My friend asked me last week to share with her some tips from our visit to Yellowstone National Park last September, to help her and her husband plan their trip. I had decided to share my impressions from the trip in this post. I am by no mean a traveling expert, but I hope that some of the information I share here might be useful to some of you who are planning to visit Yellowstone.
Planning your visit time and duration:
Yellowstone offers activities year round, but July and August are the busiest months in the park. Summer season in the park runs from mid April to the beginning of November, when it starts snowing. When we visited the park in mid September of last year winter arrived earlier than expected; It rained on our second day there and snowed on the third day. Some roads were closed because of the snow, so unfortunately we did not get to see as many places as we wished to. We stayed 4 nights in Yellowstone, (not including the 2 nights we spent on the road), which gave us 3 full days to visit. It was a decent duration to visit.
Getting to Yellowstone:
Our destination was a small town called West Yellowstone in Montana that is located by the western entrance to the park. We chose to drive there, though you can also fly there (WYS airport). Driving from Seattle, WA to West Yellowstone, MT can range between 11-14 hours, depending on traffic and the route you take. On both ways, we stayed overnight in Missoula, MT, a 7 hour-drive from/to Seattle and about 4 hour-drive from/to West Yellowstone. If you intend to use a cellular navigation system, take into account that in many of the rural areas there is no reception. It helps having a map and printed directions in the car when you drive in those areas.
When we stopped in Missoula we discovered two great pastry bakeries, not far from each other: Bernice Bakery and Le Petit Oure. If you are picky about your pastry make sure to place and order the night before, because they run out of them very quickly. For dinner we really loved The Silk Road. It is a Tapas restaurant that serves fresh market food.
A tip for photographers and landscape painters: Even before arriving to Yellowstone, the road there offers many beautiful sights. My advice it to give yourself the time to stop and take photos each time you see something beautiful, or you will regret it for years. I still regret not stopping the car and taking photos in rural Montana driving through fields with round hey stacks covered with white plastic with the soft light of the sun setting that cast perfect shadows on all the items in the field. When we were driving there, I just wanted to enjoy the sights, but now I’m kicking myself for not taking photos.
Accommodation in West Yellowstone:
It’s better to make your reservation several months in advance, or your lodging accommodation might be very limited. West Yellowstone offers hotels, Bed & Breakfasts and Vacation rental homes. There are also RV parks inside of Yellowstone Park and all around the area. We stayed in a hotel, but if I go there again I would rather rent a house with a kitchen, which leads me to the next point.
If you are a foodie, have different food sensitivities, or just health conscious, you might want to consider having your own kitchen and bring your own coffee, tea, spices, special bread, favorite snacks etc. This remote and rural part of the country is known for nature, not for gourmet food. There are some grocery stores in the area where you can find basic food, but don’t expect anything fancy. Inside the park there are several shopping centers with restaurants. I wasn’t very impressed by the quality of the food there and it is expensive. My recommendation is that you pack your car with your lunch, drinks and snacks for the day.
There were only three places in West Yellowstone that I can recommend in this matter: The Slipper Otter Pub – served good food quality, Wild West Pizza – had decent pizza, and Woodside Bakery – had OK pastries and sandwiches that we took with us to the park.
Make sure that you fill up your car gas tank every morning before entering the park. If you are not a hiker or a fisherperson, you might find that you drive for hours. There are gas stations in the park, but it is more expensive than outside the park.
What we saw in Yellowstone:
Mammoth hot springs area is closer to the northern entrance of the park, near the border between Wyoming and Montana. I found it to be the most interesting part of the park. The springs’ water has different interesting colors caused by bacteria. It’s a beautiful sight to drive there and see tracks of steam coming up from the rivers around. There are different spots where you can park the car and walk on a path or walking deck between the different springs.
The Biscuit Basin in the area was my favorite. I had a steam facial just by standing in front the different springs.
The hot springs are too hot and too acidic for human flesh. The only spot to enjoy the warm water is in a spot on the Gardner River where naturally boiling water is directed to the river and enclosed in small pools by using stones. Ask the rangers to give you a slip of paper with directions to this point. There is a small parking lot near this spot with a small bathroom if you need to change, then a half a mile walking path leads to the hot water pools in the river. It is open during daylight hours and closed during periods of high water. It is a spa in nature. Don’t forget to bring towels with you.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a different area of the park. The views here are very dramatic and powerful: massive waterfalls that burst from the mountains and pour into the river in the belly of the deep canyon. Every viewing spot in the area offers powerful and breathtaking scenery.
Old Faithful Geyser bursts every 60-110 hours for about a minute. People tend to gather there, caching first row positions and wait with their cameras. We were lucky to get there about 15 minutes before a burst, so we did not wait for too long. There is a big visitors center around it and plenty of parking and things to do, so if you just missed a burst and want to stay for the next one, you will have plenty of activities to do in the area.
Museum: I don’t remember if all visitors’ centers had museums, but we visited some of them and learned about the local nature and history. In some spots there were movies and/or rangers lectures that explained about the geology of the area.
Animals: Yellowstone is known for it’s wild life. We got to see bison, elk, and deer from up close. It was very exciting. Each time you hit a traffic jam in the park and you see cars parked on the side of the road – know that there are likely animals in sight. In some cases it helps to have good pair or binoculars or a good camera lens to be able to see a remote animal. In one of the occasions there was a bear in sight, but for bare eyes it looked like a black dot in the horizon. To make sure that both people and animals are safe, Rangers were present almost at any place where there were animals.
If you have more tips and recommendations for visiting Yellowstone, I would love to hear from you.