By Janet White
Yellowstone National Park in a Day? In a word: No.
Yellowstone has so many sights to see and things to do that a lifetime probably isn’t enough time to explore this treasure of a national park. Yet the average stay in Yellowstone is only a mere day and a half. Experience shows that a week is a better timeframe for enjoying Yellowstone.
I recently spent a couple of weeks with multiple families—all friends—some who were visiting Yellowstone for the first time. At the end of the vacation, we talked a bit about the whole trip. They all said they now fully understand how Yellowstone is amazingly vast and varied, and they all felt the nine days here had just scratched the surface .
We started our trip in Grand Teton National Park, spending time on Jackson Lake under those stunning mountains. Relaxing there set the stage for the trip. It was like being at a summer camp with horseback riding, boating, fishing and hiking. A highlight of that trip for many was watching the bear cubs who are out on their own this year, yet still hanging around together. One couple took a float trip down the Snake River, which was a favorite for them. For others, it was simply having some “beach time” on the shore of Jackson Lake. Grand Teton National Park struck all of us as a place of things to do, and a place to drop the everyday stresses of life by choosing an activity for the day and making it happen.
Then we moved on to Yellowstone, where the focus turned to heading out daily to see the wonders that make this park so special. Some in our group had purchased a few guide books and read much on the Internet. Everyone agreed that the guide books are helpful, but careful planning and prep work still didn’t prepare them for the amount of wonders to see and experience.
Each day, the individual families headed out daily to see or do whatever struck their fancy, sometimes meeting up with another family or two along the way. At the end of the day, we’d share the day’s adventures with each other around the campfire, as the kids roasted marshmallows and ate s’mores.
The varied terrain, ecosystems and habitats floored them all. To fish in a heavily wooded area in the morning and then move on and fish in a wide open meadow full of flowers in the afternoon was a high point for one of the men in the group. Feeling the “thumps” of a couple of gurgling hot springs captured the heart of another in the group. One family with young kids returned multiple times to a picnic area that worked well for them, and where a large bull elk often grazed on the lush grass just across the river. Heading over to Lake Hotel for lunch one day, they discovered the unexpected elegance of the park’s oldest hotel. Around every bend, there seemed to be something new worthy of time spent exploring.
The apparent indifference of wildlife to visitors amazed everyone as well. It’s not unusual to have bison walking through the campground. It was almost hard to believe these animals were truly wild, as they showed no fear of humans, with many appearing habituated to people. As long as you behave properly, they pretty much ignore you. But push the limits, and trouble usually arises. The Bison of Yellowstone are not tame by any stretch of the imagination.
The families with kids jumped in on the Junior Ranger program and made sure they headed to the visitor centers throughout the park. There they found lots of wonderful hands-on experiences for the kids. The kids kept busy, and most were out of their normal routine, but all slept hard and long each night. Meltdowns happened with the young ones, but keeping snacks and naps going while driving from one location to the next helped, as did a quick dip in a river when the late June heat became too much.
In the end, most everyone made it to each main hub on the map, getting a chance to see the sights that make up this wonderland, as well as taking a couple of side-trips that enhanced the experience all the more. But even after nine days in Yellowstone, there were still many activities and excursions that will simply have to wait until the next trip.
Everyone agreed, to see Yellowstone in a day is possible, especially if you take an organized tour. But that’s like scanning the dust jacket description of a book. It’s a good place to start before you read the whole thing.