Imagine a piece of Swiss cheese roughly the size of Cyprus (or Puerto Rico or the Big Island of Hawaii), fill in the blanks with explosive geysers, mud pots, steam vents, and deep, boiling hot spring pools, and then let the excess amount of hot water flow into ice-cold rivers and lakes, and lastly draw the borders with alpine forested mountain ranges. Congratulations! You’ve just created your very own Yellowstone National Park, arguably the most unusual and beautiful place in the world, sculpted out of the volcanic activity.
Yellowstone National Park sits over a giant, active volcano that fuels the park’s famous geysers, hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents), and mud pots. As you walk around the park you might think: “I don’t see any volcanoes?!” That’s because the last time the Yellowstone volcano blew up some 640,000 years ago with the force of 1,000 atomic bombs, the eruption area collapsed upon itself, creating a sunken gigantic crater or caldera. Thus, most of the entire park is a volcano. In Yellowstone, it’s basically burning all over the place even if you don’t see any lava or volcano in the usual sense.
The caldera in Yellowstone National Park is called a supervolcano because in the event of a supereruption it can cause untold global devastation. The magmatic heat below the surface powering all the bubbling geysers, gurgling mod pots, and hot springs, reminds us that it fully intends to blow again, but luckily not so soon.
Home to half of all the known geothermal features on the globe, Yellowstone is an incredibly unique place as if you’re wandering across a number of different planets in a row. All the colorful and varied geothermal attractions of Yellowstone have been preserved for the amazement of visitors since 1872. This makes it the very first national park in the US and it’s widely said to be the first one in the world. The park takes its name from the Yellowstone River, which is believed to be a translation from its Indian name “Yellow Rock River“, although it virtually features all shades of colors.
Truly a geothermal wonderland, Yellowstone National Park is insanely beautiful and diverse, which you can’t really appreciate until you see it in person. It may seem out of the way for a typical American road trip, but listen to me and make seeing this place your top priority, no matter how you twist and tweak your itinerary. Without further ado, let’s dive into Yellowstone’s must-see, best of the best attractions with practical tips.
The unique geothermal features of Yellowstone
Witnessing the geologic wonders of the park is beyond doubt the greatest experience in Yellowstone, hence in this post I primarily focused on the geothermal features that make Yellowstone such an extraordinary place.
Old Faithful Geyser and Upper Geyser Basin
Old Faithful Geyser is the most famous and predictable geyser in Yellowstone. It erupts in more or less regular intervals of around 90 minutes, making it one of the most ‘faithful’ geysers in the world, easy to see in action (check out the video at the end of the post).
The Old Faithfull is actually part of the Upper Geyser Basin, which is home to around 25% of the world’s geysers. This area is huge and you’ll be surprised by the variety and number of geysers and thermal features spread along the walking paths, which are usually flat boardwalks, wheelchair- and stroller-friendly. You should plan at least 3 hours to explore the Upper Geyser Basin beyond the Old Faithful. Before you head to the walking trails, check out the predicted eruption times for all the predictable geysers of the Upper Geyser Basin at the Old Faithful Visitor Center. We didn’t know anything about such a service but luckily we were able to watch some amazing fountain shows just by coincidence.
There are far too many features in this area to mention them all, though, here are some favorites from our visit.
This is the Grand Geyser seen from the side. In the video down below, you’ll see its eruption from the front.
This is the colorful Morning Glory Pool Hot Spring that you reach at the end of the Geyser Loop Trail from the Old Faithful area.
Grotto Geyser doesn’t erupt very often, but once it starts, it can go on for several hours
Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin
Grand Prismatic Spring is the world’s third-largest hot spring and the star of the Midway Geyser Basin. It is arguably the best-recognized and most photographed landmark of Yellowstone. But be warned though, chances are you may not get the same colorful view of the Grand Prismatic as in pictures. Depending on the weather, colors may be duller, or steam may obstruct the view. Regardless, standing ‘inside’ a hot spring bigger than a football field is one of the absolute best things to do in Yellowstone. For the best aerial view, make sure to hit the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail that is accessible via the Fairy Falls Trailhead, 1 mile south of Midway Geyser Basin.
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
Another must-see, truly unique feature of Yellowstone National Park is Mammoth Hot Springs, located just south of the North Entrance. The travertine formations are so different from other thermal features in the park and should not be missed. Again easy boardwalks cover the Upper and Lower Terraces. Expect to spend about an hour in this area.
If you have come this far and have another hour to spare, you may want to take a bath in the Boiling River Hot Springs, a natural hot tub, where hot spring water enters the cold river. As you can observe the phenomena in other parts of the park, we skipped this bathing activity.
Although no geothermal features are found in this area, the Lamar Valley is worth mentioning, where you are almost guaranteed to see herds and herds of bison, and if you are lucky other wild animals like elks, gazelles, wolves, bears…bears?!
You might come across bison-jams in other parts of the park as well, but if you have time and make the effort to drive to this remote location, the huge plains of Lamar Valley won’t disappoint with spectacular landscapes and abundant wildlife. Please keep in mind that Lamar Valley is about 70 miles/100 km away from the Old Faithful area, so don’t squeeze it in if you are short on time.
Hayden Valley and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Another popular place to see wildlife in Yellowstone is Hayden Valley and it can get really busy with tourists and wildlife-jam.
The hydrothermal highlight of the Canyon area is the mud pots or mud volcanoes that are basically hot springs with a limited water supply and acidic features. The acids dissolve the surrounding rocks, and minerals tint the mud pots with a large palette of colors. We quickly drove past this area on our last day before exiting the park. Again if you are short on time, don’t drive to the Canyon area.
