In the 1960s, aerial views of Yellowstone National Park revealed a caldera, a super-volcano, of enormous proportions, measuring about 30 by 45 miles.
Evidence of human settlements in the park date back 10,000 years, but an explorer with Lewis and Clark, named John Colter, was the first person of European descent to visit the area in the winter of 1807 to 1808. His descriptions of the geothermal features were almost unbelievable.
In an 1870 expedition to the area, Truman Everts became separated from his party. Barely surviving his ordeal, Everts wrote an account called “Thirty-Seven Days in Peril.” His incredible story brought publicity to area. Yellowstone, the country’s first national park, was established soon after, in 1872.
Yellowstone’s first visitors arrived by stagecoach. Today, four million visitors pour in through Yellowstone’s five gates, primarily in the summer. Despite its 3,471 square miles, this popular park can feel crowded.
Discover the World’s Best Place to Retire in 2021
Here are the 11 best things to do in Yellowstone National Park during off-peak season:
1. See Yellowstone’s Baby Animals in Lamar Valley
Spring brings new life in the 40-mile long valley created by the Lamar River. Elk calves, bison calves, deer and antelope fawns, and bear cubs are among the new animal life to see in May. Wolf and coyote pups and nocturnal fox kits are more elusive.
2. Drive the Blacktail Plateau Trail
Although this trail is late to open in the spring because of snow and often closed because of grizzly bear activity, when it is open take the one-way, six-mile gravel road to escape all of the crowds. The scenery is breathtaking, the landscape pristine. Watch for elk, coyotes, fox, bison, and bears.
3. Look for Wolves
You can join a wolf discovery group or simply pull off the road when you see others with their spotting scopes focused on the distant hills in Lamar Valley. People are anxious to share their view of wolves with you. Spring brings a flurry of activity with wolves hunting bison and elk calves, a scene that may be difficult to watch.
4. Listen to Bugling Elk near Mammoth Hot Springs
Each September to mid-October, elk are in rut. It’s their mating season and bull elk bugle as part of the mating ritual to intimidate their competition.
Elk herds gather around Mammoth Hot Springs near the north entrance to the park. Males engage in antler to antler combat. Keep your distance, as these 700-pound animals are at their most aggressive during rutting season.
5. Visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone is just outside the west entrance to the park. The center is home to six grizzly bears that were either habituated to humans or orphaned as cubs. They play in a large outdoor area and do not hibernate.
Three packs with a total of seven wolves also live at the center. They have all been raised in captivity. They, too, have a large outdoor enclosure to play in. You can watch their activity from the heated visitor center.
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is open every day of the year from 8.30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Discover the World’s Best Place to Retire in 2021
6. Hike to the Brink of the Lower Yellowstone Falls
The Yellowstone River has eroded susceptible stone and formed the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Park over the last 10,000 to 14,000 years. Water plunges over three waterfalls in its journey through the canyon.
The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River is the most spectacular of the three, dropping 308 feet. A switchback trail leads to a viewing platform situated precariously at the brink of the falls. The fall’s mighty roar prevents any conversation.
7. Fly Fish in Pristine Rivers
After you’ve purchased your fishing permit at a visitors’ center, ranger station, or general store, you can simply park and wade into some of the clearest water you’ll ever encounter. Brown trout or the native Yellowstone cut-throat trout can be found in the Yellowstone, Firehole, Gibbon, Lamar, and Madison Rivers to name a few.
With increasing numbers of fishermen, more fishing restrictions are in place. Certain river sections are off limits entirely and some sections are catch-and-release only. Bait restrictions and a more limited season (Memorial Day to early November) are now in place, too. The park’s fishing website spells out the details.
8. Have a Picnic by Yellowstone Lake
Lake General Store offers sandwiches and snacks. If you’re traveling in the shoulder season, though, many restaurants and stores are closed. Bring your own picnic ‘fixins’ and enjoy the lake’s sapphire blue water with a backdrop of the snow-capped Absaroka Mountains. You’ll want to linger long after lunch is over.
9. See if Old Faithful is Faithful
Old Faithful, in the center of the park, erupts every 35 to 120 minutes, but rangers are able to predict the next eruption within a smaller range. The geyser spews water 90 to 180 feet in the air for several minutes. This is by far the most visited geyser because of its size and consistency.
Located 31 miles north of Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, most volatile geothermal area of the park and home to the world’s largest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser. A recent increase in its eruptions is luring visitors to the area.
The eruptions, however, are unpredictable—ranging from three days to 50 years apart. If you happen to time it right, though, you’ll witness Steamboat spouting water 300 feet into the air. Eruptions last from three to 40 minutes.
10. Spot Grizzlies in Tom Miner Basin
Just in case you haven’t spotted that grizzly in the wild you hoped to see—from a distance, of course—here is an insider tip. Exiting the park’s northern gate through Gardiner, make your way to Tom Miner Basin, north on highway US-89.
Seventeen miles from Gardiner, turn left (west) onto Tom Miner Creek Road, crossing the Yellowstone River. The dirt road heads south past working ranches. After about 3.9 miles you’ll see a valley.
Going at dawn or dusk in autumn gives you the best chance of seeing grizzlies who are digging up caraway roots. During this time of the year, they’re hyperphagic, eating everything they can get their paws on, in preparation for hibernation.
Binoculars are a must to see the bears, as it is only safe to view them from a distance.
11. Take a Snowmobile or Snow Coach Tour
The only road open in winter (October 15 to whenever the snowplows can open the roads in April or May) is in the northern part of the park from Gardiner, Montana to Cooke City, Montana, the north and northeast entrances to the park.
Because of the park’s inaccessibility, it’s an ideal, crowd-free time to visit. With the exception of bears, wildlife viewing is possible in Lamar Valley by private car as long as driving on snow-packed and potentially icy roads is something you and your car can manage.
If you have an interest in visiting Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, or Norris Geyser Basin, snowmobile and snow coach tours operate from December to March.
Two Top Tours leads small group snowmobile tours from West Yellowstone. Our guide, Owen Hardy, provided a wealth of information about Yellowstone’s ecosystem, wildlife, and geology. You don’t have to have any experience driving a snowmobile to enjoy the outing—that instruction is included, as well.
If you’re interested in spending a few snow days in the park, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is the only lodging open within the park during the winter. It’s accessed by snowcoach. From here, you can explore on cross-country skis or snowshoes.
It’s easy to see why visitors flock to Yellowstone National Park, a place originally called ‘Wonderland.’ Its majestic mountains, geothermal features, and abundant wildlife are truly national treasures that can be enjoyed year-round.