A few weeks ago, I went on a family road trip through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and also visited Craters of the Moon National Monument. This was my biggest road trip since driving across the US for my move to Seattle. The abundant wild life and wonderful geothermal features of Yellowstone, the majestic mountains of Grand Teton, and the strange landscape of Craters of the Moon made for another great trip. Here’s a look back on the trip with lots of photo highlights.
Yellowstone National Park
Located at the northwest corner of Wyoming and extending a little into Montana, Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, and one of the most famous. The park sits on top of the Yellowstone Hot Spot, which is a gigantic supervolcano. Thanks to the heat underground, Yellowstone has the largest concentration of geothermal features in the world, and the park is also known for its abundant wild life.
Yellowstone is a large national park with many things to see. We started our tour of Yellowstone from the north entrance. Even before actually entering the park, we saw a herd of pronghorn near the entrance station. That was the first time I’ve seen pronghorn in the wild. Throughout our time in Yellowstone, we would see plenty of wildlife.
Driving south from the north entrance led us to the Mammoth Hot Springs area. The numerous hot springs in the area deposit minerals over time which form into intricate layered terraces. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. The mineral deposits looks almost like they are made by master craftsmen. The Lower Terrace is accessible via boardwalks, while features in the Upper Terraces can be accessed with a one-way loop drive.
We also got our first up close look at elk. The resident elk herd just showed up and started feeding on the grass near the visitor center and facilities, and we were able to some nice up-close photos.
From there, we ventured east to Tower Junction, where we saw Tower Falls and the canyon carved out by the Yellowstone River.
We also kept driving east into Lamar Valley in hopes of seeing some more wildlife. Lamar Valley is known as one of the best spots in Yellowstone to see wildlife, and it didn’t take us long to find a herd of bison near the road. Big majestic animals they are. We would end up seeing plenty of bison and elk throughout our trip. It was pretty much impossible to not see bison and elk while driving around the park.
Our next stop was the Canyon Village area, anchored by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone along with the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls. The canyon and Lower Falls are in my opinion the grandest features within the park in terms of scale. The deep canyon in addition to the power waterfall made for an impressive sight.
The next day, we made our way to the geyser basins within Yellowstone, starting in the Norris Basin. This was the only location within Yellowstone where we had to park on the road due to the parking lot being full, so it’s definitely a popular spot. Norris consists of two loops. The shorter boardwalk loop took us to Porcelain Basin, highlighted by beautiful baby blue pools and various steam vents.
The longer Back Basin loop also passes by various springs, pools and a few geysers. The most famous geyser in the area is Steamboat Geyser, which is the most powerful geyser in the park with eruptions reaching more than 300 feet. The eruption is so big that there are warning signs in the parking lot warning people that their cars might get damaged during a major eruption. There were quite a few people camping by Steamboat Geyser waiting for an eruption, but the eruptions are entirely unpredictable so we didn’t stick around.
From Norris Geyser we continued our way south, visiting the various geyser basins along the way. The Lower Geyser Basin featured the Fountain Paint Pots, which had bubbling pastel colored mud that was pretty unique.
The Midway Geyser Basin features the Excelsior Geyser Crater. The remains of what once used to be a large geyser is now a steaming hot spring with pretty blue water. The star attraction at Midway Geyser Basin though is the the Grand Prismatic Spring. The largest hot spring in the United States, the Grand Prismatic Spring has almost a rainbow like coloration with the blue water radiating out into green, yellow and orange on the sides thanks to thermophile bacteria. It’s one of the most unique and beautiful bodies of water I’ve ever seen. The boardwalk at Midway Geyser Basin brings people to the shores of the spring, but to get a view of the entire spring you’ll have to take the short hike from the Fairy Falls trail head a bit south down the road. The hike is well worth the effort and we were treated to a mesmerizing view of the Grand Prismatic Spring in its entirety.
After the Midway Basin, there were the Biscuit and Black Sand Geyser Basins. These were smaller geyser basins but each had their own share of steam vents, hot spring pools and small geysers that can be seen along easy walking paths.
Eventually, we made it to the Upper Geyser Basin area. This is the most developed area in the park, and at its center is perhaps Yellowstone’s most famous attraction, the Old Faithful geyser. Old Faithful is not the biggest geyser in the park, but it’s famous for erupting predictably every 60-90 minutes like clockwork. With a eruption height of over 100 feet, Old Faithful is a sight to behold. During the daytime, a crowd gathers around the geyser waiting to see it spew steam and hot water into the air. It’s just like watching a regularly scheduled, except the spectacular performance is put on by Mother Nature.
Old Faithful is the most famous, but it certainly isn’t the only attraction at Upper Geyser Basin. The visitor center there is the biggest one in the park, and the rustic yet grand Old Faithful Inn overlooks its namesake geyser.
An easy walk across the Firehole River led us to the other geysers, springs and geothermal features in the area. We eventually stopped and decided to wait for the eruption of the Grand Geyser. The Grand Geyser is the biggest predictable geyser in the park that fires off approximately every 6 hours or so. While we were waiting for the Grand Geyser, the Daisy Geyser went off in the distance.
We arrived early and had to wait around an hour or so, but the Grand Geyser erupted almost exactly at its predicted time, and it was an awesome spectacle. Bigger, higher and more powerful than the Old Faithful, the Grand Geyser shot water to over 200 feet into the air. We were getting sprayed by the eruption and had to move due to wind blowing all the steam towards us. Just as we thought the eruption was winding down, the Grand Geyser exploded with a second burst that was even higher than the first. It was definitely worth the wait.
Having visited the geyser basins in the southwestern area of the park, the only (easily accessible) areas left were the areas around Yellowstone Lake. From Canyon Village, we made our way south towards the lake, stopping by the Mud Volcano and Sulfur Cauldron along the way.
We continued south and arrived at the Fishing Bridge area of Yellowstone. The area is named after the bridge which used to be the best place to catch Yellowstone cutthroat trout, but nowadays fishing is prohibited from the bridge. We got our first glimpse of Yellowstone Lake, which is the largest lake in North America above 7000 ft of altitude.
From Fishing Bridge, we kept driving until we hit the West Thumb geothermal area, on the shores of the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. The West Thumb was formed by a volcanic eruption that happened after the one that formed the Yellowstone Caldera. Having a geothermal area right by the shores of the big lake is what stood out about that area. There were some steam vents and small geyser that were tiny islands in the lake. There were a couple of nice hot springs in that area as well.
West Thumb is the last area we toured in Yellowstone. We spent 4 days in Yellowstone National Park, and that’s about the right amount of time to explore all of the major attractions. One can certainly spend longer if they want to hike and backpack. From our visit, I can certainly see why Yellowstone is so famous. Nowhere else on Earth has the combination of geothermal features and pristine wilderness that Yellowstone has. It’s an absolute gem of Mother Nature, and definitely worth the long drive to get there.