“Where may the mind find more stimulating, quickening pasturage? A thousand Yellowstone wonders are calling, “Look up and down and round about you!” And a multitude of still, small voices may be heard directing you to look through all this transient, shifting show of things called “substantial” into the truly substantial, spiritual world whose forms flesh and wood, rock and water, air and sunshine, only veil and conceal, and to learn that here is heaven and the dwelling-place of the angels.”
Yellowstone National Park, located mostly in the northwest corner of Wyoming but overlapping into both Idaho and Montana, was established in 1872. It is the first official national park in the world as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is primarily known for its geysers, especially Old Faithful, however, Yellowstone consists of a number of distinct areas and is right up there with Death Valley for the sheer number of different things to see and do, from a variety of hydrothermal features (including geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles) to canyons, waterfalls, and abundant animal life.
At the very north of the park is Mammoth Hot Springs, with its sculpted terraces of travertine (calcium carbonate), which are created as the hot spring waters ebb and flow.
Mammoth Hot Springs is also the location of Fort Yellowstone, built in 1891 when the army was brought in to protect Yellowstone in the late nineteenth century. The fort buildings are not particularly interesting, but the elk basking in their shade are a sight to behold.
Also in the northern end of the park is Lamar Valley, accessible by a road that runs through the valley to the northeast entrance. This valley is the winter range for elk and bison and is one of your best chances to spot predators such as bears, coyotes, and wolves.
The canyon area toward the middle of the park is home to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone where the Yellowstone River plunges over the Upper and Lower Falls. For a close-up view of the Lower Falls, and if you are willing to make the strenuous return journey, take Uncle Tom’s Trail down more than 300 stairs and 500 feet. For a glorious view of the whole canyon, try Artist Point at the end of South Rim Drive.
Mud Volcano, just north of Yellowstone Lake, is perhaps the most odiferous section of the park, as the entire area smells of rotten eggs due to the hydrogen sulfide emanating from the enormous mudpots that predominate here.
If you worry that the lodging near Old Faithful will be too touristy for you, Yellowstone Lake (pictured at the top of this post), the largest mountain lake in North America, is a good option, with both the rather pedestrian Grant Village and the elegant Lake Hotel located right on the water.
Finally, the pièce de résistance of the park, Old Faithful and the geyser basins. Upper Geyser Basin contains the largest concentration of geysers in the world and is home to Old Faithful, which erupts every 90 minutes or so on average. Check the Visitor Center for the next predicted eruption times of all major geysers including Castle, Daisy, Grand, and Riverside.
In the Midway Geyser Basin is the Fairy Falls Trail, an easy hike out to a delicate waterfall and, further on, Imperial Geyser, which is no longer an active geyser, but a beautiful pool of water.
In my opinion, Norris Geyser Basin is the best place in the park to admire the park’s geothermal features. It sits atop the intersection of several major fault lines and is the hottest geyser basin in North America. Unsurprisingly, it is also the most prone to earthquakes. Among other features, here is where you will find Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world at 300 feet. However, full-blown eruptions are extremely rare. The colors at Norris Geyser Basin are incredible, from the milky blue of the silica in Porcelain Basin to the red-orange of the iron and arsenic in Back Basin.
Norris Geyser Basin is what I most remember from my first visit to Yellowstone with my father back in the early 1990s, that is, aside from the devastation left by the Yellowstone fires of 1988, the largest wildfire ever recorded in the park’s history. It was amazing on this latest visit with my sister to see how much the ecosystem had recovered in less than twenty-five years.
Entry to Yellowstone National Park is $25 per car for seven days, which also includes entrance to Grand Teton National Park, only seven miles to the south.