Occupying the northwestern corner of Wyoming and spilling over slightly into Montana and Idaho on the north and west, Yellowstone is the oldest of our national parks. It is a domain of dense forests and velvety meadows that give way to yawning gorges and steaming wetlands, all traversed by an intriguing assortment of wild creatures. The size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, Yellowstone is also a treasury of geologic phenomena and a testament to the raw power of the elements.
1. Mammoth Hot Springs
The drive begins at the stately Roosevelt Arch, located at the northernmost entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Heading south, the road journeys through Gardiner River Canyon to the Albright visitor center and the limestone terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, perhaps the eeriest and most hauntingly beautiful of Yellowstone’s year-round thermal theatrics. Formed of calcium carbonate that has been leached from limestone beneath the earth’s surface and deposited above as a glowing white travertine, the springs take their delicate colors from the algae and bacteria that thrive in the steamy water. Among the most active of the terraces—some of which grow by as much as eight inches a year—are Opal Terrace, which each year takes another bite out of the sloping lawn of the nearby housing area, and regal, multihued Minerva Terrace. For a panoramic view of a half-dozen other springs and their colored pools, follow the one-way loop called Upper Terrace Drive. After rejoining the main road, the route swings south, skirting sooty Bunsen Peak and the stark black basalt pillars of Sheepeater Cliffs.
2. Obsidian Cliff
The land along this stretch of road and many others throughout Yellowstone was badly scorched by the fires that raged here in 1988. One highlight of this otherwise forbidding landscape is the glittering black face of Obsidian Cliff, formed by the rare, high-speed cooling of a lava eruption thousands of years ago. Indians used the obsidian for arrowheads, which have been discovered as far away as Ohio.
3. Norris Geyser Basin
According to geologists who have been monitoring the area for years, Norris Geyser Basin is perhaps the hottest hot spot on earth, and certainly one of the most geologically active. Puffs of steam rise from the ground like involuntary sighs all day long, and the basin is richly endowed with active geysers: Dark Cavern, which erupts several times an hour; the fan-shaped, silica-spraying Whirligig; and Steamboat, the world’s tallest geyser, with plumes of up to 380 feet—about three times higher than the eruptions of Old Faithful.
4. Virginia Cascade
A quick detour to the east leads to one-way Virginia Cascade Drive, which skirts the 60-foot waterfall that gives the road its name. A visit to the nearby willow meadows in the quiet of early morning or late afternoon may yield a glimpse of elk or moose, which regularly appear at the edge of the clearing.
5. Firehole Canyon Drive
Doubling back to Norris, the drive heads south to Madison, where the Grand Loop begins to cut across the edge of the great Yellowstone Caldera—the collapsed remains of a cataclysmic eruption that blew the center of the present-day park high into the sky some 600,000 years ago. Nearly 50 miles long and 28 miles wide, the basin lies above a still-churning core of molten rock. Its intense heat acts upon groundwater-filled fissures to create Yellowstone’s chorus of bubbling springs and hissing geysers, its restless repertoire of fumaroles, spitting mud pots, and unearthly steaming craters.
Beginning just below Madison, Firehole Canyon Drive follows the twisting course of the Firehole River for a distance of two miles. The sheer canyon walls rise to a height of 800 feet above the river. The Firehole takes its name from naturally occurring Jacuzzi blasts below the water’s surface, which keep the river from freezing during the long Wyoming winter and permit geese and ducks to find shelter here through the coldest months. At Firehole Falls the river plummets 40 feet, then races downstream over the black lava steps of the Firehole Cascade, eventually carving a foamy path through a forest of lodgepole pine.