The ultimate guide to Yellowstone National Park

The Grand Prismatic Spring - Nina Waldmeier/Getty
The Grand Prismatic Spring - Nina Waldmeier/Getty

If there is any truth to the old adage that “size matters”, then Yellowstone National Park matters a great deal. Because this crucial corner of the American West is big; an enormity of almost 3,500 square miles, so large that it spreads out across three of the 50 US states.

It is big, too, in profile. With the exception, perhaps, of the Grand Canyon, there is no more famous a protected space within America’s national parks system. Quite simply, Yellowstone is a celebrity; an A-list geographical star that should be on every bucket list.

To “big”, you can add “old”. Because this adjective also applies perfectly to Yellowstone National Park. It is the oldest national park in the USA, having been signed into existence by a president as far removed in history as Ulysses Grant, on March 1 1872. With this, Yellowstone also became – by most definitions – the first national park on the planet. Certainly, it was early enough to the party that it pre-dated the US National Park Service (which now manages it) by 44 years. The NPS would not be formally created until 1916.

But then, none of these dates and statistics would matter in the slightest without the scenery which gives them meaning. The greatest measure of Yellowstone’s worth is not square mileage or decades past, but a landscape, forged by volcanic turbulence, that should be seen to be believed.

Native Americans knew of it for 11,000 years, maybe more, prior to the birth of the country which descended upon them – and had long carved out an existence in this playground of mountains and waterfalls, geysers and gullies. While much has changed in the 11 millennia since, in many ways, nothing has changed. Yellowstone is a raw, ragged masterpiece – and humanity is just a witness to its majesty.

Where is Yellowstone National Park?

Yellowstone National Park lies in the north-west of the US mainland, and is so colossal that its boundaries criss-cross three of the 50 states. That said, while its scenery drifts across the “borders” into Idaho and Montana, the vast majority of the park (96 per cent) is located in Wyoming (as opposed to three per cent in Montana, and a mere one per cent in Idaho).

If you are planning a visit to Yellowstone, you should focus your attention here – not least because Wyoming is also home to another jewel of the NPS system. Grand Teton National Park – which cradles the frosted mountains of the 40-mile-long Teton Range – waits just 10 miles south of Yellowstone’s southern entrance, and is connected to it by the well-paved trunk road of US Route 191. If time is not an issue, any trip to the area should attempt to take in both these wonders of the west.

What is Yellowstone National Park known for?

In a word, “ruggedness”. While it appears to the eye as a giant canvas of peaks, lakes, rivers and rocks, much of the national park is, in fact, an enormous volcanic caldera – whose dormancy over the course of written history cannot disguise the fire and fury that came before.

yellowstone - Getty
yellowstone - Getty

Yellowstone was born of three “super-eruptions”, 2.1million, 1.3million and 640,000 years ago – and displays this heritage quite openly. Old Faithful is perhaps the most obvious indication of the heat which bubbles below surface level; this glorious geyser bursts upwards in a shower of steam and water at least every two hours (though the window between eruptions can be as short as 44 minutes).

There are plenty of signs of geothermal life beyond this postcard moment. The Grand Prismatic Spring is truly remarkable; a hot-water feature which radiates a rainbow of colours, changing hue according to the season. The Steamboat Geyser, meanwhile, is the planet’s tallest example of the phenomenon – sometimes hitting a height of 400ft (122m) in its outbursts.

Which animals are found in Yellowstone National Park?

All creatures great and small – though the “great” category is filled by several big-hitters.

Yellowstone is home to the largest herd of American bison in the United States; more than 4,800 of these noble beasts can be seen roaming freely across the park. They have considerable company in the elk, whose numbers are somewhere above 30,000, making it Yellowstone’s most numerically common mammal.

There is a healthy contingent of black bears, while its cousin the grizzly has seen a significant resurgence in population levels in the last half-century; more than 700 of these ursine behemoths can be found in (or around the fringes of) the park.

And there is a similarly positive tale with the wolf. The deliberate culling of Yellowstone’s lupine inhabitants in the Twenties and Thirties – a controversial policy, even at the time – was reversed in the Nineties with the reintroduction of the animal, using Canadian imports. There are now more than 13 wolf packs across the area.

bison - Mark Newman/Getty
bison - Mark Newman/Getty

The best things to do in Yellowstone National Park

Aside from the sights and animals mentioned above, a Yellowstone tour might also mean:

A glimpse of “another” Grand Canyon

It doesn’t have the scale of its more feted namesake, but the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a panoramic showstopper all the same; a 24-mile conduit for the Yellowstone River, up to 1,200ft (366m) deep in sections.

