The World’s First National Park
Established in 1872 — before our young nation had even celebrated its centennial — Yellowstone is America’s first national park.
Blessed with an uncanny natural grandeur that has inspired and captivated explorers, conservationists, scientists, artists and travelers for generations, the park’s 2.2 million mostly undeveloped acres are home to free-roaming herds of elk and bison, towering waterfalls and more than half of the world’s geysers. All this in an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, which spreads over three state lines.
Open all year round, visitors to Yellowstone will find a bevy of activities to choose from. Winter visitors can explore the interior on a snowmobile, in a snowcoach (a motorized tour bus mounted on giant skis or treads) or via cross-country skiing — or just watch the bison roam at Mammoth Hot Springs. Warm-weather travelers can explore the park’s numerous bike trails, fish for trout in its lakes and steams, or backpack in Yellowstone’s sublime wilderness.
Whatever your pleasure is, at Yellowstone nature and history are never far away. Echoing its rustic past, the park’s numerous lodges, visitor centers and historic districts compliment Yellowstone’s natural surroundings.
Activities in Yellowstone National Park
Backcountry Camping & Hiking
With 2.2 million acres to explore, Yellowstone is a premiere destination for vacationers looking to get in touch with their wild side. The park’s extensive backcountry provides ample opportunity for campers and hikers to experience the majesty of Yellowstone with minimal ties to civilization. Explore the abundant waterfalls of Cascade Corner, or trek through the bizarre volcanic “hoodoos” at the head of Lamar Valley. Naturally, such sojourns come with an accompanying level of risk; travelers should prepare for sudden changes in weather, and respect the park’s policies, particularly where bears are concerned.
Restrictions are occasionally applied to areas based on bear activity. Visitors should use food poles when setting up camp, and should never camp anywhere where bears have left their mark, such as digging, tracks and scat. When hiking, hike in groups, and make your presence known — singing and shouting are an easy way to ward off chance encounters with wildlife. Never hike at night.
Permits are required for overnight stays in Yellowstone’s wilderness, and backpackers must use the park’s system of designated backcountry campsites, which can be reserved in advance. Prospective backpackers should download and review Yellowstone’s backcountry trip planner. Certain tour companies also lead guided backcountry expeditions.
Biking on Yellowstone’s more than 300 miles of roadway can be a very rewarding experience, but cyclists are subject to more than a few conditions that can make it a challenge. Biking is not permitted in the backcountry or on boardwalks, and is limited to parking areas, paved roads and specially designated paths. Depending on conditions, there is usually a time in early April when the park’s roads are open to bike traffic but closed to automobiles (with the exception of administrative vehicles) between West Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs. This is a great time to ride, but visitors should be aware of potential obstructions in the road — including bears!
High snowbanks in April, May and June can make riding treacherous during those months, and motorists — with whom cyclers must share paved roads — aren’t always generous with passing clearance or right of way. Camping options for bicyclists are also limited, since they must stick to developed campgrounds in the park, which can fill up quickly. A good piece of advice to follow in planning a bike trip is to plan in advance — know your route and reserve a campsite ahead of time.
That being said, the bright side of biking in Yellowstone is that there are many paths exclusively reserved for cyclists and foot traffic. Ride the five-mile stretch along the abandoned railroad bed adjacent to Yellowstone Creek in the Mammoth Area, or grab your mountain bike and head to Fountain Freight Road, six miles north of Old Faithful. Some gravel roads, like Old Gardiner Road and Blacktail Plateau Drive have two-way bike traffic and one-way automobile traffic.
Fishing in Yellowstone is an important part of the park’s history. The park’s second superintendent, Philetus Norris, once advocated fishing as an alternative to hunting big game in Yellowstone. By 1894, the introduction of non-native trout to the park was so successful that a later superintendent noted that “the general verdict of all who have ﬁshed here that no better ﬁshing can be found anywhere in the world.” Today, fishing continues at Yellowstone, but is tightly regulated. Different habitat areas have distinct sets of rules for fishermen, and the park has adopted a barbless hook policy for all fishing in the park.
While most of Yellowstone becomes inaccessible to hikers and bikers during winter, there are a host of winter activities that take advantage of the park’s abundant snowfall. Though its introduction to the park was controversial, motorized over-snow transportation via snowmobile and snowcoach have enabled visitors to explore Yellowstone’s interior during winter months. Less invasive but also quite popular, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in Yellowstone are facilitated by third-party companies, who rent gear and provide guided tours of the park’s five major ski areas. Ranger-led programs, such as snowshoeing at Mammoth Hot Springs, are also popular options.
