Neal Herbert/NPS

Yellowstone National Park Essentials

Explore the wonders of the country’s first national park.

With its singular collection of attractions, Yellowstone National Park—which sits primarily in the northwest corner of Wyoming, with slivers in Montana and Idaho—is like no other place on the planet. Built on an ever-changing landscape that bubbles, bursts, and blows sky-high, the park would be worth a visit simply for its unique geysers, hot springs, and steam vents. 

But there’s so much more than hydrothermal fireworks to see here: For one, it’s a nearly intact ecosystem where grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, bison and elk roam free. Its mountain peaks reach above 11,000 feet, and a couple of enormous waterfalls tumble hundreds of feet into a polychrome canyon. A vast high-elevation lake anchors one corner of the park, while legendary trout rivers crisscross its lands. 

In a park this size—you could fit Rhode Island and Delaware inside its borders—it’s impossible to see everything in one trip. But don’t let that intimidate you: Visiting even a slice of Yellowstone makes for an unforgettable adventure. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself drawn back again and again, ready to explore yet another aspect of this phenomenal park.

The Science Behind Yellowstone’s Geysers

Yellowstone National Park boasts more than 10,000 thermal features, including the highest concentration of geysers in the world in the Old Faithful area. They include the famous geysers and multicolored hot springs, but also fumaroles (steam vents) and bubbling mud pots. All the features owe their existence to underground heat from the immense supervolcano located under the landscape. As precipitation trickles back underground, it heats up, builds pressure, and rises back to the surface in a number of ways. If there’s little obstructing its path, the hot water seeps up as a hot spring; if the superheated water meets resistance in the rock as it rises, it will stop until pressure builds high enough to cause a spectacular geyser eruption. 

Supervolcano, you say? Yes, Yellowstone sits on top of an enormous volcano, which has periodically produced huge eruptions throughout history, the most recent one 640,000 years ago. You can see the rim of the caldera (the bowl-shaped depression formed by the last eruption) in several places throughout the park.  

Yellowstone’s Wondrous Wildlife

The animal life in the park’s wide-open plains and mountain peaks looks a whole lot like it did centuries ago. The large, exciting animals like grizzlies, black bears, bison, wolves, moose, Canada lynx, bighorn sheep, and elk attract many visitors. But the park’s ecosystem includes many other species, from badgers and golden eagles to river otters, beavers, and tiger salamanders. What’s more, your chances of seeing at least some of your life-list wildlife are very good here—there’s nothing quite like glimpsing your first bear or wolf in the wild.

The Human History of Yellowstone

The original human inhabitants of what’s now Yellowstone were members of the Tukudika people, a band of the Mountain Shoshone. Tukudika translates to “eaters of the mountain sheep,” as bighorn sheep provided their main meat source. Skilled hunters, the Tukudika made arrowheads from obsidian they obtained in the park and moved between higher and lower elevations with the seasons. Today, 27 other Indigenous tribes have historic ties to Yellowstone and its resources.

White explorers first saw the area in the early 1800s. Several expeditions explored Yellowstone’s wonders over the next few decades; their reports and pictures helped lead to the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872—the country’s first.  

Visiting the National Park

A trip to Yellowstone has changed a lot from the earliest days of tourism, when visitors saw the sights on horseback or in stagecoaches. Today, paved roads, restaurants, hotels, and visitor centers provide a touch of civilization, and the park has become more and more popular: This past August was Yellowstone’s busiest ever, with 921,844 visits, and annual visitation tops 4 million. But don’t be fooled. A vast wilderness awaits when you step off the beaten path, granting adventurous travelers a peek back in time to Yellowstone’s wild heart.

A car is essential to experiencing Yellowstone, as distances are lengthy and public transportation unavailable (unless you count guided tour buses). The park’s main road forms a figure-eight shape that connects the major attractions, with spurs leading to the five entrances and their gateway towns. You’d need weeks to really see it all, so the best bet for an average-sized vacation is to pick a portion of the park to explore in depth. Alternatively, you can attempt a whirlwind greatest-hits tour, but be prepared to spend a lot of time driving (and looking for parking) if you go this route.

