“Artist Point” and “Inspiration Point” are apt names for the astoundingly scenic vistas they overlook in Yellowstone National Park. Furthermore, these are just two examples from the 899,116 hectares of natural beauty to explore. Let’s take a pictorial tour and I’ll show you the essential things to do in Yellowstone National Park, including its most inspirational locations accessible by road and day hikes.
View hot springs on the shores of Lake Yellowstone
Explore the geothermal features of West Thumb on the shores of Lake Yellowstone. Not only are the turquoise hot springs gorgeous, but there are some quirky stories to go along with them. Here, fisherman of the past are said to have caught and cooked their catch before even taking it off the hook, by snaring trout in Lake Yellowstone and boiling the fish in the West Thumb hot springs.
West Thumb is located on Grand Loop Road just north of Grant Village. The trail is an easy stroll along a mostly raised boardwalk about 1 km (0.6 mi) long and will take 30-60 minutes to walk.
Be captivated by Mud Volcano
Much of the Yellowstone National Park lies within one of the world’s largest known calderas, a giant crater created by an explosive eruption of a supervolcano. Its last major eruption was about 640,000 years ago, and two magma chambers that remain under the National Park, are gradually refilling. Fortunately, another eruption isn’t expected for a very long time. In the interim, you can experience a hint of the volcanic activity simmering below the surface by viewing spectacular geysers, steaming springs and bubbling mud pots.
Here in Mud Volcano you’ll be close to one of the areas scientists closely monitor for volcanic activity. Boiling pools of acidic mud bubbles and boils across the hillside. Depending on the season you might also spot wildlife such as marmots, grizzly bears, mule deer, elk and plenty of bison.
Hike to Mount Washburn’s summit
Mount Washburn Trail offers Bighorn Sheep, gorgeous wildflowers and panoramic vistas along the route to the fire lookout at the peak, where you’ll find more knockout 360-degree views.
The trail departs Dunraven Pass Trailhead (4K9) and follows a former vehicular path on a steady climb with roughly 455 metres (1400 feet) elevation gain. Though Mount Washburn Trail is very popular, the wide track offers plenty of space for hikers to spread out. Afternoon storms frequently pass over the peak, so start early in the day to avoid lightning hazards. Also, grizzly bears like the area during autumn, and the National Parks Service recommends not hiking the trail at that time of year.
Watch wildlife in Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley
Make sure you pack your binoculars because these two valleys in central and northeastern Yellowstone respectively, are hot spots for wildlife watching. Bears, wolves, bison, pronghorn, bald eagles, coyote, osprey and many more species can be seen in these open grasslands. Dawn and dusk are the best times to spot animal activity. Use the pullouts and overlooks to park and wait quietly with your eyes peeled.
Hike among the wildflowers at Trout Lake
This short and sweet trail takes you through a very scenic corner of the Park, where bison graze, trout spawn and wildflowers bloom. On still days, the reflection of Mt Hornaday in the Lake is nothing short of perfection.
The Trout Lake trailhead is 16.8 kilometres (10.4 miles) inside the northeastern Park entrance or 29 kilometres (17.8 miles) from Tower Junction. The walk is an easy 2 kilometre (1.3 miles) lollipop loop. This is about 76 metres (250 feet) elevation gain which is mostly in the first third of the trail.
Gaze deep into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is largely the work of the Yellowstone River, eroding its way through old rhyolite lava flows. Aside from the multi-hued rock walls of the Canyon and the hurried flow of the green-tinged Yellowstone River, you will find three great waterfalls along the Canyon’s length: Upper Yellowstone Falls, Lower Yellowstone Falls and Tower Fall.
You can drive large sections of both the North and South Rims, and access various viewpoints. If you prefer to walk, there are trails that track both Rims. Uncle Tom’s Trail is a popular hike that will take you to a viewpoint near the base of Lower Yellowstone Falls, but you’ll have to make the steep climb back out of the Canyon.
See the beauty of Undine Falls
Continuing around Grand Loop Road, Undine Falls (pronounced: uhn-deen) is a triple-plunge of 20 m (60 ft) where Lava Creek tumbles down a cliffside on its way to meet the Gardiner River. These roadside falls could not be simpler to access and can be found just 10 minutes drive east of Mammoth township.
