Thursday, September 17, 2009

Where to Stay in West Yellowstone

I spent a week in Yellowstone National Park in early September 2009. It was my first visit to this natural wonder upon wonder. This is the second installment of my reflections on the wonders and lessons of Yellowstone.

There are many lodging options in and around Yellowstone Park for the novice visitor to wade through. But know this, no matter what you decide you will spend an amazing amount of time in your car. The road system (despite road closures) is really quite good, but there’s just no way to make 2.2 million acres easily accessible from any one location. So whatever your lodging choice, be ready to drive.

The main decision faced by Yellowstone visitors is inside or outside – do you stay at a lodge/cabin/campground inside the park or at a lodge/cabin/campground/motel/hotel outside the park. We stayed in the area long enough to try both options. We spent four nights at a cabin at the Old Faithful Inn. And we spent two nights at the lovely West Yellowstone Bed and Breakfast. (Considering I was heavily medicated for herniated discs during the visit I was particularly glad we didn’t try to camp, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try it in the future.)

The cabin came as advertised – spartan. A bed, desk, toilet, sink and shower provided us with all that we really needed and there wasn’t any room for anything else. Being near Old Faithful gave us a quick taste of Yellowstone as tourist mecca. Watching the throngs line up early for the next water show convinced me that Walt Disney was enviously watching from above. The Park Service tries to keep the focus on the natural environs and not the “entertainment,” but whenever that many tourists are assembled Mother Nature invariably gets hip-checked out of the picture.

I wish the more remote locations, such as the Roosevelt Lodge, were open post Labor Day. I would have preferred staying farther north and east – particularly since the fishing in the Lamar Valley was rumored to be hot. But ultimately we found that the Old Faithful area is a pretty good launching spot for seeing the rest of the park. And based on all of the guidebooks, lodging inside the park doesn’t vary much. Come with low expectations and you’ll be happy.

We didn’t visit the north, northeast or east entrances of the park, so I cannot comment on the “outside the park” lodging opportunities there, but my bet is they are simply down-sized versions of the madhouse that is West Yellowstone. Our guide Nick from Blue Ribbon Flies lamented how that town has changed since he arrived in 1981. Back then there was only one paved street and a just a few rustic motels and cabins. I’m struggling with how to describe it now. American kitsch from hell may be too harsh, but the layer upon layer of souvenir shops atop third-rate lodging options nearly sent me rushing back to high-brow Jackson.

Staying in West Yellowstone has four big advantages. It makes visiting the lovely, nearly tourist-free northwest corner of the park easier (check out a map and see why). It means one doesn’t have to wake up nearly as early to arrive at the fly shop by 8 a.m. to meet your guide for a Madison float trip. It gives you an opportunity to check out some of the beautiful scenery outside the park, including Hebgen Lake and eastern Idaho. And spending time amid trinket shops and laundromats will make you appreciate God’s wonders inside the park even more. And one really should focus on Yellowstone for its natural beauty and just ignore all of the messiness on its edge.

Yellowstone Bed & Breakfast is as far away from messy as it gets. Immaculate, bright and comfortable, the home of Deborah and Scott Clark provided us with a much needed respite during the tail end of our Yellowstone journey. Located less than five miles out of town, the B&B offers everything that a weary traveler seeks: firm beds, hot showers, delicious breakfasts and peaceful silence. (Of course if you want to catch up on ESPN SportsCenter or watch the U.S. Open Finals you can do that, too.) Scott doubles as a guide at Blue Ribbon and makes furniture, too. His handy-work is on full display as he built the rustic home and much of its furniture. Deborah, and daughter Sky, will entertain you with stories of grizzly bears and towering snow drifts, or they’ll politely leave you alone to silently enjoy the warmth of their home. There is a rhythm to the B&B that meshes perfectly with the Yellowstone experience and I look forward to our next visit (and meeting Sky’s new baby brother or sister). We will be back and if you want to spend some time outside of Yellowstone Park, I encourage you to stay at the Yellowstone B&B. Come with high expectations and they’ll be exceeded.

Next: Dining in Yellowstone


David said...

I have a store in West Yellowstone. We aren't that bad, are we? :)

Chris Thompson said...


Thanks for the post. What store do you operate? Of course my comments were sweeping generalities ... and I always leave room for exceptions. Hope to visit your place upon my next visit.


David said...

Be sure to stop by! It's easy to find my place - it has two cow hides and a buffalo hide hanging out front. It's a bit tacky, but everyday people stand next to them and have their pictures taken which I like.

I do understand how the town looks. In a way the lack-of-pretense gives it a bit of family-oriented charm. Something like Jackson is too cutesy and precious.