Planning a Perfect Day in Yellowstone National Park
Updated: May 10, 2019
Over the years and decades of coming to Yellowstone I have had the opportunity to chat with so many people who themselves are enjoying time in the park. I love meeting folks from around the country and around the world who come to visit Yellowstone and take in its iconic wonders. I seem to learn so much from each discussion and come away with a greater appreciation for the wonderful diversity there is in people and the places people go to visit. Each seems to have a unique perspective on what for them are the highlights of their park visit, and what drew them to make the trip to the park in the first place.
Several years ago, I began asking folks what it was they enjoyed most about their visit to the park, what was the best thing they had done that day, and what in their mind constituted a perfect day in Yellowstone?
I have come to learn that a perfect day in the park is usually quite different between someone like myself who has visited the park dozens of times over the years, and someone visiting Yellowstone National Park for the first time. In fact, the varying perspectives can be influenced by many things. Learning this was quite refreshing and knowing that Yellowstone lured so many for such a variety of reasons, gave me even a greater sense of appreciation for this land of wonder and adventure to be experienced.
This article is my attempt to present to you my personal perspective of what is a perfect day in the park, and to provide another perspective in the form of a summary of various responses given by first time visitors to the park in response to my questions.
It is my hope that these two perspectives, one offered by myself a frequent park visitor, and another by people from across the country, presented for your consideration, will provide you with some thoughts on areas to explore and activities to enjoy for your perfect day in Yellowstone.
My Personal “Perfect Day in the Park” Early Morning in Lamar Valley
For me the day starts early, trying to get to Lamar Valley where I have the best chance of seeing all of Yellowstone’s larger animals - bear, wolves, herds of bison, moose, elk, and big horn sheep. I had that near perfect morning about 10 years ago as I could see all these animals while standing in one spot and performing a 360-degree rotation to view all of them. It was awesome. We had our spotting scopes set up, binoculars in hand, and a tag team approach going on as we were all keeping tabs on our respective animals while shifting around to take in a view of each of these animals while in one location in Lamar Valley. The only thing that could have made that morning better was to have seen a mountain lion, the one animal I have yet to see when in the park. Someday though!
Late Morning Fishing of the Soda Butte and Lamar Rivers
Yellowstone is home to some of the best fly fishing for trout in the country. Spending time casting for cutthroats on the Soda Butte and Lamar Rivers that run through Lamar Valley for me is always part of a perfect day in the park. More often than not you may find yourself taking in the beautiful scenery of surrounding mountains and nearby wildlife as you pull and toss your fly line before making your final focused cast to lay your fly gently on the surface with the hope of enticing a cutty to the surface.
Picnicking in the Park
Around noon it’s time for lunch. No need to go hungry. It doesn’t really matter that much to me the contents of the lunch - a sandwich, piece of fruit, a drink - but picnicking in the park is a time to take a break, enjoy the surrounding scenery, and discuss things of no real significance, but kind of fun to chat about. For me, eating in the outdoors beats eating in a restaurant any day, in my humble opinion.
Time to Take a Hike
There is so much to see in Yellowstone that cannot be seen while traveling the road sections. Yellowstone has over 900 miles (1,449 km) of trails that can lead you to beautiful water falls, pristine lakes, hydrothermal features, unique wildlife viewing, iconic landmarks, or other photo opportunities. In the last several years I have made more of an effort to spend more time hiking the trails in the park. One of my favorite short hikes, only a half mile, is to Trout Lake located in the northeast section of the park. During the month of June cutthroat trout are spawning at the tiny inlet to the lake and you can often spot otters, osprey, and occasionally a grizzly doing their best to make the most of this opportunity for a good meal of tasty trout. It can make for a great photo op as you watch nature play out in real life and in a dramatic way. Of course, there are dozens of other day hikes in the park from which to choose.
