See 150 years of Yellowstone in these iconic Nat Geo images

The first national park in the United States marks a milestone. Here is Yellowstone through the eyes of our photographers.

Inspired by early reporting of marvels such as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone River, seen here, the U.S. Congress established Yellowstone as America’s first national park in 1872.
Photograph by Michael Nichols

It’s been called America’s “Wonderland” for good reason. Generations of travelers have embraced Yellowstone—the first national park in the United States—and explored its marvels, spread across some 3,472 square miles, mostly in Wyoming, but with portions in Montana and Idaho.

This unmatched wilderness, now marking 150 years as a national park, is vast and varied, comprising a rugged panorama of forests, lakes, mountains, valleys, and canyons. Some 90 percent of the park and its surrounding region remains untamed, constituting one of the last large intact ecosystems in the northern temperate zone.

Yellowstone was established as a national park in 1872 “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Its founding marked the birth of the U.S. National Park System and represents the beating heart of a complex of interconnected public wild lands known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, nearly 10 times larger than the park.

(Yellowstone is ‘where we began to negotiate a peace treaty with the wild.’)

The region’s geological history reaches back at least 66 million years, when volcanism produced spectacular features. The park includes three calderas, formed from volcanic eruptions 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago, respectively. With more than 10,000 spouting, steamy, kaleidoscopic, sometimes smelly geothermal features, Yellowstone holds more geysers than the rest of the world combined.

Indigenous Americans, arriving after the melt-back of the Pleistocene ice sheets, have lived in the region for more than 11,000 years. The ancestors of the Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone, and Nez Perce people, among others, used the resources of this land for food, shelter, medicine and religious purposes for millennia.

(Here’s why most U.S. wolves have been re-listed as endangered.)

Some societies left behind arrowheads, petroglyphs, pictographs, and dwellings. Today, Indigenous communities in the area take an active role in shaping the future within and beyond the park, from documenting their own history to bison management and ensuring protection of cultural sites.

National Geographic’s vast photographic archive includes William Henry Jackson’s images from the pivotal 1871 geological survey of Yellowstone, photographed a year before the founding of the park. The magazine’s first feature article on Yellowstone was published more than a century ago, in May 1908. Since then, our coverage has included features on the region, as well as travel articles, books, and atlas entries.

(Enjoy Yellowstone’s elusive wildlife and iconic vistas—without the summer crowds.)

“What I see in the early historic photos is grandeur, vastness, the bounty of wildlife, the sheer power of Earth. Humans are almost always tiny specks in these images,” says Julia Andrews, photo editor of the National Geographic Image Collection. “Fast forward to contemporary coverage of Yellowstone, and everything is reversed. Now photographers show just how vulnerable this ecosystem is to the impact of humans.”

Here are a few of our favorite images of Yellowstone from National Geographic’s photographic archive. While these images present the perspectives of past photographers, they also capture the timeless inspiration, joy, and reward of exploring this awe-inspiring region.

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