If you are planning to go on a road trip in the United States, I’m pretty sure this destination is already on your list: Yellowstone National Park. When we stepped into our rental car in October 2016 for our 6600 km road trip, we definitely scheduled a visit to the oldest national park in the world. The volcanic hotspot was a travel goal we had been looking forward to for years and years. While we were preparing our trip, we noticed one fact that we couldn’t quite forget: Yellowstone experiences one major eruption every 600,000 years. Coincidentally, we are long overdue, since the last major eruption occurred about 640,000 years ago. Of course, that doesn’t mean the super volcano will decide to erupt ever again, but still.
Everything you need to know about Yellowstone
Yellowstone is full of unique natural quirks that have both positive and negative sides. If you want to start planning your own trip, there are a few things you need to consider. Do you want to visit in the summer or winter, which geysers are the most spectacular, how can you limit your budget, and where are the best views of the waterfalls? Well, luckily, we can tell you all of those things. Before you go, read these 10 things you need to know about Yellowstone National Park!
1. Visiting Yellowstone in Winter: Snow and Steaming Geysers
We drive into Yellowstone via Grand Teton National Park and cross the South Entrance (Moran Entrance Station). There has been a lot of snowfall in the past week, so the roads are pretty slippery. The cold temperatures cause the geysers to produce extra clouds of steam, which makes the vistas a little blurrier than usual. That being said, the snowy and foggy atmosphere also makes the park look absolutely breathtaking and wonderfully wintry. We planned 2 full days to visit the park, since a number of roads are already closed for the winter season. Are you planning on visiting in summer? Then you should plan at least 3 days to see all of the sights in Yellowstone.
2. Witness Old Faithful’s Eruption in the Upper Geyser Basin
Old Faithful is a spectacular geyser that erupts every 60 to 80 minutes. The boiling water can reach impressive heights, up to 56 meters. It’s a sight to behold, but also a typical crowd pleaser. Be prepared to mingle among busloads of tourists. There is a plateau with hiking trails around Old Faithful, which takes you along a number of other active geysers. These smaller geysers are also great to see, easy to photograph and an amazing way to entertain yourself while you wait for Old Faithful to erupt.
3. The Midway Geyser Basin Contains Gigantic Hot Springs
The Midway Geyser Basin contains a small collection of absolutely gigantic geysers. The Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring are two particularly enormous hot springs that you certainly shouldn’t miss out on. With a width of 113 meters and a depth of 37 meters, the Grand Prismatic spring is the largest of them all. The cold air slightly fades Grand Prismatic’s iconic colors, but its colossal dimensions are as impressive as ever. The bubbling water constantly shoots up in the air as you witness a fragment of Earth’s primal inner power.
4. Discover the Mud Pools and Petrified Trees at Fountain Paint Pot
The Fountain Paint Pot in the Lower Geyser Basin covers an extensive area that includes a number of fascinating geysers. One of those sights is Clepsydra Geyser. The geysers are accompanied by eye-catching mud pools (or mudpots) that shoot magnificent big blobs of mud in the air. The most famous mud pool is named, you guessed it, Fountain Paint Pot. The same area contains a lot of dead trees that were hit by the geyser’s boiling water. The trees are slowly impregnated and eventually become petrified.
5. The Grand Loop Road: Unbelievably Beautiful, but lots of Road Works
There is one major asphalt road that runs through Yellowstone Park. The historic Grand Loop Road is 142 miles long (230 km) and runs along every important highlight in the park, including the Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Lake, and the Mammoth Hot Springs. The winter weather does cause a lot of road works, which means that, sometimes, only provisional country roads are available. Generally speaking, these roads are only accessible under supervision of a pilot car. Road works can often lead to up to 30-45 minutes of delay. Before you start your road trip, make sure you are completely up to date about the road conditions. You can always check for road works on the official park website.
6. Going on Safari in North America: Herds of Bison and Grazing Elks
The geysers in Yellowstone are not the only highlights in the national park. As you may or may not know, the area is inhabited by a variety of native species, like bison, dear, bears, coyotes, cougars, wolves, and even the endangered Canadian lynx. A herd of bison crossing the road or a field full of grazing elks is not a rare sight in Yellowstone! The national park is the best location in the US to see wild megafauna, so you’re practically going on safari in North America.
7. Don’t Skip the Waterfalls of the Yellowstone River
The Yellowstone river starts at the northern side of Yellowstone Lake. The 25 km river paves its way through Hayden Valley and flows through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a narrow canyon that’s about 450 meters deep. The river includes several waterfalls, among which the 33 meter high Upper Yellowstone Falls and the 94 meter high Lower Falls. You can either drive along the North or South Rim to admire the river and its waterfalls. You will find the best view of the waterfalls near Artist Point, along the South Rim.
8. Yellowstone Lake is one of the Biggest Lakes in North America
With its location at 2357 meters above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-altitude lake in North America. The shoreline is a whopping 177 meters long, which creates the ideal circumstances to go fishing, canoeing, or hiking. The lake water usually freezes over in December or January (quite late), but only thaws at the end of May or beginning of June. Just like the rest of the national park, the bottom of the lake largely consists of geysers, hot springs, and deep ravines. The lowest point is presumably a 125 meters deep canyon, East of Stevenson Island.
9. Winter Closure starts in November: Going by Car or Snow Scooter?
Yellowstone’s climate can be quite extreme in every season. The cold temperatures often result in a thick layer of snow on the roads, which is why there is usually a winter closure in November. As soon as a good amount of snow has fallen, the roads reopen, but there’s a catch: they open exclusively for specialized buses and snow scooters. This rule for ‘oversnow’ transportation usually lasts until March, when the roads are cleaned by snowplows. Normally, cars are welcomed back on all the roads by April. Many hotels in the area are already closed by the fall season, but there will still be a few (more affordable) overnight options near the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
10. Consider Getting an Annual Pass for all National Parks
If you are planning to visit more national parks in the United States, you should consider getting an America the Beautiful Annual Pass. This will grant you access to virtually all National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands. Yellowstone National Park connects to Grand Teton Park, for example, which is celebrated for its enchanting mountain peaks. You will need one pass for every car (not person) and it can save you a lot of money if you decide to visit multiple parks. One thing you should know: the annual pass is not valid in State Parks. You can buy the pass at several visitor centers (check online) and use it directly after purchase.