Yellowstone National Park: Reviews of Travel Books and Maps

A herd of bison at the Lamar Valley though we were looking for wolves
The purpose of this page is to reveal to you the resources that we have used both prior to and during our trips to Yellowstone National Park. We have reviewed such resources so we can convey to you which ones we thought were most useful as well as those we didn't find useful. Hopefully, this may better direct your information gathering efforts for your own trip...

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Yellowstone Treasures [Overall Rating: 5/5]:
I think of all the books that we have picked up about Yellowstone National Park, this one was by far the most accessible and extensive one, and it all had a bit of a personal touch to it as well. Author Janet Chapple seems to have a bit of a family history in the park, starting from her childhood when her father worked at the Old Faithful Inn. She's also married to a geologist who provided the very helpful and thorough geological explanations about the park to supplement the guide itself.

Speaking of the guide, it's very accessible to the average visitor because it's essentially a road guide that goes through all the main routes throughout the park and marks them on a mile-by-mile basis pointing out all the points of interest along the road. We used this guide pretty extensively for both our trip planning as well as our in-the-field guidance. I think for in-the-field use, it's best to have a companion in the passenger seat help the driver navigate with the help of this book.

The writeups were accompanied with boldfaced name places so they were easy to scan and find. They also contained well-illustrated maps so we knew how to get oriented. Plus, there were photos and illustrations to further backup the blurbs accompanying the list of sights that Chapple pointed out for each of the drives.

In addition to roadside attractions, Chapple also included notable trailheads to do a little further exploring outside of the automobile. There were also relevant historical and science lessons adjacent to where it made sense to talk about those things during the course of the tour. Such topics included the supervolcano aspect that gave rise to the active geysers, vents, fumaroles, etc. that are all over the park; the abundance of wildlife and where best to see them; and even history since a place with this much of it can't be understated.

All I can say is that we appreciated this book for helping us make use of our time efficiently in the Nation's first National Park. Indeed, it was very useful and pleasant to look at and browse through as well. And I'm sure we'll continue to use it if we're fortunate to make a return trip there with our daughter. We highly recommend it.

The Guide to Yellowstone Waterfalls and Their Discovery [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
I bought this book hoping that it would be a one-stop resource for all of the waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park since I was keen on visiting as many of them as I could. The book featured nearly 300 of them, and they said that most of them were not presented in published form before. The book itself looked very attractive as it was full color and had loads of photos where just about each waterfall presented had a photo to prove its existence. It was also thoughtfully organized with color codes denoting each major region of the park. Thus, as a trip planning resource, it promised to be the book that I was hoping for.

For each waterfall writeup, they had a boom box telling you how accessible the waterfall was, including stats about the trail length, the corresponding quad map to refer to, the height of the falls (though some of that might be exaggerated), GPS coordinates, etc. One of the authors of the book was even the park historian (Lee H Whittlesey, who also appeared on the Ken Burns documentary about National Parks) so the book had some serious authority behind it.

The blurbs actually were more anecdotes and historical notes from the story of the discovery of each waterfall or at least its history. These blurbs were very fascinating and had a lot of educational value, but with the amount of text devoted to this fascinating topic, it made me wonder whether this "guide" was really a guide at all. For when it came to the book's in-the-field use, that was when we started to run into problems.

I'd argue that more than half of the waterfalls in this guide fell in the category of inaccessible to most park visitors. And there were quite a few "waterfalls" that I would hardly classify them as such as they were more like rapids. Still, the authors have also seemingly intentionally left out meaningful directions to most of the waterfalls under the premise of leaving wild places wild (that is, unless you have field experts with you and the right equipment to blaze your own trails and venture into those areas that most of us can't). So that left me with a little bit of an elitist insinuation that only certain people can enjoy some of the park's features while the rest of us are merely teased; even though I can appreciate the notion of leaving wild places wild and the inherent conflict that can bring about when more people show up. Yet if that's the case, then why call this book a guidebook?

Then, in a couple of instances (especially Terraced Falls comes to mind), we had to contend with the underlying danger of even trying to achieve the photo locations that were shown in the book. Thus the guidebook was actually misleading and prone to luring an ambitious or determined hiker into a downright dangerous situation.

So the bottom line is that I thought this book possessed excellent historical information as well as a sense of what it takes for people to come across undiscovered waterfalls in the first place. But as a guide, its use is limited (perhaps even minimal) though it had so much promise on that front. But the unwritten backpacker elitist mentality was misleading and thus the reader must really be cautious about following it as a guide because it very easily can lead to a very dangerous situation.

Photographer's Guide to Yellowstone & The Tetons [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
After having a positive experience with the Photographer's Guide to Yosemite, I sought out a similar work for Yellowstone National Park before we would end up visiting it. Yellowstone National Park had its own series of attractions and photographic challenges, and this book pretty much taught me how to photograph geysers (or at least try to if the conditions are right), wildlife, waterfalls, etc.

But unlike the Yosemite guide where they focused on particular subjects and told you how to photograph each one individually in its own writeup complete with time of day, position, season, etc., this guide took a more general approach. So I wasn't quite getting the specifics that the Yosemite guide provided and thus the useful of this guide was pretty much limited to connecting the dots so to speak from utilizing the concepts provided within the guide and then knowing the locations and conditions offline.

So from that standpoint, I was a little disappointed about that. The book also seemed to focus more heavily on the equipment, film, exposure, and other parameters that are of more interest to photo buffs than the other aspect of the game which pertained to position and timing of particular subjects of interest.