West Thumb Geyser Basin and Yellowstone Lake
West Thumb is one of the smallest geothermal areas in the park, located on the western side of Yellowstone Lake. This area has some interesting thermal features, a few found in the lake itself.
If you arrive in Yellowstone through the South Entrance, it’s likely that West Thumb Geyser Basin will be your first stop, which is absolutely worthwhile. But if come after you’ve seen the other basins, it might be disappointing. We spent over an hour in the West Thumb Geyser Basin just for the board-walks. The trail follows the lakeshore and passes various thermal features, including the Abyss Pool, Yellowstone’s deepest hydrothermal pool.
For the Yellowstone Lake area itself, how long you’d need depends on your interests, but bear in mind that the water temperature is too low to swim even in summer. Scenic boat trips are available if you have time.
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is comprised of two sections: the Back Basin and Porcelain Basin.
Back Basin is located in a pine forest with plenty of hydrothermal features. The highlight of this area is the tallest active geyser in the world, Steamboat Geyser that you can usually see in action spitting water up to 60 feet. These are called minor eruptions. Major eruptions of Steamboat Geyser consist of fountains of water reaching over 100 feet high, the tallest spikes over 400 feet. Major eruptions do not occur at regular intervals and are therefore not predictable. Count at least two hours for the Back Basin trail for a quick visit.
Even though these dark pictures below may not help you stop worrying about the end of the world, Yellowstone would not erupt so soon, not in a thousand years according to scientists.
I saved the best for last. Yellowstone has such a jaw-dropping beauty that I couldn’t help but walk around with my mouth wide open the entire time. The moment I saw the Porcelain Basin though, “This must be the most beautiful place on the planet” unconsciously came out of my anyway open mouth. I was so mesmerized that I could have spent an entire day just watching the myriads of spouting tiny geysers, bubbling and boiling fumaroles, and turquoise hot springs.
Pictures can’t capture its beauty but zoom in and try hard to imagine. Do you notice the mountain ranges in the background? I barely had time to realize their existence.
Porcelain Basin looks like a painter’s palette thanks to the heat-loving microorganisms. Yellowstone’s bright, paint-like colors in hot springs and geysers are due to microbial mats formed by thermophiles (Greek for ‘heat lovers’)—microbes that actually thrive at relatively high temperatures. As you look at the colors in and around the geysers, you are indeed looking at a living thermometer. For instance, the green color is due to the thermophilic algae that like temperatures around 38-58 °C.
The Yellowstone National Park is massive and offers five different entrances. You may want to fly to one of the closest airports and pick up a rental car from there. Jackson Hole Airport in the south, West Yellowstone in the west, Bozeman Airport in the north, or Cody in the east are the aviation gateways to America’s first national park. There are a number of lodges and campgrounds in the park, but they usually sell out a year in advance and come with a high price tag. If you are to stay outside the park, Jackson Hole in the south is more charming than West Yellowstone Village, but being closer to the West Entrance is more convenient in terms of sightseeing. Again accommodation is not cheap in the towns close to the park entrances.
For our visit to Yellowstone, we chose to drive from Salt Lake City, UT toward the South Entrance. It’s possible to drive from Salt Lake City in a day but since we weren’t going to stay in the park, we spent the night in Thayne, WY, and continued the next morning through the Grand Teton National Park. After a day of sightseeing in Yellowstone NP, we drove to a forest guesthouse in Island Park, Idaho, approximately 45 minutes further away from the West Entrance, where we spent two nights.
As you can see on the map, there are two loops in the middle of the park forming a figure-eight, hitting Yellowstone’s main hubs—Old Faithful, Grant Village, Lake Village,Canyon Village, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Tower-Roosevelt area. If you drive both loops, you’ll pass all of the major attractions, except Lamar Valley.
Although it’s possible to cover all the major sights in so very long 2 days (this is what we did but we didn’t even have breakfast or lunch breaks on our 12-14 hours sightseeing days), I suggest allowing at least 3 days to visit Yellowstone—more if you can afford it.
Everyone has their own pace, so, to sum up, here are the sights you should not miss out on in the order of importance:
Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Loop trail including Morning Glory Pool (check out the predicted eruptions times before heading to the trails, and allot at least 3 hours)
Grand Prismatic Hot Spring andMidway Geyser Basin (allocate at least 1 hour, more if you plan on hiking to the Grand Prismatic Overlook)
Norris Geyser Basin (don’t skip Porcelain Springs, and account for at least 3 hours for visiting both basins)
Mammoth Hot Springs (1 hour for the terraces, another hour to bath in Boiling River if you fancy)
Lamar Valley to see herds of Bison (this area would cost you 2 hours driving one-way)
West Thumb for more pools and geysers along Yellowstone Lake (spare at least 1 hour)
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone nature trails, Hayden Valley mud volcanoes, and sulfur pools if you still have time.
Activities like biking, kayaking/boating on the lake, bathing in the hot pools of the ice-cold river, fly fishing are all available depending on your time and interests.
Don’t just drive from viewpoint to viewpoint, plan plenty of time to cover the designated trails (mostly flat board-walks), and even more time for back-country trails.
Don’t underestimate the distances in the park, and take into account traffic jams caused by wildlife crossing.
As said in the beginning, make sure to visit Yellowstone National Park once in your lifetime. It’s simply amazing!
Lastly, enjoy the action scenes from our stroll through the galaxy!