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Yellowstone, the United States’ first National Park, is mainly located in Wyoming, but spreads to the states of Idaho and Montana as well. It is known for it’s amazing wildlife and geothermal activity. I only had a single day there, but I left in absolute awe. Three to five days would have been a more appropriate amount of time, but the park was part of a larger road trip for me and time just didn’t allow for it.
Yellowstone is best seen by car, although there are some tours available. The park has five entrances and the main route, the Grand Loop, is constructed in the shape of a figure eight and hits all the major sights. Each side of the loop takes about four hours to drive and you will want to take your time. I chose to enter the park through the west entrance. The attractions are split pretty equally among each side of the figure eight. I decided to drive along the lower portion of the loop since my time was limited and it seemed to have the more popular sights. If you are on a time constraint, like I was, or just simply overwhelmed by all Yellowstone has to offer, the following is a list highlighting the best of Yellowstone:
Norris Geyser Basin
The Norris Geyser Basin is Yellowstone’s oldest and hottest geothermal area and can only be accessed by car. It is Yellowstone’s upper geyser basin and is home to the world’s tallest active geyser, the Steamboat Geyser, which can erupt to over 300 feet or 91 meters. Although the geysers in this basin rarely do erupt, the area is still completely mesmerizing. Take advantage of the boardwalks through the Back Basin in order to fully experience the beautiful colors, interesting sounds and the not so pleasant smells.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Yes, Yellowstone has it’s own Grand Canyon and it is gorgeous. The canyon is about twenty miles long and a mile wide. It is the main attraction in the Canyon Village area and there are multiple trails and viewpoints throughout the north and south rims. There is a one way loop you can drive, with the first stop being a trail leading to the Upper or Lower Falls. The Lower Falls is Yellowstone’s highest waterfall and can be accessed from a short, but steep hike leading to a viewpoint directly over the top of the falls. The Upper Falls can also be accessed from a fork in the same trail, but it’s a bit of a longer hike.
Artist Point was my favorite of the viewpoints in the area and is one of the best in the entire park. It is the viewpoint you commonly see in photographs of the canyon. It is easily accessible by car if you continue to drive the loop along the south rim. Artist Point overlooks the edge of the canyon and will give you the greatest view of the canyon and Lower Falls.
Hayden Valley is located in central Yellowstone, near the the falls. The Yellowstone River runs through it making it a great place for wildlife. Hayden Valley is known particularly for it’s bison, but on occasion, elk, wolves and even a grizzly bear may be spotted. I was hoping to see one or two bison but was more than pleasantly surprised by herds. So many, in fact, that we had to wait for them to cross the road. They are quite impressive in size and come startling close to the vehicles. It was quite the sight.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water within the park, spanning 136 square miles and holds the title as North America’s largest body of water at an elevation of 7,000 feet or more. The lake is easily accessible from both the east and west entrances. Drive carefully, as wildlife is prevalent here as well. I was lucky enough to see an elk grazing alongside the road. During the summer, you can boat or picnic here and if looking for a place to stay, Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins is nearby. The lake freezes over by early December and can stay that way until late May. I pulled the car over and stopped briefly to watch the sunset over the lake. It was incredible.
Old Faithful is one of Yellowstone’s most popular geysers, mainly because it erupts pretty regularly, roughly every hour and a half. It is located west of the lake and eruptions can reach heights of 130 feet. There are several hotels and restaurants surrounding the geyser, if you are looking for a way to pass the time until it’s next eruption. It doesn’t always stick to schedule though. It erupted half an hour earlier than predicted as I was on my way to see it. Unfortunately, it was getting too dark to wait for the next one so I missed out.
Grand Prismatic Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world. It’s located in Yellowstone’s Midway Geyser Basin. The spring’s rainbow hues are what draw crowds here. The center of the spring is your usual blue but the outer rings are made up of bright yellows, oranges and reds. These colors are caused by pigmented bacteria that thrive off the geothermic activity. The different colors are produced by different types of bacteria depending on the temperature of the waters. The center, being the hottest, is unable to sustain life and that is the reason for it being so blue. By the time I reached this area the sun had set and I sadly wasn’t able to enjoy the spring’s full prismatic qualities.
If you have more time than I did, definitely explore the upper portion of the loop. Here you will find Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley, both of which look incredible. I will definitely be returning to Yellowstone in the future. I left with a much greater appreciation for travel within my own country and a desire to visit more national parks within the United States. For additional help in planning your trip, visit the National Park Service.
To learn more about another of my favorite national parks, read my post, “Joshua Tree: Weird Things to Do in the Desert.”