It is an international symbol of natural preservation, a biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage site; it spans Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, and it has the world’s largest concentration of geysers — more than 300 — and is the only place in the U.S. where bison have existed in the wild since primitive times. It has an active volcano, it’s hit with 1,000–3,000 earthquakes annually, and let’s not forget... Old Faithful.
Welcome to Yellowstone National Park, an American icon. Established in 1872, it is also the first national park in America. And also one of the most popular national parks among the 388 National parks and monument sites in America.
Not surprisingly, the busiest months are June, July, and August. The park closes in early November until mid-December, but there is one entrance open, which is the north entrance. The park reopens from Mid-December to mid-March for the winter season, and only over-snow vehicles are allowed. The park closes again in March and reopens in early May. While it is closed, the north entrance is still open.
Another option to avoid major crowds is to sneak around the more trafficked areas. In Yellowstone, Old Faithful — the legendary geyser — is most accessible via the West and South entrances, but there are three other entrances into the park that involve longer drives, but possibly lesser crowds. September is a great time for this.
But what most visitors don’t know is that while the park is about 2.2 million acres large and only 2 percent of it is developed. So, 98 percent of the park is rarely visited but offers extensive hiking.
Yellowstone also has an extensive network of well-groomed snowmobile trails, and a number of organized tours start in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s an exhilarating trip, and you snowmobile on a large circular route that takes you two days to complete. (The snowmobile/road system is like a giant figure eight, so you can make circuitous route with ease.) One note of caution (from my own personal experience): if you see a moose on your snowmobile journey – and you will – don’t slow down. These animals are deceptively fast, and I was only barely able to outrun one that decided to suddenly chase me.
The good thing about the tour is that you do it in February or March, when fe3w are visiting the park (keep in mind that in 2006, more than 2,870,000 people visited Yellowstone).
Advice when touring Yellowstone
Make sure to move around the park. The park has five gates, and you can find many lodging options throughout the park. To see the most Yellowstone has to offer, plan on staying in different villages (lodges/hotels) instead of only one. Yellowstone is very large, so you will find it much easier to pack up your luggage and spend the day touring and sightseeing in between lodges than to drive all the way back to the lodge at the end of the day. Yellowstone has 9 lodges/hotels, and most of them have a variety of room types, so options are available for everybody. To find lodge rates, visit TravelYellowStone.com.
Take a guided tour. This year, eight "Old Yellow Buses" have returned to the park. These vintage touring buses have returned to the park after a 50-year absence. The Old Yellow Buses are White Motor Company Model 706s. They were once used in Yellowstone and several other national parks beginning in the 1930s.
The most expensive room at the park? The Presidential Suite in Lake Yellowstone Hotel will set you back $500 per night. The Lake Hotel restaurant is the most upscale, and it has a menu that focuses on sustainable food items.
Affordable for families
Each village offers family-oriented options. For example, in Old Faithful Village, the Old Faithful Inn dining room requires reservations; however, nearby you can find Old Faithful Snow Lodge, which is a nice, more affordable restaurant, and the Old Faithful Lodge has a cafeteria. The Roosevelt Lodge, which is famous for its Roosevelt Baked Beans, primarily has a meat and potatoes menu, and it also has an Old Western Cookout, which is accessible by stagecoach or horseback.
Concessioner Xanterra Parks & Resorts and the non-profit Yellowstone Association Institute offer “Lodging & Learning” packages for visitors who want to learn about the park. The packages include in-field excursions with naturalist guides from the Institute, accommodations in park hotels operated by Xanterra, in-park transportation, some meals, and optional evening programs. These programs are designed for people 12 years old and up.
“Yellowstone for Families,” which is designed for families with children between eight and 12, includes four-night accommodations at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel or Grant Village, age-appropriate field activities (animal tracking, wildlife-watching, painting, and hiking), breakfast and box lunches each day, in-park transportation, instruction, and optional evening programs.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at .