Yellowstone: Best Scenic Drives, Lodging & Travel Tips [PHOTOS]
Yellowstone National Park encompasses the largest hydrothermal area on the planet. Features include geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles. Yellowstone was the site of a catastrophic volcanic eruption more than 600,000 years ago. During the eruption, the magma chamber was partially emptied which caused the roof to collapse, forming a giant caldera that covers the bigger portion of Yellowstone National Park. Today, the magma chamber's partially-molten rock provides heat for Yellowstone's hydrothermal features which are in constant flux. Geysers and colorful terraces in Yellowstone are constantly changing, shaped by thermal activity.
Scenic Drives in Yellowstone
There are two main scenic drives to take in the park, the Lower Loop and the Upper Loop. The Lower Loop highlights include the Upper Geyser Basin with its famous Old Faithful Geyser, Lower Geyser Basin, Firehole River, Gibbon River and Falls, Monument Geyser Basin, Lower and Upper Falls, Yellowstone River, Mud Volcano and West Thumb Geyser Basin. In the summer, each segment of the Lower Loop (Old Faithful to Madison, for example) takes about 45 minutes to drive. In addition to the driving time, you should set aside time for visiting the attractions. Wildlife is abundant in this area, especially elk and bison. Occasionally a bison on the road can cause quite a delay as visitors stop to look at this magnificent animal from the safety of their vehicles.
The Upper Loop features beautiful scenery, exciting wildlife and spectacular hydrothermal features. While Mammoth Hot Springs may be the highlight of the trip for many visitors, other Northern Loop attractions include the Norris Geyser Basin, Blacktail Plateau Drive, the Petrified Tree, Roosevelt Lodge, Undine Falls, Tower Fall, and Lower and Upper Falls. Look for wildlife such as elk and bison, especially early in the morning and in the evening. In the summer, each segment of the Upper Loop (Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt, for example) takes about 45 minutes to drive. In addition to the driving time, you should set aside time for visiting the attractions. Yellowstone is fun to visit with the family. If you are looking for a quick honeymoon idea in the summer, you can be sure that the magnificent scenery of Yellowstone will help you create a lifetime of memories.
The Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin
Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone is home to the majority of the world's active geysers. Every visitorstops for a glimpse of the Old Faithful, one of the most famous geysers in the world. The geothermal features are a treat for geologists and travelers alike. Attractions are connected with an elaborate system of boardwalks which lead visitors near colorful pools and geysers at a safe distance. Continue on the boardwalk across Firehole River up Geyser Hill where you can admire Anemone, Beehive, Lion Group and the Heart Spring. Afterwards, the path leads through the Castle-Grand Area which received its name after two prominent geysers: Castle and Grand. The boardwalk continues to the Giant-Grotto Area, Morning Glory-Riverside Area and ends up at Biscuit Basin.
Biscuit Basin was originally named for biscuit-like deposits around the Sapphire Pool, which were blown away by the pool's eruption in 1959. This is one of the hottest pools in Yellowstone, featuring a bright blue color and a large diameter. It's one of the prettiest sights in the park and well worth a stop. The basin features attractions such as Mustard Spring and Jewel Geyser which erupts every 7-10 minutes. The Old Faithful area is about one hour on foot or and a 10-minute drive. Along the way, you can admire numerous active and dormant geysers and pools, including Chromatic and Beauty Pools and Geyser Hill. Once you've explored the area, continue on towards Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the top attractions in the park.
Along the main park road from Madison to Norris, park visitors can admire scenic views of Gibbon River and Gibbon Falls. One can often spot bison and elk in this area. Sometimes a massive bison decides to walk on the main road, stopping traffic in both directions as excited tourists take pictures of the fabulous animal from the safety of their vehicles. Bald eagles, osprey, sandhill cranes and coyotes are also often seen in the area. If you have time, there are several hiking trails. Visit the visitor station at Madison Junction for more information. Gibbon River is a popular fishing spot, featuring wild rainbow trout and brown trout. The river below Gibbon Falls is restricted to fly fishing only.
