MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --
Yellowstone, the world's first national park, is considered by many to be one of the most iconic locations in the United States. Its geysers, volcanic pools of colors and personal interactions with wildlife have attracted visitors from across the globe since 1872.
The park itself is five hours and some change away from Mountain Home Air Force Base. However, there are a few slightly longer routes that go through other national parks which may offer a better overall experience.
I strongly recommend traveling to Yellowstone through Jackson, Wyoming, and up through Grand Teton National Park. This drive is basically a two-for-one as both national parks border each other and create a seamless outdoor experience. Why experience only one, when the other is right next door? I'll delve further into the Tetons in another edition.
For now, we'll focus on Yellowstone.
There are 12 campgrounds and nine lodging facilities within the park as well as gift shops, gas stations and even restaurants if you forget to pack a lunch. It's rare to find yourself on anything but well-kept pavement. It's easy to find most of the comforts I'm used to. Honestly though, I never travel to Yellowstone to go to gift shops. The natural wonders of the park are where it's at.
Yellowstone arguably offers the best opportunities in the world for geothermal interaction. Most of it's wonders are one-of-a-kind and few places in the world can offer geothermal features of their magnitude. Their existence was one of the most important factors in the parks national status today.
In the 1800s, visitors to Yellowstone had a different perspective on the landscape than most people have today. In those days, it was common place to see a herd of bison roaming the plains or a vast forest undisturbed by the workings of men. The founders sights were set solely on one feature of the park. Geysers.
While geysers can be found across the world, Yellowstone has more than 500 in the 3,468 square miles it encompasses. No other place on earth has more. But, with so many, it can be a daunting task to decide which ones deserve a visit.
Old Faithful is the number one attraction in the park and can be found in the Upper Geyser Basin. It's a must see if you're in the area and there are plenty of chances to experience it erupt. Each eruption is about 90 minutes apart, which makes it easier for most people to fit into their schedule. Even if you just miss it, Old Faithful Inn is only a couple hundred feet away and can easily entertain until the geyser's next eruption.
The Lower and Midway Geyser Basins offer the majority of the other geysers but will consume a lot of time on a trip and offer similar experiences to Old Faithful.
Old Faithful and the geyser basins aren't the only natural wonders found in the park, though.
Grand Prismatic Spring, my personal favorite, is the world's third largest hot spring. It was the first recorded feature of the park in 1839 and has enthralled viewers ever since. Visitors can walk among the massive amount of steam it produces and experience the red, green, blue, yellow and orange colors produced by heat-loving bacteria in the water.
Yellowstone sits atop a high plateau surrounded by a bevy of mountain ranges. Nearly every angle within the park has a view of the craggy cliffs with hundreds of trails leading to their peaks.
The trails vary in difficulty level; in some areas, they can challenge experienced climbers while others offer gentle hikes for those simply looking to take-in their surroundings. One particular hike I recommend is the Mount Washburn Trail.
The trail is essentially a series of switchbacks leading to the tallest peak in Yellowstone. This is considered an intermediate hike due to elevation and strong gusts of winds near the top. Those who can brave the elements will be rewarded with one of the best views in the park. The Tetons, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and wildfire aftermath are all within sight at more than 10,000 ft above sea level. However, trails and mountains aren't for everyone, and they account for only a small portion of the natural features found in Yellowstone.
In the middle of the park, lies the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. This giant ravine is another must see. Both sides of the canyon offer multiple viewpoints however, I recommend Artist point and Brink of the Lower Falls to get the full effect of the canyon. If you're looking for a bit of a workout and a great view of the lower falls, consider taking Uncle Tom's Trail. Just be aware, there is a 328 step staircase between you and its awesome view.
The last attraction I recommend is Mammoth Hot Springs. Mammoth is a small town located at the northern edge of the park. A large complex of springs surrounds the town. The more popular springs create a terrace-like structure reminiscent of Asian rice fields.
While there are plenty of hot springs in the park, there aren't many safe enough to take a dip in. Still, bring your swimsuit and a towel because just south of Mammoth lies the Boiling River. The mixture of hot, volcanic water and the icy current of the Gardner River will make the pains of a long day of hiking melt away. Just be sure to plan ahead as the river gets crowded during the daytime. The best times to experience the water are early in the morning or just before dusk when the majority of visitors leave the park.
There's no way getting around it; Yellowstone is a crowded tourist attraction. Not to worry though, the park has one of the most diverse collections of wildlife in the nation to distract from the large masses.
Through great foresight of its founders, Yellowstone is one of the last protected habitats where bison, elk, deer, wolves, bears, bighorn sheep and other animals can continue their natural lives with minimal intrusion of humans.
On one of my visits, I took a short walk near Mammoth. I expected to find nothing more than a few trees but I came face-to-face with a stag and his heard of elk. A few minutes later I stumbled upon a badger and then a field full of salamanders warming their bodies in the morning sun. Those are the kinds of experiences I never forget.
The majority of animals in the park have grown accustom to humans and usually pay no mind to our antics. It's common to stumble upon a grazing bison or experience a herd of elk dance in front of a line of cars as they cross the road. That being said, please don't be the one who decides to pet a wild bison. They're tolerant, not tame.
For me, Yellowstone is a very special place. Whether it's taking a dip in the boiling river or reaching a peak of a mountain, Yellowstone National Park offers hundreds of outdoor activities adults, children and even moody teenagers can all enjoy.
Editor's Note: While Yellowstone is open year-round, only the North and Northeastern Gates are open during the winter season. Please visit http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/hours.htm
for information regarding closures.
Download the top photo at this link.