Everything to know about Yellowstone National Park

Here’s what to see and do in the world’s first national park.

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Grand Prismatic Spring

The center of Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring steams at 199° Fahrenheit (93° Celsius), too hot for the multicolored bacteria clustering on the cooler perimeter. But dead center is no dead zone: Billions of organisms called thermophiles flourish in the scalding water.

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Bobcat

A bobcat slinks through the snow in Yellowstone, which protects many species in its role as wildlife sanctuary. Among them are elk, bison, mule deer, grizzlies, black bears, and mountain lions.

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Old Faithful

Vapor rises from Old Faithful, one of Yellowstone's most popular attractions. Not the largest or the most regular of the park's geysers, Old Faithful erupts more frequently, with each blast expelling between 3,700 to 8,400 gallons (14,000 to 32,000 liters) of boiling water.

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Gray Wolves

Originally native to the area, gray wolves in Yellowstone were killed off as part of "predator control" practices, and by the 1970s no wolves were known to be living in the park. A controversial reintroduction program has been largely successful.

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Bison

Nomadic grazers, bison roam Yellowstone National Park's grassy plateaus in summer and spend winter near warm thermal pools or in the northern section of the park. The huge animals use their heads like a plow to push snow aside in search of food.

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Great Fountain Geyser

America’s first national park, Yellowstone is home to wildlife from bears to bison and geological stunners such as hot springs and geysers. The Great Fountain Geyser, pictured here, erupts every 9 to 15 hours, shooting water up to 220 feet (67 meters) high.

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Lower Yellowstone Falls

The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River drop a stunning 308 feet (94 meters) to the canyon floor below—twice as far as Niagara Falls. The Yellowstone begins south of the park, traveling more than 600 miles (965 kilometers) before it empties into the Missouri River in North Dakota. It is the longest undammed river in the continental U.S.

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Upper Geyser Basin

Yellowstone National Park's mile-long (1.6-kilometer-long) Upper Geyser Basin contains the world's greatest concentration of hot springs and geysers. In the entire park, which spreads out over parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, there are more than 10,000 hydrothermal features—half of all such features in the world.

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Elk

Elk are the most abundant large mammals in Yellowstone National Park, numbering some 30,000 in the summer. Paleontological evidence shows that the animals have been living on Yellowstone land for at least a thousand years.

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The pandemic has disrupted travel to national parks and wilderness areas. To find out which parks are open and how to visit them safely, scan the National Park Service’s coronavirus resource page. You can also search for parks by state. Planning a visit to a nearby park? Practice safe social distancing, pack your own food and necessities, and don’t forget the bug spray.
Fast facts

Established: 1872
Size: 2.2 million acres
Annual Visitors: 4.1 million
Visitor Centers: Mammoth, Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Grant Village, Old Faithful
Entrance Fees: $30 per vehicle, $15 per person
nps.gov/yell; nps.gov/grte

If ever a park had a flair for the dramatic it’s Yellowstone—geysers, grizzlies, and its very own Grand Canyon, as well as trendy towns and backcountry trails that rarely see human bootprints. After all these years, the world’s very first national park is still one of the most imposing, a blend of land and water, forest and field, wildlife and geothermal features that often seem to be living things.

It seems remarkable in hindsight that politicians recognized the uniqueness of Yellowstone—and suggested that steps be taken to preserve such an incredible landscape—at the very time that America was realizing its manifest destiny by “conquering” much of the West.

Five Must-See Attractions in Yellowstone

A golden spike had finished the first transcontinental railroad just three years earlier and the Little Big Horn was still four years in the future when Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park with the flourish of his pen in March 1872. The president was acting at the request of geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, who had surveyed the region the previous summer. The genius of his expedition was including a photographer and landscape painter who rendered images of the Yellowstone countryside to show those in Washington exactly what needed saving. In fact, without the benefit of such images, a previous expedition was rebuffed by magazine editors who said their accounts of the Yellowstone region were too far-fetched to be believed.

Yet when we look at those early photos and paintings today, it’s as if nothing has changed in the century and a half since Yellowstone was established. And that’s the enduring appeal of the park: a large, unspoiled canvas of the American West. In the words of Hayden, “remarkable curiosities which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.” (Explore this ultimate Yellowstone road trip.)

Can't-miss experiences

A bison rests in the snow in Yellowstone, around Upper Geyser Basin.

Tucked up on the northwest corner of Wyoming with parts spilling over into Montana and Idaho, the massive park offers five different approaches that feed into the Grand Loop Road, a figure-eight highway in the middle of the park. Rather than a single focus, Yellowstone has five main hubs—Old Faithful, Grant Village, Lake Village, Canyon Village, and Mammoth Hot Springs—each of them linked to a unique geological or geographical phenomenon.

