Yellowstone National Park is one of the true wonders of the natural world with its geothermal features, stunning scenery and some of the most spectacular collections of wildlife anywhere
Yellowstone National Park was established by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. It was the first National Park in the United States and probably the first in the World! Getting going with a National Park was not easy as the locals didn’t really want to give up rights to the land, so eventually, the Army was called in to manage Yellowstone which it did from 1886 to 1916.
Yellowstone National Park covers an area of 3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km2) and is made mountains, canyons, rivers and lakes. Yellowstone Lake is one of the highest in North America and is the centre of a supervolcano. You would not want to be near when this baby goes up!
When to visit
We have been lucky enough to visit Yellowstone 4 times, and at different times of the year. The Park gets incredibly busy during the schools holidays. Also, the altitude of the Yellowstone means it gets very cold and snowy, making it difficult to access as the roads are not cleared – so the only way in will be on a snowmobile. This is probably a beautiful time to visit but not for the faint-hearted (like us). We went in May for one year and the lake was frozen and it snowed! To avoid the bad weather and people it best to go in the late Spring and Autumn (Late May – June and September to October).
How to get there
The best way to get to Yellowstone and tour is by car or motorhome. You might choose to fly and rent a vehicle. Commercial airlines serve the following airports near Yellowstone National Park all year: Cody and Jackson, WY; Bozeman and Billings, MT, and Idaho Falls, ID. The West Yellowstone, MT airport is serviced from early May to mid-October from Salt Lake City, UT.
Bus service from Bozeman, MT to West Yellowstone, MT via Highway 191 is available all year. Bus service directly from Idaho to West Yellowstone is limited to the summer months. Commercial transportation from Bozeman, MT to Gardiner, MT is available during the winter and summer seasons. Commercial transportation to the park from Cody and Jackson, WY is available during the summer season.
Where to stay
There are places to stay inside Yellowstone itself, including campsites and lodging (throughout the Park), including lodge rooms and cabins. These places fill up quickly so you will need to to book well in advance. Generally, if you plan to bring a motorhome or 5th wheel trailer and park inside the park your option will be limited unless your trailer or motorhome is closer to 30ft.
Outside the Yellowstone, there are plenty of options.
- From the South Entrance, you will have to travel a bit further. The nearest town of any size is Jackson, Wyoming, a travel destination in its own right – which is about 60 miles (or about an hours drive). Here you’ll find plenty of hotels and AirBnbs.
- The closest city to the East Entrance is Cody, Wyoming, which is about 57 miles out. There are a few campgrounds between the entrance and Cody but if you want apartments or hotels then you’ll have to hit Cody.
- The North Entrance is very close to one of Yellowstone’s main features Mammouth Hotsprings. Just outside the entrance is the town Gardiner, a small place but that has a few hotels and B&Bs.
- Close to West Entrance is the small city of West Yellowstone. As you might expect with its proximity to the National Park there are plenty of hotels and bed and breakfasts to choose from.
What to see
Yellowstone National Park covers a vast area and there is plenty to see but there are definitely highlights. Below are the main feature areas of the Park.
- Yellowstone Lake
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Midway Geyser Basin
- Gibbon Falls
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Mud Volcano Thermal Area
- Mammouth Hot Springs
- Old Faithful Geyser Basin
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- Hayden and Lamar Valleys
Situated at 7,733 feet (2,357 m) above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America. It is roughly 20 miles (32.2 km) long and 14 miles (22.5 km) wide, with 141 miles (227 km) of shoreline. Yellowstone Lake freezes over completely every winter in late December or early January, with ice thicknesses varying from a few inches to more than two feet. The lake usually thaws in late May or early June. Yellowstone Lake remains cold year-round, with an average water temperature of 41°F (5°C). Because of the extremely cold water, swimming is not recommended. Survival time is estimated to be only 20 to 30 minutes in water at this temperature.
Yellowstone Lake has the largest population of wild cutthroat trout in North America. How a Pacific Ocean fish was trapped in a lake that drains to the Atlantic puzzled experts for years. Scientists now believe that Yellowstone Lake once drained to the Pacific Ocean via Outlet Canyon and the Snake River, and that fish swam across the Continental Divide at Two Ocean Pass. Lake trout, an illegally introduced, exotic species, is now found in Yellowstone Lake and threatens the existence of the native cutthroat trout.
If you drained out Yellowstone Lake what you would find, not surprisingly, is similar to the geology of the Yellowstone; geysers, hot springs, and deep canyons. The conditions where these underwater vents and fumaroles are located are similar to those found deep in the Pacific Ocean, where these volcanic vents result in nutrient-rich waters that support an abundance of life.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
Right on the banks, and partially submerged by Yellowstone Lake, which provides a spectacular backdrop, is West Thumb Geyser Basin. There is none of the water-spouting geysers found elsewhere in Yellowstone but there are some beautiful pools and hot springs which makes it an interesting place to visit. There is 2/3 mile wheelchair-friendly dirt trail and boardwalk that meanders its way among the thermal features.
