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Yellowstone National Park: How to Plan a Visit?

Often I am asked which one is my favorite national park? Yellowstone? Yosemite? The Grand Canyon? It is hard to tell! It is almost like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. My response is that they differ from each other and they are great on their own merits for different reasons. For hiking I prefer the Grand Canyon because both the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail rank highly on my top five favorite hiking trails. And what can I add to Yosemite? It is referred to as the mother of all parks and I am not going to dispute that. However, it is one of the busiest national parks along with Yellowstone. Not only the iconic Old Faithful, but the majority of the world’s geysers and hot springs which are preserved in the vastness of the Yellowstone National Park.

Scenery along US-191 in Montana's Yellowstone country      Scenery along US-191 in Montana’s Yellowstone country

How to plan a visit to Yellowstone? What to see and do depends on how many days one plans to spend in the park. The options abound and it is hard to choose which attractions to explore. On a morning in the Spring of 2016, I was headed to Yellowstone not knowing if I would stay one, two, or three days. It all depended if I would be able to get one of the first-come, first-serve basis campsites and how many days would I be able to get.True to what I have written before, one of the joys of a road trip lies on the fact that it is not only about the destination; it is also about what we see on the road.

Having driven from Glacier National Park in northern Montana, on my way to Yellowstone I spent the night in Bozeman. After a couple of days of rain and snow, I woke up to a beautiful, sunny morning. The skies were bright blue and the views were simply amazing. Driving in scenic Yellowstone country is one of a kind drive! Since one of the campgrounds open in early Spring is Madison, I had to use the west entrance to get in the park. I drove south on US-191 passing by Big Sky and driving along the west edge of Yellowstone. Passing through Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, this highway not only cuts through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, but it is perhaps the most scenic highway in the United States. A road trip along this highway is memorable, regardless of the time of the year.

Early Spring at Yellowstone National Park
Early Spring at Yellowstone National Park

It was my lucky day! I arrived at the Madison campground just in time to get one of the last campsites still available. The campsite itself was good and well located. However, it is a rather ‘busy’ campground. With a lot of RVs and trailers, it has a lot of traffic. Moreover, for the lack of shrubs or trees, there is no privacy or protection from the wind and the dust the comes with it; something that could not go unnoticed because it was a particularly windy day. In fact, the wind was so strong that a couple of tents in a site nearby had been blown away. Setting up the tent under strong gusty winds was a bit tricky, but I secured it with extra pegs. Yet, as I drove to Big Sky to meet a friend for lunch at the Lone Peak Brewery, all I had in my mind was whether or not the tent would be still there when I came back later.

Lake Yellowstone with mountain range in the background - Yellowstone National Park
Lake Yellowstone with mountain range in the background – Yellowstone National Park

My planned three days stay at Yellowstone did not include plans to hike because of the minimum three people for hiking. I would spend three days of sightseeing; and there is plenty to see in Yellowstone for days! Just driving through the many roads that crisscross the park offers the most spectacular views. Nonetheless, as the National Park Service publication warns, travel hazards and delays are to be expected. Driving cautiously and defensively is a must! Road congestion are not only caused by the number of vehicles but by the wild life in the park that has the right of the way. In the early hours of the day and before sunset, herds of bisons can take the entire road bringing traffic to a halt.

Scenery in the proximity to Lake Village at Yellowstone National Park
Scenery in the proximity to Lake Village at Yellowstone National Park

In a 2.2 million acres park with so many attractions, planning what to see based on how long one is visiting Yellowstone is essential. It is tempting to try and cover as much as possible. However, I would not recommend overstretching the list of things to do and attractions to see if time is limited. For a one day only visit, I think that it is intuitive to visit the Old Faithful area and walk around the geyser basin. The Old Faithful is undeniably the poster boy for Yellowstone. For a one day visit, one can add one of the other hydrothermal areas, such as Norris, West Thumb, or Mammoth. Quite frankly, they are my favorite features. With two or more days to spend at Yellowstone, one can explore one area of the park more in depth. That’s what I did! However, it is hard to concentrate in one area knowing that there are so many great features to see and areas to explore.

