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An Insider’s Guide to Yellowstone National Park

Beautiful Yellowstone National Park

Beautiful Yellowstone National Park

Feature

Author: TrailMob
Date: 03.01.16

Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872.  However, Yellowstone’s history dates back much farther. People have been living in Yellowstone for more than 11,000 years, with the Sheep Eaters being the most well known while European-americans began exploring the area in the early 1800’s. Colorful accounts were largely written off as hallucinations. Lewis and Clark expedition member John Colter told others of Yellowstone but his accounts were marginalized as “Colter’s Hell.” The first organized expedition explored Yellowstone in 1870.  Two years later President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone National Park and created a movement that would be dubbed “America's Best Idea” and would ultimately lead to the protection of more than 400 places in our nation for future generations.      

Early park management strategies come across as made up when compared to modern day policies. This is especially noticeable in bear management policies. In the late 1800’s Yellowstone’s bear gathered nightly to feed on garbage behind park hotels. Consider this, it was not until 1902 that the park officially banned hand-feeding bears. Clearly these terrible policies were awful for bears and humans. Between 1931 and 1969 Yellowstone averaged 48 bear inflicted human injuries and more than 100 cases of property damage per year. In 1970 that all changed, when National Park Service implemented a strict bear management program to get the park’s bears back on natural foods. The program was nothing short of an astonishing success.  During the 2000’s the park averaged a single bear to human injury per year.  Property damage also fell tremendously and the number of bears killed per year fell from 33 black bears and 4 grizzlies during the 1960’s to 0.4 black bears and 0.1 grizzlies per year in the 2000’s.

Today when visiting the park, previous management strategies seem like something that is made up. Despite more than 4 million people visiting each year, Yellowstone is still as wild and beautiful as it was some 144 years ago. It’s a place where grizzlies and wolves reign supreme and humans are for the most part simply visitors to their land.

There is a lot of stuff to do and see in Yellowstone. Here is a sampling of the outdoor recreation in the park.

Hiking

The best way to see and enjoy Yellowstone is how 95% of folks who visit the park don’t! Lace up your boots and go for a hike on the more than 1,000 miles of trails.  Here are a few of our favorite day hikes in Yellowstone. 

Backcountry Camping

 If you have the time and inclination, get into Yellowstone’s backcountry. You have not truly lived until you’ve slept where there is something that can eat you. Or in Yellowstone’s case, several things. The park has more than 300 backcountry campsites. We highly suggest you plan your trip in advance and make backcountry permit reservations

Biking

Mountain biking is not allowed in the backcountry or on park trails.  But riding the park road is a wonderful way to enjoy Yellowstone. Heads up though... literally! Be careful when riding on the park’s roads, they are extremely busy with cars. Several gravel roads are open to BOTH bicycle and automotive traffic. The Old Gardiner Road and Blacktail Plateau Drive allow bike traffic and one-way auto traffic. There a quite a few other roads in the Mammoth and Old Faithful areas as well. Check with rangers at a visitor center for details.

Boating

Boating is permitted on most of Yellowstone Lake and on Lewis Lake. Only non-motorized boating is permitted on most other lakes.  Don’t forget your fishing pole! The park service  desperately wants to rid Yellowstone Lake of invasive lake trout

Fly Fishing

 No Bait… No Barbs… No Leads… Just flies. There are a lot of fish in Yellowstone’s streams and rivers. Unfortunately many non-natives such as, brook, brown, lake and rainbow trout are pushing out native cutthroat trout.  Consequently, Yellowstone encourages and in some cases requires fly fishermen to keep non-native species. In the Lamar River Drainage all rainbow trout must be killed and in Yellowstone Lake all lake trout must be killed. It’s illegal to release them alive. In general, in the Native Trout Conservation Area there is no possession limit for non-native fish, however natives including cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, and Arctic grayling must be released unharmed throughout the park. As for red tape, anyone over 16 needs a park fishing license. And remember do not discard fish carcasses and entrails along stream banks or lake shores, they will attract bears. Ask rangers any questions you have when you get your permit and make sure to read over regulations.

Winter Activities

Yellowstone has miles of trails for cross country skiers and snowshoers. There is a lottery held every year for non-commercially guided snowmobilers.

Wildlife Viewing 

Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the Lower 48. A visit to the park would not be complete without seeing some of the park’s abundant wildlife. Here is where you have the best chance to see some of the animals that are synonymous with Yellowstone National Park. (Related: Learn how to see more wildlife.)

Bison:  Come to Yellowstone and you are going to see a few or few hundred bison. Lamar and Hayden Valleys, Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful are great for bison viewing.

Elk: Mammoth Hot Springs routinely has big elk hanging out. We’ve also had great luck in the Canyon area.

