City slickers take a bite out of America’s first national park
Story by Owen Dolan Explore Big Sky Contributor
Photos by Stephanie Dolan
I’m not originally from New York City but having lived here since 1998, I’ve earned my chops as a bona fide New Yorker. Even if you’ve never been to the Big Apple, you’ve seen it in movies or on TV. You know we pack like sardines into subways, ignore fellow pedestrians and lean on car horns.
So when my wife, Stephanie, and I had the opportunity to travel to Big Sky at the end of May, we jumped at the chance to get away from a city with 9 million people.
I was most interested in the fly fishing, but Stephanie worked in Yosemite National Park many moons ago and wanted to check out Yellowstone National Park. “The Active Times” outdoor website ranked Yellowstone No. 1 in its “Absolute Best National Parks” over her beloved Tuolumne Meadows and El Capitan in No. 9 Yosemite.
We chose the first day of our trip to tour the park, making the scenic hour-long drive down Highway 191 along the Gallatin River from Big Sky to the est entrance. This was when I realized how big city life had prepared us for the challenges of Yellowstone. At about 9:30 a.m., the line to the entrance gate backed up like Canal Street heading into the Holland Tunnel at rush hour, with tourist coaches in place of commuter buses.
City slicker tip No. 1: Arrive early to avoid rush hour.
After navigating the tollbooths we made our way into the park, meandering along the idyllic shores of the Madison River, on the way to Madison Junction. That’s when we hit traffic again. In that kind of stop and go, I’m conditioned to think double-parked delivery van, but it turns out rubbernecking at bison is just as effective at jamming up the road.
You’re going to see huge numbers of bison. When you do, slow down to a reasonable speed but keep going. There are frequent pullouts in the park, and stopping in the road is not only dangerous, it may also detract from taking spectacular pictures of a whole herd that’s just around the next bend.
City slicker tip No. 2: Bison are everywhere, so take your time to get the right photos.
You have to see it to believe it. Natives avoid it like the plague and tourists flock to it. Old Faithful is the Times Square of Yellowstone, and just like the masses that congregate to see the Tiffany ball drop every New Year’s Eve, they do the same to watch the iconic geyser spout off every 90 minutes. You have to go at least once, but if you want to save money and avoid a crowded lunch, bring your own.
City slicker tip No. 3: Pack a lunch. Try the Hungry Moose, Blue Moon Café in Big Sky or Ernie’s Bakery in West.
We went back to the park twice after that first day, and since returning to my native habitat, I’ve been asked many times about the best part of our trip. While the fishing was spectacular I’ve consistently responded that Yellowstone was the highlight. My wife says her heart still belongs to Yosemite, but willingly concedes that Yellowstone is the “most fascinating place she has ever seen.”
So here’s the perfect day trip itinerary to experience Yellowstone sights without feeling like a New Yorker:
Go to Old Faithful first thing in the morning. Resist the temptation to stop and check out all the fascinating things along the way, and hit those on the way back – you’ll minimize your time in traffic and avoid the biggest crowds.
Turn back from Old Faithful and make walking stops on the way to Madison Junction at the spectacular Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and Fountain Paint Pots. If you have a fisherman in tow, stop at the turnout at Muleshoe Bend on the Firehole River. Send him down to dip a line while you have lunch on the stone wall and enjoy a view of the Firehole.
The Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin is the Grand Central Terminal of the park: stately, ephemeral, sublime, and timelessly beautiful (not everything in NYC is obnoxious!). Just before coming back to Madison Junction, make a left on Firehole Canyon Drive and make the two-mile loop back to the main road, being sure to stop at the pullout for stunning photos of the falls along the way.
Then pass Madison Junction and head for Norris Junction. Past most of the Old Faithful traffic now, check out Gibbon Falls, Artist Paint Pots and Norris Geyser Basin before heading back to the tollbooths – unlike the Triboro Bridge, you don’t have to pay in both directions – before heading back to Big Sky to make it for cocktail hour.
Owen Dolan is a securities litigation consultant whose karmic footprint is reduced by his wife Stephanie’s commitment to providing free tax services to low income earners. They live in Park Slope, Brooklyn.