Hot Springs has been described as "geology in
overdrive" because of the way the travertine
steps change color and shapes so often.
NATIONAL PARK — As we walked along the trail, partly
shaded by towering and ubiquitous lodgepole pines, I
turned and looked around. We were alone, had been for a
couple of miles.
loaded with raincoats, sunscreen and cameras, and bear
spray on my belt buckle, I was on a tour of our country’s
first national park, Yellowstone, with my family and a
guide from the Yellowstone Association Institute.
I made the observation, guide Carolyn Harwood gave us this
fascinating tidbit: Of the park’s 33 million annual
visitors, only about 1 percent ever leave the developed
areas (visitors centers, pullouts, boardwalks).
hike, a 4.5-mile loop that started on the Clear Lake
trail, took us through open pastures, where we saw elk, to
wooded areas where we were on the lookout for bears, to a
spot that looked like the moon with boiling pots of mud
and steamy hot springs. Our hike was like walking through
a "Star Wars" movie, from Naboo to Endor to
a couple of miles, we emerged at Artist Point. It’s not
hard to see how the lookout got its name: A gorgeous view
of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a deep canyon, its
walls painted with a palette of yellow, red, orange and
black, the result of hydrothermal alterations to the
also affords a spectacular view of the Lower Falls, a
gushing waterfall that plunges 308 feet, nearly triple the
height of the Upper Falls, just up the river, and twice as
high as Niagara Falls.
several steep climbs and multiple educational breaks where
we learned to identify trees by needles and animals by
scat, the hike took about 4 hours.
Yellowstone Association works with the National Park
Service to connect people to the park through education.
best way to really see Yellowstone is to explore it, and
that’s what we help you do," said Harwood.
heart of Yellowstone is a caldera surrounded by the spires
of the Rocky Mountains. It’s actually a giant sleeping
volcano. When my 6-year-old heard this, he looked alarmed
and asked, "Is it going to erupt?" Harwood
paused and sat us down to explain. Yes, it could go off.
In the past, it has created massive explosions. It is in
fact, due to go off again. However, scientists will have
plenty of advanced warning, and we’re not there yet.
sleeping volcano isn’t really so sleepy either. The hot
springs, geysers, mudpots and fumaroles (steam vents) are
everyday reminders of the dangers that lurk beneath the
earth’s surface. But they make magnificent sites for
is big, as in 3,500 square miles big. A windy, two-lane
road takes you through the high points of Yellowstone
National Park. It actually makes a figure eight, out of
about 154 miles of roadway. If you only had one day, you
could drive it and see the high points. But I’d
recommend at least three. One day for the upper loop; one
day for the lower loop and a third day to get off those
roads and really explore the park on foot.
nothing beats coming upon a majestic waterfall or a
lily-pad-covered pond on a hike, there is plenty to see
from your car or a short walk on the boardwalk.
DON’T-MISS SITES IN YELLOWSTONE
is by no means an exhaustive list, rather things we did
Faithful: Perhaps the most famous site in all of
Yellowstone is the erupting geyser of Old Faithful. And it’s
certainly popular. In the Moon "Montana &
Wyoming" guidebook, author Carter G. Walker says as
many as 70 percent of American adults have seen the famous
geyser. Old Faithful isn’t the tallest geyser, but it is
more predictable than most, going off every 30 minutes to
two hours. Television screens in the area give you an
estimated time of the next eruption. Each eruption shoots
nearly 4,000 to 8,000 gallons of water about 130 feet into
the air. Unfortunately, on our trip, we got caught in a
downpour that happened about one minute after Old Faithful
erupted. I’ve heard the eruptions last two to five
minutes, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find
out if that’s true.
Hot Springs area: Visit Mammoth Hot Springs to walk the
self-guided trail around Fort Yellowstone, which
chronicles the U.S. Army’s role in protecting the park.
Then drive or walk over to the hot springs area. The
terraces are quite different from the other thermal areas
in the park. These step-like travertine formations grow
much more rapidly (as much as 2 feet per year) and are
constantly changing shapes and color. The book
"Yellowstone: Expedition Guide" calls the area
"geology in hyperdrive."
Canyon of the Yellowstone: This 20-mile-long canyon,
including the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone
River, can be seen from several overlooks throughout the
park. Or take one of the other hikes, such as ours, around
it. You can also take Uncle Tom’s trail 328 steps down
to the bottom (Warning: It’s dangerous and strenuous).
Lake: North America’s largest high-altitude lake is
simply breathtaking. We took a sunset tour ($35) on a
1936-restored "Yellowstone Bus" through the
area. We ended in Lake Butte at an elevation of 8,348
feet, for a gorgeous sunset over the mountains that frame
the lake. The area is also prime habitat for birds and
mammals. We saw bears, a beaver (or maybe it was a
muskrat), pronghorn deer and waterfowl. In warmer months,
catch a cruise or rent a boat.
geyser basins: Yellowstone is home to the majority of the
world’s geysers. Several basins, notably the Thumb
Geyser Basin in the Yellowstone Lake area, the Norris
Geyser Basin and the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins
to the west, are great for exploring. See geysers, mudpots,
fumaroles and colorful hot springs. Don’t miss Steamboat
Geyser in the Norris Basin, the tallest — though
unpredictable — geyser in the park, which on our visit
hissed and spit so much we were sure it was going to go
off (it didn’t), and the aptly named Grand Prismatic in
the Midway Geyser Basin. And don’t miss the Mud Volcano
and Dragon’s Mouth Spring near Fishing Village; they are
just as amazing as their names sound.
Valley: Aside from the geothermic activity, most people
come to Yellowstone for the wildlife. Two areas are
well-known for this in the park: Lamar Valley and Hayden
Valley. We didn’t have time to make it to the first, but
Hayden Valley provided not only bison and pronghorn but
also a good look at a coyote who had just caught a bird of
prey for dinner and a possible wolf sighting (it was
awfully far away). Staring out over Hayden Valley was like
watching an episode on the National Geographic Channel. I’ll
also note that we came way too close to a grizzly who had
wandered near the Visitor Center at nearby Fishing
Rapids: One of our first stops was at a short trail
leading down to the LeHardys Rapids, a gushing portion of
the Yellowstone River. In June and July, the native
cutthroat trout leap over the rocks on their way to
spawning grounds upstream. Watching the green and red
spotted fish leaping in water was a highlight of the trip
for my 6-year-old son.
The park is in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with five
entrances and two main interior loop roads.
MUCH: Admission is $25 per car (good for seven days and
also in Grand Teton National Park)
INFO: nps.gov/yell; yellowstoneassociation.org