YELLOWSTONE - Ever since my son was old enough to walk, I’d wanted to take him to Yellowstone National Park. I had great visions of a family trip that hit all the cool spots I had visited during the three summers between high school and college I spent working in the park.
Way back when, I worked in the cafeteria at the Canyon Lodge, slinging meatloaf and mashed potatoes in brown polyester and a hairnet. On my days off, I absorbed every molecule of nature’s glory — swimming in the Firehole River, hiking Mt. Washburn, venturing overnight into the park’s backcountry, and driving to Jackson Hole for great food and shopping, where I purchased my first pair of navy suede Birkenstocks, which accompanied me on this trip. I was secretly hoping that my son would follow in my literal footsteps and get the Birk bug and want his own pair, but I wouldn’t push too hard. (All parents know the struggle here.)
As our son grew older and started planning for college, I knew time was not on my side. After a cancelled trip his senior year, we planned a week-long visit for 2022 at the end of his first year in college: three days in Jackson Hole and the Tetons, followed by four days in Yellowstone. To get a great hotel in Yellowstone, you have to book a year in advance and hope your plan sticks. I snagged highly coveted reservations at Old Faithful Inn, Lake Yellowstone Hotel, and Roosevelt Lodge Cabins, with the idea of hopping from place to place to spend time in as much of the park as possible. (We never made it to Roosevelt due to rain.)
Because Jackson Hole’s airport was undergoing renovations, we flew to Bozeman instead and spent a leisurely four hours driving along the Gardiner River and the backside of the beautiful Teton range into Jackson Hole. We spent two nights at the cool Anvil in Jackson — hip check-in and lobby, great location — but our room was dark, with one window facing a wall and construction work outside.
Of course, we weren’t here for the rooms. We were here for the great outdoors.
The big plan for day one was to tackle the 11-mile hike to Amphitheater and Surprise Lakes in Teton National Park. We fueled up the night before at Coelette and embarked on our ambitious journey … only to have to abandon it less than half a mile from the end. Faced with waist-deep snow and zero visibility above 9,000 feet, it was a hard and disappointing — if obvious and prudent — decision. A mom’s best-laid plans can only go so far when Mother Nature has a competing agenda. Upset and determined, we vowed to return another year to tame this beast, then made our way to Dornan’s for excellent pasta and pizza — a well-deserved and appropriate reward after a day of hard, heart-pounding work.
The next morning, we left Jackson Hole for Yellowstone National Park after stocking up on baked goods from The Bunnery. With a car full of scones the size of Texas and muffins that tasted like pure butter, we were well equipped for fast and quick breakfasts before our days of park exploration and my return to my beloved stomping grounds.
Sadly, many of my must-dos were foiled by Mother Nature and Old Man Winter conspiring against me. My favorite hot spring was closed due to high water and snow melt, as was Firehole River, a beloved go-to back in the day for lazy days by the water. Mt. Washburn? Closed due to snow. Yes, it was June, but the cold weather lingers around here.
What we did find were secret trails to the base of epic waterfalls like Gibbon Falls, Mystic Falls, and Moose Falls. Okay, they aren’t secret, but you’ve got to dig deeper than your typical first page of a Google search to find them.
Or you can buy the guidebook by Teddy Garland Explore Yellowstone Like a Local that my friend bought for me. I absorbed every word like a sponge when it arrived in the mail. The book gives very specific tips about what to do if you only have one day and also breaks the park down by region and interests like hiking and hot potting. (For you Yellowstone newbies, hot pots are natural hot springs that you can soak in.) I really don’t want to even mention Teddy’s name because if everyone did what he suggests, then these magical, mystical places would be overrun. But I’m trusting you, Fathom readers. Let’s keep it our little secret, okay?
The book also told us where to find the cheeseburger in Gardiner, Montana, that inspired Jimmy Buffet’s famous song about noshing in paradise. We did that on a rainy day. In fact, we did it on THE rainy day, driving roads that were washed away by the next morning from epic flooding caused by the once-in-a-century rainfall that forced Yellowstone to close for several days.
A very good friend of mine is related to Park Superintendent Cameron Sholly (read: head honcho). I thought it would be fun to meet him and see what it’s like to run the oldest and best national park, but rain diverted our meetup. The next day when I texted him to offer my condolences after seeing his name in every major news outlet, he wrote back the kindest note, offering to Zoom with us when things settled down. He was steadfastly focused on getting funds needed to repair the roads quickly – so much so that the park reopened in less than ten days. (Well done, Sholly.)
As we left the park and headed back to Bozeman, we parked at the Fairy Falls trailhead and hiked up to see Grand Prizmatic — something we’d been tried and failed to do for two days because the trail had been closed due to grizzly bear activity.
The views from the Fairy Falls trail were outstanding — Mother Nature was definitely putting on her best show, maybe to apologize for being so disagreeable in other ways. We drove out of the park through a bison jam and spent the last few nights at Bozeman Hot Springs, soaking our sore muscles and (sort of) enjoying tiny cabin life. (The bathrooms were only a short walk away — but that’s too far for middle-of-the-night urgencies.) Once in Bozeman, we hiked a trail (take your pick on AllTrails) and ate our fair share of bison burgers.
My son even bought his first pair of tan suede Birkenstocks.
His mom couldn’t be more proud.
Plan Your Trip
If you want to drive the park and stop and see things, go early in the season when the park opens in June and avoid the crowds. We went mid-June, and there was still some snow, so it was really beautiful and cool, but next time we will go later in the season to avoid the remnants of winter. There’s much more you can do in July and August like swimming and hiking some of the taller peaks, but you’ll be battling traffic jams — something that can’t be avoided when you see a huge elk on the side of the road. You can’t lose either way. Every season has something to embrace.