The first and still the most popular national park in the United States, Yellowstone sits astride the Continental Divide in northwestern Wyoming, edging over the borders of Montana and Idaho. This is the world's foremost geothermal region, where molten rock rises close to the surface, providing the heat which results in the hundreds of geysers, fumaroles and mudpots which abound in the park.
It's an area where catastrophic volcanic eruptions brought immense changes to the landscape, including the great caldera (a collapsed volcano) which created Yellowstone Lake about 600,000 years ago. Every year the abundant snowfall melts into the ground and then the water percolates upward, forced back through the ground as steam. Old Faithful -- the world's most beloved geyser -- is the prime example of this geothermal action.
The park is largely situated on a high mountain plateau, with large meadows and sub-alpine forests. There are several large lakes, roaring rivers and high waterfalls. The area attracted early explorers; the first were fur trappers and mountain men (Jim Bridger, John Colter and others) who relished the beauty and natural wonder of the region. Prospectors came to the park area but moved farther west. The movement to create a national park and wilderness preserve began when the first Hayden Expedition of 1871 helped to convince Congress to declare the area a national park in 1872. The early developers of the park were more interested in geology than in the abundant wildlife which lived on the mountain slopes and meadows of Yellowstone. The elk, deer, bears, bison, coyotes, antelope, mountain lions and eagles, among many other species, provide visitors with the thrill of meeting wildlife face to face. Some of the elk are so tame now that they summer on the lawn of the main park visitor center at Mammoth Hot Springs.
In addition to the geysers and colorful geothermal pools, the park contains some of the most dramatic geological scenes in the country, including the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Upper and Lower Falls, several examples of petrified forest, the Cascades of the Firehole River and the magnificent Absaroka Mountains.
2.5 million people visit Yellowstone each year. Because the great majority of these visitors see the park during the summer months, the public facilities can become quite crowded. If it is at all possible, it is advisable to plan your visit for the spring or fall periods when things are a bit calmer. Wilderness such as Yellowstone's should be enjoyed with a certain freedom from falling over other people or other people falling over you. The fall is a particularly enjoyable season at Yellowstone, as the aspens turn into gold and the brisk mountain air awakes your senses. The facilities open during summer months operate until mid-September, making the two weeks after Labor Day a perfect time to visit. The late May and early June period is an equally-pleasant time to enjoy the solitude. The park roads closed in winter open for traffic by late April/early May and close around October 31.
For road openings and closing, go here.
Geysers and Hot Springs are found in the western side of the park, many of them along the 50 miles of road which connects Mammoth Hot Springs (near Gardiner Montana) and Old Faithful. This area is comprised of several geothermal basins which have more than 250 geysers and as many as 10,000 other known features. The Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, near the main visitor center are best seen from trails and boardwalks. Upper Terrace Drive is a 1.5 mile road which winds among large travertine terraces which have been built by active and extinct hot springs. The Main Terrace Area features a series of loop trails with boardwalks which take visitors through active terraces and around some old and now-dead springs. The Mammoth area plays host, during the winter, to some of the park's wildlife who come down from their summer range to this warmer climate.
South of Mammoth is the Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest of the geyser areas and the oldest.The basin features two major trails: around the Porcelain Basin, a distance of .75 mile, and the Back Basin Trail which leads 1.5 miles past several notable geysers including Steamboat, Echinus and Porkchop. There is a museum near the parking lot, beside Bathtub Spring.
Upper Geyser Basin is the home of Old Faithful and many other geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mudpots. It's located on the loop road just west of Grant Village and West Thumb. Old Faithful erupts more frequently than most of the other large geysers, every 45 to 90 minutes. Its eruptions last 2-5 minutes and the spout reaches a height of over 100 feet -- as much as 180 feet. Other large geysers in the basin include Castle, Grand, Giant, Beehive and Daisy. The Upper Geyser Basin is the location for several lodges and eating facilities, centered in the Old Faithful area.
Midway Geyser Basin, north of the Upper Basin, features the Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser. North of here you'll see Firehole Lake -- a large hot spring -- and the Fountain Paint Pot, along with several notable geysers including Clepsydra, White Dome, Great Fountain and Steady. These features are found along a short loop (Firehole Lake Drive), off the main park highway.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone extends from Canyon Village -- near the center of the park -- to Tower Junction on the north park road. The most spectacular section of the canyon is seen from a series of viewpoints along the North Rim and South Rim, in the Canyon Village area. This area includes the Upper and Lower Falls. For more on the canyon, Go Here.
Yellowstone Lake has 110 miles of shoreline and is North America's largest alpine lake. Fishing Bridge, Lake Village and Bridge Bay are located at the north end of the lake while West Thumb and Grant Village are on the western bay called West Thumb. Visitor facilities are available in both areas. Scenic picnic areas are spread along the loop road between the two main centers. There is a museum devoted to the park's birds at Fishing Bridge. Displays at the Grant Village are centered on the Yellowstone wilderness areas. Backcountry permits are available at the ranger station.
Park Headquarters is at Mammoth Hot Springs. The Visitor Center here offers advice on "doing" the park and has films and a good selection of booklets about the park and trail guides. Other visitor centers and information desks are at Grant Village, Fishing Bridge, Canyon Village, Old Faithful and the Norris Geyser Basin.
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