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Yellowstone: America’s First National Park

Article by Stefanie Payne.  First published on The Greatest Road Trip.

The great American bison roams a painted landscape in the lowlands of Yellowstone National Park.

If you want to walk on a different planet and never leave Earth, go to Yellowstone National Park. It is a landscape so mesmerizing that when early explorer John Colter described what he saw there to interested parties, they surmised he was hallucinating. Painted Earth, steam billowing from waterways, bubbling pools of mud, primordial beasts… it certainly does read like a place rendered from a dream state. A visit to Yellowstone captivates with more than just beauty—it is a sensory experience gifted to all who enter. The fragrant scent of sulfur dioxide as it exits Earth’s crust; warmth from geothermal features rising and enfolding you; the song of bugling elk somewhere in the distance as steam vents hiss at your feet—and of course, its visual aspects—together they command all of one’s senses. You aren’t just visiting you are in it. Yellowstone is a complex environment so for this article we are going to delve into the park’s distinct characteristics and highlight landmarks in a place that ultimately changed how we as humans view and care for Earth’s wilderness places.

America’s First National Park

Yellowstone was created in 1872 in an effort to preserve its enormous wildlife populations and to divert development atop its unique geothermal features. President Ulysses S. Grant who signed the park into law called it a “pleasuring-ground,” to be protected “from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.” Its establishment would lay a foundation for 58 additional national parks to eventually follow, and extend to 100 nations who would subsequently protect more than 1,200 parks and preserve areas spanning the globe. It was the beginning of a worldwide movement—and it all started at Yellowstone.

‘For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’ This statement adorns the Roosevelt Arch, the original entrance to the park.

None of this happened overnight, of course. The Great Plains, Great Basin, and Plateau Indian cultures converged in this area for millennia before Anglo explorers ever set foot there. Fast forward several thousands of years and you are in the early part of the 1800s, as word started to break to eastern America of the wonders found out west. After exploring on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, John Colter joined fur trappers on an expedition to the Yellowstone plateau and the Teton Mountain Range. He was the first person of European descent recorded to have visited the area that we now call Yellowstone. News of what he saw there spread, pushing the U.S. government to forge their own inquiry into the area. They gathered funds and sent out a team of scientific explorers including the Territorial Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Ferdinand V. Hayden. Hayden employed the well-known photographer William H. Jackson and celebrated landscape artist Thomas Moran to create visual documentation of the area to brief to Congress, helping to push the Yellowstone Park Act that would in turn result in the establishment of America’s first national park in 1872. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The National Park Service chose this animal, the American bison, to represent all of American wildlife on their logo insignia.

Geothermal Features

Yellowstone National Park is home to more than 10,000 geothermal features, the largest collection on Earth. Geysers, steam vents, travertine terraces, mudpots, and fumaroles create an extraordinary landscape where you are surrounded by rising steam, spewing water, and colorful textures. No two of the hydrothermal features are the same and each one is astonishing in its own way. Here are a few of the most celebrated:

Mammoth Hot Springs located in the northwest section of the park is often a visitor’s first stop at Yellowstone because of its close proximity to the original National Park entrance located nearby in Gardner, Montana. The limestone flow formations found there were created by thousands of years of heating, cooling, and the settlement of calcium carbonate that would eventually form the most impressive example of travertine terraces found in the park.

The Great Geyser Basin as seen after an eruption.

The Great Fountain Geyser in the Lower Geyser Basin is one of the most beautiful places in the park to photograph during sunset, and it is one of the few that you can drive right up to, making it an easy place to catch the late afternoon light after a busy day of viewing other landmarks in the park. It is a predictable geyser, erupting every 9 to 15 hours.

The Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and most actively changing geothermal hot spring in the area, and its intensely colored landscapes makes it one of the most photogenic areas in Yellowstone.

Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world. It is noted by geologists as it shows a full rainbow of colors found in an optical prism—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. The best view of the prism is found on the Fairy Falls Trail which is currently closed to visitors as it undergoes restoration work. In the meantime, you can capture a photo of it at ground level like we did from the elevated boardwalk, or hop in a scenic flight tour to capture a view from above.

