Secrets of the National Parks
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The setting: The country's first—and probably still best known—national park, Yellowstone is famous for both its otherworldly geological features (geysers, hot springs, and more) and its iconic mammals, including bison and elk.
The inside scoop: The Lower Loop of the Yellowstone road is the most crowded; the Upper Loop, a bit less so. But the least populated corner of the park is the Lamar Valley, through which runs the road from the Upper Loop to Cooke City, Montana. According to Lee Whittlesey, the park historian and a 30-year Yellowstone veteran, this also happens to be the place where you're most likely to spot the large predators—bears and wolves. "It's the American Serengeti," he says. He should know: He's written eight books on Yellowstone.
Plan B: Don't miss the two most popular sights in the park: Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Instead of watching Old Faithful with the hoi polloi down on the boardwalk, hike about one mile up the Observation Point Trail to a quiet spot that overlooks the famous geyser. For the canyon, Artist Point is the busiest viewing spot, but if you're reasonably fit and not afraid of heights, clamber the quarter mile down Uncle Tom's Trail, which drops you 500 feet into the ravine.
Money-saving tip: Accommodations within the park are relatively expensive and in high demand. Outside the park, you'll generally find cheaper options in Gardiner, by the north entrance, than in West Yellowstone.
When to go: Since the park isn't near any major cities that would bring in weekend traffic, it's equally crowded every day of the week. The park tends to get quieter at the end of August, when kids are getting back to school, and the weather is still pleasant through early September.