Thursday, March 10, 2016

12 Things to do at Yellowstone that aren't Old Faithful

Old Faithful is the big draw at Yellowstone National Park

I'm sure you've heard of Old Faithful, the most iconic feature of Yellowstone, the oldest of all the U.S. National Parks. It's not the tallest blasting geyser at the park. That honor goes to Steamboat Geyser whose eruptions can be anywhere between 4 days to 50 years apart. Although no longer shooting into the air with the near clockwork regularity that gave the geyser its name, Old Faithful still has an average of 17 eruptions a day. It's an ideal natural tourist attraction since there's a 90% success rate of predicting the next eruption within a 10-minute window. If you're willing to hang around and amuse yourself for up to ninety minutes at the excellent museum or nearby hotels and restaurants, you are pretty much guaranteed to see it blast.

Guess what? There are other things to do at Yellowstone! They may or may not be as crowded as the boardwalk around Old Faithful, depending on how far off the beaten track you wish to go.

1. Find waterfalls and canyons

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I was not familiar with the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (not to be confused with the more famous Grand Canyon National Park) until I started researching this trip. This park is so full of natural scenic wonders that this one flew under the radar for me.

Artist Point, Yellowstone, waterfalls
The color of the rocks surrounding the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone gave the park its name.

Two massive waterfalls tumble down into a 20-mile canyon with walls that rise up as much as 1,200 feet from the Yellowstone River. Roads along both the north and south rims of the canyon lead to an abundance of trails with a variety of scenic outlooks. Artist Point (pictured above) is one of my favorite vantage points. When the sun emerged from behind a cloud, the rays of light hit the rocks so that they took on a yellow hue. This is why the area came to be known as Yellowstone.

We spent about 2 hours driving and hiking around the falls. Other recommended hikes are Uncle Tom's Trail which is a short but steep trail that descends from the parking lot off the South Rim Road down 500 feet via 328 steps to the base of the Lower Falls. On the north rim, the Brink of the Upper Falls gives you a very loud and up-close vista of where the waterfall begins. If you're hungry afterwards, the nearby Canyon Village has a 1950's diner-style Shack Bar inside the General Store.

2. Feel the heat at a Hot Spring

Yellowstone sits atop an active supervolcano whose caldera measures a humongous 34 by 45 miles (55 x 72 km) across. Scientists claim that half the world's geothermal features such as geysers, fumaroles and hot springs are in the area. The geysers like Old Faithful are the park's showstoppers, but the steaming hot springs are fascinating, too.

Silex Spring, Yellowstone
Measuring the temperature of Silex Spring

I brought along an infrared thermometer which uses a laser to help aim the thermometer to take the surface temperature of an area without having to touch it. Silex Spring in the Lower Geyser Basin is a pale, clear blue that lets visitors gaze down through the ragged layers of rock surrounding the spring. It measured at 134F (57C), but other springs were much higher.

These hot springs can be deadly hot, and visitors are warned to stay on the surrounding boardwalks. Even if the water temperature won't hurt you, it's a prime environment for amoebic meningitis. Who wants to take home a fatal infection as a souvenir? Not me!

3. Laugh at the sound and stink of Mud Pots

I was amused by the bubbling mud pots along Artist's Paint Pots Trail on the western side of the park. The geothermal heat acts like a giant stove, and the mud which was as thick as chowder was at a slow simmer. Flatulent-like sounds and a sulfuric smell rose up from the area. The easy, mile-long trail takes visitors up a hill where you can see mud flung as high as 15 feet in the air.

Artists Paint Pots, Yellowstone
Bubbling mud pots

4. Watch as stone formations are created before your very eyes

Every day, two tons of calcium carbonate dissolved in water flow out of Mammoth Hot Springs. Once the water emerges from the ground and begins to cool, the minerals are deposited on the surface, building layer upon layer of travertine, a type of limestone. 