Midway Geyser Basin
This is the smallest of the three geyser basins in the southwest of Yellowstone National Park, containing Grand Prismatic Spring, Excelsior Geyser and more large pools.
One of the highlights of the whole national park is Grand Prismatic Spring. This is a huge oval pool 370 feet across and 120 feet deep that is surrounded by unusually colourful bands of algae and travertine terraces, with wavy runoff channels, giving the appearance, from above, of a giant blue star (see aerial photograph below). The pool constantly bubbles and steams, forming clouds of hot mist that blow around in the breeze and sometimes make the pool itself hard to see properly but adding to the enchantment of the scene. A half-mile boardwalk trail runs partway around the spring, past two much smaller pools (Opal and Turquoise) and to the adjacent crater of Excelsior Geyser, formerly the largest geyser on Earth. This is now another big, steaming, simmering pool, the remnant of an explosive eruption in the nineteenth century which destroyed the geyser. The deep blue pool produces up to 4,000 gallons of water a minute, which flows down several colourful drainage channels into the Firehole River.
There are plenty of great places to stop and stare in awe as you drive around Yellowstone. One such place is Gibbon Falls which sit right next to the Grand Loop Road about 5 miles from the Madison Junction. These falls have an 84-foot drop and sit on the Gibbon River. Well worth checking out!
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. The highest temperature yet recorded in any geothermal area in Yellowstone was measured in a scientific drill hole at Norris: 459°F (237°C) just 1,087 feet (326 meters) below the surface! There are very few thermal features at Norris under the boiling point (199°F at this elevation).
It is believed that Norris has had thermal features for at least 115,000 years. The vast majority of the waters at Norris are acidic, including acid geysers which are very rare. Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world at 300–400 feet (91–122 m) and Echinus Geyser (pH 3.5 or so) are the most popular features. Steamboat continually erupts but the big one only occurs every few days. In the parking lot there are warning signs telling you that the droplets that fall after Steamboats major eruptions can damage the paintwork on your vehicles – the rangers and staff who use the Norris parking lot all cover their cars!
The basin consists of two areas: Porcelain Basin and the Back Basin. Porcelain Basin is barren of trees and provides a sensory experience in sound, colour, and smell; a 3/4-mile (1.2-km) bare ground and boardwalk trail accesses this area. Back Basin is more heavily wooded with features scattered throughout the area. A 1.5-mile (2.4-km) trail of boardwalks and bare ground encircles this part of the basin.
Mud Volcano Thermal Area
The Mud Volcano thermal area is an area of muddy hot springs and fumaroles located near one of the Yellowstone Volcano’s vents. To reach it, drive 5.9 miles north of Fishing Bridge Junction, or 9.7 miles south of Canyon Junction on the Canyon to Fishing Bridge section of the Grand Loop Road.
The name Mud Volcano sounds evocative and you might be expecting to see a massive volcanic cone spewing a fountain of mud hundreds of feet into the air. Well, I am sorry to say it is nothing quite so spectacular. The volcano is a pit of bubbling mud belching sulphurous fumes. It is not too far from the tranquil pools of West Thumb Geyser Basin. The pools and mud pots here are very acidic. One of the features here is Sulphur Cauldron which has an average acidity of 1.2 on the pH scale – similar to the acid in our stomach.
Most of the best attractions in Mud Volcano are located just outside the parking lot. You’ve got the titular feature, as well as Mud Cauldron and Mud Geyser. You also might find a bison or two here as they seem to enjoy the area, could be the heat or they might just like the smell of sulphur.
One of the most interesting features close by Mud Volcano is Dragon’s Mouth Spring. Here the boiling water has gradually eroded away the hillside, creating a cavern that resounds constantly with roaring waters—almost like there really is a dragon hiding inside the hill.
Mammouth Hot Springs
Located in the northern reaches of the National Park, Mammoth Hot Springs are unique among Yellowstone’s thermal areas. It’s beautiful travertine terraces are stunning! The are is largely formed from limestone which is a relatively soft type of rock, allowing the travertine formations to grow much faster than other sinter formations.
At Yellowstone each year, the rain and melted snow seeps into the earth. Cold to begin with, the water is quickly warmed by heat radiating from a partially molten magma chamber deep underground, the remnant of a cataclysmic volcanic explosion that occurred 600,000 years ago.
After moving throughout this underwater “plumbing” system, the now hot water rises up through a system of small fissures. Here it also interacts with hot gases charged with carbon dioxide rising up from the magma chamber. As some of the carbon dioxide is dissolved in the hot water, a weak, carbonic acid solution is formed.
In the Mammoth area, the hot, acidic solution dissolves large quantities of limestone on its way up through the rock layers to the hot springs on the surface. Above ground and exposed to the air, some of the carbon dioxide escapes from the solution. Without it, the dissolved limestone can’t remain in the solution, so it reforms into a solid mineral. This white, chalky mineral is deposited as the travertine that forms the terraces.
