What You Need to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

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Formed in 1872 as the first officially designated national park, Yellowstone has since inspired the creation of hundreds of national parks around the world. Located in the extreme northwestern corner of Wyoming, the park is a wildlife paradise and a geological wonderland. To really experience Yellowstone, visitors should grab their backpacks and camping gear and immerse themselves in the surroundings. Wildlife is abundant, and the 1,100 miles of trails offer something for everyone to enjoy.

What You Need to Know

Entrance fees: $20/vehicle for 7 days, $15/motorcycle for 7 days, or $10/individual for 7 days

Visitor centers: Albright Visitor Center is open year-round. Four other visitor centers are open variously from late April through early November.

Other services: Seven ranger stations, two museums, 11 lodges and cabins, and 12 campgrounds

Accommodations:

Accommodations:

  • Mammoth Campground is open year-round and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Several other campgrounds are open variously from early May to early November. Some reservations are available at 307-344-7311.
  • Abundant lodging is available during the summer months. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins are open during winter months. Reservations for all are available. 307-344-7311.

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Photo: Jurvetson under a Creative Commons license.

Visiting the Park

The volcanic cauldron beneath Yellowstone National Park creates enormous plumes of water belching out of the earth from steaming vents. More than half of the world’s 20,000 geysers are located within the park, and the area is also blessed with a proliferation of hot springs, fumaroles, and teaming pools of evanescent colors and algae. Visitors to Yellowstone will encounter percolating streams, bubbling creeks, and gushing rivers, and almost everywhere in the park, the acrid and unmistakable smell of sulfur.

A Wealth of Wilderness

Yellowstone’s boundaries encompass some of America’s most spectacular untouched wilderness: jagged peaks, endless forests, rugged canyons, crystal-clear lakes, and alpine meadows. Roaming this terrain is an array of western wildlife unmatched elsewhere: buffalo, elk, deer, grizzly bears, black bears, ospreys, eagles, coyotes, cougars, beavers, white pelicans, and moose. More than two million acres of Rocky Mountain wilderness provide a safe and vast habitat for all this wildlife.

Nature runs by its own time schedule in Yellowstone. This is a place to sit still and let the magic of nature amaze you. It won’t be long before the show begins. You may catch the colors of a rainbow through a plummeting waterfall. Hike along a marsh, and in time you might see a bull moose stride out of the forest and wade through ankle-deep water.

Where Animals Still Rule

Or you may see a family of black bears romping and wrestling in a meadow beside a mountain stream. Keep your eyes on the high branches of a lodgepole pine long enough, and eventually the head of a bald eagle may emerge from the thicket of its nest.

Stand quietly on a bank of the Yellowstone River; a merganser paddles along enjoying the day. Upstream, a cutthroat trout leaps out of the water to see what the duck is doing, but the fish is oblivious to the danger of the great osprey circling 200 feet overhead. Watch closely, because the bird is incredibly swift when it dives for its prey.

Early in the morning during the autumn, you may hear the eerie bugling of a bull elk, but then again you may not. Even the park’s thermal attractions operate on their own secret timetables: Old Faithful erupts every 66 to 80 minutes, not on the hour as many of us learned in school. (It can occasionally wait for two hours between eruptions.)

The Top 11 Sites You Can’t Miss at Yellowstone National Park

Hayden Valley, with the Yellowstone River in the background. Photo: Alan Vernon under a Creative Commons license.

With so much to see and do at Yellowstone National Park, it’s hard to know where to begin. No trip to Yellowstone is complete without a walk by Morning Glory Pool and Old Faithful. Second to the geological splendors of Yellowstone is the wildlife. Visitors to the north entrance of the park are often greeted by the spectacle of bull elk jousting a few feet from the steps to the park library or of a bull buffalo pensively ruminating near the picnic tables by the visitor center.

A few miles farther away, grizzly bears are often seen in Lamar Valley in the spring, chasing newborn elk calves. In the vicinity of the Lower Falls of Yellowstone, osprey and golden eagles dive for native cutthroat trout.

Hayden Valley is one of the best spots for wildlife viewing in the park. Shiras moose abound in the meadows near the Yellowstone River, and the rare trumpeter swan is also quite often seen.

Yellowstone is a hiker’s paradise as well. For those wishing to walk near the road, a day’s hike up Mount Washburn, covering about three miles and reaching more than 10,000 feet in elevation, provides a wonderful panorama of the northern range of the park, from Antelope Creek at the foot of the mountain to the distant snow-covered peaks of the Absaroka Range to the north.

One of the best medium-distance hikes leads from Lewis Lake to the Heart Lake Geyser Basin, which sits at the base of Mount Sheridan in the southeastern corner of the park. The Geyser Basin, about 1,000 acres in size, offers hikers a region of brilliant blue pools, boiling hot streams, and bright orange algae terraces. Heart Lake also provides some of the best fishing in the park.

Increasingly, visitors are coming to Yellowstone during the winter months when snow covers the backcountry and travel is restricted to those with cross-country skis, snowshoes, or snowmobiles.

