See Yellowstone before Summer

Visiting Yellowstone National Park in April and May, is an excellent time to see the Park before the summer crowds are there, as long as you dont mind snow. Last year on a trip in late May, we encountered both. The hike to the Monument Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park seemed like a nice way to spend an hour — a moderate two-mile round trip along the Gibbon River, then up a zigzagging trail to see bizarre chimney-shaped cones. We followed the dirt path above the river, then began climbing through strands of trees — and soon became mired to our thighs in snow. Reluctantly, we turned around.

Deep snow at the end of May was one of the many unexpected things we encountered on an eight-day trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park last spring. But the lack of crowds, gorgeous vistas and up-close encounters with animals, including a foraging grizzly bear that led us to make a quick retreat, more than compensated for the cold and snow.

Yellowstone, which has a short tourist season, is crowded during the summer. Its narrow roads can become almost impassible due to tour buses, travel trailers and “bear jams” caused by people leaving their vehicles to try to get a photo of a nearby animal. Last year, 2.9 million of the 3.4 million people who visited the park arrived between June 1 and Oct. 1. July alone drew 907,000 visitors — which is why we made the trip two months earlier. Most lodging and roads are open to vehicles by early May, and everything, including the scenic road through Dunraven Pass, at 8,859 feet, is generally ready for Memorial Day weekend crowds.

We thought the week before the holiday would be a fine time to tour the park — but did not anticipate a winter that produced twice as much snow as normal. The road through Dunraven Pass, buried under 20 feet of snow, was not cleared until June 8, and some campgrounds and trails were not accessible until the end of June.

This year’s winter has not been as severe. Park officials plan to open roads to traffic between April 20 and May 11; Dunraven Pass should be cleared by May 25, the Friday before Memorial Day. Many trails during our visit remained closed because of either snow or bears, which had emerged from hibernation and were seeking food in lower elevations because of the snow pack. Some roads were closed during the week by snow or rock slides.

While disappointed that we couldn’t walk to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or up Mount Washburn, we found most of the park was accessible, including miles of boardwalks that weave around its most famous features. Despite its high elevation, the nation’s first national park is not renowned for its mountains. It’s what happens deep underground that draws people from around the world. Huge volcanic eruptions 2 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 640,000 years ago have defined the 2 million-acre park. Half the geothermal features and two-thirds of the world’s geysers are concentrated in Yellowstone. The heat from molten rock powers the park’s geysers, hot springs, bubbling mudpots and fumaroles, openings from which hot gases escape.

While Yellowstone has about 300 geysers and at least 10,000 geothermal features, its most famous is Old Faithful, which erupts about every 90 minutes. During the summer, thousands may cluster around the geyser awaiting an eruption, which can be as high as 184 feet and last up to five minutes. One morning on our spring visit, I was among only a half-dozen people who watched an impressive eruption at 6:30 a.m.

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