I arrived in West Yellowstone, Montana, right around dusk, when the carved bears climbing the exterior walls of the ClubHouse Inn could initially be mistaken for the real thing—a risky, albeit hilarious, gamble on the part of the proprietors who were clearly waging that their guests wouldn’t suffer massive heartaches when they pulled aside their curtains in the morning.
I had just enough time to visit the Yellowstone Historic Center, located in the original 1909 Union Pacific Station, the oldest building in town, which used to bring travelers by rail to the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park. The center’s exhibits on the development of the town, as well as the earthquake of 1959 and the devastating fires of 1988 that burned fully one-third of the park’s 2.2 million acres, gave me a solid introduction to the region and its unrivaled beauty.
West Yellowstone is the most popular entrance to the park, with good reason: Its location right at the edge of the park and just a couple of minutes from the border with Wyoming make it a desirable place to stay. With enough solid dining options for your meals outside the park and shops to buy your souvenirs and your recommended can of bear spray, this is your best option for accommodations if you’re not staying within Yellowstone.
Tucked under a few layers of clothing to brace myself for the 29° weather the next morning, I hopped in my rental car and drove the two minutes to the park entrance. Even in the shoulder season, there’s a parade of cars entering the park every morning (another reason to skip coming here in summer—the notorious traffic jams are legion, clogged with the greatest concentration of the park’s annual four million visitors). The queue moved quickly, however, and the little bottleneck cleared out as everyone headed in different directions to explore the world’s first national park and one of the top five things to see in Wyoming.
Created in 1872 under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone National Park occupies a substantial chunk of northwestern Wyoming, with a couple of additional strips in Montana and a slice in Idaho. Teeming with geologic diversity and abundant wildlife, Yellowstone reigns as one of America’s most iconic natural areas. Visitors can enter the park from any direction, with five roads eventually leading to the figure-eight road in the heart of the park.
Entering from the west, I followed the road that hugs the Madison River until I arrived at my first stop, Gibbon Falls, easily accessed from along the Gibbon River. Noted for its unusual trapezoidal shape, the falls drop 84’ in a canyon where the stone walls certainly do look yellow. It wasn’t long after viewing the falls that I had my first wildlife encounter—a half-molted bison grazing on the shoulder of the road. Until you’re that close to one of these animals, you don’t realize how truly huge and powerful they are, and I instantly had new admiration for them, their horrendous plight over the past couple of centuries, and their current population rebound.
Entering the Norris Geyser Basin thermal area—the park’s oldest and hottest thermal area, where the highest recorded temperature stands at 495° (but that’s at 1,087′ below the surface)—I made my first stop at Artists Paintpots. Along a one-mile loop trail, I spied colorful hot springs and a couple of gurgling mudpots, one of the park’s many natural curiosities. When surface water collects in these shallow, impermeable pools, thermal water beneath them steams the water from below. Microorganisms that live in the water use the present hydrogen sulfide gas to convert the gas to sulfuric acid, which helps break down the lining rock into clay. When that mixes with the water, you get the viscous mudpots that bubble and pop as if you’re melting grayish cheese in a double boiler.
Heading north, I made my late-morning stop at the Mammoth Hot Springs area for an amble around this popular destination that draws visitors to terraces, mounds, and hills of shockingly white limestone, spiked with leafless dead trees and tinged with orange travertine.
I crossed the Wyoming border and exited the park into the tiny town of Gardiner, Montana. After lunch at the not-so-surprisingly named Two Bit Saloon, I spied elk wandering around the edges of the town before re-entering the park via the North Entrance and Roosevelt Arch. Since 1903, visitors have been passing through this tremendous stone archway, the cornerstone of which was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt and the top of which bears the inscription, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
Driving by rocky pinnacles and quick-flowing rivers and streams, I noted the sign indicating I had just crossed the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole. I began my afternoon of hiking with a short trail that led me to the deserted and silent Ice Lake. Ringed by lodgepole pine and with paths littered by fallen tree trunks from the catastrophic 1988 fire, the lake encapsulates the serenity of Yellowstone that provides us respite from the clatter of everyday life.
Not as isolated, but much more dramatic, was my second hike, a steep 600′ trail to the brink of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River that cuts a tremendous 23-mile canyon through the rock—Yellowstone’s very own majestic Grand Canyon. It’s a stunning scene, and I traced the flow of the river as it zigzagged from the 109′ Upper Falls in the distance, past strands of conifers and quaking aspen trees that had turned a glorious golden yellow, to the point where it plummets over the 308′ Lower Falls and continues through the canyon with its steeply sloping walls of rock that run the spectrum from the palest of yellows to a full range of oranges to dark browns. If you’re lucky (alas, I was not), you might catch a glimpse of ospreys flying to and from their nests atop the rugged pinnacles here.
On my way out of the park that evening, a small traffic jam had formed, with drivers and passengers stopped to watch the small herd of elk grazing in green and golden riparian grasses—as well as a couple of men fly fishing in the river.
I had seen a fair but still comparatively small part of the park during my first day in Yellowstone. My second day promised to be even more spectacular as my itinerary included stops at some of the park’s major highlights.
Day Two began with more beautiful scenery and herds of bison roaming around Hayden Valley, a 50-square-mile sub-alpine valley in the heart of Yellowstone Caldera. Cruising southeast through a surreally beautiful geothermal area, with plumes of steam rising and dissipating in the cool air, and little bodies of oddly colored water and the mineral-laden rocks and algae around them, I made my way to Yellowstone Lake. At an altitude of 7,733′ and a depth of up to 410′, it’s one of the world’s largest alpine lakes, covering 132 square miles, and the largest high-elevation lake in North America. Guarding its shore, the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a sprawling four-story yellow and white National Historic Landmark, has been standing since 1891, when it was built as the first hotel in the park. I had arrived off-season, after the hotel had shut down for the year but before the lake freezes for the winter. Not a single car accompanied mine in the parking area—I was entirely alone. Short of the trees, the grass, and a few innocuous flying insects, I was the only living thing around. I toted my lunch to the shore to soak in the beauty of the setting and the total desertion around me. About three-quarters of the way through, however, strands of “Bennie and the Jets” suddenly emanated from the darkened hotel. I had seen too many haunted hotel movies before, so I did not hesitate to return to my car and head off to a destination that was just as eerie, but for different reasons.
