This was our second trip to Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is the national park I always wanted to visit when I was a kid. Old Faithful and other geysers. Hot springs. Fumaroles. Bears. Buffalo. Wolves. Elk. Lakes. Canyons. Rivers. Mountains.
Yellowstone has its critics. Yes, there is horrible traffic and mobs of people in the park during peak season. Yes, there are people who drive through the park and don’t get out of their cars. But this is the first national park. THE Yellowstone. All American and unique.
The central part of the park is a 30 by 45 mile caldera (basin) formed after three huge volcanic eruptions during the past 2.1 million years (the most recent was 640,000 years ago). The heat powering those eruptions still powers the park’s more than 10,000 thermal features, evidence that the volcano is still active. But scientists do not foresee another eruption for thousands of years. We hope.
The thermal features are not all there is to Yellowstone. The park covers 28,000 square miles. Visitor and information centers are located in several major areas of the park: Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Grant, West Thumb, Madison, Mammoth, Old Faithful and West Yellowstone. There are also entrances on all four sides of the park.
Driving distances can be long so it’s important to do some research prior to visiting to determine which city or campground is closest to the places you are most interested in. And to avoid spending too much time in the car, it may be best to stay in more than one side of the park.
Another factor to consider is road construction. Yellowstone’s roads, which date back to the turn of the 20th century, were not designed for modern traffic. So there is a 20-year construction project to repair and reconstruct them. Construction may cause 30-minute delays or even close down portions of the road entirely. For information on construction in the park click here.
We stayed in the town of Gardiner at the North entrance to Yellowstone since on our previous visit we stayed in the Fishing Bridge area in the center of the park. Gardiner is a nice old style western town.
This is where the original entrance to Yellowstone, with the grand Roosevelt Archway as its marker, is located. The archway was built as a way to add some grandeur to this “not so impressive” area; primarily rolling hills.
The Upper Geyser Basin is one of three large geyser basins along the Firehole River. Yellowstone National Park was created primarily to protect these geothermal areas that contain about half the world’s active geysers.
A new visitor center with a viewing area directly across from the Old Faithful Geyser was built in 2010. It’s a fabulous building with many educational exhibits about the nature and science of geothermal features, and volcanic geology. In the summer, rangers forecast and post the eruption times of five geysers – Old Faithful, Castle, Grand, Daisy and Riverside – in the lobby of this visitor center. A phone number and Twitter account listed under the Old Faithful Visitor Center information on this page also provide updates of the five geysers’ eruption times.
We arrived shortly before Old Faithful’s next eruption and joined the crowd outside for the show. This most famous geyser erupts more frequently than any of the other big geysers, but is neither the largest nor the most regular geyser in the park. Erupting at an average interval of about 90 minutes, it expels between 3,700-8,400 gallons of boiling water, reaching a height of between 106-184 feet. Each eruption lasts between 1.5-5 minutes. Always fun to watch.
The Old Faithful Inn is a phenomenal structure built between 1903 and 1904 of local logs and stone. It’s considered the largest log structure in the world and has a stunning lobby as its centerpiece.
A short trail in the Midway Geyser Basin leads to the famous Grand Prismatic Spring, one of Hector’s intended photographic subjects. We visited on a cool, breezy day. The spring is almost always partially covered by steam, but cool temperatures greatly increase the amount of steam produced and the wind spreads the steam over the entire spring.
Our next visit was to Mammoth Hot Springs, just a few miles and very easy access from Gardiner. We walked on several boardwalks that wind their way around the various hot springs and the interesting rock formations created by them.
Yellowstone National Park is also where we’ve seen the largest amount of buffalo. Various times, they blocked traffic while crossing the road. They also took over a bridge at one point, holding cars up while they used the bridge to cross a river.
But the most amazing sight was one that I missed. After a picnic, Hector walked Angel around the picnic area while I walked over to the port-a-potty. I saw a ranger drive up and run out of his car towards the river. At the same time, I heard Hector from a distance saying something like “that’s a sight you don’t see every day”.