- Sapphire Pool: Sapphire Pool, located at Biscuit Basin, is a bright blue pool and considered one of the most beautiful pools in Yellowstone. The bright blue color means that the temperature is very high. Safety railings and signs keep visitors at a safe distance. Following the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake, it erupted, blowing away biscuit-like deposits around the pool which originally gave Biscuit Basin its name. The Old Faithful area is about one hour on foot. If you drive, it's just 10 minutes away. On a hot summer day, it's a good idea to go by car. Along the way, you can admire numerous active and dormant geysers and pools, including: Grotto Geyser and Geyser Hill. At the end of the day, drive to the Old Faithful Inn, have dinner and relaxing in front of the giant fireplace in the historic lodge. If you are planning a winter getaway, stay at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel which is open in the winter.
- Chromatic and Beauty Pools: Chromatic and Beauty Pools are closely related to each other. As the water level in one pool rises, is descends in the other. Beauty Pool frequently changes in color as the water temperature changes. It is at its brightest when the temperature is hot, and turns brown at lower temperatures as brown-colored microorganisms thrive in the water. The vivid colors of its basin and runoff channels are created by microscopic lifeforms. These organisms survive in an environment that could be lethal to most living creatures. The color of the geyser is a function of what lives in it. Temperatures of 80 degrees or lower are the darkest in color, 133 degrees of lower are brown, 144 degrees or lower are green, 140 degrees or lower are yellow algae and the highest temperature pools are blue, full of Cyanobacteria.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
Most visitors to Yellowstone drive past the West Thumb Geyser Basin, busy heading to the Old Faithful Area. But if you have a couple of hours, park the car and explore this incredibly diverse area on the shores of the Yellowstone Lake. It offers spectacular views and colorful geothermal features. The attraction is located just north of Grand Teton. The basin was formed approximately 150,000 years ago by a large volcanic explosion. The caldera (volcanic crater) lies within a larger caldera, which encompasses the central and southern portions of the park.
Thermal features include the Abyss Pool, Twin Geysers, Black Pool, Fishing Cone, Big Cone, Lakeshore Geyser, Lakeside Spring, Seismograph and Bluebell Pools and Thumb Paint Pots. The pools feature bright colors such as green, brown, orange and yellow, created by heat-loving organisms that live in the pools. The best way to see the the area is to follow the ½-mile boardwalk loop which circles the Central Basin and its thermal features. There are two loops. The inner loop measures 1/4 mile while the outer loop, which passes near the lake, measures 1/2 mile. Even though the boardwalk does not have any steps, there is a steeper grade on the outer loop of the trail. The trail leads visitors near colorful hot springs, lakeshore geysers and blue lake. Observe how the thermal features extend under the surface of the lake. Underwater geysers can be seen as bulges on the lake's surface. In the winter, hot water melts holes in the ice.
Thumb Paint Pots
Thumb Paint Pots look like a giant thumb print in the ground. Mudpots differ from hot springs in that their water is much more acidic and dissolves the underground into clay mud. They are constantly changing, passing through periods of activity and inactivity.
Lakeshore Geyser and Lakeside Spring
Lakeshore Geyser boils vigorously and almost continuously. The geyser frequently erupts, but only a few feet. The geyser is located next to Yellowstone Lake - follow the outer loop of the trail which passes right next to it. The Lakeside Spring features a palette of colors, ranging from blue to brown. A blue-green pool of thermal water runs off in a brown-yellow spring. Heat-loving microorganisms provide color to thermal features.
Seismograph and Bluebell Pools
Seismograph and Bluebell Pools are located at the West Thumb Geyser Basin in Yellowstone. The two pools are blue in color. The Seismograph pool occasionally collects mud from nearby mudpots. Both can be viewed from the outer loop of the Trail. A steep grade connects the outer loop boardwalk with the inner loop. The two pools are located next to that grade. The bright blue color is due to extremely high temperatures, usually around 165 degrees F.
Fishing Cone is a hot spring that got its name because men would fish in Yellowstone Lake and then boil their fish in the hot spring on the lakeshore. It can be viewed from the outer loop of the West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail which passes next to the lake. Clearly, fishing is no longer allowed here in order to protect the hot spring from damage and ensure visitor safety. The Big Cone peaks out and can be observed from the outer loop.
