Many people feel that Yellowstone is the single greatest National Park in the country. There is little doubt that their opinion is valid. Yellowstone is filled with natural wonders including geysers, springs and various geologic sites, as well as endless acres of pristine wilderness and a history dating back 12,000 years. Hikers could spend a lifetime and still not cover the entire 1,100 miles of trails in the park. By Act of Congress on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first and oldest national park in the world. Yellowstone National Park was “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and “for the preservation, from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders and their retention in their natural condition.”
The commanding features that initially attracted interest and led to the preservation of Yellowstone as a national park, were geological the geothermal phenomena (the geysers and hot springs here more than outnumber those in the rest of the world), the colorful Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, fossil forests and the size and elevation of Yellowstone Lake.
As you visit the park’s hydrothermal areas, you’ll be walking on top of the Yellowstone Caldera a 28- by 47 mile collapsed volcanic cone, which last erupted about 600,000 years ago. The park’s geyser basins, hot mud pots, fumaroles (steam vents) and hot springs are kept bubbling by an underground pressure cooker filled with magma. One geophysicist describes Yellowstone as “a window on the earth’s interior.”
Cultural sites date back 12,000 years as evidence the human history of the park. More recent history can be seen in the historic structures and sites that represent the various periods of park administration and visitor facilities development. Ninety-nine percent of the park’s 3,400 square miles (2.2 million acres) remains undeveloped, providing a wide range of habitat types that support one of the continent’s largest and most varied large mammal populations.
Yellowstone is a true wilderness, one of the few large, natural areas remaining in the lower 48 states. In Yellowstone National Park, you meet nature on its terms. Yellowstone is more than a weekend trip. Even a week is not enough; you’ll need years to fully enjoy the pure nature of the area.
History & Culture
The Yellowstone area has a long and rich background. The area in and around the park has been occupied for at least 12,000 years. The most recent native inhabitants here were the Shoshone Indians. All they needed for their survival was found within what is now Yellowstone National Park. Buffalo and Big Horn sheep were the main sources of food and clothing for these indigenous people. The valleys of Yellowstone provided a natural corridor for neighboring tribes, allowing relatively easy access to the great buffalo herds of Montana. This major trail route came to be known as the “Bannock Trail.” The natives lived a modest lifestyle, unaffected by the whites, who had started conquering the New World. The Shoshone lived without horses or metal when the first trappers met them in the early 19th century.
Among the first whites to meet the Shoshone, were trappers Joseph Dixon and Forrest Hanock. Discovery Corps member John Colter spent the winter with the two trappers near the mouth of the Clarks Fork River. As spring began to thaw the cold earth, Colter began his journey back east when he crossed paths with Manuel Lisa and his Army troops. Lisa talked Colter into returning to the Yellowstone region, were the men built a trading post near the mouth of the Big Horn River.
By the mid-19th century, it had become quite apparent to many different people that the Yellowstone area held a wide array of natural wonders and that it should be protected from the destructive hand of man. So after much petitioning Congress voted, not unanimously mind you, in favor of the creation of Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872.
Nature & Science
The Yellowstone Area is one of great seismic and volcanic activity. Many scientists believe there was once a hotspot beneath Yellowstone, the same type of geological process that has formed the Hawaiian Islands. Yellowstone has erupted violently three times in its history, the most recent and catastrophic eruption occurred approximately 600,000 years ago. The magma chamber spewed its contents into the atmosphere and onto the earth’s surface, eventually the overlying material collapsed into the empty chamber, forming a gigantic caldera measuring approximately 45 miles by 30 miles and was several thousand feet deep. Molten lava soon oozed through cracks in the earth and filled in the caldera. This caldera now makes up nearly one third of the park. Hayden did the first geological survey of the area in 1871. He was among the first to note that the area was a centerpiece for volcanic activity and also noted the frequent occurrence of small to moderate magnitude earthquakes. In 1959, the largest intermountain region earthquake in recorded history shook the area with 7.5 magnitude jolt. While the Yellowstone region makes up less than 0.1% of the continental US, it releases nearly 5% of the total thermo-energy of the United States.
