Exploring Yellowstone

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Thermal geysers, bison, fishing streams, and grizzlies

Sometimes it seems like all hell is breaking loose in Wyoming's vast and amazing Yellowstone National Park. Everybody knows about Old Faithful Geyser, but its periodic eruptions that shoot jets of boiling water more than 150 feet into the air make up only part of the park's ongoing thermal extravaganza. You can easily watch even bigger geysers blow their tops, too, if not quite so regularly. All around you, the park's many hot springs froth wildly, shooting forth clouds smelling of brimstone. Smoke holes spout noisily. Mud cauldrons bubble ominously. Steaming rivers, flowing through water-scalded valleys, appear on fire. You sense barely restrained power and danger lurking beneath your feet, and wonder, "Has the devil gone berserk?"

No place on earth is quite like Yellowstone; nowhere else is there such an enormous concentration of thermal activity. As many as 300 geysers. Ten thousand hot spots of all kinds. At every turn, you cannot help but gape in awe. I still do, and I've been a frequent visitor since childhood.

The time to go--and what you'll spend

Nature's fireworks, not surprisingly, draw crowds from late spring into fall - the brief season between heavy snows when the roads are open. But this doesn't mean you're forced to fork over a bundle to catch the big show. If you plan ahead, you can nab one of hundreds of comfortable rooms or cabins within the park (some with baths, some without) that go for $35 to $65 a night for two people. (Not bad, especially when you also get to enjoy some of America's most beautiful scenery just outside your door.) Procrastinators can usually find similarly cheap last-minute lodgings in motels or in a first-class hostel in West Yellowstone, Montana, and in other small Old West towns outside the park. The views are almost as great.

Meals in the park's cafeterias are easy on the budget, too. For lunch, my wife Sandy and I keep cheese, crackers, raisins, and fresh fruit in a cheap plastic cooler and picnic every day beside a stream or lake.

And at Yellowstone, as at most of the country's major national parks, your days are crammed with exciting adventures that don't cost you a penny. In a rush, you can hit the highlights in a long day. But plan to spend a week, and you'll discover you still haven't seen it all.

Highlights

To get you started, a few favorite freebies:

Fish with a buffalo. Last summer I saw several trout fishermen in waders standing waist-deep in rushing Nez Perce Creek. On the grassy bank behind them, seven huge, shaggy bison grazed nonchalantly. Cast a line in any number of streams and lakes, and you may draw an animal onlooker of your own. Adult fishing permits cost an easy $10 for ten days.

Go hiking. Yellowstone claims 1,200 miles of trails, some passing through intimidating grizzly country. For a short, tough hike without a bear on your heels, make the steep descent to the brink of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. About 1.5 miles round-trip, this jaunt boasts close-up views of the vividly colored walls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, another of the park's wonders.

Explore Yellowstone's geyser basins. Throngs gather at Old Faithful for its hourly (more or less) eruption. But to see more dazzling thermal hijinks, follow miles of carefully placed boardwalks that thread among geysers, hot springs, and bubbling mud pots in several sprawling geyser basins. At Midway Basin, steam billowing from Excelsior momentarily enveloped me in a blinding fog one cool morning last summer.

Join a ranger-led program. "Managing the Wild" has proved to be a popular two-hour walk focusing on how Yellowstone strives to provide a healthy habitat for bears, wolves, and bison at a time when the desires of the public and the needs of wildlife often collide. For more intensive nature studies, sign up for courses offered by the Yellowstone Association Institute, 307/344-2294, www.yellowstoneassociation.org. A day's lesson in mammal tracking is $60, a worthy splurge.

Improve your outdoor snapshots. Several times weekly, a Kodak photographer heads up a one- to two-hour stroll, giving tips on improving your nature shots. Check Yellowstone Today, the free park newspaper, for the schedule.

Plan a day trip to neighboring Grand Teton National Park. Less than an hour's drive to the south, it boasts scenic grandeur you shouldn't miss. The Yellowstone entrance fee of $20 per car for seven days also covers Grand Teton, so take advantage of the two-for-one price. The peaks of the Grand Teton range, the park's most dramatic feature, rise 7,000 feet above the valley floor like turrets of a castle.

Go wildlife spotting. Early morning and late evening, when animals tend to feed, are the best times. But in midday from my car window, I've glimpsed elk, mule deer, moose, bison, coyote, pronghorn, snowshoe hare, black bear, and, I think, a grizzly ambling along a cascading creek. Elk nibble the lawn outside park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs; bison herds in Hayden Valley block traffic as they cross the main road.

Where to stay: Inside Yellowstone

For campfire chats and starry nights, plan to stay inside the park. On the plus side, you get budget rates and gorgeous views; on the negative, the cheapest park lodgings are sometimes fully booked for peak summer weeks from six months to a year in advance.