The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs

With some terraces growing by as much as eight inches a year, and the flow of water constantly changing as underground passages are blocked or opened, Mammoth Hot Springs is feature that is forever in flux. Wet parts shine in the sunlight and play host to a variety of colorful algae which gives the stone different shades of brown, yellow, orange and rust. Dry formations gleam white and light gray. The water from these terraces disappear back underground into subterranean caverns which sometimes contain poisonous gases. 

Keep your eye out for the elk and pronghorn antelope that frequent the area.

5. Go off the beaten path

As you sit in traffic on the main roads within Yellowstone, you may not believe that there are places where you can find solitude in the park. But this place is huge, and if you try, you can find trails without crowds of people. For me, that's when nature's restorative effect is the most powerful. 

Wraith Falls trail just east of Mammoth Hot Springs

The Yellowstone National Park with Kids eBook by Harley & Abby McAllister is a wonderful resource with in-depth descriptions of various hikes from short trails leading from parking lots to multi-day backpacking excursions across Yellowstone's wilderness. I picked an easy, half mile trail to Wraith Falls.  We passed only a few people on our walk through stands of lodgepole pines next to wide meadows and over a babbling creek to reach the falls. In that moment, I felt like we had the park practically to ourselves.

6. Look around the hotels

Yellowstone is home to a national historic landmark, Old Faithful Inn, which was built in 1904 and is said to be the largest log structure in the world.

Four-story high stone fireplace in the historic Old Faithful Inn

The inside was abuzz with activity. People clustered around the fireplace for warmth on the chilly late-July day that we visited. A fiddler stood on a balcony serenading the guests below. Visitors gathered in the numerous seating areas to rest their feet after a day of sightseeing, and kids amused themselves with coloring sheets. This is clearly a place where you don't have to be booked at the hotel to enjoy it.

The Lake Yellowstone Hotel built in 1891 is also a National Historic Landmark. Its bright yellow exterior with tall white columns is an example of the Colonial Revival style and offers views of Lake Yellowstone while you relax on a sofa listening to classical music. It oozes refinement in the midst of the wilderness. Both Old Faithful Inn and Lake Yellowstone Hotel offer guided tours for guests interested in the buildings' history and architecture. If you're near Mammoth Hot Springs, take a look inside the Mammoth Hotel's Map Room to see a rather large map of the United States made out of 15 types of inlaid wood from nine countries.

7. Go on Wild West Adventure

Harken back to yesteryear and explore Yellowstone National  Park like its earliest visitors did in the pre-automobile era. 

Trail ride across the Lamar Valley

The most adventurous sorts can saddle-up for a a one- or two-hour horseback ride from the Tower-Roosevelt or Canyon areas. If you want to let someone else do all the work, sit back in a replica Tally-ho stagecoach for a partial day tour offered three or four times a day during the summer months. Or you can cap off the day with an evening horse or stagecoach ride to Yancey's Hole for the Old West Dinner Cookout complete with cooked-to-order 12 ounce steaks. Numerous outfitters outside Yellowstone also offer trail rides within the park.

8. Head out on the water

While jumping into a hot spring at Yellowstone is never a good idea, there's an abundance of water activities available at Lake Yellowstone which has 110 miles of shoreline surrounding it. As we walked around the crowded boardwalk of the West Thumb Geyser Basin, I watched a group of kayakers from an outside outfitter row past Fishing Cone where people used to catch fish in the lake, then turn and cook it in the geothermal heated water in the cone without ever taking the fish off the line. 

Fishing Cone, West Thumb, Yellowstone
Kayakers pass the Fishing Cone on Lake Yellowstone

From Bridge Bay Marina near Lake Yellowstone Hotel, guests can take a one hour, narrated scenic cruise out around Stevenson Island aboard the Lake Queen. Guided fishing charter boats also depart from Bridge Bay Marina, or you could opt to rent a motorboat or rowboat for yourself. 

