Yellowstone National Park is the oldest national park in the world, helping to set in motion what would become millions of acres of land that protect some of America’s most beautiful and unique geographical features. Yellowstone is also one of the largest and most well-known of America’s national parks, preserving more than two million acres of land and receiving over four million visitors a year. One could spend a lifetime exploring Yellowstone and never see everything that the park has to offer. Unfortunately, we only had two days to visit this park, but we saw so many unique and incredible sites in our short time. Below, we’ll provide a description of our time at Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park is a strange and mysterious place. There is such a diverse landscape in Yellowstone, although it is best known for what lies below its surface. Yellowstone is, in fact, a supervolcano-the volcano’s caldera makes up a large portion of the park. Because of the thermal properties of the region, Yellowstone is filled with geysers, hot springs, pools, mudpots, and other thermal features. Our trip focused on these unique sites, although there is lots of beauty all around the Greater Yellowstone Area.
We drove into Yellowstone through the North Entrance, getting to pass through the Roosevelt Arch, a triumphal arch that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the park. We drove south and decided only to look through the car windows on this evening; we had a long day and wanted to get to our campsite. We stayed at the campground in Madison, which is in the middle of the park on the western side, making it a good base for exploring the different areas of the park. It was crowded though, and there were no showers at the campground, so be prepared for a more rustic setting than other campsites.
We awoke early the next morning-early starts are imperative to avoid the crowds-and drove to Upper Geyser Basin, home to Yellowstone’s most famous resident, Old Faithful. The geyser is named for its consistent spray rather than its predictability, although rangers and scientists can often predict the approximate time it will erupt. We were fortunate enough to arrive twenty minutes before the predicted eruption, so we grabbed a good spot and only waited a little while for the awe-inspiring eruption. Afterward, we went inside the visitor center and watched a short film on Yellowstone’s geological features. Visitors often come just for Old Faithful, but behind the famous resident are scores of other thermal features that make up Upper Geyser Basin. There are several geysers, some which erupt regularly, while others might lay dormant for years. You can check the visitor center to see when some of the geysers might erupt, or you can just wander around. If you stay for awhile, you should see at least one or two eruptions. Aside from the geysers, there are also hot springs and pools. Our favorite was Punch Bowl, a pool set off to the side of the geyser basin that looks, oddly, like its name.
We spent so much time walking around the geyser basin that we interrupted our walk by having lunch at the nearby Old Faithful Inn, a beautiful log cabin that serves as a hotel. The hotel itself is worth visiting, as its soaring ceilings and beautiful details are rustic on a grand scale. Our lunch was delicious. After lunch, we finished walking the geyser basin, getting to see a yellow-bellied marmot snacking on flowers just as we were getting ready to leave.
We drove north and stopped at Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin, both of which are geyser basins, although much smaller than their southerly neighbor. We were able to walk each basin in 20-30 minutes and enjoyed all of the sites each offered. We continued north, turning off to drive along the Firehole Lake Drive. The road winds alongside a number of pools, geysers, and other thermal features. Feel free to stop at whichever ones look interesting, or stop at them all! A highlight was a geyser erupting right near the road that was delightful (and gave us a bit of spray!).
We continued north, driving to Mammoth Hot Springs, the park’s headquarters. We ate a light dinner at one of the cafeterias there and looked through a couple of the stores for shirts and hats. Afterward, we visited the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. Hot springs here deposit calcium carbonate along the hills here, creating large terraces that are sublime. We took the long way back to our campsite, driving through part of the Lamar Valley, which is known for its wildlife. Although we didn’t see any critters, the views were spectacular.
The next day, we again woke up early and drove to Midway Geyser Basin. Rather than parking at the basin itself, we parked a little further south and walked the trail to the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook, where we hiked to a hill that overlooks the largest pool in the park. The pool is more than 350 feet across and is well-known for its brilliant coloration. Because it is so large and gives off so much heat, it is actually difficult to see the spring in its entirety because of the steam it generates. While we didn’t get a clear view, we were able to see a majority of the spring, which was spectacular and lived up to its name. We walked back to the basin and walked around, getting to see more hot springs and pools, along with a close-up view of Grand Prismatic Spring.
We drove north to Lower Geyser Basin, where we saw more thermal features, including the delightful Fountain Paint Pots. Paint pots are hot springs that have a certain amount of mud and clay in them. Rather than a clear spring, the result is a vat of mud that bubbles and blurps. Nearby, we stopped at Gibbons Falls, a lovely waterfall along the side of the road.
We drove east to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, first stopping the Canyon Village, where we ate a nice meal at a cafeteria there. We also looked through some of the gift shops there. We had difficulty finding parking spots, but we did manage to stop at a couple viewpoints for Lower Falls, a stunning 308 foot waterfall that drops into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the yellows, oranges, and browns of which provide an unforgettable scene.
We slowly made our way south, stopping at a few other places along the road and seeing a fair number of buffalo, which was a real treat. We made sure to look at the Sulphur Caldron, a bubbling vat of mud and sulphur that fills the air all around with the stench of rotten eggs. We also got out to survey Yellowstone Lake. We walked around West Thumb Geyser Basin, a group of pools and hot springs that is situated next to Yellowstone Lake-some of the geyser cones are even in the lake. As we left the park we stopped at Grant Village to look at another gift shop. After that, we continued on to the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.
Despite the large number of visitors it receives, Yellowstone is a wild place, filled with unique, sublime, and even eerie natural features that don’t seem that natural at all. These thermal features are set within a beautiful land amid mountains and valleys and sweeping forests. Yellowstone is truly a wonderful place that must be seen and experienced to be believed. We enjoyed our time at Yellowstone very much and are already looking forward to going back. During our time there, we also learned several things that we would like to share in order to better prepare you for your own visit.
- Yellowstone is large, so large that it takes a substantial amount of time to get around the park. Major sites can be 15-20 miles apart (or further), and speed limits vary, rarely exceeding 45 mph. Traffic can also slow you down. Make sure to take into account the driving distance between sites when planning your daily itinerary. One way to cut down on driving time is by planning early and staying inside the park, as staying outside can add hours to your commute time.
- Yellowstone receives millions of visitors a year, and most of these visitors come during July and August. If you can, try and plan your visit for a different time of year. If you must go during July or August, get up early to avoid crowds (even at other times, this is a good tip). Most visitors come between 10-11 AM and leave at 5-6 PM, so by getting up early, you can have several hours before the crowds start making it difficult to get around. Again, staying inside the park can help with this.
- While everyone wants to see Old Faithful, Yellowstone has lots to offer, so see some of the park’s lesser known sites as well. This can also cut down on the crowds.
- Please, be responsible and follow park rules. Yellowstone is dangerous. Thermal areas are extremely hot, and the areas around them are fragile. It’s easy to fall in. Those “cute” animals can also be dangerous, defending themselves and their territory by hurting intruders. There have been several publicized incidents in recent years that have involved serious injuries and deaths to individuals who ignored these simple warnings. By following the park rules, you protect yourself from harm and preserve the park so that your kids and grandkids can one day come back to Yellowstone and enjoy the same sites that you did.