If you yearn for a quieter Yellowstone -- perhaps one with fewer RVs, tour buses, and minivans -- consider visiting during the shoulder season month of September. Cooler weather makes the air dryer, the sky bluer, and the breathtaking scenery particularly uncanny, with greens still lush from the rainy summer, but beginning to give way to golden aspen leaves. If you plan to make the trip to Yellowstone country in September, be sure to check the official National Parks Service website (www.nps.gov/yell) for facility and amenity closing dates. The shoulder season here is short and sweet: take advantage.
I recommend entering the park through Cody, Wyoming, a gateway town of approximately 9,000 that sits 50 miles from the eastern entrance of the park. Founded by an early American character of mythic proportions, Buffalo Bill Cody, Cody embraces its mustang-taming, chuck wagon dinner-loving, Wild West spirit. Because Cody hosts many Yellowstone Park-bound tourists, it is also quieter in the early fall, though by no means ghost-y. According to the locals, September brings the area's best weather -- mild, sunny days and cool nights. There is no shortage of things to do -- one of Cody's largest festivals, the Rendezvous Royale (www.rendezvousroyale.org), which features western art and design, takes place from September 23 to 26.
Day One -- Cody, Wyoming
Even if you're eager to head to the park, a day in Cody offers an entirely different kind of big sky experience that is worth reveling in. Cody's most impressive feature is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (www.bbhc.org), a sprawling complex of five state-of-the-art museums, including the newly renovated and expertly curated Whitney Gallery of Western Art. In the afternoon, get your first taste of outdoor adventure when you raft the Shoshone River. I rafted with Wyoming River Trips (www.wyomingrivertrips.com), perched on the seat of the hardy raft, alternately floating and bumping through the windy red canyon. The speed of the ride varies according to the time of year and the river's water levels, and these experienced guides continue to escort visitors into the first or second week in October, weather and water conditions permitting.
Day Two -- Yellowstone Bound
1. Drive the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway: This stretch of road, named for the defiant chief of the Nez Perce Indians who passed through this area of Wyoming en route to Canada, is a well maintained and relatively sparsely-traveled route with some of the most striking views I've ever seen. It's worth the extra hour or so it adds to your park commute. Eventually you'll connect with the Beartooth Scenic Highway, which takes you through Cooke City, Montana, a tiny mining town that has retained its hardy, no-frills spirit. Enter the park via The Northeast Entrance. As you drop down into the Lamar Valley, a huge basin of lush grass and meandering streams that is sometimes called "The Savannah of America," watch for wildlife. Fall is mating season for elk, which means that the bulls are in magnificently full winter coats, and are very active -- they "bugle" to warn other males away from females and spar (lock antlers) with one another.
2. Hike Slough Creek: Slough Creek is considered a backcountry trail, and it is not accessible from the main road. The hike itself is gentle and is a prime example of the different landscapes that co-exist in the park. Here, the trees are scrubby, and the sagebrush and large glacial boulders are abundant. In June (another shoulder season month) wildflowers add splashes of orange and pink amid all that grey-green. After 2 miles, you'll reach an open field and a stream that, depending on rainfall, can resemble a lake. At this point, you can either turn around or continue on for 2.5 miles, depending on the condition of the trail.
3. Continue to Old Faithful Inn: In the heart of the Upper Geyser Basin, the Old Faithful Inn is approximately 70 miles from Slough Creek -- a solid two-hour drive. If you're looking for something closer, stay in Mammoth Hot Springs, but as long as you have a bit of daylight and leisurely afternoon/evening ahead, the trip, and the Inn itself, won't disappoint. Follow the main road towards Norris, stopping frequently to check out vistas, bubbling hot springs, and wildlife. You'll drive directly through the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins, which you may want to revisit during your stay. The inn itself, a Yellowstone icon, was originally built in 1903. The huge log structure has survived fire, weather, and development. In the dim light of the cavernous lobby, you can look up at seven stories of dark, gnarled, pine.
Day Three -- Lace Up Your Hiking Boots
1. Hike Delacy Creek/Shoshone Lake: The 6-mile (round-trip) Delacy Creek trail moves along a twisting creek bed, through a mature pine forest which periodically opens into sunny fields. Three miles in you'll come upon Shoshone Lake, an enormous and completely pristine back-country lake with a black sandy beach. You can choose to retrace your steps, or you can continue on the 9-mile trail that winds around the lake and passes a remote geyser basin that is free of walkways and fences. Campsites are also available here, though you need a backcountry permit to use them.
2. Hike Fairy Creek Trail: Don't be fooled by the crowded parking area for this hike. Although the first section of the journey is a well-traveled 2-mile jaunt to Fairy Creek Falls, those seeking a more secluded experience will find that the majority of the 13- mile (one-way) hike is very quiet indeed. The trail, which travels through a massive burn area, begins on a former access road and continues about 1.5 miles to the waterfall itself -- a tall, thin stream that crashes with surprising force into a deep pool. As you follow the loop around the mouth of a large valley, you'll get a close look at the regeneration that occurs after a forest fire. Still-standing dead trees are taller than the new, adolescent pines, and trunks like matchsticks litter the ground. Watch for wildlife, particularly bison, and the Imperial Geyser, an extremely active thermal area just off the trail. Important: Though this hike may look like a loop on the map, it actually ends up at Biscuit Basin, approximately 3 miles from where you parked your car. Unless you have two vehicles, be prepared to hike 13 miles in and 13 miles out. Another option is to carry a map and track your progress, then turn around and retrace your steps approximately halfway through.
3. Continue to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel: This hotel, approximately 40 miles from the Fairy Creek Trail and 30 miles from the Delacy Creek/Shoshone Lake trails, is the Old Faithful Inn's colonial-style counterpart. The sprawling, yellow building on the shore of Yellowstone lake was a haven for wealthy visitors to the park in the early 1900s, and the elegant dining room and large, sunny sitting area in the lobby still evoke a timeless luxury, though it's a little more modest now than it was in its heyday. If you've been saving your nice meal, this is the place to have it -- the dining room at the Lake Hotel is the closest you'll get to fine dining in the park. The menu is innovative and varied, and the fare is as local and fresh as possible. After dinner, sit in the many-windowed lobby area and listen to a string quartet as the sun sets over the largest, and certainly one of the most beautiful, high-elevation lakes in North America.
Note: The author was a guest of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Park County Travel Council, and Meserau Public Relations.
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers in our Wyoming Forum today.