It never ceases to amaze me how many American’s have not visited Yellowstone. It’s a national jewel akin to Ireland’s countryside. We have visited twice and will return. Hands down, this is my favorite place in the United States, other than Florida, where we live. Yellowstone places Montana on my Favorite 5 Places in the USA.
Additionally, this place is also of my Favorite 5 Places in the World. The first time we visited was in 2011, and our second time was last year, 2017. Long before I got to experience Yellowstone, I imagined the richness that must fill this national park. I am obsessed with waterfalls (and whales), and Yellowstone is full of waterfalls, among other treasures. I’d always thought it to be safari-like, in that animals roam wild. Who would have expected it to be as breathtaking as it was? Yellowstone National Park spreads through three states; Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.
When we first drove through the West Entrance of Yellowstone, the first mile was like any other forest; a river, trees, and more trees. There was snow on the ground and an eerie fog hovering. Then, from out of nowhere, a herd of bison emerges mysteriously and silently from behind the blanket of fog. Image being in the middle of nowhere, exposed to the elements, and the only thing separating you from the bison, is your car. It was beyond fascinating. They seemed to know we were there but plodded on by giving us an occasional glance. Many times we had to stop to let them pass. Bison might not be exciting to all, but for me, it was terrific! The sheer size of them, coupled with the number of them, makes for an electrifying experience. Both times we have visited, we went in April, and there was snow still on the ground. It’s the beginning of the self-entry season when we could drive ourselves through the park. Yellowstone is not accessible via car in the winter. Tours run during the winter using specialized equipment such as snowmobiles.
When driving through the park, be on the lookout for wildlife. We have spotted wolves, bison, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, and antelopes! We have seen every animal except the bears since they are still hibernating during April. Yellowstone is a volcano. As a result of this, Yellowstone is the home to waterfalls, geysers, and hot springs that will take your breath away. Trust me when I tell you, there is nothing in the states that even comes close to Yellowstone’s beauty. I’ve heard people rave about the geothermal area of the North Island of New Zealand – Rotorua. I can tell you from experience that you will be disappointed with Rotorua if you have been to Yellowstone. It cannot compete in any way. The only other place that I have been to give Yellowstone a run for its money is Iceland.
Where to Stay:
We used our timeshare for both of our trips. Seven nights cost us $199 total on both trips. We stayed at Island Park Resort in Idaho on the first trip, about 15 miles away from West Yellowstone. During our second visit, we stayed at Jackson Hole Towncenter, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Both were equally charming in their accommodations — nothing overly fancy, fireplaces, cabin style decoration, clean and roomy. I preferred Island Park. It was not necessarily the better of the two locations, but I liked the proximity to the park’s West Entrance, where we had some random experiences that can’t be recreated.
What to do:
Old Faithful: This might be the most famous geysers of them all. It erupts every thirty minutes or so and does not disappoint. Steamboat Geyser: The world’s tallest active geyser. This geyser has been in the news lately for unexplained eruptions.
There are many more to see; these are just two favorites.
Grand Prismatic Spring: This is the most photographed spring in the park. You will recognize this one from the pictures. It’s a rainbow-colored spring that’s ten stories deep. Unfortunately for us, we have never experienced it on a clear day. While beautiful among the mist, you can’t see the full effect of the spring unless it’s a clear day. If you plan to visit Grand Prismatic Spring, shoot for a clear day. In the same location as the Grand Prismatic Spring, there is Excelsior Geyser. Turquoise Pool and Opal Pool. You can walk around all of these and take in the view.
Hot Mammoth Springs: This is towards the North entrance, and I highly recommend the drive. You will see tons of wildlife, and you can exit the North Entrance to Gardiner, Montana. Gardiner is home to the Roosevelt Arch, built in 1903. There is a beautiful bridge that crosses the Yellowstone River. All followed by a quaint, old town. It’s also worth mentioning that the Northern Entrance is the only entrance open year-round.