The most impressive entry is from Gardiner, Montana, in the northwest, a road that ducks beneath the famous Roosevelt Arch and meanders along the Gardiner River to Mammoth Hot Springs and the park headquarters. Albright Visitor Center is located in the historic bachelor officers’ quarters of old Fort Yellowstone, where the U.S. Cavalry kept watch over the park before the National Park Service was born. That sulfur smell that permeates the air is from the hot springs, a cluster of limestone travertine terraces that cascade down a hillside like a steaming waterfall.

From Mammoth, the Great Loop Road shoots due east to the Tower-Roosevelt area and the broad Lamar Valley, the best place in Yellowstone to get a glimpse of the wolves that were reintroduced to the park in 1995. Bison and elk also frequent the valley with its lush grasslands. Veering in a southward direction, the road runs past 132-foot Tower Fall and the start of the Mount Washburn Trail (6.2-mile round-trip) to the summit of a 10,243-foot peak with a fire lookout tower that provides a spectacular view over just about all of Yellowstone.

As the name implies, Canyon Village lies on the edge of the park’s biggest “ditch”—the gaping Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone—an immense multicolored trench that stretches 24 miles and rises as much as 1,200 feet above the Yellowstone River. Trails lead to outstanding viewpoints like Artist’s Point on the south rim and Lookout Point on the north rim, two of the best places to snap selfies with 308-foot Lower Yellowstone Falls as a backdrop. Canyon Visitor Education Center in the village revolves around the park’s geology and the supervolcano that underlies Yellowstone.

A brief history of Yellowstone National Park

Continuing the clockwise journey around the Grand Loop, the road climbs up the river valley to Yellowstone Lake. The largest high-altitude lake in North America, the sky-blue pool offers the park’s best opportunities for boating, fishing, and waterfront camping. Given the lake’s chilly water, even during the height of summer, swimming is discouraged. Bridge Bay Marina offers rental boats, guided fishing charters, and scenic lake cruises, as well as shuttle services to remote campsites along the 141-mile lakeshore. (See all U.S. national parks in photos.)

Perched on the lake’s West Thumb, busy little Grant Village lies at the junction of the Loop Road and the highway running up from the South Entrance and Grand Teton. In addition to another visitor center, the village hosts several stores, a gas station, a boat ramp, and an amphitheater with summer ranger programs.

Turning to the west, the Grand Loop cuts across the Continental Divide (and into the Pacific drainage) at two different points before cruising downhill into Old Faithful Village and the park’s largest cluster of visitor services. Opened in 1904, Old Faithful Inn is a masterpiece of national park rustic architecture, in particular the lobby with its massive yet cozy stone fireplace and soaring timber ceiling.

The main event is just outside: Old Faithful Geyser, which erupts around 17 times per day to an average height of 130 feet. Visitors can learn more about the geothermal forces at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center and then hike the Upper Geyser Basin along the Firehole River, home to around 60 percent of the world’s geysers. Curving around to the west, the road continues to other geothermal wonders like the Midway Geyser Basin and its Grand Prismatic Spring and the Lower Geyser Basin with its Fountain Paint Pot.

Madison features an information station and bookstore at the junction where the highway from West Yellowstone in Idaho joins up with the main park road. The Grand Loop continues to the Norris Geyser Basin, where geological wonders like Artist Paint Pots, Roaring Mountain, and Steamboat Geyser are complemented by the indoor exhibits of the Museum of the National Park Ranger and Norris Geyser Basin Museum with its distinctive 1920s “parkitecture.” Visitors can also explore the eerie Norris-Canyon Blowdown with its ghost trees or fly fish for trout in the swift-flowing Gibson River.

Where to stay

Hotels
Old Faithful Inn: The world’s largest log structure is an icon of American national park architecture; restaurants, bar, shop.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel: The Greek Revival facade of the park’s oldest hotel overlooks the lake; restaurants, bar, shop.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel: Established in 1937, this classic motor lodge features motel-style rooms and cabins; restaurant, shop, map room.

Camping
Yellowstone: The park includes 12 developed campgrounds, including Mammoth, Canyon, and Grant Village.

 

Off-season things to do

Ranger-led activities include guided snowshoe walks through the colder months at Mammoth, Old Faithful, and West Yellowstone.
Cross-country ski trails are located at six places within Yellowstone.
• Guided snowmobile and snowcoach tours are allowed on Yellowstone roadways during the winter “snowover” months when they are closed to motorized traffic.
• Yellowstone Forever offers unique cold season programs like Wolves in Winter and a winter landscape photography field seminar.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
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