Step Away From The Car… In Yellowstone

If you don’t get more than 100 feet from your car when you go to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) in Wyoming that would be a shame, but I will not judge you… however I would encourage you to hike your way to the front of the line.  In doing so, you’ll leave the vast majority of the parks visitors far behind.  YNP has some of the most incredible roadside attractions nature can offer: steaming geysers, large herds of bison, elk and deer, as well as apex predators like wolves and bears.  But all of this nature in one place has one big disadvantage: Disneyland-like crowds with no skip the line pass to make viewing it all easier.

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Bison or Buffalo?

My wife and I recently spent a few days in Yellowstone and roughly split our time equally between seeing large swaths of the park from, or very near to, our car with the other half of our trip walking into the woods to experience a much different Yellowstone than most people do.  From the car, there are the massive Yellowstone Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as well as huge herds of bison that seem very comfortable weaving through the cars and people who dare to get too close.  Bears are often seen here from your car and even wolves show face for those who are either lucky, or patient, or both. There are also thermal features within close proximity to parking lots such as the famous Old Faithful Geyser and the incredible colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring.

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Lower Yellowstone Falls

If you get out of your car and venture into the woods, you may be rewarded with a much more intimate experience in one of America’s most popular national parks. Our first hike in the park was 4.8 miles round trip to Lone Star Geyser, which can erupt up to 45 feet into the sky. This geyser erupts every three hours so timing is everything, and we lucked out and arrived (with no planning mind you) only 10 minutes before the geyser went off.  The hike is uphill to the geyser but is not steep and follows an old road that has been closed to automobile traffic (bikes are allowed). A few minutes of waiting after reaching the end of the road, the geyser began to pick up steam (pun intended) and showed rumbling signs that an eruption would be coming soon.  The geyser erupted for about 18 minutes with water shooting up first, then a few minutes of steam and it was a wonderful reward for the relatively short 2.4 mile hike to get there.  We felt like our efforts to have hiked there were instantly rewarded as there were only about 10 other people there to witness this very cool display whereas Old Faithful can have as many as 2,000 people watching an eruption.  It was also refreshing to have an unobstructed view of the geyser with no signs or ropes in the way and the best part was that it truly felt like this is how we were meant to see it, au natural so to speak.  We worked for this experience and we were richly rewarded for our efforts.

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Lone Star Geyser

Our second hike was to see Fairy Falls which is accessed near the very busy Grand Prismatic Spring area.  Once you get past the large crowds of this popular spot, you’ll find a much smaller group of sightseers on the way to the falls.  Fairy Falls is a very tall (197 feet) cascade, one of the tallest in the park, but for us the true gem of this hike unexpectedly turned out to be Imperial Geyser.  This geyser bubbled and burped the entire time we were there and again there was hardly a soul there, this time only four other hikers.  If you make this an out and back, the distance is around six miles, but there are also options to add more distance by linking to other trails in the area, which we did to add another three miles or so.  While on one of these connector trails, we came across a lone male bison just off trail that really capped off what was a very unique hike. Seeing a big bison from your car can be intimidating so imagine seeing one out on the trail!  We stayed back a safe distance to take some photos and didn’t want to end up on the news like so many others recently who have gotten too close to a wild bison.

Not everyone can hike but if you can, do.  I’m not trying to diminish the experience for others who do like to see the park from the relative safety of their cars and only walk the boardwalks. We did our fair share of this type of sightseeing, just like everyone else and it was great.  However, wildlife encounters seem to have a more authentic feeling when you see them from the trail instead of the road. The power of a wild buffalo is more pronounced when you don’t have your car to save you.  Walking through forests that have grizzly bears heightens your awareness to your surroundings (carry bear spray) and that also adds a different dynamic to the experience.  Geysers and other natural features experienced miles from the nearest parking lot mean that you might have it all to yourself, without man-made barriers.

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Twilight on Yellowstone Lake

So, if you can get a hike or two in during your stay, do it and you’ll be glad you did. Enjoy a more secluded Yellowstone experience because most people will be at the lodge, in their car, or never far from it, and that means you can experience something rare in Yellowstone, solitude.

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Bison in Lamar Valley

 

 

 

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Custer State Park, South Dakota

Most people who travel to the Black Hills of South Dakota are intending to visit Mount Rushmore and perhaps even the Crazy Horse Monument, while on their way somewhere else (Yellowstone National Park for example).  However, visiting Custer State Park (CSP) with its open prairies, dense forests, and large buffalo herd, can be the perfect complement to the more acclaimed (and crowded) tourist draws in the Black Hills.

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of southeastern South Dakota, several hours drive from any big city (like Chicago, Denver, or Kansas City).  While Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are must sees on any outing in the Black Hills, they are each easily visited in just a couple of hours. If you’re staying in the area for more than one day and want something a little bit off of the main tourist trail, then Custer State Park can be the perfect chance to explore deeper and to get to know the area. For starters, the park is immense, with over 71,000 acres of rolling prairie and forested hills with lots of space to spread out, it is nearly six times larger than Mount Rushmore National Park.  CSP is probably best known for its large herd of roughly 1,500 free roaming buffalo but there are also many other animals that can be seen in the park like antelope, deer, goats, and even a herd of burros.  There are also miles of hiking trails, lodges, campgrounds, and lakes to explore.

The trailhead to South Dakota’s tallest peak, Harney Peak (or Black Elk Peak as it is now known), is located just within the park and the summit can be reached via a moderately difficult seven mile hike. The peak tops out at an elevation of 6,200 feet at the summit, making it the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the tallest in the United States east of the Rockies.  At the top, there is stone fire lookout tower, making it a unique summit to rest and take in the great views of the plains below.  If you know where to look, you can even see the backside of Mount Rushmore from up there.  Elsewhere in the park, there are also many miles of less strenuous hikes if this seven mile hike isn’t for you.

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Fire Lookout Tower, Harney Peak
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The backside of Mt. Rushmore in the distance, sightseeing helicopters above
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One of many hiking trails within the park
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Cathedral Spires

The thrill of seeing wild, free roaming buffalo is the closest thing to what it must have been like in the old west that we can experience, and there are so many of them that they often kick up huge dust clouds as they graze. If you’re lucky enough to be around the large herd, you can have the animals that seem as big as your car, completely surround you.  Buffalo are a truly magnificent animal and you can really appreciate that when they’re in close proximity and you can experience that here, without the crowds.  The buffalo photo above was taken on a dirt road with not another person within miles of us and we could literally touch it out of our car windows it was so close (we didn’t touch it by the way).

So if you’re planning a trip to the Black Hills or if you’re just passing through on your way somewhere else, think about staying an extra day and exploring Custer State Park, it’ll probably be the best part of your trip.