Just Back: Yellowstone National Park

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Travel photographer Erika Skogg (on Instagram @ErikaSkogg) spends a good part of her time guiding students on photography trips with National Geographic Student Expeditions. She recently returned from a 12-day workshop through Yellowstone National Park, a place she has been able to visit every summer since earning a degree in photography and film from Bozeman-based Montana State University in 2009.

“Simply put, the park never gets old,” Erika says. “No matter how many times I’ve visited, I always find something new to discover.”

Here are the highlights of her latest Yellowstone adventure, in her own words:

Biggest selling point: Yellowstone is so alive you can see its breath.

The hot springs and sage-strewn landscapes created by the park’s sleeping supervolcano—and the wild animals that make them their home—are truly unrivaled in the world.

Must-attend event: The daily shows put on by wildlife throughout the park are the best “events” I’ve found in Yellowstone.

A black bear cuts across the Lamar Valley. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)
A black bear cuts across the Lamar Valley. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)

Rise early and head into Lamar Valley with your binoculars for a good chance at seeing wolves, bears, and coyotes.

Tip: Make a reservation with the Yellowstone Association. In addition to providing spotting scopes and guiding you in their own vans, the company brings extensive wildlife biology expertise to the experience.

Off-the-beaten-path adventure: If I had one piece of advice for visitors to Yellowstone, it would be, “Get out of the car and onto the trail!”

A hike you shouldn’t miss is the break-off trail to Fairy Falls in the park’s Midway Geyser Basin.

A short vertical scramble over fallen lodgepole pines to the top of Midway Bluff reveals a bird’s-eye view of the brilliant blues and oranges of the geothermal springs you can’t see from the more traversed boardwalk below.

Tip: If you have time, the path through Grand Prismatic—Yellowstone’s largest hot spring—offers an enchanting opportunity to observe the heat-loving bacteria and color detail of these geological wonders up close.

Another favorite trail begins directly behind Roosevelt Lodge and runs up to Lost Lake. Though a mere three miles round trip, this loop hike can easily be turned into an all-day affair by stopping for a swim or picnic en route.

The trail starts with a quick vertical climb for about a quarter of a mile, then evens out, giving hikers a flat, gorgeous path through wildflowers with open views of the valley below.

Tip: Make it a part of your plan to end back at Roosevelt Lodge—one of the better restaurants in the park to try elk or bison—for lunch or dinner.

Outdoor oasis: Old Faithful is on everyone’s list, but you shouldn’t leave Yellowstone without experiencing the Boiling River. This spacious natural hot tub in the Gardner River is the perfect place for kids and adults alike to, quite literally, soak up Yellowstone.

Tip: You can find the access point between the park’s North Entrance and Mammoth Hot SpringsNote: The Boiling River is open year-round, but will close if water levels get too high.

Praiseworthy stay: I love the rustic log cabins at Roosevelt Lodge, which offer a cozy camping ambience without all the hard work. The private one- to two-bed cabins come equipped with linens and a small wood-burning stove.

Magical moment: Paddling across Yellowstone Lake at sunset. (Photograph by Erika Skogg)
Magical moment: paddling across Yellowstone Lake at sunset (Photograph by Erika Skogg)

Tip: Hotels and cabins inside park boundaries (and beyond) book up fast. Make your reservations at least a year in advance, especially at the iconic Old Faithful Inn—the largest log structure in the world.

Memorable moment: It rained on us almost every evening of the expedition, so eventually, we learned to expect and even welcome it.

On one of our last afternoons in the park, we paddled across Yellowstone Lake at sunset with Geyser Kayak Tours and awaited our daily mountain shower.

Slicing through the peaceful deep blue water, photographing the intense sky between rainfalls, and dipping our hands into the hot water where geysers empty into the lake as we traveled were magical experiences.

As we paddled back toward our cars, two female elk sprinted out of the forest along the water’s edge—adding a stunning crescendo to an already amazing week of wildlife-watching in America’s first national park.

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