Must-See Sights at Yellowstone National Park

Saturday, December 18, 2021

I visited Yellowstone National Park for the first time in 2021 with my boyfriend. While it was his third trip, we still found things to see that were new to him in this massive - 3,471 square mile - park. As the first designated National Park in the United States, it was such a unique and special experience. Yellowstone is home to over 10,000 geyser formations and it truly felt like we had left the United States and stepped onto a new planet at times. From geysers to historic monuments to waterfalls - there's something for everyone at Yellowstone. The park is also incredibly accessible considering the landscape. There are boardwalks to explore geysers and many of the most iconic features are not far from the main road.


Built in 1903, the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, MT is the original entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The park was established 31 years earlier and managed by the US Army until the National Park Service was created in 1916. The quote at the top of the arch, "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people" is taken from the legislation that designated Yellowstone as a territory of the United States government. Before all of this government involvement, people had been living on the land for more than 11,000 years, including the Tukudika Native American tribe.


If you enter Yellowstone at the north entrance, you'll arrive at Mammoth Hot Springs in about 10 minutes. With the Albright Visitor Center, Historic Fort Yellowstone and other buildings nearby, there is plenty of parking around the travertine terraces. These hot springs rise through limestone and deposit minerals to create colorful terraces. These springs are not for soaking in - the geothermal activity and constantly changing landscape creates a very fragile environment. There are plenty of boardwalks and stairs to explore Mammoth Hot Springs from. Elk also frequently reside in this area. We saw males, females and young elk resting and wandering around the springs.


Carved by the Yellowstone River, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is an absolutely stunny natural feature.  There are a few ways to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, including the North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive. There are trails with steep descents in addition to wheelchair-accessible viewing areas. The photo above was taken at Artist Point, which you'll find toward the end of the South Rim Drive. The canyon is colored in orange, brown and green hues by rhyolite and sediments affected by hydrothermal features. It continues to be shaped by this type of activity, as well as water, wind and earthquakes.


Called America's Serengeti, Lamar Valley is home to a variety of wildlife. There's a chance of spotting bison, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, wolves and bears. Remember to give wildlife plenty of room - that's 100 yards for predators (wolves and bears) and 25 yards for any other animals. The river valley landscape is very different from the geyser basin scenes around the park. We were lucky enough to come across a pack of wolves feasting on bison early one morning in the park. The wolves were calling to each other and headed back into the hills as the sun rose. It was such a special experience, especially because there are only 528 wolves living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (as of 2015). 


The largest high-elevation lake - 7,733 feet above sea level - in the lower 48 can be found in Yellowstone National Park. A massive explosion that erupted near Old Faithful and the Fishing Bridge created the 136 square mile basin that is Yellowstone Lake. The lake used to be 200 feet higher than it is today. Water temperatures are too cold for swimming year-round but you can fish or take a boat out. There are many restrictions in place to prevent the spread of invasive species, so be sure to get a permit and inspection.


Some of the hottest and most acidic hydrothermal features can be found in this geyser basin. Many of the hot springs have temperatures above boiling point. There are two main loops - through the Porcelain Basin and through the Back Basin to explore Norris. The trails are a combination of boardwalks, paved paths and unpaved paths, with one steep path from the Museum down to both basins. We walked along both loops to see everything - colorful deposits, bubbling springs and a couple small erupting geysers. The landscape is constantly changing and you're likely to see new vents or pools each time you visit.


Like Lamar Valley, Hayden Valley is home to an abundance of wildlife. Bison are most prominent in this part of Yellowstone and you are likely to get caught in an infamous bison jam. We watched a National Park ranger guide one bison off the road to keep traffic moving. The Hayden Valley herd spends a lot of its time here, especially during the breeding season. Thousands of bison call Yellowstone home, so you are sure to see them across the park.


One of the most recognizable features at Yellowstone National Park is Grand Prismatic Spring. Named for its rainbow appearance, the spring is definitely a must-see. As with any iconic spot, I would typically recommend getting here early. However, our view was obstructed by steam rising off the spring early in the morning. You can walk on the boardwalk next to the spring or head up to the overlook. Just over half a mile from the Fairy Falls Trailhead, the out and back trail to Grand Prismatic Overlook offers an unforgettable view. Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the Yellowstone ecosystem and the third-largest in the world.


When visiting Yellowstone, you just have to stop by the crown jewel: Old Faithful. The geyser is one of very few that erupts on a predictable schedule, give or take 10 minutes. The latest prediction is available online or at the visitor center. Even if you aren't spending the night, be sure to take a look inside Old Faithful Inn. It was built during the winter of 1903-1904 and offers a true step back in time, with its rustic wood-frame structure and overstated features. You can also take the boardwalks through the Upper Geyser Basin to Morning Glory Pool. This pool has changed drastically over time, unfortunately, due to debris thrown into the pool. Be sure to keep your coins to yourself and carry any trash off the trail.


At the southern section of Yellowstone, you'll find West Thumb Geyser Basin on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. These hydrothermal features exist on the surface and under the lake. The geysers and springs on the water were definitely a sight to see. Notable features include the Fishing Cone (pictured above) and Abyss Pool. The Fishing Cone is named for the dangerous practice of catching fish and cooking them over the geyser, which was common in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The geyser is unpredictable but has been known to erupt to heights over 40 feet.

With so many incredible sights, which are also well spread out around the park, Yellowstone is worth exploring for at least a few days. There are countless additional geothermal features on the side of the roads, too. Many visitors also continue their trip down to Grand Teton National Park, which can be found just south of Yellowstone. 

Have you visited Yellowstone National Park? What's your favorite thing to see?

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