Lower Terrace Boardwalk
You can access the lower boardwalk from the parking lot or the Grand Loop Road.
Liberty Cap is among the best known of the Lower Terrace’s features. Rising 37 feet in the air, this hot spring cone was named in 1871 for its resemblance to the peaked caps worn during the French Revolution. The cone shape formed when the hot spring’s plumbing system had a continuous flow for perhaps hundreds of years. Over that time period, the internal pressure was high enough to push the water to a great height, allowing the mineral deposits to build up.
Minerva Spring is another favourite because of its wide range of colours and intricate travertine formations. Its activity though has ebbed and flowed since records were first kept about it in the 1890s. The feature was completely dry in the early 1900s but started flowing again by 1951.
You can access the upper boardwalk from the one-way Upper Terrace Drive and parking lot. The road winds among springs for 1.5 miles before it loops back for a half-mile.
The Upper Terraces include Prospect Terrace, New Highland Terrace, Orange Spring Mound, Bath Lake, White Elephant Back Terrace and Angel Terrace.
Orange Spring Mound is so named for its colour, which is created by bacteria and algae, and shape, which is a result of very slow water flow and mineral deposition. Highly unpredictable, Angel Terrace is known for its pure white formations and the colourful microorganisms seen in its active periods.
Old Faithful Geyser
Discovered in 1870 by the Washburn Expedition, Old Faithful geyser was named for its frequent and somewhat predictable eruptions, which number more than a million since Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872.
Old Faithful is located in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin in the southwest section of the park. The geyser-viewing area is the most accessible and visitor-friendly in the park with bench seating, a large parking lot, and a ranger station that tracks the time, height and length of an eruption to predict the next eruption.
Old Faithful can vary in height from 100-180 feet with an average near 130-140 feet. This has been the historical range of its recorded height. Eruptions normally last between 1.5 to 5 minutes. The world’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful in Yellowstone, currently erupts around 20 times a day. These eruptions are predicted with a 90 per cent confidence rate, within a 10-minute variation, based on the duration and height of the previous eruption. The mathematical average between eruptions of Old Faithful is currently 74 minutes, but Intervals can range from 60-110 minutes.
As well as Old Faithful there are several other geysers in the same basin that can be visited by trekking around a board-walk trail.
It is also worth checking out the charming Old Faithful Inn. This 140 room inn was designed by Robert C. Reamer, and completed in 1904 at a cost of $140,000. This massive wooden building soars into the air, its seventy-six-foot tall lobby resembles a rustic, wooden Hogwarts School of Magic The hotel remains one of the largest log-style structures in the world and is a National Historic Landmark.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Yellowstone Falls
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a spectacular gorge that has been carved over the millennia by the powerful Yellowstone River. There are 3 sets of falls, the 2 major falls are the Upper and Lower Falls.
At 308 feet, the Lower Falls is the tallest waterfall in the park. In terms of height alone, it’s more than twice the size of Niagara Falls. The amount of water flowing over the falls varies greatly depending on the season. At peak runoff times in the spring, 63,500 gal/sec flow over the falls, whereas at lower runoff times in the fall, the flow diminishes to 5,000 gallons/sec.
The Upper Falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is significantly smaller than their lower counterpart, they’re just as breathtaking. Standing on the platform at the Brink of the Upper Falls, this 109-foot cascade of surging water will look every bit as powerful as it is.
There are trails that run along the North and South Rims of the Canyon. From the trails you get incredible views of the canyon and the Yellowstone River below – there are also several viewpoints where you are able to see the falls.
Hayden & Lamar Vallies Valley
Located in the northeastern corner of the park, the Lamar Valley, along the Lamar River, it is often called America’s Serengeti for its large and easy-to-see populations of large animals.
Among its most famous inhabitants are the Junction Butte and Lamar Canyon wolf packs; wolf enthusiasts gather with spotting scopes most days hoping to see these impressive canines in action. In addition to wolves, other animals roaming the Lamar include large herds of bison, pronghorn, badgers, grizzly bears, bald eagles, osprey, deer, and coyotes. Many pullouts line the road, so keep your eyes peeled and park in the nearest one if you see any active wildlife.
To reach the Lamar Valley from Mammoth Hot Springs, take Grand Loop Road east past Tower-Roosevelt, then continue on the Northeast Entrance road. From Cooke City and Silver Gate, enter the park through the Northeast Entrance and drive west.
A sunset at Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park
One of the very best things to do in Yellowstone is to check out the wildlife. The place is brimming with it. The most common things you will see are bison (especially around the Hayden Valley) and elk. But if you are lucky you will get rarer sitings of bears, both black and grizzly, coyotes and wolves.
As you drive around Yellowstone you will often find cars pulled over the side of the road. This usually means there is something worth stopping for and checking out. If you are interested in seeing wildlife, especially bears and wolves, you are not likely to get that close (it is not advisable to approach any of the wildlife too closely – the most common animal-human injuries are with bison who can run at 35mph and weigh 3000 lbs or more!), bring some binoculars or a spotting scope.