In our time on the road, we’ve seen some mind boggling sights thanks to the National Park Service. From 30 foot tall dunes of blinding white sand at White Sands National Monument to a 2,000 foot deep canyon at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to the towering tie-dyed hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, we’ve marveled at loads of jaw dropping scenery. But nowhere has been as varied or as otherworldly as Yellowstone National Park.
It’s not just that you see things you don’t see anywhere else; it’s that you see so many different types of things you don’t see anywhere else.
Driving through the front gate of Yellowstone National Park is like Dorothy opening the door to Oz… Everything is colorful, nothing is familiar and, sometimes, things aren’t what they seem.
During the course of a day’s meanderings, you’ll encounter placid hot springs full of the brightest, bluest water you’ve ever seen, descending to unfathomable depths…..
you’ll find colorful bacterial mats that extend hundreds of feet in all directions…
you’ll see massive travertine structures formed by years of limestone/calcite buildup…
you’ll come upon what appear to be refreshing lakes that, upon closer inspection, might not be quite so refreshing….
You’ll encounter boiling and sputtering pools of acidic mud…
and holes in the earth from which steam billows like some gateway to hell.
And if all of these fascinating thermal features aren’t enough, you can fix your gaze upon a stunningly beautiful canyon and waterfall….
a massive fresh water lake (that hides plenty of its own thermal surprises)…
and you can tackle over 900 miles of hiking trails traversing some of the most pristine wilderness in the world.
Oh, and when you’re driving along on your morning commute, the guy stuck in traffic next to you will be a 2000 pound bison….
A Super Volcano
Yellowstone is the festival of crazy that it is because of the massive volcanic eruption that occurred there approximately 630,000 years ago. Geologists estimate the explosion was 1,000 times stronger than the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s and it left behind, among other things, a caldera 30 by 45 miles wide.
Today, a large mass of magma beneath the park continues to drive these thermal features. As rainwater seeps into the ground, it takes on heat as it descends toward the roiling, super heated magma. Convection then forces the water back toward the surface. In places where the underground ‘plumbing’ is constricted, pressure builds at regular intervals causing geysers. Where there is less pressure, water calmly bubbles to the surface and forms hot springs. In some locations, the hot water dissolves minerals on its way to the surface, depositing those substances at ground level, while in others, water is converted into steam before it can even reach the surface. In the meantime, heat loving microorganisms called thermophiles take up residence all over the place and provide a kaleidoscope of color.
This combination of routine natural features – mountains, forests, and lakes – with the extremely non-routine results of super heated waters, acids, dissolved minerals, and living bacteria, are what makes Yellowstone so remarkable. Simply driving through the park is a bizarre experience as you look off into forests and fields and notice delicate tendrils of steam rising from here and there.
When taking in the the sites up close, you’re left to wonder “just how hot is that water?” and, “is that solid ground right there or, rather, a thin crust obscuring a boiling cauldron of flesh melting acid?”
Given the featured book at the Park’s bookstore, our guess is you should just assume the latter and stay on the boardwalks.
Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring
The two most famous spots in Yellowstone are Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring, both of which are located in the southwest section of the park. The biggest challenge when visiting these popular spots is dealing with the hordes of tourists who descend upon them each day. But, while summer in Yellowstone means lots and lots of tourists, it also means long days where the sun doesn’t set until almost 10:00 p.m. We used the long hours of daylight to our advantage when visiting these tourist hotspots.
Grand Prismatic is the world’s largest hot spring and it is surrounded by rainbow colored bacterial mats. Pro-tip – drive south past the main parking area that will be full of cars and buses in favor of the lot at the Fairy Falls Trailhead. From there, you can walk up a hill to a viewing platform that overlooks the spring. Not only is it easier to park at this location, but it’s also the only way to see the whole spring.
The boardwalks, visible in the above photo, allow visitors to get up close to this astounding hot spring. The colors, caused by thermophiles, range from vibrant blue to fiery orange. The mats appear to be covered in a very thin layer of crystal clear water that you wouldn’t know was hot if not for the steam rising in the background. Different colored thermophiles grow at different temperatures, so you can figure out how hot a body of water is based on what color thermophiles you see growing there.
