Exploring Yellowstone National Park by Car - Wyoming
Updated: Aug 4
Yellowstone National Park is one of the two national parks (the other is Grand Teton National Park) that you can visit in one trip in the state of Wyoming. It was the first national park ever established not only in the United States but in the world. The park is shared by other two neighboring states, but the majority of the park - about 96 percent - is located in Wyoming, encompassing a vast northwest portion of the state. The other three percent is within Montana and one percent in Idaho. The park is about 2,219,789 acres, bigger than the states of Rhode Island or Delaware. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
The park's main feature is its many geothermal features - hot springs, geysers, mudpots, fumaroles, and travertine terraces. When we visited the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland in Rotorua, New Zealand, we were quite impressed then, but Yellowstone by far is even more spectacular. The park has 290 waterfalls. It also contains a petrified forest which I thought was only found in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Wildlife as well as lakes, canyons, rivers and mountain ranges are also some of the wonderful features you can explore in the park.
Yellowstone National Park was designated a national park by the U.S Congress under President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. Although explorers talked about the landscape and its steaming pools and geysers in this region for years, most people thought of it as just a myth. Organized exploration only began in the late 1860's. Ferdinand V. Hayden, of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, was one of many men who advocated the creation of the park. He believed in "setting aside the area as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people".
Yellowstone National Park has plenty of recreational opportunities - hiking, camping, boating and fishing. But our visit was a "spur of the moment" road trip, so we didn't have enough time to do any planning. We did what typical tourists do, we explored by car and enjoyed the drive, and nature, visiting easy access viewpoints.
There are five entrances in the park – North, West, Northeast, South and East entrances. Since we drove from California through Nevada, Idaho and then Montana, we entered by the West Entrance of the park, located right at the town of West Yellowstone where we stayed.
Although we love to visit all the popular sites in the park we only had two days, not enough time to explore even by car. I guess we could have stayed for a few days more, but we didn't want to be stuck in the middle of a snow storm (which was coming), as we planned to visit the Grand Teton National Park as well.
Yellowstone is a beautiful park I will say- impressive, stunning and colorful, many photo opportunities abound. Although it was autumn and the peak season was over, there were still crowds in some areas - I can't imagine what it's like in summer, it must be chaotic. We had one advantage - since we travel on our own we can go to other viewpoints where buses are not allowed. There, you can take your time and really enjoy the wonders of nature.
As in Grand Teton National Park, archaeological findings suggests that people began traveling through this area more than 11,000 years ago - just after the glaciers of the ice age receded. Native Americans have had traditional connections to this land and its resources even before the park was established. They hunted, fished and gathered plants here, as well as quarried obsidian to use as tools such as arrowheads. They used the thermal waters for religious and medicinal purposes.
Visiting the Park in Autumn
The positive side of visiting the park in autumn is there are less crowds, but you have to be prepared for the unexpected weather conditions. It can snow and can be quite chilly.
If it's cold, walking on icy boardwalks can be quite tricky, especially in early morning. It is slippery! The ice is formed by the steam settling on the surface. Thinking of falling into the thermal areas where you can get cooked in the boiling cauldron, or can get scalded by the steam, gave us second thoughts whether we should continue on, but we got by, very slowly. Some chicken wire draped over the boardwalks would be a big help in this condition, just like what they have on many of the trails in New Zealand.
Half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features are here in Yellowstone National Park. About 10,000 thermal features and more than 300 geysers are found here, the product of millions of years of geological activity. Much of Yellowstone sits inside an ancient volcanic caldera, the largest supervolcano on the continent, which after eruption caused the ground to collapse, thus creating the volcanic depression called a “caldera.”
The last major caldera forming eruption occurred 600,000 years ago. If another large caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, it would be a catastrophic event with impacts worldwide. But no worries - as experts suggest, the probability of a large caldera-forming eruption within the next few thousand years is said to be low.
Some of the thermal features are found right by the road such as this Beryl Spring. You can hardly see its blue-green color due to the steam coming out of it, but you can really feel the heat and hear the boiling sound.
Geysers are hot springs that erupt periodically. The eruptions are the result of super-heated water below-ground becoming trapped in channels leading to the surface. There are two types of geysers, fountain geysers which shoot water out in various directions through a pool, and cone geysers which shoot water out in a fairly narrow jet, usually from a cone-like formation.
