Fall for Yellowstone in the Autumn
By Julie Snyder
I dashed out the main entry of the imposing Lake Yellowstone Hotel, focused on readying my iPhone camera to capture the imminent sunrise—and nearly sideswiped a bison.
Not 10 feet from where I’d skidded to a stop, 2,000 pounds of furry brawn on the hoof and his equally brawny sidekick calmly munched away on the front lawn, seemingly oblivious to the awestruck crowd they were attracting.
I backed away slowly while taking in the ungulate duo’s disheveled appearance—shaggy brown fur peeling in places, thick manes and unruly beards, and sassy tufts of hair at the end of their tails—and then continued on my quest to capture the sun’s arrival over sprawling Yellowstone Lake.
Fingers of sunshine filtered through the clouds, dancing on the water’s surface before spreading into golden pools as the sun ascended above the meandering shoreline designed by glaciers and thermal activity.
We’d come to Yellowstone National Park for a few days of wallowing in wilderness and wildlife, and I was off to a good start. The sun had barely risen on our first morning and I could already tick one of the park’s “Big Five”—bison, elk, bear (grizzly and black), wolf and moose—off our list.
The crisp air spoke fall as did the relatively small number of park visitors. During the summer peak, upwards of 30,000 people per day visit the park, most in vehicles. But during our early October visit—a few days before the park shut down for the summer season—we had no difficulty parking at popular attractions or making dinner reservations at our hotel. There were even empty seats on the half-moon of benches around Old Faithful as its projected eruption time neared. With temperatures dipping to freezing at night, water sports and sun bathing weren’t part of our itinerary, but we had gladly traded them for the relative solitude.
Our home was the rambling Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a National Historic Landmark opened in 1891 and the oldest hostelry in the park. Over the years it has been expanded to include the adjacent Sandpiper Lodge and Frontier cabins, and updated to reclaim its Colonial Revival heritage. For us, the lakeshore lodging delivered a luxurious (by national park standards) respite. Sustainable operations have earned a Green Seal Lodging Certification. Indeed, this was the first time we’ve had an in-room, mini recycling center, and the opportunity to forego daily room cleanings as part of the “I’m Choosing a Softer Footprint” program (which knocks $10 off the daily room rate).
Yellowstone—designated the world’s first national park by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872—claims more than 2 million acres of forest, grasslands, waterfalls and lakes in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, spilling slightly into Idaho and Montana. Its boundaries shield over 10,000 geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents—the planet’s largest collection of geothermal features.
Ringed by mountains, the heart of this wilderness wonderland is the Yellowstone Plateau, a giant (1,500 sq. mi.) caldera resulting from three major volcanic incidents 2 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. Seismic activity is an every-day occurrence at Yellowstone, with some 2,500 earthquakes occurring annually, most too small to be felt. Outside of California, it’s the most earthquake-prone region in the continental U.S. (Thankfully, the only shaking we experienced was the martini shaker at our hotel bar.)
Yellowstone is a volcano—in fact it’s a “super volcano,” one that has erupted at magnitude 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). Don’t be misled by the absence of that familiar cone shape—anywhere molten rock (magma) rises from within the earth and erupts onto the surface qualifies as a volcano. The park is a reservoir of molten rock, and though several miles deep, it impacts the region’s total environment, from landscape and wildlife to the climate.
We found the Visitor Education Center at the park’s Canyon Village a terrific venue for brushing up on our volcanology. A room-size, narrated relief model illuminated the park’s volcanic eruptions, lava flows, glaciers and earthquake faults. Real-time earthquake and other geologic data displayed in computer-generated exhibits were in synch with that being coordinated by the Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory, official monitor of the park’s volcanic activity. Among the center’s quirky displays were one of the world’s largest lava lamps and a 9,000-lb. rotating kugel ball that highlighted volcanic hotspots around the globe.
A temblor of public concern recently erupted following media reports about evidence that geological processes like those preceding the last super eruption were occurring more rapidly than expected in Yellowstone. However, a research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey quickly squelched concern by stating that the odds of Yellowstone’s sleeping super volcano erupting within a century are 1 in 10,000, which is about as likely as a very large asteroid hitting Earth. Whew!
The first morning, after my husband, Joe, survived his own a bison encounter from a safe distance, we drove over the Continental Divide on a road rimmed with early snow to observe the effects of magma rumblings first-hand at Old Faithful and its action-packed geyser basin. Along the way we spotted several elk lunching at the forest’s edge (Number 2 on the Big Five list—check).