There are four types of thermal features in eleven separate thermal basins. The four features are, geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots. Upper, Lower and Norris Basins are the three largest basins, with eight smaller thermal basins found throughout the park. Microbes living in the hot springs create living rainbows of color, exciting by themselves, but in contrast to the sometimes-stark surroundings, generate a deep feeling of awe and intrigue.
The most famous geyser in the park if not the world is Old Faithful. There are misconceptions concerning the timing of Old Faithful, most notably the idea that the geyser erupts every hour on the hour. although, the timing of Old Faithful varies there is a regular pattern to the eruptions. If the duration lasts 1.5 minutes, it will go off around 50 minutes later, 2.5 min. 65 min. later, 4 min. 82 min. later and with a 5 min. eruption it will spout again about 95 minutes later. The average length of Old Faithful’s eruptions are 90 to 180 seconds.
The huge, though infrequent, Steamboat Geyser is one of the attractions at Back Basin, a big geyser area. Steamboat only performs about once a year but when it does, it shoots 300 feet into the air.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
A cascading waterfall and rushing river carved this 24 mile, 1,200 feet deep canyon.
Lower Geyser Basin
The Great Fountain Geyser is the most spectacular of the features at this basin. But you’ll find bubbling mudpots, blue pools, fumaroles, pink mud pots and the mini-geysers at Fountain Paint Pots here as well.
Mammoth Hot Springs
At this hot springs, you’ll find multicolored travertine terraces formed by slowly flowing hot mineral water. Grazing nearby, elk are frequent visitors.
Midway Geyser Basin
The Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser Crater are two of the features at Midway, which has some beautiful, richly colored, “bottomless” pools.
Norris Geyser Basin
The hottest and oldest such basin in Yellowstone, Norris Geyser Basin is constantly changing. Some geysers or hot springs might suddenly stop flowing, but others blow and hiss into life. Among the features at Norris are Whirligig Geyser, Whale’s Mouth, Emerald Spring and Arch Steam Vent.
Old Faithful Inn
At the heart of the tourist development at Old Faithful is the Old Faithful Inn, worth a visit even if you aren’t staying here. An architectural marvel built in 1903 and later expanded, the log building has a six-story lobby with a huge rock fireplace and wraparound balconies high in the rafters.
The long-standing centerpiece of Yellowstone is Old Faithful. The mysterious plumbing of Yellowstone has lengthened Old Faithful’s eruption cycle somewhat in recent years, but the geyser still spouts the same amount of water sometimes reaching to 140 feet and pleases spectators every 80 minutes or so. Sometimes it doesn’t shoot so high, but in those cases the eruption lasts longer.
Upper Geyser Basin
Marked trails and bridges lead to Geyser Hill and you can visit Castle Geyser and Morning Glory Pool as well as the Giantess Geyser and Giant Geyser. Elk and buffalo commonly share the area. In winter, cross-country ski trails converge at Old Faithful.
This basin is a small geyser area and a 1 mile boardwalk. A lot of people visit here, but it’s a good place to watch the ground bulge from underground pressure.
You can use the riding trails and have cookouts in the Tower-Roosevelt area, check out the Petrified Tree and hike on trails through the Lamar Valley or to Specimen Ridge with its unusual fossils.
A small geyser basin and views of Lake Yellowstone are worth stopping for at West Thumb, which also has a visitor center and a warming hut if you’re here in winter.
Sitting in the bowl of a 600,000 year old volcanic caldera, Yellowstone Lake is a wild and mysterious phenomena. You can boat and fish in Yellowstone Lake or simply sit along the shore and watch the waves. In the winter, you will sometimes see otters and coyotes, on the ice at lake’s edge.