Black Pool Is Bright Blue in Color
Black Pool at the West Thumb Geyser Basin is one of the most beautiful pools in Yellowstone National Park. It is bright blue in color with steam rising from its hot surface. It got its name when it was actually black. Until 1991 water temperature in this pool was lower so that it was inhabited by dark green and brown thermophiles, which gave the pool black appearance. Water temperature rose in 1991, followed by several eruptions, which made it too hot for thermophiles. Today, the feature is quiet and a popular attraction. The Abyss Pool is 53 feet deep and is one of the deepest hot springs in the park. It was named in 1935 by Chief Park Naturalist C.M. Bauer. It has sloping walls that vary in color from turquoise blue to green and brown. The attraction has gone through two active periods. It erupted in 1987 and several times in 1991/1992. Since that time, it has been quiet.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in the park. It covers 136 square miles and is 20 miles long by 14 miles wide. For some of the best views of the lake, visit West Thumb Geyser Basin at sunset. There will be very few visitors at that time and you will be able to enjoy spectacular views, surrounded by geysers and colorful thermal pools. In the summer, look for bald eagles and osprey along the shoreline. Xanterra Parks & Resorts offers guided fishing and boat rentals at Bridge Bay Marina. Call 307-344-7311 for more information. The lake features 110 miles of shoreline, but it remains too cold for swimming year-round. It completely freezes over in the winter. This area is home to the largest population of wild cutthroat trout in North America. Several species, including the cutthroat trout, are subject to catch-and-release-only fishing rules in the park. For more information and fishing permits, visit www.nps.gov. From here, the drive to the Old Faithful Inn takes anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour in the summer, depending on the traffic and road repair work. There are a few picnic areas and scenic turnouts from which visitors can admire the park landscape. The road from West Thumb to Old Faithful crosses the Continental Divide two times: at 8,391 feet and at 8,262 feet. One the way, you can admire views of rivers, forests, lakes and waterfalls.
The South Entrance Offers a Dramatic Way into Yellowstone
The South Entrance is located at an elevation of 6,886 feet (2,099 m). Upon entering the park, visitors are greeted by dramatic vistas along the Lewis River canyon and the Pitchstone Plateau. The road to West Thumb passes by Lewis Falls and Lewis Lake, offering scenic views along the way. To safely enjoy the views, take advantage of the scenic turnouts along the way. In the summer traffic often comes to a stop as drivers stop in the middle of the road to observe park wildlife: elk, moose and bison. The 30-mile Lewis River rises in southern part of the park and flows into Snake River. It is popular for fly-fishing and wildlife watching. Since it runs along the southern end of the road, many visitors get to enjoy scenic views along the road. Lewis Lake, also a popular fishing spot, is the third largest lake in the park. Lewis Falls near the lake feature a 29-foot drop and can be seen from the road. The 22-mile road to Grant Village and West Thumb leads to the spectacular West Thumb Geyser Basin. Moose Falls is located near the entrance, just inside the park. The waterfall is so close to the main park road that you can see it from your car. Upon entering, you will immediately spot the river and then Moose Falls.
Mammoth Hot Springs - Tips for Travelers
Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the most active areas of Yellowstone with daily-changing features. You won't see dramatic eruptions, but this incredible attraction is well worth a stop. The dominant rock in this area is limestone, while rhyolite dominates in the rest of the park. Limestone is an essential ingredient in the formation of terraces. Hot water with dissolved carbon dioxide makes a solution of weak carbonic acid. The acid dissolves calcium carbonate, the primary mineral in limestone. The calcium carbonate is then deposited to form terraces. Observe the colors which are created by thermophiles (heat-loving microorganisms). The attractions is composed of the upper loop, accessible by car, and the lower loop, only accessible on foot. If you are visiting in the summer, be prepared for heat in this area because of hot springs. There is virtually no shade on the Lower Terraces boardwalk and limited shade on the Upper Terraces, so wear plenty of sunscreen and a hat.
Minerva Terrace is one of the best features of Mammoth Hot Springs. Named for the Roman goddess of artists, it has gone through periods of inactivity during the last 100 years. Visitors approach on an elevated wooden boardwalk situated on the hill. As you advance upward on Lower Terraces, there is a beautiful view of the valley below. The geothermal attraction is made of delicate travertine formations created by hot water, heated by Yellowstone's volcano. Palette Spring lies just below. Mound and Jupiter Terraces, situated above, have gone through periods of activity and inactivity. While the terraces have been dry since 1992, in the 1980s Jupiter Terrace experienced a heavy flow. Where the boardwalk leads past Mound Terrace, visitors can look down on the water flow.
