Congress awarded Yellowstone national park status in 1872, creating the first national park in not just the United States but also the world. Attracting visitors near and far, this sprawling wilderness stretches from Wyoming’s northwest corner into Idaho and Montana, forming the heart of one of the largest, best-preserved temperate ecosystems on Earth, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
World famous for its diverse terrains and spectacular scenery, Yellowstone National Park is home to numerous active geysers, offering visitors glimpses of the powerful forces at work underfoot. From winding rivers and green valleys to vast canyons and roaring waterfalls, this post explores a selection of the park’s awe-inspiring sights.
Note: Grizzly bears are numerous in Yellowstone, and visitors should be mindful of three cardinal rules: carry bear spray, make some casual noise when on hiking trails, and do not approach the bears. Yellowstone has an estimated 728 grizzlies.
1. The Grand Prismatic Spring
With its enormous size and spectacular colors, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the most photographed thermal attraction in Yellowstone National Park. The spring is located in the Midway Geyser Basin, a short distance north of Old Faithful Geyser along the Grand Loop Road.
Here, blisteringly hot water shoots from a crack in the earth’s mantle, forming the world’s third-largest natural spring. At more than 370 feet in diameter, the Grand Prismatic is larger than a football field, its deep-blue waters encircled by bright bands of orange, yellow, and green.
The first records of the Grand Prismatic Spring date back to 1839, when fur trappers noticed a “boiling lake” in the area now known as the Midway Geyser Basin. The spring’s distinctive rings result from the different species of pigmented bacteria that inhabit each zone.
The Grand Prismatic changes colors with the seasons, fading in winter and becoming more vivid in summer. The spring’s extreme temperatures effectively sterilize the water, rendering it an intense, bright blue all year round. It feeds into the Firehole River.
2. Old Faithful Geyser
Discovered during the Washburn Expedition of 1870, Old Faithful was named for its regular, predictable eruptions. The geyser, which is located in the Upper Geyser Basin region of the park, has erupted more than a million times since Yellowstone achieved national park status.
Old Faithful’s eruptions can reach up to 180 feet, lasting up to five minutes. Today, the world’s most famous geyser erupts around 20 times a day, with an average of 74 minutes between eruptions.
3. Tower Fall
Located in the northeastern region of Yellowstone, not far from Tower Junction, this 132-foot waterfall has captivated the imaginations of explorers, artists, and travelers for more than 140 years.
When photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran returned from the Hayden Expedition of 1871, their representations of Tower Fall caused a stir in Congress. Capturing the landscape’s immense beauty in photos, sketches, and watercolors, the duo ultimately convinced the US government to create the world’s first national park the following year.
4. Morning Glory Pool
Known as Yellowstone’s most beautiful pool, Morning Glory Pool is a hot spring that closely resembles, in shape, the bell-like blooms of the morning glory flower. Occasionally, seismic activity in the area causes Morning Glory to erupt in a gigantic geyser. The pool is located along the Firehole River, near Old Faithful along the Grand Loop Road.
5. Earthquake Lake
Located outside the park in southwestern Montana, about 25 miles northwest of West Yellowstone, “Quake Lake” was created when a magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck the region. Measuring 190 feet deep and 6 miles wide, Earthquake Lake falls primarily within the Custer/Gallatin National Forest.
The earthquake, which took place on August 17, 1959, was the most powerful recorded in Montana to that date. It created a wave in the Hebgen Dam, which caused corrosion and cracking. Though the dam held, it sustained severe damage, resulting in an 80-million-ton landslide downstream and culminating in the creation of Earthquake Lake.
The earthquake destroyed a number of homes and cabins across Montana, killing 28 people and causing an estimated $11 million worth of damage. Today, the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center receives 50,000 visitors a year. From the center, visitors have access to impressive panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
6. Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is a complex created over thousands of years as water from the hot springs cooled, leaving behind calcium carbonate deposits. Described by some as “an inside-out cave,” Mammoth stands out from the other thermal areas in Yellowstone National Park. Travertine flourishes throughout the region, due to the presence of many geothermal vents. Thermal activity at Mammoth Hot Springs is extensive and variable.
The Minerva Terrace, the area’s most famous attraction, comprises a series of travertine terraces deposited by the hot springs over many years. Other distinctive features of the Mammoth Hot Springs include the Liberty Cap, a hot spring cone named after the peaked caps worn by the French at the time of the French Revolution. Rising 37 feet into the air, the cone is believed to have formed over the course of hundreds of years, as internal pressure pushed water to a great height, leaving behind an accumulation of mineral deposits.
Mammoth Hot Springs is adjacent to Fort Yellowstone and the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District at the intersection of the North Entrance Road and Grand Loop Road, near the park’s northern border. Elk can often be seen in town.
7. Lamar Valley
Located in the northeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park, the Lamar Valley is popular among wildlife enthusiasts, offering plentiful opportunities to observe bison, elk, moose, bears, wolves, and numerous other rare and interesting species. The valley, which is dissected by the Lamar River, has a reputation as “America’s Serengeti,” owing to its very visible populations of large animals.
It’s best to go to Lamar in the first three weeks of June, when the grizzly bears and wolves pursue newly born prey. Try to go early in the morning—get on the road before dawn—when the animals are most active and your fellow tourists are fewer. Guides are also available from the Yellowstone Institute. The Institute also offers a number of educational classes throughout the year.
8. Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water within the park’s boundaries—and it is also the largest high-elevation lake in North America. Roughly 20 miles long and 14 miles long, the lake is easily accessible via the Grand Loop Road, which skirts part of its northwestern shoreline. Activities on the lake include boating and fishing; the lake is home to cutthroat trout and non-native lake trout. Cutthroat trout are catch-and-release only. Swimming is not advised; the water’s average temperature hovers around 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
9. Yellowstone Falls
Yellowstone Falls includes two impressive waterfalls about a quarter-mile apart on the Yellowstone River. The Lower Falls is the largest waterfall in the park—at 308 feet, it is nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls. The Lower Falls spill into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a 1,000-foot-deep gorge carved by the river over time. The beauty of the Lower Falls and the rough, multi-colored canyon walls have inspired artists like Thomas Moran, Ansel Adams, and many others. You can view the falls from several overlooks accessible via the Grand Loop Road, about 15 miles north of Yellowstone Lake. The short but strenuous Brink of the Lower Falls Trail brings you right to the top of the falls—you can watch the water plummet beneath your feet into the canyon below.