West Thumb Geyser Basin, the largest geyser basin on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, teems with bizarre geothermal features and activity, all of which you can observe from the wooden boardwalk that snakes around the area. Feathery wisps of steam rise from the ground, and mudpots and mud chimneys convey an unearthly landscape. More impressive are the fantastical colors of the waters in the pools, water so clear that you can peer far down into their depths and see the finest details of the ragged rock formations submerged below. Thanks to microbes that thrive in scorching temperatures, the astounding colors range from violet to milky turquoise, yellow to aquamarine. Copper-colored streams flow into the lake, where I spotted the top of Fishing Cone poking out of the water—the site of boiling live fish until that practice was banned in 1912.
From here, I passed the Continental Divide (at 8,391′) on my way to the park’s most famous attraction. The parking lot was crowded, filled by guests of Old Faithful Inn and visitors coming to see the park’s signature geyser. I arrived about 20 minutes before the next predicted eruption and secured my seat among the crowds in the seating stands—more people than I had seen in the park collectively since I first arrived. Cameras clicked furiously as Old Faithful began to sputter and then erupt in full force, shooting thousands of gallons of boiling water more than 100′ into the air. The eruption lasted about three minutes and ended with a round of applause.
I had enough time before the next eruption, about 90 minutes later, to explore Old Faithful Inn, the largest log structure in the world and one of the top five things to see in Wyoming. Constructed during the winter of 1903–04, the inn runs nearly 700′ in length, and parts of it reach seven stories high. On the outside, it’s all steep pitched shingled roofs, dormer windows, and log columns. Inside, the massive rhyolite fireplace dominates the lobby, and four floors of balconies with lodgepole pine railings enhance the rustic ambiance.
Back outside, I explored the Upper Geyser Basin around Old Faithful. This highly active area is home to both the largest concentration of geysers in the world and plenty of springs and rock turned orange from oxidized minerals before it submerges into the Firehole River. After Old Faithful’s next eruption, which I viewed from a different and quieter vantage point, I headed to Firehole Lake Drive, where boardwalks wrap around bubbling pools fringed by striking oranges and yellows, and mud chimneys that look like giant melted mounds of white chocolate.
The light was beginning to fade, but I had enough time to spy more fly fishermen and elk, both seeking their evening meals. I made my last stop at Two Ribbons Trail, an easy and short hike through the trees to the Madison River, to watch the sunset and birds of prey gliding through the evening sky.
On my final day in Yellowstone, more elk and bison greeted me on my way south to a trio of basins that grew in dramatic intensity. Lower Geyser Basin encompasses a huge collection of mudpots, springs, pools, and dead trees that reminded me of bleached animal skulls one would see posted on cattle fences in Old West movies. A series of geysers erupt here fairly regularly, so you’re likely to see at least one in action (for me, it was Clepsydra Geyser).
At Midway Geyser Basin, steaming water runs along sloping rocks between borders of orange rock before dropping into the Firehole River. Boardwalks lead you around scorching pools of water, the colors of which would never even occur to crayon manufacturers. The tumultuously bubbling pale-blue waters of Excelsior Geyser Crater, amazing as it is, are only a timid introduction to the basin’s other features, the most astonishing of which is Grand Prismatic Spring. The third-largest hot spring in the world (after Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand’s Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Boiling Lake in Dominica) spans a diameter of about 370′ and plunges down approximately 160′. Sizzling at about 160°, the colors of the water explode into a fiery rainbow that gradually changes from deep blue in the center to teal to green to yellow to gold to orange and red, generated by different types of heat-loving bacteria. Scorching-hot red tentacles flare out like liquid lava from the rippled edges of the spring. Depending on the direction of the wind, you’ll get a clear view of this staggering display of gem-like color, or you’ll be viewing it through the haze of the steam constantly rising off the water, adding to its mystery.
Yellowstone’s extraordinary landscape continues at Biscuit Basin, named for biscuit-like deposits around one of its pools that were subsequently destroyed during the 1959 earthquake and the eruption of the geyser. Today, Biscuit Basin still offers plenty to ogle, including orange-streaked terraces plunging into the river, multi-color pools ringed by dead trees that couldn’t tolerate the heat but themselves are backed by healthy green conifers, the deep-blue Sapphire Pool, and a couple of geysers that unleash bursts of 200° water.
I now turned my attention toward leaving Yellowstone behind, but not before stopping near the southern edge of the park at Lewis Lake (named for Meriweather Lewis), a popular site for kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. Along the shoreline, you’re likely to find trees standing on their own roots like a coffee table with too many gnarly legs, the ground beneath them eroded away. Just a couple of miles south of the lake, Lewis Falls marks a 30′ drop along the Lewis River, and the path to the overlook made for my last hike in Yellowstone.
My exit from the park did not go out with a whimper. The final handful of miles to the South Entrance along the Lewis River are tremendously scenic, with wonderful views down into canyons and ravines, hemmed in by sloping hills covered in autumnal foliage and pierced with tubular rock formations. The only thing that kept me from being sad at leaving behind such incomparable natural grandeur and not having enough time to see more of it was the fact that I was headed directly to Grand Teton National Park, only about 10 miles away and yet another of Wyoming’s best sites.