A Look At Yellowstone

What other national park boasts an assortment of some 10,000 thermal features, including more than 300 geysers? Even when the rest of North America was still largely wilderness, Yellowstone was unique. Its collection of geothermal features is richer and more concentrated than any other in the world, with mud pots, geysers, and hot springs of all colors and sizes. Plus, there’s a waterfall that’s twice as tall as Niagara Falls and a canyon deep and colorful enough to be called “grand.” Sure, other parks have great hiking trails and beautiful geologic formations—Grand Teton is pretty spectacular in its own right, as is Yosemite—but unlike many other parks, a sizable percentage of the geology in Yellowstone is reachable by visitors in average physical shape.

Ever focus your camera lens on an untamed grizzly bear, or a bald eagle? What about a wolf? Thousands of visitors have these experiences here every year. Protected from development by the national park and surrounding forests, Yellowstone is home to herds of bison and elk, packs of grizzly bears, flocks of trumpeter swans, schools of Yellowstone cutthroat trout, and subtler beauties such as wildflowers and hummingbirds.

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And the park doesn’t appeal solely to the visual senses; you’ll smell it, too. Yellowstone has more than 1,100 species of native plants. When wildflowers cover the meadows in spring, their fragrances are overpowering. The mud pots and fumaroles have their own set of odors, though many are less pleasing than that of a wild lily.

Your ears will be filled with the sounds of geysers noisily spewing forth thousands of gallons of boiling water into the blue Wyoming sky. After sunset, coyotes break the silence of the night with their high-pitched yips.

You can spend weeks hiking Yellowstone’s backcountry or fishing its streams, but the park’s road system makes it easy to see its highlights from behind the windshield in a day or two. Roads lead past most of the key attractions and are filled with wildlife commuting from one grazing area to another, and many visitors to Yellowstone tour the park without hitting the trail. While there’s no doubt that driving through the park yields vivid memories, those who don’t leave their cars are shortchanging themselves.

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Yellowstone closes in fall and then reopens as a winter destination come December, when cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are the prime pursuits. There's no cozier place than the lobby of the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the only hotel in the park's interior that stays open during Yellowstone's long, cold, and snowy winter season. I highly recommend a visit when snow covers the ground. You often have the park to yourself, but dress appropriately (read: no fewer than three layers) and be ready to incur an extra expense in the form of snowcoach fare.

Making the Most of Your Trip

Yellowstone is not just a photo op and zoo where the animals roam free. The park is a work in progress; they are living, breathing wilderness areas. Plant your feet in a comfortable pair of walking or hiking shoes, find a trailhead, and set off into the woods with a sack lunch and a big bottle of water. Better yet, if you can afford the time, plan an excursion by boat around Shoshone Lake or to the south end of Yellowstone Lake, to areas few visitors ever see.

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In Yellowstone, sleep under the stars and listen to the wolves howl at Slough Creek Campground; or backpack for a week on the Thorofare Trail.

You’ll never plumb the absolute depths of this park—no one ever will. You could spend your whole life trying, though, and have a wonderful and illuminating time doing it.

A “best of” list could never do justice to Yellowstone. These are just starting points, the best of the excellent accommodations and dining the parks offer, as well as unique sightseeing and recreational opportunities. Some involve backcountry expeditions; others can be enjoyed from behind a windshield. In the wildly diverse environments of these two parks, you can be as adventurous as you want—climbing peaks and spending the night deep in the wilderness, or simply enjoying the more civilized side of the parks at grand lodges and enchanting roadside overlooks.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.