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Yellowstone National Park

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Travel Guide North America USA Western United States Wyoming Yellowstone National Park

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Introduction

Yellowstone colours

Yellowstone colours

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Yellowstone National Park is one of the most famous natural parks in the world. With over 2 million visitors each year and covering more then 8,983 square kilometres (3,468 square miles) this wilderness area is amazing. The park is mainly in the state of Wyoming (96%), although parts cross into Montana (3%) and Idaho (1%). The park has a diversity of land formations such as lakes, canyons, mountains and rivers. There are also countless animal and plant species within the park including several endangered species like grizzlies, wolves and bison. Other animals include black bears, elk, beavers, squirrels and numerous species of birds and birds of prey.

What draws most people to the park is more then its stunning beauty and animals. The park is the center of amazing geothermal activity. Over half the world's geothermal features are located within Yellowstone and are still fuelled by massive volcanic powers. Some of these geysers, or small volcanoes, have become very popular. If looking for an intense back country experience or just driving the parks roads in a RV there is something for any group of travellers in Yellowstone National Park.

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Brief History

Landscape of Yellowstone

Landscape of Yellowstone

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More then 11,000 years ago Native Americans of the Clovis culture were collecting obsidian found in the park to make arrowheads. These arrowheads were found as far away as the Mississippi River valley. Many different native groups believed Yellowstone to be a holy place and used it to collect valuable mineral resources.

The first Europeans in Yellowstone were French trappers who named the area "Roche Jaune," which was most likely a bad translation of a Native American name meaning "Rock Yellow River." Later on American trappers mutated the French name into Yellowstone. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, of 1805, skipped the park although John Colter, a member of the group, went on his own to the area. Many mountain men and trappers in the 1850s talked about the park and its geothermal activity but people in the west just thought they were crazy. Not until 1869, because of the American Civil War, did the first detailed expedition enter the Yellowstone area. After several survey teams went into the area, all them lobbied for Congress to protect the area.

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill that created Yellowstone National Park, making it the first national park in the USA. The early years of the park were quite lawless and the park was not really protected. People poached and raided it for whatever resources they wanted. In the late 1880s, a railroad station was built in Livingston, Montana that gave greater access to the park making the number visitors jump from 300 in 1872 to 5,000 in 1883. Poaching was a big problem until the USA Army built Camp Sheridan, later renamed Fort Yellowstone. The soldiers protected the park and when the National Park Service was founded in 1916, the army turned authority to them and the National Park Service used the same tactics to protect the park.

During the 20th century car traffic made the park more accessible and eventually horses were banned on public roads. After World War II in the 1950s people visiting the park skyrocketed. In 1959 the Yellowstone earthquake hit, which was the largest earthquake recorded in recent history. New geysers were discovered afterward and many roads were damaged. In 1988, there were massive wildfires that destroyed almost 36% of the park.

The park has very cold winter and pretty moderate summers. Visiting at different times of the year allows people to see different things. Many die hard Yellowstone fans say the best time to visit is in the winter by horse drawn sled or cross country skis, due to the lack of crowds and the ease of spotting wildlife.

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Geography, Geology and Ecology

Geography

Old Faithful, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

Old Faithful, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

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The park covers a massive area of 8,878 square kilometres and is larger the the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined! Yellowstone is home to amazing high altitude lakes, including Yellowstone lake that is one of the largest high altitude lakes in North America. 80% of the park is covered with forests while the rest is primarily grassland.

The Continental Divide cuts diagonally across the southwestern area of the park. This divide separate water flowing into the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. The Snake River stars in the park flowing to the Pacific, while the Yellowstone River flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The park is on the Yellowstone Plateau that has an average altitude of about 2,400 metres above sea level. Several mountain ranges cut into the park and are around the park. The highest peak in the park is Mount Washburn that is 3,122 metres.

There are also 290 waterfalls of at least 4.5 metres in the park and the tallest water falls is the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone river at 308 feet (94 metres). The park is also home to an amazing petrified forest. Lastly two deep canyons cut into the park that are stunning, including the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Geology

Yellowstone's boiling pools

Yellowstone's boiling pools

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Yellowstone National Park sits on top of the Yellowstone Caldera, which is called a super volcano because the caldera covers a huge area and can have massive eruptions. The last eruption that was 640,000 years ago and was a thousand times more powerful then the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Many of the eruptions in the past were much larger and more destructive then the most recent one. The eruptions have had a great impact on world life and led to the extinction of many species around the world. This caldera was not caused by plate tectonics but is considered a geothermal hotspot that the plates move over. There are several of this hotspots located around the globe.

This geothermal activity is also responsible for the amazing geysers, mud pits and hot springs around the park. Every now and then new geysers and other geothermal phenomena form in the park. Occasionally animals in the park die by inhaling the toxic fumes from the different formations. Remember to careful hiking in the back country because some of these formations may seem solid but are not and they contain extremely hot water.

