By Julie Ellison
“What’s it like to live in a national park?” was the question most often asked during that summer between my junior and senior year in college. My response was always, “What do YOU think it’s like?” Waking up every day in a place so wild and beautiful that some people plan and save for years to vacation there. Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, swimming, and just laying out under the inky black and wide-open night sky. And on top of all that, getting paid to be in such a location. For three months in the summer of 2007, I was living the dream, and I learned a few tricks of the trade on how you can maximize your time there—whether it’s two days or two weeks.
Go swimming. Surprisingly enough it can get quite toasty on summer days, so my favorite post-hiking spots were the swimming holes—Firehole Canyon (well-known and popular, but snowmelt meets a hot spring to create bathwater temps that relieve tired and sore legs) and Moose Falls (in the very southern part of the park, but right next to the road and you can jump off the falls) being my top picks.
Visit all parts of the park. Don’t spend all your time in one location; one of the coolest parts of Yellowstone is the wide range of ecosystems and landscapes. In the north there are rolling, hilly meadows with thousands of roaming bison while the south is rife with geothermal features and natural wonders that only exist in this area.
But leave the park, too. Not only do the entrance towns like Cody and West Yellowstone offer a true western experience, but the land surrounding the park proper is some of the most breathtaking in the country. Take Highway 191 west of the park in Montana all the way up to Gallatin National Forest and Bozeman to see spectacular vistas and zero people.
Don’t forget the backcountry. The key to avoiding crowds in the park is getting away from the road. When I worked there, I heard some statistic saying more than 80% of people who visit Yellowstone don’t go more a mile from the road. Some of the coolest and most impressive natural features (think brilliant blue and orange hot pools, mudpots, and waterfalls) were just a short hike, and most people probably didn’t even know they existed.
Ask your server, gas station attendant, or hotel bellhop what their favorite spots are. Most of these people are here for the same reason you are: to get out, hike, see wildlife, and enjoy the amazingness that is Yellowstone National Park. The advantage they have, however, is spending a few months there and experiencing almost everything the park has to offer. Each person will have his or her favorite activities and destinations, and chances are they’ll be more than happy to share them with you!