Yellowstone National Park is one of America’s premier wilderness areas. Most of the Yellowstone is backcountry and managed as wilderness. There are over 1,200 miles of trails available for hiking. However, there are dangers inherent in hiking in wilderness area: unpredictable wildlife, changing weather conditions, remote thermal areas, cold water lakes, turbulent streams, and rugged mountains with loose rock.
Any backcountry hike in the Yellowstone wilderness means experiencing the land on its terms. If you go hiking or camping and enjoy the natural wonders of Yellowstone, there is no guarantee of your safety. And you should be prepared for any situation. Carefully read all backcountry guidelines and regulations. There are numerous trails suitable for day hiking. You can begin your hikes by stopping at a ranger station or visitor center for information. Trail conditions can change suddenly and unexpectedly. Trails may be temporarily closed by bear activity, rain or snow storms, high water and fires. At a minimum, carry water, a raincoat or poncho, a warm hat, insect repellent, sunscreen, and a first aid kit. We recommend hiking with another person. No permit is required for day hiking.
Yellowstone’s weather is unpredictable. A sunny warm day may become stormy with wind, rain, sleet and even snow. Lightning storms are common. During these storms, get off water and away from beaches, and stay away from ridges, exposed places and isolated trees.
More visitors tour parts of the park by bicycle every year, despite the fact that Yellowstone’s roads are typically narrow, rough and without shoulders. Some 300 miles of roadway are available to bicyclists, but bikes are prohibited on trails and in the backcountry. Blacktail Deer Plateau Road, near Mammoth, allows two-way bike and one-way auto traffic. Bicyclists face stiff climbs at Craig Pass, between Old Faithful and West Thumb; Sylvan Pass, between the East entrance and Fishing Bridge; and Dunraven Pass, north of Canyon.
Some roads restricted to bicycle and foot travel are: the abandoned railroad bed paralleling the Yellowstone River near Mammoth (5 miles); Riverside Trail, which starts at the west entrance (1 mile); the paved trail from Old Faithful’s Hamilton Store to Morning Glory Pool (2 miles); and Natural Bridge Road, near Bridge Bay (1 mile).
There are 1,210 miles of trails and 85 trailheads in Yellowstone. Don’t be surprised to find some trails closed temporarily due to weather conditions or bear activity. For more information on specific areas of the park, contact the visitor center in that area.
Boating is allowed on Yellowstone and other lakes, but you must have a permit. Yellowstone Lake is subject to sudden high winds and its waters are extremely cold.
During the winter, there are unlimited places for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Start at Old Faithful, the easy Lone Star Geyser Trail passes thermal areas and links to several other trails ranging from easy to difficult. The Riverside Trail starting at the west entrance follows the Madison River and involves one traverse up a short, steep hill. The Canyon area has trails for beginner to intermediate skiers with some awe-inspiring rim side views, as well as dangerous switchbacks for advanced skiers only. Downhill skiers can head to the slopes in Jackson Hole.
In The Area
Craters of the Moon National Monument
The Craters of the Moon Lava Field covers 618 square miles and is the largest young basaltic lava field in the lower 48 states. Established in 1924, Craters of the Moon National Monument preserves 83 square miles of it for the enjoyment of present and future generations. The park contains more than 20 volcanic cones including outstanding examples of spatter cones. There are 60 different lava flows on the surface and they range in age from 15,000 to just 2,000 years old.John D.
Rockefeller Jr. Parkway
Linking West Thumb in Yellowstone with the South Entrance of Grand Teton National Park, this scenic 82 mile corridor commemorates Rockefeller’s role in aiding establishment of many parks, including Grand Teton.
National Elk Refuge
The National Elk Refuge, on the southern border of Grand Teton National Park, provides a winter home to nearly 7,500 elk. Late in October and early in November when snow comes to the high country, elk begin their traditional migration from their summer range in the Tetons and Yellowstone to the winter range in the valley. The heavy snows forcing the animals to lower elevations in search of food. Elk stay on the Refuge for about six months. In winter, horse-drawn sleigh rides are available to take visitors for a close-up look at the elk herd.
