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Yellowstone is one of the most beloved National Parks in America.
It’s also enormous, with so much to do and see. So, I asked a local to highlight her favorite insider tips to this massive park. Melynda Harrison is a freelance writer and travel content creator based out of the Greater Yellowstone Ecoregion. She writes at TravelingMel.com and YellowstoneTrips.com and is on Instagram @TravelingMelMT. She’s the author of Ski Trails of Southwest Montana and the Yellowstone section of Fodor’s National Parks of the West.
Why did you move Montana? How long have you lived there?
I’ve lived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecoregion since 1997. I started in Jackson, Wyoming, moved to Bozeman, Montana in 2001, and then Livingston. I’ve been in Livingston since 2005.
In addition to travel writing, you also help people plan the perfect trip to your local national park, Yellowstone. When did you first visit this park? Why do you think it stuck with you?
The first time I visited Yellowstone was in 1995. I was going to school in Missoula, Montana and made a winter trip to the park. We cross-country skied and camped out the first night in the Mammoth Campground (the only campground open year round). The second night, the five of us broke college student squeezed into a room at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel because we were so cold the night before. Skiing in the park is magical and it’s still my favorite way to experience Yellowstone.
What’s something that might surprise people about Yellowstone?
I think people can be surprised at how big Yellowstone is. When I help people plan a trip, visitors sometimes want to see “everything” in a day and then drive to Glacier National Park (7 hours away). The park is 3,472 square miles, which is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The highest speed limit in the park is 45 mph and there will almost certainly be a bison jam or bear jam or just people stopped randomly in the road (don’t do that!). It takes a long time to get around Yellowstone. That’s part of its beauty.
There are five entrances to the park. Where do you think a first-time Yellowstone visitor should start their adventure? Why?
I can’t pick a favorite entrance! I usually recommend people stay in at least two different places during their trip. Otherwise, it just so much driving. So, maybe enter through the North or West Entrance and work your way south.
Both Gardiner (North Entrance) and West Yellowstone (West Entrance) are good gateway towns to base out of.
Where are your favorite places to stay in or around the park on a budget? Mid-range? Luxe?
If it is at all possible to stay inside the park, do it! You need to make a hotel reservation a year in advance or be ready to repeatedly call and ask about cancellations. Gardiner and West Yellowstone are good alternatives as they are on the border of the park. People like Cody, too, but it’s an hour to drive to Yellowstone and then another chunk of time to get to any of the highlights.
For a budget traveler, I recommend camping if you are into it. There are campgrounds throughout the Yellowstone. Roosevelt Lodge and Lake Hotel offer cabins that are more affordable.
Hotels in Yellowstone are upper mid-range hotels, but with hefty price tag. They are a long way from anywhere and it’s expensive to get supplies in. Plus, they have to provide housing for their workers since there aren’t any towns nearby. I love staying in the park hotels and recommend it if you can get a reservation and want to spend the money.
For Luxe accommodations, try the Sage Lodge in Paradise Valley. It’s about 30 minutes north of Yellowstone. Your next best bet is Jackson, WY. It’s a way from Yellowstone, but that’s where the nicest hotels are. There are also some high-end vacation rentals in Paradise Valley (north of the park) and outside of West Yellowstone/Island Park.
We can all cook a hotdog over a campfire, but as far as food outside the park goes, what are some of your favorite restaurants in the area?
Madison Crossing in West Yellowstone, Campione in Livingston, Snake River Grill in Jackson.
What would you suggest visitors do if they had one day to spend at the park?
Drive the Lower Loop. Stop at Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Fishing Bridge, Hayden Valley, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Norris Geyser Basin. It’s a lot to see in one day, but you’ll get a flavor of Yellowstone.
Drive the Lower Loop mentioned above on one day and the Upper Loop the next day. Spend some time in Mammoth and try to get into the Lamar Valley to see wildlife at sunrise or sunset.
With a week, you can take time to explore. Choose the areas you really want to see and get there early. Throw in some hikes, as well. I also recommend people play outside the Yellowstone border, too. Take advantage of Ranger talks and Evening Ranger Programs to get to know the park a little deeper.
In Gardiner you can do a “Paddle and Saddle” where you spend a couple hours on horseback and a couple hours rafting the Yellowstone River. Yellowstone Hot Springs and Chico Hot Springs are fun hot spring-fed pools to soak in.
