[ Beneath the Waves ]

Drive 2009 Part 2 - Introduction

article by Ben Lincoln


In the late spring/early summer of 2009, I decided I wanted to go somewhere I could be guaranteed to shoot some very interesting multispectral photos. I settled on Yellowstone National Park for a number of reasons, but most prominent were the amazing variety of environments within it, and the truly surreal geologic features. I'd been there once before (in 2006), and felt as though I'd barely scratched the surface. That was also before I'd gotten into photography other than to document places I'd been on a vacation.

I would not be disappointed with my choice. I imagine Yellowstone is an amazing place at any time of year, but in summer it far outshines its late fall appearance. This is by far my favourite National Park. I would highly recommend visiting it to anyone, with a few things to keep in mind.

Getting Around Yellowstone

Yellowstone can appear deceptively small on a map. It's roughly square, with each side being about 40 miles. The roads between the major intersections on its Grand Highway seem to vary between about 10 and 25 miles long. At typical US freeway speeds, this would seem to make most of the main areas of the Park a short drive (or at most a little over an hour) away from each other. However, a number of factors ensure that this is not at all the case.

First, the Grand Highway is not a freeway. The speed limit generally tops out at about 40 miles per hour, with significant stretches that are much slower. This is with very good reason; it is a winding, scenic road where visibility is often greatly reduced, and wild animals roam freely within the Park boundaries.

Second, Yellowstone straddles the Continental Divide. Getting between the major intersections frequently involves driving up and over this mountain range.

Finally, as the most-visited National Park, Yellowstone's roadways require year-round maintenance due to the heavy traffic. I've included a section of the official Park Service map below as evidence. Note the generic/future-proofed roadwork notice; the map itself doesn't specify where the roadwork is at any given time, because if it did the Park Service would have to print new versions constantly.

A Slightly-Annotated Map of Yellowstone
[ Major Intersections ]
Major Intersections
[ My 2009 Route ]
My 2009 Route

This is cropped from the map available on the National Park website. In the first version, I've circled the major intersections in green to highlight them, and made the future-proof road-closure notification a little more prominent. In the second, I've highlighted the route for each day I was in the Park in 2009. Red represents day 2, green represents day 3, blue represents day 4, and black represents day 5. Days which overlapped combine more or less like coloured light: yellow represents an area I was in on both day 2 and day 3, cyan (light blue) represents day 3 and day 4, white represents day 2, 3, and 4, etc. If this is overly confusing, each day's article will include a map of just its area.


When actually entering the Park, photocopied information about the current road closures is available to supplement the nicer printed map.

I've also highlighted the major intersections of the Grand Highway. On both of my visits, one of the "legs" between two intersections was closed for roadwork (Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Village in 2006, and Madison to Norris in 2009). I don't know if this is typical, but it wouldn't surprise me if this was the standard method of handling maintenance there.

In any case, these three factors combine to greatly increase the subjective size of Yellowstone. Add to that the dizzying number of interesting areas to visit in the Park, and the result is a place that requires at least 3 full days in order to see the major attractions.

Staying in Yellowstone

There are numerous hotels and motels to stay at in the towns and cities near Yellowstone (West Yellowstone, Bozeman, etc.), but they are 50+ miles away, meaning that traveling between them and the Park repeatedly represents a huge amount of wasted time eac day.

Within the Park, there are three choices: campgrounds maintained by the Park Service, campgrounds maintained by Xanterra (a private corporation), and lodges run by Xanterra.

Like other US National Parks, the Park Service campgrounds are operated on a first-come, first-serve model. During the peak season, they can easily fill up before noon.

Xanterra's lodges are supposed to be very nice, but if you're interested in staying in one, be prepared to book the room a year or more in advance.

I stayed in Xanterra campgrounds during my visit, mainly because campsites can be reserved in advance. The Xanterra website makes it seem like they can't[1], but it is definitely possible either over the phone or in person. The cost is slightly higher, but knowing I was guaranteed a site was worth the additional US$5.50. The staff at the Xanterra campgrounds put on nightly campfire presentations (at least during peak season), if you have the time and the interest.

The Fishing Bridge RV park, Canyon Village, and Grant locations have showers that are available to campers for a small fee, as well as laundry equipment. If you intend to make use of these, I suggest arriving as early in the day as possible, because they supposedly become very busy soon after. Note that while the Fishing Bridge showers open at 8, the Canyon Village showers open at 7 if you are an early riser.

Be sure to keep your car well-fueled. During off-peak season, there is no fuel available inside the Park. During peak season, there is one gas station within its borders (at Canyon Village). Remember that the closest towns are 50 miles or more from the entrances.

Special Considerations for What to Bring

Unless you are staying in a lodge, be sure to bring a backpack or duffel bag to keep all of your food and toiletries in. Yellowstone is home to bears, and campers are required to store food and other scented items in metal food lockers. Being able to transfer all of it in one bag is a significant time-saver.

I didn't see any bears during either of my visits, but after doing some research I brought a cannister of bear spray on my second trip. I don't like the idea of having to use it, but it's preferable to being mauled and it's recommended by people on both sides of the political fence.

Yellowstone is in the Midwestern US, and is also located at a high elevation. Temperatures swing wildly between night and day at any time of year, so bring a variety of clothing. During my 2009 visit (late August/early September), daytime temperatures were high enough that I almost wore shorts[2], but at night they dropped below freezing and I had to wear three shirts, a hat and gloves inside my sleeping bag.

The high elevation also means that sunblock is highly recommended due to the extra UV exposure.

My Visit in 2009

I was in Yellowstone for three full days (from 31 August to 2 September), with a couple of hours on the 3rd as I made my way to the north entrance.

Because this was a short drive with only one destination, I haven't included a separate page for the first day. It was a nearly nonstop dash from Seattle to Bozeman, and I didn't take any pictures. Montana is a very scenic state, but I really wanted the focus to be on Yellowstone itself.

From a photography perspective, my one big regret is that I didn't take notes about which lenses I used during this trip. With one exception (the second Yellowstone River photo), everything was shot with Nikon Series E lenses (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 100mm, or 70-210mm), but I don't know which lens was used in most instances. However, I am quite happy with the images themselves.

1. I believe the inability to reserve campsites via the Xanterra website (as opposed to rooms in the lodges) is due to their reliance on an old mainframe application. While booking one of my campsites in person, I saw the Xanterra employee do the actual work via a terminal emulator. The interface screamed "OS/390".
2. I hate wearing shorts, so the implication here is that it was quite hot.
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