Old Faithful is Overrated (and other musings from a park employee)

It’s no secret that I’ve been working in Yellowstone for the past few months, as I’ve been bitching and moaning about it on social media since I got here. However, my issues are my own and likely wouldn’t be experienced by the casual park visitor. But I have learned a few things in my time here that may help you get the most out of your visit to the world’s first National Park.

  • Come without an agenda. If you “must see Old Faithful” or “must see a bear” then you are coming for the wrong reason. Come to enjoy the nation’s original “wonderland” in all its geothermal splendor. Plan an easy day hike to get away from the crowds and really experience nature and its wonders.  If not seeing a bear will ruin your Yellowstone adventure – go to a zoo. Seriously, there are no guarantees you will see ANY wildlife.
  • Understand that you will not see everything. And if you DO manage to see it all, you never got out of your car and heard the bubbling mud pots, the call of the Trumpeter Swan, or the bugling elk.  You never smelled the almost dizzying smell of the lodgepoles after a rain. But you certainly managed to see everything that was within 20′ of the 142 miles of the Grand Loop!  Don’t worry about that other 3,000 square miles of wilderness – there’s nothing there to see!
  • If you choose to stay in the park, which I recommend as it makes your day easier and saves time driving into the park everyday, don’t expect resort amenities despite the resort prices. There are over 2000 rooms inside the park spread throughout nine hotels and lodges. Some are cabins. Some are historic hotel rooms. Some have their own private bath, others do not. Some are overpriced 2-star style rooms with double beds and a keurig. Some are 60 years old, some newer. A few are posh suites with telephones in buildings with elevators, most are not. None will have a television. None will have free wifi. None will have a pool. Most won’t even have a fridge and microwaves are sparse. All will have fabulous access to an awesome wilderness that graciously allows for concessionaires to operate inside the park saving you hours of driving each day.
  • If you really want the convenience and economy of preparing your own meals and your own comforts and a private bath, I suggest bringing an RV  – preferably something towable. You can minimize the cost of meals this way, and avoid packing and unpacking to move to different parts of the park.
  • Consider letting someone else drive. There are a host of guided tours available in the park. I’ve taken a few of them and the guides are awesome and can tell you more about the park than you will ever read on placards at the visitor center. Sure, it’s an expense  – but what price sanity?
  • Despite what you read online, do NOT expect your cell phone to work inside the park. Sure, there are Verizon towers, and reportedly even an AT&T tower in the park, however with over 20,000 visitors per day and about 25% of them Verizon users and the rest “roamers,” you just can’t count on a data signal and should be lucky to get a text. Oh, and that’s only in the “village” areas of the park, not the 142 miles of the grand loop! Have your confirmations printed. Tell your family you’ll call when you get back to civilization. Bring a thumb drive for your pics until you can upload them to the cloud. Take a map-reading refresher because your GPS won’t work.
  • Expect to pay for wifi. It ain’t free and it ain’t convenient and it ain’t cheap.  There are exactly five places in the park you can access a pay-as-you-go wifi provider. Most of them are lodge lobbies or lounge areas. Your devices will weigh you down during your visit. Leave them at home!
  • Old Faithful is great. There’s even bleacher seating for you to wait at. And a phone number you can call for predictions (assuming your phone works). Or you can pop into any visitor center and see a clock display with the next predicted eruption. But, there are 500 geysers in the park and many of them are also predictable and maybe even more photogenic and less crowded.
  • Set your expectations with regards to crowds. This is a popular place with record-setting visitors every year.  The limitations on lodging inside the park means even more people driving in from outside the park where each of the gateway towns has thousands of more rooms and cabins and campsites. Traffic will be nuts – especially when the bison are trying to direct it. There will be lines at the cafeteria, ice cream shop, coffee bar, and bathroom.  Not everyone is as environmentally responsible as you – they will drop trash, cut switchbacks, play music too loud, approach wildlife, shout across the parking lot, speed around curves, and complain that there is no TV, refrigerator, cell reception, bear on demand, or that the trees are blocking their view of the lake.  Just ignore them. They deserve their misery!
  • Understand that there are several different concessionaires in the park. If your values dictate directly supporting the National Park Service  – look for the NPS visitor center and gift shops and activities led by the Yellowstone Association or the Yellowstone Park Foundation. But don’t totally discount the value of the others – I’m learning a lot about their benefit and hope to post more about that later!
  • Lastly: PLAN. Rooms book early – like a year out. Don’t try to get five nights in one place – you’ll end up spending too much time in the car. Spread your stay out strategically. About a 4-6 weeks before your trip, schedule some guided activities. You can generally cancel pretty easily during the peak season if your plans change. Make dinner reservations at least 2-3 weeks out for your preferred dining times. Again – canceling is the easy part.

There are plenty of park and concessionaire resources for planning your Yellowstone adventure and even more opinion pieces on the best places to see, hike, eat, watch, etc. Hopefully I’ve given you a little insight on managing your expectations. It truly is a wonderful place, but like many of our national treasures, it is subject to overuse and crowding. Come here with the right attitude and reasonable expectations and you will leave with wonderful memories.

Happy Travels!

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