Neal Herbert/NPS

Seasons

Summer

Summer (July and August) is short, intense, and beautiful at Yellowstone’s high elevations (the park averages at about 8,000 feet above sea level). It’s when the snow melts off the trails, rivers and lakes are prime for paddling, services and attractions are up and running, and bears and other wildlife are active. It’s also the park’s busiest season by far, and the developed areas get crowded. Summer is also wildfire season, and smoke from nearby and regional fires can cause significant air pollution.

Fall

Temperatures begin to drop in September and continue through November, making for comfortable days and chilly nights. Wildlife-spotting chances are great, as elk and bighorn sheep are in rut and bears gorge themselves in preparation for winter, and fall colors decorate the landscape. Visitation drops, and services and roads begin to shut down for the season (check park updates for the latest conditions). 

Winter

Abundant snowfall makes Yellowstone a true winter wonderland from November through March. Most roads shut down to everything but snowmobiles and snowcoaches, and most hotels and restaurants are closed. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities abound, and it’s easier than ever to spot wolves and bison. This is Yellowstone’s least-crowded season, but travelers should be prepared for bitterly cold temperatures. 

Spring

The park begins to awaken April through June: Baby animals are born and venture out, bears emerge from their dens, migrating birds arrive, wildflowers bloom, and waterfalls gush at their most impressive rates. Roads begin to open near the end of April, and most services, hotels, and campgrounds are open by June. Visitation starts out lower and picks up near the end of spring; be prepared for snow and cold weather anytime. 

Things To Do

You could have scores of different adventures at Yellowstone—here are a few classic choices.

Geyser Gazing

Yellowstone’s thermal features are one of its top attractions, and truly, they shouldn’t be missed. You can get up close to spouting geysers, burbling mud pots, shrieking fumaroles, and steaming hot springs in a number of places throughout the park. These three are just a start.

The Classic: Upper Geyser Basin

Here’s where you’ll find Old Faithful, plus a series of other geysers and assorted hydrothermals. A boardwalk winds through the basin, granting safe passage over the dangerously thin ground, past Beehive Geyser, Giantess Geyser, Grand Geyser, and many more. Tip: Skip the crowds watching Old Faithful up close and hike 1.6 miles (round-trip) to Observation Point for a sweeping view of the spout.

The Hot Zone: Norris Geyser Basin

Yellowstone’s hottest, most active thermal area hosts multicolored pools (thanks to the heat-loving microorganisms living within them) and the park’s tallest geyser, 400-foot Steamboat Geyser. Two loop trails take you safely through the landscape; one is 1.5 miles, the other, 0.8 mile.

The Backcountry Experience: Lone Star Geyser

Like your geysers with fewer people and more hiking involved? Follow the Firehole River 2.5 miles to Lone Star, an off-the-beaten-path geyser that erupts every three hours or so.

Top Day-Hikes

With 900-plus miles of trail to choose from, you won’t ever run out of hiking options at Yellowstone. Here are three favorites.

Mount Washburn

This 10,243-foot peak offers expansive views over the eastern portion of the park, plentiful wildflowers, a lookout tower, and a good chance to spot bears or bighorn sheep. The 6-mile (round-trip) hike from Dunraven Pass is slightly more moderate; the 5-miler from Old Chittendon Road is steeper.

North Rim Trail

Follow the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, earning better views of Lower Falls and the yawning canyon itself than you can get from the crowded vista points. The North Rim Trail is 6 miles round-trip.

Upper Pebble Creek

This stunner in the park’s northwest corner offers views of the area’s peaks and cliffs, plus wildflowers in high summer. It’s 12 miles from the Warm Springs Trailhead to the Pebble Creek Trailhead, but shorter out-and-back hikes are worthwhile, too.

Camping

Yellowstone offers 12 developed campgrounds scattered across the park, plus many more backcountry campsites if you’d rather head into the wilderness. Nothing beats sleeping inside the park, and though the park hotels are good to exceptional, a night under the Yellowstone stars offers a more memorable experience. 

The park runs seven of the developed campgrounds. Four are first-come, first-served (and tend to fill early each morning), and the rest—Mammoth, Slough Creek, and part of Pebble Creek—can be reserved through Recreation.gov. Park concessionaire Xanterra operates the other five, which can be booked ahead of time. They range from large, full-amenity campgrounds with showers, flush toilets, and RV hookups to smaller, more primitive campgrounds.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.