Not only is Yellowstone National Park the oldest/first National Park in the United States, it is also considered to be the first one in the world. Established in 1872, Yellowstone is rather large (as in huge) at almost 3,500 square miles.
The Yellowstone Caldera makes up a large portion of Yellowstone National Park and is the largest volcanic system in North America. It is the reason why Yellowstone has a whole bunch of hydrothermal features. As in 10,000 of them, including 300 geysers. Half the world’s hydrothermal features, and two-thirds of the world’s geysers, are concentrated in Yellowstone. Lots and lots of interesting features to explore in the park!
Yellowstone is a study in contrast. There will be a stand of trees – your typical forest – and then there will be an area of hydrothermal features that looks like an alien landscape. There are wonderfully beautiful valleys and canyons over here and hot rivers over there. Geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents abound, as do peaceful valleys, grasslands, and forests.
Located just north of Grand Teton National Park (actually connected via the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway – amazing what doing good things will get you – or when you need to redeem yourself), Yellowstone is much more of a driving park than Grand Teton. You have to drive everywhere ‘cause it is so damn huge. Which means everyone is driving, so there can be, um, a bit of a traffic problem inside the park during the peak season. Which is when we visited. Of course! Why wouldn’t we have?
We partially solved the traffic issue by hitting the west park entrance around 6 am, long before the masses start their day. It seems that the majority of tourists like to sleep in and wouldn’t think of starting their day at the crack of dawn. We entered the park early three mornings and had a major destination in mind for each day. The idea was to get to a popular spot before the crowds and then see how much more we could handle as the people started to arrive. This worked quite well and allowed us to have full days of exploring, with the first few hours having the place almost to ourselves.
One of the advantages of getting into Yellowstone early is the bison jam, which is when a herd of bison decides they need to move from one area to another and they use the easiest route – the road. We came in the west entrance twice at 6 am, and both times, we hit a bison jam about half an hour later, on our way to that day’s primary destination (I told you the park was huge – 30 minutes only gets you partially into the park, and that’s with no traffic).
Traffic came to a standstill as the bison took over the road. The cars didn’t faze them – they were on a mission. If you were going against the flow of bison traffic, you simply stopped and let the herd go around and you could proceed. This happened to us the first morning.
The second morning we were going in the same direction as the bison, so we were help up for quite a while – until the bison reached their destination and turned off the road.
Being surrounded by bison is an amazing experience. They would literally walk right next to the car and you could reach out and pet them if you wished. I didn’t wish as I like for my limbs and my car to be in one piece.
Some people would get annoyed by the bison. There was a construction worker (road construction is a constant thing in the park these days as they improve the roads) who was held up by the second herd we ran into, so she felt it was necessary to bang her hard hat outside her window and generally be an ass. Of course the bison didn’t give her the time of day.
Another herd we came across was mostly just off the road except for a couple of stubborn bison that just stood there, blocking the traffic. A park ranger came along and “persuaded” the couple of bison to get onto the shoulder by “charging” them with his Suburban, while blaring his siren. It worked, but it seemed like it was harassing the animals. Pretty sure if I did that with my car I would get in trouble. But what do I know?
Bison were seen in many other places in the park, but none of the sightings were as impressive as being in the middle of a bison herd, on two separate days. That was absolutely brilliant!
Upper Geyser Basin
On the way from our spot in the Tetons to our spot in West Yellowstone we had to pass through Yellowstone National Park, so we decided to make use of this and stop in to see Old Faithful, one of the park’s most famous features. Old Faithful is actually in the Upper Geyser Basin, an area that has so much more to offer than just the old dude.
We arrived shortly after 8 am and were happy to see that the crowds had yet to descend on the area, which made viewing Old Faithful a much more pleasant experience. Old Faithful is the centerpiece of the Upper Geyser Basin, and is just outside of the Old Faithful Inn and the Visitor Education Center. There are a lot of permanent benches setup so that people can hang out until the geyser blows.
Old Faithful got its name because of it predictability. The Park Service predicts the time of the next eruption, though it is just an estimate. Old Faithful does its thing, on average, every 94 minutes. As it happens, we were about 20 minutes from the next estimated time, so we hung around for a bit, exploring the immediate area. The predicted time came and went, and we got tired of standing in one spot, so we went up to Geyser Hill, just to the north of Old Faithful. Geyser Hill has a bunch of hydrothermal features and offers a great view of Old Faithful, being a hill and all.
Old Faithful did its thing as we were on the hill and we were treated to a great show with a backdrop of the inn and visitors center. Once the show was done, we continued on with our exploration.
If you go to the Upper Geyser Basin and only see Old Faithful, you are doing yourself a disservice. There is a great boardwalk that heads north-ish from Old Faithful and takes you past spectacular features. We went as far as the Morning Glory Pool, which is the end of the main trail. There was plenty more to explore in the Upper Geyser Basin, but we needed to head to West Yellowstone.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Our first full day of exploring Yellowstone started at Mammoth Hot Springs, which is a bunch of hot springs on a travertine hill near the north entrance of the park. Pics coming right up!
Adjacent to Mammoth Hot Springs is Fort Yellowstone, a military compound established in 1891 (19 years after the park was created) to provide law and order to the nation’s first national park. It seems that the general public didn’t quite know what a national park was as Yellowstone was the first, so they used it as their personal hunting and looting grounds. The cavalry was sent in (literally) to police the park and make sure this national treasure was around for future generations.
Fort Yellowstone was built between 1891 and 1913. Combined with remote outposts where soldiers stayed on overnight patrols, the fort was able to stop the desecration of the park. This system was so effective that it was used in future national parks until the National Park Service was able to handle enforcement on its own.
Today, Fort Yellowstone is used as park headquarters and staff housing. We took the self guided tour of the grounds, which showcased the beautiful buildings.
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is the “hottest and most changeable thermal area in Yellowstone”. Whatever that means. “Most changeable”? Does this mean that it is plumbed with valves that some dude turns to make this geyser do its thing, while shutting down those over there?
Anyhow, Norris Geyser Basin consists of Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. Both areas full of lovely hydrothermal features.
Enough talk. Let’s see the lovely pictures (probably some of the best ever taken here).
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
The final day in Yellowstone found us making a beeline to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. While not on the same magnitude as the “real” Grand Canyon, it definitely offered spectacular scenery and a couple of magnificent waterfalls.
We chose to explore the south rim, thinking that is was going to be less crowded than the north rim, which is closer to canyon village and appears to offer easier access to all the scenic points. And since most Americans/tourists are lazier, we figured they would go to the north rim side of things.
Parking on the west end of the South Rim, we hiked the entire length of the South Rim Trail, a 1.75 mile path through the forest that starts at the level of the Yellowstone River and then ends at Artist Point, high above the river (thanks to the two waterfalls you pass).
The Upper Falls is the shorter (109 feet) of the two waterfalls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and is where the trail departs from the river, or rather, vice versa. We were sitting down enjoying the river and I was looking off to the right (east) looking at what I assumed was some rapids. I couldn’t be sure as the river took a 90 degree turn to the right so I wasn’t seeing it clearly. Turns out this was the Lower Falls, which is a wee bit different than some rapids! 🙂
The Lower Falls are about three times the height of the Upper Falls at 308 feet, and are best viewed by descending Uncle Tom’s Trail. Originally a series of ladders and ropes descending from the top of the canyon to the base of Lower Falls, Uncle Tom’s Trail now consists of a series of 300 metal steps descending approximately 500 feet into the canyon. At the bottom of the trail you get a spectacular view of the Lower Falls. Then you have to climb back up. And up. And up. Fun times!
We continued on to Artist Point, which offers great views both back towards Lower Falls to the west, as well as east down the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River. The crowds were definitely picking up by this time as Artist Point is probably the most popular destination on the South Rim.
We were feeling like we wanted to get one hike in while at Yellowstone, so we continued east from Artist Point and completed the Ribbon Lake Trail, which ended at a gorgeous alpine lake. The only bummer was all the mosquitoes we encountered. On the day I decided not to pack the bug spray. Live and learn.
There are two valley areas in Yellowstone – Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. We heard great things about Lamar Valley – the abundance of wildlife and the great views – but didn’t have time to go there. Instead we spent some time in Hayden Valley, which is south of the canyon area and has the Yellowstone River running through it.
We did see some wildlife in Hayden Valley. You know, the typical elk, waterfowl, etc. Ho-hum. These are a dime a dozen in these parts! Yes, one does start to get a bit jaded when constantly exposed to such beauty and wildlife. 😉
A short jaunt down a trail got us away from to noise from the main road and let us enjoy a bit of peace in the valley, standing in a wide open meadow with bison off in the distance. Nice…
Artist Paint Pots
Our final stop in Yellowstone National Park was the Artist Paint Pots, which has a one mile trail circling some some colorful hot springs and a couple of mud pots. At this point I was pretty tired of taking pictures of gorgeous hydrothermal features (I know, I know), so there isn’t a tremendous amount to show you here.
The two and one-half days we spent in Yellowstone National Park allowed us to only scratch the surface of what the area has to offer. We missed several major areas as time didn’t allow us and we were already go, go, going as it was. Yes, we could have spent a few more days here, but by the time we had spent a full week in the Tetons, and a couple of days dealing with massive crowds in Yellowstone, we (or at least I) was D-O-N-E. It just means we have to come back during the shoulder season, when the masses aren’t around.