Conquering the crowds: Tips on trouncing the park's tourist throngs

Liz Kearney
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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING — Here’s an idea for beating the new god-awful crowds in Yellowstone National Park—get out there early. Super early. Earlier-than-dark-thirty-early.

 My old friend Jean Besmehn and I did this on Sunday. I left Livingston at 3:45 to pick her up in Emigrant by 4:15 a.m. Dawn breaks around 5:15 at this time of year. Get up and out! The plan was to head to Lake over Dunraven Pass with a side trip out to Slough Creek to look for wolves. We got to Mammoth by 5-ish and stopped in at the hotel for a pit stop. 

When we got back to my car, I noticed something on the roof in between the roof rack bars. One tennis shoe. Oops, I must have set them both down on the roof at home while I loaded other items into the car.

 “Maybe I’ll find the other one on the way home,” I laughed.

 We headed for Slough Creek to try to get a look at the wolf pups. The Junction Butte pack has a den on the side of a long, steep hill about a mile away from the best, safest viewing spot.

The den is occupied by two females and two litters of pups. The older litter was born around April 15, Jim Halfpenny, Gardiner-based wildlife biologist and renowned tracking expert, said Monday, and the younger one not much longer afterward. The pack comprises 11 adults and yearlings plus the pups.

It’s not super common for two females in a pack to breed, but also not “unnormal,” Halfpenny said.

 "If you've got a lot of food, you might as well have a lot of young," he said. The wolves’ major food source is elk.

 The females have nine pups between the two of them. If you want wolf video, go to Facebook and look up “Optics Yellowstone,” a page maintained by wolf watcher and videographer Doug McLaughlin, Halfpenny recommended.

 About 50 people were already gathered when we got there, scattered around the hilly terrain. Some were set up with camp chairs, coffee cups, warm clothing and snuggly blankets, spotting scopes at the ready.

 The crowd was friendly, but quiet in the dawn, murmuring in low tones if they spoke at all.

 Halfpenny said most average visitors hear about the Slough Creek viewing area by word of mouth.

 “About 90 percent are just people hoping to see a wolf, and so they’re ecstatic when the hard-core wolf watchers let them look through a scope,” Halfpenny said. 

 There was one wolf barely visible, laying down in sagebrush. We never did see the pups, which didn’t emerge from the den. But across  the main road on another steep hillside, a few people had their scopes trained on a sow grizzly with two cubs of the year. The scope owners were generous in letting anyone take a peek.

 We decided to head toward Lake. We stopped at the Tower General Store for coffee, but the store was dark. Surely it was open for the season by now? Yes it was, but not until 9 a.m. It was barely 8. We pressed on.

 On the other side of Dunraven Pass, the clouds had settled in and it was cooler and raining a bit.

 “Should we splurge on a Lake Hotel breakfast? Hell, yes!” Jean said.

 Before we left the store, we teased the young man at the cashier stand. His name tag said his name was Olekseii and that he was from Ukraine. His English was very good, with a cute Boris and Natasha Russian accent.

I asked if he was a student and if he hoped to remain in the U.S.

 “If you’re looking to get married and stay, my friend Liz here is available,” Jean said.

 The look on his face was priceless.

 “Or maybe I could adopt you instead,” I said, given our age difference.

 We walked away, howling with laughter. Roving around, mixing it up with the staff and crowds might be a whole new way to enjoy Yellowstone.

 We were seated immediately in the Lake Hotel dining room, another bennie to our early schedule. We popped in for breakfast around 9. The dining room was scarcely one-quarter full. The other early birds had already had breakfast and left.

 I had a pretty good omelet and toast and a fried potato-like product on the side. Jean had huckleberry pancakes that came with huckleberry butter AND huckleberry syrup. The coffee was delicious. We lingered at our table by the lakeside window.

 We chatted with our waiter, urging him never, ever to get a real job and to stick with his seasonal existence as long as possible. Jean and I both regretted our insistence on leaving the park at the peak of our youth to settle down elsewhere and get real jobs.

 “I think we were sold a bill of goods,” I said.

 On our way out of the hotel, I approached a young woman working at the hotel’s front desk.

 “What’s the funniest thing you’ve heard this week?” I asked, knowing that whatever she had to share, it would be comedy gold.

 “A woman asked me if there were any bear-free trails anywhere in Yellowstone,” she said.

 “Ooh, good one,” I replied.

 For the record: No, there are not.

 Then we moved on, heading back through Hayden Valley. First animal jam: approximately 1 p.m. Given the number of cars, relatively strong attempts at responsible parking and lack of overall hysteria, I guessed we'd be seeing a bull elk. 

Just then, a man in the car in front of us leaned out and asked a man, apparently walking back to his car, what they had seen. 

He made a universal gesture with his hands splayed above his head — antlers. 

"High five!" I called to Jean. 

 It was a handsome bull elk — at least six points on each side — in velvet. Traffic slowed, but didn’t completely stop. People stayed in their cars. I didn’t see anyone try to pet the elk or offer it a chance to warm up in their car.

So by late afternoon, we’d had a full, successful day in the park. With a few more stops, including some wildflower viewing, we were ready to motor north.

If I'd been a tourist actually staying in the park for a couple of days, I think by late afternoon I would have headed to Old Faithful and relaxed for a bit in the Old Faithful Inn's Bear Pit bar, cool and dark on a hot summer day. Then I would have had a stroll in the geyser basin around dinner time, had a very light dinner, and gone to bed early, ready to hold to a similar schedule the next day. And if plans called for a day hike, I would plan a little siesta under a tree during the hottest part of the day. 

I dropped Jean off in Emigrant. I continued north. About 11 miles south of Livingston – can you believe it? I see my other shoe on the side of the road! I find a place to turn around, a safe place to park, and I walk along side the road. I pick up my shoe and go home.


Liz Kearney may be reached at