Geysers and Springs in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is well known for its many geysers, hot springs and other thermal features. In fact, more than half of all the thermal features in the world are located within the park. Some are bigger than others. Some, like Old Faithful, are named; others are not.
Geysers and hot springs are both fed by groundwater from rain and melted snow that seeps through cracks in the surface and is collected in porous rock underground. The water comes into contact with heat from magma chambers below Yellowstone, which warms the water and sends it back up towards the surface via networks of subterranean “plumbing.”
The big difference between a geyser and a hot spring is that a geyser has an obstruction in its hydrothermal plumbing near the surface. In hot springs, water is allowed to circulate to the surface and move freely, giving off steam and heat. In geysers, constrictions keep the boiling water underground. Steam pushes water upward towards the surface, causing a drop in pressure and a subsequent eruption.
Old Faithful is the most famous geyser at Yellowstone, and few thermals can match the beauty of the Grand Prismatic Spring, but there are plenty of amazing geyers, hot springs and other features in the park. The terraced, calcified limestone at Mammoth Hot Springs resembles a cave turned inside out. Curious mudpots bubble and gurgle, and fumaroles vent steam and gas from the earth at scalding temperatures that can reach 280 degrees Fahrenheit. Grand Geyser erupts in explosive bursts, and Steamboat, the largest geyser in the world, spouts water up to 400 feet in the air.
Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is home to thousands of thermal features, but the largest hot spring in the park is the Grand Prismatic Spring. Located in the Midway Geyser Basin, the spring is 370 feet in diameter and 121 feet deep. In addition to being the largest thermal feature in the park, the Grand Prismatic Spring was also the first thermal to be definitively identified (by a white explorer). An 1839 diary entry by a fur trapper named Osborne Russell describes a “boiling lake” of deep indigo blue about 300 feet in diameter.
But as anyone can see, the deep blue of the spring’s mineral-rich water isn’t its only distinguishing color. The vivid rings of rusty reds and vibrant yellows and greens that encircle it are caused by colonies of pigmented thermophiles — microbes that live within specific extreme temperature ranges at hot springs. The bands of color correspond to the microbes’ grades of tolerance. Where one kind of colony reaches its temperature threshold, another type immediately takes over.
Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park
Map of Old Faithful
If Yellowstone is the iconic national park, then Old Faithful is the icon’s icon. Long a symbol of the park’s majesty — not to mention its powerful hydrothermal waterworks — the great geyser has been the subject of numerous photographs, essays, cartoons, films and paintings.
Less auspiciously, early visitors sometimes used it as a laundry. Henry J. Winser wrote disparagingly of the practice in his 1883 tourist manual for Yellowstone: ”Garments placed in the crater during quiescence are ejected thoroughly washed when the eruption takes place.”
Like other geysers, Old Faithful is a hot spring with constrictions near its surface that prevent water from flowing freely. When it erupts, Old Faithful 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of boiling water 105 to 185 feet in the air for a period of 1.5 to 5 minutes. The regularity of the geyser’s eruptions, which today occur every 90 minutes on average, earned it the name “Old Faithful.”
Earthquakes in the Yellowstone area have affected underground water levels over the years, increasing the interval of eruptions, but making them more mathematically predictable. Research suggests that the cone geyser owes its regularity to the fact that it isn’t connected to other thermals in the Upper Geyser Basin.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a classic, V-shaped canyon carved by the Yellowstone River as it flowed through and eroded lava rock that covered the area in the wake of the violent caldera eruption 600,000 years ago. The lava flows that would form the canyon walls were rich in iron compounds. These oxidized over time, and gave the canyon its rusty red coloring, but visitors will note that bands of green and yellow are also present. This is coloration indicates the presence or absence of water in the rocks’ iron compounds — essentially, whether or not the rocks are rusting.
While it wasn’t formed by glaciation, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has seen its fair share of glaciers. For instance, visitors cannot help but notice a house-sized granite boulder near Inspiration Point. It was carried down from Montana’s Beartooth Mountains during the a glacial period 80,000 years ago. But the canyon has lots more than rocks to offer its visitors.
The Yellowstone River’s spectacular falls have captivated and inspired visitors for more than a century. A member of the 1870 Washburn expedition to the Yellowstone region wrote, “A grander scene than the lower cataract of the Yellowstone was never witnessed by mortal eyes.” The painter Thomas Moran immortalized the falls in his 1872 masterpiece, sketched at Lookout Point. In the early days of the park, a guide named “Uncle” Tom Richardson built a trail to the base of the lower falls and led tourists down it for a picnic lunch with a fantastic view.
