With dramatic peaks and pristine lakes, Yellowstone National Park is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. Multicolored pools swirl around hot springs; verdant forests weave past expansive meadows; and volatile geysers launch streams of steaming water toward the sky. With so much unspoiled natural beauty, it's no wonder why everyone suspected John Colter (a scout for explorers Lewis and Clark) was embellishing when he first described Yellowstone's geothermal curiosities in 1807. Nowadays, there's no doubt that the park is indeed extraordinary. While you traverse its 3,000-plus square miles of mountains, canyons, geysers and waterfalls, be prepared to share the trails with permanent residents like buffalo, elk and sometimes even grizzlies.
Although Yellowstone attracts more than 4 million visitors every year, chances are – unless you spend your entire trip at Old Faithful – you won't see much of them. Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres creep from the northwest corner of Wyoming into the edges of Idaho and Montana, offering plenty of untouched territory to explore. Carve out a day or two to take in the view at Yellowstone Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs. But save some time for the trails through lesser-known regions, like the hot springs of the West Thumb Geyser Basin and the untamed wildlife dotting the Lewis River Channel and Dogshead Loop. While the sheer number of trails and wildlife-watching opportunities may seem daunting at first, remember: You can always come back.
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The best times to visit Yellowstone National Park are from April to May and between September and November. These seasons offer mild weather and fewer crowds. July and August are the most popular months to visit: The kids are out of school, and the weather is warm enough to sleep outside. However, this park is no stranger to the cold. Temperatures have been known to drop into the 30s even in the summer. During the winter, expect a wide range of temps, spanning from subzero digits to the high 30s. Don't let that stop you: There's nothing quite like seeing plumes of steam rise from beneath a thick blanket of snow and ice.
Data sourced from the National Climatic Data Center
Although there are several snack shops within the borders of Yellowstone National Park, consider bringing along a cooler with lunch items and snacks so you don't have to worry about staying near one of the park's more developed areas. Should you decide to opt for a quick bite to eat at one of the park's grab-and-go venues, recent visitors recommend checking out Mammoth General Store.
Yellowstone is also home to several sit-down restaurants located by popular attractions, such as Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake. Many of these eateries are managed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts. In-park cafeterias serve casual fare like burgers and sandwiches, while high-end restaurants like the Lake Hotel Dining Room and the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room provide selections of game meats (including bison, elk and trout). To enjoy dinner at most of the park's upscale restaurants, you'll need to make reservations far in advance. But remember, some dining venues do not accept reservations during the peak summer season.
Other eateries can be found in the small towns surrounding the park. In Cody, Wyoming, previous visitors suggested dining at The Local and The Cody Cattle Company, while past travelers who visited West Yellowstone, Montana, raved about the dishes served at Wild West Pizzeria, Madriz and Running Bear Pancake House.
Safety hazards in Yellowstone range from trifling headaches to severe hazards, such as animal attacks. But the more prominent threat is altitude sickness. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea and muscle pain. Remember to drink lots of water, eat light meals and stay away from caffeine and alcohol.
When sightseeing in the park, keep in mind that many of the geothermal attractions, such as the geysers and mud pots, can be dangerous. It's best to keep your distance. Likewise, stay a safe distance from animals at all times. The National Park Service suggests putting at least 100 yards between you and wolves and bears, and about 25 yards or more between you and all other wildlife. Most of the park's established campsites generally are not at risk for animal attacks, but campers should keep all food and garbage out of reach from bears and other critters; suspending any food from a tree branch high above the ground is strongly advised.
If you can help it, avoid wandering off on your own. But if you are by yourself, make plenty of noise (talking, shuffling branches, etc.) when hiking to warn animals of your presence. Also, avoid exploring areas where visibility is low, since bears have limited eyesight. Carrying a can of bear spray (a repellent used to ward off charging bears) is highly recommended. If you do encounter a bear on the trails, you should not run. Instead, avoid eye contact and back away slowly while making noise, and most of the time, the bear will move along. Do not fight back if you are attacked. To find out more about how to protect yourself from bears, visit NPS' Bear Safety page .
The best way to get around Yellowstone National Park is by car, especially as there is no public transportation system. You can rent a car at any of the nearby airports, including Yellowstone Regional Airport (COD) in Cody, Wyoming, Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Jackson, Wyoming, Yellowstone Airport (WYS) in West Yellowstone, Montana, and Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) in Bozeman, Montana. However, that doesn't mean that you should spend your entire vacation behind the wheel. Each of Yellowstone's eight regions has an area to park, allowing you to leave the car behind and explore by bike or on foot. Guided tours and limited airport shuttle services are also available.See details for Getting Around
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