Pleated in the eye of the Northern Rocky Mountains, miles of ostensibly primordial geysers, hot springs and mudpots wait to be explored by a new generation of wanderers. Endless valleys are home to elusive wildlife such as bear, bison and pronghorn, often unfazed by human intercession – an ideal environment for viewing and photographing. The transitional granite mountains shrouded in Lodgepole Pines offer climbers a view reminiscent of a Tom Thompson painting. Petrified wood insightfully showcases volcanic activity operative more than 50 million years ago. Yellowstone National Park became America’s first in 1872, and as the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this August, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to celebrate with fellow travelers.
Whether you’re a hiker, biker, or hitchhiker, Yellowstone’s trails and boardwalks make it convenient for all skill levels to enjoy our public lands. If you’re planning a trip this fall, be sure to visit the park’s staples, a route that’s sure to take you on an unforgettable road trip. Here are a few destination suggestions and travel tips to make your excursion as memorable as the summit views.
Grand Prismatic Spring
This evocative hot spring is the largest in the world, discharging up to 560 gallons of water per minute. The striking color dispersion of the spring takes shape thanks to colorful single-celled microorganisms at the spring’s edge, a visual lesson in biology. Located in the heart of the Midway Geyser Basin, there are plenty of ways to get a good view. For those with small children or limited hiking experience, a .8 mile looped boardwalk takes you to the spring’s foot, offering a view of the seemingly bottomless Excelsior Geyser as well. The Fairy Falls Trail renders the best aerial view of the spring, but be sure to check with park rangers before planning hikes as there are often closures due to construction. This 7-mile hike offers views of major geysers and hot springs, in addition to the park’s coveted waterfall, Fairy Falls.
Fountain Paint Pots
This region of the park features a number of hyperthermal features, including geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles. To truly soak up the park’s volcanic past, walk the half-mile boardwalk located in the Lower Geyser Basin, just a short drive from Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring. Be sure to stop at Leather Pool, a calm, reflective body of water in stark opposition to the hot, bubbling springs and geysers surrounding it.
Being the primary tourist attraction at Yellowstone, the Old Faithful region can feel overstimulating and hectic. With the Old Faithful Inn and various gift shops and visitors centers in a relatively small area, be prepared to make this your token wifi/lunch stop. To avoid some of the crowds, take a walk on the 4.6-mile Upper Geyser Basin boardwalk to see other notable hotbeds. Old Faithful erupts an average of 17 times a day, so your chances are pretty good. Ask a ranger when they think the next eruption will be and plan to be there 20 minutes ahead of time – predictions are just that. Eruptions last one to five minutes and can expel up to 8,400 gallons each time. While short lived, this bucket list experience is one to carve out time to check off.
Lamar is the executive wildlife-viewing destination in the United States. Dubbed “America’s Serengeti,” this miles-long stretch of road takes you through herds of bison, pronghorn, badgers, grizzly bears, bald eagles, osprey, deer, coyotes and wolves. Many sit within yards of the convenient vehicle pull offs. Park rangers encourage visitors to stay 25-50 yards from all wildlife, so confirm the temperament of animals before approaching. Dawn and Dusk are the best times to visit the area due to increased animal activity.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Undeniably the most striking view in the park, Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon is a 20-mile long, 4,000 foot wide 1,200 foot deep spectacle that hold its own against Arizona’s more famed marvel. Mineral stains cooked the sides of the Canyon over the course of millions of years, leaving its walls with a medley of pink and yellow tinge. There are countless options for viewing the canyon, including Upper Falls and Lower Falls Trailheads, which require a short walk up to a viewing area. For serious hikers, the Canyon Rim North Trail to Inspiration Point offers a moderately strenuous 8.2-mile hike to lesser-known, breathtaking views.
Mammoth Hot Springs
This heavily-trafficked attraction near the park’s north entrance includes a 1.7-mile boardwalk that explores the sulfur-rich, travertine deposits of Yellowstone. Overlooking the brassy, pitted springs, it’s easy to feel like you’re on the surface of Mars. This jarring landscape is an active hydrothermal area, always growing and adapting to the stimuli around it.
Lodge outside the park: Unless you’re camping, nightly rates inside the park can be impractical. Booking economical hotels in Livingston, Mt., Rexburg, Idaho, or Cody, Wy. are much more feasible and the drive’s mountain view will make it worth the extra effort.
Leave things how you found them: It can be tempting to grab an obsidian rock, or an intact animal vertebrae and take it home as a free souvenir, but doing so is illegal and can, over time, drastically alter the park’s landscape.
Wear layers: Weather at high altitudes are unpredictable. It can be 85 degrees at high noon, and plummet below freezing by 9 p.m..
Bring more sustenance than you need: Pack at least 30 oz. of water per hike and a lot of salty, protein-rich snacks in case the hike takes a heavier toll than predicted.
Check for construction and wildfire closures: Wildlife season is upon us, with at least two major fires burning in the park. West and South Yellowstone are affected by these fires so do research before planning your route.
Fill up your tank whenever you can: If you plan on visiting the major park attractions, it can take a toll on your gas tank. Many major visitor areas have gas stations, making it easy to fill up often.
Be prepared for altitude change: Altitude sickness is real. Always take your time while ascending, stay hydrated and eat often.