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The alarm goes off and my eyes slowly peel open to the darkness of the pre-dawn morning. I wish I could say I’m wide-awake like a restaurant owner who switches the closed sign to open, but sadly waking up is more like a heavy warehouse door barred with creaky, rusty chains. I get dressed and grab my guide pack with all the necessary gear for a day in the park: rain jacket, bear spray, first aid kit, bottle of water, and temperature gauge. I start my car and drive over to the shop where I grab the keys to our tour van and begin to load it up with all the necessary equipment: binoculars, spotting scope, etc. 

After packing for the day, I begin my two-hour drive to the edge of the park near West Yellowstone, Montana. But first, I swing by the local cafe to grab sandwiches for my guests and myself. Finally, with the awakening of my sleep deprived state and the coffee kicking into gear, the sun begins to slowly paint the landscape with a faint hue of pink and red while the mountains dominate the horizon. 

En route, I follow one of the many rivers that begins its life in the park and slither my way down the road, mimicking each natural turn of the rushing water beside me. Before long, I make it to where the guests are staying inside Yellowstone. Our conversations at the beginning differ every time, but always circle back to the sheer joys and smiles I see painted on their faces because for many of them this is their first time inside the park. 

Not long after entering, a bison weighing over 2,000 pounds welcomes our day with a slow saunter directly in front of our car. I educate my guests on the creature and the dark history of overcoming near extinction as colonial humans spread irresponsibly across the western US.

With many “ooo’s and aaa’s” we continue on and head to one of the many thermal features of the park. My day is all about keeping my guests engaged. Luckily, I don’t have to try very hard as snaking rivers, volcanic mountain canyons, and steam emanating from the ground keeps my guests constantly asking questions and me on my toes to answer them. This job is never boring. 

We walk a wooden boardwalk along the infamous Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, the largest hot spring in the park. It has a myriad of colors so vibrant that a photograph and saturation effects on Photoshop fall flat.

Further into the park we arrive at Yellowstone’s signature feature, Old Faithful. With water shooting up well over 100 feet into the air and steam stretching three times that height, the phones are expanded to their widest angle and the eyes of my guests hardly blink. 

Lunch has arrived, but not until after we drive up and over the infamous Continental Divide. I talk through what it is and its significance to water flow. Once we cross over, we drop down to Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation lake in North America, and the epicenter of the last minor eruption of the Yellowstone Super-volcano. 

With water lapping up onto the sandy shore and snow-capped peaks screaming to the sky across the 14-mile wide lake, the picnic table hardly gets any use as sandwiches are eaten with the feeling of sand between our toes and a light breeze pleasantly enhancing the scene. We indulge in both the deliciousness of our lunch and the media that is Yellowstone National Park. 

Lunch is never rushed and always enjoyable, but the hardest part of my job is learning how to read people and letting them know how much more of the park there is to see. The park is so massive that no matter how hard we try, we will never see it all in one day, so it’s all about understanding what my guests might be interested in and what skills they have and go from there.

After lunch someone usually falls asleep, and that is where I introduce a short hike to keep people engaged. With backpacks shouldered and bear spray in close proximity, we tackle one of the many trails that surround us. Evidence of bear activity is present immediately as we begin our trek: a giant bear scat full of huckleberries spread across the trail. An incredible sight and something that excited me, but my guests don’t seem to share the sentiment for scat that I do. Eventually we reach an incredible view, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery. But sadly, once again, I need to usher my guests back to the van - there’s still more to explore up ahead.

I am always grateful to eat lunch before entering this particular area of the park as the sulfur smell of rotten eggs could churn even the hungriest stomachs. The Mud Volcano beckons, and the popping and bubbling of the springs gives us a peek into the past at a prehistoric planet.

With the final thermal feature of the day in our rearview mirror, the windshield shows a traffic jam up ahead. Not one caused by cars or five o’clock rush hour, but one that we jokingly refer to as a “Bison Jam”. Nearly 100 bison are straddling the park road, causing cars to screech to a halt. There is no need for alarm however, as bison want nothing to do with us - they are just doing what they do. 

As we continue slowly past the herd of bison and make our way out of the valley and back into a forested area, I am stopped in my tracks. A small black dot slowly moves through the landscape of sage and grass through lodgepole and ponderosa pine. I quickly pull over and grab the spotting scope to zoom in and take a look. A wolf moves stealthily through the landscape ahead. 

Arguably the most rare animals in Yellowstone, our luck was rewarded with 20 minutes of one of the Canadian Grey Wolves that were introduced to the park in 1995. With the wolf bringing in 82 million dollars a year in tourism to Yellowstone, they have a tragic relationship with extinction in the park and the hunting practices that happen today in neighboring states don’t help their population stability.

We head further down the road and follow the Yellowstone River, finally arriving at the final stop of our day: the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We walk along a paved walkway, down a staircase, and curve perfectly into view of the Lower Falls of Yellowstone. I turn to look at my guests and though they are speechless, their astounded faces say everything. 

The Lower Falls are 308 feet tall and tumble down to the bottom of a 1200-foot deep canyon. This is without question the best and final place I take people to round out our day in Yellowstone. After taking family pictures and discussing the history and geography of the falls, we take a short stop at a gift shop for people to hunt for the perfect souvenirs for folks back home, then slowly make our way back to their place of lodging. 

On the drive back, I always ask what the highlights of the day were for the guests. The answers always vary, but the most frequent responses involve wildlife. We shake hands and I thank them for such a great day, then head home and find a trail for myself to unwind and reflect. 

There are days when I don’t want to head into the park and spend 8-10 hours with strangers in my car; but then there are days where I question what else I would be doing. The thought of a 9-5 turns my stomach, so to have a job that gives me the freedom to be creative in a place that I have been coming to for 27 years is something I am learning to not take for granted. 

But now, it’s time to get my run in and head back and clean the van. Because I have another tour tomorrow, and who knows what that will bring. 

LAST UPDATED

October 3, 2023

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Sean Jansen

Sean Jansen is a freelance writer and seasonal wilderness guide in Yellowstone National Park. During his off season from guiding, he partakes in a litany of expeditions ranging from thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to his recent trip, standup paddling down the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. Through recovery from alcoholism, he has moved into a van and spends his time fly fishing trout streams, training for ultra-marathons, and searching the coast for un-surfed waves. With a passion for wilderness and wild places, he often takes his pen and paper on trips and finds ways that the outdoor recreation activities he loves can give back to conservation and environmental areas in need.

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