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THE BIG WILD


Yellowstone

Our first national park is a mind-bending world of steaming geysers, ranging bison and sweeping landscapes. This excursion threads the park and the towns and territory beyond.

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You're sure to spot many bison on this terrain.

DAY 1

Many towns have charm. Livingston, Montana, packs mystique, modeling a shaggy-smart Western cool. The historic Murray Hotel is the jewel of the retro main drag; its bottom floor houses 2nd Street Bistro, where Anthony Bourdain dined with author Jim Harrison and painter Russel Chatham. [Just a couple of locals.] With Yellowstone National Park and Paradise Valley’s spring creeks within easy striking distance, Livingston is both a hub and retreat. Pick up a local author’s work at Elk River Books, a Stetson at Bob’s Outdoor. Cowboys, poets and artists gather ’round pan-seared Flathead Lake trout at Campione Roman Kitchen, the best little Italian cafe in Montana. To seal the deal with a piece of cinematic lore, cue up Rancho Deluxe. Up the road a piece, Chico Hot Springs, which at the turn of the 20th century served as a destination for weary miners, now offers all variety of lodging—from humble rooms in the creaky main lodge to cushy hillside chalets to custom-built Conestoga wagons—as well as classic soaking pools.

DAY 2

The keenest Yellowstone wildlife-watchers know to be out in the Lamar Valley at first light, about a half-hour before sunrise. So set an early alarm and hightail it to the sagebrush plains of “America’s Serengeti,” where you’re likely to see enormous herds of bison—plus elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, foxes and coyotes. Bears roam the valley as well, and this is also one of the best places in the world to see wild wolves; BYO binoculars or spotting scope (many outfitters rent both).

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The travertine formations at Mammoth Hot Springs sometimes stand in for alien worlds in film. | HANA OLIVER

DAY 3

If your Yellowstone baggage includes one ounce of cynicism, time to chuck that. A wide-eyed approach works best. The road to Madison Junction runs through a greatest-hits lineup of geysers and hot springs, with options for short detours to geothermal sites branching off the main loop. All are worthwhile. Imagine exploring an exotic alien landscape (in some ways, true) and take every bend in the road. 

CULTURE PICKS

BOOK
American Wolf, by Nate Blakeslee
A nonfiction plunge into the Yellowstone wolves’ inner world, with the scope and cadence of an epic novel. O-Six, the alpha female protagonist, remains a legend

MUSEUM
Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody
A cluster of five museums in a true Western crossroads, exploring frontier history, Native culture and more.

Of particular note: the fascinations clustered around Great Fountain Geyser, 11 miles up the road north of Old Faithful. Like that famed gusher, Great Fountain keeps a roughly predictable timetable, blasting forth every nine to 15 hours, often continuing over an hour. (A given eruption’s length helps geyser-spotters predict the next.) For a talking point as you wait, nearby Mushroom Pool was key to breakthrough science: In the late 1960s, researchers Thomas Brock and Hudson Freeze discovered unknown, heat-loving microorganisms here. One bacterium, Thermus aquaticus, proved vital to genetic research and biomedical invention, including recent tests for the novel coronavirus. More striking to the eye, White Dome Geyser stands like a wild-built fortress, a patchwork of bone-white and rust-red deposits built up over centuries against a distant evergreen horizon. It, too, erupts—less predictably, but to dramatic effect.

GRAND PRISMATIC SPRING

Mesmerizing blue waters, rainbow-laced steam and vividly colored microbe colonies make Grand Prismatic a mandatory stop. It produces its color show with a nonstop churn of water, super-heated in the depths and cooling as it rises. A hike part way up the Fairy Falls Trail leads to commanding views. 

NORRIS GEYSER BASIN

The park’s oldest, hottest geyser basin may also be most dynamic, with frequent seismic changes to its features. Bleached-out Porcelain Basin presents a barren and crusty landscape dotted with milky-watered pools. Find two small but significant museums near here, one dedicated to Norris itself, the other to park ranger history.

