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On a misty September morning in Yellowstone National Park, a bull bison crosses the trail near Mud Volcano. (Photograph by Jeremy Schmidt)
TravelInsider's Guide

A Park Ranger's Guide to Yellowstone

There are few people living who know Yellowstone better than Jeremy Schmidt. The Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based writer and photographer has spent 40 years as a ranger, “winterkeeper,” and guide in the park.

The author of more than a dozen books, Schmidt is a longtime contributor to National Geographic magazine and a popular trip leader and expert for National Geographic Expeditions. Here’s his insider’s guide to America’s very first national park.  

Yellowstone Is My National Park 

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Summer may be high season, but Yellowstone wows all year round. (Photograph by Jeremy Schmidt)

Autumn is the best time to visit because large animals like elk and bison are in their prime and geysers and hot springs seem more powerful in the cool air. The days are warm, but nights are frosty. Biting insects disappear, as do the crowds of summer.

My park’s biggest attraction is Old Faithful and the geysers around it, but a visit isn’t complete without seeing Yellowstone Lake and the Yellowstone River flowing north from it through Hayden Valley.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to get out early in the day. In summer, you avoid the crowds but any time of year, morning is the best for wildlife viewing and gorgeous scenery.

My favorite “park secret” is Storm Point Trail, on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake–an easy walk through meadow and forest to an excellent view of the lake and a good chance to see a variety of wildlife.

Watch out for fast-changing weather, and be sure to bring sunblock and rain gear when you come for a visit. You’re likely to need both.

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Fog hovers over the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley at sunrise. (Photograph by Leah Sprague, National Geographic Your Shot)

Head to Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley if you want to see wildlife. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot a wolf, grizzly bear, badger, otter, or mountain lion. You can’t count on seeing one, but you know they are all there.

For the best view in the park, head to the top of Mount Washburn. It’s a moderate hike on what was once a vehicle road. Not keen on walking? Lake Butte Overlook, on the east entrance road, offers a fine panorama of Yellowstone Lake and, far in the distance, the Teton Range.

Trails that follow the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are the best easy-to-moderate trails in the park; dizzying views of the canyon at every turn. The road through Lamar Valley to Cooke City is the most scenic drive, especially if you add the jaw-dropping beauty of the Beartooth Highway, just outside the northeast entrance.

If you’re up for an adventure/physical challenge, try a backpacking trip to the Thorofare region, in Yellowstone’s most remote southeast corner.

To experience the park’s cultural side, take a historic walking tour of old Fort Yellowstone, headquarters of the U.S. Cavalry when it ran the park from 1886 to 1916.

Old Faithful Inn, for its historic experience and unique log architecture, is the best place to stay while you’re visiting, and Lake Hotel dining room is the best place to eat dinner; follow that up with a lakeside sunset stroll.

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A female coyote howls in Lamar Valley. (Photograph by John Schroeder, National Geographic Your Shot)

If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to hit Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend Alpen Guides in West Yellowstone, or Off the Beaten Path in Bozeman. For short excursions, try a historic Yellow Bus tour (refurbished touring vehicles produced by the White Motor Company), now operated by Xanterra. I recommend going in the evening.

The most peaceful place in the park has to be the Bechler area, in the park’s southwest corner; a roundabout drive to get there.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the Firehole Canyon swimming hole.

Just outside park boundaries, you can visit Grand Teton National Park, to the south; Buffalo Bill Center of the West to the east, in Cody; or Harriman State Park, in the floor of a volcanic caldera, just west of the park in Idaho.

If my park had a mascot it would be a grizzly bear cub.

The eruption of Steamboat Geyser, the world’s largest, could only happen in my park.

The United States Army is an “unsung hero” of my park because in the uncertain days when no one knew what a national park should be, and the park lay open to all sorts of damaging exploitation, the Army rode to the rescue. It not only protected the park, but it established many of the principles governing all of our national parks today.

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my park because it was the first, and has become a fitting example for national parks around the world.

Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources:

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