Witness a 50-million-year-old petrified tree
Actually, Yellowstone hasn’t just one petrified tree, but forests of them! Yellowstone’s petrified trees are unique because unlike many others around the world, a large portion of the Park’s fossilized relics stands upright, rather than being a scattering of fallen logs. Though their branches are generally missing, the proud trunks stand limbless, but vertical.
There is one easily accessed specimen of the ripe old age of 50-million-years that you should see. The former Redwood, like those currently growing in California, tells scientists that back then Yellowstone was once a sub-tropical climate. Violent volcanic eruptions buried trees like this one in ash, cutting off oxygen and preserving them the usual processes that break down the wood and foliage. Water absorbed by the buried trees deposits minerals such as silica, which gradually turn the organic material to stone in a process known as fossilization. The petrified tree retains the cell and fibre structure of the original tree.
Find the 50-million-year-old petrified tree at a turnoff between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Junction. Up a short but steep-ish trail, the tree stands on a hillside fenced off to prevent souvenir collectors from pinching a piece of the ancient attraction.
Soak in Boiling River
Boiling River is the result of a large hot spring flowing into the Gardiner River. The hot and cold waters mix to provide a comfortable bathing temperature. Here is one of the only places in the Park where swimming/soaking is permitted.
Boiling River is located between Mammoth Hot Springs and the northern Park Entrance near the town of Gardiner. Parking is limited. Swimming is generally permitted summer through winter, as spring snowmelt floods the area but be sure to check conditions in advance. There is a 0.8km (0.5mi) walk from the carpark to the River’s edge. The rocks can be slippery so water shoes are recommended.
Stand on the 45th Parallel
Not far from Boiling River, is the 45th Parallel, or the line of latitude running around Earth halfway between the equator and the North Pole. For those stringing together some or all of the seven National Parks on Highway 89, this is a special milestone along the journey.
If you’re anything like me, you will stand at this marker and wonder what other places in the world this imaginary line links you to? In addition to running across the northern US, the 45th parallel runs through France, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, China, Japan and Canada.
There is a wooden marker on a turnout just north of Mammoth Hot Springs. If you’re staying in, stocking up or passing through Gardiner, Montana then you will pass this point travelling in/out of the Park.
Snap a photo under Roosevelt Arch
Constructed in 1903, Roosevelt Arch was intended to lend grandeur to Yellowstone’s northern entrance where the main railway access to the Park arrived in Gardiner, Montana the same year. The 15 metre (50 foot) basalt arch bears the inscription “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people” – a quote taken from the legislation that created Yellowstone, America’s first National Park (and second in the world after Bogd Khan Uul National Park in Mongolia).
You can’t miss the arch as you arrive at the north entrance of Yellowstone from either Gardiner or inside the Park. Sunset is a great time, as the Arch catches the warm light from the west.
Tour historic Fort Yellowstone
Several expeditions in the 1800s revealed the wonder and uniqueness of the Yellowstone region’s wilderness. Commercial interests in the land spurred a government geological survey of the area, while at the same time the Northern Pacific Railroad Company planned to expand their line across Montana.
Seeing the area’s natural beauty as a drawcard for tourists to visit by train, the Railroad Company lobbied to have the Great Geyser Basin set aside as a public park. Results of the Geological Survey supported the need to protect the region and President Grant signed the bill creating Yellowstone Park on March 1, 1872.
Unfortunately, with no precedent, it would be decades before a National Park Service was set up, or further legislation put in place to properly protect the region and its wildlife. The U.S. Army managed the Park for 32 years before the Park Service was formed. During this time they constructed a cavalry post and Park headquarters — dubbed Fort Yellowstone–near Mammoth Hot Springs including a guardhouse, barracks, stables and officers’ quarters.
You can tour the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District, formerly Fort Yellowstone, with a National Parks ranger or wander around and appreciate the architecture on your own. Mind the elk who like to congregate here.
See the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs are another quirky and fun hydrothermal feature of Yellowstone National Park. In the early days of colonial visitors to Yellowstone, these mineral springs were used for bathing. This is now prohibited in order to preserve the fragile limestone formations. The chalky terraces are a unique and beautiful sight – their travertine steps are like a waterfall cascade frozen in time.
You’ll find Mammoth Hot Springs close to the northern Park entrance (near Gardiner, Montana). There are two boardwalks that escort you around the hillside formations which total about 2.8 kilometres (1.75 miles) in distance and 100 metres (300 feet) elevation gain.