A hike to the heavens

Yellowstone hits an altitude of 11,372ft (3,466m) at the summit of Eagle Peak. It is an isolated location, in the east of the park, and only for serious hikers – but for those who want a more gentle walk, more than 900 miles of trails are available.

hiking yellowstone - Patrick Orton/Getty
hiking yellowstone - Patrick Orton/Getty

A day on horseback

You can explore the park in the saddle. Yellowstone National Park Lodges (see below) is one of several licensed operators offering rides.

A dance on the divide

A Yellowstone tour can also be a chance to enjoy a geographical quirk. The Continental Divide – which runs the full length of the Americas and brooks no dispute, dispatching water to the Atlantic or Pacific, depending on which side of the line it falls – passes through the park. There is a photo-spot alongside Isa Lake, on Route 191.

A session on the snow

With Yellowstone proving accessible throughout the year (see below), a winter visit can make for adventures on the snow. The park offers a wealth of groomed trails for snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing, including the Canyon Rim Ski Trail – which follows Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon for 4.5 miles.

How to get to Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone’s ruggedness comes at a price, at least in terms of travel – a trip to see it could require a drive of reasonable length.

For British travellers, the nearest major airport is Salt Lake City – which can be reached directly from London (Heathrow) via Delta. The Utah state capital sits some 320 miles from the west gate to the park. Denver, the Colorado capital, is further away (500 miles), but welcomes twice the number of flights (British Airways and United Airlines, both from Heathrow). If you are planning an extended tour of the American West, you could also feasibly drive in from Las Vegas (750 miles away).

Salt Lake City - Ken Redding/Getty
Salt Lake City - Ken Redding/Getty

If you don’t wish to be a road warrior, domestic flights are also available. The are airports on the park’s doorstep at Jackson Hole (70 miles) and Cody (80 miles) in Wyoming, and slightly further afield (100 miles) at Idaho Falls in Idaho. Montana, meanwhile, offers runways at Billings (175 miles), and at West Yellowstone on the park’s western boundary.

Where to stay in Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful Inn

Rugged scenery does not mean basic lodging. The Old Faithful Inn has been the park’s accommodation jewel since 1903 – a grand pile of wood and stone, with cavernous dining spaces. As its name suggests, it sits adjacent to Yellowstone’s foremost attraction.

From £320;

Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel

The identity of the water-feature next door is also obvious in the case of this similarly splendid retreat, which has dotted the Yellowstone map – just about in Wyoming, close to the state line with Montana – since 1911. Its famous Map Room has become a park icon.

From £140;

Roosevelt Lodge Cabins

While the Grant Village complex salutes the White House resident who gave Yellowstone national-park status, the more romantic, rustic choice for a presidential stay is the (Teddy) Roosevelt Log Cabins – built in 1920, near a campsite once favoured by the man himself.

From £111;

When to visit Yellowstone National Park

Its (relatively) northerly latitude means that Yellowstone is largely a summer destination; the majority of the park’s four million annual visitors make their pilgrimage in the hottest season.

Between early November and mid-April, car access is limited to the North Entrance, at Gardiner in Montana – while winter makes most of the roads within impassable to ordinary vehicles. That said, Yellowstone is even more dramatic wearing a coat of white. Those able to cope with the temperatures can explore the park on escorted snowmobile tours – and enjoy the views uninterrupted by the crowds of July and August.

winter yellowstone - Getty/Medioimages/Photodisc
winter yellowstone - Getty/Medioimages/Photodisc

What you need to know before you arrive

Expert tips to make the most of your trip to Yellowstone.

  • Consider the distance: The park is vast, and road journeys within it can be long. For example, it is 40 miles from Gardiner to Old Faithful. Keep a close watch on fuel levels.

  • Pay in advance: You don’t need to book ahead to visit Yellowstone, but the park website allows you to do so if you wish. “Single Vehicle” passes cost US$35 (£28) for a car and all its passengers, and last for a week. Individual passes are $20 (£16), on the same basis.

  • Pack carefully: Temperatures can change quickly, so suitable clothing is essential. You can buy cold-weather gear in the stores around Old Faithful, but it’s better to be prepared.

Safety and getting in

  • Enjoy the silence: Much of the park is wilderness, with scant connectivity. Ensure your phone is fully charged before you set out for the day, and be prepared to be out of contact.

  • Watch out for wildlife: Curb your speed when driving – and keep a safe distance from all animals. The park service advises a gap of at least 300ft (91m) from bears and wolves.

  • Be bear aware: Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell, and are known for breaking into cars in search of food. Remove all snacks and leftovers from your vehicle overnight.