Trips are also available on tracked vehicles. At that time of year, large numbers of elk, deer, buffalo, bighorn sheep, and antelope graze in the river valleys (especially the Lamar country), and the geysers and thermal pools are especially lovely, with steam clouds rising thickly into the frozen air.

Photo: Jason Hickey under a Creative Commons license.

Why You Should Wait until Winter to Visit Yellowstone

Many people who know and love Yellowstone believe that the park is at its best during the cold winter months, from December to March. The only road open runs across the northern tier of the park, from the north to the northeast entrance, providing access to the little town of Cooke City, Montana.

During these cold months, the park is more pristine than it is during the busy warm months. Rivers in deep valleys are covered by ice; snow-mantled mountains contrast brightly with clear blue skies; and wildlife, not people, predominate. The park is a fantasyland of snow, ice, and steam.

Lodging facilities within the park, although limited, are available. There are more than 50 miles of trails for cross-country skiers, and snowmobiling is permitted on many unplowed roads. There are also tours in heated snow coaches for the less daring of visitors.

So why not leave the country’s greatest national park in the summer to the faint of heart, and make the trip in the depths of winter?

How Yellowstone Became America’s Most Famous National Park

A New Kind of National Park

Celebrated in anecdote, cartoon, and caricature, Yellowstone is the place most people probably think of when asked to name a national park. It is also a study of the way in which a park should be run, but this was not always the case. During Yellowstone’s first decade as a national park in the 1870s, Wyoming was not yet a state, and the United States was still a pioneer nation. Its western frontiers overflowed with splendid scenery and a profusion of wild animals.

Small wonder, then, that the first visitors to the park did not come to see wilderness. Yellowstone was attractive to them because of its extraordinary wealth of geysers and fumaroles. These hearty adventurers made the arduous trek to the remote park by rail and by wagon. Geysers were vandalized; game, particularly bison, was slaughtered by park officials and hunters; and politicians gave away its land as concessions to supporters.

In 1886, the First U.S. Cavalry took over administration of the park and built roads and the park headquarters near the north boundary. The park became a model of efficiency, which operators of other parks in the fledgling park system attempted to imitate.

Beginning in 1916, when it was established, the National Park Service has administered the park with dedication and skill. The thermal extravaganza is still as spectacular as ever. But today’s visitors to Yellowstone also appreciate the park as a sanctuary for wildlife and a preserve of pristine wilderness.

Despite the peaceful appearance of the landscape today, the high country in Yellowstone National Park has undergone extremely violent periods over the past million years. This active past has resulted in thousands of steaming springs, geothermal pools, boiling mud pots, and explosive spurting geysers that can be found scattered throughout the Yellowstone Plateau today.

Geological Wonders

An enduring myth about Yellowstone holds that Native Americans stayed away from the area because of its strange and frightening thermal features. In fact, people have lived here since the retreat of the most recent ice age nearly 11,000 years ago. In 1807, a Native American probably told trapper John Colter about a place where hot water and steam issue from the earth. This member of the Lewis and Clark expedition is credited with the “discovery” of Yellowstone.

Then as now, it was obvious that this is an extraordinary place where something highly unusual is going on beneath the surface of the earth to create this garden of thermal wonders. Geologists discovered that the earth’s crust is extraordinarily thin in the Yellowstone region.

In most places on the planet, the crust is about 20 miles thick and floats on a mantle that consists of molten rock, or magma. In Yellowstone, the earth’s crust is only about two miles thick. The seething hot mantle heats the ground above it, which in turn heats the water in the springs and geysers.

How the Geysers and Fumaroles at Yellowstone Were Formed

Geysers, springs of hot bubbling water, or fumaroles issuing sulfurous steam seem to occur almost everywhere you turn in Yellowstone. Elsewhere there are mud pots and underground explosions, or the earth is hot to the touch. Obviously, something spectacular is going on just below the surface.

To understand the thermal wonders in Yellowstone today, we need to go back 55 to 75 million years to a time when sections of the earth’s crust collided and raised the Rocky Mountains to far greater heights than we now see. About 25 million years later, volcanic activity created still more mountain ranges in the Yellowstone region.

The grand finale of this geological activity occurred about 600,000 years ago, when an area within the boundaries of the park suddenly exploded as two giant magma chambers moved to within a few thousand feet of the earth’s surface. The landscape was devastated, and volcanic ash and dust spread over thousands of square miles. At the center, only a smoldering caldera remained; this enormous, collapsed crater covered an area that was 47 by 28 miles. Geologists believe that Yellowstone’s boiling hot springs, mud holes, and geysers are reminders that more violent geological activity is destined to happen again.

It’s little wonder that Yellowstone is the most famous of the national parks. With so much natural beauty to behold and so many “outdoorsy” things to do, Yellowstone is a sure bet for anyone looking for an adventurous vacation.

Photo: Bernt Rostad under a Creative Commons license.

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