Hot Springs vary from boiling water to calm pools. They are similar to geysers, but their underground channels are large enough to allow rapid circulation of water. Without constriction, water rises, cools and drains back down freely.
The microorganisms which live in and around the hot springs can make some of the pools very colorful. These thermophilic (heat-loving) microorganisms play an important role in Earth's ecosystem. They thrive here, some even in extreme conditions such as those with high levels of sulfur or calcium carbonate, acidic water, or alkaline springs.
Mudpots & Fumaroles
Mudpots are acidic hot springs with little water supply. The acid from volcanic gases and microorganisms dissolve the surrounding rock into clay and mud. Rising steam forces its way upwards sending showers of mud into the air. It's like cooking thick gravy on high heat.
Fumaroles or steam vents are the hottest hydrothermal features in the park. These are cracks in the surface of the ground through which pressurized steam from below escapes to the surface, oftentimes with a hissing sound.
- WATERFALLS -
There are over two hundred waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park, and at least 45 are named. Some can be viewed a few steps from the road and some need a little effort on your part to reach them, meaning a little hiking, or even a long hike, is required. One of the most visited waterfalls in the park are the Upper and the Lower Yellowstone Falls. We missed the Upper Yellowstone Falls but you can't possibly miss the lower falls. It is located east of Canyon Village.
Lower Yellowstone Falls
The Lower Yellowstone Falls is the biggest waterfall in the Rocky Mountains of the United States. The 308-foot falls is nearly twice as high as Niagara Falls and one of the most photographed and visited sites in the park. You will be able to see the falls from various viewpoints here, or even get closer if you want to hike down. It was a short hike but at that time the trail was very treacherous due to ice accumulated in shaded areas. We wished we had brought along our hiking spikes. To say that this is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park is not only because of its stunning location within the canyon, but also because of its easy access from the road.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Lower Yellowstone Falls flows down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It is believed that the canyon wall was created by catastrophic flooding from melting ice at the end of the last glacial period. The canyon is about 24 miles long with various depths of 800 to 1200 feet and has a width of 1500-4000 feet at the rim. The beautiful color of the canyon walls is due to hot spring activities which produce iron compounds.
- HISTORIC STRUCTURE -
There are many structures in the park providing facilities for visitors and park management that have historical significance. The park is also home to five “rustic” works of architecture - the Old Faithful Inn, the Northeast Entrance Station, and the Norris, Madison, and Fishing Bridge museums.
The Old Faithful Inn
The day we visited the Old Faithful Inn they were closing for the season. A few minutes later and we would have had to come back next year or whenever to see it. We didn't know this, but we had just enough time to see the lobby, and use the loo. The Old Faithful Inn, built in 1903-04, is a national historic landmark. It is the world's largest log cabin ever built.
The seven-story high structure was built out of local logs and stone. Its predominant feature is its gabled, shingled roof. Inside the towering lobby is a massive stone fireplace and a hand-crafted clock made of copper, wood and wrought iron.
WILDLIFE IN THE PARK
Sitting on the Yellowstone Plateau, the park is at the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth. Yellowstone National Park is famous for its large animals - bear, bison and many others. It supports a variety of habitats that sustain wildlife.
In any national park we've ever been to we always know if there's some wildlife to be seen, it creates long traffic jams. I can understand why since it is after all a rare opportunity for tourists to see them, let alone to photograph them.
We've seen plenty of elk and deer and coyote, so we just pass them by, but we were hoping to see some bison or even bears. We did not see any bears, but we got lucky to see some bison by the road. Cars were crawling by but no one got out of their car, which is good. We were not aiming for an award winning shot, so taking pictures from inside the car was good enough for us.
The closest we got to a bison was when we were driving early in the morning. We saw a lone bison walking along the road without a care in the world. He walked by so close to our car that he, or she, could have had a cheek to cheek greeting with Hermann. This bison had not yet created a traffic since the majority of tourists were probably still having their breakfast.
Bison, also called buffalo, are fascinating animals aren't they? They're like remnants of prehistoric times, which is actually true, since bison have lived in Yellowstone continuously since prehistoric times. The bison in the park are pure-bred and not hybridized.
The West Entrance of the park is open to wheeled vehicles from April 20 to November 4, and to tracked vehicles from December 17 to March 12. People have died in Yellowstone National Park. Heed the warnings, they are there for a reason.
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