by Allen Cox and Crai Bower | Photo © Jason Williams, Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris
America’s first national park sits restlessly atop a supervolcano that occupies a land mass greater than 1,500 square miles, an area that covers only a portion of the massive park. It squirms, fidgets, roils and vents. It is a splendid malcontent whose mere moments equal a geologic eternity to the more than 3 million visitors who pass through its gates every year. Welcome to Yellowstone National Park, home to more than half of the world’s geysers, 10,000 geothermal features and more than 200 species of wildlife. For first-time visitors, it holds dramatic surprises. For those who return, it will undoubtedly present its majesty in some form anew with every visit, most vividly in its four distinctive seasons.
Spring In Yellowstone presents two faces: before snowmelt and after snowmelt. Hotels and other park services remain closed from the winter visitor season until May.
Yellowstone rewards winter survival more poignantly than most places in North America. Melting snow engorges streams and tumbles over waterfalls. Prairie grasses, doused like rice fields, grow densely to nourish elk and bison during calving season. Though spring can actually start in May or even June after the most stubborn winters, birdsong usually fills in the silence by mid-April. In May, the recently opened highways remain quiet, however, and our spring visit is mostly shared with wildlife and wild flowers.
The majority of the 1,100 native plant species that spill across this 3,469 square mile national park bloom early to capitalize on the short growing period, another reason to time your visit with the receding snowline.
Like the emerging marigold, phlox and woodland starflowers, the animals follow a set schedule. The sunset-red bison calves are first to arrive and easy to see from a safe distance. Elk follow their ungulate cousins next, as hours-old calves defy physics to extend spindly legs, totter up and nurse for the first time. Soon after the elk calving season, a keen observer might spy a pair of black fluff balls bouncing closely behind a black bear sow.
To spot emerging wildlife in the park you can set out on your own or join a small expert-led wildlife tour. Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris is one of several operators that run group and custom day tours, ideal for capturing that perfect photograph of a grizzly, wolf or other mammal species. Tauck operates multi-day visits.
A variety of snow-free trails provide excellent day hike options, especially in the lower elevations at the northern end of the park. Always remain prepared for sudden weather changes, however, as sudden blizzard conditions in June are not uncommon.
Each spring, Yellowstone hosts a rejuvenation festival attended by fanciful wildflowers, free ranging animals and wild water. There’s no better time to grab some layers and see what this seasonal splendor is all about. – CB
A massive herd of bison in Hayden Valley between Lake Yellowstone and Canyon Village slows traffic to a near stop. The sun is retreating to the western horizon; morning and evening are prime windows for wildlife spotting as the animals avoid the heat of summer afternoons. The bison seem unconcerned about the string of cars, RVs and tour buses that have come to a halt. Traffic on these rivers of asphalt is just another part of their summer world. A great bull, enormous horned head lowered beneath massive shoulders, clops across the pavement and approaches the driver’s side of the van. He stops, exhales with a snort and continues to pass behind us as we inch forward.
July and August make up the summer high season in Yellowstone. You can’t venture onto one of the park’s highways without encountering herds of bison and elk moving slowly en masse across the landscape.
The driver pulls the van to the side of the road where other cars have gathered. A grizzly is lumbering across the meadow not 100 yards away, fortunately on the other side of a small pond. For bragging rights, I intend on counting all the wildlife I spot on my visit, but lose count in the first hour.
In late spring, summer and early fall, Yellowstone National Park’s famous inns offer a comfortable and, at times, luxurious retreat from the wilds. The epitome of rustic grandeur, Old Faithful Inn, is the world’s largest log structure. It offers vintage rooms, fine dining, plenty of goodies for kids and a cozy bar for adults. If even for a photo op before catching the Old Faithful eruption, stop at the inn to marvel at the lobby’s soaring ceiling supported by a confounding network of massive pine trunks. For a more elegant experience, visit the historic and recently renovated Lake Yellowstone Hotel.
Yellowstone National Park has nine lodges and plenty of campsites. Plan ahead and reserve early if you are going to visit during the summer season. – AC
Summer dies a quick death in Yellowstone. Hints of winter blow through early on autumn winds as days shorten. Elk and bison forage the last remnants of recently verdant meadows, preparing for the challenges of an inevitably deep snow pack. Yellowstone dons its fall colors as grasslands turn amber and deciduous trees in the river valleys turn gold and yellow.
Some things in Yellowstone don’t change with the seasons. Geysers still erupt. Mudpots still bubble like scalding oatmeal. Steaming crystal pools hold the cold and the inevitable snow at bay, creating microclimates of near-luxurious warmth.
