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
Wow!!!! Those pictures are unreal! So bacteria grosses me out, but I’m so intrigued by all the colors! Great pictures, what an incredible experience to see all of this in person. Thanks for sharing!!! Watch out for grizzly bears ????????
We were, and still are, blown away by the colors the bacteria create at Yellowstone. We’ve never seen anything like that. If the mold that grows in our shower was that colorful, I might just leave it!
Just kidding, Jen… just kidding.
Stop hyperventilating. 🙂
Thank you for taking me down memory lane. I was at Yellowstone when I was 8 yrs old on a Camping trip with my family and the memories of Yellowstone are still etched in my mind. Can’t wait to go back a relive and have new experiences!
As awesome as it was for us to see it, I can only imagine how incredible it would be as a child. What an awesome experience to have at that age. I hope you get to go back soon. It truly is a wonderful place to explore.
This is a fabulous post on Yellowstone. Lots of people have been there (as evidenced by your crowd shots) but your choice of photographs captures its beauty and “otherworldliness” perfectly. I always feel like I should tread lightly there, like the crust is very thin and any moment it could crack or break providing fodder for a new book at the visitor’s center…..Gone….Tourist Breaks Through!
Thank you, Sue! I had an absurd amount of photos to go through for this post because everything in Yellowstone is picture-worthy and there are so many interesting things to talk about. I felt the exact same way – assuming everything was dangerous. I had heard several stories about tourists getting hurt even before walking into the bookstore and seeing that book prominently featured… That pretty much sealed the deal for me. “We’ll just stay on the boardwalks, thank-you-very-much!”
Having hit all of the lower 48 states in our full-time travels, YNP is still my favorite place of all because it has it all. The amazing geothermal features, spectacular scenery, so much wildlife that you actually get complacent about it and the ability – with a little effort – to get away from the crowds in spectacular fashion. Like you point out, the vast majority of the visitors never leave sight of the road and that is both a shame and blessing…shame on them and a fantastic opportunity for those of us willing to put on hiking shoes, grab the bear spray (we don’t hike without it) and hit the trail. And just like early and late in the day are the best times for less crowds and more wildlife, so are early and later in the year. We much prefer the “shoulder seasons” of Spring and Fall to avoid the mob and see the wildlife in a different way,..the fresh Bison calves learning their first steps in Spring and the bugling, horny Elk during the mating season in September are great times to snoop around the park. And if you ever get a chance to see it in Winter it is even more stunning; as if that is even possible. I love to keep tabs on your adventures and hope to catch up with you guys on the road..
We had quite a few laughs about the bear spray. Literally, every single time we went to a visitor’s center to get information about hikes in the park, the first question the ranger would ask is “Do you have bear spray?” We bought some right in the beginning and were very good about carrying it with us, but it was definitely concerning when that was their main focus as soon as we talked about hiking.
I would absolutely love for us to go back in shoulder season. We think everything is better in the spring and fall. The only reason I hesitated to plan it that way is the weather is so unpredictable in that region and the one thing we do not want to end up doing is driving the motorhome on snowy roads. So I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be there too early or too late in the season and end up in a bad driving situation. All other things being equal though, we would absolutely love to visit in shoulder season.
Thanks for reading and yes, it would be great to hang out whenever we’re in the same place!
Yellowstone is one of our favorite national parks, too—it truly is a magical, otherworldly place. It’s hard to convey the magnificence in photos, but you managed to capture all of the different moods and formations and landscapes beautifully. We’ve been twice now—once in fall, and again last spring—and we still want to go back. We didn’t get to hike the new trail for Grand Prismatic Spring because of road work in the park, so that’s on our list for next time (thanks for the pro tip). It seems like you guys saw it all! By the way, the book about the dumbass things people do in the park—we witnessed a few incidents. People really do crazy stuff (like getting up close to a bull elk and his harem for photos). It’s an excellent place to find candidates for the Darwin Award.
Oh my god, so many dumb people! Just before we got there, we heard some guy got gored trying to get a selfie with a bison. And one day as we were standing near a hot spring, we saw a bunch of teenagers throwing chunks of dirt into one of the springs – I guess they thought it would smoke or something. I have no idea. It is seriously mind-boggling how a) dumb people are; and b) how hard it is for people to follow simple directions. I mean, this stuff is just not that complicated!!
Anyway, next time you’re there, it is absolutely worth it to go up that trail to see the whole Grand Prismatic spring. Plus, you can keep following the trail and find a small waterfall and a geyser a mile or two back. Again, most people don’t bother going back there, so if you do, you may find your own private geyser!
Very interesting….I learned a lot! And cool pics. Thanks for the tips
Thank you for reading!! Hope you all get to visit at some point!
I’m so glad you enjoyed Yellowstone! I think it’s a magical, unique place too, and is still one of my favorite places we’ve been. Your descriptions and photos are really wonderful!
Thank you, Heather! It’s interesting how many long term travelers consider Yellowstone one of their favorites. It truly is a special place!
Wow and wow again. I can’t wait, we are going to Yellowstone in early October, followed by Grand Teton NP. I’m hoping to stay at Henrys for part of our stay. I’m truly looking forward to following your advice on how to see things without all the tourist. Your images are stunning. It hard to imagine so many different landscapes in one place.
I think you guys will have to deal with a lot fewer tourists and the overall experience should be terrific that time of year. I think it’s also probably one of the few places you guys can go after your travels this summer that will still blow you away. While Alaska may have ruined you for pretty scenery going forward, I think you’ll still be impressed by YNP. 🙂 The colors and thermal features are just so unique, I bet you’ll love it. I hope so, anyway!
