Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Today, I share tips for getting the most out of this treasure of natural wonder.
A Park of Great Magnitude
Yellowstone National Park is the world’s first national park, established on March 1 of 1872. The park sits on a sleeping giant known as a “supervolcano,” and contains the world’s highest concentration of hot springs and geysers.
A supervolcano is a volcano capable of releasing at least 240 cubic miles of magma when it erupts. It has the largest recorded value on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), a magnitude of 8. When Yellowstone’s volcano experienced a super-eruption 631,000 years ago, it formed a large cauldron-like depression in the earth known as the Yellowstone Caldera. Today, Yellowstone’s volcano is closely monitored and scientists don’t expect a super-eruption in the near future.
Yellowstone is also magnificent in size. It can be daunting to decide what to see in America’s largest national park, spanning over 2 million acres and three states—Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. When planning your trip, it helps to divide the park into sections. Rather than trying to complete a full loop in one day, focus each day of your trip on a subsection of the park. For today’s post, I divide the park into its Southern/Western, Northern, and Eastern regions.
Entering Yellowstone via the South entrance from Jackson, Wyoming affords opportunities to see moose and elk, particularly in the early morning and evening. Here are some stellar spots to visit in the Southern/Western region:
- Firehole Canyon Drive: take this scenic route along Firehole River for spectacular views of Firehole Falls.
- Old Faithful Area: Old Faithful is one of five geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin for which park rangers predict eruptions. (The other geysers are Castle, Daisy, Grand and Riverside.) There’s more to see than Old Faithful’s spectacular show—which takes place, on average, every 90 minutes. Over five miles of nearby trails and walkways meander past other geysers and hydrothermal features. Grab lunch at the nearby Visitor Center. Or, save time by packing lunches prior to entering the park.
Fun fact: Old Faithful is not the largest geyser in the park. Steamboat Geyser, located in the Norris Geyser Basin, can send hot mineral spray flying over 350 feet. While it rarely erupts, Steamboat is the world’s tallest active geyser.
- Midway Geyser Basin: this boardwalk brings you to two gigantic hot springs: Excelsior Geyser Crater, which discharges over 4,000 gallons of scalding water into Firehole River every minute—and the multicolored Grand Prismatic Spring. Allow time to hike to the overlook for a bird’s-eye view of Grand Prismatic’s terraces in brilliant shades of orange, yellow and aquamarine. The colors are caused by “thermophiles” like algae, archaea and bacteria that thrive in heat.
- Fountain Paint Pots: this spot is a kid-favorite. Like a curious child, I was mesmerized by the playful—yet strangely calming—steaming pools that gurgle, bubble and hurl mud into the air. Iron and metal infuse the the mud pots with hues of orange and red, hence the name “paint pots.”
Both black bears and grizzly bears inhabit Northern Yellowstone. Did you know that not all of Yellowstone’s black bears have black coloring? Many have blond, cinnamon and brown coloring. Here are some of my favorite places to visit in Northern Yellowstone:
- Mammoth Hot Springs: beautiful travertine terraces, hot rivulets and pools in striking shades of buttercream, rust and turquoise. Drive the 1-mile loop, or get up-close with the staircases and boardwalks.
When we visited in early September, the nearby valley reverberated with the haunting bugles of bull elks in rut. We also witnessed another rutting season phenomenon: a bull elk guarding a harem of cows. Violent battles between bull elks are common during breeding season.
- Artists Paint Pots: more pools of bubbling mud and flying blobs of clay to inspire your inner child! Before visiting, learn about Yellowstone’s first permanent female park ranger, Marguerite Lindsley, whose nickname was Paint Pot Peg.
- Gibbon Falls: measuring 84 feet tall, this gem is a must-see as you pass between western and northern Yellowstone.
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; Lower and Upper Falls: Lower Falls measures an astonishing 308 feet tall! Upper Falls is stunning at 109 feet tall, located two miles upstream. Nearby Canyon Village is one of the best visitor centers—where you can see a reproduction of Thomas Moran’s 1872 painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that helped influence Congress to make Yellowstone a national park. (The Smithsonian owns the original oil painting.) It’s no wonder that Moran was inspired by the canyon’s rhyolite bedrock that pops with streaks of orange and pink.
- Hayden Valley Wildlife: Hayden Valley is home to grizzly bears, gray wolves, coyote, red fox and bison. The nearby waters provide habitat for river otters, trumpeter swans and white pelicans. Bring binoculars or a telescope and prepare to drive slowly, making several roadside stops. On our visit, we spotted grizzlies, vast herds of bison and a family of white pelicans!
Hayden Valley is named after Ferdinand Hayden, a geologist who led the first major scientific expedition to Yellowstone in 1871. Records show the earliest humans visiting the Yellowstone area in the Paleoindian Period. Native peoples treasured this special place. However, prior to 1871, Yellowstone—surrounded by mountain ranges—was largely unknown to the American public. Yellowstone was still America’s best-kept secret.
Horses and mules carried Hayden’s survey party that included an ornithologist, topographer, entomologist, meteorologist, mineralogist, zoologist, two botanists, a photographer (William Jackson) and an artist (Thomas Moran). Hayden’s expedition brought global attention to the beauty and scientific importance of Yellowstone.
- Scenic Drive: the road between Tower Fall and Canyon Village offers beautiful scenic views.
- Fishing Bridge: while fishing is now prohibited to protect the delicate ecosystem, visitors can book a boat at the nearby marina.
- Yellowstone Lake: at 136 square miles of surface area, it is North America’s largest high-elevation lake. Picturesque and mysterious, the frigid water disguises active geysers and hot springs and sits at the base of the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains.
Yellowstone Lake is “a gem amid the high mountains, which are literally bristling with peaks.” It is “a vast sheet of quiet water, of a most delicate ultramarine hue, one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever beheld.”– Ferdinand Hayden
Stay Smart in Yellowstone
Yellowstone is a beautiful place that can also be dangerous. My biggest tips are to respect the park’s rules and be patient. It is normal to only see a fraction of the park’s wildlife and thermal features. Tourists have hurt themselves and others by growing restless and ignoring the park’s safety warnings.
The steam from thermal features can make boardwalks slick and many stretches of boardwalk have no guard rail. During our trip, a tourist nearly knocked me into a scalding thermal feature when she made the foolish decision to run on a slippery boardwalk and slammed into me, knocking me off-balance. Thank goodness there happened to be a guard rail directly behind me, or that situation could have been tragic.
We saw another tourist debating dipping her booted toe into a steaming geyser despite posted signs throughout the park warning that thermal features are hot enough to melt tough hiking boots.
Park rangers can’t be everywhere and Yellowstone has a tip line in place for reporting situations that endanger people or wildlife.
A few final planning tips: research which areas are walkable and those that require hiking; a mile-long hike could take over an hour, depending on terrain. Wear comfortable hiking boots. Carry bear spray—and know how to use it. Respect this special place and preserve it for future generations by being smart and remembering that nature is wild.
Books: Guide to National Parks of the United States, Ninth Edition, by National Geographic; The Men Who United the States, by Simon Winchester; and Fodor’s Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
Related Post: Visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota’s Black Hills.