Glory Pool, named in the 1800s for the blue flower
it resembled at the time, has turned different
colors from new bacteria and algae that have
dominated as the pool has cooled because of trash,
coins and other debris thrown in over decades.
NATIONAL PARK — Bison surrounded our minivan. Big ones
and little ones. Some weighing about a ton, strolling 3
feet outside my window. This was so Yellowstone.
rangers do their best to educate the public to stay well
away from wildlife: 100 yards from bears and wolves, 25
yards from everything else.
busy parts of the park, such as where an elk herd likes to
chew the green grass in front of Mammoth Hot Springs
Hotel, frustrated rangers yell "Keep back! You’re
too close!" as a grandma from Ohio or Iowa waves her
camera phone at a burly bull elk that could gore her in a
sometimes the animals come to you, and there’s nothing
you can do.
was spending a morning with Shauna Baron, a naturalist and
guide with the Yellowstone Association, the park’s
nonprofit partner in education, and we were stopped on one
of the park’s main highways, heading to the Lamar
happens so often here, traffic ahead halted when motorists
spotted wildlife. But this was a little different. This
herd of dozens of bison was walking on the two-lane
highway, which like many roads in the park follows
historic wildlife migration routes.
was their road, and we paved it," Baron quipped.
"I’m starting to wonder if this group knows
something we don’t, because they’re already moving to
was mid-September as we watched the humpbacked beasts,
some of the thousands that live in the park. Earlier in
the week, parts of the park had already seen 8 inches of
snow, but most roads stay open until November.
spotted bison pies on the double yellow lines this
morning. "You don’t want to hit one of those when
they’re frozen; they can pop a tire!" Baron
confided. (Local knowledge, it’s everything.)
felt more-or-less safe with the van door between me and a
bull bison. But I’d already heard a ranger describe the
beasts as all "big horns and bad attitude." He’d
told of an acquaintance who had stopped her brand-new Ford
pickup for a bison in the road. It was a standoff for a
long time — until the animal "suddenly turned and
BAM, hit the front of her truck, then just walked
wasn’t exactly complacent. In fact, it’s hard to be
complacent in Yellowstone.
autumn arrived I’d expected a September visit to this
unique park to be relaxed, with thin crowds and perhaps
fewer roadside animals as they prepared for the region’s
out there were plenty of both — people and animals —
she glad to have come at this time of year I asked visitor
Tammy Wright, a Seattle nurse who was threading a crowded
boardwalk and ducking young parkgoers, who were wielding
selfie sticks and speaking many different languages, at
Grand Prismatic Spring. The thermal feature of
eye-popping, bleeding colors has become one of the park’s
biggest attractions next to Old Faithful.
she said after looking around a moment. "Seeing this
many people here now, I can only imagine what it’s like
in the middle of summer!"
visitor numbers have soared at the park in recent years,
the offseason gets shorter and shorter, rangers told me.
sees some drop in numbers; the Old Faithful visitor center
gets about 10,000 people a day at summer’s peak, versus
about 7,000 during my visit.
parking lots still overflow at midday. Campgrounds fill.
West Yellowstone motel rates remain well into triple
digits. And traffic backups caused by a roadside elk can
still measure in miles.
last until October if the snow holds off. There are plenty
of reasons to stay away.
yet there are good reasons to come as fall arrives, from
the haunting bugling of rutting elk as the setting sun
sparkles on the Madison River, to the smattering of golden
aspens among the park’s millions of lodgepole pines.
its raging geysers and howling wolf packs, Yellowstone
stands as one last pocket of a wild, primeval
America," writes Bradley Mayhew, co-author of Lonely
Planet’s guide to the park.
morning in the Lamar Valley was an invigorating taste of
OF A GUIDE
we got moving again, Baron demonstrated the value of
touring with a guide (she regularly leads field trips with
her organization) as she related some of the autumn
backstory of the Lamar, whose abundance of wildlife gives
it the nickname "the Serengeti of North
few days earlier, the alpha wolf of the resident Junction
Butte pack killed an elk, she told me.
before his pack of 18 wolves could feed off it, an enemy
pack on a fall migration from 25 miles away — pups are
finally big enough to travel — took the kill.
the resident alpha male tried to take it back, the
marauders killed him.
packs come together, they fight like street gangs. So
there’s been a big soap opera playing out this week
between the two packs; things change constantly, there’s
always cliffhangers," said Baron, who has degrees in
wildlife biology and science education.
our visit, we could still fix a spotting scope on the body
of the wolf, known pragmatically as Wolf 911M but
sentimentally mourned by Baron, her colleagues and scores
of citizen "Wolf Watchers" who had observed him
grow up to lead the pack.
you’re a Yellowstone regular, it seems you eventually
join one of two ranks: Wolf Watchers, who set up their
high-priced scopes on roadsides at dawn and dusk in the
park’s Lamar or Hayden valleys; or "Geyser
Gazers," who perch in lawn chairs next to geysers and
help rangers record and predict eruptions.
groups, many of them retirees who live near the park,
carry radios and gossip back and forth about their finds.