A Tangible History Lesson
The history of Yellowstone is unique, just as are so many other places that we like to visit. It seems a shame to me to not take some time to learn about the history of the place you have come to visit and some of the characters who pioneered the way for the rest of us. We like to visit places that have the remnants of structures from the early days of the park, both Native American and early park caretakers. One of our favorite structural remnants is that of the first bridge built over the Yellowstone River. We first discovered the remnants several years ago while hiking down to fish the Yellowstone River near the bridge that now spans the river just after turning north at the Tower-Roosevelt Junction in the northern part of the park. Looking downstream toward the confluence of the Yellowstone and Lamar Rivers are stacked rocks on the east side of the river that originally formed the platform or landing site for the crossing. We learned what we had discovered by visiting the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner, MT. It is a fascinating place to visit if you want to learn more of the cultural and natural history of the park.
Evening Fishing of the Lamar and Soda Butte Rivers
Yeah, we love to fish for native cutthroats and one more try at these beautiful fish seems to round off the day in fine fashion before heading back to camp for the evening’s activities - cooking and enjoying a tasty meal and time around the campfire.
Dinner Around the Campfire and Star Gazing
My favorite evening meal when in the park is that which I cook on an open grill at one of the many campsites in the park. I also must admit that I really like our home-made tin foil dinners. We typically prepare them before leaving for the park. My favorie, strips of beef, thinly sliced potatoes, lots of cut onions, carrots, and mushrooms all smothered in cream of chicken condensed soup and wrapped in a double layer of tin foil. Simply set them on the grill above the fire and turn over periodically. It truly makes for a tasty evening dinner.
After dinner has been cleared and put away its time to sit around the campfire and enjoy the last of the day. For our family the time is spent talking about the day’s events, the experiences enjoyed, and any other thing we so choose to talk about or tell stories about.
When the family was young with our kids each in their own chair around the fire, we also enjoyed counting the number of shooting stars we could see as we sat there and chatted. While the kids are mostly grown and gone now, we still find ourselves looking skyward in hopes of seeing a shooting star or even an orbiting satellite moving across the sky.
Whether with all the family together or by ourselves me and my sweetheart still enjoy time around the campfire before heading off to the camper (use to be a tent in our younger years) and a good night’s rest in anticipation for the next days activities and adventures. To me, the foregoing represents my “perfect day in the park”.
A Summary of a “Perfect Day in the Park” For First Time Visitors to the Park
While it is difficult to properly present a “perfect day in the park “that reflects the collective thoughts from folks visiting the park for the first time, what is presented below is my efforts to generalize and summarize their thoughts as expressed to me when I asked the questions of “what was it they enjoyed most about their visit to the park, what was the best thing they had done that day, and what in their mind constituted a perfect day in Yellowstone?”
First time visitors to the park, based on their responses to my questions, seem to have been drawn to the park by four overarching reasons.
1. To view the various hydrothermal features at one of the many geyser basins throughout the park. Yellowstone is famous for its vast number and unique variety of hydrothermal features and is attributed to being home to more than 50% of all the geysers in the world.
2. To see the American buffalo and grizzly bear, and other wildlife found in the park. Yellowstone is home to the largest free-roaming, wild herd of bison in the United States and one of the few grizzly bear populations in the contiguous United States. Visitors want to see them up close and in their natural habitat.
3. To see Yellowstone’s iconic landmarks that are highly recognizable by people throughout the world. Chief among these are Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the upper and lower falls, and Mammoth Hot Springs. The National Park Service has made it so easy and convenient to experience these landmarks up close that folks expressed a desire to take advantage of this characteristic of these iconic areas.
4. Finally, first time park visitors expressed a desire to see one of the last wilderness areas in the lower 48 states that they can do so conveniently and without having to truly get into the rugged outdoors.
Beyond these primary reasons expressed by first time park visitors, folks also expressed several smaller or less famous activities they enjoyed in the park. Many of which were like those activities I so enjoy when in the park such as fishing, hiking, exploring, etc.
As a result of my many interactions with first time park visitors, I came to realize that I take for granted many of the grandeur “things” of Yellowstone. I have visited the major iconic features of the park so many times that I now seek for more exploration activities as well as it has become my favorite fishing location of all those that I fish in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem area.
I hope that my thoughts and those of others presented here are of some worth to you as you plan your trip to Yellowstone National Park. It truly is a place of wonder to be explored and enjoyed.