Yellowstone National Park
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Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park contains some of the strangest and most interesting geological features found anywhere in the world. This vast caldera or volcanic basin is the remnant of a giant volcano that blew its top many millennia ago. The area still sits atop a hot spot in the earth's crust and provides us with a unique opportunity to view a fascinating assortment of highly active geothermal phenomena. It is one of the few places on our planet where hot water and steam come bubbling, fizzing, gurgling, hissing and even exploding out of the earth at thousands of colorful mineral-encrusted hot springs and vents. Cauldrons of mud bubble and splat their colorful liquid plasters to form large volcanic cones. Hundreds of geysers sleep in placid hot springs for hours or days, then at semi-regular intervals erupt into great plumes of hot water and steam rising hundreds of feet overhead before retiring to their tepid hibernation. You can find geysers in a few other locations around the world, but there are more active geysers in Yellowstone National Park than there are in every other location combined.

Artist Point overlooking Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone Park Wyoming © Michelle Leco / USATourist.com
Yellowstone was the first National Park created by the US government in 1876 to preserve the natural beauty of this strange and beautiful place.

Yellowstone was the first National Park created by the US government in 1876 to preserve the natural beauty of this strange and beautiful place. In addition to preserving its multitude of geothermal attractions, Yellowstone National Park serves as a refuge for a wide variety of native American wildlife. The last remaining herd of wild bison (buffalo) in the USA still peacefully roams the meadows of Yellowstone along with vast herds of wild elk, deer, moose, coyotes, eagles, bears and wolves. You can easily spot many of these wild creatures from your car as you drive through the gorgeous scenery of Yellowstone.

Located in northwestern Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park is located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming along the borders of Montana and Idaho. It is not quite in the middle of nowhere, but it comes pretty close. Yellowstone is 75 miles north of Jackson Wyoming, 50 miles west of Cody Wyoming, 75 miles southeast of Bozeman Montana and 100 miles northeast of Idaho Falls Idaho. Each of those cities has an airport that can take you within a few hours drive of the park, but you definitely need a car to see all the attractions. At the western entry to the park, the village of West Yellowstone offers a nice selection of accommodations, stores, service stations and restaurants. At the northern entrance, the tiny town of Gardiner offers a few such amenities. Fortunately, the Park Service has provided a good selection of lodgings, restaurants, convenience stores and service stations at various locations within the park. Aside from that, there are not many signs of civilization in this part of the country.

The roads within the park are laid out as a double loop configuration (like a figure eight) with access roads entering from all major compass points. Each of the two intersecting loops is about 25 miles (40 km) in diameter with roads entering from the north, east, south and west, plus an additional entry from the northwest. There are six villages or service areas located near the intersections of the park roads. Each of the service areas has a park information center, a service station, a convenience store or grocery, a hotel or lodge and one or more restaurants. Some of them also have riding stables or boat launches. There are more than a dozen campgrounds scattered along the roads throughout the park and there are scores of picnic sites.

Sightseeing is the major attraction

Sightseeing is the number one attraction in Yellowstone National Park. As soon as you enter the park, you should slow down and drive carefully, because you will likely encounter other vehicles stopping in the middle of the road as they spot nearby wildlife. It may be a herd of elk grazing beside the road, a coyote prancing through a car park or even a gigantic bull bison meandering down the middle of the highway. The local wild animals are so accustomed to visitors that they no longer fear humans. Unfortunately, this can be dangerous when naïve tourists approach within a few meters of a 2000 pound (1000 kg) bison. Yellowstone National Park is not a zoo and the animals are not tame. You must exercise caution when approaching the wild animals.

The geothermal features are everywhere. As you drive throughout the park, you can see plumes of white steam rising from the fields, from the hillsides, from the edges of the lakes even from the bottoms of the rivers. Along the western half of the loop roads, there are eight geyser basins with as many as a dozen geysers and a hundred hot springs in each of them, but numerous other geothermal features are scattered throughout the entire park. The mud volcanoes and sulphur springs are concentrated near the eastern part of the loop and the gigantic buildups of calcium deposits known as the Mammoth Hot Springs are close to the northern entrance.

Old Faithful Geyser

Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone Park Wyoming © Michelle Leco / USATourist.com
The most famous geyser, known as "Old Faithful", is situated in front of the visitor's center and the lodges near the Upper Geyser Basin in the southwestern quadrant.