The Old Faithful geyser is the most famed, consistently erupting 17 times per day. The scene is spectacular—hundreds of visitors line up for every daylight viewing opportunity, gasping and awing in anticipation of its show. It is no accident that the historic Old Faithful Lodge is just steps from the geyser, and with its famed sky-high stone lobby fireplace and extensive services provided, it one of the most popular cultural and refueling stops in the park. Learn more about the specifics of this Iconic Site in the Park in the Fact Box section of this page (scroll down.)

Wildlife Habitat

Wildlife viewing is the number one reason that more than 3 million visitors plan trips to Yellowstone each year. The park’s well-mapped paved park roads make spotting animals easier as you auto-tour sections of the 2.2-million-acre wilderness. For those comfortable with the wilderness backcountry, wandering off on foot provides superb opportunities to see animals that shy from heavily-trafficked roadways.

Any which way you choose to explore, you will experience a vast ecosystem containing the highest population of free-roaming wildlife in the contiguous 48 states. Hayden Valley in the east area of the park is known to be the best area to spot grizzly bears, as well as moose and elk. Llamar Valley in the central area is a prime viewing location for elk, coyotes, and wolves (which are known to be incredibly elusive and are usually spotted only from a far distance, if at all.) Dunraven Pass is at high elevation where black bears, mountain goat, wolverine, and big horn sheep are in their zones. And pretty much everywhere you go you will share the road with the great American bison—which is prominently displayed on the National Park Service arrowhead logo insignia as a representation of all American wildlife.

Thriving Waterways and Forested Lands

With warm sunsets upon golden grasslands, softly painted rolling hills, vast forests, and cascading waterfalls, it is easy see why this area captured the attention of many and why today it continues to endear the masses.

Approximately 80% of the park is covered by forests of Lodgepole pine, spruce, and fir trees that are typical in the Rocky Mountain Range where Yellowstone is located. And where there are trees and mountains, you can bet there are great hikes to set off on—in Yellowstone, there are at least 1,000 trails—bringing travelers into the fold of an incredible wild landscape where headwaters from the Continental Divide flow creating waterfalls, rivers, and streams in the lowlands. These immense waterways create a playground for anglers who travel from all around the world to cast fly-fishing rods and catch brown trout, rainbow trout, and area-favorite, cutthroat.

Yellowstone continues to be a place that captures our hearts. It is easy to understand why John Colter’s early description of it was thought to be fake, too good, a dream – because that’s in a way what Yellowstone is – almost too beautiful to imagine, an absolute dreamscape there for all of us to enjoy.

Geothermal Features Defined

More than 10,000 geothermal features are found in Yellowstone National Park, and to know what they are helps us to better appreciate them. Here is a breakdown of the main geothermal features found in Yellowstone:

Geysers are hot springs that spout water and steam into the air. For a geyser to occur, there needs to be heat, water, and channels for it to travel through. How it happens: First pressure mounts in underground columns beneath heavy levels of water, creating steam that rises up to the Earth’s surface. It is then forced out of the ground spewing water into the sky. As the eruption continues, pressure relaxes until eventually the water system cools and the geyser falls dormant.

Fumaroles, also called a “steam vents” are the hottest geothermal feature found in Yellowstone. Low levels of water beneath the surface boil away before reaching the Earth’s crust, and is replaced by gasses that hiss and whistle their way into the landscape releasing steam into the sky.

Mudpots appear quite literally as the name suggests—a basin of thick mud gurgling on the Earth’s surface. Microorganisms paired with hydrogen sulfide convert gasses to sulfuric acid which morphs area rock into thick clay. Groundwater liquefies the clay allowing gas to escape causing the clay to bubble.

Travertine terraces are formed from limestone and effected by calcium carbonate that is carried by water through terraced areas. As water flow slows, calcium carbonate is deposited forming layers of chalky white rock, called terraces.