Old Faithful’s eruptions occur every 1-to-2 hours and last 1.5-to-5 minutes. Prediction times are posted in Old Faithful Village venues or you can download the NPS Geyser App—if you can find the park’s elusive WiFi (we had luck in Snow Lodge near Old Faithful Inn). The LEED-certified Old Faithful Visitor Education Center offered an easy-to-understand and visually engaging tutorial on Yellowstone’s wealth of hydrothermal features, within view of the great geyser itself.
While waiting for Old Faithful’s next eruption, we followed a trail along the Firehole River, marveling at a cornucopia of geothermal delights—hissing fumaroles, neon mudpots, boiling hot springs, and small burping geysers. We were headed up the Observation Point Trail for a bird’s-eye view of the eruption but were deterred by a posted notice of recent bear activity. (We weren’t THAT anxious to check bear off our Big Five list.)
A few minutes before the Old Faithful performance began, a geyser on the other side of the Upper Basin went to town, spewing a tower of steam and water hundreds of feet in the air. On and on it went, actually showing up Old Faithful, whose eruption looked more like a burbling water fountain than great geyser—but its dependability surely counts for something.
We drove through the geyser basin, stopping to view myriad geothermal delights and to watch fly fishermen casting elegant arcs above the sparkling river. Norris Geyser Basin, the oldest, hottest, and most powerful of Yellowstone’s thermal hit parade, was a spectacular finish to our gusher of a day. Its Porcelain Basin was bleached and breathtaking, with reddish-orange ferrous rings encircling milky blue pools, and emerald run off channels meandering amid the steaming, spouting, bubbling and boiling elements. A boardwalk lead into the heart of this other-worldly setting, and we strolled and stopped and strolled some more in sheer amazement of our surroundings.
The next day, we headed north through thick woodlands and foothills dotted with canary-yellow bursts of aspen. Eighty percent of Yellowstone is covered in forest, primarily lodgepole pine, which thrives in the shallow, acidic topsoil, with spruce and pine thriving at higher elevations. Our destination: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, a 10,000-year-old gorge carved by river erosion—at least that’s the predominant scientific theory.
However it was created, the canyon’s proportions are impressive: 20 miles long, up to 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep, with several waterfalls, one tumbling more than 300 feet, walls tinted red, yellow, orange and pink by mineral oxidation. When we visited, the runoff was at fall levels—a mere 5,000 gallons per second. At peak runoff, the flow is 63,500 gallons per second—an incomprehensible force.
From every available vantage point on both sides of the canyon, we absorbed its marvels—the steep, thundering Lower Falls, the craggy, colorful cliffs, and the aggressive, whorling river far below. Though hiking trails parallel both sides of the canyon, limited time (and slight acrophobia) prompted us to drive from one magnificent viewing station to the next. Had we desired a true front-row seat, we could have negotiated the strenuous Seven Mile Hole Trail down into the canyon, a 10.2-mile roundtrip journey. Maybe next time.
Sadly, there were no bald eagle or osprey sightings at the Grand Canyon. But with 67 species of mammals and 320 species of birds calling the park home, wildlife can appear anywhere, anytime. A traffic slowdown is a sure sign that a herd of bison is crossing the road ahead or that elk are grazing nearby. And a crowd of cars at a pull-off in Lamar (northeast) or Hayden (central) valleys, two of the park’s most popular destinations for sighting wildlife, means get out the binoculars.
Beyond the Big Five, we kept our eyes peeled for coyotes, deer, bighorn sheep, bobcats, lynx, mountain lions and fox, and a host of birds, including Canada geese, sandhill cranes and pelicans. I spotted what I learned were Trumpeter swans—rare elsewhere but commonplace in Yellowstone—paddling on the Yellowstone River. Enlightened fisherpeople know that Yellowstone Lake is home to the largest inland population of cutthroat trout in the world.
The ubiquitous bison—an estimated 5,000 roam the park—have lived in the Yellowstone region continuously since prehistoric times. Before they were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1800s, as many as 60 million may have roamed North America. By 1902, poachers had diminished Yellowstone’s herd to just two dozen animals. The mini-herd at home on the grounds surrounding the Yellowstone Lake Hotel—including a tail-less creature affectionately called Stubby by the staff—was a source of entertainment for the duration of our stay.
On our last evening, we snuggled into a west-facing couch in the grand lounge of the Lake Hotel and savored a mauve-and-crimson sunset and glasses of deep ruby wine while one of the resident buffalo had his own happy hour on the lawn outside. When the pianist began playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” I thought to myself that I may be leaving a little bit of my heart in Yellowstone.
