Find the best spots—and skip the crowds—at America’s original national park.
Geysers shooting water 200 feet in the air. A river rumbling through a primordial canyon. Thousands of bison roaming free across nearly 3,500 square miles of mountains and meadows. The wonders of Yellowstone National Park, a wild land spanning parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, are so legendary that last year more than 4 million visitors came to bear witness. I was one of them.
But as I stood on a winding gravel road in the park's northeast corner, I didn't feel stuck in a tourist frenzy. I had pulled over at this remote spot, in the foothills along Slough Creek, to watch a lone coyote standing sentinel on a bluff. Without warning, a badger—all claws and snarls—exploded from the sagebrush, and the coyote tucked tail and ran toward safer, less badger-full ground. Calm returned, as it always does. Getting into the car, I heard only chattering meadowlarks and the rushing creek.
Yellowstone and I have a history. As a nearly lifelong resident of Billings, Montana, I've spent hundreds of days in the park—first as a grade-schooler strapped in the backseat; then as a park employee, cleaning hotel rooms; now as a dad, sharing the scenery with my own kids. Along the way, I've collected plenty of only-in-Yellowstone memories: the vast Norris Geyser Basin glowing beneath a full moon; a brave coyote nipping at a wolf 's heels in the Lamar Valley, on the park's northern edge; a morning mist rising to unveil an elk herd in Gibbon Meadows, south of Norris. I'm not alone in my awe: Yellowstone can attract nearly a million visitors in July, when bison jams slow traffic to a crawl. Still, it's always possible to find peaceful, beautiful moments, especially if you're able to walk a little, take a side road or two, and let Yellowstone reveal its secrets.
Jennifer Jerrett, a radio producer who collects sound recordings for the park's audio postcards—30-to- 90-second vignettes that spotlight natural wonders great and small—makes a living by eavesdropping on Yellowstone. One day, she might be capturing the calls of loons on Yellowstone Lake; the next, the bellows of rutting elk in the Lamar Valley. She's often within earshot of car engines or chatty visitors, but she's learned to focus on the natural surroundings and wait for a lull. "Yellowstone can feel like a busy place," she says. "You just have to be patient."
To feel the park's heartbeat, Jerrett likes to visit Black Sand Pool, a hot spring in the Upper Geyser Basin. Like all of Yellowstone's hot spots, the pool sits above a block of magma that could explode in a few hundred thousand years. Or, less likely, tomorrow. Black Sand doesn't boast eruptions or blazing colors, but those who stand still and listen intently will be rewarded: As gas bubbles burst within the spring, the vibrations shake anyone nearby. "You feel them as much as you hear them," she says. "Whenever I'm there, the fact that we're living on top of a super volcano is not lost on me."
Special places abound in the park, and because few travelers wander far from roads and parking lots, you might find one all your own. I still remember the afternoon I discovered Point Sublime. I left the throngs at Artist Point, on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone's south rim, then continued along the cliff-hugging, pine-shaded trail to the canyon's edge. Beneath me, ospreys soared past lemon- and apricot-hued walls 1,000 feet above the water. Peering down at the distant rapids, hearing nothing but wind and scolding chipmunks, I felt like I had the entire park to myself.
Choose Your Moment
Yellowstone can reveal itself at any time, but those who crave quiet should watch the clock—and the calendar. "Timing is everything," says Jim Peaco, the park's chief photographer. Early mornings can be especially tranquil, even at Yellowstone's marquee attractions. Peaco loves taking photos around Old Faithful while most people are still asleep. "You're walking through a geyser fog, and it feels like another planet," he says.
Seasons matter, too. Some two-thirds of annual visitors arrive in June, July, or August, leaving opportunities for peace the rest of the year. In fall, animals get busy; on one September day, near Yellowstone Lake, I watched a grizzly stuff her maw with earthworms. From December through mid-March, snow coaches deliver travelers to the steamy winterscape around Old Faithful. Other people drive the plowed road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the northeast entrance to watch bison in the Lamar Valley. In April and May, bears shake off hibernation, and red bison calves buck around meadows. "The weather may not be the warmest then, but the wildlife show is incredible," Peaco says. Take your zoom lens. "That's your best chance to put your camera on a grizzly."
Take The Roads Less Traveled
Even in summer, side roads can provide instant respite from Yellowstone traffic. The paved Firehole Lake Drive—a three-mile detour near Old Faithful— passes through a stark white basin of lesser-known thermal features, including White Dome Geyser and the turquoise Firehole Lake. Two-mile, one-way Gull Point Drive brings picnickers to black sand beaches on the west shore of Yellowstone Lake.
But in Yellowstone, crowds happen, and people can be unavoidable. Hours after my badger encounter, I stopped on Upper Terrace Drive near Mammoth to watch a pair of black bears as they trotted across the crest of a limestone formation in the distance. I was alone until a packed minivan pulled up. I gestured excitedly toward the bears as the passengers stepped out. Their eyes widened, and smiles lit their faces. When I returned my gaze to the bears, I had six partners in awe. In the end, some moments are best shared.
This article was first published in Summer 2018. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.