Helpful hint: Yellowstone is enormous, larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The distance between the north and south entrances is just over 100 rugged, winding miles, and driving time at a 45-mph limit is slow. If you've got several days, book most of your stay in the southern end to see the geysers and massive Yellowstone Lake, North America's largest mountain lake. But save a couple of days for the north to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and Mammoth Hot Springs. All the park lodgings we name below can be booked in a single call through Amfac Parks & Resorts at 307/344-7311, www.travelyellowstone.com.

In the past, I've stayed in almost all of the park's lodges, most of which offer a range of accommodations from budget to expensive. For this report, I returned last summer for a fresh look at budget rooms and cabins only. Space is tight and amenities scarce, I found. But everything appears well kept, and housekeeping services are provided. The rates quoted here are for one night's rental of a room for two. In most places, children under 12 stay free.

For geyser viewing: First choice is historic Old Faithful Inn in Upper Geyser Basin, a soaring structure of stone and wood that rivals its nearby namesake geyser as an eye-catcher. About 75 rooms without bath (but with a sink) go for $64. A five-minute walk away, the less glamorous but still inviting Old Faithful Lodge offers a total of about 100 cabins in three categories: Budget with shared bath and in-room sink, $35; Pioneer with private bath, $43; and the more spacious Frontier with private bath, $62. Neighboring both is the recently built Old Faithful Snow Lodge, surrounded by ten older, more modest Frontier cabins (with private bath at $62). For reasonably priced meals, head for the Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria, where the prime rib dinner (mashed potatoes, vegetable of the day, roll) costs $10.79, and the meat loaf plate (best buy) is $5.99.

At Yellowstone Lake: Midway between the geyser and canyon areas, Lake Yellowstone Lodge, which has 86 Pioneer cabins ($49), makes a convenient choice if you're staying in the park only a night or two. Rocking chairs with a lake view line the porch of the cedar-shingled main building. Dine with more lake vistas at the cafeteria, where the pot roast plate (potatoes, a vegetable) comes to $6.99.

In canyon country: Just a half-mile from Yellowstone's Grand Canyon, the 1950s-era, motel-style Canyon Lodge offers about 300 Pioneer cabins at $54. In the cafeteria, a breakfast plate of scrambled eggs is $1.79; a hearty bowl of oatmeal, $1.99. At dinner, rainbow trout amandine with all the trimmings may tempt you at $7.99. The menu's budget plate is country fried steak, $5.99.

In the north: To savor the expansive views of the mountain valleys, stop at Roosevelt Lodge, a rustic outpost where about 60 Roughrider cabins with shared bath are priced at $43. The Roosevelt is popular for its ranch-style activities: horseback rides ($23.50 for an hour), clattering stagecoach rides ($6.75), and Old West cookouts (adults $32, including wagon transportation). In the lodge dining room, try a bowl of Cowboy Chili with corn bread, $4.50. Just inside Yellowstone's north entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, which overlooks Mammoth's steaming travertine terraces, is a convenient stopover as you enter or leave the park. About 30 hotel rooms with shared bath and in-room sink go for $60; 44 cabins with shared bath and in-room sink, $50. In the dining room, pan-fried Rocky Mountain trout with rice pilaf and a roll ($13.25) may pinch the budget; if so, fish and chips with french fries and coleslaw are an easier $7.95.

Note: In mid-May, "Early Bird Specials" trim the rates at several lodges. At Mammoth Hot Springs, rooms and cabins with shared bath are just $25; with private bath, $59. Lodges open for the summer on a staggered schedule. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and The Old Faithful Snow Lodge are first in early May; Canyon, Lake Yellowstone, and Roosevelt Lodges are last in early June. Winter closings are staggered from early September to mid-October.

Where to stay: outside the park

My recent swing through Yellowstone also took me to these neighboring towns, each catering to park visitors with a choice of surprisingly inexpensive motel rooms. You can almost always count on a private bath, TV, and morning coffee.

West entrance: If you strike out in Yellowstone, try first for a budget-priced room in West Yellowstone, Montana, an attractive mountain town just outside the park gate. About 30 miles from Old Faithful, it claims a population of about 900 and I suspect offers just as many motel rooms, mostly in the budget-to-moderate price range.

At the 40-room Al's Westward Ho Motel (16 North Boundary St., 406/646-7331), a longtime family favorite, the summer rate is just $52, a bargain for the spiffy accommodations. Manager Marilyn Parker says she or her fellow motel-keepers can usually find you a good economy room even on the park's busiest weekends. Nearby at the 15-room Lazy G Motel (123 Hayden St., 406/646-7586), a room with one double bed is $43; with two double beds, $53; a two-room family suite, $75. For a kitchen, enabling you to save money on meals, add $10.

But the best buy in town is the tidy Madison Hotel (139 Yellowstone Ave., 406/646-7745), a 1912 log structure with authentic Western flavor that doubles as a private hostel: just $20 per person for nicely decorated three-bed dorm rooms. For privacy, six hotel rooms with shared bath and in-room sink cost $39, $27 if you're traveling solo. Six rooms with private bath start at $49.