9. Attend a Park Ranger Program

Learn more about Yellowstone from park rangers, the people who know it the best. The newspaper they hand you at the Park Entrance should have a full schedule of Ranger Programs in the park and where they meet. You can go on guided walks or listen to Ranger Talks from morning to after dark. They cover a range of topics from astronomy to wildlife, from the park's natural history to its cultural history. 

Yellowstone, Albright Visitors Center
"When Animals Attack" Yellowstone Edition -- How to avoid a starring role 

10. Take a Wildlife Photo Safari

Spotting wildlife is one of the most popular activities at Yellowstone. Sometimes, you don't have to try too hard as bison walking on the road can cause a traffic jam. As long as you're not the driver, you'll have plenty of time to snap a photo as your car creeps past. We lucked out at Sulphur Springs where the American bison were kind enough to position themselves next to the hot springs so I could get a great shot. Don't get too near though, as bison can run three times faster than humans and just a swing of the head could injure a person.

American bison (not buffalo) next to Sulphur Springs

Bears are harder to find. You can ask a park ranger if there have been any sightings recently. During our visit, grizzlies were frequenting a spot where a pronghorn antelope carcass lay near the road. Stay in your car and leave the windows rolled up if you see one. If there's one thing I learned during the Ranger Talk, it was to stay a safe distance away from wildlife.

NOT a safe distance from wildlife

Visitors must stay 100 yards (92 m) away from bears and wolves and at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all other wild animals. (I made an exception for squirrels.) The people in the photo above are clearly closer than 25 yards. As the park ranger explained, imagine that pronghorn rearing up and bringing its hoof crashing down on your head like a medieval mace. Not worth the risk for a close up photo. 

11. Visit a Museum or Visitors Center

Yellowstone has eight museums or visitors center located near its most popular attractions. They are a good place to get background information about what you see whether its the animals that inhabit the park, supervolcanoes or the difference between a geyser and a fumarole. The one at Old Faithful is the biggest and even has a room for kids. Albright Visitors Center near Mammoth Springs focuses on the history of mankind's interaction with the area from Native Americans to early white explorers to becoming a National Park. 

Hands-on fun learning about supervolcanoes and geothermal hot spots around the world at the Canyon Visitors Center

12. Have some ice cream!

I saved the best for last. While enjoying nature's beauty should be reward enough for any visitor to Yellowstone, I've discovered that my kids sometimes need a little extra motivation to get down and up a trail. Enter ice cream. There are general stores with ice cream shops all along the park's 142-mile Grand Loop Road. 

Does the General Store next to Tower Fall have the biggest scoops in the park?

So there you have it. Twelve things to do at Yellowstone in the summer that aren't Old Faithful. But go ahead and do Old Faithful. You really must. And if you're lucky like I was, you'll wander by it after a late dinner and watch it erupt against a moonlit sky with hardly another soul around. 

What would you most like to do at Yellowstone National Park?

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  1. The wild west adventure on horseback (how good does that look) and the kayaking would be my favourites plus those stinky artists pots!

  2. I really enjoyed Yellowstone though we didn't do near as much as it looks like you did. My husband's favorite was Artist's Point but I think I liked the otherworldlyness of the geysers and hot springs. And I enjoyed trying huckleberry ice cream for the first time!

  3. My favorite would definitely be no. 5 Going off the Beaten Track. I reckon that would be awesome! You have a great list of activities there.. Annette

  4. Otherworldly is a perfect way to describe Yellowstone. The pictures and description of the geysers is really mesmerizing.

    I need to visit Yellowstone one day myself. :)

  5. We LOVED Yellowstone National Park. We didn't have enough time to explore and will be back for sure. Thanks for these tips, which we saved for our next trip! #wkendtravelinspiration

  6. True confessions: we've never been to Yellowstone. It is on the list, but never seems to make it to the top - your post moved it up a notch or two though.

  7. Great stuff. Yellowstone is full of amazing sites. I wandered off the beaten path and then kept going. I like to hike on some of the less popular trails (I also like to hike on the popular ones). Sometimes the less popular trails get a bit difficult to follow and it took a bit before I figured out, this can't be the trail. Finding my way back wasn't easy.

