Arrive in Bozeman, a historic town with a vibrant Old West heritage: more than 40 properties are on the National Register of Historic Places. Contemporary Bozeman, whose booming economy now features more software designers than miners and ranchers, is home to Montana State University and offers a wide range of cultural and outdoor activities.
Day 2: Mammoth Hot Springs / Lamar Valley / Cooke City
Drive east this morning over Bozeman Pass to Livingston, then south through the Paradise Valley, following the Yellowstone River. The Absaroka and Gallatin ranges rise on either side all the way to Gardiner, where we enter Yellowstone, established in 1872 as the world's first national park. Yellowstone's unrivaled sights overlie a supervolcano, its subterranean geology shaping the park's surface in dramatic ways. Within extensive pine forests, geyser basins bubble up while boiling pools and steam vents nurture grassy meadows sustaining great herds of bison and elk, which in turn support wolves and grizzlies.
Our first stop inside the park is Mammoth Hot Springs, where thermal water spills over travertine terraces that have been described as a “cave turned inside out.” Heat-loving organisms called thermophiles add varied colors to the mineral-laden formations. Heading into the Lamar Valley in the park's remote northeast corner, search for resident wildlife in the open meadows and forests of the Northern Range, which are home to wolves, bears, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and bald eagles. Bison are especially prevalent along the road, and our North American Safari Trucks, with big windows and double-wide pop-top roof hatches, offer 360-degree viewing. Spend the night in Cooke City, just outside the park at the base of Montana's dramatic Beartooth Range.
Day 3: Lamar Valley Wolf & Wildlife Quest
Rising early, we set out before first light in search of wolves. As dawn illumines the Lamar Valley, our high-powered spotting scopes are poised to observe wolves from a distance without disturbing their natural behavior. The valley’s rolling meadows have been the prime location for wolf watching since these apex predators were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Our Expedition Leaders have worked for years with researchers on site who track the packs daily, and together they provide us every opportunity to find these charismatic animals in their natural surroundings. The Lamar Valley is home to a rich array of other wildlife, too, which we expect to see even if wolves remain elusive. Later today, visit with local wildlife photographer Dan Hartman, who has spent years chronicling Yellowstone's wolves in powerful images. Dan opens his Cooke City gallery to us and shares stories of his Yellowstone adventures as we enjoy private conversation time together.
Day 4: Hayden Valley / Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone / Grand Tetons
One last opportunity for wolf tracking awaits in the Lamar Valley this morning. More of the park lies ahead, including Hayden Valley, a favored grazing area for large herds of bison and elk. We may also spot coyotes and bald eagles. A stop at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where Yellowstone Falls pours off a sheer cliff into the head of this thousand-foot-deep gorge, offers the park’s most inspiring vista. We also visit another of Yellowstone's famous geyser basins, vivid and dynamic examples of geothermal energy on display. From bubbling mud pots to eruptions of boiling water rocketing skyward, these were among the unique features that captivated early explorers like John Colter and Jim Bridger and prompted conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt to encourage protection of Yellowstone's natural assets. Following the shores of Yellowstone Lake—the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in North America—we exit the park and enter Grand Teton National Park, continuing to Jackson Lake Lodge. Enjoy dinner this evening in the lodge's famous Mural Room, overlooking a panorama of the lake and the Tetons beyond.
Day 5: Grand Teton National Park / Old Faithful / Big Sky
Rise early this morning for wildlife watching in Grand Teton National Park. Moose are our prime objective this morning as we search the willow-covered bottomlands of Oxbow Bend just east of Jackson Lake. The slow-moving water provides habitat for fish that are food for other wildlife, too, and we may spy river otter, beaver, muskrat, osprey, bald eagles and American white pelicans. In the distance, the Grand Tetons rise from the flat floor of Jackson Hole, providing a matchless backdrop for photography. Turning north, we enter Yellowstone once more, learning about fire ecology as we drive through recovering areas once ravaged by wildfires. At Old Faithful, there’s ample time to watch the famous geyser erupt and to walk among the fumaroles and mud pots nearby. At Midway Geyser Basin, follow the boardwalk to view Grand Prismatic Spring, famous for its rainbow rings of color caused by microbial mats of heat-loving bacteria that surround the vivid turquoise pool. We exit the park at West Yellowstone and follow Gallatin Canyon to Rainbow Ranch Lodge, just outside the community of Big Sky, Montana. The original 1919 roadhouse on this former cattle ranch was a popular travelers' and locals' hub until it burned down in 2008, replaced by today's elegant lodge that retains much of its predecessor's rustic ambience.
Day 6: Exploring the Big Sky Region
Today is devoted to discovering this scenic corner of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, outside the park and away from crowds. This morning, take a scenic tram ride to the top of 11,166-foot Lone Peak, the solitary monolith that crowns Big Sky ski resort. A remnant of the 1.7 million-year-old deposits left over by the Yellowstone Caldera’s last explosion, Lone Peak offers a hawk's eye view of the the surrounding Madison and Gallatin Mountains. Use the spotting scopes on top to look for bighorn sheep and mountain goats on the sheer slopes. This afternoon, choose between two options: a hike along a forested mountainside to Ousel Falls or a horseback trail ride in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Returning to Rainbow Ranch, we conclude the day with a gourmet farewell dinner in the log dining room, followed by s'mores around the fire pit.
Day 7: Big Sky / Bozeman—Depart
After breakfast, depart for Bozeman, following the Gallatin River north through a rugged forested canyon and out into the broad basin that holds the city. Our Yellowstone adventure concludes at the Bozeman airport.