For similar colors, but without the crowds, drive along Firehole Lake Drive. This scenic route is on the opposite side of the main road. We found the road to be very lightly traveled, and, as you can see, you can find the same colorful hot springs, bacterial mats, and thermal wonders with none of the crowds. Again, you have to go late, but in mid July, you’ve got plenty of daylight to work with.
Old Faithful is the most popular attraction in the park and, unlike many visitors, we didn’t find the experience to be a letdown. We thought it was awesome! We arrived at the viewing area about 30 minutes before it was expected go off (it usually erupts once every 90 minutes or so – for current predictions, stop by one of the visitor’s centers.)
At 8:30 at night, as we approached the viewing area, there were only a handful of people on the boardwalk that serves as a viewing area for the geyser.
By the time it erupted, the two rows of bench seats were filled, but anyone present would have had an excellent view.
Contrast our late-in-the-day experience with this photo I took from the visitor’s center a couple days later at 1:30 in the afternoon and the choice of when to visit Old Faithful is clear.
West Thumb and Yellowstone Lake
While geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles can be found throughout the park, there are several locations where large collections of these fascinating features can be explored. One of our favorites was West Thumb, which is right next to the enormous Yellowstone Lake.
This particular hot spring reminded me of a pool built next to the ocean at a snazzy Caribbean resort….
The only difference is, if you jumped into this pool, you would dissolve. So, maybe don’t do that.
Also, if you’re dumb enough to step off a boardwalk like Bobby here did, then you should expect your sister to point at you unhelpfully, while your father casually walks away like he doesn’t know who you are.
Visitors to the park can view “the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” from Artist Point, named after the painter Thomas Moran who supposedly painted this perfectly picturesque spot in 1870, except he didn’t and they got the name wrong.
The canyon is about 20 miles long and the Lower Falls, viewable here, is a little over 300 feet tall. The canyon is 800 to 1200 feet deep.
We had hoped to hike the popular trail that runs along the edge of the canyon, but, unfortunately, the trail was closed for maintenance. So, instead, we joined the masses to “ooh” and “aah” at the overlook before heading out to find available hiking trails.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is at the northern border of the park. Here, water being forced up from underground dissolves limestone on its way north. At the surface, the water cools and leaves calcite behind.
Not only are the structures fascinating, but the colors and textures are mesmerizing as well. The color differentiation here is, once again, caused by the thermophiles.
Travertine builds up rapidly in this area and causes the look of the structures to change. Additionally, the underground plumbing in this particular region often changes – vents open and close, water flows easily in one area and then stops completely. The result is that Mammoth Hot Springs looks very different from one year to the next.
We saw further evidence of this phenomenon nearby. Trees that had once grown healthily were now entombed in calcite, standing out against a barren wasteland.
Of the eleven days we were at Henrys Lake State Park, we went into Yellowstone six times. We felt we got a pretty good feel for the parts of the park we saw, but it is an enormous place that you could spend months exploring. There are a lot of people who find the masses of tourists and the need to drive great distances every day to be a huge turnoff, but we thought the unique features of the park were worth the effort. It is truly a one-of-a-kind place.
One thing we heard before we visited, which we found to be true, was that most park visitors stay close to their cars. The vast majority of Yellowstone tourists have no interest in hiking. They are there to see the thermal features, take some photos, eat some ice cream, and move on. So, if you plan your visit right, you can have hundreds and hundreds of miles of beautiful trails all to yourself.
Our advice is to go to the popular viewing areas very early or very late in the day and spend the middle of the day hiking. While you’re less likely to see wildlife midday, the scenery is beautiful and, as this heartwarming offering at the bookstore makes clear, you don’t actually want to come face to face with a grizzly bear anyway.
Speaking of bears, and elk, and moose, next up: Grand Teton National Park!
Where we stayed: Henrys Lake State Park, Island Park, Idaho