By Michael Lanza
When I think about Yellowstone National Park, I recall seeing a wolf pack suddenly appear on a skyline ridge high above me and begin howling at the vast, impervious sky; and another wolf pack, on a bitterly cold winter day, descend at full speed upon an elk herd, spurring the entire herd to dash off, moving in unison as if it were one organism. Thinking about Yellowstone conjures mental images of Lower Yellowstone Falls pouring thunderously into the colorful magnificence of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, a sight I’ve witnessed both in summer and half frozen in the depths of winter.
I remember smiling at the reactions of my young kids to geysers erupting in the Upper Geyser Basin, or whistling fumaroles in the Lower Geyser Basin, or the kaleidoscopic surface of Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin. I vividly recall watching a black bear sow with cubs in tow shuffle across a meadow at dusk; hearing the nasal shriek of an elk bugling as I stood on a boardwalk in the steam of Mammoth Hot Springs at dawn on a chilly autumn morning (lead photo, above); and many times seeing hundreds of bison quietly grazing a grassy valley.
America’s National Park System is arguably without peer in the world. And among that collection of some of the planet’s most inspiring and unique natural wonders, Yellowstone rightfully resides at the top of the list of 59 U.S. national parks. It’s the park to visit as soon as you can, and return to as many times as possible, in every season—and not just because it was the world’s first national park, although that’s a pretty good reason, too.
Yellowstone preserves the Lower 48’s most complete living history of the natural world that once covered much of North America, but today exists only in a very few remote, sparsely populated, and best-protected corners of the continent. Wolves, extirpated from the park for six decades until reintroduced in the mid-1990s, now number in the hundreds in Greater Yellowstone. Grizzly bears, brought to the brink of disappearing from Yellowstone, have rebounded tremendously since being listed as threatened with extinction in 1975.
Today, those species, as well as hundreds of moose and thousands of bison and elk, roam the park’s 2.2 million acres and surrounding national forest lands almost as if Columbus had never reached America. Yellowstone hosts the largest concentration of mammals in the contiguous United States. Go there and you will likely see many of them.
The very earth comes alive in Yellowstone, breathing and belching and erupting with energy originating deep within the Earth’s crust. The park—much of it a caldera measuring 45 miles by 30 miles, the remains of prehistoric volcanic eruptions—contains more than 10,000 hydrothermal features and more than 500 active geysers (over half the world’s total), and nearly 300 waterfalls. Between a thousand and 3,000 earthquakes rattle Yellowstone annually, most of them going unnoticed by the millions of visitors. Scientists consider Yellowstone an active volcano, capable of exploding with enough power to wreak serious havoc on civilization, if past devastations are a predictor of its potential.
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To be sure, Yellowstone faces daunting environmental threats, many caused or exacerbated by climate change (as I describe in my award-winning book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks).
But from the spectacle of Old Faithful erupting—touristy, yes, but also iconic and actually special to behold, especially if you have the pleasure of watching young children react to it—to the speechless awe of watching a herd of bison graze in the Lamar Valley or a grizzly shamble through Hayden Valley, this magnificent place still inspires wonder in adults and children of all ages.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
Yellowstone National Park represents America’s wild heritage. Seeing it should be a requirement of U.S. citizenship.
Seeing it also requires planning months in advance; because of the park’s popularity, campsites and lodging in and around Yellowstone get booked that far out. When planning your trip, see all of my stories about Yellowstone National Park at The Big Outside, especially these stories:
“The Ultimate Family Tour of Yellowstone”
“Ask Me: The 10 Best Short Hikes in Yellowstone”
“Video: A Yellowstone ‘Bison Jam’”
“Ask Me: The Best Multi-Day Wilderness Trips in Yellowstone”
“Cross-Country Skiing Yellowstone”
Tell me what you think.
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