Hot springs are pools of superheated water that rises and falls in the pools through a process of “convection,” where water circulates keeping it constantly hot, but never hot enough to boil and erupt into a geyser. These are the most commonly found hydrothermal features in Yellowstone.

Thermophiles are microorganisms that thrive in hot temperatures and reach numbers in the trillions in Yellowstone. When converged, they create an intensely colorful landscape. Add silica, iron-oxide, arsenic and other compounds, water, and refracted light and those microorganisms start to develop deep orange, blue, purple, and emerald colors on the landscape.

The headwaters of the Yellowstone River … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale … and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. — The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act

A painting that would inspire establishment of a national park….

Artist Thomas Moran was sent to Yellowstone to capture visions of the landscape that couldn’t be fully told in story. When describing his work to the U.S. government, this is what he said:

“Every form introduced into the picture is within view from a given point, but the relations of the separate parts to one another are not always preserved. For instance, the precipitous rocks on the right were really at my back when I stood at that point, yet in their present position they are strictly true to pictorial nature; and so correct is the whole representation that every member of the expedition with which I was connected declared, when he saw the painting, that he knew the exact spot which had been reproduced. My aim was to bring before the public the character of that region. The rocks in the foreground are so carefully drawn that a geologist could determine their precise nature.”

Below, Moran’s original work “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” and Jonathan Irish’s 2016 photograph, captured at Artist Point.

Although Yellowstone had been thoroughly tracked by tribes and trappers, in the view of the nation at large it was really “discovered” by formal expeditions. The art of Thomas Moran helped promote national interest in Yellowstone.

Jonathan Irish captured the scene at Artist Point which was illustrated in the art of Thomas Moran in “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.”

Credit: NPS / Thomas Moran, YELL 8536

Fact Box

 2,221,776 acres | America’s first national park | UNESCO World Heritage Site | International Biosphere Reserve

Official name: Yellowstone National Park

Date established: March 1, 1872

Location: Southern Montana and Idaho/Northwest Wyoming

How the park got its name: America’s first national park was named for the large Yellowstone River running through it. According to the National Park Service, French-Canadian fur-trappers went to the area during the 1800s and asked members of the native Minnetaree tribe the name of the river, to which they replied: Mi tse a da zi, which translates as “Rock Yellow River.” It was then translated into French, then back to English by an explorer-geographer named David Thompson in 1797.

The famed Old Faithful geyser erupting right on time next to the Old Faithful Lodge.

Iconic site in the park: Old Faithful is without question the most famous geyser in the world. It spews 204-degree water more than 100-feet in the air every 60-110 minutes with eruptions lasting 5-15 minutes. It is known for its consistent activity and has not missed one eruption since tracking began. There are three lodging options located at the neck of the Old Faithful geyser, the most sought after and hard-to-come-by accommodations being at the Old Faithful Lodge where the geyser sits right outside the doors. The historic hotel, a National Historic Landmark, is considered to be the largest log structure in the world and opened its doors to park visitors in 1904. The great thing about staying in lodging near Old Faithful is that its close proximity to the geyser allows you to wander outside in the middle of the night and have the entire place practically to yourself. And while you’re out there, don’t forget to check out the stars! 

One of America’s great byways! Grand Loop Road at sunrise.

Accessible adventure:  Auto-touring the park’s network of paved roadways (466 miles of them) provides visitors easy access to wildlife viewing, hydrothermal features, and hiking trails. From the comfort of your own vehicle you will explore popular wildlife viewing spots such as the Hayden and Llamar Valleys, creating easy opportunities to see the largest population of elk on the planet, as well as the largest and oldest herd of wild American bison in the world. While Yellowstone is mostly traveled to during best-weather summer months, areas of park road are open and accessible in two areas of the park all year long. 

In the clouds in backcountry near Dunraven Pass.

