Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is the wild, free-flowing, beating heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Its real showstoppers are the geysers and hot springs – nature’s crowd-pleasers – but at every turn this land of fire and brimstone breathes, belches and bubbles like a giant kettle on the boil. The park’s highways traverse these geysers, through meadows and forests, past roadside herds of bison and campsites aromatic with pine needles and family campfires. In between lies the country’s largest collection of elk, the continent’s oldest, largest wild bison herds and a pristine wilderness roamed by wolves, grizzlies, moose and antelope.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Yellowstone National Park.
The imposing Lower and Upper Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs are the highlight of the Mammoth region. An hour’s worth of boardwalks wind their way between ornate and graceful limestone pools, ledges and plateaus. Palette Springs (accessed from the lower parking lot) and sulfur-yellow Canary Springs (accessed from the upper loop, 1km south) are the most beautiful sites, but thermal activity is constantly in flux, so check the current state of play at the visitor center.
Though it’s neither the tallest nor even the most predictable geyser in the park, Old Faithful is the poster child for Yellowstone and a consistent crowd-pleaser. Every 90 minutes or so the geyser spouts some 8000 gallons (150 bathtubs) of water up to 180ft in the air. It’s worth viewing the eruption from several locations – the geyser-side seats, the upper-floor balcony of the Old Faithful Inn and (highly recommended) from a distance on Observation Hill.
While Old Faithful gets the most attention, there's lots to explore in Upper Geyser Basin, which has the densest collection of geysers in Yellowstone. On Geyser Hill you'll find charismatic Anemone and fickle Beehive Geysers. If you see a group of backpack- and radio-wielding Geyser Gazers huddled near the latter, stick around for an impressive show. Below, fantastic Castle Geyser is one of the largest formations of its kind in the world, and the view from Daisy Geyser is excellent.
America's iconic first national park, Yellowstone is home to over 60% of the world’s geysers – natural hot springs that periodically erupt in towering explosions of boiling water and steam. And while these astounding phenomena and their neighboring technicolor hot springs and bubbling mud pits draw in the crowds (over 4 million people each year), the surrounding canyons, mountains and forests are no less impressive, teeming with elk, bison, grizzly bears and wolves.
One mile of boardwalks loop through Porcelain Basin, the park’s hottest exposed basin. (The name comes from the area’s milky deposits of sinter, also known as geyserite.) The bleached basin boils and bubbles like some giant laboratory experiment and the ash-white ground actually pulsates in places. Check out the overviews from Porcelain Terrace Overlook, near the Norris Museum – views that, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, made it look ‘as though the tide of desolation had gone out.’
At 370ft wide and 121ft deep, Grand Prismatic Spring is the park’s largest and deepest hot spring. It’s also considered by many to be the most beautiful thermal feature in the park. Boardwalks lead around the multicolored mist of the gorgeous pool and its spectacularly colored rainbow rings of algae. From above, the spring looks like a giant blue eye weeping exquisite multicolored tears.
Of Lamar Valley's abundant wildlife, the most famous – and to some, controversial – resident is the gray wolf. Wolves were missing from the ecosystem between 1926, when the last pack was killed, and 1995, when 31 Canadian wolves were re-introduced to the park. The population has stabilized at around 100, but continual pressure from lobbying groups has seen the species bounced on and off protected lists. Outside the park, it is currently legal to hunt wolves in Montana, Idaho, and most of Wyoming.
Designed by Seattle architect Robert C Reamer and built in 1904, this is the only building in the park that looks as though it actually belongs here. The log rafters of its seven-story lobby rise nearly 80ft, and the chimney of the central fireplace (actually eight fireplaces combined) contains more than 500 tons of rhyolite rock. It’s definitely a worthwhile visit, even for non-guests.
This major center is well worth a visit for its innovative and interactive displays on Yellowstone’s geology. The highlight is a room-sized relief model of the park, which will help you visualize the terrain of your upcoming hike. Twenty-minute movies play on the hour and half-hour, and there are afternoon ranger talks for children.