Established in 1872 as America’s very first National Park, Yellowstone is indeed a sight to behold. The more than 3 million visitors that descend upon the park each year include guests that have come back again and again to enjoy awe-inspiring views, fascinating wildlife, unique natural features, and the opportunity to participate in hiking, biking, fishing, and a number of other fun activities.
When an act of the United States Congress established the park "for the preservation of its many wonders” and "for the enjoyment of the people," little did they know that the 2.2- million-acre park would become one of America’s most-visited vacation destinations. Covering land located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho (though 96% is in Wyoming), Yellowstone is friendly yet mysterious, breathtaking yet simple. In all, it’s a back-to-nature destination that will knock your socks off!
The beauty of Yellowstone is that it’s constantly changing. Located in one of America’s geologic “hot spots,” the park is one of the world's last “intact temperate ecosystems,” say geologists. That means all its major species of plants and animals are still present.
Lately, however, critics have reprimanded the public for its shoddy treatment of the park and have criticized the National Park Service for allowing such large crowds to occupy the park all at one time, particularly during the summer. Crowds have certainly taken their toll on the park, so those who visit should do so expecting to exercise a certain degree of care to insure that this amazing park will be around for many more millennia.
Planning a Yellowstone Visit
The best and most popular time to visit Yellowstone National Park is in the spring, summer, or fall. That said, about a quarter-of-a-million brave visitors make their way to this rugged terrain each winter to see what nature has to offer!
The closest major airport to Yellowstone is the one in Salt Lake City, Utah. However, a number of smaller airports served by several major airlines put you much closer to the park. For example, you can catch a flight to Billings, Montana; about 120 miles from Yellowstone and serviced by Delta, Horizon, Northwest, and United. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, only 60 miles from the park, is serviced by United and American.
Many individuals and families choose a driving route to the park and include stops at other wonderful Western U.S. National Parks and sites, such as Grand Teton, which is just south of Yellowstone.
Once you’ve decided how you’re getting to Yellowstone, you’ll need to think about accommodations. You can’t enjoy the park in just one day, so booking a hotel or other lodging option is a must. Yellowstone is home to a number of in-park options like the beautiful Lake Yellowstone Hotel, built in 1891 and refurbished in 1990, or the wonderful Old Faithful Inn, a National Historic Landmark. More rustic accommodations, like cabins, are available as well. Countless hotels, inns, B&Bs, campgrounds, and lodges are also located outside the park.
If you’re heading here during the summer, reservations for any accommodations, including campgrounds, should be made far in advance. The park service operates a few first come/first serve campsites, but they disappear quickly in the busy months.
Packing for Your Trip
The weather in Yellowstone can be quite fickle. While summer temperatures rarely top 80 degrees Fahrenheit during summer days, nights can dip down to freezing. Likewise, spring is unpredictable and it’s not unusual to see a freak snow storm dump more than a foot of snow at any one time.
That means you’ll need to pack appropriate clothing for a variety of weather changes. Always bring long pants and a jacket, even in the middle of the summer, and remember to include hats, sunscreen, and very comfortable walking shoes. Rain gear comes in handy as well, even lightweight rain ponchos.
When you’re packing, leave your family pet at home. Dogs and bears are natural enemies and the presence of a dog in your car or cabin can attract a bear and put your family in danger.
What to See
There’s so much to see in Yellowstone’s 3,472 square miles (8,987 square kilometers) that you’ll be hard-pressed to figure out where to begin. Why not start with some Yellowstone must-see attractions, especially if this will be your first visit to this magnificent park?
The Visitor Centers - Yellowstone National Park has 8 visitor centers on the premises. When you reach one, stop in for a look around. Each located in different sections of the park, a visit will bring you face-to-face with exciting documentaries, museum artifacts, beautiful artwork, and other fascinating displays. Take time to explore each one. Some of the visitor center buildings are quite historic in their own right and have been designated as National Historic Landmarks.
Old Faithful and other geysers – The most famous geyser in the U.S. and one of the most studied, Old Faithful got its name because of the predictability of its eruptions. Visitors should realize, however, that Old Faithful operates on its own time schedule, erupting for 1 ½ to about 4 minutes in duration every 35 to 90 minutes. Rangers are available in the Old Faithful area to answer questions and clear up misconceptions about the geyser. An additional 299 geysers are available for your viewing pleasure and park maps can help you locate them.
Mammoth Hot Springs – The terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs – where you’ll find the headquarters of the park - are an awesome site; formed by a combination of heat, water, limestone, and a rock fracture system through which hot water can reach the earth's surface. The result is a colorful series of terraces, constantly changing, that are amazing to view and are indeed a treat for the avid photographer.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - This breathtaking sight, though much smaller than the “other” Grand Canyon, is magnificent. It’s nearly 20 miles long, up to 1,200 feet deep, and in some spots, 4,000 feet wide. Though the National Park Service notes that the present appearance of the canyon dates from about 10,000 years ago, change continues to occur. Be sure to visit one of the most-photographed features of the park – The Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon – while you’re exploring that area.
The Hayden Valley – If you want to see wildlife during your Yellowstone visit, this is where you’ll want to head. Get your camera ready as you drive along this expansive valley, because herds of bison, elks, an occasional bear, and a host of birds and waterfowl are common.
Tower Fall – Brave visitors can take a short, steep hike down to the base of these beautiful falls, often found in paintings of Yellowstone National Park. At 132-feet in height, they’re not hard to miss. This area is also accessible in the winter and is popular with cross-country skiers and snow-shoers.
Active visitors can find plenty to keep them busy while visiting Yellowstone National Park.
- Hikers can take advantage of more than 1,100 miles of paved and unpaved trails. Numerous trails are available for day hiking and others for more extended hikes. Any hike in Yellowstone, however, comes with risks, including bad weather, cold and unpredictable bodies of water, and encounters with wild animals. Be sure to contact a ranger station before setting out and always hike with a buddy or two.
- Exploring Yellowstone’s waterways is lots of fun but can also be dangerous. Take advantage of the many available guided tours that allow visitors to explore safely via kayak, canoe, float tubes, or motorized boat.
- Fly fishing is especially popular in the park though, because of wildlife concerns, lots of restrictions are present. Following all the rules, however, will allow avid anglers the opportunity to fish for magnificent wild trout in the beautiful waters of Yellowstone.
- Horseback riding excursions are available at many locations throughout the park. The Visitor Centers can supply you with information as to the location of stables.
- Winter sports such as backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are popular during the cold months. Skiers usually travel at their own risk but snowmobilers can take advantage of guided tours. (Snowmobiles are only permitted in certain areas of the park.)