Lisa Kenney is a New York City-based research assistant whose upbringing as a military brat has led to incurable wanderlust. Her favorite travel memory is watching the sun rise over Machu Picchu.
Does watching the snow fall from your tiny cubicle make you long for summer days, no cell service and the chance to watch elk graze on a riverbank? It's never too early to start planning ways to use your vacation days to escape from the daily grind. One of America's best places to relax, even for just a long weekend, is Yellowstone National Park.
It's impossible to see all of Yellowstone's 3,468 square miles—which span three states and encompass everything from waterfalls to open plains to dense forests—in a few days, but there are ways to see the great outdoors without feeling rushed or overwhelmed.
Forego the park's many lodges and inns and instead set up camp under the stars. You can choose your preferred level of roughing it in one of the four centrally located campgrounds that take reservations—key in the busy summer months.
Fuel up for your days by cooking over your campfire (tip: bring groceries from outside the park, because in-park stores tend to be pricey) and then venture out to five of these must-sees:
1. The Upper and Lower Falls: Set on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Upper Falls are easily seen from the top of the hiking trail, with views continuing as you make your way down Uncle Tom's Trail. The trail is terrifying if you're afraid of heights, but just hold on tight as you descend the 328 metal stairs jutting from the cliffside, and you'll be rewarded with breathtaking views of rainbows glittering across the thunderous Lower Falls.
2. Moose Falls: Early morning is prime time at Moose Falls, a small waterfall near the south entrance to the park. The short, easy trail should be empty just after sunrise, so you'll be able to peacefully watch deer—and maybe even a moose!—graze while mist rises off the waters of Crawfish Creek.
3. Old Faithful: Yes, this will be touristy. Yes, it is surrounded by a parking lot. Despite that, it's worth it to watch this legendary geyser erupt. There are easy hiking trails surrounding Old Faithful, which will lead you past smaller geysers, babbling brooks, and gorgeous lookouts. And if you're lucky, everything might come to a standstill to let a pack of buffalo (including babies!) stroll by without a care in the world.
4. Firehole River: There's something for everyone in this pristine, meandering river. Firehole Falls has a great lookout for pictures, the unmanned swimming hole is the perfect way to cool off in the summer heat, and the river itself is well known for its fly fishing.
5. The drive to the Grand Tetons: This takes you out of Yellowstone, but the drive from West Thumb through the south entrance and beyond is great for wildlife viewing if you don't have time for a lengthy day hike. Don't be surprised if a coyote trots alongside your vehicle before disappearing into the open grass, or if you notice a line of cars stopped to observe a brown bear lumbering out of the woods.
You could spend weeks in Yellowstone traipsing the lesser-known trails, exploring the lower geyser basin or bagging peaks in the backcountry. But for those of us without endless vacation days, these spots are a great way to unwind and enjoy the beauty of Wyoming in just a few short days.
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