Yellowstone. The name alone conjures images of grizzly bears, bubbling moonscapes and the frontiers of the Old West. But in the face of surging visitor numbers – a record 4.25 million in 2016 – you’re now just as likely to see crowds.
It’s no surprise, considering the world’s first national park has long been a wish-list staple, though it does make getting away from it all more difficult. Here’s how you can forge your own path in America’s greatest wilderness.
There’s an old saying in Yellowstone: 97 percent of visitors use three percent of the park. Whether or not that’s still strictly true these days, you’re definitely going to find yourself with company if you solely stick to the roads. Instead, ditch the tarmac and traipse the trails.
Try the route to Trout Lake, an easy half-mile track that’s perfect for first-timers. After a short, steep climb through dense forest, you’ll come across a lake with a surface as smooth as glass. Watch bison grazing beneath the snow-dusted peak of Mount Hornaday, and look out for black bear prints around the rim.
There are plenty of reasons why summer is a magnet for the masses – not least more reliable weather, longer days and the opportunity to try llama trekking. But you shouldn’t underestimate the crowds, particularly if you’re hoping for an escape from the hubbub. In 2016, more than a quarter of the park’s annual visitors were recorded in the month of July.
If you’re after a quiet break, try visiting another time. Spring is best for wildlife, with baby animals galore and both grizzly and black bears descending from the mountains. Winter is ideal for adventurous types, as most roads close and you’ll have to get around using snowmobiles and skis.
The average Yellowstone visitor enjoys a lazy lie-in and always makes it back to camp by dinnertime. Don’t join them. Instead take your cue from the park’s wildlife by rising early, resting in the afternoon and staying out late.
Animals are most active at dawn and dusk, and the Lamar Valley (known as America’s Serengeti) is your best bet for a morning getting acquainted with the park’s megafauna. Watch bison nibbling the grassy tussocks, and look out for the wolves that roam these parts.
When the sun dips, channel your inner salmon and head against the traffic to the geyser basins. Save a moonlit night for a trip to Old Faithful and an otherworldly eruption sans crowds.
If you’re the kind of person whose idea of a perfect trip involves pillowtop mattresses and round-the-clock access to posh cheese nibbles, you should probably give this one a miss. But if you’re eager to make the most of the great outdoors, and feel apathetic towards an alfresco bathroom situation, then great – this one’s for you.
Yellowstone is the perfect place for pitching a tent, with 12 serviced campgrounds and a further 300 secret sites awaiting you in the backcountry. For starters, strap on your pack and head for some alone time at one of the plots facing Shoshone Lake, the largest lake in the park’s wilderness. The 6-mile return trail leads you along the forest edge through open meadows – keep an eye out for moose.
There’s no denying the likes of Grand Prismatic Spring deserve to feature among Yellowstone’s blockbuster sights, but there’s an awful lot more where that came from. Around half the world’s geysers simmer away within the park’s boundaries, and there are tens of thousands of hydrothermal features.
With all that, there’s no reason to join the tour groups. Those after a good geyser explosion should take the 5-mile return trail to the far less-visited Lone Star, the largest in Yellowstone’s backcountry. Pack a picnic though, as eruptions only occur every three hours.
Also worth a trip is Black Pool in the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which has changed colour over the years from deep green to a vivid teal – it’s ample fodder for your Instagram feed.
Stand-out sights like Mammoth Hot Springs are surrounded by boardwalks – and these can get jam-packed when the coaches arrive. If you’re still keen to check them out, but would rather not stand elbow-to-elbow with tourists, then it might be worth simply seeking out an alternative view.
The 5-mile return path to Fairy Falls is a great option, as the trail ascends to a beautiful aerial perspective of Grand Prismatic Spring’s opalescent pool.
Another good bet is Uncle Tom’s Trail, which plunges into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and offers excellent views of the Yellowstone River hurtling over Lower Falls.
Whether you’re after the whereabouts of wolf pups or the latest on where to spot wolverines (tricky at the best of times), local people are your best sources of information – and following their advice is a great way to veer off the tourist trail. One way to tap into this is to join the superb local guides at Yellowstone Forever on a tour of the park.
Spend a day exploring the northern range, learning everything from how to identify bear prints to what moose eat (willow, for the record).
It’s also likely you’ll spot crowds of local wildlife-watchers in the Lamar Valley, and they’re excellent sources for wolf-related gossip.
Georgia stayed at Bridge Bay Campsite and Madison Campground in Yellowstone National Park, Gray Wolf Inn & Suites in West Yellowstone and Best Western Grantree Inn in Bozeman. AmeriCan & Worldwide Travel offer a similar trip with hotel stays, flights and car hire. For more information on the Real America, visit www.realamerica.co.uk. All photos by Georgia Stephens.