Oh, the joys of beginning a new year. Joining a gym, filing taxes, and realizing just how much you overspent on Christmas. But with the new year also comes a refreshingly blank slate—the promise of 12 new months that could be filled with life-changing opportunities, new faces and friends, and exhilarating travels near and far.
As for me, I begin 2015 in a very different place—quite literally—than I was this time last year. After more than eight years as a resident of the District of Columbia, the magnetic pull of my native west coast became too much for a mere human to bear. So I packed up my car, said many fond and tearful farewells, and hit the road for my new home in Portland, Oregon.
So what’s in store for the year ahead? I blissfully have no idea. But I do suspect I will spend much of it exploring and rediscovering the many treasures of the American west. And where better to begin than Yellowstone—a landscape, habitat, and ecosystem so extraordinary that Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant saw fit to make it the world’s first national park in 1872.
So pack your bags. We’re westward bound for the next three days.
Joe Versus The Supervolcano
As far as creation stories go, Yellowstone has an awfully good one. Much of the present-day national park is actually the caldera of an ancient, active supervolcano—a geological formation capable of erupting 240 cubic miles of magma, or enough debris to effectively bury the Rocky Mountain states and dust the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Three times in its history—approximately 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago—the Yellowstone supervolcano experienced such an eruption, the most recent of which created the 30-mile by 45-mile caldera visible today.
The chamber of magma that still simmers beneath Yellowstone is responsible for as many as 3,000 earthquakes each year, as well as more than 10,000 thermal features scattered throughout the park. At a loss for where to begin? Just grab a sunrise seat in front of Old Faithful—the park’s most famous geyser. Every hour or two, Old Faithful ejects as many as 8,400 gallons of boiling water to heights of up to 184 feet. And with a daily eruption schedule posted at the nearby Old Faithful Inn, you’ll always be in the right place at just the right time.
Geysers And Dolls
You may think Old Faithful is the only show in town—but as it turns out, Yellowstone is home to an astounding 60 percent of the world’s geysers. And while I could do my best to wax geologic, I’ll do us all a favor and leave that to the experts. Park rangers lead excellent and informative guided walks through the Upper Geyser Basin, sharing with visitors the fascinating history of Castle, Grand, Daisy, Riverside, and dozens of other geysers.
With an introductory geology lesson under your belt, you’ll have a greater appreciation of the other thermal features that await down the road. In the Midway Geyser Basin, the cavernous Excelsior Geyser pumps more than 4,000 gallons of water each minute into the Firehole River, while the multihued Grand Prismatic Spring measures a whopping 370 feet in diameter. Have time for a longer drive? Head north to the unearthly terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, where rising spring water is constantly working to dissolve the soft limestone.
And It Was All Yellow
At Younts Peak in northwestern Wyoming, the Yellowstone River begins a 671-mile journey to meet the Missouri, making it the longest undammed river in the continental United States. And along the way, the Yellowstone—the river for which the national park was named—has spent thousands of years carving one of the most striking landscapes in the park.
Nearly 20 miles long and distinctively yellow in color, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone frames a postcard view of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. Spend the morning cruising both the North and South Rim Drives, stopping at the aptly-named Grand View, Inspiration Point, and Artist Point along the way. And beginning from the latter, descend nearly 500 feet into the canyon on Uncle Tom’s Trail, a series of staircases that lead to the base of the 308-foot Lower Falls.
I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair
With 67 species of mammals—including grizzly bears, black bears, bison, wolves, mountain lions, and moose—residing within Yellowstone’s boundaries, even a leisurely drive along the park road can quickly turn thrilling. But by hiking to the 10,243-foot summit of Mt. Washburn, you’ll not only have the chance to see elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep on the slopes—you’ll have panoramic views of summer wildflowers, the park in its entirety, and the Teton Range in the distance (find the trailhead at the Dunraven Pass Picnic Area, 6.2 miles roundtrip).
At nearly 20 miles long, 14 miles wide, and 7,733 feet above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-elevation lake in all of North America. It’s also a serenely beautiful sight to behold, and one that can be enjoyed with the helpful company of a park ranger. Begin your morning a few miles east of Fishing Bridge at Indian Pond, where a ranger shows up each morning to lead a guided 2.3-mile roundtrip walk to scenic Storm Point on the lake’s north shore. If you’re lucky and the clouds decide to clear, you’ll enjoy views that reach all the way to the Teton Range.
Water For Elephants
The deep blue expanse of Yellowstone Lake is too lovely to gaze upon only once, so spend your final afternoon in the park climbing to one of its most marvelous viewpoints. The ascent of Elephant Back Mountain begins one mile south of Fishing Bridge, and climbs nearly 800 feet over the course of 3.6 roundtrip miles. Your reward? An unforgettable panorama of Yellowstone Lake and the park’s eastern reaches, glowingly bathed in the late afternoon light.
A Few Notes
Although Yellowstone is a park for all seasons—with winter, spring, summer, and fall each offering vastly different experiences—consider planning your visit for June or September. Most park facilities will be open, you’ll avoid the peak summer crowds, and you’ll still be able to hike, camp, and view the spectacular wildlife.
Because more than three million visitors descend upon Yellowstone each year, the park has a wide variety of accommodations for every taste and budget. However, there’s nothing quite like the legendary Old Faithful Inn, the beautifully rustic log hotel that sits adjacent to the geyser itself. But before you book, be sure to peruse the park’s many offerings—and remember to check back often for cancellations.
Remember that first and foremost, Yellowstone is a national park—not a culinary wonderland. The offerings at many of the hotel restaurants taste quite similar and mediocre, but the rustic experience of dining at the Old Faithful Inn should not be missed (but please, skip the buffet).
Driving the park loop road is one of the most memorable Yellowstone experiences—you never know what kind of wildlife waits just around the bend. Therefore, it is all the more important to always obey speed limits and park rules about observing the animals. Don’t be that guy who doesn’t.
TITLE: A bison grazes in Yellowstone | FRIDAY: Old Faithful; the Upper Geyser Basin; a thermal feature of the Upper Geyser Basin; Excelsior Geyser; Grand Prismatic Spring; the view of the spring from the Fairy Falls trail | SATURDAY: Yellowstone River; the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone | SUNDAY: The West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake; Yellowstone Lake; Lewis Lake, south of Yellowstone Lake.