Ecology

Bison crossing the river, Yellowstone NP

Bison crossing the river, Yellowstone NP

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Yellowstone is home to many forms of wildlife and plant life. Many of the species of wildlife are endangered and are being given a second chance in the park. Remember that all the animals in the park are wild and should never be fed and given a wide distance. These animals have been known to attack people. Also obey the speed limit in the park which usually is around 45 miles/hour, but sometimes less.

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Sights and Activities

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".

  • Old Faithful Geyser gets it name from erupting approximately every 91 minutes and is one of the most popular attractions in the park. For the Old Faithful webcam click here;
  • Yelllowstone Lake is a stunning lake located in the park; with a surface area of 338 square kilometres, Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake at high elevation in North America. It is a natural lake, situated at 7,733 ft. above sea level. It is roughly 32 kilometres long and 23 kilometres wide with 232 kilometres of shoreline. It is frozen nearly half the year. It freezes in late December or early January and thaws in late May or early June.
  • Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the largest canyon in the park and has stunning yellow rock sides; the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the primary geologic feature in the Canyon District. It is roughly 20 miles long, measured from the Upper Falls to the Tower Fall area. Depth is 800 to 1,200 ft.; width is 1,500 to 4,000 ft. The present canyon is no more than 10,000 to 14,000 years old, although there has probably been a canyon in this location for a much longer period. Chemical processes over time have left stripes and patches of different colors in the rock of this canyon. Trails lead along the north and south rims of the canyon, but while traveling the entire trail in one day is possible, it makes for a long and tiring day. Best to make it two shorter (~3 hour) day hikes. If you're a photo buff, plan your walks so the sun illuminates the opposite side for great pictures
  • Mammoth Hot Springs is a large geothermal area in the park; These mammoth rock formations are the main attraction of the Mammoth District and are accessible via boardwalk. These features are quite different from thermal areas elsewhere in the park as travertine formations grow much more rapidly than sinter formations due to the softer nature of limestone. As hot water rises through limestone, large quantities of rock are dissolved by the hot water, and a white chalky mineral is deposited on the surface. Formations here change rapidly, and while a favorite spring may appear to have "died," it is important to realize that the location of springs and the rate of flow changes daily, that "on-again-off-again" is the rule, and that the overall volume of water discharged by all of the springs fluctuates little.
  • Castle Geyser is a large geyser located in the park;
  • Fishing Bridge - The original bridge was built in 1902 as a rough-hewn corduroy log bridge with a slightly different alignment than the current bridge. The existing bridge was built in 1937. The Fishing Bridge was historically a tremendously popular place to fish. Angling from the bridge was quite good, due to the fact that it was a major spawning area for cutthroat trout. However, because of the decline of the cutthroat population (in part, a result of this practice), the bridge was closed to fishing in 1973. Since that time, it has become a popular place to observe fish
  • Lamar Valley is the Serengeti of North America, and prime area to spot grizzlies and wolves;
  • Norris Geyser Basin offers lots of trails along boardwalks with access to beautiful pools, geysers and fumaroles. Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone's thermal areas. The highest temperature yet recorded in any geothermal area in Yellowstone was measured in a scientific drill hole at Norris: 237 °C just 326 metres below the surface, and there are very few thermal features at Norris under the boiling point. Norris shows evidence of having had thermal features for at least 115,000 years. The features in the basin change daily, with frequent disturbances from seismic activity and water fluctuations. Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world (300 to 400 feet) and Echinus Geyser (pH 3.5 or so) are the most popular features. The basin consists of three areas: Porcelain Basin, Back Basin, and One Hundred Springs Plain. Porcelain Basin is barren of trees and provides a sensory experience in sound, color, and smell; a 3/4 mile dirt and boardwalk trail accesses this area. Back Basin is more heavily wooded with features scattered throughout the area; a 1.5 mile trail of boardwalk and dirt encircles this part of the basin. One Hundred Springs Plain is an off-trail section of the Norris Geyser Basin that is very acidic, hollow, and dangerous. Travel is discouraged without the guidance of knowledgeable staff members.

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Opening Hours

Many roads, entrances and facilities are not open year round. Therefore check on the official hours page before a visit. Below is an estimate for the openings and closings for different times of the year.

Summer

The summer season is approximately from mid-April to the beginning of November. Although not all campgrounds, areas of the park, entrances. lodges and roads are open during this large amount of time. It is best to check the official website.

Fall

Weather in this area of the country is unpredictable, especially in the fall. Many roads can be closed early and switch to winter schedule if there is lots of snow fall early in the season. Make sure to double check before entering the park during the fall.

Winter

Only the northern entrances stay open during winter. All other entrances are closed and can only be entered by taking a bus after parking your car outside of the park.

Spring

Season starts roughly at the end of May, but roads start opening up from half April onwards. Some roads are not open until June though, and this applies to quite a few camping grounds and lodges as well, with mostly start around half or late May.

