Music: Big Country by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

If you’re traveling anywhere near western Wyoming, odds are you are heading to one of the most celebrated national parks in our country – Grand Teton!  No, not really.  Actually it’s – Yellowstone!  Established in 1872, it’s the oldest national park in the world, and like nothing we’ve ever seen. 

Yellowstone is beautiful, but its real claim to fame is its thermal activity.  Over 10,000 geysers, colorful hot springs and fumaroles (holes issuing gasses and steam) exist in the park.  They vent gasses like hydrogen sulfide that make the whole place smell like an egg salad sandwich (Yellowstones we call them now).

Despite the less than appealing smell, Yellowstone is hugely popular and we understand why.  This park has a lot to offer.  First of all, you could spend weeks here.  It’s huge!  At 2.2 million acres, it’s larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined (and much more interesting).   It has unique features that you can’t find anywhere else, spectacular views, mountains, meadows, waterfalls both large and small, and you really can’t beat the wildlife.  Over the course of three days we saw seven (yes seven!) bears, several mountain goats, and many, many elk and bison – and that was without even trying. 

While we can extol many praises on Yellowstone, any large, volcanic, heavily traveled park has a few drawbacks too.  First of all, the gasses – they’re not just smelly, but if you spend too long in the fumes you can come away with red eyes and a slight headache at the end of the day.  On the other hand, for those with a flatulent nature yearning to be free, this could be your paradise. 

The second drawback is not necessarily a bad thing but can lead to some disappointment.  Because this place is so giganti-normous, it’s not one of those places you can visit for a couple of days and be done.  We spent hours driving and hours walking over several days just to see the major parts of the park.  This means we’re leaving several smaller yet still interesting areas unexplored – difficult to do when you know you’re missing out on some good stuff!

The last Yellowstone difficulty comes from the fact that it’s pretty darn crowded.  Most of us learn about Old Faithful when we’re very young and even saw it in cartoons. Everybody knows about this place and they come from all over the world to see it.  It’s a top ten, bucket list destination for generations of people, and millions come here every year.   Consequently, parking lots, bathrooms, trails, and visitors centers are all packed.   

Luckily, we have learned patience throughout our travels and are not easily unsettled by roaming hoards of tourists.  We understand that some travelers may not be prepared, however, and so have put together some handy tips based on our experiences here.  We believe that, if adopted, these would make Yellowstone a better destination for all.

Tip 1:  Don’t Be In a Hurry

Old Faithful erupts approximately every 90 minutes.   If you miss it, take a walk on one of the trails, or visit the gift shop.  No need to scream at grandma.  She’s moving that walker as fast as she can. 

When parking in a crowded parking lot, wait for someone to fully pull out of a spot before trying to pull into it.  No need to shove your way in.  Have faith that the spot will still be there when the previous tenant is driving away from it. Driving into a vacant spot is much less frustrating and much more rewarding than driving into one that is still mostly occupied. 

Tip 2:  Find Proper Areas for Children to Play

Boiling hot springs and crowded, two-foot wide boardwalks make for a dangerous combination, and are probably not ideal places for children to play.  If your child has extra energy, the parking lot is a much more suitable place to run.  Thirty percent of motorists are cautious of people while driving in parking lots.  Geysers, on the other hand, are much less predictable.  

Tip 3:  Don’t Get Too Close to the Wildlife

Mainly this applies to people who are not very bright – so the majority of you can disregard.  For others, to keep things very simple: THESE ANIMALS WILL KILL YOU.  Trying to pet a wild buffalo, or attempting to get closer to a grizzly bear who is only thirty feet away may end badly.  While there are plenty of people who would benefit from selling the grisly photos taken, there are others who may not enjoy the sight and could in fact lose their lunch.  Once inside thermal pools, blood and vomit can really disrupt the delicate ecological balance of this area – and no one wants that.

Tip 4:  Avoid Creating Traffic Jams

While visiting Yosemite, you will have multiple opportunities to see wildlife.  The best way to discover wildlife is to drive until you find a group of ten or more motorists who have abandoned their vehicles in the middle of the road.  These vehicles are your cue to get out the camera.  Before leaving your car, however, consider pulling over onto the side of the road or another safe location where you will not be blocking the thousands of cars trying to get past you.  Yes, it may feel as if those ten motorists have already set a precedent, but trust us, you don’t want to be that guy.  Karma is a bitch.

Tip 5:  When You Get Hit With Karma, See Tip #1

So you’ve gone and parked in the middle of the road to get that elusive grizzly shot.  Now you must pay your dues.  Typically payback will come when you are less than a mile away from a bathroom and you really, really have to go.  Someone sees a bear and traffic will come to a complete standstill for at least 20 minutes.  We call this a bear-jam. 

Worse than bear-jams are bison or elk-jams; not because they take more time to get through, but because elk and bison are everywhere.  Not only will you feel the annoyance of being stopped, but you will seethe at the audacity of people who are stopping you for no apparent reason, as pictures of bison and elk can be obtained at any one of a million places around the park.  Patience is the key; patience and the knowledge that smacking anyone upside the head rarely ends well.  

So there you have it, our tips for a better Yellowstone experience.  Use them wisely, and happy travels!

An End Note:  Oh yeah, we did also visit Grand Teton National Park while in this area.  We kind of feel sorry for GTNP, being so overshadowed by its neighbor to the north and all.  As it is, people can barely go three sentences without mentioning the word Yellowstone around here, but don’t mention GT very often.  The reason it’s getting included just as an end note is because, well, there’s not much to say about it when compared to the other park.  We’re not sure how many people come to western Wyoming just to visit Grand Teton, although it could definitely be a destination in and of itself.  Grand Teton is beautiful, and definitely worth a visit...especially if you’re planning to visit Yellowstone.  Heh.

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