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.
6. Fountain Flats Drive
This three-mile spur passes meadows of purple gentian where elk and bison graze, and it ends at Goose Lake, a secluded spot for a picnic. Farther south on the main road lie the spewing and spitting mud springs of Fountain Paint Pot, a favorite with visitors. Along the boardwalk are a series of improbable displays—dense, bubbling clay pools and geysers that toss pink, mineral-rich mudpies into the air.
7. Firehole Lake Drive
A one-way northbound loop off the main road, this three-mile drive takes in part of the Lower Geyser Basin, which boasts the park’s second-highest concentration of geysers. Check the ranger postings to avoid missing the rival eruptions of Great Fountain Geyser (one of the world’s grandest) and White Dome Geyser (with its massive, imposing cone).
8. Midway Geyser Basin
A wooden footbridge over the Firehole River overlooks sleeping Excelsior Crater, which last erupted in 1985 and now shoots its scalding broth into the river instead by way of a series of flumes. Continue along the boardwalk for a leisurely look at Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone’s largest and most colorful hot spring—a brilliant blue medallion more than 300 feet in diameter and ringed by throbbing, brilliant bands of yellow, green, red, and orange algae.
9. Old Faithful
With rapt attention crowds await the next scheduled performance of this world-famous geyser, whose timing is almost as predictable as its subterranean clockwork is complex. First comes the overture: splashing, gurgling, and throat-clearing as spurts of white are launched into the blue sky. Then, suddenly, a roaring column of spray erupts full force, causing jaws to drop and necks to jerk back in awe and amazement. Old Faithful has again lived up to its name.
Were it somehow to fail, visitors would still find spectacle enough within walking distance of the famed geyser. Morning Glory Pool, Castle Geyser, Chromatic Pool, Chinese Spring, Grotto Geyser, Punch Bowl Spring, and other spots create an intriguing variety of pools and waterspouts great and small, each gurgling and blowing to its own peculiar rhythm. Of the 500 or so active geysers in the world, more than 200 are found in Yellowstone, and close to 125 of these thermal wonders are right here in Upper Geyser Basin.
10. Yellowstone Lake
Travelers experience an abrupt change of scene and scent as the Grand Loop swings east and climbs to the Continental Divide, passing through dense evergreen forests mercifully untouched by the fires of 1988. At 8,000 feet the road bridges tiny Isa Lake, which straddles the divide and drains both east and west. Just past the lake is a matchless view south toward the towering Tetons. Approaching the town of West Thumb, the forest finally parts like a curtain to reveal the diamond-bright surface of Yellowstone Lake, the highest mountain lake in North America—and one of the largest at 14 by 20 miles. Pelicans glide overhead, and flocks of honking geese alight along the tree-lined shore. The drive hugs the water’s edge on its northward journey, and near Bridge Bay a mile-long spur leads west to the lovely Natural Bridge, a 30-foot span of pale stone arching high above the ground.
11. Fishing Bridge
It’s been years since angling was last permitted here, but this still- popular stop offers a fine vantage point for communing with nature. In summer you can watch the cutthroat trout as they spawn, or hike nearby trails in hopes of catching a glimpse of a black bear. Moose sightings are frequent along the north shore of Yellowstone Lake and east of the bridge. Once you resume the journey north on the loop drive, follow the scent of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulfide gas) to the Mud Volcano Trail, less than one mile long. Though somewhat infernal—replete with sulfurous fumes, churning mud springs, and yellow acid pools—the ground is warm enough in winter to melt falling snow, providing a welcome haven for bison.
12. Hayden Valley
Following the gentle curves of the Yellowstone River as it weaves through the verdant saucer of Hayden Valley, the road unfurls across fields of brilliantly colored wildflowers, past herds of grazing moose, elk, and the occasional solitary bison at the meadow’s edge. Since the area’s garbage dumps were closed down, most of the once-numerous grizzlies have retreated to the encircling pine forest, but the valley is celebrated for its rich bird life—including the magnificent trumpeter swan, only 1,500 of which are known to remain in the world.
13. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
You can hear it long before you see it: a swelling natural fanfare that prepares you for the drama to come. It’s the sound of white water rushing ever faster through a narrowing passage before tumbling into the great golden gash known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. “It is grand, gloomy, and terrible,” wrote one early visitor. Another spoke of the “mingled awe and terror” he felt in its presence. There is certainly something extraordinary about this gargantuan, 20-mile slice etched in the earth’s crust, whether contemplated from a dizzying lookout at 1,200 feet or from a rainbow-framed perch at the water’s edge. For the best view of the 109-foot Upper Falls, follow the trail that parallels South Rim Road; then descend Uncle Tom’s Trail 700 steps toward the canyon floor and feel the spray of the thunderous 308-foot Lower Falls. For an unsurpassed view down the center of the glistening yellow canyon itself, hike the trail or drive along South Rim Road to Artist Point. On the opposite side of the river, a one-way road from Canyon Village leads to Inspiration Point for a final glimpse of the Lower Falls.
14. Mt. Washburn
If you park the car at the Dunraven Pass picnic area and hike three miles to the summit of Mt. Washburn—through woods of whitebark pine and blossoming tundra—your reward will be a grand view of the section one just traversed. In fact, this 10,243-foot remnant of a 50-million-year-old volcano—one of many that ring the caldera—offers a panoramic view of virtually the entire park. Wildflowers border the trail in summer, and pausing to catch your breath on the way up, you may well see a bighorn sheep waiting patiently for you to pass by before continuing slowly on its regal way.
15. Tower Fall
Meadows of sagebrush spotted with bright yellow monkeyflower border this last leg of the drive as it swings by the graceful 132-foot cataract of Tower Fall, the nearby Roosevelt Lodge, and the Petrified Tree, a fossilized redwood buried by volcanic ash some 50 million years ago when they were common throughout the area. The road then arcs west across Blacktail Deer Plateau, closing this captivating loop where it began, at Mammoth Hot Springs.
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