Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is a United States National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the world's first national park, set aside in 1872 to preserve the vast number of geysers, hot springs, and other thermal areas, as well as to protect the incredible wildlife and rugged beauty of the area. The park contains 3,472 square miles (8,987 km2), mostly within the northwest corner of Wyoming, but with portions extending into the states of Idaho and Montana.

The Grand Geyser, the largest predictable geyser in Yellowstone, can spout boiling water over 150 feet in the air.

Understand

History

Long before any recorded human history in Yellowstone, a massive volcanic eruption spewed an immense volume of ash that covered all of the western U.S., much of the Midwest, northern Mexico and some areas of the eastern Pacific Coast. The eruption may have been as much as one thousand times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and it left a caldera approximately 34 by 45 miles (55 by 72 km). The Yellowstone super volcano is believed to erupt every 600,000 to 900,000 years with the last event occurring 640,000 years ago. Its eruptions are among the largest known to have ever occurred on Earth, producing drastic climate change in the aftermath. Although it is commonly assumed that the park was named for the yellow rocks seen in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the park's name comes from the Yellowstone River that flows through it, which is in turn named after sandstone bluffs found farther down its course in eastern Montana.

On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first National Park reserve declared anywhere in the world, by President Ulysses S. Grant. In 1978 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Landscape

With half of the earth's geothermal features, Yellowstone holds the planet's most diverse and intact collection of geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. Its more than 300 geysers make up two thirds of all those found on earth. Combine this with more than 10,000 thermal features comprised of brilliantly colored hot springs, bubbling mudpots, and steaming fumaroles, and you have a place like no other.

Yellowstone's hydrothermal features would not exist without the underlying magma body that releases tremendous heat. They also depend on sources of water, such as from the mountains surrounding the Yellowstone Plateau. There, snow and rain slowly percolate through layers of permeable rock riddled with cracks. Some of this cold water meets hot brine directly heated by the shallow magma body. The water's temperature rises well above the boiling point but the water remains in a liquid state due to the great pressure and weight of the overlying water. The result is superheated water with temperatures exceeding 400 °F.

The superheated water is less dense than the colder, heavier water sinking around it. This creates convection currents that allow the lighter, more buoyant, superheated water to begin its journey back to the surface following the cracks and weak areas through rhyolitic lava flows. This upward path is the natural "plumbing" system of the park's hydrothermal features. Once it reaches the surface, the various colors of the pools are due to different types of bacteria growing in different temperatures.

Flora and fauna

It is not at all unusual to see many types of bears, like this black bear, near the roadways or up on the ridges of Yellowstone in the summertime, usually foraging for food.

The park is the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest intact temperate zone ecosystems remaining on the planet, and as a result is an exceptional area for wildlife viewing.

Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. Sixty-seven different mammals live here, including grizzly bears and black bears. Gray wolves were restored in 1995 and more than 100 live in the park now. Wolverine and lynx, which require large expanses of undisturbed habitat, are also found in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Seven native ungulate species - elk, mule deer, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and white-tailed deer live here. Non-native mountain goats have colonized northern portions of the park and numerous small mammals are found throughout the park.

Records of bird sightings have been kept in Yellowstone since its establishment in 1872; these records document 330 species of birds to date, of which approximately 148 species are known to nest in the park. The variation in elevation and broad array of habitat types found within the park contributes to the region's relatively high diversity.

Glacial activity and current cool and dry conditions are likely responsible for the relatively small number of reptiles and amphibians found in the park.

Yellowstone is home to more than 1,350 species of vascular plants, of which 218 are non-native.

Climate

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°F) 28 32 39 46 55 65 75 74 64 50 35 26
Nightly lows (°F) 0 1 10 19 28 35 40 37 29 22 10 0
Precipitation (in) 2.1 2.0 2.2 2.2 2.8 2.5 1.6 1.5 1.5 1.7 2.3 3.2

   Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

The weather in Yellowstone National Park can change very rapidly from sunny and warm to cold and rainy, so it's important to bring along extra layers of clothing which can be used as needed. Snow can fall in Yellowstone at any time of the year.

Get in

Yellowstone National Park area map

By plane

The principal airport serving Yellowstone is Jackson Hole Airport (IATA: JAC), located within Grand Teton National Park, near Jackson, and the largest airport in Wyoming. United and Delta serve Jackson Hole year-round, from Denver and Salt Lake City respectively. These airlines plus American and Frontier provide seasonal flights from those cities and eight others across the US.

Other airports with commercial services are at:

By car

The park has 5 entrances. The nearest cities to each entrance are given.

By foot

There are an extensive number of trails entering the park on all sides including the 3100 mile long Continental Divide Trail.

