Yellowstone National Park

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Yellowstone National Park Overview

In many ways, Yellowstone is the epicenter of everything that's still wild and untamed in the United States, and everything that's right and wrong about modern-day tourism.

Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the oldest park in the U.S. park system and its flagship. It draws an average of three million visitors per year; by some estimates, one-third of the U.S. population will visit this place during their lifetime. They come to experience the park's restless geology; to see grizzlies, gray wolves, and herds of buffalo; and to fish legendary trout streams like the Madison and the Yellowstone River. Most of all, they come to reconnect in some way with a sense of primordial America, the larger-than-life landscape that existed before railroads, highways, telephones, and a host of other technologies that began to cut everything down to size.

Riding a rare "hot spot" in the earth's surface, Yellowstone is known for its turbulent landscape—which remains among the most geologically active lands on the planet, with steam-spewing geysers, gurgling fumaroles, and frequent earthquakes. Yellowstone and the huge tracts of national forest land that ring it comprise one of the world's last intact temperate ecosystems—all its major species of plants and animals are still present. Yet Yellowstone is also deeply scarred by what Edward Abbey called "industrial tourism"; its most famous sights—Old Faithful geyser, the terraced wonders of Mammoth Hot Springs, the overwhelming size and hues of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone—can be a mob scene.

There is, however, a fairly simple way to break on through: Don't try to swallow all of this amazingly diverse place in one gulp. Pick one part of the park, and then walk, or paddle, or ride the extra mile into all the wild country that's still back there. You'll leave behind the crowds and quickly find what you're truly looking for.

Hike Mount Washburn
Picking out just one superlative hike from among Yellowstone's 1,000 miles of trail is no mean feat, but the Washburn Spur Trail is a pretty safe choice. This hike begins at the Dunraven Pass trailhead to Mount Washburn and ends at the Glacial Boulder on Inspiration Point Road. Starting at the Washburn Trailhead at Dunraven Pass, you ascend Mt. Washburn on a trail complete with (in season) wildflowers and spectacular views. After this three-mile ascent, the Washburn Spur Trail descends very steeply from the east side of the Fire Lookout to Washburn Hot Springs in another 3.7 miles. Continue past the turnoff to Seven Mile Hole and follow the trail to the Glacial Boulder and the Canyon area. (Hardcore hikers might consider following the Seven Mile Hole Trail to its impressive terminus in the depths of the canyon, then powering all the way to Washburn's summit.) This hike offers an amazing breadth of high-country wildlife: A large herd of bighorn sheep summer near the summit; yellow-bellied marmots and red foxes are also common. On a clear day, the 10,243-foot peak offers views all the way to the Gallatins, Absarokas, and Tetons, along with panoramas closer to hand.

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Fish the Firehole
Picture yourself mid-river on a chilly September morning, steam billowing here and there from the geysers and hot springs, elk bugling during the fall rut, and trout rising hungrily for the late-season hatches. Many fly-fishers consider the Firehole River in a class by itself. All the thermal activity warms the waters—the fishing action picks up earlier in spring and runs later through fall than at other Yellowstone streams, and the trout verge on gargantuan. It takes experience and wit to correctly gauge the hatch and duel the wily rainbows and browns on this river. If you're looking for an inside track, consider enlisting one of the many excellent guides leading clients onto Yellowstone trout waters.

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Scope Large Wildlife
One of the initial shocks Yellowstone delivers to first-time visitors is the presence of so many large critters—all free, wandering around. You just never know what's coming around the next bend of the Grand Loop. But some places in the park are extra special for wildlife watching, and the Lamar Valley is one of them. First of all, this is the range of the park's recently reintroduced gray wolves; there's nary a thrill comparable to seeing a pack of wild wolves socializing in a distant meadow, or perhaps even zeroing in on an elk kill. Your chances of being in the right place at the right time improve with the guidance of a park ranger, a Yellowstone Institute instructor, or a private guide, but either way the Lamar Valley's inhabitants include grizzlies, wolves, bison, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and eagles. Bring along a good spotting scope or pair of binoculars and head for one of several turnouts between the Tower-Roosevelt intersection and the Northeast Entrance.

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Trek the Cascade Corner
If you're looking to leave the crowds behind and find the essence of Yellowstone Country on your own terms, you couldn't do better than a multi-day trip into the park's vast Bechler River backcountry. Pack in and you'll find lush forests, spectacular waterfalls, backwoods thermal features, and solitude. Wildlife is everywhere, especially around the Bechler Meadows—a broad grassland expanse made bright by millions of wildflowers and frequented by moose, black bears, and a panoply of waterfowl and wading birds. Do it yourself on foot from the Cave Falls Road trailhead, or join a pack-stock trip or llama trek.

Ski among Geysers
Skinny-skiing Yellowstone is one of the premier winter-wilderness experiences in North America. To glide along the abandoned, snow-covered trails of the Old Faithful area in winter is to enter bottomless silences and watch tendrils of steam writhing in the chill wind. The geysers occasionally roar and billow, and buffalo use their massive heads to clear the frozen grasslands of snow. Accessible only by snow coach in winter, the rebuilt Old Faithful Snow Lodge makes a cozy backcountry base camp. Joining a naturalist-led ski trip offers rare and delightful insight into a world that only seems dormant; some of the best trips are run by the Yellowstone Institute.

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Horsepack an Indian Route
The Thorofare—the route from Yellowstone's southeastern corner north to the tip of Yellowstone Lake's Southeast Arm—was used for centuries by Indians to get from Jackson Hole to points north, and by mountain men and trappers during frontier days. The scenery is spectacular: Thousands of elk summer here, and in the distance the crags of the Absarokas rise to the east and the Wind River Range to the south. These days, the Thorofare is one of the largest, most remote expanses of wilderness in the Lower 48. Many ranches and adventure companies outfit this trip; traveling this magnificent country by horse, spending nights in utter wilderness, is as rare an adventure as can be had in the States.

Take a Learning Vacation
The Yellowstone Institute finds unforgettable ways for people to interact with Yellowstone Country. Choose among classes on outdoor skills such as tracking or "reading sign," wildlife photography, fly-fishing, canoe camping, and horsepacking; other courses offer rich insight into Yellowstone's history, geology, and ecosystem. With instructors who have an infectious enthusiasm for their subjects and are often much-laureled experts in their fields, Yellowstone Institute classes are also a bargain—averaging around $50 a day.

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