Yellowstone is one of the crown jewels of the National Park System.
It’s the 4th most visited national park in the U.S., behind Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Growing up, I thought it’d achieved pop culture icon status, with Old Faithful making it’s way into countless cartoons, westerns, and vernacular.
I wish I couldn’t shake the bad taste it leaves in my mouth when I visit there.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful landscape. If national parks were a sampler platter, Yellowstone would be it. Vast meadows with undulating grasses. Craggy mountains rising above valleys scored into the earth. Bubbling evidence of forces simmering in the center of the earth. And of course majestic animals – thousands of bison and the titillating promise of elusive bear and wolf packs.
However, it’s next to impossible to feel alone in Yellowstone, especially during the summer.
Old Faithful has a schedule. Showing up to watch it is like attending a sporting event – good luck parking, navigating among the hotels surrounding it, and then finding a shoulder to peer over.
The Bison may as well be in a zoo. Spot one on the side of the road, and you’ll spot dozens of camera happy tourists with selfie sticks admiring the beasts.
Find a trail, and sojourn with dozens of others through the landscape.
It’s hard to escape the fact that Yellowstone has been designed as a tourist destination, despite the untouched natural beauty. In Yosemite, it’s escapable. Here, it’s a constant low hum underpinning your experience.
Atop Mt. Washburn’s hikable 10K+ feet sits a fire lookout overseeing a significant portion of the park. Stare through the windows, and someone’s secluded home stares back at you. It’s sparse and has essentially no walls to allow whoever is inside and their partner unobstructed views of the park to keep an eye out for wildfires.
Every two weeks, a supply run is made, navigating the two-track that doubles as the trail for hikers all the way up the mountain. If there ever was a lonely existence, it’s this one.
On the way up, I stumbled into a herd of mountain goats grazing on the mountain slopes. They couldn’t have cared less about the dozen or so of us hikers who stopped to marvel and what was basically just another weekday lunch.
Grand Prismatic Spring
This popular Yellowstone attraction has a lesser known (and infinitely better) way to experience it. Driving up to the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot means you’ll fight for a parking spot and walk along a veritable conveyor belt of tourists past a steaming spring. The color is noticeable, but unimpressive.
Instead, stop at the Fairy Falls parking area and hike along the path for a little over a half mile until you see a series of paths heading up the hill on your left, and Grand Prismatic Spring on your right. A short trek up places you at a small clearing where you can see the spring as it was intended to be experienced – from above.
Hope for a day of partial clouds, so that you can watch the colors breathe.
I saw thousands of bison in Yellowstone. Everything from small herds just off the road, where you can step out of your car and really get a sense of the size and power of these creatures. And then driving through Lamar Valley, where an expanse between you and the mountain range can hold hundreds of buffalo. Drive a little bit further, and there’s another herd of brown flecks dotting the green pasture.
It takes a little bit more work, but finding small moments like these are what makes it easy to see how Yellowstone is a crown jewel of the NPS. Even amid the hordes of tourists that are attracted by its beauty.