(Chat them up for tips during your visit.)
day we spied the dead wolf on the river shore near the
site of the elk kill. Wolf Watchers crowded the roadside
to see if more wolves would come to feed on the elk
carcass. So far this morning, only a few scavengers in the
form of coyotes and ravens had appeared.
the valley, a bison carcass — a casualty of fighting
during the bison rut a couple of weeks earlier — was
another stakeout site. Bob Jones, a Wolf Watcher from
Billings, Mont., had a folding table on the highway
shoulder with a propane stove on which he was brewing
coffee in the morning chill. Overnight temperatures had
dipped into the 30s.
came to see the wildfires last month, and then the bison
fight, and then we’ve had just tremendous grizzly and
wolf sightings," Jones said.
in our van, Baron told me, "You learn the sociology
of these groups. You can tell if they have something (in
their scopes) just by their posture and how they’re
talking to each other." (Funny, she talks the same
way about the animals.)
through our scope from another vantage point, Baron let
out a delighted squeal.
got a moose!"
squinted through the scope. Sure enough, across a grassy
hillside on the far side of the valley, a moose cow moved
in the long-legged, loose-jointed lope that says
"Call me Bullwinkle." Moose have become
relatively rare in the park since raging wildfires of 1988
burned much of the subalpine firs that moose like to eat
we watched, a herd of pronghorn antelope scattered around
the moose. "They’re probably saying, ‘What are
you? A Dr. Seuss animal?’ " Baron said with a
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
best tip for spotting interesting wildlife?
always pays to sit tight for a while, not to always keep
moving. And look for changes in the scene in front of you.
What keyed me into her was the pronghorns moving. Other
animals will tell you something has changed, something is
new. Their lives depend on it, so they’ll alarm by
moving or putting their heads up. They’ll warn each
wildlife make the place phenomenal. Yellowstone’s
geysers, mudpots and hot springs make it unique.
there are geysers in Iceland, New Zealand and California,
Yellowstone has more than half the world’s thermal
features, boiling and bubbling and sending up raging heat
and choking fumes from the bowels of the earth.
of the park sits atop what is quite literally an active
makes for socially awkward situations. As you drive
through the park, time and again you get a whiff of
hydrogen sulfide and you may look around the car to say,
"OK, who …?" And then you realize, oh, just
another roadside fumarole.
advice: Go beyond Old Faithful. Make it your starting
point in Geyser Country.
an easy checkoff on your list. When you arrive at the
visitor center, you’ll not have a long wait before Old
Faithful erupts (about every 90 minutes; go get a cup of
coffee or stroll the Upper Geyser Basin, home to the
majority of the world’s active geysers). And you can be
among the hundreds crowding around to watch and hold up
your phone when Old Faithful shoots as high as 184 feet
into the air.
real treat is taking a walk or drive to find geysers
without the throngs. While rangers track the timing of
eruptions for six of the park’s geysers, mostly near Old
Faithful (see the electronic reader board in the visitor
center lobby), many more are unpredicted.
most satisfying thermal moment in the park was when I
stopped along Firehole Lake Drive, one of several one-way
side roads off the main highway, to photograph the
Matterhorn-shaped White Dome Geyser.
was there five minutes when the geyser suddenly erupted
with a "fwooosh" of steaming water 30 feet into
the blue sky. It lasted two minutes, a weird phenomenon
that much of America’s educated establishment refused to
believe in when mountain men first related the discovery
in the 1800s, before this became the world’s first
this September day in 2016, I was one of a dozen people to
witness it. Pure serendipity.
changes were something to revel in.
my $50 canister of bear spray in a belt holster, I hiked
to see bison — their rut season finished — lounging in
mud by pretty Lost Lake. I drove by the light of the
harvest moon over 8,859-foot-high Dunraven Pass and saw
the first pink of a chilly dawn on mists hanging over the
now there’s amazing light and color — the understory
in the conifer forest has turned yellow and salmon and
orange and red, in the thimbleberry, dogbane and sticky
geranium," I heard from Ken Voorhis, director of
education for the Yellowstone Association. "The other
day as I was passing the Gardner River, a big bull elk
stood in the river with all those colors around him and
that fall slanted light really made the whole scene
autumn in Yellowstone. You might not have it to yourself.
But you won’t forget it.
to visiting Yellowstone in the fall: Seasonal changes,
including the elk rut, autumn color (though most of the
park is coniferous forest), crisp weather, some falloff in
Many facilities, including campgrounds and lodges, begin
to close in early September, while crowds often remain.
Only 85-site Mammoth Campground offers year-round
One ranger suggested that the last two weeks of August are
best for visiting. Crowds have begun to thin as many
schools begin, but all park facilities remain open and the
bison rut is under way.
National Park is big. At 3,472 square miles, it covers
more land than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware
combined. So don’t plan on seeing it all in a day. Roads
are almost all two-lane, top speed is 45 mph, and
sometimes roadside wildlife sightings can tie up traffic
for hours. Keep a loose itinerary.