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area
Bighorn Canyon NRA was established by an act of Congress on October 15, 1966, after the construction of the Yellowtail Dam by the Bureau of Reclamation. This dam, named after the famous Crow chairman Robert Yellowtail, harnessed the waters of the Big Horn River and turned this variable stream into a magnificent lake.
When To Go
The best time to visit is in summer and early fall. July and August are your best bets for a chance to see any particular location without fear of driving through a snowstorm, but even then be aware that it can and does snow every month of the year in the mountains. Fall can be the perfect time to visit; summer crowds have diminished and days are warm and nights are cool. Mid-September usually brings the first snowstorm of the season, followed by an Indian summer of calm days and cool temperatures.
Many roads in Yellowstone National Park are generally closed by early October and don’t reopen until late April or early May. Winter activities on snowmobiles, snow coaches and cross-country skis are generally allowed in Yellowstone from December through February. Before Memorial Day, services in the park are limited.
Yellowstone National Park
P. O. Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168
Operating Hours & Seasons
Summer: The season runs from mid-April to late-October. Once an entrance or road opens it is open 24 hours. The only exceptions are caused by road construction and weather-related restrictions.
Winter: The season runs from mid-December to mid-March. The road from the North Entrance at Gardiner, MT to the Northeast Entrance at Cooke City, MT is open to wheeled-vehicle use year around. Only over-snow vehicles are allowed on other park roads.
Albright Visitor Center and Museum
The Albright Visitor Center and Museum (open 365 days a year) is located at Mammoth Hot Springs, five miles inside the North Entrance and at the northwest corner of the upper loop of the Grand Loop Road. The visitor center and all the red-roofed houses down the street from it were built by the U. S. Cavalry during a time when this was “Fort Yellowstone,” an Army post dedicated to protecting the national park.
Norris Geyser Basin Museum
The Norris Geyser Basin Museum is located 1/4 mile east of Norris Junction just off the Grand Loop Road. Built in 1929-30, it is National Historic Landmark. Its distinctive stone-and-log architecture, known as “parkitecture,” became a prototype for park buildings all around the country. New exhibits on geothermal geology, Norris Geyser Basin features and life in thermal areas were installed in 1995.
The Madison Museum dates from 1929-30 and is a National Historic Landmark and is located at Madison Junction in the Madison Picnic Area. The building sits near the site of the legendary campfire circle of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. Although no evidence can confirm the authenticity of this tale, the legend gives us a strong theme for discussion of the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.
Old Faithful Visitors Information Center
Located only 200 yards from Old Faithful Geyser, the Visitor Center is situated between the Old Faithful Inn and the Old Faithful Lodge with a wonderful view of one of the most recognizable features of Yellowstone. A 100-seat auditorium provides the setting for daily showings of Yellowstone Revealed; a 14-minute film that reveals newly discovered life forms and the associated benefits to society through new breathtaking footage of the park. Evening ranger-led programs are presented here during the summer and the winter seasons.
Grant Visitor Center
The Grant Visitor Center is located on the shore of the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake one mile off of the main park road at Grant Village Junction. The visitor center and development are named for President Ulysses S. Grant, eighteenth president of the United States, who signed the bill creating Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The facility was constructed during the 1970’s and, along with the entire Grant development, was and is a controversial Yellowstone development due to its location in prime grizzly bear habitat.
Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor Center
The Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor Center is located one mile off the Grand Loop Road on the East Entrance Road. Built in 1931, it is a National Historic Landmark.
Canyon Visitor Center
The Canyon Visitor Center is located 1/8 mile southeast of Canyon Junction in the Canyon Village complex. The building was completed and open for public use in late summer 1957 as part of the mission 66 project in Yellowstone. The Canyon Visitor Center has traditionally been the location of exhibits explaining the geology of Yellowstone, but there has been no permanent exhibit here since the summer of 1990. Planning for a permanent geology exhibit is underway. Audiovisual programs are currently not available at the Canyon Visitor Center.