Exploring the Top Attractions of Yellowstone National Park
World-famous Yellowstone, established in 1872, is the oldest national park in the United States and one of the most popular parks in the country. Sprawling across a basalt plateau in the north-west corner of Wyoming, this magnificent wilderness area spills into neighboring Idaho and Montana and forms the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest and best-preserved temperate-zone ecosystems on the planet. The park is famous for its spectacular scenery, diverse flora and fauna, and fascinating geothermal wonders. Yellowstone boasts the world's largest number of active geysers and offers a window into the powerful forces deep beneath the earth's crust, the same forces that shaped this park and its dazzling and dramatic landscapes. The scenery ranges from snaking rivers and sweeping green valleys, to canyons, vast lakes, thundering waterfalls, and hissing lunar-like landscapes.
Yellowstone is a land of contrasts. Each season paints a dramatically different scene - from the lush greens and sparkling blues of spring and summer, when herds of bison and elk graze along the river banks; to fall's fiery reds, oranges, and golds, when grizzlies and black bears bulk up on berries; to the white wonderland of the freezing winter. At any time of year, Yellowstone is a reminder of the awe-inspiring wilderness and abundant wildlife that once covered much of the planet, and offers visitors an unforgettable safari adventure in the wild American West.
Moving and Shaking: Origins of the Park
Yellowstone's geology is among the most dynamic in the world. The park lies over a hot spot where magma sits relatively close to the earth's surface. Millions of years ago, the magma's blistering heat melted rocks in the earth's crust forming chambers of magma that oozed into cracks or fault lines and sparked a series of violent volcanic eruptions. The last eruption, about 600,000 years ago, collapsed a vast crater, forming the huge Yellowstone caldera that exists today. Yellowstone's hot spot has been active for about 15 million years and still generates immense heat, as evidenced by the many post-volcanic features that shroud the landscape in a thick veil of steam. Natural features are continually evolving and earth tremors are frequent, however, the chance of a catastrophic eruption in the next thousand years is highly unlikely.
Touring the Park on the Grand Loop
The best way to tour Yellowstone National Park is by driving around the Grand Loop, a 142-mile-long road that curves around in a figure-eight past the park's most striking natural features. At each attraction, well-maintained boardwalks and hiking trails take visitors to close-up views of each feature as well as breathtaking view points, and many of the paths are wheelchair friendly. Driving the entire length of both loops can take between four and seven hours, depending on traffic. In the summer months, the traffic can be stop-and-go the entire way. For those sightseers with only a day to see the park, the best approach is to explore half of the Grand Loop's figure-eight.
The Grand Loop tour described below starts at Old Faithful, near the southern entrance to the park, continues on to the far north of the loop, and finishes near the same point in the south. The order of attractions can be adapted depending on time constraints and which of the five entrances visitors use to enter the park.
One of the star attractions of Yellowstone, the geyser known as Old Faithful is named for the regularity with which it erupted, shooting columns of water high up into the air. Today, visitors can still witness this incredible sight, though eruption intervals are not quite as regular now as visitors might expect; they vary from 35 minutes to 120 minutes with an average interval of about 92 minutes. Old Faithful is not the park's largest geyser, however it does erupt more frequently than other large geysers in the park. The eruptions usually last from one-and-a-half minutes to five minutes and reach heights of between 90 and 184 feet. For the approximate eruption times, visitors should enquire in the visitor center or at the Old Faithful Inn, a historic hotel originally built in log-cabin style in 1904. Boasting an illustrious guest list, this charming inn is worth a visit to admire the lobby's rustic wood and stone decor or refuel at one of the hotel's restaurants.
The thermal area known as Black Sand Basin is very close to the Old Faithful geyser, and the two attractions can be combined in one easy trip. It has a reputation for being one of the most colorful spots in Yellowstone.
Upper Geyser Basin and Morning Glory Pool
Upper Geyser Basin has the highest concentration of geysers in the world, most of them packed into one square mile. A two-hour boardwalk trail through the area takes visitors past Old Faithful, the Giantess Geyser, the Beehive Geyser, the Castle Geyser, the Grand Geyser and fountain basins shimmering in a rainbow of colors. On the north edge of the Upper Geyser Basin is the magical Morning Glory Pool, named after the beautiful flower. The Biscuit Basin is also part of the Upper Geyser Basin area, however the formations for which the area was named have long since disappeared due to the 1959 earthquake. Today, visitors can see features with evocative names such as Sapphire Pool, Silver Globe Spring, and Black Pearl Geyser.
Editor's Pick Midway Geyser Basin & the Grand Prismatic Spring
Named for its location between the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, Midway Geyser Basin boasts two of the park's biggest geothermal features. The mighty crater of the Excelsior Geyser discharges 55 gallons of hot water per second into the Firehole River. Nearby is the 370-foot-wide stunning Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the finest and biggest hot springs in the park. This is a must-see attraction and a photographer's favorite with its vivid hues of blue, green, orange, and gold.
