A Wimp's Guide To Camping

I am not, by any definition of the word, a camper. I don’t do tents. I don’t do bugs. And I definitely don’t do peeing in the woods. So you can only imagine the look on my face when my fiancé suggested that we scrap our plans to road-trip through Ireland this summer, sleeping in romantic castles and dancing in pubs, to instead explore Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. “It will be fun,” he said, rattling off a list of keywords like, “nature,” and “fresh air.”

He also reminded me that this year — and more specifically, this month — marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, which, judging by the number of sold-out campsites and park hotels this summer, is something people care about. I don’t know if it was his genuine excitement (Animals! Nature! Teddy Roosevelt! America!) or the nagging feeling that I should do a bit more exploring in the good ol' U.S. of A., but a few weeks later I found myself on a flight to Bozeman, Montana (a smart place to fly into if you want to explore the park from the top down), armed with hiking boots and a handy “something/someone is trying to kill me in the forest — please help” whistle.

And guess what? I survived! The trip wasn’t without a few hiccups, but Yellowstone was even more gorgeous than it looked in photos. Here’s how to experience the country’s first National Park yourself, even if you’re a wimp like me. Honestly — I barely missed the Guinness.

Not into tents? Book a hotel or cabin instead. We’ve already covered that camping is not my thing — so you can only imagine my relief when I found hotels right in the park, complete with beds and sinks and little soaps shaped like bears. Yellowstone alone has nine different lodging options, from bathroom-less cabins to full-on hotel rooms (although, call first to see what’s open during your stay). Entrance to the Park is $30 per car, whether you stay a day or a week, so it makes sense to hunker down for at least a night to truly experience the park.

Since our trip started at the park’s north entrance, we spent the first night in a frontier cabin (with a shower and toilet — baby steps) at Mammoth Hot Springs, for $179. Sure, the price is steep for a somewhat shabby room with no air conditioning, but that mattress felt pretty great after a long day of exploring. The second night, we stayed in a superior queen room at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, which had all the appearances of your typical hotel room, without Wi-Fi and TV, for a painful $454 (the string quartet playing in the lobby almost made up for it — but not quite).

This all led up to night three in a cabin sans bathroom at the Old Faithful Lodge for a cool $99. Truth: I slept just as well in the cabin as in the pricey hotel room, and there was a lot more action around Old Faithful — including the historic Old Faithful Inn, which is said to be the largest log structure in the world. If you don’t want to sleep in a tent but are looking for a cheap stay, these cabins are your best bet. For optimum selection, book three months out; if the location you want is sold out, call again in the weeks leading up to your trip, as cancellations do occur.
Photo: Courtesy of Caitlin Moscatello.
Follow the rules. This one seems obvious (those are not Disney bison, after all), but the big signs with safety warnings are there for a reason. You can barely set foot on a trail or gaze from an overlook without several reminders to: keep a safe distance from wildlife (at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, and a minimum of 25 yards from bison, elk, and other large animals); walk only on paths and boardwalks near the park’s thermal areas (or risk falling into boiling waters); and obey the speed limits when driving — animals do cross the road, sometimes in herds. Speaking of rules…

Buy the damn bear spray.
You’ll see warnings for black bears and grizzlies all over the place — and they’re not just for show. Yellowstone visitors reported more than 40,000 bear sightings between 1980 and 2011, and while I personally didn’t see any bears during my visit, a woman I encountered on a hiking trail said she’d spotted a mama grizzly and her cub that morning. Chances of an attack are extremely slim, but to be extra safe, rent or buy a can of bear spray, i.e. bear mace — especially if you plan on hiking — and know how to use it. One can costs about $40 (I bought mine at a camping store on our way to Yellowstone), or you can rent bottles near the entrance to Canyon Village, a pit stop in the park with food, gas, and other necessities. Also smart: Hike in groups of three or more (on the very rare instances when bears attack, the victims are typically solo or in a pair), and make plenty of noise as you move, so you don’t startle them. Nobody likes to be surprised in the forest.

Make a pit stop for food.
No need to pack snacks beforehand. You can pick up necessities like bottled water, snacks, sandwiches, and more at several locations in the park, including general stores near the park’s hotels and Canyon Station. Skip the park’s formal restaurants — the food is pricey, and mediocre at best — in favor of quick meals like sandwiches or burgers. One meal must: An early breakfast at the diner-style grille at Hamilton’s Store near the Old Faithful Inn. Before heading out for the day, hit the general store to pick up bison and elk jerky and other snacks that will fit into your backpack.

Set your alarm — & don't hit snooze.
Your best chance to see wildlife is at dusk and dawn, which means you’ll need to hop out of bed — and early. Set your alarm for 5:45 a.m. and then drive out to Lamar Valley, otherwise known as America’s Serengeti. By 7 a.m., the trucks giving wildlife tours start arriving, so beat them to it for a more private sunrise show of bison, wolves, and even bears. Don’t forget your binoculars!
Hit the trails. Roughly 4 million people visit Yellowstone annually, and plenty of those take a “park and snap” approach, where they drive from one lookout or site to another, taking photos before getting back in their cars. If you want a less crowded view, your best bet is to venture out onto the park’s more than 900 miles of hiking trails — even going just a mile in will get you away from the packs of tourists. If you have three to four hours to spare, grab your bear spray, a water bottle, sunscreen, and a backpack and begin the trek up the Mount Washburn Trail, a 6.4-mile path that rewards you with panoramic views 20 to 50 miles out. (Wimp alert: There’s a bathroom at the top, so you won’t be forced to squat if all that hydrating hits you.) For an easier hike, take the 2.5-mile Mystic Falls Trail near Old Faithful, where a breezy walk opens up to patches of wildflowers and a refreshing waterfall just waiting to be posted to your Instagram.

Layer, layer, layer.
During the summer months, temperatures in Yellowstone can vary dramatically — while we were visiting, scorching 88-degree afternoons gave way to nights in the low 40s. Weather can shift in the afternoon as well, so if you’re planning to be out all day, or are venturing out on a long hike, be sure to arm yourself with everything from sunscreen and a hat to a long-sleeved shirt in a wicking fabric (I wore the Swiftly Tech long-sleeved crew from Lululemon, and it was perfect) and a windbreaker.

Soak up some nature. After a long day of being adventurous, take a warm drip in the Boiling River near Mammoth Hot Springs. The name is more menacing than it sounds; this is a point where the hot springs meet the cool river waters, creating a bathtub-like temperature. You’ll have to park your car and walk a half mile to get there, but it’s worth the effort when you find yourself soaking in the middle of a river with nothing but nature around you. Fair warning: Don’t swallow the water — I went in up to my shoulders, to be safe — and do wear your junkiest sneakers to keep you steady on the rocks when you’re wading in. I can’t promise you’ll feel like you got lost and landed in a European spa, but I can say that, even for this wimp, it was a pretty amazing way to end a day. So cheers to that.

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