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Cost

Private/Noncommercial Vehicle

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.

Foot, Bike or Ski

For any traveler over 16 entering the park by foot, bike or skiing there is a charge of $12 per person.

Park Annual Pass

An annual pass for the park costs $50 and is valid for 12 months after date of purchase. This pass allows unlimited entry for any passengers in a single privately owned vehicle at Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park.

Other Passes

  • There is also a pass for all US National Parks, which costs $80 a year and allows unlimited access for one car and passenger(s).
  • Military personnel can obtain a free annual pass in person at a federal recreation site by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
  • U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over can obtain a Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) in person at a federal recreation site for $10, or through the mail for $20; applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
  • U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can obtain an Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) in person at a federal recreation site at no charge, or through the mail for $10; applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
  • Individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program can receive a free Volunteer Pass.
  • 4th graders can receive an Annual 4th Grade Pass that allows free entry for the duration of the 4th grade school year (September-August) to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid in a Park website is required.

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Getting There

By Air

Flying into Butte, West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Cody or Jackson then renting a car is the only way to reach the park by air. Both Yellowstone Airport (West Yellowstone) and Yellowstone Regional Airport (Cody) has flights to Salt Lake City, the latter has flights to Denver as well. Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) has flights to Salt Lake City, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Denver and Los Angeles.

By Car

Male Elk, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

Male Elk, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

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For a road map for the park click here. The North Entrances near Gardiner is the only entrance open year round. The other entrances close during the winter due to heavy snow fall. Some entrances close in October while others in November. Most open again by mid May. Remember different years have different amounts of snow therefore the exact opening and closing dates of roads cannot be predicted.

  • Billings, Montana - Take I-90 then turn south onto MT 72 then turn west onto 212 till the entrance at Cooke City.
  • Bozeman, Montana - Go on 84 West then turn onto 191 South till the West Yellowstone Entrance.
  • Butte, Montana - Go on I-90 East to 287 South till the West Yellowstone Entrance.
  • Livingston, Montana - Take 89 South to the North Entrance near Gardiner.
  • Cody, Wyoming - Go due west on 14 till the East Entrance.
  • Jackson, Wyoming - Take 26 east and turn north on 191 and go through Grand Teton National Park then enter at the South Entrance.
  • Idaho Falls - Either take 20 north to the West Yellowstone Entrance or take 26 East to 191 North.

By Bus

See the website of Greyhound to see which cities and towns near the park have services.

By Foot

There are an extensive number of trails entering the park on all sides including the 3,100-mile long Continental Divide Trail.

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Getting Around

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.

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Eat

The cheapest option for eating in the park is cooking. It is amazing what can be cooked on a small camping stove or a larger car camping stove. Remember the camping stove cooking takes a little creativity. There are a few grocery stores in the park, which can be nice for longer trips.

If you are tired of cooking over a camping stove there are some eating options in the park. Although most of the restaurants serve all American style cooking the portions are very large. The options tend to be standard fast food cafeteria, casual snack stand or a traditional dining room in some of the better hotels in the park.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

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  • Terrace Grill is a fast food restaurant on the less pricey side;
  • Mammoth Hotel Dining Room.

Canyon Village Area

  • Canyon Glacier Pit Snack Bar is a traditional 1950s American diner style food joint operated by the Yellowstone General Stores
  • Canyon Lodge Cafeteria;
  • The Picnic Stop is a delis with sandwiches and salads.

Yellowstone Lake

  • Lake Yellowstone Hotel Deli has some sandwiches and other lighter food;
  • Yellowstone Park General Store has a small menu serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Old Faithful Area

  • Geyser Grill has some quick and inexpensive food and is located in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge;
  • Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria has cheap and quick lunch and dinner options;
  • Bear Par Snack Shop is a nice ice cream stand located in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn;
  • Yellowstone General Store has a small lunch counter.

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Drink

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

  • Seven Stool Saloon (Grant Village Dining Room) - As the name suggests, don't expect an expansive seating area.
  • Bear Pit Lounge (Old Faithful Inn) - Featuring etched glass panels inspired by the original wooden Bear Pit Murals and offering a variety of wines, beers and cocktails.

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Sleep

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.

Budget

There are several campgrounds in the park. They range in price from US$12 to $18.50. The more expensive places will have toilets and running water while the cheaper places will be more basic. The following camp areas are first come first served and usually fill quickly during the high season:

For complete information on camping visit Camping in Yellowstone at the NPS website.

Mid-Range/Upscale

There are several non-camping options located in the park. All of these lodges and cabins are operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts and for reservations and rates look at the Travel Yellowstone website. If you want more choice and cheaper options it is best to check the towns of West Yellowstone and Gardiner, both located just outside the park entrances (west and north respectively) in Montana.

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This is version 27. Last edited at 7:44 on May 18, 17 by Utrecht. 17 articles link to this page.

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