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Travel Notes: Yellowstone National Park


Sunset at Yellowstone



A Journey of the Senses


Yellowstone National Park is an otherworldly experience that exemplifies the environmental diversity of North America. It is a must-see for anyone on the eternal quest for sensory pleasure.


When I'm lucky enough to travel, my search for sensory pleasure guides me. Sensory pleasure is the fulfillment I get from being completely connected to a given environment and experience through my five senses. As a visual artist, my eyes lead my desires and pleasure, yet the interwoven experience of touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight creates the pinnacle of fulfillment.


Sensory pleasure can be evoked in our bodies in so many ways. Experiencing beauty is one of those ways; a subjective experience that can move us to tears, creation, and exhilaration. This is what took me to Yellowstone National Park. Since childhood, I have seen pictures of Grand Prismatic Spring, Morning Glory, and Old Faithful and knew I had to see these wonders for myself. No flattened 2-D photo could prepare me for the in-person experience. Nature and science humble me and remind me how small I am in this vast ecosystem called planet Earth, within the larger ecosystems of the universe.


Standing next to the Grand Prismatic Spring activates all senses. I could see layers of brilliant colors created by extremophiles and thermophiles; bacteria that can survive in the treacherous conditions of the hot springs. I could smell and almost taste the thick clouds of sulfur billowing through the air. I could hear the flowing and gurgling of the waters; and feel the wisps of steam touch my skin, changing the temperature rapidly from hot to cool.


Grand Prismatic Spring



I could also feel the electrostatic shock as I bumped up against my travel companion. We must have shocked each other dozens of times and noticed the same thing happening to others. We spit-balled with other visitors about the possible science behind the electrostatic energy in the air. Later when I returned home, I contacted the Yellowstone National Park Service (NPS) to inquire. I didn't find a clear answer to the underlying cause of the high levels of electrostatic energy. The rangers at NPS mentioned cooler weather as a reason, yet the day I visited it was extremely hot. One day I hope to learn the interesting science behind this phenomenon. I'm thankful for the current technology that lets me easily reach out to a park ranger across the country to ponder the wonders of nature.




The boardwalk surrounding the Grand Prismatic Spring was packed with fellow tourists. We all desperately tried to capture images of what we were seeing. Later when I looked at my photos and video, they felt pointless in their ability to visualize what I had just lived. Yet I still tried to capture the beauty, if only in vain. Only my mind's eye will hold onto this life-changing trip until age fades my memories. I was touched so deeply by how magical the sciences can appear. There are concrete reasons for all you see at the springs, yet it feels mystical like the innocence of awe we experience in childhood before we can delve into the why.


Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook



The Discovery of Modern-Day Yellowstone

Shoshone-Bannock Chairman Nathan Small and Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly converse at an Old Faithful tribal gathering in August 2022. (Photo Credit: Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)



Near the West Entrance, you will find a Native American Teepee next to a sign for Yellowstone National Park. It's one of the few reminders of the first people of these lands. Information on Native American history and current affairs is sparse within the park, but things are slowly changing. I'm inspired by the organizers from local tribes around Yellowstone trying to educate fellow citizens on the stories of Yellowstone. A history of geography divorced from its people is a disservice to all learners. We need to access the full Indigenous and colonial histories to understand the land we inhabit and the people we are today. As I traversed Yellowstone, my friend and I imagined the first stories shared in Indigenous communities about geothermal activity. Who was the first person to learn the deadly properties of the springs? Who were the first people to cultivate this unique landscape? How I wish there were an abundance of placards to read so I could learn more. Luckily when I returned home, I spent time researching and reading and learned about the people of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes whose ancestors span centuries in Yellowstone. I'm grateful to learn from historians about the stories that live in these lands.


West Entrance



Planning the Journey


Below are details on how I planned my trip, the costs involved, and some maps and ideas for a two-day itinerary in Yellowstone National Park. There are endless ways to spend a day or more in the park and the details I share are what worked best for us (including extra time for rest/chronic health issue flare-ups/etc.). Padding your time can also be helpful for impromptu stops, sudden weather changes, and the occasional Bison road blockings. But even the delays are mesmerizing and a reminder to be present and go with the flow. Don't rush yourself in the park, instead wear an acceptance mindset and remember you're lucky to be in Yellowstone! It's not about seeing every site, but fully experiencing the sites you have time for.


Bison crossing near Blacktail Creek Trailhead 1N5


Bison grazing


Costs


Below are flight, hotel, and car rental details and costs. I usually book trips 1-2 months out, so keep that in mind when looking at the prices. West Yellowstone is your typical tourist town where costs are inflated so plan accordingly when budgeting, particularly for food and groceries. There are restaurants and stores spread throughout the park that are similar to amusement park prices for food and other goods. The options are limited, especially for special dietary needs. Check out this great map of food stops in the park by We're In the Rockies. You can visit the NPS site to learn more about visitor fees. These are the prices I paid in 2022 when I took the trip.




