Yellowstone National Park is a place of superlatives: the world’s first national park, the world’s largest concentration of geysers, the largest lake above 7,000 feet in North America, the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48. There are dozens of sites (and sights) worth the trip if they existed in isolation: Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, West Thumb Geyser Basin, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, a grand chasm more than 1,000 feet deep. And you can see them all — and more — in a day, if you don’t stop too often to watch bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, grizzly bears and wolves.
Bottom line: A visit to Yellowstone National Park needs to be on your bucket list.
Mountain men roaming the Yellowstone area — including John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition — told tales of the wonders they found here and no one believed them. A series of expeditions starting in 1869 verified what were thought to be tall tales and an 1871 expedition led by Ferdinand Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey, brought back scientific surveys and, perhaps more importantly, paintings by Thomas Moran and Henry W. Elliot, and photographs by William Henry Jackson. The nation was captivated. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, which granted the area national park status, on March 1, 1872. (Editor's note: Yellowstone has been in the news this week, from the recent spill in the Yellowstone River to the hiker killed there by a mother grizzly bear.)
Things to do
The landscape takes on new meaning when you have someone to explain what you’re looking at, so sign up for one of the ranger-led walks. Rangers explain the geology of the geyser basins and the natural history of the Hayden Valley. They also carry bear spray. The walks range from easy to moderately taxing.
Cool off from hiking by taking a plunge into the Firehole River. The river cuts through a canyon so there is a bit of a water-slide effect when you jump in and the current swooshes you downstream.
There are 13 self-guided trails, some of them boardwalks where you look down at hot springs and mud pots. Hit them all.
Why you’ll want to come back
Know going in that you won’t be able to see everything. You might see a grizzly bear, but you won’t see wolves. You’ll see Old Faithful erupt, but miss the others. And if you hear it once, you’ll hear it a thousand times: “You should have been here the other day…”
Flora and fauna
Driving through Yellowstone National Park is like driving through a zoo. People come here to see bison and never leave disappointed. The park is home to 67 different mammals, including grizzly bears and gray wolves, reintroduced here in 1995. Visitors are likely to see elk, mule deer, moose and pronghorn. Driving the figure-8 road system through the park means frequent stops for “bear jams” or “bison jams” as drivers stop to gawk.
Along the lake and rivers you’re likely to spot trumpeter swans, the largest waterfowl in North America. You also may see common loons, osprey and bald eagles.
By the numbers:
- Website: Yellowstone National Park
- Park size: 2,221,766 acres or 3,472 square miles
- 2010 visitation: 3,640,185
- Busiest month (July): 957,785 visitors
- Slowest month (November): 16,819 visitors
- Funky fact: Each year, the park has about 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes.