Yellowstone, the nation’s first National Park was also the first park that I had the privilege of visiting and this experience was a large turning point in my life that inspired me to continue traveling in the years to come. I took this trip following my sophomore year of college and it was part of a History of Yellowstone field course was offered at my university. The course lasted a total of five weeks and covered the historical, ecological, and geological history of Yellowstone National Park. The class stayed at a nearby horse ranch called K-Z that was located 30 minutes from the park’s eastern entrance. While we did explore some of the areas surrounding Yellowstone, most of our days were spent inside the park. I eventually visited the park two more times in the years since, but this trip marked the longest span of time I was able to explore this national treasure.
One caveat I will say about Yellowstone is that it is a driving-oriented park as opposed to one centered around hiking trails. That’s not to say that there are no worthwhile trails in the park, but the majority of the park’s most popular attractions require a short walk from a nearby parking lot to enjoy. Some of these attractions include Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic, and Artist’s Point and I would highly encourage first time visitors to make a point of visiting each one of these during the time in the park. Old Faithful is a geyser that shoots water over a hundred feet into the year and is located next to the Old Faithful Inn, one of the park’s most popular hotels, although rooms may be difficult to book and considerably pricey due to this high demand. Like many hotels in America’s National Park, the design of the hotel is meant to incorporate nature themes to blend in with the surrounding scenery. In this case, Old Faithful can be best described as an extremely and elaborately decorated log cabin. Old Faithful gets its name from how regularly the geyser erupts. An estimated time of eruption is showcased at the front desk of the lodging to help visitors plan when their time in the area. The crowds around Old Faithful can grow very large as you get closer to the next scheduled eruption so count on being surrounded by many other visitors as you watch this natural marvel. Old faithful is not the only geothermal feature in Yellowstone as this park has the planet’s highest concentration of geothermal features. Another such feature that is a must see for visitors is the Grand Prismatic. This is a geothermal pool that is nearly the size of a football field in length. In addition to it’s size, what makes this wonder stand out are the vibrant colors. The majority of the blue is a very vivid blue while the edges of the pool are lined with multi-colored rings that go from red to orange to yellow; each color caused by a different species of bacteria that survive at the temperature in that specific region. This wonder can be accessed by a ½ boardwalk trail from the nearest parking lot. The final natural wonder that I want to highlight that is near a parking lot is artist point. This is a cliff that juts out into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that allows visitors to see take in an excellent view of the canyon as well as lower Yellowstone falls. This scene is my personal favorite panoramic view within Yellowstone and well worth the very short walk from the parking lot.
That is not to say that there are no hiking trails within the park for those that want to escape the crowds and see a more rugged and secluded side of Yellowstone. One thing that stood out to me about Yellowstone is that while I never felt alone while I remained within the iconic sites just discussed, when I took to the trails; I felt as if I had the entire park to myself. For those who do choose to explore these trails; an important thing to keep in mind is that there is a very wild region, complete with an abundance of wildlife such as cougars, wolves, bears, and moose that can pose a severe threat to human lives so entering these regions should be done with caution and in groups. If old faithful and the grand prismatic wet your appetite for geothermals, than the upper geyser basin is an excellent longer trail to enjoy. This 5 mile trek takes hikers through a mostly flat terrain takes visitors past dozens of geothermal features. While none are as large as the grand prismatic or old faithful, the sheer number of them is a joy to see. If the waterfalls at artist point was what caught your eye more-so than the geysers, than the North Rim trail is likely for you. This 6.5 mile trail takes hikers along the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and enables to see the majority of the canyon’s top scenic outlooks. Another excellent waterfall hike is the 5 mile out and back hike to Fairy Falls. If you want to combine geothermals and waterfalls, than going a few mile further past Fairly Falls will bring you to King’s Geyser. Just keep in mind, seeing this geyser explode is purely a matter of luck since King’s Geyser erupts at random intervals unlike Old Faithful.
Aside from the scenic landmarks, the other large attraction of Yellowstone is the abundant wildlife. The park has one of the largest concentrations of wildlife within the United States and with a massive variety that includes large herds of elk and bison and large apex predators such as grizzly bears, gray wolves, and panthers. In addition, you can moose wandering the wetlands of the park, pronghorn running through the plains, and eagles dotting the sky. Wolves were reintroduced to the park a few decades ago and in that time had established several packs within the park. Wolf watchers can often be seen along the road at Lamar Valley, equipped with powerful cameras and telescopes in order to spot the wolves that frequent that portion of the park. The same valley is home is bison herds that numbers several dozen. Even black bear are not an uncommon site walking along the roads in the park although the much larger Grizzly bears tends to be a rarer site. If you are driving along the road and note a large collection of cars staring off into a seemingly empty field, get out and join them. There is a good chance they are admiring some of that very wildlife. The park’s spectacular wildlife quickly attracts a crowd, within minute a dozen cars are likely to accumulate along the side of the road when a bear is nearby.
The pure majesty and splendor of Yellowstone is what set me on my traveling lifestyle and for that, it will always hold a special place in my heart. Yellowstone is truly one of those places that can not be described in words but must be seen and felt in person to truly be appreciated. Although I have not had the chance yet to return to this park since I graduated, I look forward to the day of being able to explore this park on my own terms rather than being led around by an instructor. There were many other nearby areas that I was also able to enjoy such as the hot spring of Thermopolis, Wyoming or the towering mountains that make up Grand Teton National Park but those are stories for another day…