Still, I credit this guide with at least teaching me how to use a contrasting backdrop (i.e. blue skies) to make geyser photos more effective, and I also learned when the best photos for the Tetons would happen (basically sunrise and sunset). But other specifics were buried in the text, and thus as a guide, I'd argue it had limited effect.

Waterfalls of Yellowstone (Panther Press) [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
This was a nearly pocket-sized guidebook that essentially listed almost all of the parks you're most likely to encounter in both Yellowstone's frontcountry and backcountry. Because of its small size, it seemed like it was intended to be used in the field, and I'd have to say for such a diminutive book, it definitely packed a punch with some photos, blurbs that contained both history and trail descriptions as well as directions, and maps.

Given the history of the park, I especially appreciated how the falls got named and some of the anecdotes and history that went behind the falls. Such history was well woven into the trail descriptions so I felt like I was both learning and envisioning what the hike would be like when trip planning.

However, the maps were basically scaled versions of topo map scans, and they were very hard to read so Maynard had to annotate them with his own notes. However, the annotations were only of the waterfall locations, but the rest of the map was not legible and therefore not useful.

Another point of contention was that some of the hikes and photos taken of them were on the misleading side. Even though the blurbs warned of the danger (e.g. for Terraced Falls), he still showed a photo of the front of that waterfall and thus it was almost like an invitation to keep at it and potentially get into a very dangerous situation.

So all in all, I found this guide to be quite capable. And the near pocket-size was certainly thoughtful from a field-use standpoint. But it did suffer from accessibility problems similar to the Paul Rubenstein Yellowstone Waterfalls book as well as illegible maps, and thus its use was limited for some of the more interesting waterfalls in the park.

Yellowstone Trails: A Hiking Guide (The Yellowstone Association) [Overall Rating: 2/5]:
This was a very old school no-nonsense book that was recommended by a Yellowstone old timer. I guess the generation gap was apparent as this book pretty much contained map illustrations and plenty of blurbs concerning some select hikes throughout the park. The book actually proposed some interesting alternates to places like Union Falls that wasn't really spoken of in the other books that I came across, but I'd argue that for most visitors who aren't as familiar with the Yellowstone backcountry as I'd imagine the users of this book would be, it wouldn't be that useful.

So that was kind of where we stood with this book. I looked through it to get ideas, but I think the audience of this kind of work was more for serious hikers and Yellowstone veterans looking to get ideas and advice from another long time hiker. It didn't really speak to us and I'd imagine it wouldn't really speak to most casual visitors looking to get beyond the roads yet not disappear into the wilderness completely where some serious self-sufficiency would be necessary.

Hiking Yellowstone National Park (Falcon) [Overall Rating: 3.5/5]:
This was pretty much the de facto hiking resource as Falcon Guides tend to have a format and consistency about them no matter which part of the United States they're covering. In the case of Yellowstone, they covered most of the frontcountry and backcountry excursions in their usual style with boom boxes summarizing the length, difficulty, elevation profile, etc. Then with a words eye description of each of the hikes to further fill in the details of what it would be like in there.

Even though we didn't really use this guide for most of our trip planning and in-the-field use (since most of the trails we went on were pretty straightforward and covered by the park literature or by other guides we possessed), we did use this guide for things like the Osprey Falls hike, a failed attempt at Natural Bridge (it was closed due to grizzly activity when we went) and even a failed attempt at doing Union Falls (when we were turned back by a raging Falls River ford). So I can envision consulting this guide on a future trip to Yellowstone but only if I'm fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do some of these longer hikes.

Still, when it comes to these guides, I know they're pretty reliable, and I expect no less for their coverage of Yellowstone.

Topo! Wyoming (National Geographic) [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
I actually own a pretty old-school version of this map, where the trail markings and road markings were actually either inaccurate or they were outdated. I know this for sure because our trip logged tracks and waypoints were consistently offset or off against the map markings on this software. So I wasn't sure if I could trust what was in the Topo map itself, but in any case, I used this map to plan our routes on our 2004 trip to both Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons as well as to use it as the background for downloading trip logs.

I got the feeling that I could have used the later version of this software, but at least the version that I have let me integrate it with the later versions of Topo (Topo 4.0, I believe).

The planning was pretty reliable as I extensively used this resource given its sharp 1:24k scale so I could pick out things like walking trails, campsites, bathrooms, visitor centers, etc. on their raster-based superpositions of USGS map surveys. And with this level of detail for the entire state, I knew that I could probably re-use this resource for if we would be fortunate to visit other parts of the state of Wyoming.

As for the rest of the software, it suffered from the usual lack of functionality from its kludgy interface that made it a real chore to try to use it along with our GPS for real-time tracking, or even try to annotate the map for figuring out routes and marking them before going on the excursion itself. They had follow-up products for purchase to try to address this, but they turned out to be buggy and not very reliable (thereby a waste of time and money). So as it was, I was frustrated in using this map for such purposes, and this was especially more glaring when I realized years later that MapSource products started coming out on the market that easily trumped the NatGeo topo series (thereby making me feel like I wasted my money on the NatGeo products).

The bottom line is that this map product was excellent for hiking and backpacking (or at least planning for them), but was terrible for in-the-field navigation or track and waypoint management. We didn't have much to go on besides this product at the time, but as the years went by, I can see we might just ditch this product and go for the Garmin Mapsource product of the North Central Mountain US down the road (especially if they contain just as much info as this Topo! product itself, which I'd imagine would be derived from USGS Surveys)...

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