Experiencing Yellowstone at any time of the year is special, yet spring is always my favorite. Babies abound and the green landscape adorned with wildflowers is the best pick-me-up after our long winters. And, up until a few years ago, a springtime tour gave locals a chance to enjoy it without the crowds. I’m sorry to say, this is no longer the case. I realize it’s only going to become busier as the season progresses, yet the traffic and lines at popular areas was mind-boggling.
Anticipating more visitors than in the early days, I made reservations at Bridge Bay campground 3 months ago through Xanterra, the concession for the hotels and some of the campgrounds. Although most of the available reserved camping sites are currently taken for the summer season (at least according to their website), I highly recommend this for anyone traveling to the park at practically any time of the year. I requested that we were near a restroom since having to walk one of the boys to the bathroom in the middle of the night would easier, and sure enough, we had a fantastic spot with a straight walk to one of the facilities.
For most NPS campgrounds, it’s simply first-come, first-serve. You find an empty spot, possibly wrestle for it, stake it out, and pay for it immediately by filling out the little form and depositing your money in the box. Your stub proves it’s yours. At Bridge Bay, we entered one of the two lines formed to check in and received instruction on proper camping procedures, particularly when it comes to not attracting bears, which frequent the campground. Despite dealing with a continuous line of traffic, the attendants were courteous and helpful.
It started to rain when we entered the north entrance, and it showed no signs of letting up as we pulled into Bridge Bay. We seriously wondered whether the rain fly and extra canopy Grant brought would be sufficient to keep us dry. We couldn’t ponder about it long. We were starving, so as soon as we pulled into our campsite, the first order of business was to set up the canopy over the picnic table to cook hotdogs since the hamburger and chicken were still solidly frozen. Once the rain stopped, albeit momentarily, we started a fire and made s’mores, each of us eating a couple apiece, before hustling to set up the tent and dive in once the rain began anew. It poured for hours, yet everything held and we stayed dry.
Weather on Saturday was completely different. Sunshine and warm weather was a welcomed change as we explored some of the thermal features and pestered rangers with questions. One of my goals for this trip was to sit down with Lee Whittlesey, the park historian who has written multiple books and articles on the extremely complex history of Yellowstone, as well as trying to gain my bearings on what the park used to be like. Although there are currently 983 structures within the park, it has changed considerably over the century of its existence. Our focus for the book veteran photographer Michael Francis and I are putting together, is to be able to paint a picture of what is happening in the vintage photos he’s collected giving readers a glimpse into what it was like. The first step is understanding what was available during various time periods, and this trip taught me, despite studying for the past several months, that I have barely scratched the surface. It’s going to be a fascinating journey.
During our visits to many of the popular geothermal areas, as well as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the traffic was off the charts. Parking took skill and patience, both things I lack, especially when people are not thinking or are being rude. While we thoroughly enjoyed walking along the Norris Geyser Basin, and hearing a fascinating talk on Steamboat Geyser, the best times were when we could escape the crowds.
The trick to avoid the masses is to be out early in the morning or later in the evening, when people are typically having dinner. We were able to find a picnic area very close to Bridge Bay where no one was parked, allowing us a walk to the beach of Yellowstone Lake to spend time alone. Chorus frogs and water birds were our only company. And even though we were there for fishing, Sam and John preferred to look for frogs. I was happy to sit and listen to them, despite still being able to hear traffic from above.
Sunday we opted to walk a couple of miles along the Mary Mountain trail starting south of Madison. This 22-mile hike that was part of the same trail followed by the Nez Perce as they fled through the region reaches from the west side of the Grand Tour Loop Rd. to Hayden Valley, and appears to be an exceptional, if very long, day hike. Wide and well-worn, the trail was an old wagon road winding through open parks and forested areas, ultimately meeting up with the Nez Perce Creek within a couple of miles. Grant broke out the fly rod and tried his hand tempting the trout in the fast flowing water while I geeked out over wildflowers and the Sam looked for water striders. Grant almost landed a small trout, and the boys each took their hand at fishing. On the hike back we took a closer look at the trees rubbed from the bison. During our first day in the park, I wondered why so many were barkless on one side towards the bottom. It was nice to be away from everyone and have a moment to breathe and notice the beauty of the area.
The Mary Mountain Trail is a perfect example of how easily you can avoid the crowds. Even though it’s on a busy route, only one hiker passed us on our walk into the creek, and a family of 4 from New Jersey (evident since they had no water, no bear spray, and no packs) approached on our walk back to the car. (On a side note, not being prepared with the basics makes me cringe since more than one person has muttered, “I’ll be right back,” intending to go for a quick walk that turns into a harrowing experience. Thankfully, their walk didn’t last long and we saw them back at the trailhead.)
Yellowstone abounds with life – including humanity – at this time of the year. By heading out very early or later in the evening, or simply finding trails that don’t have interpretative signs along the way, you can experience the park on your own terms.