As a younger person I had a hard time distinguishing the unique way in which national parks set themselves apart from a lot of other nature experiences. That all changed for me sometime around the age of 26 when I visited Olympic National Park for the first time. It was clear how uniquely, a variety of attributes came together to create a spectacular space.
Some national parks are more singularly faceted, Yellowstone is not one of them. Crater Lake for instance, is fairly singularly faceted, really cool, but it’s all about the big volcano lake. Yellowstone brings together wildlife, completely terrifying geography, and great scenery in a way that’s utterly unique.
Yellowstone is huge, really huge. 3,500 square miles huge. Bigger than Delaware huge. So huge in fact, I stayed there for a week and saw about 1/2 of it. Now, truth be told this was limited in two ways. The first is that I have a two year old, and she takes naps, she didn’t like getting going early in the day, and she liked being home early. The second limiter is that by October there is only one campground open in the very northwest corner of the park, and we mostly traveled in the my parents F250 bodied camper, meaning we moved slow and if you are in the back, pretty uncomfortably. So to get to Yellowstone lake meant a lot of road time.
First off, we did most of the “normal stuff”, Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, the various basins, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Everyone should track down as much wildlife as they can. We ended up seeing bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep, and a red fox hunting mice under the snow. We were a bit late in the year for best bear spotting I’m told. Speaking of bears, lots of people had bear spray. I don’t know when this became such a big thing but I may just get some even though I’ve hiked in lots of bear areas in the past without a need for it.
There is lots of hiking to do throughout the park, including peak bagging. However, this was probably my most sedentary visit to a park. We did lots of little 1/2-2 miles hikes but nothing grueling. But if you want to seriously hit the trails you can do so next to rivers, up mountains, through meadows, and just about any other way you may wish. This is pretty representative of Yellowstone.
You can’t enter any of the hot springs in the park, and quite frankly, most of the ones with enough water to bathe in are really hot, hotter than your average hot spring. However, near mammoth hot springs, there is a river called the boiling river that you can swim in where a hot spring flows into the river. It’s very nice, but the rocky and fairly quick moving river can be hard to walk through in bare feet, so bring some sturdy sandals if you can. There are crowds butt cheek to butt cheek later in the day so my wife and I went at about 7:30 a.m. and shared our little space with one other guy. This ended up being one of the highlights of our trip, as we left our daughter with my parents. Relaxation!
If you’re unfamiliar, Yellowstone is essentially one gigantic volcano. It erupts every seven hundred thousand years give or take, with effects(ash, smoke, etc) that cover up to 1/4 of the contiguous United States. In addition, there is some sort of bubble in the earth’s crust underneath the area that helps feed all of the geographical features. So the two combine to create geysers, hot springs, and clay pots and of course, a volcano that some speculate could go off any time.
One thing we found was a small, one way, unpaved road that travels from the mammoth area to the north entrance. There was quite a bit of wildlife and if like me, you have a vehicle that isn’t perfectly suited to off roading, it’s not particularly challenging but a little fun late in the year when it’s starting to rut out. The road keeps going north of the park, and is probably a good place to see more wildlife. There must be other off roading opportunities in the area based on some of the 4 wheelers and crazy lifted trucks I saw.
Speaking of drives, there’s lots of mountain roads here, so should you bring your fast car? If you don’t mind driving it slow. In October, crowds were small and the roads fairly smooth moving. However, bison, elk, and in past visits, big horn sheep, are all known to act like they own the roads without a moments notice. So if you bring your fast car, I would recommend driving it slow, but especially in peak season when all of that wildlife is distracting thousands of other drivers.
Yellowstone was amazing. Really and truly, there is earth boiling all around you, massive amounts of animals, varying and beautiful landscapes, waterfalls, and canyons. It’s truly a unique experience, that is worth the trip from wherever you live.