OLD FAITHFUL TO JACKSON

DAY 4

After seeing Old Faithful’s blast, it’s tempting to think you’ve seen Yellowstone’s highest highlights. And that most famous name-brand gusher does sit at a nexus of natural wonder and human culture. Amble the winding paths and boardwalks, breathe in some sulphur, and appreciate just where you are. Old Faithful Inn’s vaulted dining room is the place to toast and take stock. But this is far from the last word in wonder here. One example: the West Thumb Geyser Basin steams away on Yellowstone Lake’s southwest shores, providing a dramatic one-stop primer on hydrothermal diversity. (Be sure to stare into the Abyss.) Just beyond YNP’s southern gate, make time to stop for staggering views of Grand Teton National Park, and maybe a sojourning bison herd. 

In Jackson, WY, the days begin with snappy fresh-air breaths and, ideally, coffee and egg sammies at Persephone. Take a morning wander through the beguiling stone-walled architecture and deep collection at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, rambling on a hillside north of town. If you need gear, JD High Country Outfitters is old-school and expert-staffed. (Plus, an indoor archery range.) 

ROAD TIPS

The Yellowstone region encompasses a huge, remote area—3,471 square miles in three states. Be ready for a variety of road conditions and geographies by seeing to all the basics—tire pressure checked, toolkit onboard etc. On the road, keep an eye on engine temperature, as long upward grades can cause overheating. There are long stretches without fueling options, so take care on that as well.

Okay, so you know Yellowstone, but do you know Dry Tortugas? Check out our sister site’s report on the most- and least-visited national parks

Camping in the Yellowstone Country outside of summer months is a distinct experience, for sure. Read up with a guide to winter RV camping.

Headed out on your own? These are the best current RVs for solo camping.

Wildsam’s guide to Yellowstone National Park is rich in natural-world insight, the best places to watch geology in action and history and lore from Montana and Wyoming.

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Watch for “bison jams” on Yellowstone’s roads. | YANNICK MENARD

A Five & Dime, boutique art galleries and the historic MILLION DOLLAR COWBOY BAR (seats are saddles) wrap Town Square. Among many lodgings, the new Cloudveil is a fresh, graceful presence right in the thick of it. Chicken and waffles at CAFÉ GENEVIEVE wash down well with SNAKE RIVER BREWING microbrew. Venture to Fiesta for a taste of Tlaxcala fare imported by Jackson’s sizable Hispanic community. 

You could spend a lifetime probing the sea of wild public land surrounding Jackson.Check out the BRIDGER-TETON NATIONAL FOREST, 10 times the size of its neighboring national park, for whitewater on the Snake.

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JIM PEACO | NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

WHAT TO DRIVE

HEARTLAND MALLARD

Compact and lightweight, the Heartland Mallard is nimble enough for mountain roads and offers plenty of amenities and comfort at the campsite. The travel trailer sleeps five comfortably, has a surprising amount of onboard storage, and is equipped with a kitchen that is sure to delight camp chefs.

FIND YOURSFIND YOURS
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ESSENTIALS

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CAMPGROUND

Madison Junction
Yellowstone
An easy choice, centrally located for adventure from a key Park crossroad.
nps.gov

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LODGING

ANVIL HOTEL
Jackson, WY
Sharp design touch, adventurous local spirit, and a fancy hostel option, Cache House.
anvilhotel.com

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SHOP

Windy peak vintage
Livingston, MT
Cool finds imbued with Western chic in the heart of Montana’s coziest village.
windypeakvintage.com

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GEAR

JOURNEYMEN BACKPACK
Filson
A durable backpack for carrying gear and snacks keeps you organized and looking sharp. This one is water resistant. $395.
filson.com

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THE MUSIC OF THE YELLOWSTONE

THE 9 ESSENTIAL ROAD TRIPS OF 2024

01 BIG BEND

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02 HUDSON VALLEY & CATSKILLS

Dig into small towns and gorgeous country Upstate.


03 YELLOWSTONE

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04 Lowcountry

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05 NORTHERN MICHIGAN

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06 KENTUCKY

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07 GULF COAST

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08 NEW MEXICO

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09 BIG SUR

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