Breathtaking canyons, pine forests, mountain ranges and waterfalls stretch as far as the eye can see. But for all you can see in this beloved park, the real story is in what you can’t see. Just four miles underground lies one of the world’s most massive volcanoes, which reveals itself on the surface with mud pots, fumaroles, steam vents and geysers.
Facts and figures
• Established in 1872, Yellowstone is the world’s first national park.
• Yellowstone spans 2,221,766 acres, which makes it larger than Delaware and Rhode Island—combined.
• The park straddles three states: 96% in Wyoming, 3% in Montana and 1% in Idaho.
• Approximately 80% of Yellowstone is covered by forests, 15% by grassland and 5% by water.
• Though most are undetectable by people, the park experiences as many as 3,000 small earthquakes each year.
Before European-Americans arrived, native tribes used this area as their home and hunting ground for more than 11,000 years.
In 1807, John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, passed through the region and described it as a land of "fire and brimstone."
In 1870, the first organized expedition entered Yellowstone. After exploring the area for a month, members of the expedition urged Congress to preserve the region as a public park. Two years later, President Ulysses S. Grant signed The Act of Dedication law that created Yellowstone National Park.
From 1886 through 1918, the U.S. Army managed the park.
Visitors were granted easier access to Yellowstone in 1883 (when the railroad arrived) and in 1915 (when automobiles were allowed in the park).
In 1914, an effort was launched to protect the elk population by destroying wolves, but by 1995, the government reversed its position and wolves were successfully reintroduced into Yellowstone.
Things to see and do
The Grand Loop, the road located at the heart of the park, stretches for 142 miles. If you make stops along the way to see the iconic Mammoth Hot Springs, Fountain Paint Pot and Old Faithful, the drive will take four to seven hours.
A variety of guided tours (bus, van, backcountry, snowmobiling, hiking, bird watching and horseback) are also available.
Only 10 percent of Yellowstone in accessible by road, so plan to hike along the more than 900 miles of trails. Storm Point Trail, just north of Yellowstone Lake, is an easy walk and provides stunning lake views and the opportunity to see wildlife. Mount Washburn, a 6.8-mile moderate hike, offers some of the best vistas of the park.
Trek the short but steep Uncle Tom’s Trail to view the Yellowstone River’s Lower Falls. If you really want to feel removed from civilization—and you have a week to hike—head to the 68-mile Thorofare Trail.
Depending on the length of your stay, plan to visit some of Yellowstone’s most beloved areas: Canyon Village, Fishing Bridge, Madison, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris, Old Faithful, Tower-Roosevelt and West Thumb. If you have kids in tow, don’t miss the Firehole Canyon swimming hole.
Throughout the park, animal watching is a highlight—and one that you can do from your car or via pullouts. Head to Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley, and you may be lucky enough to spot a badger, bighorn sheep, bison, elk, grizzly bear, mountain lion or wolf.
Explore the park’s lakes via canoe, kayak or other small craft. Anglers (with a permit) can throw out a line to catch brown, brook, rainbow and lake trout, mountain whitefish and Arctic grayling.
Yellowstone offers overnight accommodations at nine hotels/lodges, seven NPS-operated campgrounds (450+ sites) and five concession-operated campgrounds (1,700+ sites). The Old Faithful Inn, Canyon Lodge & Cabins and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel are among the most popular places to stay. All lodging and campground reservations must be booked via Yellowstone National Park Lodges.
Best time to go
Summertime is beautiful at Yellowstone, but it’s also the most crowded; to beat traffic, plan to arrive at the park during non-peak hours (before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m.). If you prefer a less crowded experience, the National Park Service suggests visiting in the spring (April/May) or fall (September/October).