Black Bear:  We’ve had the best luck around the Roosevelt Lodge and Tower Falls areas.

Grizzly Bears: We’ve had the best luck in the Lamar Valley, particularly in the Slough and Pebble Creek Areas. Note, both black bears and grizzlies are extremely dangerous. Here are a few bear safety tips. How to avoid bear encountersHow to Use Bear Spray.

Wolves: The chance at seeing wolves in the wild is a life-list event for most of us. Considering there were no wolves in Yellowstone in 1994 (they were reintroduced in 1995-1996) it’s incredible to think that the park and surrounding area now has a thriving population for more than 300 hundred of their descendents.  As for the best chances, we recommend the Lamar Valley. It's generally easy to figure out where they are, simply look for the gaggle of photographers. Whom, in our experience are incredibly generous allowing folks to look through their very large and expensive equipment. Here is how to tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote

Bighorn Sheep: We’ve had the best luck along the road from Gardiner to Mammoth Hot Springs.

Bird Watching

For all of the birders out there! Yellowstone is a wonderful place for bird watching. The park is home to some 300 different species. A good rule of thumb is riparian areas and wetlands are going to offer the greatest diversity and abundance. If you are looking for waterfowl and birds of prey, Hayden and Lamar Valleys are great choices. Bald eagles and osprey hunt along the rivers, northern harriers stalk rodents in the meadows and a flock of different waterfowl cruise rivers that are lined with songbirds singing amongst the cottonwoods, willows and aspens.

Many bird species stay in Yellowstone year-round including common ravens, Canada goose, trumpeter swans, dusky grouse, gray jays, clark’s nutcrackers, American dippers, and mountain chickadees. A few bird species, such as common goldeneyes and bohemian waxwings, migrate to the park for the winter.

So we’ve listed a quite a few ways to spend your time in the park.  Here are a few suggestions depending on the amount of time you have.  

Half day: Pick your poison so to speak. We suggest taking advantage of recreational opportunities around where you entered the park.  If you are coming in through the north entrance, head to Mammoth and hike to the Boiling River Trail or Beaver Ponds Trail. Walk the boardwalks and enjoy the sites. If you are coming in the south or west entrance, it’s going to be be hard to drive by Old Faithful and not stop!  The Observation Point Trail is a great way to beat the crowds and get a unique perspective of the Upper Geyser Basin.

A day:  Try and get there early and set up camp! We recommend trying to camp in the Lamar Valley if you are trying to see wildlife. Then hop in the car and go for a drive! Take all day and drive all of the park roads, making sure to stop at pull outs and knock off a few day hikes along the way. Or you can try and get one really good day hike and maybe do some fly fishing! Just try and be back in Lamar Valley before sunset to hopefully see some cool wildlife!

A weekend: Hit the backcountry for a night!  Or if it’s your first time to Yellowstone, take your sweet time driving all the park roads.  Knock off as may day hikes along the way as you can while still taking in the park highlights like Old Faithful, Upper and Lower Falls, Artist Point, Yellowstone Lake and many more.

A week or more: If you have got a week or more you can get deep into the park’s backcountry and see areas of Yellowstone 99 percent of folks will never see.  And, you still have time to take all of the highlights listed above!

Sleeping and eating in Yellowstone.

Yellowstone has several lodging options. There are 9 lodges with more than 2,000 rooms.  Some can get pretty pretty spendy however, such as the Old Faithful Inn and Lake Lodge. If a room is a necessity for your stay in the park we suggest looking into Roosevelt Lodge. Yes we are biased, TrailMob’s editors worked there many moons ago.

The best way to stay in the park is to pitch a tent!  Yellowstone has 12 front-country campgrounds with more than 1,700 sites. There plenty sites available for RVs and walk in tent campsites. Many of these can be reserved in advance, but if you are more a shoot from the hip traveler there are walk up sites available as well. Our favorite is Slough Creek Campground. Every time we have ever camped there we have caught fish and seen a ton of wildlife!

As for getting a bite to eat. There are no shortages of places to grab a snack in the park. You can enjoy everything from fine dining to an ice cream cone with the kids.  Expect to pay a pretty penny, however. We recommend bringing a cooler and taking advantage of one Yellowstone’s 52 picnic areas. If you are a drinker, make sure to pick up a bottle of Yellowstone Whiskey. We are not going to lie and tell you it’s good. In fact quite the opposite, it’s not! But it sure is fun sitting around the campfire and sipping. Leave us a comment below and share your favorite places, trails or things to do in Yellowstone.

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Bison, Grizzly, Elk, Gray Wolf

Bison, Grizzly, Elk, Gray Wolf

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