Dine a short walk from all three lodgings at the Canyon Street Grill (22 Canyon St., 406/646-7548), where a breakfast stack of buttermilk pancakes is an easy $2.25, the liver and onions plate, $8.25.

North entrance: Choices are fewer and the prices a bit higher in tiny Gardiner, Montana, at the park's northern entrance, about 60 miles from Old Faithful. Best value for your money: the 14 white-frame cottages at the Hillcrest Motel (200 Scott St., 800/970-7353), tidily maintained by owners Art and Annie Bent. With a kitchenette, $70. In contrast, the Super 8 on Highway 89 (406/848-7401) will set you back as much as $89.80 in early August. The whole town eats at the Town Caf_ Motel (121 Park St., 406/848-7322). On the menu: biscuits and gravy with two eggs, $3.95; the porkchop plate, $7.25.

A quick 30 miles north of Gardiner, in the town of Pray, the 102-room Chico Hot Springs Lodge (1 Old Chico Rd., 406/333-4933) is one of my all-time favorite places to relax. A century old, it sits in wide-open ranch country at the foot of 10,960-foot Emigrant Peak. Its large hot springs-fed swimming and soaking pools are free to guests. In the oldest wing, the lodge still maintains 36 rooms with shared bath at $45; with a sink, $60. Dining is pricier: $6.95 for the breakfast buffet, $19.95 for a pork loin chop platter with salad. But those steaming pools are worth it.

In a pinch, a room at the Livingston Inn (5 Rogers Ln., 406/222-3600), about 110 miles north of Old Faithful in Livingston, Montana, charges $75 per double from mid-June to early September and $42 off-season.

South entrance: The year-round resort town of Jackson, Wyoming, is becoming increasingly ritzy. Browse its contemporary and traditional art galleries (expensive) and then seek budget lodgings elsewhere. For bare-bones accommodations, it's hard to beat the Colter Bay Village tent cabins (800/628-9988) on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Canvas roofs, log walls, cement floors, an outside grill, wood-burning stove, and picnic table add up to just $33. Dine at the John Colter Cafe Court, a cafeteria, where eggs rancheros with biscuits is $4.95; an eight-inch pizza, $4.75.

East entrance: The historic little cowboy town of Cody, Wyoming, about 52 miles from Yellowstone, makes a great way station to or from the park. Cody stages a rodeo ($10 adult, $4 children) nightly in the summer, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (720 Sheridan Ave., 307/587-4771), which includes the Plains Indian Museum, is one of the country's finest Western-themed museums ($10 adult, $4 children). Book at the 40-room Grizzly Bear Lodge (244 W. Yellowstone Ave., 307/587-5960), $54. Nearby, the Cattleman's Cut Steak House (225 Yellowstone Ave., 307/527-7432) touts its chicken-fried steak at $4.99 (lunch) and $7.49 (dinner).

Getting to Yellowstone

The closest airport to Yellowstone is in Jackson, Wyoming, 57 miles to the south, but summer flights tend to book up and can be expensive. Two alternatives are Billings, Montana, about 125 miles northeast, and Bozeman, Montana, 84 miles northwest. But flights here are limited and pricey also. You're better off looking elsewhere for budget airfares.

And elsewhere means Salt Lake City, Utah, a six- to seven-hour drive from Yellowstone. Don't groan. The roads are lightly traveled, and the nonstop mountain and valley views via U.S. 89 north over Logan Pass help the time pass quickly. I've taken the route several times to save money. Another advantage: Salt Lake's car rental rates tend to be cheaper, and you get unlimited miles. In Billings, rental agencies limit you to 1,050 to 1,400 miles a week. Yellowstone's distances are immense, and a mileage charge could cost you plenty.

Last summer I used coupon discounts on United to cut the cost of a flight to Billings, because I wanted to drive into Yellowstone over the famed Bear Tooth Highway (U.S. 212), which climbs to nearly 11,000 feet at Bear Tooth Pass. Without the coupons, the best buy was definitely Salt Lake, as a check on the Internet later revealed.

For a week's stay in August peak season, the cheapest ticket I could find from my home in Washington, D.C. to Jackson came to more than $700 and to Billings, $600. But to Salt Lake, just $210. Similarly in Salt Lake, Payless Car Rental (800/729-5377) asked about $165 for one week with unlimited miles. In Billings, Enterprise Rent-a-Car's (800/736-8222) low rate of $199.99 came with a limit of 1,400 free miles.

Greyhound Bus Lines (800/231-2222) pulls into West Yellowstone daily from Idaho Falls, Idaho ($23 one-way), and Bozeman, Montana ($15.50 one-way). But the park provides no public transportation, so you will need to rent a car to tour. Hitchhiking, a potentially dangerous option, is officially prohibited, although I've seen and talked to younger park employees who hail rides to get around.

No matter how you get to Yellowstone, every approach road passes through beautiful mountain country. In a way, your vacation begins even before you reach the park. Now that's really getting extra value for your money.

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