When to Go


I went to the park for four days in September after Labor Day. This allowed for smaller crowds and also the last bits of warm weather. Folks online recommend late April to May and September through early October as ideal times to visit. Check out the National Park Services site for alerts and closures before booking your trip.


What to See


Picking which sites to see is a very personal choice. The reality is that no matter what you choose, you can't go wrong. Just look at the content online of different sites and see what calls to you. There are numerous hot springs, fumaroles, and geysers so I suggest picking fewer spots and spending more time in each one to take it in fully. It's not about saying you saw every geothermal feature, but instead absorbing the few you decide to focus on. I spent an additional hour at Morning Glory painting with watercolors. Sure I could have seen more sites, but I wanted to study the spring more deeply. Pad your schedule by factoring in delays. Traffic can get backed up and move slowly, bison like to block roads, and storms can make you wait in the car until they clear. We even ran into power outages at the park stores which shut down some restaurants and increased our time searching for food. But we took it in stride and laughed at the power of nature (pun intended).


Take a deep breath and find the silver lining so you can be in the moment instead of wishing you could control your surroundings. I read this advice from others, and hope it can be helpful to you as well. Nature is a good teacher of letting go of control.


Mammoth Hot Springs



When I brainstormed what to visit at the park, I started from a list of 20+ sites down to a list of 10. The list of eight sites below is what I was able to accomplish. And of course, there are places we accidentally happened upon, which are some of the best moments of any trip. We entered the park each day around noon and exited by 9 pm. Since it was the end of summer we still had daylight for a great deal of time, but we also did some interesting exploring at dusk. We planned for around 15-30 minutes to wait for parking at each site, 2 hours for food and bathroom stops, ~1-2 hours to view each site, and 1 hour for the unexpected. We had to keep a brisk pace to accomplish our goals, yet we never felt rushed.



Grand Prismatic Spring at dusk (felt other-worldly like what Jupiter looks like in our imaginations)


2-Day Itinerary


DAY 1

  • Grand Prismatic Spring

  • Old Faithful

  • Morning Glory Pool

  • Yellowstone Lake

DAY 2

  • Artists Paintpots

  • Artist Point - The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

  • Mammoth Hot Springs

  • Sheepeater Cliff


Once you pick the spots you want to visit, you can use Google Maps to chart your drive and find the trails that lead to each site you want to see. Many sites are a short walk from a parking lot, while others require hiking on trails. This isn't the kind of park where you can pull over anywhere along the road and leave your car, so pay close attention to designated parking areas. Most of the trails we encountered were short and manageable for low-key hikers like us (no more than 1 mile). Part of the sightseeing is the drive itself, the trees, hills, bodies of water, valleys, skies, and more.


Morning Glory Pool (read more on how littering has changed the pool's color)


How Long to Stay


I allotted 4 days for our trip, 2 days of travel and 2 days on the ground. I did this due to the higher prices found in Yellowstone for food and lodgings. If I had a bit more money I think I would have made it a 5-6 day trip to allow for more breathing room, to go at an even slower pace, and to revisit some of the sites more than once. I do feel that for budget travelers you can have a wonderful and fulfilling trip even with only 4 days.


DOWNLOAD Google Maps Offline


I can't stress enough how important it is to download all the necessary maps with Google Maps offline. My brother gave me this invaluable advice before I went. It was the only way to use Google Maps navigation in the park. There is no reception in the park; no cell service, no Wi-Fi, even at park facilities. Since I downloaded offline maps of Yellowstone, our hotel area, and the airport to the hotel, we never had to worry about access. Just don't forget to bring your phone charger in the car because all the map usage will drain your battery. Also, check out the maps offered through the National Park Service. You can request a copy of the map when you first arrive at the park entrance. Don't be afraid to ask questions so you know where to find key areas of the park.




What to Wear


The weather in the park can vary greatly, and we saw temperature changes spanning 40-degree points in September (highs of 90 degrees F and lows of 50 degrees F). You can find some great packing tips here. I love this graphic from Clever Hiker that outlines all the pieces you need in the woods. And always remember the magic formula: layers, layers, layers. Make sure you have waterproof outerwear & footwear for rain or snow. The showers do come on suddenly and heavily in the summer and early fall.




Final Thoughts


Yellowstone National Park is a treasure within the lands of North America. I hope you have an amazing experience visiting and that some of my learnings will be helpful to your planning process. Let me know how your experience went in the comments and share any tips you have for future travelers!

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