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Insider’s Guide to Yellowstone
By Jim Berry
A veteran park tour guide gives you the scoop on America’s first and most grand of national parks
Yellowstone, although seventh in size among national parks, is a very big place. It’s larger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together. It encompasses 2.2-million acres (3500 square miles) and more importantly, Yellowstone is the very first national park in the world (established in 1872)and still considered the standard by which all others are measured.
It’s really five national parks in one. It offers the greatest array of hot springs and geysers in the world, with a total of some 10,000 thermal features. Yellowstone offers one of the most beautiful canyons with waterfalls in the world, the Canyon of the Yellowstone. The best example of travertine (limestone) terraces in the world is at Mammoth Hot Springs. Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in North America above 7000 feet in elevation. And it has the greatest variety of animals in North America, including wolves, bears, elk, moose and almost everything else.
Ninety-six percent of Yellowstone is in Wyoming, three in Montana and a little sliver of one in Idaho. Yellowstone was a national park (the first and only) before these three states became states and the bill creating the concept was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, (1869-1877), not as commonly thought, by Teddy Roosevelt, who served from 1901 through 1909.
How do I know all this? After retiring from my first successful career (offices, neck ties, endless meetings…you know the drill), I began my second (and much more satisfying) career as a snowcoach driver/guide in the winter of ‘87-’88, and as a bus driver guide during the big fires of ’88, doing one or both until ’08. During those 21 years, more than 2000 summer bus tours and almost snow coach 1200 tours were completed as I entertained, educated, learned, and had fun with somewhere in the neighborhood of 71,000 visitors.Over the years, I have developed a list of my favorites. I call it…
Best times of year to visit are: The End of August is a slow timeas kids go back to school. Lodging and campground sites are easily available and it’s not crowded at all. Late June, when there are animals everywhere, but the weather is “if-y” (snow is not out of the realm of possibility in June), or late September, when the animals are everywhere, but the weather is even more“if-y.”
Best campgrounds (of the 12 within the park): Madison and BridgeBay (at the Lake area), because they’re both centrally located, both take reservations and both are attractive. The worst campground is Mammoth Hot Springs at the northern end, it’s hot, barren and way out of the way.
Best RV park: Fishing Bridge is the only campground with fullhook-ups inside the park. Second best for RVs is the Grizzly Park in West Yellowstone.
Best day hikes: Number one is the “back basin” at Old Faithful.It’s a three-sided loop that goes from Old Faithful to Black Sand Basin to Biscuit Basin and back to Old Faithful, it’s very flat and easy---about 6 miles total. There are thermal features every inch of the way.
Next is Norris Geyser Basin. This is the most dynamic and hottest of Yellowstone’s 22 thermal basins. The 2-mile loop is of medium difficulty and, once more, loaded with thermal action.
Third is Mammoth Hot Springs. This 3-mile hike is classed as “difficult” since it’s uphill all the way to Mammoth Terraces for a mile-and-a-half. Then, of course, it’s an easy mile-and-a-half down.
My Number 4 is the Canyon. The Canyon Rim hike is absolutely stunning and can be 1- to 20-miles long, depending on your energy level. For those who want the full Canyon experience, take Uncle Tom’s trail down to almost the bottom of the Canyon under the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. This hike is an easy 237 steps down (there’s a staircase), and an arduous 237 stepsback up, especially since you are at an altitude of 8000 feet.
Best fishing: Although some good fishing is found inside Yellowstone, my best advice is to sign up with a fishing guide on the Madison River outside of Yellowstone, or charter a guide and boat from Bridge Bay Marina on Yellowstone Lake. This is a truly great experience, especially withkids.
Best picnic spots: There are 27 picnic areas and each of them has a latrine. The best two are Bridge Bay in the Lake area, and Nez Perce along the Firehole River. Other personal favorites include Pebble Creek, West Thumb,7-Mile Bridge, Madison Junction and Sylvan Lake.
Best geyser basins: Old Faithful (the Upper Geyser Basin), Norris(in the middle of the Park) and Fountain Paint Pots (the Lower Geyser Basin).The least interesting, in my opinion, is West Thumb on Yellowstone Lake.
Best spot for animals: Without question, it’s the Lamar Valley before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. (it’s almost a 100 percent guarantee, especially wolves and bears).
