Plenty of great diversions with job at national park
By JAN KANE
For The News-Gazette
For the past three summers, my husband and I have taken a five-month "trip" to Yellowstone National Park, where we have worked the front desk of the Old Faithful Inn. What a privilege it has been and a source of many photos, stories, friendships and memories.
This is not a way to get rich quick (or even slow), but it does allow one to live inside our first national park just steps away from Old Faithful and other wonders of the world. We work for Xanterra, the largest concessionaire in the park.
Many of our co-workers are retirees like ourselves (with a pension and penchant for travel). Others are young people finding their way or international students. And some are simply the working poor who have come to the park for the wage and immediate access to a bed and food. We are housed in dorms and fed in a mess hall (optimistically called an "employee dining room").
On work days, we may stroll around the geyser basin watching for the reliable eruptions of Old Faithful (every 88 minutes on average) or the more elusive eruptions of geysers like Beehive and Riverside.
We also often take short hikes to Mystic Falls, Biscuit Basin and other points of interest near the upper geyser basin. When we grow weary of the employee food, we drive 45 minutes into the town of West Yellowstone and eat at Madison Crossing, an excellent restaurant.
We typically have two consecutive days off each week, and that's when the bigger fun begins.
We hike in the park often. This summer we climbed Mount Washburn to enjoy the wild flowers and the mountain goats that live at 10,000 feet. We also hiked several times at Beaver Ponds trail, which is in the Mammoth area near the north entrance to the park. Another favorite trail is along the Yellowstone River in the canyon area, where we never fail to be awestruck by the two enormous waterfalls. One of our more challenging hikes this summer was to Osprey Falls, which is a remote but wonderful waterfall on the Gardner River.
Yellowstone is a gorgeous area that is distinctive in that you can find mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, wild animals and the world's largest collection of thermal features (geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles). On our drives and hikes we regularly see bison and elk, and we often see bears, moose, wolves and mountain goats and sheep.
A favorite activity of guests and employees alike is soaking at Boiling River near the northern entrance. It is the confluence of the icy Gardner River and the steaming outflow of a geyser. Once you find the spot that is "just right," it can be heavenly to soak and gaze out at the mountains. Water shoes are recommended: The rocks can be slippery and sharp.
There are nine lodging options inside Yellowstone Park (and many in the towns that surround the park). It is generally advised that you book a room in the park 12 to 16 months in advance. We turn many people away every night who are shocked to learn that we have sold out (which we do every night of the season).
There are also numerous camping spots, but these, too, sell out nearly every night.
Most of the hotels are historic, which means charm and an opportunity to experience a time gone by. It also means no television, no air conditioning and sometimes more rudimentary accommodations than one might be accustomed to. Some rooms and cabins have bathrooms down the hall or down the lane.
In the winter, only two hotels are open inside the park: Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth. To get to the Snow Lodge, you must book a ride on a snow coach.
When we venture outside the park, we seek out other historic hotels. We have enjoyed many nights at Chico Hot Springs in Pray, Mont. You can horseback ride, soak in unchlorinated naturally heated waters and enjoy a first-class dining experience.
The Sacajawea Inn in Three Forks, Mont., is another favorite both for its luxury and superb food. Like Old Faithful Inn and Chico Hot Springs, this hotel is also more than 100 years old.
In Cody, Wyo., we gravitate to the Irma Hotel, which was built by Buffalo Bill Cody. The food is not notable, but the accommodations are nice. Cody also has the world-class Buffalo Bill Museum and a Western music show with performer Dan Miller that is well worth the $15 price. Many towns surrounding the park have rodeos. Kids love them and often are invited inside the gates to chase a calf or dance with a clown.
Working and playing in a national park allows a person opportunities to meet co-workers and guests from around the United States and the world. Everyone is thrilled to be in the park, and they are grateful for tips on particular sights to see.
The extended time also allows us to savor the wonders of the area. We can sit by a geyser basin or waterfall reading a book and not feel obliged to hurry on to the next thing. We know Yellowstone in all her seasons like a good friend.
To learn more about employment in Yellowstone, go to http://www.yellowstonejobs.com.
Jan and Denny Kane are retired from the University of Illinois. They live in Champaign in the winter and Yellowstone in the summer. When they are not travelling by vehicle, they are exploring the wider world via book.