The first and most famous national park in the world, Yellowstone calls to mind a host of images: geysers, hot springs, forested mountains, and elk and bison by the thousands. The park has become one of the world’s most important natural areas, a flagship ecosystem of plants, animals, and landscape that we have preserved for its uniqueness and beauty. Set aside for its geological oddities in 1872, Yellowstone now represents much more—it has become an American natural treasury, an icon from our past and a beacon for future generations.
Preserving such a large chunk of land was an unusual and visionary act, but thank goodness for the foresight of those who saw the inherent value of “empty” land. Consider that back in 1872 nature was still being tamed. Nowadays, we desperately need places like Yellowstone to tame and soothe us. We need respite from the urban grind, places where we can unplug from technology and embrace nature and all it has to offer. The Ponce family, who had an opportunity to visit Yellowstone, says of their trip to the famous park, "this is definitely the greatest adventure of our lives."
Within the vast expanse of Yellowstone’s 3,500 square miles, there are any number of must-see sites for first-timers. In the early days of tourism, visitors would typically spend a week or more, making a leisurely loop through the park. They would often start at Mammoth Hot Springs, which remains an appealing location, especially if you enter the park from the north. You’ll likely see pronghorn grazing on the flats, and possibly bighorn sheep on the nearby cliffs; also look for elk and mule deer among the sage-covered hills. The bright white travertine terraces are formed by thousands of gallons of steaming water that gush to the surface—one of many signs of the underground thermal activity that created the park landscape and continues to reveal itself in geysers, mudpots, and hot springs.
While in this northern region of the park, you can hike via a moderately strenuous trail to what is probably the best overview of Yellowstone. The hike climbs through alpine meadows and conifer groves to the summit of 10,243-foot Mount Washburn, where you’ll have views of the Tetons to the south, plumes of steam in various places, and an expansive mountainscape all about. On good days you can see up to 100 miles away.
The road south traces the Yellowstone River along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where it plunges over two terrific, thundering waterfalls. Plan to stop often for overlooks and rim walks. The canyon, a 20-mile-long passage of tawny cliffs, measures 1,200 feet at its deepest and up to 4,000 feet across.
Get into the geyser area at North Geyser Basin, probably the most active cluster of geysers in the park. For a primer on geothermal plumbing, stop by the Norris Museum, a 1930s log-and-stone classic built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Then it’s time for a stop at another classic, Old Faithful. Arrive at dawn or dusk to avoid crowds and thus enhance the age-old mystery of this reliable geyser. When the air is cool, the mist is thicker, and it shifts and swirls like special effects in a fantasy movie.
From craggy peaks and deep canyons to highland lakes and wildlife-filled forests, Yellowstone National Park offers experiences that can change your whole outlook on life. Whatever your passion, you can follow it in Yellowstone. Take day hikes in remarkable scenery. Go on that family backpacking trip you’ve been dreaming of. Engage a private tour with a guide from Yellowstone Forever (a nonprofit partner of the park). Bike, fish, cross-country ski, or just motor along a scenic road. On any trip to Yellowstone, you’ll come away awed by the drama of nature, and by her power to heal, renew, and inspire.
- Nat Geo Expeditions