Best way to avoid crowds: Despite what you may have heard, Yellowstone is not “too crowded to enjoy,” even during the height of the season(July through mid-August). The single most important tip I can give: Don’t visit Old Faithful between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. See it early morning or late afternoon, and have lunch at Lake, Mammoth or Canyon instead. Also, tour the Park in a clockwise direction, going away from Old Faithful between 10 and 3. Have breakfast at the Old Faithful Inn, or dinner (you’ll need reservations well in advance for that).
Best Geyser: Is Old Faithful still faithful? It’s just as faithful as ever. However, the truth is, not all eruptions are the same, and that’s always been so. It reaches from 90 to 180 feet, with a 133-foot average; and the interval between eruptions is around 90 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes.Old Faithful may the most famous geyser in the world, but it’s only one of 400in Yellowstone and 600 in the world. It’s not even the biggest in Yellowstone, but it’s one of the most predictable, it erupts frequently, and is considered a “giant” (100-plus-foot eruptions) geyser.
Best Visitors’ Center: In 2006, the National Park Service opened its new Visitors’ Center at Canyon Village. A visit is a great learning experience for everyone, especially kids. Mammoth Hot Springs and Grant Village tie for second-best Unfortunately, the Old Faithful Visitors’ Center is temporarily located in a trailer while a new one is being built, which should take five years.
Best gift shops: Old Faithful General Stores operated by Delaware North and the Canyon General Store. Also, any store in West Yellowstone,Montana. There you’ll find 12 rubber tomahawk stores and a fridge-magnet outlet of international fame!
Best places to visit around the Yellowstone area: Grand TetonNational Park (a must!); Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming; Quake Lake,outside West Yellowstone, administered by the US Forest Service; and the West Yellowstone Historic District and Museum.
Best area airport: Fly into Salt Lake City and rent a car, then do a loop. Airports closer to the park, such as West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Idaho Falls and Jackson Hole are convenient, but expensive to fly into.
Best RV deal for those who don’t own an RV: Tracks and Trails,located in Grand Junction, Colorado, will rent you an RV and map out your entire Western adventure, including guides and reservations.
Best thing to do if you only have one day: Go to Old Faithful,then go home and plan better for your next visit. Yellowstone needs at least three days, and four if you include Grand Teton (a must!).
Only about 4 percent of Yellowstone is reached by road; the rest is a backcountry explorer’s paradise with over 1000 miles of wilderness trails and hundreds of primitive campsites. If your camping interests goes beyond a built-in fire ring, picnic table and a flush toilet, then your best bet is to start your planning with a call to the Yellowstone Backcountry Office (307/344-2160)for information, wilderness permits and campsite assignments.
Finally, here are the very best phone numbers to call for additional information or reservations: For general info and outfitter info,call the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center at 406/646-7701.For in-park reservations, including campgrounds, call Xanterra at 307/344-7901 or 866/439-7375. For the complete RV experience for people who don’t own an RV, call Tracks and Trails at 800/247-0970. And for private tours, call my old boss at Yellowstone Alpen Guides, 800/858-3502, and tell him Berry sent you!
There is no longer a public transportation system within the Park(as exists in Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Glacier, among others) nor service to any of the surrounding towns, airports, attractions or bus terminals. Full-day bus, van or private tours are available from each of the hotels within the park, or you can do the same from West Yellowstone, Montana, located at the West entrance to Yellowstone. Yellowstone Alpen Guides, Buffalo Bus Tours,Three Bear Lodge, and Yellowstone Adventures all operate tours from this gateway community. Check with the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce for more information.
The essential role that the railroads played in establishing,financing and serving all of our Western national parks in those early days must be recognized. At one time, Yellowstone was served by five different railroads (Union Pacific; Northern Pacific; Burlington; Chicago and Northwestern;and the Milwaukee) and each offered special package tours. It was the Northern Pacific Railroad that pushed Congress for our very first one, 11 years before the railroad (1883), and 33 years before cars and buses arrived.
HISTORIC TOUR BUSES
In 1950, there were 412 tour buses to take you through Yellowstone. Ten of these very historic 1937 White buses have been restored by Ford Motor Company and are now doing mini-tours in the park. Try one, they’relots of fun.