What draws you to a park? Wildlife? Landmarks? Swimming holes? Scenery? With its 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is one of America’s most diverse expanses of protected wild country. National Geographic’s The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks lists top-ten picks in 80 categories of park features, and Yellowstone is a winner by many measures.
Millions of visitors come each year to drink in the park’s natural beauty and explore it on horseback, by bicycle, or on foot. Few places in the contiguous United States have such a wide array of wildlife: Some 67 kinds of mammals alone call Yellowstone home.
Yellowstone’s unexplored interiors compared favorably with the Nile’s source and the Australian outback, the New York Times wrote in 1871: “They are enveloped in a certain mystery, and their attractions to the adventurous are constantly enhanced by remarkable discoveries.” But visitors also thrill to the more accessible and well-known attractions—the dizzying drop of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River near Canyon Village or the fountaining glory of Steamboat, the world’s tallest active geyser and one of Yellowstone’s 10,000 hydrothermal features.
For those seeking an educational experience among the area’s wonders, the Yellowstone Association Institute offers study programs on the ecology and history of the park, animal tracking, photography, and more.
One of the park’s top trails for people with limited mobility begins at the fully accessible Old Faithful Inn and visitor center. The 1.5-mile hike-bike path, accessible to wheelchairs, leads to Morning Glory Pool.
For the brief period between mid-March and mid-April, as Yellowstone’s roads thaw, cyclists have exclusive access to portions of them. For example, the route from the park’s West Entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs—thronged with vehicles in season—is reserved for nonmotorized traffic those few weeks. Once cars return, there are still paved and gravel trails designated for cyclists’ undisturbed exploration.
The Yellowstone Association Institute offers park visitors a variety of educational experiences. Naturalists can learn about the park’s wolves, raptors, and bison; history buffs can learn about the horse-and-buggy days. The park’s beauty inspires photography and art courses. Lessons in fly-fishing and animal tracking round out the curriculum.
Some of the park’s biggest attractions can be seen from roads and overlooks, but others take a bit more legwork. The unusual Uncle Tom’s Trail has stairs descending 500 feet into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and delivers hikers to the base of the Lower Falls, a roaring 308-foot waterfall. On the eastern boundary, the four-mile trail up and down Avalanche Peak in the brief summer season showcases colorful subalpine wildflowers.
“Hot-potting” is the slang for taking a dip in one of Yellowstone’s celebrated thermal features. But only one still allows swimmers; it’s a half-mile walk along the trail north of Mammoth Hot Springs.
Earth’s most astounding concentration of thermal features is on vivid display at the park’s geyser basins. Norris Geyser Basin, the oldest and hottest hydrothermal region in the park, is home to Steamboat, the world’s tallest active geyser. Upper Geyser Basin boasts the famous Old Faithful geyser.
With its steady breeze and wide-open water, Yellowstone Lake is an ideal place for wind sports. It’s the nation’s largest high-altitude lake, roughly 20 miles from north to south and 14 miles from east to west. Windsurfers and sailors have easy access; special “boat party” campsites dot the shore.
The park’s snow blanket is punctured in spots by steam and percolating hot water. Visitors may explore by snowmobile and snowcoach when accompanied by an authorized commercial guide. Those who cross-country ski or snowshoe have miles of groomed trails and untouched expanses of backcountry snow.