The Colorful Palette Spring
Palette Spring is created by flowing water and heat-loving bacteria which grow on the surface of the hill. Hot spring water often changes course underground, forming new channels, while others get blocked by mineral accumulation. Earthquakes open new cracks in the system. Mammoth Hot Springs is constantly evolving. It is located in the northern portion, towards the bottom of Lower Terraces.
Liberty Cap is a 37-foot hot spring cone situated in the northern portion of Mammoth Hot Springs, at the bottom of Lower Terraces. It was created by a hot spring which remained in one location for a long time, depositing minerals to build the cone. Today the cone is no longer active. The geothermal feature was thought to resemble caps worn during the French Revolution and that is how it got its name in 1871. You can park nearby and look up to see beautiful terraces above it.
Petrified Tree in Yellowstone
The Petrified Tree is located near the main park road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt, near Tower-Roosevelt. The only remaining piece in the area is placed behind a fence to protect it from vandals and collectors. There used to be two other trees here, but were removed a piece at a time by past park visitors who took them home as souvenirs. The attraction was created during volcanic activity. Trees had their organic structure replaced by minerals while they were slowly buried by volcanic ash. Afterwards, take a scenic drive towards the Roosevelt Lodge area, named after the former president Theodore Roosevelt who used to enjoy this area of the park during his visits to Wyoming. Guest cabins, open from June through August, can be rented starting from $52 per night. For reservations, call 307-344-7311 or visit www.travelyellowstone.com. The Dining Room serves dishes such as baked beans and barbecued pork ribs in a rustic setting. Made famous by idyllic paintings of Thomas Moran, Tower Fall is created by a 132-foot drop of Tower Creek near Tower-Roosevelt and visible from the main road that goes to Canyon Village.
Wildlife Watching along the Blacktail Plateau Drive
On the main road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt take a detour down an unpaved road called Blacktail Plateau Drive. The road is one way eastbound and begins a few miles after Udine Falls. The area is rich with wildlife, including pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk and bison. In the autumn, aspen trees turn bright gold, making this area particularly beautiful. The road is unpaved and steep in certain areas, so you won't be able to drive faster than a few miles per hour. If wildlife is on or near the road, you will have to come to a stop to not disturb the animals and enjoy the view. Expect to take about 45 minutes to an hour to complete the drive. Afterwards, visit the Petrified Tree just down the main road towards Tower-Roosevelt.
Romantic Sunset at the Great Fountain Geyser
The Great Fountain Geyser, located in the Lower Geyser Basin about 9 miles north of the Old Faithful area, features one of the most spectacular eruption displays in Yellowstone National Park. It is situated on the one-way Firehole Lake Drive.
The central cone is set in the middle of several circular pools filled with water. During an eruption, water shoots more than 200 feet high. The visitor center provides travelers with current eruption predictions. It erupts in a series of bursts which are spaced several minutes apart. If the area becomes crowded with people, do not despair. Most leave after the first set of bursts which last about 10 minutes because they think the show is over. If you wait five minutes or so, a second set of bursts will follow and you will have the attraction pretty much to yourself.
Undine Falls and The Upper Falls
Undine Falls are located near Mammoth Hot Springs. The falls can be seen from the main park road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt. If you are traveling eastbound, drive on the one-way unpaved Blacktail Plateau Drive to observe wildlife such as pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk and bison. This is a 109-foot waterfall on the Yellowstone River located near Canyon Village in Yellowstone National Park. The Lower Falls, the tallest waterfall in the park, measuring 308 feet, is located nearby.