While the original Uncle Tom’s Trail trail no longer exists (its successor is much improved), the view today remains very much the same, and no less stunning or magnificent. The same can be said about any of the scenic vistas from which travelers can view the falls. Inspiration Point juts far out over the canyon, making for spectacular views both upstream and down.
The Lower Falls, at 308 feet, are the tallest in the park. The Upper Falls are 109 feet tall. The longest chain of cascades in Yellowstone can also be found in the canyon. Silver Cord Cascade tumbles more than 1,000 feet before joining the Yellowstone River. While it isn’t a single waterfall, it’s believed that Silver Cord’s great length might be the root of a once-popular legend about a thousand-foot waterfall hidden deep in the park.
Lodges in Yellowstone National Park
From Camps to Lodges
By the mid-1920s, a steadily growing influx of visitors to Yellowstone demanded improvements to existing amenities, as well as the construction of new ones. It was during this time that many of the park’s historic lodges took root. Many of them grew out of renovations to the then-rudimentary housekeeping facilities of permanent campsites around the park.
“Unique and picturesque,” the log and frame cabin style of the permanent sites — which were eventually dubbed “lodges” to distinguish them from public automobile campgrounds — incorporated features like dining rooms, lobbies and recreation halls under the roof of a central building. Some of the park’s most iconic lodges and hotels remain. While they’ve been renovated over the years, out of respect for the natural surroundings of Yellowstone, none of them offer television, radios or air conditioning. Internet access, while scarce, is available for purchase at select locations.
Old Faithful Inn
The original part of the “Old House,” as this historic landmark is affectionately called, was completed in 1904, with additional wings added during the teens and ’20s. Today it is the most requested lodging in the park, located right next to the famous Old Faithful geyser. The rustic-style lodge’s log and wood shingle exterior is only part of its charm; the inn’s immense lobby is home to a huge stone fireplace.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel
Permeated by ethereal ambience, string quartet music from its lobby, and shimmering light from its solarium windows, this majestic, upscale hotel has earned its place on the National Register of Historic Places. Casual yet elegant, the Colonial Revival-style hotel was originally built in 1891, but expanded and renovated through the years. Its Ionic porticoes face Yellowstone Lake, lending a simple but stately feel befitting of its surroundings.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel
Located close to the historic Fort Yellowstone, the former army base that once served as the administrative seat of Yellowstone National Park, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is probably most lauded for its location. As a jumping off point for exploration of the hot springs’ limestone cliffs, or for wintertime expeditions to the park’s interior, this north-entrance lodging area — which is also home to several kinds of cabin accommodations — is incredibly convenient.
Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park
America’s official bird is a nesting resident of Yellowstone National Park, and one of 330 species that have been documented in the park to date. While it’s no longer on the federal list of endangered species, the noble raptor — along with the peregrine falcon and the osprey — receive special monitoring by the park. The extra attention has paid off, but the news isn’t good. Research has revealed a recent decline in successful bald eagle nest sites in and around Yellowstone. Researchers think that the downturn is linked to a decline in the park’s population of cutthroat trout, which are a vital part of the bald eagle diet.
Although poaching reduced herd numbers to about two dozen animals by 1902, Yellowstone is the only place in North America where there has been a continuous free-roaming bison population since prehistoric times. Today, Yellowstone lays claim to a population of more than 3,000 American bison, the largest land mammal in North America.
Bison prefer the park’s grasslands during the summer, and can be seen near thermals along the Madison River in wintertime. The park’s Hayden and Lamar Valleys are year-round habitats for the buffalo. If you encounter one in the wild, it’s recommended to remain at least 25 yards away. Every year, more people are injured by bison than bears in Yellowstone. Mostly, this happens when people get too close to them. Despite their size, these animals, which can weigh a ton, are surprisingly agile.
Yellowstone is one of the few places in the United States that Grizzly Bears can be found in the wild. While black bears, also present in the park, tend to inhabit forested areas where they climb tress to access food, grizzlies prefer open meadows and valley areas. It is not uncommon to encounter a grizzly bear in Yellowstone’s open backcountry, but due to the bear’s characteristic aggression, it’s wise to give them a wide berth. In fact, the park enforces seasonal restrictions that prohibit human entry to different areas. This is to protect visitors and allow bears space to “pursue natural behavior patterns free from human disturbance.”
If you do happen upon a grizzly, make sure to keep your distance — at least 100 yards away. Familiarize yourself with Yellowstone’s bear precautions to prevent incidents and minimize your risk of encountering a bear.
