This year, as America’s national park system turned 100 years old, I traveled out West to visit some of them.
Yellowstone National Park, in parts of Idaho and Montana but mostly in Wyoming, was established as the first national park in 1872.
A visit to this monstrous area — 3,500 square miles — can be overwhelming. Here are my top 10 tips for a safe and rewarding journey:
• Be ready to drive. Prepare yourself and any passengers for a long haul in a vehicle, even if you are camping inside the park. Water and snacks are a must. It can take days to see everything, and sections are miles apart.
• Use a map, not a GPS. Take the map the rangers give you seriously and consider it your “Yellowstone bible.” It may seem easy to get around the park, but the map highlights areas by name and shows the mileage between one “village” to another in the park.
• Prepare your patience. Yellowstone is full of wildlife but also people. There will be traffic jams, due to bison crossing the roads or people viewing wildlife. Remember to use the pulloffs; they help keep traffic going. Nevertheless, people will stop in the middle of the road to look at wildlife. In addition, construction may be taking place inside the park, so check the park newsletter or look online for updates. Parking lots for some attractions are small, so you may not find a place very easily.
• Make use of the hiking trails. There are many throughout Yellowstone and they are a great way to stretch your legs and get out of the car. Some can be very popular, and crowded.
• Stay away from the wildlife. That’s just common sense.
• If you like to fish, this is the place to do it. Anglers can hit the rivers or Yellowstone Lake, where there is a marina to dock your boat.
• Take the back roads. Yellowstone does have a few dirt roads you can traverse. They show some beautiful places not most are willing to see. Dirt roads are one-way and do not have many places to pull off, but they are less used so you could take a bit more time out there.
• Bring a camera and binoculars. In my opinion, the park is one of the most picturesque places on earth — between the variety of landscapes, sunrises and sunsets, and the wildlife. You will be glad to have captured memories. Binoculars are a must for wildlife viewing. Make sure everyone has a pair. If you want to see a grizzly, your best bet is to have these to scan across meadows and open hillsides.
• Take more than three days. Yellowstone is a massive national park. I recommend taking the first day to scout what locations you want to see the most, and then stop at smaller, less busy places that day to check them off the list. Then plan what you want to see and do the night before.
• Get there early, or go in late. I found the best times to visit the park, not only to see wildlife but to avoid traffic jams and the crowds, was to get in very, very early — like 5:30 to 6 a.m. — or to go back around 4 p.m. and stay until dark. Most wildlife are active very early in the morning and before dusk.