Yellowstone National Park: A Natural Wonder

Geysers and buffalo and bears! Arrive early and stay late to see the natural world at its best.

Why is Old Faithful so famous? Will I see a grizzly bear? Are there any yellow stones in the park? How are the wolves doing? What is a mud pot?

Yellowstone National Park, the first National Park my family visited, is a 2.2 million acre natural wonderland, where for every question answered, a handful of new inquiries seem to arise. It’s a place where bald eagles soar, the buffalo roam and a very special geyser spews forth, seemingly on cue.

Spend a day, spend a week or spend a month: you will always be thirsting for more in Yellowstone. There is simply so much to see and do. The most difficult question of all: where to start?

Perhaps the best place to begin your research is on the National Park Service Web site. It is comprehensive and chock-full of practical information, photos, videos and checklists for individuals or families, backcountry adventurers or day-trippers.

Study the maps. Determine what intrigues you. Most visitors, particularly those traveling with children, will be interested in seeing the highlights and then delving deeper into the areas and aspects of the park that strike their fancy.

What’s New at the Park

Yellowstone’s new Canyon Visitor Education Center opens this month (Aug. 25, 2008) and coincides with the 90th anniversary of the National Park Service. It’s the first major center development at the park in 30 years. The center’s focus will be on the park's geology and underlying “supervolcano.”

The exhibits will include a large globe which rotates on a film of water showing the location of volcanic hot spots around the world; a room-sized, fiber optic and LED animated topographic relief map of the geologic history of the park, programmed to illustrate eruptions, glacier movements and lava flows; and life-size dioramas of wildlife found in Hayden Valley.

Another new education center is currently in the works for Old Faithful, set to open later this year.

Grand Geysers and Hot Springs

Speaking of Old Faithful, there are more geysers in Yellowstone than anywhere else on the planet, and this American icon is the most famous of them all. Add to her glory numerous others, big and small, and there are plenty of ‘hot spots’ you won’t want to miss.

The Upper Geyser Basin is home to the largest numbers of these fragile features in the park. Within one square mile there are at least 150 hydrothermal wonders.

Old Faithful

They say Old Faithful has been earning her name since 1870. Few visitors are willing to visit the park without at least stopping by to see her spew her stuff. You can expect to witness the world-famous eruption about every hour and a half. When she blows, the crowd cheers and cameras pop. To learn more about Old Faithful, watch these videos prepared by Park Service guides.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Visitors are awed by the beauty of this canyon, carved by the mighty Yellowstone River. Twenty miles long, the river plunges over two waterfalls in the first mile. The Upper Falls is 109 feet high and the Lower Falls, sometime called Yellowstone Falls, plunges 308 feet. This is a popular spot among park visitors, and its magnificence helped convince Congress to protect Yellowstone as the world’s first national park. Keep an extra eye on children in this area. The trails are narrow, the soil is soft and crumbly and the drop offs are dramatic.

Yellowstone Lake

The largest lake at high elevation in North America, Yellowstone has 110 miles of shoreline and is popular among wildlife watchers, fishermen and boaters. Despite the fact that the geyser basin pours an average of 3,100 gallons of hot water into the lake every day, the lake’s average summer temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It may not be a great swimming spot, but its many moods and prime habitat make it worth a visit. Permits for boating and fishing are available at the lake's ranger station.

Wildlife Watch

You’ve heard the saying that “if you want to catch fish, fish where the fish are.” The same goes for catching a glimpse of the more elusive animals in the park. We’ve seen something extraordinary each of the seven or eight times we’ve visited Yellowstone. Sometimes we got lucky. (A friendly visitor offered to show us the grizzly bear he had dialed in on his spotting scope. Later on the same day, we came upon a majestic moose moving across a creek, barely visible through the mist.)

Other times we worked for our opportunity to witness the wonders of the natural world unfold. Early morning and sunset are good times to catch animals moving about. If you travel when crowds are heaviest and the sun is high in the sky, you are far less likely to see wildlife.

When visitors do see animals, they occasionally lose their good sense in all the excitement. More than once I have witnessed a visitor pose for a photograph, shockingly close to bison. Do not risk it. The bison and all other animals within the park are to be treated with respect and caution. Make sure your children understand that the animals may seem as tame as those found in a petting zoo. However, getting too close is not safe.

And of course this is bear country. Grizzly bear country. We always travel with pepper spray when traveling through grizz territory. Never camp or picnic in an area that has obvious evidence of bear activity—digging, tracks or scat.

Bears have an excellent sense of smell, so make sure your children know that it is not a good idea to take food, candy or gum of any kind into their tent.

Hike and explore in groups. Make noise. Be aware. When in doubt, ask a ranger for guidance. 

Get Out There

There are more than 350 miles of paved roadways in Yellowstone. A figure-eight loop in the heart of it all will enable you to see many of the most famous sites, animals moving from one grazing area to another and geysers spewing their steam into the air. It is possible to enjoy Yellowstone without ever leaving your car. But I don’t recommend it. 

The farther you move from the roadways, the deeper will be your enjoyment of the park. Take advantage of the many nature trails, hiking paths, fishing streams and backcountry vistas. There are miles of biking paths and cross country ski trails. This is your national park. Experience all that you can. Then come back for more.

Destinations: Yellowstone National Park

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

Yellowstone is now on my list I've wanted to visit Yellowstone for a while, and this article convinces me to move it up on my list. Thanks!