Big adventure:  When you are ready to explore beyond Yellowstone’s well-beaten driving roads, grab your gear and head out on a backcountry camping adventure to explore the unusual geography on foot. To wander through the wild forested landscape with steaming geothermal features spouting in the distance really is like stepping into a dreamscape. The addition of wildlife makes it even more so; and it is their presence that makes this the best big adventure in the park—you have to be completely alert and aware at all times when traveling the habitat of bears, bison, and other beautiful beasts. Only 1 percent of park visitors venture off-road and into backcountry allowing those who do a more intimate meeting with a landscape teeming with wildlife, water features, and geothermal curiosities. 

Did you know…

Yellowstone is America’s—and the world’s—first national park.

It is the largest national park in terms of area outside of Alaska’s national parks, and one of the most visited with more than 3-million guests per year. In 2015, Yellowstone set a record welcoming more than 4-million visitors.

The park resides in three states: 96% in Wyoming, 3% in Montana, and 1% in Idaho.

Yellowstone has the highest concentration of geothermal features of any place on Earth. Half of the world’s geysers exist at Yellowstone.

Approximately 80% of the park is forested land, mostly made up of Lodgepole pine. The average lifespan of this tree is 200 years.

Yellowstone is a land filled with water! Yellowstone Lake is among the largest of high-altitude lakes in North America; and there are 350 identified waterfalls that are higher than 15 feet flowing year-round.

While Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in the world, Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin is the tallest, spewing at heights exceeding 400-feet. Steamboat erupts unpredictably and can go years without any activity.

Old Faithful was named in 1870 and was the first geyser in the park to receive a proper name.

The record height of an Old Faithful eruption is 184 feet.

A little bit of magic.

There are 100 wolves in the park, 10 per pack, each with a name. To see wolves, head to the Hayden Valley to hang with resident wolf-watchers who are usually more than happy to fill you in on the background and behavior of one of the world’s most elusive and fascinating creatures. 

High elevation Dunraven Pass is a good place to spot black bear and big horn sheep who have rich food sources in that area.

With more than 2,600 miles of easily accessible streams and remote waterways, Yellowstone is a prize destination for sport fishermen.

Most of Yellowstone rests atop a sleeping super volcano, it is one of only 30 in the world.

Yellowstone records between 1,000-3,000 earthquakes each year.

In Yellowstone, active research studies continue in an effort to prolong the livelihood of the endangered Rocky Mountain wolf that calls Yellowstone home. We caught a glimpse of one, as is pictured here, in autumn of 2016.

Most of Yellowstone rests atop a sleeping super volcano, it is one of only 30 in the world.

Yellowstone records between 1,000-3,000 earthquakes each year.

Headwaters from the Continental Divide meander through Yellowstone coming from its northern neighbor of Montana (the headwaters also roll through Glacier National Park.)

There are five entrances in Yellowstone National Park. The only one that is open year round is the Roosevelt Arch located in Gardner, Montana. It was constructed to invite visitors offboarding the Northern Pacific Railroad in grand fashion to America’s first national park. The 50-foot arch made of basalt from the area was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.

Access during the winter season us limited, though several services, tours, and ranger programs remain between mid-December and mid-March (low season.)

The Continental Divide meanders through Yellowstone coming from its northern neighbor of Montana (the Continental Divide also rolls through Glacier National Park in Montana.)

When John Colter, the first of European descent to explore the area which we now called Yellowstone, returned from his voyage with tales of violent eruptions from the magical landscape, many laughed off his depiction and jokingly referred to the area as “Colter’s Hell.”

A brilliant painter and sculptor named Thomas Moran spent 40 days in Yellowstone in the early 1870s to illustrate what he saw there. His artist renditions, along with photographs captured by William Henry Jackson, were instrumental in convincing the United States Congress to establish the park.

Earth’s landscape fascinates at every turn in Yellowstone.

Share the Road doesn’t always extend to cyclists. Our sunrise drive in the Grand Loop Road Historic District was met by a small group of bison, this one taking a morning stroll.

“ National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst. — Wallace Stegner

Yellowstone National Park Map

A special thanks to National Geographic, FujifilmAirstream, and Visit Montana for making this project possible.


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