INSIDER’S GUIDE TO YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
I first fell in love in June, 1950. Grandpa and Grandma Sperry decided it was time to introduce their first grandchild, little Jimmy Berry, to the joys of Pullman travel and to Yellowstone National Park, known by one word in those days, “Wonderland”. (NOTE: Yes, my mother’s maiden name was Mildred Mary Sperry Berry.) After 59 years, I’m still in love with trains and Yellowstone, though they’re not number one and two anymore.
As of September ’08, I was totally retired after 42 years and two careers: one was for the money and the other was for love. Some very lucky people find both love and money in one career, but for most of us, it takes two. My first career ended in 1987 as a single parent saying goodbye to my last of three fledged chicks, now all in college. The big nest was empty and Big Bird was going to fly away; no more Monday mornings in corporate America!
“Gosh, Batman, why don’t we park the Batmobile, get out of the Batcave and have some fun? Let’s let the Joker win for a change!”
My first job in Yellowstone National Park was the only job I could get in the Park in 1987: I was a room attendant (aka maid) at Lake Yellowstone Hotel, just like my mother was the summers of 1927 and 1928. The concessionaire (now known as Xanterra) told me if I made it as a maid, I could go anywhere, including bus driver, tour guide and/or snowcoach driver tour guide, whatever that was? They’d train me.
After winning the coveted “Golden Toilet Brush Award” for 1987, I became a snowcoach driver/guide the winter of 1987-88 and a bus driver guide during the big fires of 1988. I did one or both until 2008, when by personal fires finally went out and I retired. During those 21 years as a guide, I did over 2000 summer tours and almost 1200 tours in a snowcoach. I entertained, educated and had lots of fun with 71,000 visitors and one very special “Princess”, whom I married 9-8-89. Lindy has been my number one love ever since.
Yellowstone, although number seven in size among national parks, is a very big park: larger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together. She’s 2.2-million acres, 3500 square miles. More importantly, Yellowstone is the very first national park in the world (established in 1872), and I believe, still the Gold Standard. It is five national parks in one:
1. The greatest array of hot springs and geysers in the world, some 10000 thermal features.
2. One of the most beautiful canyons with waterfalls in the world, the Canyon of the Yellowstone,
3. The best example of travertine (limestone) terraces in the world, Mammoth Hot Springs.
4. The largest lake in North America above 7000 feet, Yellowstone Lake.
5. The greatest variety of animals in North America, including wolves, bears, elk, moose and almost everything else.
Ninety-six percent of Yellowstone is in Wyoming, 3% in Montana and a little sliver of 1% in Idaho. Yellowstone was a national park (the first and only) before these three states became states and the bill creating the concept was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, (1869-1877), not as commonly thought, by Teddy Roosevelt, who served from 1901 through 1909.
Inexcusably, there is no longer a public transportation system within the Park (as exists in Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Glacier, among others) nor service to any of the surrounding towns, airports, attractions or bus terminals; you’re on your own. Full-day bus, van or private tours are available from each of the hotels within the Park, or you can do the same from my old stomping ground, West Yellowstone, Montana, located, logically enough at the West entrance to Yellowstone. Yellowstone Alpen Guides, Buffalo Bus Tours, Three Bear Lodge, and Yellowstone Adventures all operate daily tours from this gateway community. Check with the Chamber of Commerce for more information.
As a rail fan, rail buff, foamer (but not a “flim”—foamer living with mother), I must recognize the essential role railroads played in establishing, financing and serving all of our Western national parks. It was the Northern Pacific Railroad which pushed Congress for our very first one, 11 years before the railroad arrived (1883) and 33 years before cars and buses arrived, 72 years before those evil airplanes arrived and 120 years before those truly evil Hummers arrived, pulling 30-foot trailers.
At one time, Yellowstone National Park was served by five different railroads (Union Pacific; Northern Pacific; Burlington; Chicago and Northwestern; and the Milwaukee) and each offered a special package tour which included everything except the cocktails and rubber tomahawks. Those who signed up for these tours, mostly the wealthy Eastern types, became known as “tourists” (and now you know the rest of that story).
When my grandparents and I arrived in West Yellowstone on UP’s Yellowstone Special in 1950, there were 46 (out of 412) tour buses waiting to take us on our weeklong journey through Yellowstone, staying each night at a different location (Old Faithful, West Thumb, Lake, Canyon, Mammoth and West Yellowstone). Ten of these very historic 1937 White buses have been restored by Ford Motor Company (thank you, Henry) and are now doing mini-tours in the Park. Sign up for one, they’re very authentic and lots of fun, unless you need air-conditioning!
