February 12, 2016
Story and Photo by Carolyn Price
Photo at right: The tall basalt columnar joints that form Sheepeater Cliff on Yellowstone’s northern loop are a magnet for scramblers and cliff climbers.
The last time I was in Yellowstone National Park was 1960. I was six years old and it was the trip where my older brother snagged a bat on his cast over a bridge at twilight while another brother snatched my reel from me after I hooked a rainbow trout, landing it himself.
Sadly, that’s about all the memories I have of the world’s first national park. Happily, it was time to go back.
With our daughter and her cousin, both 13, in tow, we set off on that All-American driving vacation from Seattle to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming last summer.
While most people usually plan at least a week at the 2.2 million-acre park, we scheduled only a day and a half, due in part to other commitments, like hitting two Idaho water parks along the way.
Here then, are my tips for exploring Yellowstone Park in 36 hours.
Best time to go
Yellowstone set an attendance mark for close to 4 million visitors in 2015. If you’re vacationing with kids, it’s best to plan your trip in June. The crowds are down and the temperatures have yet to hit their summertime highs.
Don’t wait to make reservations
If you have your heart set on camping or lodging inside the park during the prime summer months, it may already be too late to get those kinds of accommodations. We recommend making your in-park reservations at least a year out.
We stayed in the town of West Yellowstone, a mile from the park’s boundary, and we were happy to book a small suite. Other border towns are Gardiner, Montana at the park’s north entrance, and Cody, Wyoming, a 60-mile drive west of the park.
Speaking of West Yellowstone
If you do stay in the town of West Yellowstone, it’s a short walk to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, a non-profit wildlife and educational park. We experienced up-close views of at least half a dozen grizzlies (in a faux natural habitat) that for various reasons have been removed from the wild. There are also two live wolf packs, several raptors and a world-class interactive bear exhibit and film.
Don’t miss a visit to the Center; it’s not just for kids.
Best time to view wildlife
Our two teenagers liked to sleep late and it’s a good thing, too: the best wildlife viewing is in the very early morning, or in late afternoon to dusk—which worked out perfect for us.
Our first day we drove the 100-mile south loop, which took about eight hours with several stops for geyser viewing, hiking and lunch.
Along the way, we pulled over to get a closer look at a Bison peacefully grazing in the meadow. We also stopped for a half-mile hike on the north-side trail at Inspiration Point, Yellowstone’s “Grand Canyon Park,” on the east side of the lower loop.
Across the canyon to the south is the better known feature called Artist Point. If you go, I recommend taking the north-side trail for far less crowds; the views are still as gorgeous.
The highlight of the day, however, was at dusk when we were rewarded with views of five adult elk and four calves grazing in a meadow near Lower Geyser Basin just as the sun was setting.
Navigating Busy Visitor Centers
If you’re hungry and heading into a visitors’ center and you see a tour bus pull up in front of it, run like mad to beat them in! Our dawdling cost us about 30 minutes in the cafeteria line at Old Faithful.
This particular Center, however, gets our nod for best selection of cafeteria food and wide-open views outside of Old Faithful Geyser, one of the park’s most notable attractions. And the prices were reasonable: the four of us ate lunch for about $25.
On the north side of the park, treat yourself to the renovated Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs, just five miles south of the north border on the Grand Loop. This is a good stop to learn about Yellowstone’s historical, cultural and wildlife exhibits and has the best gift shop in the park.
Climb up Sheepeater Cliffs
On our way north to Mammoth Hot Springs as we were leaving the park on our second day, a very small sign along the roadway caught our eye: Sheepeater Cliffs. Curious, we turned off the main highway, drove down a rocky dirt road and were startled to find a huge wall of exposed columns of basalt looming before us.
It didn’t take long for my nephew to scramble up to the top, finding precarious foot and finger holdings along the way. It is said that these amazing basalt columns were named after the Tukudika Indians, a band of Shoshone meaning “sheep eater.”
Nearby we found a trail that wound its way through thick brush along the banks of the Gardiner River to yet another outcropping of basalt columns. The double-delight of this hike was overlooking the thundering 25-foot Tukuarika Falls. Who knew what a short drive down a dirt road would reveal?
Yellowstone not only has attitude but altitude, tipping its hat at a height of 11,358 feet and a low point of 5,282 feet. More altitude equals drinking more water. Lots of it.
Beware Road Construction
There was some road construction inside the park during our trip. Be sure to check out any potential delays before you go so you can maximize your visit.
While the brochure and map provided at the Park entrance is very informative and requires your attention in order to see what Yellowstone offers, I also recommend purchasing a good book beforehand. It will be well worth your time to familiarize yourself with the book and accompanying maps prior to visiting the Park.
Carolyn Price is publisher of OutdoorsNW. Watch for her story on Idaho’s waterparks in our Spring edition.