Turns out that the buffalo, who’d been on the other side of the river, decided to swim across, much to the surprise of some picnickers and to Hector. Hector’s reaction was to say to Angel “we gotta go” to which the ranger replied “smart move”.
The buffalo crossed over the picnic area, with the ranger at the very back of the herd clapping loudly to ensure the last buffalo cleared the area (I’m not sure why they are so tame). That last young buffalo happened to cross right in front of our car as I was driving out.
With the ranger behind him and his “family” within sight but a little ways away he stopped in his tracks. He looked at me as if to say “I feel trapped and don’t know what to do”. I backed up a ways and he finally resumed crossing the street and joined the rest of the herd. But I’ll never forget how vulnerable he looked.
Eight of Yellowstone’s famous yellow buses, the original tour buses for the National Parks, were put back into service in 2007. They reminded us of Glacier National Park’s red buses, originally purchased from Yellowstone between 1935 and 1940. But no more bus rides for us.
We returned to the Old Faithful area of the park to walk around the geysers. The Upper Geyser Basin has various boardwalks that loop around different geysers and back to the visitor center, up to 5.2 miles total.
We walked about three miles, then drove to the next group of geysers – Biscuit Basin. It was late afternoon, and we only saw three other people on the boardwalk. A beautiful time to see the geysers, with a subtle sunset as a backdrop.
We visited Grand Prismatic Spring, the third largest hot spring in the world, a second time. After some research, Hector discovered that many of the photos of the spring were taken from the top of the hill just behind it. The “trail” to the top is accessed via the Fairy Falls trail – but is not developed and involves scrambling through fallen logs and rocks.
Yet another beautiful area of the park is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We hiked on the partially paved South Rim Trail. A little under three miles, the trail offers views of Chittenden Bridge, the Upper and Lower Falls and ends (or begins) at Artist Point, one of the most photographed views of Yellowstone.
There is a famous painting by Thomas Moran from this viewpoint with Yellowstone River, Lower Falls, and multi-hued rocks along the canyon walls surrounded by forest. None of which was appreciated by one visitor who remarked “well, it’s not the Grand Canyon”. No, it’s not, but it’s still stunning.
One of the main reasons we came to Yellowstone was to see wolves, which were reintroduced into the park between 1995 and 1997. There are several packs of wolves in the park, and most of them are active in two valleys in the park: Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. Since the best time to see the wolves is dawn and dusk, our first wolf-watching expedition was at sunrise.
We went over to Lamar Valley in the northeast side of the park in search of the wolves. Lamar Valley “has become the premier location world-wide to observe free-ranging wolves.” And the best way to find the wolves is to find the “wolf-watchers”. There are many dedicated wolf lovers and advocates who spend a lot of time at Yellowstone looking for wolves. Many of them have spotting scopes and will happily allow others to look through them.
Many of these folks are usually “in the know” about where the last wolf sightings have occurred. There are also companies and private individuals for hire to help people find the wolves. And, last but not least, there is a biologist named Rick who seems to be around Lamar Valley every morning (he was there years ago when we first visited). “Ranger Rick” has a radio that receives signals from the collared wolves (about 30% of the population, all adults).
After one sunrise and one sunset outing, we’d not spotted any wolves. It seemed we arrived in places just after the wolves had laid down or gone off into the woods. Then, on our second sunrise outing we spotted three wolves – very far away but definitely recognizable, especially when looking through the scopes.
There were folks in the group who knew exactly which pack these wolves belonged to and even knew their identifying numbers/letters. Apparently, these were three of six pups who were born last spring. In just three months, they looked to be the size of German Shepherds. There were two black and one gray one, and people were very excited about the gray pup. Unfortunately, Hector’s long lens was not enough to capture clear images of the wolves. But we will never forget them.
Yellowstone National Park is definitely a place everyone should try to visit at least once.