Elk are the most abundant large mammal visitors will encounter in Yellowstone, and they’ve maintained a presence in the area for at least the past 1,000 years. There are seven or eight major herds of free-roaming elk in the park, numbering more than 30,000 during summer months. Reintroduction of predators such as wolves to the park and hunting of the animals during their winter migration into Montana may have contributed to an apparent reduction in the Northern Yellowstone elk herd. However, some experts say that a diminished elk population isn’t a bad thing, since a smaller herd leaves more room for the animals to thrive.
Yellowstone Lake is the epicenter of the largest inland population of cutthroat trout in the world. Known by their distinct orange, red or pink linear markings behind their gill plates, cutthroat trout are native to the Great Basin, and Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges of the American West, where geographic isolation has given rise to a number of distinct subspecies. Yellowstone is, as one might expect, the hub of its own subspecies’ ecosystem, where a number of larger animals (like bears and birds of prey) depend on the trout for food. Unfortunately, invasive species — such as other kinds of trout — and other factors threaten this vital link in Yellowstone’s food chain. The park’s fisheries program is countering these threats through direct, aggressive intervention, but it’s important for anglers to cooperate.
History of Yellowstone National Park
A discussion of the history of Yellowstone National Park would not be complete without considering the area’s dramatic geology. The park lies over a hotspot in the earth’s crust, where hot molten rock rises to the surface. This feature accounts for Yellowstone’s preponderance of thermals, including Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring, which are fed by water that’s heated to boiling temperatures by the intense heat given off by the magma.
Over the past 18 million years, the area’s volcanism has shaped the surrounding landscape through a series of eruptions. While many of these have been less destructive basaltic lava floods, at least a dozen cataclysmic supereruptions have occurred in the area’s history. During such violent incidents, magma bursts from the ground so rapidly that the overlying land collapses into the empty magma chamber, forming a depression called a caldera. The Yellowstone region sits on top of three overlapping calderas, the latest of which was formed during an eruption more than 600,000 years ago.
Human settlement of Yellowstone dates back at least 11,000 years, when paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer societies fashioned projectile weapons and tools out of obsidian in the region. To date, little information exists about the prehistoric inhabitants of the park, due in park to a myth that native peoples avoided the region out of fear of — or reverence for — its numerous geysers. Archeological digs are helping to dispel this misconception, but the process is slow and ongoing. To date, only two percent of the park has been surveyed.
More is known about the tribes that lived in and around Yellowstone during historic times. Among them are the Shoshone, who some researchers suggest are the descendants of people that inhabited the mountainous region for thousands of years. Other tribes such as the Nez Perce, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Bannock, Blackfeet and Crow used the lands of “Yellow Rock Water” as hunting grounds. Evidence of temporary habitation that remain today, such as stone circles (possibly supports for teepees) and lean-tos, speak to the tribes’ presence in the area.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition, aided by Northern Shoshone Sacajawea, passed north of the Yellowstone region in the early 19th century, which was the extent of organized exploration that the area saw until the late 1860s. The Raynolds Expedition of 1860 came close, encircling the region that would become known as the park, but failing to uncover any of the sites that would make it famous. Included in the party were geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden and guide Jim Bridger, who would both make important contributions to the history of the park in the coming decades.
For years after the Raynolds Expedition, Yellowstone was predominantly visited by trappers and mountain men, some of which would become instrumental in popularizing the region to outsiders. Jim Bridger’s tall tales in particular mentioned Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs. Bridger would join an 1869 expedition (with Charles Cook and David Folsom) that would be “the first to collect and record accurate information of the region,” including a written account of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition of 1870 provided accounts of the area with an eye towards scientific detail.
But it was F. V. Hayden’s second journey to Yellowstone that would prove most influential. In addition to a mineralogist and a topographer, Hayden brought along two artists — Thomas Moran, who would become famous for his Western landscape paintings, was one of them — and a photographer. It was their pictures and renderings that brought Hayden’s 500-page report on the Yellowstone region to life, and helped instill the call for its preservation in the American conscience.
The First National Park
In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill into law that proclaimed Yellowstone be “reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale… and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The first national park became a reality, albeit one that was continually under threat for most of its early days. The newly drafted park saw conflict with various tribes who called the region home, as well as persistent poaching and exploitation of natural resources within the park.
To manage these challenges, the U.S. Army established a camp near Mammoth Hot Springs in 1886. Originally called Camp Sheridan, the base would develop over time into the park’s administrative nerve center, and be renamed Fort Yellowstone. The Army turned over control of the park to the National Parks Service in 1918.