Sightseeing Tips for Visiting Yellowstone

Sightseeing Tips for Visiting Yellowstone

Sightseeing Tips for Visiting Yellowstone

I was once asked, “If I had one day to visit Yellowstone what would I do?” I said, “CRY!” It was a joke, but a realization. Too many people with no set agenda hastily visit the park, take a quick photo, jump back in their cars and rush to the next destination. Yellowstone is not a “pass thru,” but a sensory overload and must be experienced. Listed are a few “stopping” points:

TIP No. 1

See Old Faithful Erupt

Let's face it, what's Yellowstone without seeing it’s most famous geyser.  Don't just drive to the upper thermal basin, snap a photo and leave...Try seeing Old Faithful in a different light.  Start with an early morning sunrise view.  On a cool morning you'll not only be invigorated by the temperature, but also enjoy a less crowded boardwalk as you tour wonders of nature.  In addition, the cool air enhances the steam as it shimmers at daybreak.  Sunset is another option, but not overly impressive from the boardwalk.  Hike to the observation overlook and get a panoramic view Old Faithful in the shadows of sunset.

My last viewpoint is during the winter or off season.  I managed to visit the park in March and took a snow coach to Old Faithful.  I wanted to witness the geysers in a snow-filled setting.  To my delight the basin boardwalks were empty as I ventured thru the thermal Winter “Wonderland”.  Although encased in snow the Old Faithful Inn still looked majestic in it's winter hibernation and the Old Faithful Geyser viewing area was silent with only a handful of snowmobile riders patiently waiting their personal winter treat... No one left disappointed.

TIP No. 2

Spend Some Time in the Old Faithful Inn

The jewel of the park system is an attraction all it's own.  Built in 1904 and recently renovated back to it’s glory days the inn earns your respect as an architectural wonder.  First time visitors get a visual overload upon walking thru the signature red front doors.  Many perform a 360º spin to capture a mental photo of the free-standing volcanic rock fireplace, the massive handcrafted clock and the three-story log lobby complete with a lofted crow's nest.

After an adventurous day you can eat dinner in the restaurant (reservations recommended), but a better time is grabbing a bowlful of huckleberry ice cream from the snack bar, sitting in the glow of the four fireplaces, staring upwards enjoying the log workmanship, people watching, meeting kindred spirits or writing postcards on one of the original writing tables in the upper balcony.  If you get the opportunity to spend the night in the old house (the hotel before the East and West wings were added) pick one of the 87 (of the 140 when built) simple, hall creaking, original rooms that share a communal bath.  Not recommended to the high maintenance crowd, but coveted by Yellowstone purists.

TIP No. 3

Tour the The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

There is no bad view of the canyon, just a number of unique vantage points.  It's merely an awe inspiring sight. In fact, when the early expeditionist, N. P. Langford,  member of the 1870 Washburn–Langford–Doane Expedition, first came upon the site they extended their time to comprehend the beauty.

"As I took in the scene, I realized my own littleness, my helplessness, my dread exposure to destruction, my inability to cope with or even comprehend the mighty architecture of nature."
- N. P. Langford

Personally, I like the south rim view better than the north rim, but like I mentioned, there is no bad view.  Angle one, drive the north rim, view the upper falls and take the short hike to Uncle Tom's trail and stairway.  The 328 downward steps (roughly a 500 ft. drop) offers a camera pleasing breathtaking view, but beware the ascent is breathtaking too (physically).  Next, drive to Artist's Point and walk to the overlook.  This is the GRANDEST overview of the canyon showcasing the length, colors and depth of the canyon.

The north rim offers opportunities to hear, feel and see the power of the Upper and Lower Falls by switch backing to the brink of each fall.  Springtime's water flow thunders, while Winter's ice features are impressive.