    Some photos and thoughts from one of my trips there

  8. What great pics!!

  9. What an array of things to do and see at Yellowstone - I had no idea. I think though I would still like to see the most famous - Old Faithful.

  10. contented travellerMarch 11, 2016 at 11:41 PM

    There is a lot more to do in Yellowstone than what I imagined. This is great.

  11. Yellowstone reminds me a bit of Rotarua in New Zealand with sulphur pools, hot springs and geysers. The travertine terraces are interesting and remind me of Pamukkale in Turkey, only Pamukkale's are are white as snow. Wonderful National Park. I would love to go there. :)

  12. I never knew there was so much to do at Yellowstone! Kayaking and trail riding look incredible - as do the chances for wildlife sightings! #WeekendWanderlust

  13. This looks fantastic. I really want to take my family out west to the bigger national parks. But it's a trip that takes some planning, and booking way in advance, which we're not so great at!

  14. I remember researching Yellowstone a while back but I don't remember that there was so much to do or such variety. I didn't know about Yellowstone's Grand Canyon either. I'd love to see some American bison!

  15. I absolutely agree that Yellowstone has so many other attractions apart from Old Faithful - but you have got to admit, if you have never seen a geyser, Old Faithful is pretty amazing too.

  16. Wow, so many things to do here! You've managed to educate this wandering Brit all about Yellowstone and the wonderful reasons to visit. Thank you! #TheWeeklyPostcard

  17. I hadn't realised there was quite so much to do here - I knew Old Faithful and that it was on the supervolcano but I guess I hadn't thought of all the scenery and activities beyond that. Fantastic tips for anyone planning a visit. #theweeklypostcard

  18. Michele, you really did a great job highlighting a lot of what Yellowstone has to offer! I can recommend the ranger programs: attend a fireside talk with a park ranger under the stars at night. Just watch out for bat guano falling on your head, at least that's what happened to me!

  19. Michele, that was a great roundup - and I'll bet you only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer. You caught some great shots, especially that one of Old Faithful. I enjoy national parks; your kids are lucky to have had the opportunity to go. I'm a tad envious because I've long wanted to visit Yellowstone and (if possible) even stay at that hotel. Out of curiosity, do you know what the hotel rate is?

  20. The hotel fell into the Luxury range. Summer peak season is usually booked a full year ahead of time. We actually stayed at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge next door. It's about the same price but a much newer hotel and easier to find vacancies.

  21. I would have loved to have attended one of the park ranger astronomy talks. Was it a flying bat that dropped a load on you or were you unknowingly sitting under one?

  22. Glad that you learned a few new things about Yellowstone.

  23. I actually watched Old Faithful erupt 5 different times. The eruptions varied in length and height, so it was interesting that it wasn't always the same.

  24. They kept reminding us that they are "bison," not "buffalo." I'd been calling those animals the wrong name for years.

  25. We had to book our hotel a year in advance to get a nice one near Old Faithful, but I think Traveling Praters had good luck with a last minute booking during the summer at one of the less famous lodgings.

  26. Seeing the wildlife was one of my favorite parts.

  27. I would love to visit Rotarua some day and compare them.

  28. It's a HUGE park. We spent 2.5 days there and didn't see most of it.

  29. They have a really good Junior Ranger program for kids, and they even give them a little formula to try to predict the next eruption.

  30. What??!! You've never been? I hope you make it there some day.

  31. I'm glad I made time to go off the Beaten Track even though there were other more famous places tempting us.

  32. Oooh, huckleberry ice cream sounds yummy. I think my kids went with their standard cookies and cream.

  33. I'd love to go back and try a trail ride or kayaking, too.

  34. I envy you for this trip, Michele. I've been in Yellowstone about 20 years ago, but don't have that many pictures from that trip. It was the time of analog photography. I'd love to go back and do some of the things you suggested.


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