The entire park is abundant with springs. As you drive from one side to the other, you will come across blind mud holes, springs, and geothermal activity. If you want to fully explore all the geysers do some research before your visit.
We did this during our first trip. We used Klondike Dreams. Since our trip, they seem to have stopped operating. It was one of the most unusual experiences ever! Brian got to “mush” the dogs, which is essentially preparing them for the ride. Brian brought all the dogs out and harnessed them on the sled. Not only did we ride in a sleigh together, being pulled by dogs, but Brian got to ride solo behind the dogs! Brian fell off twice and broke a rib! If you are in this region and there is snow on the ground – you MUST dog sled. It’s half the cost of dog sledding in Alaska.
Check out this site for operators still in business, along with opportunities to watch a dog sled race! Schedule this in advance; all operators have limited space. It’s not an activity you can show up for without a reservation.
If you drive from one side to the other (East/West or North/South), you will hit the lake. The lake has a mysterious appeal. It’s vast, barren, and charming. You can see your reflection in the lake if it’s clear. The lake hosts typical attractions like kayaking and boating, but it’s the backdrop that makes this place. Imagine snow-capped mountains framing a beautiful body of water. If you are lucky, you might spot wildlife swimming or drinking here.
With Yellowstone having at least 45 named waterfalls and much more unnamed, you will run into random waterfalls as you navigate through the park. Depending on where you are in the park, it depends on which ones you will see. Be sure to research them before you go so you don’t miss your favorites. The Upper Falls, Lower Falls, and Crystal Falls seem to be the most popular. If you are there while there is snow or ice, and added beauty awaits you.
Another favorite for the winter season that we were lucky enough to experience in April was snowmobiling! There are endless places that rent snowmobiles, or you can join a tour. We rented, or should I say, “borrowed” two from Island Park Resort and hit the trails. If you go during the day and stay on the tracks, you can do this solo without being on tour. I can’t speak to the scenery everywhere. We were riding in Idaho, and it was spectacular. We rode up to Big Springs, the Snake River’s headwaters, and home to Johnny Sack’s cabin. This spot is well-known for feeding the trout, but you can only feed – no catch!
We did this in April, and I must tell you it was freezing. The tour company we used included fly rods, flies, and waders. You must buy your license, and your tour guide will accompany you to a store that sells them. We had no luck, but we had fun wading in the water; oh well, we tried! Fly fishing is popular in this region, and the operators are numerous. Depending on where you are staying or where you are willing to drive, you should guide your decision on who to use. We did it in Big Sky Montana. If you are planning to fly fish, prepare for sticker shock. It’s ~$200 per person per day. If you think about it, that is a lot because what’s essentially provided is instruction. For this amount of money in Florida, you would be on a private charter fishing the high searches said; we would do it again. As they say, when in Rome!
Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center:
Located in West Yellowstone, this is your chance to get personal with grizzly bears and wolves. All the animals here are rescues and cannot be released because they would not survive. Or, another way to think about it is this is not a zoo. Your visit provides money to care for the animals that were saved. Visiting the center is educational. You will learn all about the wildlife of the region. There is also a fabulous gift shop here. I bought the perfect sphere that hangs on my wall that people often ask me about. Visiting the center only takes a couple of hours; it’s not a full day of activity.
Hotels within the Park:
We did not stay inside the park, but many accommodate all budgets, including camping. All accommodation in the park books up quickly, so prepare ahead if you plan to stay inside. If you like a luxury, be prepared to pay top dollar. While we did not stay in any, we stopped and checked some out—lunch at the Old Faithful Inn or Mammoth Hot Springs Hotelinare good options.
Nikki Webster is a travel writer who covers how to travel while grinding a day job and travel without breaking the bank, hotels, cruising, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. She is particularly fond of Florida and writes extensively about the state. She flies around 60,000 miles per year and has visited 54 countries, 50 states, and six continents. You can read all about her travels at www.britonthemove.com.