Yellowstone National Park
Red and white travertine terrace calcium carbonate deposits – Yellowstone National Park

 

Yellowstone National Park
Travertine terrace – Yellowstone National Park

 

Old Faithful - Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful – Yellowstone National Park

 

Bison at Yellowstone National Park
Bison at Yellowstone National Park

 

Yellowstone National Park
Mammoth hydrothermal area – Yellowstone National Park

 

Grand Canyon South Rim

The Grandest Canyon in Texas

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Glacier National Park: Under Open Big Skies in Montana

I had crossed the United States from New England to the Southwest and Southern California, and driven along the Pacific coast to the Pacific Northwest in roughly two months. Now it was time to head back east. I left Seattle to the Glacier National Park in Montana, knowing that the chances of camping and hiking were not that great due to wintry conditions. In Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, where I spent the night, I learned that some roads in the Glacier National Park were open. I also found out that a couple of campgrounds were open. Despite the uncertainties, I chose to take my chances. Driving across eastern Washington, through northern Idaho, and into Montana offers breathtaking views of mountains, valleys and lakes. If for anything else, if you love road trips, driving through that region is an experience of a lifetime.

Flathead Lake, Montana
Flathead Lake, Montana

Coming from Idaho into Montana and heading northeast toward the Glacier National Park, the drive through the Flathead Nation territory is visually astonishing. The landscape stand like paintings in the horizon. Passing by the Flathead Lake I could not resist not to stop alongside the road a few times to take in the breathtaking views in the Flathead Valley. The Flathead valley gets its name from the Salish “Flathead” Indians who inhabit the Flathead Indian Reservation, which is located at the southern end of the lake. As I wrote in South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, my exchange with a Hopi who spoke about his people and his ancestors was a turning point in the early stages of my road trip. In that article I described how my hiking and camping trip took on a more spiritual connection with the landscape around me. It was the moment when the soil and rocks underneath my hiking boots were more than a path; they were sacred grounds for American ancestral peoples.

I drove up the mountain to enter the Glacier National Park through the west side. I still had a couple a few hours of daylight when I arrived at the park but there were no personnel at the park’s entrance. I located one of the open campground in the Lake McDonald Valley where I could pick a campsite and self register using the registration drop box. Perhaps, due to the weather conditions there were plenty of great open spots. I set up my tent, collected firewood while a couple black bears roamed the area. With everything set up for the night, I went for a hike to the landing area at lake McDonald. The view was spectacular despite the fact that it was overcast, gloomy, and cold. The still water in the lake mirrored the snow covered mountains at the far edge of the lake in a serene, peaceful setting.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park - Montana
Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park – Montana

Lake McDonald Valley is the hub of activity on the west side of Glacier National Park. Once occupied by massive glaciers that carved this area thousands of years ago, the valley is now filled with spectacular sights, hiking trails, diverse species of plants and animals, historic chalets, and the grand Lake McDonald Lodge. The lodge was still closed for the season and except for a couple of fishermen at the landing on the lake shores, I had the lake to myself. Ten miles long and nearly 500 feet deep (152.4 m), Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park, is a direct result of glacial carving. High peaks surrounding the lake all show evidence of the power of glaciers to carve even the hardest of rock. The powerful glaciers that carved the broad “u-shaped” valley that Lake McDonald sits in also carved smaller hanging valleys with wonderful waterfalls that are accessible by numerous hiking trails.

Hiking alone was not something that was advised. The guidelines for hiking at the Glacier National Park suggest hiking in groups of three people, as it is the case in many national parks. Besides the number of hikers guideline, the trails were mostly covered in snow with more storms in the forecast. When I returned to my campsite to stargaze by the fire, I noticed that I was no longer alone. A couple of guys had taken the site next to mine, although the distance separating the campsites are bigger than in many other parks that I have camped. It was not until the next morning that we spoke as they prepared to leave the park. They were from Minnesota, a place they recommended that I visit in the future. Perhaps because I told them that Minnesota is one of the only two states of the United States’ fifty states that I have not visited.