Explore Norris Geyser Basin
There are many geysers in the world that have historically shot water and steam higher into the air than Steamboat Geyser. However, when it comes to currently active geysers, Steamboat takes the record at approximately 91m (300ft). The problem is that Steamboat is the opposite of Old Faithful, deciding when to erupt seemingly on a whim. It’s unlikely you will be able to time your trip for one of Steamboat’s furious outbursts, you just have to be lucky!! Though there are plenty more reliable geysers in Norris Geyser Basin and broader Yellowstone to give you a taste of what it’s like. Norris is estimated to be Yellowstone’s hottest Geyser Basin so there is much to see there.
Norris Geyser Basin is located on the western side of the Park, just north of the West Entrance.
Wander the Artist’s Paintpots Trail
Artist’s Paintpots is an easy 1.8km (1.1mi) trail will take you through a hydrothermal landscape that displays steamy pools and mudpots in a pastel palette of hues. The trailhead is a short 10-minutes drive south of Norris Geyser Basin on Grand Loop Road.
Make a stop a Gibbon Falls
Another one of the things to do in Yellowstone National Park that takes very little effort is to visit Gibbon Falls. The roadside cascade between Madison and Norris Junctions can be viewed just steps from your vehicle and is worth a few moments to stop and observe.
See Yellowstone’s largest geothermal area
Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin is the Park’s largest geothermal area spanning nearly 29 square kilometres (18 sq mi). The wide-ranging features including mud pots, geysers, springs and fumaroles exist in various clusters scattered over the area, with the Firehole River running down the middle.
You’ll find many of the geothermal features in Lower Geyser Basin can be accessed via Firehole Lake Drive. The 5 km (3 mi) side road is a one-way scenic drive lieing between Madison Junction and Old Faithful. Definitely take this little detour!
Witness the colours of Midway Geyser Basin
Midway Geyser Basin is home to THAT hot spring, you know the one: electric blue through turquoise bordered by vibrant bands of yellow and orange. Its name is Grand Prismatic Spring and it is not alone. Along with Excelsior Spring, these two stunners are the largest geothermal features in the entire Park.
Midway Geyser Basin is, as the name suggests, located between Upper and Lower Geyser Basins along the west side of Grand Loop Road. Go early or late, this Basin is hopping with tourists throughout the middle of the day.
Watch Old Faithful blow in Upper Geyser Basin
If you know nothing else about Yellowstone National Park, you’ve probably at least heard of Old Faithful. Located in Upper Geyser Basin–apparently the world’s largest single concentration of hot springs–Old Faithful lets off steam reliably every 90 minutes or so. The average eruption pushes water 41 m (135 ft) into the air.
When you arrive at Upper Geyser Basin, first check the next predicted eruption time for Old Faithful. If it’s within about 15-minutes, take a seat and wait. Should you have longer, explore some or all of the other geysers.
Spend a night in the world’s largest log hotel
Another of Yellowstone’s claims to fame is the Old Faithful Inn, regarded as the largest log hotel in the world and possibly the largest log structure in the world. Whether or not the record is official, the National Historic Landmark is impressive and worth a look inside. Old Faithful Inn was constructed during the winter of 1903-04 using mostly local materials. The Inn impressed guests with its modern-for-the-time electric lights and steam heat. One of the hotel’s features is the lobby fireplace, measuring 85-feet and constructed of 500-tons of stone.
Old Faithful Inn is located within view of its namesake Geyser, in the Upper Geyser Basin.
Straddle the Continental Divide
Imagine you’re a raindrop falling on the Continental Divide, which is the ridgeline that determines which direction water flows in North America. That means, my little droplet, a millimetre here or there could determine whether you follow streams and rivers west to the Pacific Ocean or journey southeast into the Gulf of Mexico.
Isa Lake which sits in a small depression along the Continental Divide is the only known natural lake in the world that drains into two different oceans. The east side of Isa Lake drains into the Pacific Ocean via the Lewis River, while the west side of the Lake drains to Firehole River and the Atlantic Ocean.
Stand across the Continental Divide at one of two opportunities when travelling between Old Faithful and West Thumb, plus make a stop in at Isa Lake. There are wooden markers and turn-outs to make a safe stop.
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