It’s been said that you can never go home again.
Unless home is your favorite national park. Or to be more specific, Yellowstone National Park. Somehow it never seems to change and yet it always feels fresh. Drive through pristine mountains, stay in the unchanged 100-year-old Old Faithful Inn and throw your picnic trash in the same brown, bear-proof garbage cans you remember from 10, 20, 40 summers ago without feeling the sense of loss that comes from visiting your old home now remodeled, torn down or in disrepair. Even your fellow tourists feel familiar. Yellowstone is timeless. It may be the only place where nostalgia lives up to the hype.
By Brooke Wilhelmsen
Photos by Mary Harper
Yellowstone’s magic builds from its core — the core of the earth, that is. It’s centered over the Yellowstone Caldera, described as an active volcano below the earth’s crust that generates the geothermal activity in the park. According to the National Park Service, half the world’s geothermal features are in Yellowstone. That impressive bit of trivia is reason enough to plan a visit. And chances are, if you live within 30 miles of a Zions Bank branch, you’re less than half a day’s drive to a memorable week or weekend in Yellowstone. Read on for an author-biased “Best of Yellowstone” list that will take you back to the simpler days of your childhood, when tourists weren’t taking Instagram selfies with the bears.
You’d be remiss to leave Yellowstone without spending a night or two (or eight) in the heart and soul of the park, the Old Faithful Inn. If Yellowstone was Manhattan, Old Faithful Inn would be Times Square. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., thousands of tourists gawk at the rustic 1903 architecture, pausing to listen to the piano player on the second floor balcony, visiting the gift shop (the highlight of the trip as a kid) or buying an ice cream cone to eat while waiting on the second-floor deck for Old Faithful to erupt. After dark, hotel occupants emerge from their rooms and read by the dim green desk lamps on the balconies. Families gather around large tables to play cards and excited, exhausted kids run the halls in pajamas making a last pit stop at the shared bathrooms before heading to bed. (The rooms in the original 1903 section of the inn do not have en suite bathrooms.) There’s a quiet buzz about the Old Faithful Inn, a warmth and camaraderie among guests nonexistent at most modern hotels.
Tiny Slough Creek Campground is off the beaten path (take a narrow gravel road to get there) and offers more privacy than most campgrounds in the park. Fall asleep to the soothing sounds of the babbling creek alongside the campground and be prepared to see wildlife near your new home base.
Best Time of Year
July is the warmest (average high is 72 degrees) and busiest month of the year in Yellowstone. Book the popular lodges and campsites almost a year in advance if you want to vacation in the height of summer. April and May boast green underbrush and wildflowers but spotty weather. Same goes for the fall, when bright yellow aspens are a tempting reason to risk the rain and brisk temperatures.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone offers the best waterfall in the park. Hands down. If you miss it, turn your car around and head back to the Artist Point/Clear Lake Loop hike along the rim of the canyon.
Best Fishing Spot
Can’t tell you the best fishing spot at Yellowstone. That’d be like publishing the family’s secret chocolate chip cookie recipe. But one vague tip is to check out Buffalo Creek near Slough Creek Campground.
Best Wildlife Spotting
Head to the Lamar Valley for wildlife spotting.
Try a tour on the historic yellow “Wake Up to Wildlife” bus with a rollback convertible top to gaze at the unbeatable views in this remote northeast section of the park while listening to an expert guide.
Best Family Hike
If watching your toddler running down the boardwalk next to boiling hot pots isn’t your thing, try some bear- and wolf-inhabited hiking trails instead. The lower Mystic Falls hike is 2.4 miles round trip, winding through a lodge pole pine forest and ending at the bottom of an impressive waterfall.
Best Rigorous Hike
Hike with the bighorn sheep to the top of the 10,243-foot Mount Washburn for the best aerial view in the park. It’s a 1,500-foot climb and 5 miles round trip from Chittenden parking area, and it’s covered in wildflowers if you go in July.
Best Hot Pots
The Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin is one of the most impressive sights in the park and the variety of colors along the walk is a photographer’s dream, as you’ll note from the plethora of digital cameras hanging from board-walking tourists’ necks.
No offense to the National Park Service, but probably the best meal you’re going to get in Yellowstone is the one you prepare yourself and eat at a picnic table. That said, the completely average ice cream you’ll find in most lodges is a must — for the sake of making memories.
Best Picnic Spots
Eating ... outside ... in this place. You can’t go wrong. There are 27 picnic sites in the park. Madison Junction on the west end and Lava Creek on the north end of the park are a couple of favorites. Make it a priority to enjoy a meal outdoors.
Yes, swimming is possible at the park. It’s probably not the first activity that comes to mind when you think Yellowstone, but there are few rivers as swimsuit-friendly as the ones in Yellowstone if you visit in summer or fall when the water levels have dropped. Firehole River swimming area is probably the most popular with a large swimming hole at the bottom of igneous rocks. (Igneous = sharp. Watch your step.) Also try Boiling River near the north entrance of the park where a large hot spring meets Gardner River for a warm geothermal soak when situated in just the right spot. Also, Firehole River next to the Madison Junction picnic area transforms into a warm, calm kiddie pool in late summer and fall, perfect for wading and skipping rocks (don’t expect to catch fish there).
Best Winter Activity
Don’t let the average temperature of around 13 degrees deter you from visiting the park in colder months. Yellowstone in the winter is nothing short of magical and can only be accessed via snow coach, snowmobile, snowshoes and cross-country skis. Crowds are slim and wildlife viewing is at its best. The sight of steaming geysers and buffalo tromping through white valleys is unforgettable.
You won’t see it all in one trip. But that’s part of Yellowstone’s allure — untouched but always fresh.