It was the summer of 1969 and, as Old Faithful was about to send its regular timed flume of scalding hot water about 140 feet into the air for a spectacular sunset performance, the crowds gathered in hushed anticipation. The geyser had been doing so like clockwork for eons and was one of the main attractions of Yellowstone National Park.
Meanwhile, a nine-year-old Mike Milne (your humble storyteller) had somehow locked himself into the bathroom of the room he was sharing with his family at the Old Faithful Inn; mere steps from the geyser. They were on the trip of a lifetime and this was the moment they had been waiting for, save for a recalcitrant key that had somehow become jammed in the lock. As his older brother wailed from outside—“C’mon, we’re gonna miss it!”—the pudgy young lad (who also wore glasses, he was quite a dreamboat back then) struggled with the key, but to no avail. He didn’t get to witness Old Faithful on that fateful day and, like General Douglas MacArthur, vowed to someday return.
Decades later Yellowstone has become one of the most popular destinations in America as streaming caravans of tourists make their way to the rugged sight: Yellowstone is the fourth most visited national park, with over 4 million visitors per year. During Michael’s first visit in 1969 the park was popular, but nothing like this. Low cost airfare and a more mobile society have created massive crowds during the summer. As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this year, Yellowstone is even more in the news. But Yellowstone is magical—and relatively empty—in the fall, a season that’s perfect for snuggling up to a warm fire in the lodge and donning the first cozy sweater of the season.
The park itself is aflame with the blazing leaves of quaking aspen, bigleaf maple, and cottonwood trees turning a brilliant yellow, and seems to operate on a slower pace. Deprived of the manic energy of all the summer visitors, it follows the lead of its grizzly bears and starts settling down for a long winter’s slumber.
We visited in early October, just a week before most of the park closed for the year. This off-season period is the perfect time to enjoy the sights that make Yellowstone justly famous, without struggling for elbow-room while you do so. It’s worth noting that many of the park’s lodging options have also closed for the season by this point, so unless you reserve months ahead at one of the few lodges still open, you’ll have to stay outside the park. Fortunately, there are several routes to take into Yellowstone, with the towns nearby each offering their own flavor of Western life and good food and lodging options.
Fifty miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance, Cody, Wyoming transports visitors back to cowboy times. The town, founded by “Buffalo Bill” Cody, offers the spectacular Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a collection of five national-caliber museums under one roof. A member of the Smithsonian Affiliations program, it’s hard to imagine a better place to round out your Western education. Whether your interests are natural history, firearms, the local indigenous people, Western art or Buffalo Bill himself, you’ll find something to get you in the cowboy spirit.
Note: This photo was taken with a zoom lens. Do not get close to the wildlife!
A day driving through the northern regions of the park took us past stunning vistas for which the park is justifiably famous. With virtually no one else on the road, we were able to explore at leisure. Occasionally, we’d spot a few cars pulled over by the side of the road, a familiar signal that there was wildlife in the vicinity to view. The bison proved particularly photogenic, especially when they chose to stop in the middle of the road and not budge for several minutes. We hadn’t seen any elk . . . until dusk.
A few hundred of them (yes, hundred) crossed our path, as we were leaving the park just after sunset. We bunked in for the night in the tiny hamlet of Gardiner, Montana, which sits just across the state line at the park’s Northern Entrance. Gardiner gives visitors a glimpse of life in days gone by, with only a few buildings and small motels lining the streets, many of which are unpaved. Later that night, that same herd of elk paid us a visit, moseying down the streets of Gardiner as if looking for their own room for the night.
From the southern approach, the town of Jackson offers the most sophisticated taste of the West near Yellowstone National Park. The village is located in the valley of Jackson Hole about 60 miles south of the park’s South Entrance, a drive that passes through Grand Teton National Park, with its breathtaking views of those rugged peaks.
Jackson attracts high-end visitors who seek comfort mingled with a dose of ruggedness in their travels, which might explain the moose calf ambling along the side of the road as we drove into town. Our room at Spring Creek Ranch, perched high above the valley with the Grand Tetons in the distance, made Michael observe that the town had come a long way since his first visit, when the airport gates were literally two wooden gates, like you’d find in someone’s backyard.
The view from Spring Creek Ranch.
Meanwhile, back at Yellowstone we made our way to Old Faithful, located mere steps from the Old Faithful Inn with the balky bathroom door. (In Michael’s youthful memory it was over a mile, but whatever.) The geyser is showing its age a bit and is not quite as “faithful” as it used to be, emitting its scalding steam within a small range of times now. The crowds awaiting the sunset display were speaking in hushed tones, as if they too had succumbed to the languid rhythm of the final week of the season at Yellowstone. A small burst of steam shot into the sky, followed by the full force of the geyser. The setting sun turned the watery display into crystals jetting across the sky. It was magical, and more than made up for the 45-year wait.
Ok, so Larissa’s head looks like it’s steaming in this one.
- Buffalo Bill Center of the West: CenterOfTheWest.org
- Yellowstone National Park: www.nps.gov/yell
Larissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.