The next morning, we timed our departure to arrive in Hayden Valley just before sunrise. We hoped to spot the wolf pack that we were told frequented the broad valley bisected by the Yellowstone River. Alas, no wolves were seen or heard. But a large herd of elk rambled along the river bank as the sun blanketed the surrounding hills, mesmerizing us with their power and beauty. We’ll return, certainly. And even if we never spot the rest of the Big Five, we’ll enjoy wallowing in the wilderness that is Yellowstone.
If you go:
The park is open to vehicle traffic from May to October; from early November until late April, access to the interior is limited to commercial snowcoaches and snowmobiles. Check the park’s website for opening dates for specific roads, accommodations and attractions. The NPS Yellowstone National Park app is worthwhile downloading on your phone or tablet; the Services section works offline if you’re in a WiFi vacuum. We wandered on our own but there are organized tours for virtually every interest.
Figuring out how to navigate the nearly 3,500 square miles of Yellowstone National Park can be a challenge. There are five entrances and a figure-eight road network called the Grand Loop that takes in most of the main attractions; the park’s six “villages” are spread out fairly evenly around it. All villages offer several types of lodging as well as a Visitor Center and range of services from gas to restaurants. In addition, a dozen campgrounds (five of which take reservations) dot the park.
In our experience, national parks have been rather mediocre in the cuisine department and this visit didn’t alter that opinion (apart from some tasty lobster sliders and bison chili). Staff throughout the park were uniformly pleasant and generally well-informed, in spite of (or because of?) it being the end of what several described as “a very long season.”
Cell and wireless service were nonexistent for us at the hotel and spotty throughout the park—quite possibly the fault of our carrier as we saw plenty of people attached to their phones. We chose to revel in the disconnection rather than spend time in the hotel business center or pay for wired service in our room.
Booking for any of Yellowstone’s more than 2,000 rooms can be made online and I suggest making them far in advance, even for campsites. Lodging options in brief:
A short walk around the lake shore from the Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins where we stayed are the western-style Lake Lodge Cabins. The main lodge features expansive views of Yellowstone Lake from a herd of front-porch rocking chairs and a lobby with a pair of fireplaces. At nearby Fishing Bridge, there’s an RV park.
On the southwest side of Yellowstone Lake, Grant Village offers a half-dozen lodging buildings and a campground, and is the village closest to Grant Teton National Park.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Not far from the park’s North Entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District offers the only visitor services, including lodging, accessible by vehicle in the winter months. It’s also a major thermal area with limestone travertine terraces that evolve quickly and constantly. Thirty-five structures remain from the turn of the (20th) century when the U.S. Army administered the park, including Fort Yellowstone, a National Historic Landmark. The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel opened for business in 1883, but today offers modern comforts in the lodge and cabins.
President Theodore Roosevelt once camped near rustic Roosevelt Lodge Cabins, where rocking chairs on the front porch, family-style dining in a log-hewn cabin, horseback trail rides and stagecoach adventures appeal to travelers seeking a simpler time. Some 130 buildings dating back to the early 1900s comprise the Roosevelt Lodge Historic District, located in the Northeast part of the park. There’s a campground at nearby Tower Fall, with volcanic pinnacles right out of “Lord of the Rings.”
Situated near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the sprawling Canyon Lodge and Cabins offer the most and the newest accommodations in the park, as well as a campground. A redevelopment initiative in 2015 resulted in five new lodges with standard rooms to suites. The project was named one of “5 Hotels for Eco-Conscious Travelers” by the New York Times.
In the Southeast section of the park, the Old Faithful Inn is indeed old, and faithful to history. The heart of the Old Faithful Historic District, the inn was built in 1903-1904 with local stone and logs and is touted as the largest log structure in the world. With a towering stone fireplace and view of Old Faithful geyser, it’s no wonder that this National Historic Landmark is the park’s most requested lodging. Built in the 1920s, Old Faithful Lodge and its corps of rustic cabins also feature geyser gazing.
Adjacent to Old Faithful Inn, the modern Snow Lodge & Cabins has the distinction of being an almost-year-round destination. In summer, it’s steps away from Old Faithful and the marvels of the geyser basin. Accessible in winter by commercially operated snowcoaches, the handsome structure—recognized with the Cody Award for Western Design—is a cozy home base for skiing, snowshoeing, snowcoach tours and other cold-weather fun.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.