Steam hisses from vents all around us creating clouds that obscure the horizon. The rising fog thickens as it spreads out in the cool morning air. Yellowstone National Park at every hour of the day holds something unique. It contains elements like that of standing on the edge of a volcanic crater combined with an entirely different feeling when gazing into the cerulean waters of the ocean. Elements are the same, yet it is altogether different. It is no wonder that Yellowstone, a supervolcano, is a natural wonder of the world.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park covers 2,221,766 acres or 899,116 hectares across three states. The majority of the park lies in the northwest corner of Wyoming just above the Teton Mountain range. The park sits on top of an active supervolcano. It is a hotspot that has migrated over centuries creating the smile of Idaho and leaving behind evidence of a prior eruption in Craters of the Moon National park.
With over 460 miles (750 km) of road, 15 miles (24 km) of boardwalk, and over 1,000 miles (1,609 km) of backcountry trails it takes more than a day to even see the highlights of this geological wonder.
Seven must-see features of Yellowstone
1. Hot Springs
The surface of the deep blue water shimmers as heat rushes to escape. My heart pounds as I gaze into their depth. It is so beautiful. There is a longing inside me to enter the water, to be a part of this beauty so clear that the chasm from which it flows far below is clearly visible. However, it is illegal to swim in the pools and the scalding hot water could kill me. I’ll stay on the sideline mesmerized by the colors and depth.
Each pool is different, in shape, size, coloring, and depth. As we wandered down each trail the idea of seeing yet another pool kept our tired feet walking further. We walked almost 50 miles over the four days we spent in Yellowstone. There was still so much more to see.
When I walk through the cloud of steam rising from a nearby spring the warmth covers me and stops the shivers caused by the cold morning air. Then I move on, now a bit damp, and shiver even more in the open air. I race to the next gaping hole in the ground further down the path to once again warm up.
By afternoon pools of green and blue begin to glow brilliantly in the sunlight. A breeze helped blow away steam from atop the hot liquid revealing clarity into the depths of the pools.
Yellowstone is changing. One spring may dry up while another near it begins. The mineral terraces at Mammoth Springs reflect changes over the years where water once flowed. Trin and I previously visited Yellowstone in 2008. We noticed a number of differences on this trip. The photos below are taken from about the same spot, thirteen years apart. Obviously, the sky was cloudy the first time we stood here and I have since upgraded my camera as well. There appears to be the same amount of water – this is just a visual guess, I didn’t measure it. But it is flowing down different spots.
The new mineral terraces filled with blue water along the outer edge were dry and gray in 2008. It is hard to see the water flow, but the colors are from bacteria that grow in the wet areas of water flow. I found the changes interesting.
The spring below appears brighter in 2021 primarily because of the sun. However, 2021 does appear to have more wet areas. As the earth below changes so do these pools.
Geysers shoot into the air, some predictable and faithful, others erupt seemingly at their own whim. Some like Old Faithful erupt around 17 times a day. Others geysers in the park only erupt once every 50 to 100 years.
Old Faithful is the iconic geyser of Yellowstone. It faithfully erupts within 10 min of its predicted time. The eruption, a release of pressure from underground, shoots scalding steam up to 180 feet into the air and can last up to five minutes. A long eruption can release over 8,000 gallons of water. This iconic geyser can be seen from the stadium built on the ground around it or from Observation Point at the top of the hill behind it.
Old Faithful is amazing to watch, but in my opinion, it paled in comparison to what the rest of the park had to offer. Of course, how can anyone go to Yellowstone and not stay for at least one showing of Old Faithful? It would also be a shame to go that far and not take some time to see the sites that are even better.
On the way up to Observation Point behind Old Faithful is a small cerulean blue hot spring pool that erupts every five to 10 min. We sat on a nearby log awaiting the next display. We watched intently when the water began to move. Then one large bubble broke the surface and the pool stilled once again. I looked to the couple at our left, raised an eyebrow, and shrugged my shoulders.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“It was more like a big fart,” Trin offered.
“It even smells like rotten eggs,” the guy to our left chuckled.
The little geyser was worth the few minutes we waited to see it and gave us a good laugh.
One of our favorite geysers was in Biscuit Basin. We sat on a bench beside the river to watch it spew water high into the sky.
Vents called fumaroles hiss as they release columns of steam. Fumaroles are like release valves on an Instapot. They relieve the pressure that has been building in the supervolcano below.
Roaring Mountain is a hillside dotted with fumaroles. There are so many that as they release pressure from the depths of the earth they seem to roar. It is as if they are speaking to us reminding us that the crust of the earth here is thin, and what lies beneath us is powerful. We are but fragile humans.
Mudpots or paint pots look about how they sound. Thick soupy mud similar to the consistency of thick paint create pools in some areas that bubble as heat is released. They are basically water-saturated sediment boiling from steam rising beneath the pools. When bubbles in these pots pop they often throw bits of mud in random directions. The area surrounding each mudpot is decorated with spatters. Occasionally they reach as far as the boardwalk.
Mudpots are much better seen in action than in still pictures. See the video at the end of the wildlife section below to see them popping and splatting.
