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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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