A best-and-worst list after spending a few days in Yellowstone.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming – OK, I’ve been in the park longer than many visitors, so I’ll take the liberty of making a best-and-worst list:
WORST REASON TO STOP ON A BUSY YELLOWSTONE HIGHWAY AND BLOCK TRAFFIC: A mule-deer sighting. At least hold out for pronghorn antelope, people.
BEST PLACE FROM WHICH TO WATCH OLD FAITHFUL ERUPT: The second-floor deck of the Old Faithful Inn, where you can sip a coffee or other libation while you wait. And the old log-built inn, with an interior ceiling that looks high enough to house a Saturn 5 rocket if NASA decides to move west, is a must-see (designed by Robert Reamer, the same architect who did Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre).
BEST TIME OF DAY TO VISIT ANYTHING IN YELLOWSTONE: Between dawn and 10 a.m. (to see more wildlife and fewer human beings).
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BEST BARGAIN AT YELLOWSTONE: Free ranger-led walks. See the park newspaper, given out at the gate, for schedules and locations.
BEST AND WORST SOUVENIR OF YELLOWSTONE: The $18.99 moose-antler hat (best because it’s so delightfully kitschy; worst because it’s so delightfully kitschy).
ODDEST PLACE TO HEAR AN ELK BUGLE: On the park green between the Mammoth Visitor Center and the stately Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, near one of the park’s busiest intersections – where elk routinely hang out. I even saw a young one suckling its mother here. “YOU’RE TOO CLOSE, MOVE BACK!” is the oft-repeated (and somewhat bugling) holler you’ll hear from park rangers as visitors try for that close-up selfie with a bull elk.
MOST PURELY ENTERTAINING WILDLIFE WATCHING IN THE PARK: Coyotes pouncing on mice in the Lamar Valley. They do a delightful little spring and hop.
MOST REWARDING ROOTING-FOR-THE-LITTLE-GUY MOMENT IN WILDLIFE WATCHING: When the mouse gets away.
MOST ADVENTUROUS DRIVE: Over Dunraven Pass, elev. 8,859 feet, by full moon. Serene and spooky and high and wild, on a narrow, serpentine road. But keep an eye peeled, a mule deer buck with a big rack of antlers tried to commit suicide-by-camper van and leaped out in front of me. I was going slowly and missed him. When I braked, gear flew all over the van, but I missed him. Driving this route at night is probably the most dangerous thing I’ve done at Yellowstone. Bison can be walking down the center line (one of their favorite routes). Don’t drive beyond your headlights. And watch for those extra reflectors in the middle of your lane (animal eyes).
BEST PLACE TO WATCH THE SUNRISE: From the top of Dunraven Pass. (Did you know it was named for an Irish lord who published a travelogue about Yellowstone in the late 1800s? Hmmm. Cantwell’s Caldron sounds kind of snappy…)
BEST LOCAL PRONUNCIATION YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE GUESSED AT: “Absorka” is how you say the name of the rugged Absaroka Range if you live in Gardiner, Mont. The range is named for a local tribe. It means “children of the large-beaked bird.” (Lots of ravens around here.)
BEST PARK ENTRY: The Roosevelt Arch, at Gardiner, Montana. Built in 1903 and dedicated by Teddy. This large brick edifice is too narrow to be situated on the main highway anymore, but highway signs still direct you through it if you’re heading for the park. Across the top is the inscription, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” Gardiner is a fun town, too, with more local color than West Yellowstone. I was told the only chain restaurant here is a Subway sandwich shop, and they only let that in because it’s in a gas station. Gardiner’s distinguished local businesses include the Jim Bridger Motor Court (“Rustic Cabins”) and Flying Pig Adventures, specializing in rafting and riding, with a pig-pink school bus to get you there.
UGLIEST CAMPGROUND IN YELLOWSTONE: It has to be Mammoth, situated smack dab inside the elbow of a looping turn of the busy highway leading to the north park entrance at Gardiner. Here you can camp among sagebrush and be ensured of a view of heavy traffic passing by on both sides of you.
BEST USE OF THE PARK WEBSITE: Other than educating the public — which is, of course, a noble deed – this award goes to the idea of posting a list telling which of the park’s campgrounds is full, which has spaces open AND telling what time the campground filled today and what time it filled yesterday. It’s a big park. If you’re screwed out of a campsite at least it helps to know you’re screwed, rather than trying to drive all over the park in desperation. (When that happens, you do as I did last night: took my camper van to the national forest a few miles outside the park.) See nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm
BEST BARGAIN AT THE YELLOWSTONE ENTRY GATE: Free admission days, which will save you $30 per carload. There were 16 free-entry days scheduled for 2016; the last two are Sept. 24 and Nov. 11. Also, a reader reminds me: If you’re 62 or older, for $10 you can get a Senior Pass, good for your lifetime, that provides access for you and as many as three accompanying adults to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by five federal agencies, including national parks. (There’s an added $10 processing fee if you buy it online or by mail.)
Or you can just pay the $30, there’s a lot of expense to running this amazing park.