8 Reasons You Should Visit Yellowstone This Year
WIDE OPEN SPACES IN 2021
Looking for a pandemic-friendly, drive-to destination with stunning scenery, opportunities for outdoor adventure, wildlife sightings, open spaces, and the ability to stay away from crowds? Yellowstone National Park, more than twice as big as the state of Delaware, is the place.
See it by car.
Your own car is the safest way to travel now and that’s one of the best ways to see this park. Yellowstone’s two loop roads — the 142-mile Upper Loop and the 96-mile Lower Loop — pass the park’s major attractions. The Lower Loop takes you to Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, and the Grand Prismatic Spring, among other sights. The Upper Loop hits Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces, Obsidian Cliffs, Lamar Valley, and the Norris Geyser Basin. The Upper Loop also usually climbs Dunraven Pass past Mt. Washburn, but the stretch of the loop between Roosevelt Junction and Tower Junction is closed due to construction until spring 2022. This summer and next it is impossible to drive the entirety of the Upper Loop.
Avoid the crowds.
Yellowstone is as busy this summer as usual, but a few simple hacks can help you escape the biggest clusters. Between mid-morning and dinner, each eruption of Old Faithful can draw 2,000 spectators. But visit it in the first couple of hours after sunrise (7-9 a.m.) or before sunset (6-8 p.m.) and you’ll watch the world’s most famous geyser erupt with only a fraction of that number of people. The same advice holds for Grand Prismatic Spring and Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces.
But Yellowstone has more than 10,000 thermal features to choose from, so the easiest way to avoid many other people is to explore beyond the hot spots. Walk into the Midway Geyser Basin past Old Faithful and, regardless of the time of day, crowds will be minimal. Thirty miles north of Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, most acidic, and most variable thermal area in the park and home to 193 geysers, including the tallest active geyser in the world (Steamboat Geyser) and the largest known acid-water geyser in the world (Echinus Geyser), as well as Green Dragon Spring, a sulfur-lined cave filled with steam and emerald-green boiling water. Two-and-one-quarter miles of boardwalks wind past these sights as well as boiling mud, hot springs, and fumaroles.
Have a picnic.
Here in the country’s first national park, picnic spots abound. Grab a burger or deli sandwich at the Mammoth Terrace Grill and eat it sitting on a bench along the boardwalks that wind over the Mammoth Terraces. Or grab a meal from Canyon Eatery and take it to Artist Point, an overlook on the South Rim Scenic Drive that offers views of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, the tallest waterfall in the park, at 308 feet tall.
Watch the wildlife.
Yellowstone is sometimes called “America’s Serengeti” for its diversity and number of wildlife. The park is home to nearly 300 species of birds, 16 of fish, five of amphibians, six of reptiles, and 67 of mammals, including moose, elk, bison, wolves, and bears. The park is one of the only places in the Lower 48 States that is home today to all of the same species of mammals that lived in the area prior to the arrival of Europeans.
The Hayden and Lamar Valleys are the top spots for wildlife viewing — especially if you’re hoping to see a wolf — but it’s possible to see animals everywhere, including in the middle of the road. As tempting as it might be to get close to an animal for the best photo, park rules mandate visitors stay 25 yards from large wildlife like bighorn sheep, bison, and elk, and 100 yards away from bears and wolves. This is for the safety of both visitors and animals, which are very much wild and dangerous. As ungainly as they look, bison can run at speeds up to 25 miles per hour and jump six feet high. Every year, several visitors are gored after getting too close to these unpredictable animals.
Take a hike.
Although there are more than 900 miles of hiking trails, only about 1 or 2 percent of Yellowstone visitors avail themselves of this extensive network. Some trails, like the 5-mile hike to Fairy Falls and back, are easier, more accessible, and popular than others like the 39-mile point-to-point Bechler River Trail. No matter the trail, you’ll experience nature at its best and see some of the scenery for which the park is famous.
Ride a bike.
What could be more exhilarating after months spent inside than the wind blowing through your helmet as you ride through the park. Bicycles offer a unique sense of freedom and Yellowstone has gravel roads and paved paths that make for excellent rides. Rent a bike at Old Faithful Snow Lodge and pedal the 3 miles from Old Faithful Lodge to Morning Glory Pool on a paved path. Six miles north of Old Faithful, the Fountain Freight Road, a dirt and gravel road now closed to cars, is a 3-mile round-trip ride that takes you through part of the Midway Geyser Basin. More ambitious riders can tackle the 9-mile round-trip ride to Lone Star Geyser and back.
Explore by boat.
The largest high-altitude lake in the country, Yellowstone Lake has a surface area about twice the size of Washington D.C. About 20 miles long and 14 miles wide, the lake has 141 miles of shoreline. To maximize your lake explorations, rent a 40-horsepower motorboat from Bridge Bay Marina for one to eight hours. Don’t want the responsibility of handling a boat? Also available at Bridge Bay Marina are chartered boats, each complete with a captain. These can accommodate up to six people and are available in two-hour blocks. You tell the captain whether you’re interested in a sightseeing tour or want to go where the fish are biting. (If you opt for fishing, gear is included in the rental.)
Go horseback riding.
The Canyon Corrals are open this summer for one- and two-hour-long guided horseback rides. Settle into the saddle and enjoy a ride through meadows and pine forests (one-hour ride) or along the rim of Cascade Canyon and through a forest re-growing from the 1988 fires that affected 36 percent of the park (two-hour ride). Riders must be at least 8 years old, 48 inches tall, and weigh less than 240 lbs. An adult must accompany riders between the ages of 8 and 17.
Written by: Geraldine Hochrein
Geraldine Hochrein is a freelance writer based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.