Now that I’ve established my credentials, here’s an insider’s look at our first—and the world’s first—national park: “America’s Best Idea”!
1. Best thing to do if you only have one day:
Stay home! Yellowstone needs at least three days and four if you include the Grand Tetons (and the Tetons are a must!).
2. Best time of year to visit:
1. End of August is a dead period as kids go back to school. Lodging and campground sites are easily available and it’s not crowded at all.
2. Late June, when there are animals everywhere but the weather is iffy. (Snow is not out of the realm of possibities.)
3. Late September, when the animals are everywhere but the weather is iffy. (See number 2 above.)
3. Best campgrounds (out of 12 within the Park):
1. Madison and Bridge Bay (at the Lake area) because they’re both centrally located, both take reservations and both are attractive.
2. Fishing Bridge is the best RV park and only campground with full hook-ups. Second best for RV’s is the Grizzly Park in West Yellowstone. The worst campground is Mammoth Hot Springs at the northern end of the Park. Hot, ugly, bare and way out of the way, it’s a true dog!
4. Best day hikes:
1. Number one is the “back basin” at Old Faithful. It’s a three-sided loop, Old Faithful to Black Sand Basin to Biscuit Basin and back to Old Faithful, it’s very flat and easy—about six miles total. Every inch of the way there is a thermal feature and every inch is totally fascinating! In the good ole days, much of this hike was along the main road.
2. Norris Geyser Basin. This is the most dynamic, hottest and most changeable of Yellowstone’s 22 thermal basins. The two-mile loop is of medium difficulty and, once more, loaded with thermal action.
3. Mammoth Hot Springs. This three-mile hike is classed as “difficult” since it’s all uphill to the Mammoth Terraces, for a mile and a half. Then, of course, it’s an easy mile-and-a-half down. Get someone to drop you off at the top to start your hike.
4. Canyon. The Canyon Rim can be as many miles as you wish, one to 20. But it’s absolutely stunning as you hike along the edge. For those who want the full Canyon experience, take Uncle Tom’s trail down to almost the bottom of the Canyon under the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. This hike is an easy 237 steps down (there’s a staircase) and an arduous 237 steps back up—especially when you are at an altitude of 8000 feet. We’re forewarning you “elevation-challenged”.
5. Best fishing:
Yellowstone National Park is very boring for fishing nowadays. If you’re a true angler (aka “fisher”) sign up for an adventure on the Madison River outside of Yellowstone and go with a fishing guide or charter a guide and fishing boat from the Bridge Bay M arina on Yellowstone Lake. This is a truly great experience, especially if you’re traveling with kids and you don’t have to take home any fish (most fishing in Yellowstone is “catch and release”).
6. Best picnic spots:
There are 27 appointed picnic areas in Yellowtone and each of them has a latrine. That’s important. The best two are Bridge Bay, in the Lake area, and Nez Perce, along the Firehole River. Other personal favorites include (check your official Park map for exact locations) Pebble Creek, West Thumb, 7-Mile Bridge, Madison Junction and Sylvan Lake.
7. Best geyser basins:
1. Old Faithful (the Upper Geyser Basin)
2. Norris (in the middle of the Park)
3. Fountain Paint Pots (the Lower Geyser Basin)
Least interesting geyser basin? West Thumb on Yellowstone Lake. It’s grossly overrated and dying fast!
8. Best spot for animal-watching:
Without question the answer is the Lamar Valley before 10 a.m. or after 6 p.m. (There’s almost a 100% guarantee, especially wolves and bears.)
9. Best people to talk to for advice:
A tour guide, of course, especially one out of West Yellowstone The rangers at the visitors’ centers are good, too—but sometimes too politically correct to tell you the complete story (particularly the “don’t bother to go there” stuff).
10. Best way to see Yellowstone and avoid crowds:
Despite what you’ve heard, Yellowstone is not “too crowded to enjoy”, even during the height of the season (July through mid-August). The single most important tip I can give: Don’t visit Old Faithful between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Have lunch at Lake or Mammoth or Canyon. Also, tour the Park in a clockwise direction, going away from Old Faithful between ten and three. Have breakfast at the Old Faithful Inn, or dinner (you’ll need reservations well in advance for that).
