Every national park has their unique set of iconic features. Yosemite has El Capitan and Half Dome, Olympic has the Hoh Rain Forest, Grand Tetons has its famed mountain range, and Crater Lake has its surreal cobalt lake. But Yellowstone National Park is the shining star of our national park system when it comes to iconic landmarks. What child hasn’t heard of Old Faithful thanks to Yogi Bear? Grand Prismatic Spring has graced thousands of glossy magazine and calendar pages over the years, and bison are the epitome of the classic American West. To see these stand out features of the park you can brave the crowds or you can get a little creative. There are no steadfast rules dictating how you see them, so why not opt for an introduction that gives you a much more intimate view of the park?
The most well known landmark in Yellowstone National Park has got to be Old Faithful. It is justifiably as well known as the park system itself. This father of all geysers was discovered in 1870 and according to Yellowstonepark.com has had over a million eruptions since the park’s inception in 1872. Although it is not the largest geyser, or to some geyser enthusiasts, the most impressive, but it is the most predictable large geyser erupting about every 90 minutes. There are a couple ways to see this Yellowstone classic. Most visitors prefer to sit along the boardwalk, but enjoying observing this geyser from the deck of the historic Old Faithful Inn is a nice little treat. At the inn you have the opportunity to relax in a log hewn adirondack chair while sipping a hot cocoa (spiked or not, your choice) and taking in the rustic grandeur of the inn. Also, as a bonus, it’s covered. If the forecast calls for rain you can stay dry.
Grand Prismatic Spring is a site worth savoring. Its weeping colors are more akin to an oil painting than a natural landscape and the statistics are staggering. Over ten stories deep and 370 feet wide. That makes it larger than a football field and the third largest hot spring in the world. Unfortunately visiting this behemoth from the boardwalk simply doesn’t do it justice. The array of colors are hard to see, the steam obscures part of your view, and it just seems, well, lackluster. To really appreciate its beauty hike to the Grand Prismatic Overlook. To get to the overlook follow the Fairy Falls Trail, but arrive early as parking is limited. The overlook is a new feature in the park in response to visitors climbing the hillside along the Fairy Falls Trail. This “social trail” (an official trail that is not maintained by the park) led to damage of the hillside. As a result the overlook was created and opened the summer of 2017. When we climbed the trail we were not prepared for the beauty that unfolded before us. This was my fourth time seeing Grand Prismatic Spring, but I felt that for the first time I truly saw it.
Although the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is not as vast as the “real” Grand Canyon, that does not make it any less profound or lessen its ability to take your breath away. There’s a reason it was such an inspiration to national park artist, Thomas Moran. The canyon itself is an impressive 24 miles long, 1,200 feet at its deepest, up to .75 miles wide. It also contains two waterfalls, aptly named Upper and Lower Falls. Although both waterfalls are impressive, Lower Falls is the distinguished attraction as it is twice the height of Niagara Falls. The most popular views (and least strenuous) are Artist and Inspiration Points. Both offer stunning vistas and do not disappoint. But if you want to want to experience the canyon and Lower Falls up close and personal Uncle Tom’s Trail is the surefire way to do it. The reward of this up close and personal introduction does not come without
a lot some hard work. That hard work is in the form of 328 stairs (each way!) suspended to the canyon wall at around 8,000 feet elevation. This trail is not for the faint of heart or those with knee, heart, or lung conditions, but it is an stunning way to see the canyon and falls while appreciating the power of the Yellowstone River.
If Old Faithful is the iconic Yellowstone landmark then the American bison, commonly referred to as buffalo, is the quintessential fauna of the park. No other animal represents the great American west quite like these lumbering behemoths. Truth be told, they are a plentiful presence throughout the park, but getting up close is discouraged for good reason. They weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can run 30 miles per hour. But this doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate them in a unique way. A favorite grazing hangout is in the Roosevelt region of the park. Seeing them by car is the most common method for observing bison, but our favorite was by covered wagon. The park’s concessionaire, Xanterra, offers a backcountry cowboy cookout to Yancy’s Hole. These tours come with a somewhat hefty price tag (currently over $200 for a family of four), but the experience is not something we will soon forget. We definitely made some pretty priceless memories on that trip to the backcountry. We saw a moose, our kids loved the freedom to wander and play in the creek, we had our first dose of cowboy poetry and coffee (now that was some coffee!), and we were given an informative oral history of the region by our wagon drivers. When you combine those adventures with a substantial meal the value far outweighs the cost. Plus there is something a little more authentic about observing bison from a covered wagon, albeit a slightly cushier version than our ancestors version. From the vantage point of a wagon you get a peaceful, less obtrusive view of their quiet existence. They don’t seem to be bothered by the wagons or their gaping onlookers because let’s face it, bison rule this park.
The last of the national park’s most prolific icons is undoubtably Yellowstone Lake. It is not only the largest high altitude lake in North America, but also contains underwater hot springs. Depths can reach up to 390 feet and temperatures average at 41 degrees so this is not a lake for swimming. But that does not mean you can’t appreciate the lake in a unique way. Although the Grand Loop Road follows the lakeshore for 22 miles it is best if you get to know this aquatic marvel from a boat. The park offers cruises from Bridge Bay Marina. Depending on weather the lake can range from a lovely cerulean blue to an ominous slate gray. Cruises last an hour and not only provide guests with a unique view of the lake, but also the opportunity to see some of the native birds such bald eagles and ospreys. Like the cowboy cookout, the scenic boat cruise offers a history lesson of the lake, Stevenson Island, and the boat wreckage SS E.C. Waters.
Yellowstone National Park is so vast that it requires several trips to feel as if you have cultivated an intimate knowledge of the park, but after checking these five big ones off the list you will most likely be enticed into further exploration of our nation’s first national park. Its curiosities leave an impression whether you are a fan of the outdoors or not. So take your time, start early, carry your patience, and enjoy all this park has to offer.