The most famous geyser, known as "Old Faithful", is situated in front of the visitor's center and the lodges near the Upper Geyser Basin in the southwestern quadrant. It regularly erupts approximately every 90 minutes. When you visit that area, it is wise to first go to the park visitor's center and check on the estimated times of eruption for the local geysers. The park rangers usually post the expected eruption times for six or eight geysers that normally adhere to fixed cycles. With a bit of patience, you can time your sightseeing to catch several geyser eruptions. At each of the major geothermal areas and other attractions in the park, there are small boxes filled with interpretive brochures available for a 50-cents donation. They are excellent guides to the local features.

Not all of the scenic attractions in Yellowstone are geothermal. Near the eastern juncture of the two loop roads, the Yellowstone River has carved a magnificent gorge with two spectacular waterfalls through the multihued rock. It is known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and is a favorite spot for photographers and sightseers. The surrounding rim of the ancient Yellowstone caldera is composed of many mountains rising to over 9,000 feet (3,000 m), and they provide plenty of alpine scenery and mountain hiking. The river valleys with their flat-bottomed meadows and vast wetlands are favorite haunts for the herds of bison and elk while the lakes and ponds provide ample forage for moose.

Other activities in Yellowstone include hiking, backpacking and camping. There are campgrounds near each of the eight service areas within the park, plus a few in the more isolated areas. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails wend their way through the forests, mountains and plains of Yellowstone. Many of the trails are equipped with wilderness camping shelters for backpackers. Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake have boat launch ramps for boating. The Mammoth, Canyon Village and Tower Roosevelt Service Centers have riding stables where you can rent horses and participate in guided trail rides.

Mike's Yellowstone Tip: Last summer, park rangers had to destroy a grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park, because it had learned how to "open up" cars to get at the food and candy inside. The animal just inserted his powerful claws into the edge of the doorframe and peeled the metal away! This should help you understand how dangerous bears can be.

Winter in Yellowstone

Plume Geyser in Yellowstone Park Wyoming © Michelle Leco / Tourist.com
You can find geysers in a few other locations around the world, but there are more active geysers in Yellowstone National Park than there are in every other location combined.

During the winter months, Yellowstone Park turns into a surreal wonderland of snow covered landscapes interspersed with boiling hot springs, columns of billowing white vapors and rivers of steaming waters. Herds of bison seek refuge from the arctic winds in the warm mists surrounding the tepid waters. You can visit this strange and beautiful land during the winter months, but you cannot drive your car there. Most roads in Yellowstone Park are closed from November through March. Fortunately, you can still gain access to the park via snow coach, snowmobile and on skis or snowshoes. Tour guides operating out of West Yellowstone, Jackson, Dubois, Flagg Ranch and a few other locations offer trips into the park. The biggest concentration is located in West Yellowstone. In order to protect the fragile environment and the wildlife, the National Park Service strictly limits the number of visitors and the number of snow vehicles entering the park. Be sure to make reservations before attempting a winter-time visit to Yellowstone.

Camping

There are more than a dozen campgrounds within Yellowstone Park. A concessionaire that will accept reservations via mail or telephone operates five of the campgrounds inside the park. Check this web page for reservation information: yellowstonenational parklodges.com The remaining campgrounds within Yellowstone are operated by the National Park Service and are available on a first-come basis. During the busy summer season all of the campgrounds inside the park may fill, but you can usually find something outside of the park. There are more than a dozen private campgrounds located outside of the park near the various entries.

Accommodations

There are more than a dozen campgrounds within Yellowstone Park. A concessionaire that will accept reservations via mail or telephone operates five of the campgrounds inside the park. Check this web page for reservation information: yellowstonenationalparklodges.com The remaining campgrounds within Yellowstone are operated by the National Park Service and are available on a first-come basis. During the busy summer season all of the campgrounds inside the park may fill, but you can usually find something outside of the park. There are more than a dozen private campgrounds located outside of the park near the various entries.

In the area

Grand Teton National Park is located adjacent to the southern border of Yellowstone. Actually, the southern exit from Yellowstone is the northern entry to Grand Teton. A single $20 entry fee provides you access to both national parks for a full week. There are vast National Forests surrounding both national parks. They provide hundreds of square miles of wilderness area for backpacking, hiking and camping. Big Sky Montana with its large ski resort is located 30 miles north of West Yellowstone and the Jackson Hole ski areas are located just south of Grand Teton National Park.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © gkanivets
Photo Description: Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park