TIP No. 4

Hike Mt. Washburn

I enjoy a handful of 3-6 miles round trip hikes each day, as I am not a hard core enthusiast that burdens himself with a 50 lb. backpack full of over overnight equipment. I enjoy carrying a pack containing good cameras, lens and look forward to a clean and simple, rustic hotel room each night. With that said... There are dozens of great hikes within Yellowstone's 900+ miles of trails, but my family favorite day hike is the Mt. Washburn Trail starting from the Dunraven Pass trailhead.

Mt. Washburn trail was a former concessioner’s road.  Park visitors were ushered up and down the mountain in touring cars.  Pieces of asphalt are visible on the trail and today's hikers must wonder how a vehicle managed the hairpin turns and mountainside ledges. (Makes Disney's Mr. Toad's Wild Ride seem peaceful.)  This popular trail takes you to the Mt. Washburn Lookout Station complete with a restroom and a guest registry for those that complete the hike to the summit.

In addition, the view on a clear day offers an unobstructed panoramic view of the Northeast sector of the park, as well as a portion of Lake Yellowstone and Tetons which are 90 miles South.  As with any hike animal sighting are subject to luck.

TIP No. 5

Visit the Lake Hotel

Construction for the original version of the Lake Hotel began in 1889 making it the oldest park hotel.  However, don’t let age fool you as the hotel has gone thru a major renovation and has been brought back to it’s former elegance. The Old Faithful Inn has it’s rustic charm, but the Lake Hotel has it’s sophisticated grandeur.  The colonial exterior seems formally out of place inside a National Park, but after a long day outdoors the hotel’s sunroom warms the soul with sunset viewing in comfort and soothing piano music.  In addition, the Lake Hotel restaurant (in my opinion) is the best in the park for service, elegance and cuisine.  The whole experience is a step back in time.

TIP: Get dinner reservations when you book your hotel room even if you are staying at the Lake Lodge.

TIP No. 6

Best Short Hikes

I admit that I have not traveled every trail (yet), but have guided a number of first time visitors thru the park and enjoy their feedback.

A. The overlook at Old Faithful was mentioned with “seeing Old Faithful erupt”. This half-mile uphill hike is a peaceful getaway from the crowds and a wonderful vantage point for geyser watching.  Compliment the hike by visiting Solitary Geyser on the downward trail that connects to the geyser basin boardwalk.

B. The short version of Mystic Falls Trail is about a mile round trip.  The trailhead starts from the backside of the Biscuit Basin boardwalk and ventures off towards the mountains. Since Mystic Falls Trail is a loop a trail junction directs you either left (short version to the falls which is about .5 miles) or right (long version to the overlook and above the falls which is about 3 miles).  Both routes have their merits.  However, the short version is an easy hike that follows the Little Firehole River to the picturesque 70ft. falls. Once there look for venting thermal features along the river banks.  NOTE: Due to animal management the Mystic Falls Trail doesn’t open until the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend.

C. Trout Lake Trail is one of the shortest hikes to a beautiful, tranquil location.  The distance to the former “trout” hatchery lake is short, but the first quarter of a mile is upwards.  Visited often by fisherman this 12-acres lake is a peaceful setting for otter & bird watching. The trail encircles the lake, but the best view is looking northward from the log spillway bridge.  On a calm day the lake reflection of the surrounding mountainside begs you to take a photo.  If you feel more adventurous Buck Lake & Shrimp Lake are a short distance upstream. The Trout Lake Trailhead is a 10-space parking lot about 3 miles North of the Soda Butte Trailhead along the Cooke City Road.

D. Lake Yellowstone’s Storm Point Trail.  This a 2-mile round trip, easy hike that shows the parks diversity; open meadow, pond, dense forest and rugged lakeshore. This popular hike begins at the Indian Pond Trailhead which is about 2.5 miles East of Fishing Bridge.  So popular that Park Rangers lead a daily, 10a.m. guided tour during the Summer months.

E. Other noteworthy easy, short hikes. Sheepeater’s Cliffs Trail (near Swam Lake), The Lake Overlook (West Thumb), Natural Bridge (Lake Marina) & Wraith Falls (Outside Mammoth on the road to Tower Junction).