62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and drove off. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
Pennington is back on the road and is committed to following CDC guidelines to keep themselves and others safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. She visits new parks and adheres closely to best safety practices.
“This geyser is usually really predictable, but she’s a brat right now,” said an older woman on my left. I was sitting on a wooden bench in Yellowstone National Park and looking out over the steaming Castle Geyser with two dozen other tourists when my partner Brian recorded a conversation.
“Do you work here?” he asked her. “No,” she replied. “I was here a lot though. I am a geyser peek. “
Less than two hours after my very first trip to Yellowstone, I already met an underground Citizen Science group devoted to observing and tracking their more than 500 geysers. When our chosen one broke out (over an hour behind schedule) I jumped up, felt a sudden rush of adrenaline and couldn’t stop smiling. I started to understand what makes this park great.
When I got to Yellowstone I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to all the hype. Sure, it’s the world’s first national park, a rugged expanse of wolves, bison and grizzly bears, the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, a breathtaking slice of the Rocky Mountains and, yes, Old Faithful. The area is also known as a geothermal hotspot due to its roughly 10,000 geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam jets, the largest concentration in the world. Today, the park can also be a crowded experience full of cars, restaurants, and selfie sticks. Could the original majesty of the area still be experienced?
My partner Brian and I said goodbye to our new friend and got in my van for the next adventure: a short drive to the Midway Geyser Basin and a six mile hike to the Imperial Geyser. Steaming springs of water gushed into the aptly named Firehole River as I parked, and we made our way to a wide gravel path with bear spray ready.
Less than a mile from the trailhead, I turned sharply left to a lookout point overlooking the huge, colored eye of Grand Prismatic Spring. After seeing the thing in textbooks and Instagram stories for decades, it almost didn’t look real. I screwed up my eyes and tried to make out the tangerine-colored tendrils that snaked across the floor under a veil of hot steam.
The deeper we hiked into the forest, the more diffuse the crowd became. When I started jumping over a small creek that started from Fairy Falls, a delicate 200-foot cascade, Brian and I were practically alone on the trail.
Whack! I knocked dozens of mosquitos off my face and legs as we avoided sloshing mud and continued down the path. Somehow the bugs weren’t as annoying as usual. They even felt purposeful. A necessary part of a rustic experience.
When we turned the last corner and got our first glimpse of Imperial Geyser, I stopped. To my left was an unobstructed, bubbling mud pot, and to my right was a seething, barrier-free geyser. There were no rangers, no promenades, and no crowds. Just me, my friend, and a rage of geothermal activity rising from the earth.
I realized this was yesterday’s Yellowstone. A place full of magic and chaos.
It wasn’t until I was off the beaten path that I found the soul of the place and it moved me. A sacred excuse to communicate with the raw power of the planet that only parks can offer.
62 Parks Traveler Yellowstone Info
Size: 2,221,766 acres
Place: Northwest Wyoming / Southern Montana / East Idaho
Created in: 1872 (national park)
Best for: Geyser views, scenic drives, wildlife viewing, hiking, biking, geology
When to go: Summer (42 to 80 degrees) and autumn (20 to 68 degrees) are excellent times to visit the park. In spring (20 to 60 degrees) many attractions are still covered with thawing snow. Winter temperatures can drop below -30 ° C (but an average of 11 to 34 degrees), and many park roads are closed.
Where to sleep: Given the size of Yellowstone, finding accommodation in the park is a good idea. The tree-lined Madison Campground, managed by Xanterra, is most centrally located and offers conveniences like picnic tables, running water, and flush toilets for the adventurous RV and tent campers.
Mini adventure: Hike the accessible trails in the Upper Geyser Basin and check out Old Faithful. Visitors can combine multiple boardwalks and paved trails to create an easy, zigzag hike of nearly three miles that is family-friendly and through some of the park’s most breathtaking geothermal features. Download the Yellowstone app for up-to-date geyser forecasts.
Mega adventure: Climb Bunsen Peak. Park at the trailhead near Mammoth Hot Springs and get ready to climb 300 meters from just 3.5 km. Keep an eye out for mountain goats. Get breathtaking views of the Yellowstone River Valley, Gallatin Mountains, and Swan Lake Flat from the summit before retracing the 3.5 km downhill.
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Main photo: Emily Pennington
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