A bison wanders by in a slow powerful gate looking sideways at us as if in annoyance or maybe he is just strutting his stuff displaying his authority and causing major traffic delays. He is strutting down the right side of the road. He eventually wanders off the road to join his herd. Then he stops to roll in a barren patch of the meadow, clouds of dust rising around him.
At another meadow a heard of Elk spread across the valley on either side of the quiet river. The air is fresh and peaceful.
Grizzly bears, elk, moose, bison, foxes, and badgers are just a few of the animals that you may see in Yellowstone. Viewing the large wild animals at peace grazing across a green meadow in Yellowstone made us feel like we were in a National Geographic documentary. It is an experience that reminds us how small we are, and how much we need something more than just what is within us. Nature does not need us to be at peace, but we might need it or at least the story it tells us.
Over 4,000 bison roam Yellowstone
There are over 4,000 bison roaming Yellowstone National Park. They can weigh up to 2,000 lbs and stand six feet tall. Normally they are seen slowly moving across the plains grazing on grass seeming to not have a care in the world. Make no mistake however they can run up to 35 mph. One angry head bump can send a human careening through the air. Each year it seems that visitors forget, get too close for a selfie, and then are tossed or gored. Accidents can also happen when visitors and bison surprise each other when both rounding a corner, but those instances are rare.
Bison are the number one reason for traffic jams in Yellowstone. At times they will meander down the road as traffic behind them piles up for miles. Bison simply don’t care who they hold up this is their park. The lucky visitors on the opposite side of the road then have the opportunity of a few close-up pictures from the safety of their car as the bison wander by.
Note: There are no wild buffalo in the USA however the first settlers referred to the bison who roam our western lands as buffalo. Street names and even people like Buffalo Bill will be around for a long time.
At one point, Trin chatted up one of the park rangers, and asked him this question: “Do you think that bison are offended when people call them buffalo?”
Yellowstone river cuts through a solidified Rhyolite lava flow. At the lower falls, the water plunges 308 feet down, nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls. The majesty of Yellowstone falls can be seen from multiple vantage points on either side of the silica-rich cliffs.
Our favorite viewpoint was from Red Rock Point on the North Rim side. The South Rim hike however gave spectacular views of the cliffs and valley below.
7. Lakes, Rivers, and Landscapes.
At the end of each hot day, we cooled off in the rivers and streams. Most of the rivers run with cold water. It is important to read the signs to see if swimming is allowed. With so many hot springs all over the park, it is possible to find a spot that might scald an unsuspecting swimmer.
The open fields with meandering rivers were our favorite spots to stop for a meal. We loved to sit on a log and watch the herd grazing in peace across the golden landscapes.
Navigating Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is fairly easy to navigate. There are five entrances and the roads through the park form a figure 8. What might seem like one hour of driving time could take three or more times as long because there is so much to see along the way. Maps are provided at every entrance, but only the major attractions are listed on them. There are tons of sights to see along the way that won’t be found on a map.
We use the Maps.me app which lists many of the attractions not on the paper map.
Update: Maps.me now charges a fee if you need more than 10 downloaded maps. Since the writing of this article, we have switched to Organic Maps. All our pins can be ported over. Currently, Organic Maps is free.
Every Yellowstone entrance has something beautiful and unique
The West Entrance from Idaho offers free *camping outside the park on the Idaho side (download iOverlander for more details). The West Entrance starts with geysers galore. Don’t forget to explore the wonders of Idaho before or after your time in Yellowstone.
Below the South Entrance of Yellowstone is the Grand Tetons National Park. The Glacial Lakes and snow-capped mountains are a feast for the eyes.
The East Entrance route had both Trin and I constantly saying “wow.” The valley is rugged and you might even see a few wild mountain goats. Just outside of this entrance we found free *camping in high elevation which was a great way to escape the summer heat. This is my favorite entrance.
The Northeast Entrance wanders through the legendary Lamar valley sometimes referred to as the Serengeti of the USA. Wildlife populates the region.
At the North Entrance visitors arrive at Mammoth Hot Springs first. It is a busy area but the hot springs are worth the stop. This entrance comes in from Montana.
*Camping: Do take care when camping. This is grizzly country, food must be taken care of appropriately to avoid a trip being ruined or worse.
Planning Your Trip
Book accommodations ahead of time
Book a campsite ahead of time. In 2008 when Trin and I first visited the park we booked our campsites ahead of time. This time we did not plan ahead and the park was booked solid. It’s not the end of the world. There is a very large BLM (Bureau of Land Management) area just outside the west entrance that offers free camping and we found a secluded spot to camp each night there.
Time the sites
Steam vents are best in the morning. The cool air gives volume to the clouds being released from each vent. Pools are better in the afternoon. When steam covers the springs in the morning the deep colors are harder to see. When the dryer air of the afternoon dissipates some of the steam the sun is able to make the colors almost glow.
At the canyon, walk the south rim in the morning and the north rim in the afternoon for optimal lighting.
Check Road conditions
Due to the heavy snowpack, the park is closed during the coldest winter months. It is best to check road conditions at Yellowstone NP. There is plenty to see and do to fill a week or more.