In West Yellowstone (and Roosevelt Stables) you can attend a chuckwagon dinner, ride ATVs, or drive up to Big Sky and take the tram to the top of a mountain. There are guided fly fishing trips just about everywhere.
Describe your perfect day at the Yellowstone.
I wake up at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful on a sunny winter day. I take a shuttle to Spring Creek and cross-country ski back to the lodge. I’d read a book by the fire in the lobby and then have cocktails and dinner at the Obsidian Dining Room and ice skate under the stars. Then I’d walk out to see Old Faithful erupt with no one else around.
What are some of the best activities to partake in at the Yellowstone?
A guided wildlife tour is always a good idea. You can drive around and look for animals, but having someone talk to you about what you are seeing is priceless. Plus, they have good spotting scopes and know the movements of the animals intimately. I like Walking Shadow Ecology Tours of Yellowstone, but there are a lot of great guide services.
Yellowstone Forever has some great ecology and art classes.
What’s there to do at the park at night?
Stargaze. If you are coming from somewhere without dark night skies, I think the star viewing is pretty impressive. There are Evening Ranger Programs that start at 8 or 9 pm in several of the campgrounds. You can have a campfire if you are at a campsite with a fire ring and fire restrictions aren’t in effect. It doesn’t get dark until pretty late in the summer, so sunset wildlife viewing between 8-10 pm can be quite good.
What’s your favorite animal to watch in the park?
I always enjoy seeing wolves and bears, of course, but I get really excited about the more elusive critters like mountain lions and bobcats. Moose are fun to watch, but there aren’t as many in Yellowstone as in Grand Teton or Glacier National Parks.
What’s your favorite day hike?
There are so many great days hikes! I like walking up Mt Washburn and then down toward Seven Mile Hole and the Canyon. Elephant Back Mountain is a great place to get a view of Yellowstone Lake.
Besides hiking, what are some other ways to experience the park?
Most people see the park from their cars and walking the boardwalks. There are scenic cruises on Yellowstone Lake. You can rent a bike at Old Faithful and ride out to Lone Star Geyser – a flat, easy ride. In winter there are snowmobile tours and, my favorite, cross-country skiing opportunities.
What’s your favorite view in Yellowstone?
I like getting up high anywhere on the Northern Range and seeing the undulating landscape. Or looking at the waterfalls in the Bechler region while eating wild raspberries.
Best place to watch the sunrise and sunset?
The best sunset I’ve ever seen was from way in the backcountry in the northeast, on a ridge above Sunlight Basin. It’s a brutal climb to get there, but we didn’t see anyone for five days on that backpacking trip.
The patio at the Lake Hotel is a great spot to watch the sun set, too. Artist Point at Canyon is nice for sunrise.
What’s your favorite time of year at the park?
Winter! There are fewer people and a blanket of snow adds a whole other dimension to the experience.
What’s the coolest thing for history buffs to experience at the park?
The Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail goes through the park. It’s one segment of the historic 1877 flight where the Nez Perce were being chased by the U.S. Army.
Download an auto tour brochure or pick one up at the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce visitor center, West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center, or many hotel lobbies. It’s book 6 of the Experience the Nez Perce Trail Auto Tour brochure that covers Yellowstone. It has a lot of information and suggested stops within the park.
Something you wish more Yellowstone visitors would do more of? Less of?
I wish visitors wouldn’t stop in the road. I know that it is exciting to see animals, but it causes a traffic jam when one doesn’t pull all the way off the road. I’d also like to see people have more patience and kindness. There are many more visitors than the infrastructure of the park and gateway towns can support so we all need to be prepared to practice patience.
Best tips for making the most of your Yellowstone experience.
Make all of your reservations a year ahead of time. Plan to picnic or get take out as much as possible. And my number one tip is don’t try to see “everything.” Slow down and get to know the place in a deeper way.
The biggest mistake visitors make at Yellowstone.
Trying to see everything in a short time. I’ve been exploring the park for more than two decades and still have so much to see.
The #1 thing every Yellowstone visitor should do.
Find a quiet place next to a creek to sit and ponder. And write your legislators and ask them to increase badly needed funding to the National Park System.
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