Yellowstone National Park beckons over 3 million visitors each year with its spectacular beauty, abundance of wildlife and unique geothermal features that can only be found in just a few other places on the entire planet. Immersing yourself in all there is to know about America’s very first national park before embarking on your adventure can help you plan your trip and provide an even more rewarding experience.
The majority of Yellowstone, 96 percent, can be found in Wyoming, with 3 percent in Montana and 1 percent in Idaho. During the park’s peak visiting months, May through August, the majority of visitors come through the West Entrance located in the southeast corner of the town of West Yellowstone, Montana. This route follows the world-famous Madison River, considered the greatest trout river in the world. It meanders through a series of golden meadows inhabited by buffalo and elk, with great blue herons, endangered trumpeter swans and river otters, which are often spotted in the water or along the river banks.
As you travel through the park, you’ll be amazed at the abundance of wildlife found in this region. Yellowstone National Park is ranked as one of the best in the U.S. for wildlife viewing with over 60 unique mammals calling it home. In addition to the majestic creatures already mentioned like buffalo and elk, deer, fox and coyote are also commonly seen. Those who are lucky might even see bears, moose, cougars, wolves and mountain goats across the park’s 2,221,766 acres – larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Although a grizzly bear eats about 35 pounds of food every day, they don’t tend to eat humans. In fact, fatal attacks are considered to be a one-in-three-million occurrence, as the animals tend to keep their distance from people. So you can go hiking on the well-beaten trails without worrying about your safety.
Yellowstone is home to over half of the world’s geothermal features, including Old Faithful, which erupts about every 91 minutes. The most famous geyser was named on the first official expedition to Yellowstone, the 1870 Washburn Expedition. Its maximum height ranges from 90 to 184 feet, and although it is not the biggest in the park, it is the biggest regular geyser and has been erupting in the same manner throughout Yellowstone’s recorded history. Steamboat Geyser holds the distinction as the biggest geyser, shooting water as high as 300 feet, but its eruptions are unpredictable. Over the past two decades, it has only erupted eight times.
There are more than 300 geysers in the park and about 10,000 thermal features. Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the park and in North America. It pumps out more than 4,000 gallons of boiling water every single minute and looks almost other-worldly with its intensely vivid neon colors. In 1871, it was named by the Hayden Expedition for its beautiful coloration; the edges of the pool are made up of bands of different colors with each band in the “microbial rainbow” representing its own mini-
The wonders for kids, as well as adults, never cease at Yellowstone. It’s easy to imagine a real dragon living at Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The cavern growls, thumps and spits out steam, appearing as if this mythical creature lives inside. Winding through the half-mile trail that passes a variety of thermal features at Fountain Paint Pots is a highlight for many, with geysers, bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and steam fumaroles – this kind of entertainment is better than anything you’ll ever see on television.
There are just 30 active supervolcanos on the planet, and Yellowstone is home to one – the only one located on land. The eruptions of the Yellowstone Caldera helped to form the Snake River Plain, with molten lava thought to exist as close as two miles below ground. The three most recent eruptions were 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago.
Approximately 5 percent of the park is covered by water; 15 percent is grassland and 80 percent is forest. Most of its water is found at Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-altitude body of water on the entire continent. Its depth averages 138 feet, with some areas stretching as far as 430 feet to the bottom. Its rivers offer adventure seekers the chance to paddle rapids with names like Man Eater, Rock Garden, and Sleeping Giant.
Over 350 waterfalls can be found in the park; 290 of them are more than 15 feet tall and flow year-round, with the tallest reaching an incredible 1,200 feet. The park has its own “Grand Canyon,” aptly named the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone,” which is home to Lower Falls, the most famous waterfall in the park. The 308-foot-tall waterfall is second only to Old Faithful as the most photographed spot in Yellowstone.
The Yellowstone River is the longest undammed river in the continental U.S. and is the force that created the canyon and falls. It travels over 600 miles from Yount Peak in the southern section of the park, emptying into the Missouri River in North Dakota. If you plan to spend the night in the park, you’ll find lots of option with over 2,000 hotel rooms and cabins as well as seven National Park Service-operated campgrounds with over 450 sites and five concession-operated campgrounds with 1,700 sites.
If you plan to stay at one of the five reservation campgrounds, Madison, Fishing Bridge RV Park, Bridge Bay, Canyon, and Grant Village, make your reservation as far in advance as possible, as sites tend to fill quickly, and be sure to take extra time to get there, as “bison jams” – temporary roadblocks due to buffalo walking on them – are a fairly common (and entertaining) occurrence in this park.
For the ultimate experience, book a room at the Old Faithful Inn, a significant part of the park’s history, built in 1904 by Robert C. Reamer who aimed to create the asymmetry of the building to reflect the chaos of nature. Its wooden walls and floors occasionally creak and groan as if the structure itself is trying to tell the stories of those who created it, and the many that have walked through its doors since.
Now that you’re armed with some important knowledge as well as little-known facts about America’s first and one of the most spectacular national parks, you’ll be prepared to create the memories of a lifetime!