My campsite neighbors from Minnesota told me to try and camp in the east side of the Glacier National Park because the views were far greater than the views in the west side of the park. They had just camped in the east side of the park and they told me that it was sunny with bright big skies.  Since the weather was getting bad that morning with sleet and rain, I decided to dismount camp and head over to the east side, where I was promised bright, sunny blue skies.

Located a half-mile west of the St. Mary entrance near St. Mary, Montana, about 33 miles northwest of Browning and less than 20 miles south of the Canadian border, St. Mary campground is the largest in the east side of the park and it was the only one that was open at that time. There was no vehicle restrictions, but driving up over the Logan Pass was a bit trick. In the few miles that separate Browning from St. Mary, I experienced all different types of weather conditions. First, sunny and clear in Browning. Then, flurries that turned into large snow flakes in the size of a golf ball, rain that turned into sleet and ice, and temperatures that dropped more than 20 degrees in just a few miles. Strong winds and densely foggy conditions made the drive up to St. Mary very dangerous. Not surprisingly, I was the only driver on the road to St. Mary.

Horse alongside Route 89, east side of Glacier National Park, St. Mary - Montana
Horse alongside Route 89, east side of Glacier National Park, St. Mary – Montana

Arriving at St. Mary visitor center, I was informed that camping was not recommended due to a major snow storm on the way that night with the possibility to continue on for the following days. However, the park ranger told me that if I chose to stay and camp for the night he would allow me as long as I had food supply for five to seven days. He explained that at that time of the year they do not rely on weather forecast so much because the weather conditions can rapidly change. He was not sure what was going to happen and the pass could be closed for days if the storm became a major storm. With all that in mind and the fact that except for black and grizzly bears, the campground was empty, I decided to turn around and spend a couple of days in Browning.

North American Natives, Browning - Montana
North American Natives, Browning – Montana

On my way down to Browning it was snowing heavily in the higher elevations with light snow in valley. The news the following morning was that three feet of snow had fallen in the mountains overnight. One of the reasons I wanted to stop by in Browning was to visit an old friend from my college days who was living in Montana and teaching at the Blackfeet’s school district. However, as I turned up in Browning earlier than I had planned, I missed visiting my old friend from New York. The day I arrived he was involved with organizing a field trip with his students to the great plains for the big event that was about to take place. Then he and his wife were heading to Helena to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Nonetheless, my stay in Browning was productive and educational. I learned a lot about the history of the Blackfeet and part of the history of the colonization and expansion into the West. It was a complete coincidence to have arrived in Browning just before the return of the buffalo to the plains. More than one hundred years after the disappearance of the buffalo from the plains, as a gift from the Canadian government to the Blackfeet nation the buffalo was being reintroduced to the Blackfeet territory in Montana. The event was being celebrated the following day after my arrival in Browning. Bus loads of school children were taken to the plains to witness the event. I would not have known about the magnitude and importance of the event if I had not overhead two journalists interviewing a Blackfeet chief at the Museum of the Plain Indians. He was probably in his eighties and he had many stories to tell. They were stories he heard from his grandmother and other elders when he was a child. They were fascinating stories that covered the period circa 1870 when the buffalo extinction took place.

On my way to Bozeman, the drive was relaxing. It seemed that I had the road all to myself and the sunset in the big sky resembled paintings on canvas. The only difference is that this was a gigantic canvas extended in the big open skies. I had made peace with the fact that the heavy Winter that had prolonged well into mid Spring became a spoiler to my plans. However, it did not mean I was going to interrupt my road trip. All there was to it, was that I had to adapt and change plans according to mother nature’s unpredictable ways. The Glacier National Park was the last of my destinations in the northern part of the country. I had decided that from there I would head south to Utah and into Arizona for the following couple of weeks to avoid the extended forecast’s prediction of rain and snow storms in the north. I was getting tired of hearing from locals that “this is unusual for this time of the year.” However, I still had to put up with at least one more week of rain.

 

Sunset under the big skies of Montana
Sunset under the big skies of Montana

 

 

 

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