Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world—and still the most famous. It has gorgeous mountains, abundant wildlife and placid lakes set within a multicolored land of steam and waterfalls. The unique qualities of the area were recognized when Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, 18 years before Wyoming became a state.
Yellowstone is best known for its large number of geothermal features—steaming mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs and active geysers, including Old Faithful. The park contains more than 10,000 thermal sites, more than in all the rest of the world, and new geysers and other features emerge constantly. Yellowstone Park also contains fossil forests, a volcanic-glass mountain and dozens of spectacular waterfalls.
The breathtaking scenery and the possibilities of unforgettable wildlife encounters (moose, elk, trout, bears, wolves) make this a must-see area. Hike one of the many trails to an isolated waterfall or geyser and enjoy the wildflowers, landscape features and wildlife along the way.
Even with so much to see, Yellowstone has problems of overcrowding in such major spots as Old Faithful, Fishing Bridge and Mammoth. Most visitors never stray far from the road, however, so going for a hike is a great way to leave the crowds behind. Another option is to plan your travel for an off time or a "shoulder" season. Many visitors find a trip in late spring or early fall gives them a great Yellowstone experience without the crowds.
Adventurous travelers visit in winter, when access is limited and most travel is by skis, snowmobile or snowcoach. Consider spending a few days at one end of the park and a few at the opposite end. This will reduce your point-to-point driving time, leaving you more time for sightseeing, hiking and soaking up the scenery.
Yellowstone covers an area the size of the states of Rhode Island and Delaware. Most of the park lies in the state of Wyoming, with thin strips to the north and west that are part of Montana and Idaho. Despite its concentration of thermal wonders, the park is more than geysers and mud pots. Surprisingly, it contains several vegetation zones, ranging from the northern desert found between Gardiner and Mammoth to the alpine tundra of Mount Washburn. In between are grasslands, forests, marshy riverbanks and alpine lakes.
The North Entrance from Gardiner, Montana, the West Entrance from West Yellowstone, Montana, and the South Entrance from Jackson and Grand Teton National Park are the most accessible. The East Entrance from Cody and the Northeast Entrance from Cooke City and Red Lodge are more isolated and see less traffic. Getting your bearings within the park is fairly easy. The park's main road—called the Grand Loop—is a figure eight that can be accessed at several points. The park is divided into five basic areas: Mammoth, Roosevelt, Canyon, Lake and Old Faithful, and services are situated at various junctions that are designated as "villages."
Dubbed "the most beautiful roadway in America" by On the Road correspondent Charles Kuralt, the Beartooth Highway, between Cooke City and Red Lodge, climbs to an astounding 10,947 ft/3,400 m above sea level. Driving its dramatic switchbacks is a "must do" for Yellowstone visitors.
When traveling to, from and within the park, it's always smart to check for closures and delays. The roads going into and out of the park may be closed for construction, weather or safety reasons; before driving to the park, call ahead to confirm that the entrance you plan to use is open. The roads within the park were not built for the volume, speed and weight of today's traffic. Harsh winters and short construction seasons make road construction in Yellowstone a perennial effort. For current road information, visit http://www.nps.gov/yell//planyourvisit/conditions.htm or call 307-344-7381.
The geothermal activity at Yellowstone began more than 600,000 years ago with a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that deposited a layer of ash across much of North America. What remained was a caldera, 30 mi/48 km wide by 45 mi/72 km long, and a treasure trove of thermal anomalies that continue to be fueled by subterranean volcanic activity. Evidence of human habitation in the area can be traced back as far as 6000-9000 BC. Archaeological research indicates that groups of Shoshone lived within the park during the past 1,500 years and that they were present in the area when white explorers first visited.
In the early 1800s, explorers and adventurers pushed west across the plains into the Rocky Mountains. In 1807, the Missouri Fur Trading Company sent John Colter, a former member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, on a solo expedition of the Yellowstone area. With this journey, Colter became the first of many white men to tell vibrant tales of boiling rivers and holes in the earth that spewed water and steam. When the explorers' accounts appeared in newspapers, the public treated them as the tall tales of men who had spent too much time alone in the woods. Even in the 1830s, when well-known mountain man Jim Bridger told of waterfalls that spouted up, there were not many believers.
In 1870, a group led by Henry Washburn, surveyor-general of the Montana Territory, documented the wonders of Yellowstone; in 1871, Congress appointed the U.S. Geological Survey head, Ferdinand Hayden, to officially explore the area. He was accompanied by artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Jackson, who produced the first pictorial renderings of Yellowstone's geologic wonders. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone as the world's first national park.
By 1895, annual visitation was more than 5,000. A railway spur came to the north side of the park in 1883, which connected to stagecoaches that carried visitors around the Grand Loop, stopping at notable sights and staying at grand hotels, including Old Faithful Inn and Lake Yellowstone Hotel, constructed for the purpose. By 1915, the first automobiles appeared, and road construction increased.
Throughout the ensuing decades, Yellowstone has been designated a Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The park hit the headlines in 1988 when three months of drought set the stage for the worst fire season ever: More than one-third of the park's acreage was damaged by fire until September snowfalls finally snuffed the inferno.
Yellowstone was in the spotlight in 1995 over the reintroduction of wolves and in 2000 over the controversy about snowmobile restrictions. Today, only a small number of snowmobiles are permitted in the park per day, which cuts down on the noise and air pollution that was irritating the environment as well as visitors looking to enjoy the natural surroundings.
Yellowstone is a sightseer's paradise, and at 2.2 million acres/900,000 hectares, there's plenty to see. In their eagerness to visit the park's highlights, some people just drive around the Grand Loop, only leaving their vehicles to eat, sleep and see Old Faithful erupt. With just a little more effort, by including short hikes and visits to museums, you can dramatically enhance your experience.
Winter visitors have a limited but no less majestic opportunity to explore. With the exception of the road between Mammoth and Silver Gate/Cooke City, all of the park's roads are closed to cars in the winter, making snow coaches (large heated vans on caterpillar treads), snowmobiles or cross-country skis excellent alternatives.
Nightlife in Yellowstone itself revolves around campfires and evening ranger programs, although hotels and inns have bars and sitting lounges with soft music playing in the background. If you want more lively entertainment—live music, gambling, movies, symphonies, art galleries, festivals and plays—you'll have to head to the gateway communities of Red Lodge, Cody, Jackson and West Yellowstone. A stop at each town's chamber of commerce will help you navigate the offerings.
Even though most of us think of Yellowstone in terms of picnics and campfire cooking, there is food to suit a variety of tastes and standards. Choices range from cafeterias and fast-food outlets to full-scale restaurants at Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful Inn, Grant Village, Canyon Lodge, Roosevelt Lodge and Lake Hotel.
Some restaurants feature local specialties such as farm-raised elk or bison burgers. Xanterra is making an impressive effort to buy produce and meat from local growers. In most cases, locally sourced ingredients are indicated as such on menus.
In the summer, reservations for dinner are required at Grant Village and highly recommended at Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Old Faithful Inn. In winter, reservations are recommended at Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs.
The general store at Lake Village has a counter-style snack bar with freshly prepared, hearty sandwiches and soups served with old-time flair. With a couple of hours' advance notice, hikers and picnickers can order a box lunch from most food outlets in the park.
All restaurants and food outlets in the park are managed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Casual dress is appropriate for all restaurants in the park. To make dinner reservations, phone 307-344-7311 or toll-free 866-439-7375, or fill out the online form at https://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/stay/plan/reservations.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; $$$$ = more than US$40.
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