A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
The mountains aren’t as high as those in Colorado, and the rivers are not as wide as those in Montana and Idaho, but the highlands of western Wyoming may be the most spectacular part of the entire Rockies. Yellowstone National Park typifies the reasons why people decided to preserve, rather than pave, Mother Nature’s enduring treasures.
If ever a park had a flair for the dramatic it’s Yellowstone—geysers, grizzlies, and its very own Grand Canyon, as well as trendy towns and backcountry trails that rarely see human bootprints. After all these years, the world’s very first national park is still one of its most imposing, a blend of land and water, forest and field, wildlife and geo-thermal features that often seem to be living things.
It seems remarkable in hindsight that someone recognized the uniqueness of Yellowstone—and suggested that steps be taken at once to preserve such an incredible landscape—at the very time that America was realizing its manifest destiny by “conquering” much of the West.
A golden spike had finished the first transcontinental railroad just three years earlier and the Little Big Horn was still four years in the future when Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park with the flourish of his pen in March 1872. The president was acting at the request of geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, who had surveyed the region the previous summer. The genius of his expedition was including a photographer and landscape painter who rendered images of the Yellowstone countryside to show those in Washington exactly what needed saving.
When we look at those early photos and paintings today, it’s as if nothing has changed in the century and a half since Yellowstone was established. And that’s the enduring appeal of the park: a large, unspoiled canvas of the American West. In the words of Hayden, “remarkable curiosities which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.”
Tucked up on the northwest corner of Wyoming with parts spilling over into Montana and Idaho, the massive park offers five different approaches that feed into the Grand Loop Road, a figure-eight highway in the middle of the park. Rather than a single focus, Yellowstone has five main hubs—Old Faithful, Grant Village, Lake Village, Canyon Village, and Mammoth Hot Springs—each of them linked to a unique geological or geographical phenomenon.
The most impressive entry is from Gardiner, Montana, in the northwest, a road that ducks beneath the famous Roosevelt Arch and meanders along the Gardiner River to Mammoth Hot Springs and the park headquarters. Albright Visitor Center is located in the historic bachelor officers’ quarters of old Fort Yellowstone, where the U.S. Cavalry kept watch over the park before the National Park Service was born. That sulfur smell that permeates the air is from the hot springs, a cluster of limestone travertine terraces that cascade down a hillside like a steaming waterfall.
From Mammoth, the Great Loop Road shoots due east to the Tower-Roosevelt area and the broad Lamar Valley, the best place in Yellowstone to get a glimpse of the wolves that were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Bison and elk also frequent the valley with its lush grasslands. Veering in a southward direction, the road runs past 132-foot (40.23-m) Tower Fall and the start of the Mount Washburn Trail (6.2-mile/9.9-km round-trip) to the summit of a 10,243-foot (3,122-m) peak with a fire lookout tower that provides a spectacular view over just about all of Yellowstone.
As the name implies, Canyon Village lies on the edge of the park’s biggest “ditch”—the gaping Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone—an immense multicolored trench that stretches 24 miles (38.6 km) and rises as much as 1,200 feet (365.7 m) above the Yellowstone River. Trails lead to outstanding viewpoints like Artist’s Point on the south rim and Lookout Point on the north rim, two of the best places to snap selfies with 308-foot (93.8-m) Lower Yellowstone Falls as a backdrop. Canyon Visitor Education Center in the village revolves around the park’s geology and the supervolcano that underlies Yellowstone.
Continuing the clockwise journey around the Grand Loop, the road climbs up the river valley to Yellowstone Lake. The largest high-altitude lake in North America, the sky-blue pool offers the park’s best opportunities for boating, fishing, and waterfront camping. Given the lake’s chilly water, even during the height of summer, swimming is discouraged. Bridge Bay Marina offers rental boats, guided fishing charters, and scenic lake cruises, as well as shuttle services to remote campsites along the 141-mile (226.9-m) lakeshore.
Perched on the lake’s West Thumb, busy little Grant Village lies at the junction of the Loop Road and the highway running up from the South Entrance and Grand Teton. In addition to another visitor center, the village hosts several stores, a gas station, a boat ramp, and an amphitheater with summer ranger programs.
Turning to the west, the Grand Loop cuts across the Continental Divide (and into the Pacific drainage) at two different points before cruising downhill into Old Faithful Village and the park’s largest cluster of visitor services. Opened in 1904, Old Faithful Inn is a masterpiece of national park rustic architecture, in particular the lobby with its massive yet cozy stone fireplace and soaring timber ceiling.
The main event is just outside: Old Faithful Geyser, which erupts around 17 times per day to an average height of 130 feet (39.6 m). Visitors can learn more about the geothermal forces at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center and then hike the Upper Geyser Basin along the Firehole River, home to around 60 percent of the world’s geysers. Curving around to the west, the road continues to other geothermal wonders like the Midway Geyser Basin and its Grand Prismatic Spring and the Lower Geyser Basin with its Fountain Paint Pot.
Madison features an information station and bookstore at the junction where the highway from West Yellowstone in Idaho joins up with the main park road. The Grand Loop continues to the Norris Geyser Basin, where geological wonders like Artist Paint Pots, Roaring Mountain, and Steamboat Geyser are complemented by the indoor exhibits of the Museum of the National Park Ranger and Norris Geyser Basin Museum with its distinctive 1920s “parkitecture.” Visitors can also explore the eerie Norris-Canyon Blowdown with its ghost trees or fly fish for trout in the swift-flowing Gibson River.