Fees/permits

All vehicles and individuals entering the park must pay an entrance fee that is valid for seven days. The entrance fee provides entry to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Fees are $25 for non-commercial vehicles, $12 for hikers and cyclists, and $20 for motorcycles and snowmobiles. One year passes are available as an alternative to the seven day fee. The Park Annual Pass is $50 and provides entrance to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

There are several passes that allow free entry for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes are valid at all national parks including Yellowstone National Park:

In 2016 the National Park Service will offer several days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 16-24 (National Park Week), August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).

Get around

Yellowstone National Park map.

By car

Most visitors use private vehicles to get around inside Yellowstone National Park. There is no public transportation available within the park. Roads can become very crowded whenever people stop to view wildlife; use pullouts, and be respectful of other motorists to help avoid bear-jams. When snow falls roads may be closed, and during winter months many park roads close permanently.

By bus

Xanterra Resorts provides bus tours within the park during the summer season. The Lower Loop Tour departs from locations in the southern part of the Park only. The Upper Loop Tour departs from Lake Hotel, Fishing Bridge RV Park, and Canyon Lodge to tour the northern section of the park only. The Grand Loop Tour departs from Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel to tour the entire park in one day. During the winter season snowcoach tours are provided from various locations. Call +1 307 344-7311 for information or reservations.

In addition, during the summer season, commercial businesses offer tours originating from many area towns and cities. During the winter season, some businesses provide snowcoach tours for most park roads or bus transportation on the Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City road.

By bicycle

Cycling in the park can be a very rewarding experience, but due to the great distances in the park some additional planning is necessary to ensure that lodging is available each night. The park reserves a number of campsites for cyclists, but during the busy summer season it is probably best to reserve sites in advance wherever possible.

By snowmobile or snowcoach

Winter is perhaps the most tranquil time to visit the park when there are the fewest number of visitors. The winter use season of snowmobile and snowcoach travel begins in mid-December and ends in mid-March. Actual opening or closing dates for oversnow travel varies by entrance and will be determined by adequate snowpack and plowing schedules. Visitors wishing to visit the park on a snowmobile or in a snowcoach must either travel by commercial snowcoach or accompany a commercial guide on snowmobiles (private, unguided snowmobiles or snowcoaches are not allowed) which are available at most entrances. Best Available Technology snowmobiles are required, and there is a daily limit on snowmobile and snowcoach entries. Off-road use of snowmobiles and snowcoaches is prohibited.

See

Yellowstone is world-famous for its natural heritage and beauty - and for the fact that it holds half the world's geothermal features, with more than 10,000 examples. Travelers to Yellowstone can view more than 300 geysers (such as "Old Faithful"), pools of boiling mud, and an amazing assemblage of wildlife, such as grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk, all while standing on the surface of the Earth's largest known "super-volcano".

The park can be sub-divided into approximately eight major areas, which are organized below as they would be encountered by someone traveling the park in a clockwise direction, starting from the east.

Bridge Bay, Fishing Bridge & Lake

These three regions are situated on the north side of Yellowstone Lake. Recreation options include boating, fishing, and a handful of thermal features.

Thermal features and natural attractions in this area include:

Historical and educational attractions in this area include:

West Thumb & Grant Village

Fishing Cone Geyser and Yellowstone Lake.

These two villages are located on the western side of Yellowstone Lake and offer boating and fishing as well as some interesting thermal features, including the "Fishing Cone", a hot springs that bubbles out directly into the lake. The area's name comes from the fact that with a little imagination, Yellowstone Lake looks like a left hand reaching southward, and this area would be the "thumb" of that hand.

Thermal features and natural attractions in this area include:

Historical and educational attractions in this area include:

Old Faithful

The Grand Prismatic Spring, viewed from above. For a closer view, there are raised boardwalks around the spring and nearby pools (viewable in the detail of the picture)

Old Faithful is the image people think of when they think of Yellowstone, and the geyser erupts regularly (check the visitor center for estimated eruption times). This area is also home to the iconic and historic Old Faithful Inn, as well as a vast number of geysers and hot springs that are easily accessible via boardwalks.

Thermal features and natural attractions in this area include:

Historical and educational attractions in this area include:

Madison

Madison is located midway between Old Faithful and the Norris Geyser basin and offers an array of thermal features.

Norris

Looking like an image from space, mattes of cyanobacteria thrive in the scalding waters of Biscuit Basin.

Located south of Mammoth, the Norris area is a home to a vast array of thermal features, including Steamboat Geyser, the world's largest. The area was named after Philetus W. Norris, the second superintendent of Yellowstone, who provided the first detailed information about the thermal features.

Thermal features and natural attractions in this area include:

Historical and educational attractions in this area include:

Mammoth

Hot pools and travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. The color in the rock is due to algae living in the warm pools that have stained the travertine shades of brown, orange, red, and green.