Perhaps the most famous geothermal wonder in the park, Old Faithful, is indeed exactly that. Scientists can accurately time the geyser’s next eruption. People gather before each performance to secure front row seats as if at a concert. Applause breaks out at the end of its display.
At Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwest area of the park, walk the trails up the hillside and around the springs for a look into the slowly shifting, otherworldly pools. This massive geothermal feature is made up of a series of terraced pools lined with white mineral deposits resembling melted wax from enormous candles dripping from the pools’ rims.
Besides Mammoth and Old Faithful, visitors find other fascinating reminders that they are on top the world’s largest caldera at Norris Geyser Basin and West Thumb Geyser Basin (on Yellowstone Lake). At Norris, few geothermal features have a temperature below the boiling point, making this the hottest collection of springs and bubbling mudpots in the park. West Thumb has several pools, geysers and springs, the deepest in the park being Abyss Pool. At both locations, walk the boardwalk around sculpture-like mineral formations and thermal pools to take in the variety and vibrant colors of these features.
As summer wanes so does the number of visitors, making early fall a prime time to visit for those seeking less traffic and smaller crowds. But be aware that most services close early to mid October, and the park becomes a lonely place until some services open again in December for winter visitors. – AC
Geothermal vapors wrestle with the subzero atmosphere in the barren, snow draped basin. Bachelor bison appear lonelier. The wolf pack’s collective howl sounds more lethal. Winter exaggerates the Yellowstone landscape, where waterfalls grow icy exoskeletons and wildlife emerge from behind narrow shadows.
The Grand Loop Road section from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful requires a snow machine or snow coach, marvelous multi-passenger vehicles that combine tank tracks in the back with front axle skis. Bison herds huddle together against the fiercest winds and temperatures, shoving snow aside with their massive heads to nibble on the exposed grasses underneath.
The Northeast Entrance Road into Lamar Valley remains open year round to regular vehicles. Wolf watchers congregate here to monitor the movements and behavior of several competing packs. A radio collar attached to the alpha female significantly increases the potential observation. The wolf enthusiasts are easy to spot, a pack themselves squinting into high-powered spotting scopes. These amateur biologists are usually happy to share their view of these fascinating animals.
The alpha wolves nap after feasting on their elk kill, while the juveniles roll each other into the snow bank. Though a few hundred meters above the valley floor, distinctive yips echo in the canyon. A golden eagle, reduced to scavenger status when in the presence of Yellowstone’s dominant predator, alternates tearing at the carcass and skipping adroitly away from a snapping coyote made less bashful by hunger. Noisy ravens circle above the kill, sentries, some believe, for the resting wolves.
Remaining active is the best way to stay warm during a Yellowstone winter, when temperatures average between zero and 20 degrees and frequently descend much lower. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge opens in mid-December, an ideal base for several winter activities. Snowmobile and snow coach tours run to Mammoth, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Geyser Basin everyday. Snowshoe and cross country ski rentals, tours and instruction are also available.
Twelve-thousand people watch Old Faithful erupt each day during the summer season. You’ll likely be alone when you watch the punctual geyser soar during winter, unless you count the full moon perched low in the sky, casting crystals upon the freshly fallen snow. – CB
When You Go
>> Yellowstone National Park: nps.gov/yell/index.htm
>> The most direct highway route from Northwest destinations is to the West Entrance in West Yellowstone, MT an 11.5 hour drive from Seattle, 12 hours from Portland and 5.5 hours from Boise. The North Entrance at Gardiner, MT, is also about 11.5 hours from Seattle.
>> Flights are available to nearby cities, including Cody and Jackson, WY; Billings and Bozeman, MT; and Idaho Falls, ID.
Where to Stay & Dine
For winter and summer lodging and dining options inside the park, call 866-439-7375 or go online at yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.
Popular choices are:
>> Old Faithful Inn (summer season)
>> Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins (winter season)
>> Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins (summer season)
>> Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins (summer and winter seasons)
Recommended lodging outside the park:
>> Big Sky Resort, Big Sky, MT; 800-548-4486; bigskyresort.com
>> Kelly Inn West Yellowstone Hotel,
West Yellowstone, MT; 800-635- 3559; yellowstonekellyinn.com
Transportation & Guided Tours:
>> Winter: yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/things-to-do/winter-things-to-do/
>> Summer: yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/things-to-do/summer-things-to-do/
>> All Seasons: jacksonholewildlifesafaris.com/