Yellowstone National Park
Hours: Open year-round with limited road access during the winter months. The North Entrance is the only entrance open to vehicles year-round and all roads running south through the park are closed during the winter, including the road to Old Faithful. Peak season runs from early July to late August.
Fees: Entrance fees until April 30th are $20 for vehicles and $10 for individuals (hikers, bikers) for a 7-day pass; starting May 1st, 2006, there is a fee increase to $25 and $12 respectively.
Location: Yellowstone National Park is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming approximately 50 miles north of Jackson, WY, with small portions of the park extending into Montana and Idaho. Commercial airlines serve several airports close to Yellowstone including those in Cody and Jackson, WY, Bozeman and Billings, MT, and Idaho Falls, ID.
Activities: Auto touring, backpacking, hiking, bird and wildlife viewing, boating, camping, cross-country skiing, fishing, horseback riding, nature walks and interpretive programs, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and star gazing
Contact: By mail: P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168; by phone: (307) 344-7381, and by fax: (307) 344-2386
A massive volcano eruption that occurred some 640,000 years ago is responsible for the astounding array of geo-thermal wonders contained within the borders of Yellowstone National Park, including the perennial road-trip favorite, Old Faithful geyser, which has proved itself a faithful tourist draw for decades. Aside from being a major destination within the United States park system, Yellowstone holds great historical significance as the first designated national park in the world, created in 1872 by President Grant. It is also the second largest national park in the continental United States.
Yellowstone is one of, if not the, quintessential American national park, with much of its 3,500 square miles accessible by car (or RV, for that matter) while the park’s size, amenities, and natural oddities make it an enticing drive-by attraction for armchair naturalists and families with small children. More information on activities geared towards traveling with the kids, as well as online projects, can be found here.
Of the park’s five entrances, the West Entrance is the most used, with easy access from Highway 191. While many of Yellowstone’s three million yearly visitors come to witness Old Faithful and the geyser’s thoroughly predictable eruptions, a good number come hoping to view some of the park’s natural inhabitants, including many endangered and threatened species such as the bald eagle, gray wolf, and the grizzly bear. Aside from these, Yellowstone is home to more than 50 mammal species and 311 types of birds.
For those wanting to avoid the park’s 466 miles of paved road and thousands of other visitors, Yellowstone offers 1,100 miles of trails and has an extensive network of backcountry campsites. All overnight backpacking requires a backcountry use permit that must be acquired in person and no more than 48 hours in advance of the planned outing. During peak season, most ranger stations and visitor centers supply permits, but during the off season it is necessary to check which ranger stations are open. Yellowstone’s web site has a handy backcountry trip planner with maps, safety information, bear precautions, permit guidelines, campsite reservation forms, and even videos designed to prepare you for your Yellowstone backcountry adventure.
Yellowstone also has 12 campgrounds, many with laundry and showers nearby. The Fishing Bridge RV Park is the only campground with full RV hook-ups, and doesn’t allow tent campers. Five of the campgrounds, including the RV park, are operated by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, an independent concessionaire who also runs all of the other lodging options within the park, including cabins, hotels, and inns. Reservations are highly recommended for the Xanterra campsites (the other campsites are first-come, first-serve), and most sites run from $12-$17 a night. Mammoth is the ONLY campsite open year-round; the other eleven are open from late May/early June to late September or October, depending on the site.
Aside from driving (or auto-touring), geyser-viewing, hiking, and camping, Yellowstone has many private outfitters that offer boating and fishing tours, guided stock trips, and horseback rides. Xanterra’s prices and activity guide can be found here (note that prices are for 2005) while a list of other private outfitters is located here.
Private outfitters aren’t the only ones offering organized activities; the National Park Service and the rangers host a variety of talks and interpretive walks based out of each visitor center. They also offer fee-based adventure walks in the peak season for those wanting to hike the backcountry and learn more about the park’s wilderness in the company of a ranger. The hikes are based around different areas of the park and range from 3-6 miles in distance. Two to three hikes leave daily during the summer months – expect to get up bright and early. The cost is $15 for adults and $5 for children (although prices may change for the 2006 season). Finally, for those looking to enjoy their national park more temporally and less viscerally, the rich geological and historical significance of the park has provided fodder for a heritage research center featuring a museum collection, archives, and a library.