Yellowstone Travel Tips
Yellowstone National Park is a unique vacation destination just north of Grand Teton National Park. The park is situated at high altitude and most visitors will need a couple of days to adjust to the change. Initially, plan to take short walking trips and on warm summer days drink plenty of fluids. Since the sun is very strong at high altitude, wear a hat and sunscreen. The weather can change quickly from clear skies to a thunderstorm. As a rule of thumb, each road segment takes about 45 minutes to drive by car. In the summer, repairs are often underway which can cause delays. Visitor centers have the latest information about road conditions. When you enter the park, you will receive a map and a newspaper with the latest news. Each major area, such as the West Thumb Geyser Basin, features ranger-led walks, adventure hikes and other visitor services. Summer is peak season. Park roads and entrances are least crowded before 11 am and after 4 pm. In addition to camping, there are several hotels and lodges in the park. There are numerous vacation activitiesto choose from, including fishing, boating, hiking, horseback riding and wildlife watching.
- What's the Weather Like?: This area is at high altitude, over 7,500 feet (2,275 meters). In the summer, daytime temperatures are in the 70s and 80s, while at night temperature can drop to below freezing. Thunderstorms are frequent on summer afternoons. Winters are very cold with daytime temperatures from zero to 20F and sub-zero temperatures at night. Snowfall average is about 150 inches per year. In the spring and fall, daytime temperatures range from the 30s to the 60s, and snow is common.
- Wildlife Watching Tips and Ideas: Yellowstone is famous for the abundance of its wildlife, including bison, elk, wolves, bears, coyotes, moose, bobcats, mountain lions and an array of unique birds. Each species has a preferred habitat, but sightings are unpredictable. Visitors should exercise caution near wild animals and never approach them on purpose as their behavior is unpredictable. Yellowstone visitor centers provide educational information about wildlife that every first time park visitors should learn about.
- Spotting Bison: There are about 3,600 bison in Yellowstone National Park. They wander around the park's grassy areas in the summer and winter around geyser basins where they find warmth and shelter. The largest mammals in the park, bison are vegetarian. Males can weigh more than 1,800 pounds. Despite their massive size, they can move quickly and can harm people who get in their way. Despite ranger warnings, we've seen tourists get out of their car with a video camera and approach bison too close for comfort. The best way to watch bison it through binoculars or from your car if they are near the road. On Blacktail Plateau Drive you can often spot bison and observe them safely from your car in the summer months.
- How to Help Prevent Wildfires: Fires are an essential player in the development of Yellowstone's ecosystems. While some are caused by men, most occur naturally when lightning strikes. When you drive through acres and acres of Yellowstone that were destroyed by wildfire, you realize what a landscape-changing event this is. Certain species of trees such as lodgepole pine need the heat to open their cones to release the seeds. The largest fires in the recent history took place in the summer of 1988. About 1/3 of the park’s area was burned and several structures were destroyed as the fires could not be contained. Today, park visitors can see the effects everywhere, although both plant and animal populations have recovered quickly. Following the 1988 fire, management plans for national parks and forests were revised across the nation. Naturally occurring fires are allowed to burn today under stricter guidelines.
There are nine unique lodges and hotels, all operated by Xanterra Hotels and Resorts. Most park accommodations are historic and located near major attractions. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only accommodations that remain open in the winter. All reservations for Yellowstone accommodations can be made through Xanterra. Call 307-344-7311 or visit www.travelyellowstone.com.
- Old Faithful Inn: The Old Faithful Inn, a national historic landmark, is a rustic lodge situated near the famous Old Faithful geyser. It also features a restaurant and gift shop. The Old Faithful area is also home to Old Faithful Lodge Cabins and Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins, the newest hotel completed in 1999.
- Lake Yellowstone Hotel: Lake Yellowstone Hotel is the oldest hotel in the park, originally built in 1891 and restored in 1990. Hotel rooms are designed in historic 1920s style. Lake Yellowstone Hotel is situated on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, while Lake Lodge Cabins are located nearby.
- Roosevelt Lodge Cabins: Roosevelt Lodge Cabins, named after Theodore Roosevelt, are rustic cabins located near Tower-Roosevelt.
- Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is the only lodging facility accessible by car in the winter. Visitors enjoy snowshoeing, ice skating and skiing in the area surrounding the hotel.
- Canyon Lodge & Cabins: Canyon Lodge & Cabins are located near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The area offers hiking and horseback riding.
- Grant Village: Grant Village, named after president Ulysses S. Grant, is a large complex built in 1984 with 6 two-story buildings, each containing 50 rooms. There are also two restaurants with scenic views of the lake, a lounge and a gift shop.