Vintage Images of Yellowstone Show the Park's Wild Beauty

The first area of the U.S. to be designated a national park lures visitors with roaring waterfalls, erupting geysers, and majestic wildlife.

Yellowstone National Park has been called many things, but it’s perhaps best known for its abundance of natural beauty and awe-inspiring wildlife. America’s first national park boasts over two million acres of wilderness and runs across the Continental Divide, spanning three states: Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

The park was founded in 1872, after Congress established the designation and President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law. Inspired by the unique land where a massive supervolcano had erupted about 640,000 years ago, officials hoped to provide a place for people to experience the solace and beauty of wild places, well outside of the teeming cities and sprawling developments where many Americans lived and worked.

Then, Yellowstone stood out for its many geysers and hot springs. As the western reaches of the continent were settled and developed, the park’s role as wildlife sanctuary became increasingly important.

Natural disasters have impacted sections of the park, such as the fires of 1988, but none of its major features have been destroyed. Portions affected by the 1988 fires have rebounded with vegetation and animal life, a common result of natural wildfires in parks, and the characteristics that set Yellowstone apart from other parks have largely been preserved.

People have lived on the land that became Yellowstone National Park for over 11,000 years. The National Park Service website says many indigenous groups used the land as their home, their hunting grounds, and their transportation routes before Europeans arrived. Just about every building in the park has historical significance, and the region has served many purposes over the years, including playing host to an army fort from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the U.S. Army managed the park.

Yellowstone attracts millions of visitors each year—about 4.1 million in 2017, slightly lower than the visitation numbers the previous year but still 40 percent higher than the average visitor rate in 2008. Those who choose to embark on adventures there can watch the Old Faithful geyser erupt; see wildlife like bears, elk, wolves, and bison in the Lamar and Hayden valleys; take in views of giant waterfalls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; enjoy a rainbow of colors at the Grand Prismatic Spring; and climb up Mount Washburn for a panoramic look around the park.

The iconic natural landscape isn’t threatened solely by natural phenomena like wildfires. All the visitors that troop into and out of the park each year may contribute to its value economically, but they can also cause wildlife to suffer, wreak havoc on its infrastructure, and make the land feel crowded instead of peaceful. There are natural resource development projects on nearby lands, too.

Those who manage Yellowstone must face these challenges if the park is to survive. While humans might be loving Yellowstone to its death, decisions about the park's management and a policy of restraint could ultimately save the park for future generations to experience. Flip through the photos above and watch the video below to fall in love with Yellowstone as it grows and changes through generations of visitors and caretakers.

Yellowstone: An American Treasure
Witness Yellowstone like you’ve never experienced it before: four nights of Yellowstone Live, starting August 5 at 9/8c on National Geographic.