Beautiful post Laura! The colors are amazing…so crisp and clear. Enjoyed reading all the information and thanks for the helpful tips. Henrys Lake is on the radar for next year!
Oh, I hope you guys make it there. I bet you’ll love it! And thank you for your kind words… It’s pretty hard to take a bad picture in such a beautiful, colorful place!
Yellowstone is my all time favorite park. I love the diversity. We’ve made three visits and I can’t wait to return again. Your photos are spectacular, Laura, and your explanation for the park should be in a visitor guide book! The Grand Prismatic is my favorite. We discovered the way to see it from above long before the park built the overlook trail. We had to hike out the Fairy Falls Trail and then crawl literally up the very steep side of the hill while climbing over what seemed like a zillion dead trees. But we were rewarded with an amazing, unforgettable view. I understand that shortly after we made this climb, the park stopped people from doing this. Glad they built a proper viewing area. I love you photo with the bison and the geysers in the background. Seeing the bison sitting near the geysers and covered in white is too funny.
Thanks Pam!! I appreciate it! We could return to this park again and again. As it is, we only saw a tiny portion, and there are so so many unique landscapes to hike through, I have no doubt we’ll return and explore more. The hardest part is finding the right time of year to go. The weather up there is so unpredictable and so harsh, we need to make sure we plan things right. We heard about the snowstorms they get… No thank you!
I am amazed it took as long as it did for NPS to build that viewing area over Grand Prismatic, but it worked out in our favor as a lot of people didn’t seem to know it was there. I’m sure as word gets around, that trail and the overlook will become more and more crowded. It’s awesome that you guys got to see it when no one else was even there – and what an incredible “payoff” at the end of a tough hike!
Beautiful pictures! Please post about Teton National Park before next week, as we’ll be there then! 🙂 We went to Yellowstone a couple months ago from the WY side and are now looping back and going to Teton from the SW side.
P.S. Where did you stay while visiting Teton National Park?
We actually only drove over to GTNP for one full day. We were camped about 90 minutes away. Our original plan was to spend several days at Gros Ventre Campground which is a first come first served park inside the national park, but our plans got screwed up, so we ended up far away. I would look into Gros Ventre. It’s not fancy, but the location is fantastic and it’s a large campground, so you should be able to find a site, especially since we’re getting toward the end of the summer. A lot of it is dry camping, but there are some sites with electric hookups
As for things to do, my number one suggestion is go to Jenny Lake early (like 8:00 a.m.), take the boat across the lake, and hike the Cascade Canyon Trail. It’s 4 miles out and 4 miles back, but you don’t have to go the whole way. The first mile or so is TOUGH, but then it levels out and the views are incredible.
On another morning, I would drive the loop road that goes through the park and stop by the various overlooks. The scenery is gorgeous, but the later you go during the day, the hazier it will be (the wildfire smoke was a real problem). It’s usually clearer in the morning.
So the books are a little disconcerting, but I loved your photos! Glad you didn’t have an encounter with a grizzly!
That makes two of us!! 🙂
Wow! Now I don’t feel bad not visiting Yellowstone while at Henrys, you see, your photos and descriptions relive great memories with better pictures than I took eleven years ago. Steve says he hopes NPS gets to read your blog because it is well done, very informative and you captured the essence of a very huge park! It was the crowd that kept us from revisiting the park, for it really is sad to see how many dumb and oblivious tourist there are now. A week after you visited I saw on tv a guy who was gauging the Bison at the park, so stupid. Fortunately, he got caught while at Glacier NP, for drunkness. Steve had a great view of the prismatic spring as he flew over it with his friends some years back.
Thank you guys! I appreciate it! I saw the video of that drunken idiot and all I could think was: “too bad the bison didn’t get him!” What an idiot. Glad they caught him soon after. We really loved the park, but yeah, the crowds can be trying at times, no doubt. You know it’s bad if WE are willing to get our butts out of bed first thing in the morning to beat the crowds to a particular place! Grand Prismatic is just incredible and I’m so glad they have that viewing area now. I’m sure Steve was blown away when he flew over it!
Great pictures Laura!! Yellowstone is such an enigma…spectacular beauty and so many ways to die a harrowing death! The book “Taken by Grizzles” would be great reading by the fire at night just before crawling into your tent!! Aren’t you glad you were in a RV!!!
Sounds like you had a great stay there.
Ha! Yeah, I can’t tell you how happy we are to be in a nice solid RV rather than tent camping in any of these places. Given the number of warnings we saw and heard about bears in the park, it was pretty disconcerting. Plus, with so many inexperienced campers leaving food and trash around, I have to believe bears end up in the campgrounds. Not Good!
Awesome photos, as usual, and great suggestions on avoiding the crowds. We will be following your advice when we visit Yellowstone in September, except since we are staying the park we will opt for extremely early visits to the popular destinations rather than late in the day. And we plan on plenty of hiking, so here’s hoping we can leave the crowds behind! A few weeks ago we were camped next to a family that visits Yellowstone every year, and they gave us great tips on hiking trails throughout the park. Where would we be without good ideas from fellow travelers??
Honestly, I have no idea…. I pretty much plan everything we do based on the things I learn from other bloggers and folks on social media. Other travelers really are the best resource for this stuff. I hope you guys love Yellowstone as much as we did. I think it will be less busy at that time of year and early morning visits to the big sights should solve the rest of the problem. In our experience, most tourists come through the gates around 9:00 or 10:00. As long as you’re done by then, you should be fine.
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