We had a wonderful trip to Yellowstone. Although the weather ensured that it was very different from any previous trip to Yellowstone I had ever taken, it was fantastic in its own way. Still, I hope to write a few different posts about our trip and in this post I will focus on the notably bad weather–it was memorable.
When planning our adventure, I had read one of those “What is the best time to visit?” pages in my guidebook. The guidebook mentioned that the upside of visiting Yellowstone in the spring was that the crowds would be thinner (a mighty upside indeed). The possible downside was that the weather might be iffy, and insects might be about in force. Well, I can report that the weather we experienced was not iffy–it was definite. There was not an insect in sight, and for that we were able to thank the weather. I can’t begin to count how many snow, rain, and hail storm episodes we were a part of!
In case someone finds this post by googling Yellowstone and spring, I should hasten to explain that this year’s weather was apparently quite an anomaly. Although Yellowstone is always nippy compared to most other places in the spring because of its high elevation, the consistently cold temperatures and stormy weather we saw over almost two weeks’ time were quite unusual. I can’t be an expert on what is typical most years, but I can tell you that this year the spring weather the last week of May and first days of June was far from ideal for touring the park. In the photo above, my family and I are posing in front of one of Yellowstone’s most scenic vistas: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Can’t see it in the picture? We couldn’t see it in real life!
We knew we were in trouble as soon as we began our trip through the south entrance of the park. We saw snow–feet and feet of it–piled up on both sides of the roadway. My vision of seeing wildlife from the roadside or enjoying beautiful scenery from the comfort of the van vanished. We were driving through a long white tunnel with walls of ice.
When we arrived at the lovely Lake Yellowstone Hotel, it was difficult to contain my disappointment. Tip #1: If you bravely travel to Yellowstone before the season has begun in earnest, do not book reservations at Lake Yellowstone. Lake Yellowstone is at a high elevation and may still be frozen solid. Do not pay extra for a room with a view! Your $50-100 extra will buy you a look out the antique window (the hotel is over 100 years old and this is both a good and a bad thing) at an undifferentiated white expanse–not actually picturesque! If it storms during the night (as it did for us), you will be reminded of the antique window all night long as the wind bangs it back and forth in its ill-fitting frame.
Tip # 2: Remember that you do not need to book a room at the lovely Lake Yellowstone Hotel in order to enjoy its magnificent lobby. If you do not have the misfortune of being snowed in with all roads to the rest of the park closed (ask me how I know!), you will find that the beautiful lobby is empty. You can admire the architecture, read the historical displays, pose for pictures by the grand fireplace, and spend time talking, reading, playing UNO, or simply gazing at the glass-walled lobby without paying the extortionate prices for a room there.
Keep in mind that if you visit Lake in late May or the first days of June, there will be no tours of the hotel, no cruises of the lake, no boat rentals, nor any of the other water activities that are so heavily advertised available. (I wish a reservationist, guidebook author, or experienced friend had explained this to me. My dream of going on a scenic lake cruise with my family shattered into little jagged bits after we arrived). Most of these activities start no earlier than June 5th and some as late as June 15th.
I don’t know how it is most years, but my experience from this year allows me to testify that if you plan your visit for the spring the hikes you envisioned may not be possible either. Most of the trails were closed–access was not simply discouraged but usually forbidden. Sometimes there were feet of snow; other times there were inches of water.
Tip #3: If you plan to visit Yellowstone during the spring, do consider staying at Mammoth Hot Springs (near the north entrance to the park). There are two excellent reasons for this: 1) Mammoth is at a lower elevation than the rest of the park, so there will be less snow, better views, and possibly better weather. 2) Mammoth is one of the best wildlife viewing areas in the park and spring is a prime wildlife-viewing season. On the road between Norris and Mammoth we were lucky to spot grizzly bears a couple of times–a real thrill. Apparently, the road between Mammoth and Tower is even better for wildlife viewing, but regrettably a rockside had closed that route during our visit. Nonetheless, we drove it as far as we were allowed and we were rewarded with a closeup view of the biggest elk and bison herds we saw in the park. We also saw pronghorns. On the road from Mammoth to the North entrance in Gardiner, MT, we saw big horn sheep. A minor reason for staying at Mammoth is that the rooms are cheaper. If you are willing to share a bath (which means going down the hallway to use the very private shower or toilet–really not too bad), you can get an adequate room with two queen beds for less than $100–a bargain inside the park. We had a view of elk and bison grazing from our window.
Mammoth isn’t Upper Geyser basin–you won’t find Old Faithful or any geysers there–but it has its own unique geology. The travertine terraces will command your awe and are accessible via easy walk along a well-maintained boardwalk.
To be continued . . . (I deserve punishment if I only end up blogging about the bad weather . . . )