Lower Geyser Basin
Lower Geyser Basin boasts more hot-water eruptions than any other area of the park. This is where a boardwalk trail takes visitors to the famous Fountain Paint Pots that simmer with hot reddish mud. A little way south of this on the three-mile Firehole Lake Drive is the Great Fountain Geyser, a magnificent spectacle every 9-15 hours when it blasts water 75 to 220 feet high into the air. On the lush green of Fountain Flats, bison and deer often graze, particularly in the early morning and evening.
Norris Geyser Basin
The Norris Geyser Basin is famous for being the oldest, hottest, and most active of the hydrothermal areas in Yellowstone. The basin encompasses two main areas that are open to visitors and accessible via looped trails: Porcelain Basin is a bleak and treeless lunar-like setting steeped in the pungent aroma of the bubbling geysers that surround the three-quarter-of-a-mile trail. Back Basin is a wooded area with its geothermal features scattered along a one-and-a-half-mile boardwalk trail. The most well-known features in this basin are the Echinus Geyser, the largest known acid-water geyser, with a pH close to that of vinegar, and the Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world, which erupts irregularly shooting water up to a height of 300 feet. Stop by the Norris Museum to learn more about these fascinating hydrothermal features.
Mammoth Hot Springs & Minerva Terrace
On the east flank of Terrace Mountain (8,012 feet), Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the world's finest examples of thermal springs that deposit travertine. Some 60 hot springs pepper the area at temperatures of between 64 degrees and 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and their scalding waters dissolve calcium carbonate in the surrounding limestone forming a series of constantly evolving travertine steps. One of the most beautiful examples is multi-hued Minerva Terrace, a popular subject for photography and one of the enduring images of Yellowstone National Park.
On the northern edge of the National Park is the little holiday resort of Tower-Roosevelt, home to the rustic Roosevelt Lodge, built in 1920. Notable features in the area are the Tower Fall (130 feet high) and the Petrified Tree. To the south-east is the Specimen Ridge, with the remains of a number of fossil forests superimposed on one another. From here, sightseers can venture east off the Grand Loop and enjoy an exciting safari experience in the magnificent Lamar Valley, a prime area for viewing wildlife such as large herds of bison, bald eagles, and badgers, as well as coyotes, wolves, and grizzly bears hunting on the open grasslands.
Named after Gen. Henry Dana Washburn, leader of the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, Mount Washburn is a spectacular peak in Yellowstone National Park. It rises to an impressive 10,243 feet and is the main mountain of the Washburn range. Various hikes lead up its flanks including the Mount Washburn Trail, considered one of the best hikes in the park. In summer, visitors can see beautiful wildflowers here as well as bighorn sheep grazing on its slopes.
The Grand Canyon and the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River
Emerging from Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River flows through beautiful Hayden Valley before it forms two spectacular waterfalls as it plunges into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a steep 20-mile-long gorge that resembles Arizona's Grand Canyon.
The easily accessible Upper Falls on the Yellowstone River plummet 109 feet and can be viewed from the Brink of the Upper Falls Trail and from Uncle Tom's Trail. A few hundred yards lower down, the Lower Falls are almost twice as high as Niagara Falls. Here, the river plunges 308 feet with a deafening roar. Lookout Point, Red Rock Point, Artist Point, Brink of the Lower Falls Trail, and various points on the South Rim Trail offer breathtaking views. Notice how the walls of the gorge shimmer in reddish and yellow tones due to chemical reactions in the rock's rhyolite.
Often dotted with large herds of bison, the gorgeous Hayden Valley is a prime spot for wildlife viewing. In the spring and early summer, grizzly bears often roam here looking for newborn bison and elk. Coyotes are also easy to spot on the rolling green meadows. Birders will have plenty to see. Bald eagles, northern harriers, sandhill cranes, shorebirds, ducks, geese, and pelicans are some of the species that inhabit the area around the mud flats and river.
A few miles below Fishing Bridge are the striking mud pots of the Mud Volcano Area and the simmering Sulphur Caldron, one of Yellowstone's most acidic springs. Visitors must take care to stay on the boardwalks. From the parking lot, a short wheelchair-friendly loop passes by the steam-belching Dragon's Mouth Spring and the Mud Volcano. Those who are more mobile can take the steep half-mile loop past Black Dragon's Cauldron
The largest high-altitude lake on the continent (7,737 feet), Yellowstone Lake is an angler's paradise. Submerged nutrient-rich fountains nurture an amazing diversity of plant and animal life such as earthworms, sponges, native cutthroat trout, as well as invasive lake trout. Birds are abundant here, especially many species of waterfowl. On the north-west shore of Yellowstone Lake are the little townships of Bridge Bay, Lake Village, and Fishing Bridge, with motels, campgrounds, and various leisure facilities. The West Thumb, an offshoot on the west side of Yellowstone Lake, is a water-filled caldera with hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, and geysers all within a relatively small and scenic area.
