62 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late.
Pennington has returned to traveling and is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of herself and others. She’s visiting new parks while closely adhering to best safety practices.
“This geyser’s usually really predictable, but she’s being a brat right now,” said an older woman to my left. I was sitting on a wooden bench in Yellowstone National Park, overlooking the violently steaming Castle Geyser with two dozen other tourists when my partner, Brian, struck up a conversation.
“Do you work here?” he asked her. “No,” she replied. “I’ve been here a lot, though. I’m what they call a geyser gazer.”
Less than two hours into my first-ever trip to Yellowstone, I was already learning about an underground citizen science group dedicated to viewing and tracking its more than 500 geysers. By the time our chosen one erupted (over an hour behind schedule), I leapt to my feet, felt a sudden burst of adrenaline, and couldn’t stop smiling. I was beginning to understand what makes this park great.
When I first arrived in Yellowstone, I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to all the hype. Sure, it’s the world’s first national park, a rugged expanse full of wolves, bison, and grizzly bears, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a breathtaking slice of the Rocky Mountains, and, yes, Old Faithful. The area is also known as a geothermal hot spot because of its roughly 10,000 geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents, the greatest concentration in the world. Today, the park can also be a crowded experience full of cars, restaurants, and selfie sticks. Could the primal majesty of the area still be experienced?
My partner, Brian, and I bid farewell to our new friend and hopped into my van in search of the next adventure: a short drive toward Midway Geyser Basin and a six-mile trek out to Imperial Geyser. Steaming vents of water bubbled into the aptly named Firehole River as I parked, and we set off on a wide gravel trail, bear spray at the ready.
Less than a mile from the trailhead, I took a sharp left up to a viewpoint overlooking the immense, technicolor eye of Grand Prismatic Spring. After decades of seeing the thing in textbooks and Instagram stories, it almost didn’t look real. I squinted and tried to make out the tangerine-hued tendrils that snaked their way across the ground under a veil of hot steam.
The deeper we hiked into the woods, the more diffuse the crowds got. By the time I started boulder-hopping across a small stream emanating from Fairy Falls, a delicate 200-foot cascade, Brian and I were practically alone on the trail.
Whack! I swatted dozens of mosquitoes away from my face and legs as we avoided sloshy mud and trekked further down the path. Somehow, the bugs weren’t as annoying as usual. They felt purposeful, even. A necessary part of a rustic experience.
When we rounded the last corner and caught our first glimpse of Imperial Geyser, I stopped dead in my tracks. To my left lay an unobstructed, bubbling mud pot, and to my right was a roiling, barrier-free geyser. There were no rangers, no boardwalks, and no crowds. Just me, my boyfriend, and a fury of geothermal activity vibrating up from the earth.
This was the Yellowstone of yesteryear, I realized. A place full of magic and chaos.
Only once I was off the beaten path did I find the soul of the place, and it moved me. A sacred excuse to commune with the raw force of the planet that only parks can provide.
62 Parks Traveler Yellowstone Info
Size: 2,221,766 acres
Location: Northwestern Wyoming/Southern Montana/Eastern Idaho
Created in: 1872 (national park)
Best For: Geyser gazing, scenic drives, wildlife viewing, hiking, cycling, geology
When to Go: Summer (42 to 80 degrees) and fall (20 to 68 degrees) are excellent times to visit the park. In spring (20 to 60 degrees), many attractions are still blanketed in thawing snow. Winter temps can dip below -30 (but average 11 to 34 degrees), and many park roads are closed.
Where to Stay: Given Yellowstone’s size, it’s a good idea to find lodging inside the park. Tree-lined Madison Campground, managed by Xanterra, is the most centrally located and provides creature comforts like picnic tables, running water, and flush toilets for adventurous RV and tent campers.
Mini Adventure: Hike the accessible trails in Upper Geyser Basin and check out Old Faithful. Visitors can combine several boardwalks and paved pathways to create an easy, zig-zagging hike of nearly three miles that’s family friendly and passes through some of the park’s most breathtaking geothermal features. Download the Yellowstone app for up-to-date geyser predictions.
Mega Adventure: Climb Bunsen Peak. Park at the trailhead near Mammoth Hot Springs, then get ready to climb 1,300 feet in just 2.2 miles, keeping a lookout for mountain goats along the way. From the summit, you’ll get a commanding view of the Yellowstone River Valley, the Gallatin Mountain Range, and Swan Lake Flat before backtracking the 2.2 miles downhill.
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Lead Photo: Emily Pennington