Do-It-Yourself Game Drives
Originally published as part of "America's Ultimate Parks 2009," National Geographic Adventure magazine
Yellowstone is laced with a huge network of paved roads, some 310 miles in all, many of which make for perfect DIY game drives. Start with the route from Mammoth, Wyoming, to Cooke City, Montana, along the park's northern edge. In the open meadows that line the road you may spot black bears, grizzlies, or coyotes, while in Lamar Valley you may glimpse a wolf (if you are very, very lucky). Keep an eye out for parked cars and folks with spotting scopes, sure signs that some action is afoot. In the afternoon, plan short hikes up the Trout Lake, Pebble Creek, and Slough Creek Trails. After a day or two up north, turn your sights south to the route from Tower to the northern edge of Yellowstone Lake. Stop off at Grizzly Overlook to glass the Yellowstone River for ospreys and bald eagles, then continue south that afternoon to hike either the Pelican Creek Nature Trail (great for bison) or the slightly longer Pelican Creek Trail (the best griz habitat in the park).
To hedge your chance of seeing wildlife, consider going guided. Yellowstone Safari runs four-day, three-night trips that track the recent movements of animals ($1,600 per person, including meals and lodging; yellowstonesafari.com). The Yellowstone Association offers three-day Wolf and Elk Discovery programs ($619 per person, including lodging and most meals; yellowstoneassociation.org).
Not to talk anyone out of jostling for a look at Old Faithful, but the 3.2-mile hike up Mount Washburn (10,243 feet) gives you all of Yellowstone—views of forests, geyser basins, subalpine meadows, and the sprawling Hayden Valley—in the company of about 5,000 fewer people.
Built from 1903 to 1904, the Old Faithful Inn gave birth to the concept of "parkitecture"—the notion that park lodges should be big, grand, and bear the spirit of their surroundings. To wit, the inn features massive timbers, a 76-foot-tall stone fireplace, and a killer setting beside its namesake geyser (doubles from $93; travelyellowstone.com).
Yellowstone's Southwest Corner
Originally published as part of "America's Ultimate Parks 2008," National Geographic Adventure magazine
One area that typifies the enormity of Yellowstone is the park's southwest corner, a collage of remote waterfalls, geysers, and wild animal herds. The 27-mile hike from Bechler Ranger Station to Old Faithful starts in the creek-laced Bechler Meadows before tracing the region's namesake river through a cool, spruce-forested canyon. One by one, you'll pass Ouzel, Colonnade, and Iris Falls, the highest of which, Ouzel, tops out at 230 feet. Beyond the Great Divide, you'll reach Lone Star Geyser, a backcountry show that erupts every three hours (whether you hit it right is another matter). More reliable is a sit-and-soak hot spring the locals call "Mr. Bubble," accessible from Three Rivers Junction via a short trail along Ferris Fork River. Another side hike leads two miles to Shoshone Lake, the biggest backcountry lake in the park, where there's an au naturel geyser basin sans boardwalks or guardrails. The three- or four-night trip, which is best in August or September, culminates as any Yellowstone hike should—at the like-clockwork plume of Old Faithful. If all you can spare is a single day, then hike the seldom visited Specimen Ridge Trail, a steep, 3.5-mile, 1,600-foot grunt up from the Northeast Entrance Road. The specimens in question are petrified redwoods, oaks, sycamores, and maples—one of the largest stone forests in the world—and the ridge offers open views of the Lamar Valley, now the territory of some 170 reintroduced gray wolves, and 10,243-foot Mount Washburn. A more American landscape there could never be.
Dating from the old rail-and-stagecoach days, the Lake Yellowstone Hotel rose to prominence after World War I and maintains a 1920s vibe on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. You can stay in the colonial-style lodge buildings, but it's better to nab a refurbished cabin (open May 16 through October 4; $128; (travelyellowstone.com/lake-yellowstone-hotel-cabins-94.html).
Backcountry permits, $20 in advance or free in person at park ranger stations within two days of the trip. Seven-day entry pass, $25. Campsites, from $12 (nps.gov/yel).