Every season in Yellowstone is special, and autumn is no exception. Tourism drops substantially and you can feel like you have the park to yourself. Aspen and cottonwood leaves turn gold, willows red. Elk and deer come down from alpine areas where they spent the summer chomping greens. Bears move hungrily through the burnt trees stocking up on calories to get them through winter.
My family loves playing in Yellowstone every day of the year, and in fall we become hyperphagic like the bears. But instead of devouring calories, we are devouring experiences before the snow falls.
As a family, we have a lot of energy we need to get out and move. By swimming, biking or hiking, we enjoy all sorts of experiences that are unavailable from behind the windshield.
Often, our first stop is just a couple of miles past the north entrance station. At the Boiling River, we can soak and enjoy geothermal features intimately.
A short walk leads to a 6-foot wide stream of hot water pouring over a travertine ledge into the Gardner River. Users have piled rocks to create a soaking area where the 140-degree water mixes with the cold river. Since we have small children, we like to snag the first pool, which only requires a few steps down stone stairs. More adventurous families can make their way down the Gardner River to a series of alcoves and hot water cascades.
After a soak, a bike ride is in order. Unlike most trails in Yellowstone, the Bunsen Peak and Lone Star Geyser trails are both open to bicyclists. The Bunsen Peak Trail starts a few miles south of Mammoth. It’s a flat dirt road for the first 4 miles before it plummets down and around the mountain ending in the employee housing between the lower and upper Terrace parking areas (6 miles total.) A car shuttle makes this a much nicer trip. Just after heading downhill, the Ouzel Falls Trail leads off to the right. Park your bike and take the 0.6mile walk down 800 feet to the falls.
Our favorite ride is to Lone Star Geyser, near Old Faithful. This mostly level trail follows an old service road along the Firehole River through unburned forests of lodgepole pine. After 2.5 miles (one-way) on bikes, the final approach to the geyser is on foot.
Lone Star Geyser erupts about every three hours. Even if you miss the eruption, the ride along the Firehole River is lovely. Plus, it is fun to see a geyser off the boardwalk, even when it is just gurgling.
Hiking is our family’s favorite activity. In fall the colorful aspens and cottonwoods around the Specimen Ridge Trail make for striking scenery. In addition to looking for petrified wood from ancient redwood forests, we listen for elk bugling.
In mid to late September, elk are in rut. Bulls are bugling and jousting with other males for the right to assemble harems of as many as 60 cows. The ethereal bugling is both spooky and captivating.
An active exploration of Yellowstone provides exercise and glimpses into the park that most people never see, and fall is the perfect time to do it. In just a couple days, you can get to know Yellowstone in a way that most tourists never do.
For campground information and reservations: www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/camping-in-yellowstone.htm
For lodging information and reservations: www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit /lodging-in-yellowstone.htm-in-yellowstone.htm
# Boiling River Drive about 2 miles south of Gardiner near the signed Montana/Wyoming state line. There are parking areas on both sides of the road. From the east parking area, follow a half-mile trail to the soaking area.
# Lone Star Geyser Drive 3.5 miles southeast of the Old Faithful area, just beyond Kepler Cascades parking area.
# Trout Lake Drive 18.6 miles east of Tower Junction. The small parking area is on the north side of the road. Fall colors and an otter family always pull us back to this little lake just 0.5 miles and 100 feet up from the trailhead.
# Specimen Ridge Trail Drive 2.5 miles east of Tower Junction and park in a pullout on the north side of the road. The trail starts on the south side of the road and is long (18.8 miles one-way), but the first 3 miles through sagebrush and grasses is enough for most families.
# Elk Bugling To hear elk bugling, try Madison and Norris junctions. Here, meadows located along the Madison and Gibbon rivers are prime elk territory. Download the Children’s Wildlife Checklist and Identification Game before you go to keep the kids busy between stops. www.nps.gov/yell /planyourvisit/publications.htm
Things to remember
Be safe and smart in Yellowstone. Make sure you have items in your pack or on your waistbelt.
# Sunscreen and a sunhat Even though summer is over, at Yellowstone’s elevation you can burn any day of the year.
# Rain jacket and warm hat The weather can just as easily turn rainy or snowy.
# Water Carry more than you think you need or carry a filter if you know you’ll be encountering creeks or lakes on the trail.
# Bear spray Carry it and know how and when to use it.
# Food Make sure there is enough to keep everyone well fueled for the amount of time you plan to be out plus a little extra.
# Map and compass or GPS Again, know how to use them; just carrying them isn’t enough.
# Stay away from wildlife Hyperphagic bears and rutting elk can be especially ornery this time of year.
Melynda Harrison is a freelance writer in Livingston. She loves traveling the backcountry and back roads of Montana and the mountain West and writing about it.
From Healthy Montana (Great Falls Tribune) September 9, 2010