11. Is Old Faithful still faithful?
Absolutely yes—just as faithful as ever. However, some people think the geyser used to go off every hour on the hour. Wrong! Some people think it used to be higher. Wrong! The truth is, not all eruptions are the same, and that’s always been so: 90 to 180 feet, with a 133-foot average. Nowadays, the interval between eruptions is around 90 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes. Old Faithful is the best geyser in the world, but it’s one of 400 in Yellowstone and 600 in the world. It’s not even the biggest in Yellowstone—but it’s predictable, erupts frequently and is a “giant” geyser (over 100-foot eruptions). There are 12 giant geysers in Yellowstone (and one in Siberia).
12. Best Visitors’ Center:
In 2006, the National Park Service opened its new Visitors’ Center at Canyon Village and it is a gem! It’s also a great learning experience for everyone, especially kids. Unfortunately, the Old Faithful VC is temporarily located in a trailer, while a new one is being built, which will take five years. Mammoth Hot Springs VC and Grant Village VC tie for second-best.
13. Best gift shops:
1. Old Faithful General Stores operated by Delaware North.
2. Canyon General Store
3. Any store in West Yellowstone, Montana. There are 12 rubber tomahawk stores and one refrigerator magnet outlet of international quality!
14. Best places to visit around the Yellowstone area:
1. Grand Teton National Park (a must!)
2. Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming
3. Quake Lake, outside West Yellowstone, administered by the US Forest Service.
4. The West Yellowstone Historic District and Museum
15. Best airport:
Fly into Salt Lake City and rent a car, then do a loop. Airports nearer the Park, like West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Idaho Falls and Jackson Hole are close but expensive!
16. Best RV deal for those who don’t own an RV:
Tracks and Trails, located in Grand Junction, Colorado, will rent you an RV and map out your entire Western adventure, including guides and reservations. They really do it right and their rentals, if pricy, are first-rate. (No, they’re not paying me to say this. I’ve guided many of their clients and know firsthand how capable T & T is.
In 2006, Yellowstone Park archivist Lee Whittlesey and two of his hiking buddies published a most amazing book called “A Guide to Yellowstone Waterfalls and Their Discovery”. It sums up and documents, with lots of photos, five years of hiking the vast backcountry of the Park and the discovery of over 200 previously unknown waterfalls! Only about 4% of Yellowstone is reached by road; the rest is an explorer’s paradise with over 1000 miles of backcountry trails and hundreds of primitive campsites (which are assigned by the Park Service’s Backcountry Office). If your camping interest goes beyond an ice machine and a flush toilet, (and Lindy and I are strictly warm shower people) then Yellowstone Country is the center of the universe and there are many outfitters and guides waiting to serve you and hold your hand or your freeze-dried beef stew (ugh).
After 21 years, my very last trip was on August 28, 2008, and I was nothing more than a taxi for 12 professional men and their two fishing guides from Madison River Outfitters (another great West Yellowstone institution) and a trailer-load of equipment including several cases of good wine and warm beer (good on you, boys!). I picked them all up at 5:45 a.m. at the end of their trail where they parked their cars; then my trusty company van (aka Vanna White) and I drove them about 80 miles to the trailhead of their eight-day horse and fishing trip. As we departed at 6:00 a.m., I said to them (all wide awake with strong coffee and excitement), “Gentlemen, this is literally my last trip as a tour guide. During my 21 years, I’ve said many, many times, ‘You’ll want to be with me on my last trip when I finally tell all those raunchy stories I’ve been told by my passengers ‘cause on my last day I’ll be fire-proof!’”
Those Philadelphia doctors and lawyers seemed very interested and jumped to attention.
“But gentlemen, I have some bad news. I can’t remember them! But I will say this, “ ‘Vanna’ and I are sure glad we’re taking you rather than picking you up after eight days of horses and fish and beer! And cigars, too, right?”
Finally, here are some very important numbers to call for additional information and/or reservations:
1. For general info and outfitter info, call the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center at 1-406-646-7701.
2. For in-Park reservations, including campgrounds, call Xanterra at 1-307-344-7901 or 1-866-439-7375.
3. For personal advice about your Yellowstone experience, call me personally at 1-505-350-2758 (there’s no charge!).
4. For private tour information, call my former boss at Yellowstone Alpen Guides, 1-800-858-3502.
5. For the complete RV experience for people who don’t own an RV, call Tracks and Trails at 1-800-247-0970.