were there. If you plan to get into the backcountry, bring bear spray.
  • Camping is great at the Park and the fees very reasonable. But all the campgrounds routinely fill up early in the day during the summer season. Start looking for reservations in January, or you may be out of luck.

Every American should visit Yellowstone at least once in his or her life. It’s truly a natural wonder that’s unique in the world.

(PHOTOS: Top—near Mammoth Hot Springs; Top middle—two black bears make their way down the boardwalk at Mammoth Hot Springs; Lower middle—Lower Falls in the Yellowstone Grand Canyon; Bottom—remains of one of the large wildfires in the Park)