Mammoth is home to the park headquarters and the impressive calcite terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. This area has numerous services and is a surprisingly good place to see elk grazing on the manicured lawns surrounding the park administrative buildings.

Thermal features and natural attractions in this area include:

Historical and educational attractions in this area include:

Tower-Roosevelt

The Tower area is one of the park's more rugged regions and is a good place for spotting wildlife. The Lamar Valley, located east of Tower, is home to one of the park's more accessible wolf packs as well as elk, bighorn, and other large animals.

Thermal features and natural attractions in this area include:

Historical and educational attractions in this area include:

Canyon

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Yellowstone Falls

The Canyon village is named after the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and offers access to this impressive natural landscape. Recreational opportunities include hiking and wildlife viewing - the Hayden Valley area is probably the best place in the park for seeing bison.

Thermal features and natural attractions in this area include:

Historical and educational attractions in this area include:

Do

For a fee, classic buses will lead passengers on a guided tour of the Grand Loop Road

Many visitors believe they can visit all 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone in 1-2 days - all the while staying within sight of their car or tour bus. To truly appreciate this vast park, get off the park roads and paved tourist paths.

Park programs

Activities

Hiking

The Fires of 1988

The summer of 1988 quite literally transformed the park and the national park system, as thirty-six percent of Yellowstone was affected by a massive, months-long wildfire that consumed 793,880 acres (3,213 km2) and caused the park to be completely shut down on September 8. The enormous conflagration cost $120 million to fight and at one point seriously threatened both the Old Faithful Inn and the historic buildings in Mammoth. The blaze was so powerful that it actually jumped across a river canyon, and media reports at the time often gave the erroneous impression that the park had been completely destroyed. Since the fire, the park management plan has changed. A contributing factor to the severity of the 1988 fire was the buildup of fuel from years of fire suppression, so today natural wildfires are allowed to burn unless they are deemed a danger. Most importantly, the fires of 1988 demonstrated the importance of fire to the natural ecosystem in restoring soil nutrients, dispersing seeds of fire-resistant plants such as lodgepole pines, and creating grazing land for animals like elk and bison.

There are a huge number of day hikes available in the park, and since many visitors travel only to the most popular geyser basins these trails can provide an opportunity to see the park in a more natural setting.

Bridge Bay, Fishing Bridge & Lake

West Thumb & Grant Village

Old Faithful

Clepsydra geyser at play, Lower Geyser basin.

Madison

Norris

Bison amble along a park road. Despite their docile appearance, bison are temperamental and can move extremely fast.They should be viewed from a safe distance through binoculars or telephoto lenses.

Mammoth

Tower-Roosevelt

Canyon

Dead trees near the summit of Mt. Washburn. These trees are the victims of a massive forest fire in 1988 that burned through over 30% of the forest running through the park.

Buy

Every major village within the park offers food, camping supplies, and souvenirs for sale, although these stores all close during the winter months.

Gasoline and automotive services are available in the following locations:

Eat

Vintage sign at Mammoth Hot Springs: There are a variety of restaurant venues scattered throughout the park.

Most of the villages sell food supplies and may offer snack bars. The following restaurants and cafeterias are also available:

Drink

Cocktails can be purchased in the lodge restaurants, and lighter beverages can be obtained at the snack bars.

Sleep

A small cauldron bubbles in the Upper Geyser Basin across from Old Faithful Inn.

While there are an abundance of hotels and campgrounds within the park, they fill quickly in the summer so visitors may also want to consider lodging options in the gateway towns of West Yellowstone and Gardiner.

Lodging

Lodging in the park fills quickly and should be booked in advance. Cancellations are common, so if a particular lodging option is unavailable it is a good idea to re-check frequently to see if it becomes available. Reservations for all lodges and cabins in the park can be made through Xanterra Parks & Resorts or by calling (307) 344-7311. All park accommodations are non-smoking and, reflecting the natural surroundings of Yellowstone, televisions, radios, air conditioning, and Internet hook-ups are not available. During the winter the only lodging within the park is the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and the Mammoth Hotel.

Camping

A trick of refraction, blue steam rises off the waters of Grand Prismatic Spring

Xanterra Parks & Resorts operates campgrounds at Bridge Bay, Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Grant Village, and Madison. Same-day reservations can be made by calling: +1 307-344-7901. Future reservations can be made by calling: 307-344-7311 or by writing: Yellowstone National Park Lodges, PO Box 165, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

Reservations should be made well in advance and/or campsites should be secured as early in the day as possible. Campgrounds may fill by early morning, especially during peak season (early July - late August). Recreational vehicles over 30 ft should make reservations since there is a limited number of RV sites available in Yellowstone. Large RV sites are located at Flag Ranch, Fishing Bridge RV Park and West Yellowstone.

Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, Mammoth, Norris, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek, and Tower Fall are operated by the National Park Service and do not accept reservations; all sites are first-come, first-served.

Backcountry

Permits are required for all backcountry camping, and quotas are placed on the number of people that may use an area at a given time. The maximum stay per backcountry campsite varies from 1 to 3 nights per trip. Campfires are permitted only in established fire pits, and wood fires are not allowed in some backcountry campsites. A food storage pole is provided at most designated campsites so that food and attractants may be secured from bears. Neither hunting nor firearms are allowed in Yellowstone's backcountry.

Permits may be obtained only in person and no more than 48 hours in advance of your trip, although backcountry sites may be reserved through the mail well in advance for a non-refundable $20 reservation fee. To reserve a site, download the reservation form from the Backcountry Trip Planner, call +1 307 344-2160, or by writing: Backcountry Office, PO Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190.

During the summer season (Jun-Aug), permits are available 7 days a week between 8AM and 4:30PM at the following locations:

In addition, permits may sometimes be obtained from rangers on duty at the East Entrance and Bridge Bay Ranger Station. However, these rangers have other duties and may not be available to provide assistance at all times.

During the spring, fall, and winter seasons, ranger stations and visitor centers do not have set hours. To obtain a Backcountry Use Permit during these seasons, check the office hours posted at the nearest ranger station or visitor center.

Stay safe

Fragile sinter crusts and ledges can give way, plunging a careless tourist into the boiling waters below

Wildlife

Though many of the animals in the park are used to seeing humans, the wildlife is nonetheless wild and should not be fed or disturbed. According to park authorities, stay at least 100 yards/meters away from bears and wolves and 25 yards/meters from all other wild animals! No matter how docile they may look, bison, elk, moose, bears, and nearly all large animals can attack. Each year, dozens of visitors are injured because they didn't keep a proper distance. These animals are large, wild, and potentially dangerous, so give them their space.

In addition, be aware that odors attract bears and other wildlife, so avoid carrying or cooking odorous foods and keep a clean camp; do not cook or store food in your tent. All food, garbage, or other odorous items used for preparing or cooking food must be secured from bears. Treat all odorous products such as soap, deodorant, or other toiletries in the same manner as food. Do not leave packs containing food unattended, even for a few minutes. Animals which obtain human food often become aggressive and dependent on human foods, and many can suffer ill health or death from eating a non-native diet. A short film about food safety is now mandatory before a back country permit will be issued.

Thermal areas

Always stay on boardwalks in thermal areas. Scalding water lies under thin, breakable crusts; pools are near or above boiling temperatures. Every year visitors traveling off trail are seriously burned, and people have died from the scalding water. Park rangers can also issue $125 fines for being out of bounds. Note though, it's common to get sprayed with fine mist from the geysers. You don't need to worry about being burned, as the water has traveled sufficient distance to cool down, provided you're within the designated areas. No swimming or bathing is allowed in thermal pools.

Hiking

Know your 10 essentials when going on a hike, cell phones won't work in most areas of the park, and may not be depended on in an emergency situation. 1. Navigation 2. Hydration & Nutrition 3. Pocket Knife 4. Sun Protection 5. Insulation 6. Ability to make fire 7. Lighting 8. First Aid 9. Shelter 10. Whistle

Weather

The weather can change rapidly and with little warning. A sunny, warm day can quickly become a cold, rainy or even snowy experience even in summer. Hypothermia can be a concern. Be prepared for a variety of weather conditions by bringing along appropriate clothing. Lightning can and does injure and kill people in the park, so watch the sky and take shelter in a building if you hear thunder.

Other concerns

When camping, either filter, boil, or otherwise purify drinking water. Assume that even crystal clear waters may be polluted by animal and/or human wastes, and intestinal infections from drinking untreated water are increasingly common. Iodine tablets are not as effective as other methods but are readily available at local stores and easy to bring on a hike.

Finally, with so many people visiting the park each year petty crimes are something to be vigilant against. Lock your car doors and exercise sensible precautions with valuables, especially when leaving cars near trail heads or other areas where you might be away from your car for any length of time.

Go next

Routes through Yellowstone National Park

END  W  E  Cody Sheridan
END  W  E  Cody Buffalo
Idaho Falls West Yellowstone  W  E  Cody Casper
Livingston Gardiner  N  S  Grand Teton N.P. Logan
Bozeman West Yellowstone  N  S  Grand Teton N.P. Rock Springs
END  W  E  Cooke City Billings
Helena West Yellowstone  N  S  Grand Teton N.P. Rawlins


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