Heading to Yellowstone This Summer? Bring Your Patience.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I decided to take our two youngest kids to Yellowstone National Park for their first visit. I haven't been to the Park for years and we figured it would be a nice, relaxing way to get out of the house, yet maintain social distancing. At first we were just going to make it a one-day adventure, but after finding a decent deal on a hotel in Big Sky, we decided to make it a two-day trip. This detail becomes important later in this story.
Our trip started off great, as we hit the road fairly early on a Saturday morning and headed to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park via Cody, WY. We topped off our gas tank in Cody, bought some road-trip snacks and got back in the car. We leisurely cruised US Highway 14, past Buffalo Bill Lake and then the bizarre Smith Mansion, spotted atop the hill to the south.
When we got to the park entrance, the lines weren't super long and we got through after a relatively short wait. Little did we realize that this was going to be one of our shortest delays of the entire weekend. Things remained calm around Yellowstone Lake and traffic wasn't bad at all. I always forget how stunning that lake is. Better take a selfie.
This leg of our journey ended up being one of the most enjoyable because as soon as we got to the junction where you can turn to Old Faithful or to Mammoth Hot Springs, everything changed. Traffic became INSANE. I have never seen Yellowstone Park so crowded in my entire life. We made it to the Old Faithful parking lot and found a spot to park about 1,000 yards away at the very back of the lot. Trudging over to Old Faithful, there were thousands of people everywhere. We kept sliding over from groups that insisted on invading our "six-foot" sphere. Very few people were wearing masks.
As soon as we would move, more tourists crowded in around us. It was so frustrating. Since many of the amenities in the park are closed because of COVID-19, we avoided the extremely long lines to the restaurant and the gift shop that were open at Old Faithful and decided, "Surely it will be less crowded in Mammoth. We'll stop for lunch there." Getting out of the parking lot was a nightmare, with drivers cutting us off, nearly running us over at crosswalks and generally being rude a$$holes (talking to you, Mr. California license plates).
Traveling from Old Faithful to Mammoth took us almost THREE HOURS. It's only 49 miles. It was stop-and-go (mostly stop) traffic the entire way. We kept thinking it was road construction or perhaps people were stopping to see a bear or something. That was not the case. It was just traffic. Every parking lot and pull-off along the road was completely overflowing with cars. We never actually entered the little village of Mammoth Hot Springs on this leg of our journey. After sitting for almost 30 minutes in gridlock, we inched into the parking lot where the above photo was taken and turned around. No lunch, no gift shops for the kids and honestly, not very much fun.
Hours later we finally made it to West Yellowstone, where the town was completely jammed with traffic and pedestrians. It was an absolute madhouse. I couldn't wait to get a cocktail at Bucks T-4 Lodge in Big Sky where we were staying for the night.
At this point I was extremely thankful we didn't try to make our Yellowstone trip a one-day adventure. It would have been impossible. Our stay at Bucks T-4 wasn't really that great (hard beds and crappy food), but at least we were out of traffic and could get a fresh start in the morning. We decided we'd jump on the interstate in Belgrade, zip over to Livingston, and try again at Yellowstone through Gardiner the next day. That was the best decision ever.
Gardiner was a night-and-day difference from West Yellowstone. It was not crowded at all. My wife and kids hit the gift shops and I wandered down the block to check out the aftermath of the fire that destroyed at least four businesses on June 14.
We grabbed some milkshakes to-go from the Corral Restaurant and hit the road again. Entering Yellowstone through the Gardiner gate took about two minutes. Traffic was virtually non-existent. We saw giant herds of bison and enjoyed the grandeur of the Lamar Valley into Cooke City, finally crossing back into Montana over Beartooth Pass.
It seems that everyone and their cousin decided to make the Great American Road Trip to Yellowstone National Park this summer. I'm fairly sure I spotted license plates from every state except Hawaii. I should have known better. With COVID-19, many people are hitting the road instead of flying to other destinations this year. If you decide to make a "quick trip" to the park before fall, remember to bring your patience. Unless you are really set on seeing Old Faithful, I would honestly avoid it. Stick to the Cody or Gardiner entrances and you'll experience far fewer crowds, no traffic jams and actually see some wildlife instead of just wild tourists.