Flora & Fauna
Yellowstone protects some of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet with abundant wildlife and diverse plant species. More than 67 species of mammals, the highest concentration in the contiguous United States, make their home in the park, including bison, bighorn sheep, beavers, marmots, elk, pronghorn antelopes, and various species of deer. Gray wolves were reintroduced here in 1995, and the park is also home to other powerful predators such as Canada lynx, coyotes, black bears, and grizzly bears. Thanks to the broad range of habitats and varied elevation, almost 300 species of birds have been recorded here. Notable species include ospreys, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, graceful trumpeter swans, Canada geese, and the beautiful mountain bluebird. Around 16 species of fish swim in Yellowstone's rivers and lakes.
Plants are equally diverse. Within the park, visitors can see seven species of conifers such as Douglas firs, and spruce, as well as the ubiquitous lodgepole pines that comprise most of the forested areas. Coloring the landscapes are around 1,150 native flowering plants as well as deciduous species such as cottonwoods and beautiful quaking aspens. The park also supports a rich community of lichen and fascinating thermophiles, microscopic organisms that thrive at high temperatures in the park's geothermal areas and bestow many of the hot springs with their vibrant hues.
Where to Stay
Visitors seeking overnight accommodation in Yellowstone National Park can choose from nine lodges operated by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, ranging from rustic cabins to hotel rooms. Of these, only two are open in the winter: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge, not to be confused with the famous Old Faithful Inn nearby, which is a National Historic Landmark. Many campsites are also located within the park. Both the lodges and campsites fill up quickly, so advance bookings are essential. For lodging reservations visit: http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/lodging/
Visitors can also book budget accommodation near the park entrances in towns such as Gardiner, Cooke City, and West Yellowstone, Montana, and East Yellowstone in Wyoming.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park
Tips and Tactics: How to make the most of your visit to Yellowstone National Park
The National Park is open throughout the year, but many roads are closed from November to April. During winter, most of the roads are only open to snowmobiles and snow coaches, with the exception of the road between the north and the north-east entrance, which is open year-round. Opening dates vary at each of the park's other entrances. Check the national park website for details.
Most visitors come in summer when the Grand Loop can reach saturation point. To avoid the crowds, try visiting in late spring, when many young animals are born or in the autumn (until mid October) for the beautiful fall colors.
To view wildlife from a vehicle, park in one of the designated pullouts so as not to obstruct traffic.
Bring binoculars or spotting scopes for close-up views of the wildlife and natural features.
More people are injured by bison than by bears each year in Yellowstone. Park regulations require visitors stay at least 25 yards away from bison or elk and 100 yards away from bears. Feeding wild animals is prohibited.
The park offers many areas with disabled access. All wheelchair-friendly trails are marked. Ask for a map as you enter the park or check the national park's website.
Yellowstone weather is notoriously fickle. It can snow here in any month of the year, and the summer months can be hot, with temperatures in the mid 80s and beyond. Bring layers and sun protection, and be sure to check the current weather and road conditions before traveling.
Visitors must stay on the trails to protect the fragile habitat and also for safety, due to scalding temperatures around the park's geothermal areas.
Visitor centers throughout the park provide maps and information as well as fascinating exhibits on Yellowstone's ecology and geology. Check the national park's website for locations and hours.
Getting to Yellowstone National Park
By car: Yellowstone has five entrances, but the North Entrance, near Gardiner in Montana, is the only one open to wheeled vehicles all year. Check the national park website for specific directions and opening times. At any time of year, drivers should check road and weather conditions before traveling.
By plane: Commercial airlines serve the following airports near Yellowstone National Park all year: Jackson and Cody in Wyoming; Bozeman and Billings in Montana, and Idaho Falls, in Idaho. The West Yellowstone airport in Montana provides service from June through early September from Salt Lake City, Utah.
By bus: A bus service runs from Bozeman to West Yellowstone in Montana via Highway 191 all year. Bus service directly from Idaho to West Yellowstone operates only during the summer.
Yellowstone is surrounded by other beautiful wilderness areas and worthwhile attractions. From Yellowstone's south entrance, sightseers can drive the John D. Rockefeller Parkway, one of the most scenic roads in the country, all the way to Grand Teton National Park for spectacular mountain scenery and superb wildlife viewing. West Yellowstone is also a popular tourist stop and gateway to the park. Highlights include the Yellowstone Historic Center with intriguing exhibits on the history of the park and the surrounding region, the West Playmill Theatre staging local productions, and the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. This is also an excellent place to organize tours into Yellowstone National Park.