Over 150 years old, it was an act of incredibly bold foresight to preserve Yellowstone all those years ago, when Americans were so busy “conquering” the West. A fusion of land and water, forest and field, wildlife and geothermal wizardry, it’s a large unspoiled canvas of the American West. Anchored by a huge supervolcano, that last erupted 600,000 years ago, there is no place quite like Yellowstone National Park. Like a colossal kettle on the boil, this wild land of fire and brimstone froths, bubbles and belches at every turn. The supervolcano feeds the world’s largest group of hydrothermal features, from hot springs and geysers to fumaroles and mudpots. It’s like Rotorua writ large.
Venturing to Yellowstone for my first time, the sheer variety of landscapes and sights astonished me – from geysers to grizzlies. Not to mention the immensity of Yellowstone - 12 times the size of the Hutt Valley or 11 times the size of Tongariro National Park. Needless to say, you’ll need a rental car to navigate all the big-hitters in short time. Admittedly, you could spend weeks exploring the world’s first national park in wild-eyed wonder, but over the course of a couple of days, here’s my distilled guide to Yellowstone’s unmissable highlights.
Mike enjoying a steamy dawn in Yellowstone. Photo / Mike Yardley
An unexpected show-stopper is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Take the Grand Loop Road to Canyon Village and tootle down the South Rim Drive to the Upper Falls viewpoint. Spanning over 40km in length, a bewitching blaze of canyon colours, including yellow, are exposed in the soft rhyolite stone, rising up from the canyon floor. Carved by the charging waters of the Yellowstone River, the 300 foot-long drop at the Lower Falls is positively explosive. That is twice the height of the tumble over the Niagara Falls. Artist Point is the most scenic perch of all, serving up a long-range perspective on nature’s galloping beauty. Soak it up.
Photo / Supplied
To the north of Canyon Village, Lamar Valley, nicknamed the Serengeti of America, is wolf-watching central. The call of the wild is personified by the allure of the gray wolf. The broad Lamar Valley is the best place in Yellowstone to get a glimpse of the wolves that were successfully reintroduced to the park nearly 30 years ago. It’s also home to big herds of elk and bison, plus black and grizzly bears. Sadly, despite my best endeavours at being bear aware, I didn’t see any. Dawn and dusk are the prime times to see bears – and most wildlife, for that matter.
Drive south across the river valley to Yellowstone Lake, the largest high-altitude lake in North America, with a sparkling sky-blue hue. It’s also home to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, where frothy geysers spew and mudpots boil on the shores of the lake. There’s a stack of features like the Abyss Pool, Black Pool, and Fishing Cone Hot Springs, all linked together by a boardwalk network.
Black Pool Hot Spring. Photo / Supplied
The Grand Loop then winds westward, cutting across the Continental Divide and cruising downhill into Old Faithful Village and the park’s biggest cluster of visitor draws. Opened in 1904, Old Faithful Inn is a staggering masterpiece of national park rustic architecture – billed as the largest log structure in the world. As I stepped inside, I’m sure I let out an involuntary gasp at the massive 65-foot ceiling of the cathedral-like lobby, designed to recreate a forest indoors. It’s a soaring riot of lodgepole pine and rhyolite rock, accentuated by the mountainous lobby chimney, crowned by stone clock, lording over the cozy fireplace.
Yellowstone proudly touts 60% of the world’s geysers, with roughly 10,000 active thermal features, but Old Faithful geyser endures as a potent poster-child for the park. The starring feature is just outside the main doors of the inn, Old Faithful Geyser, which erupts around 17 times per day to an average height of 130 feet. It’s best enjoyed in the early morning calm, up-close, although it was quite a novelty to watch it blow its load from the vantage point of my guestroom window!
Old Faithful is the biggest crowd-catcher, but the nearby Upper Geyser Basin is absolutely worth a look, home to 300 of Yellowstone’s 500 geysers, headlined by Grand Geyser, with its 200-foot-high plume. It erupts roughly every six hours. I scooted north to one of my favourite cluster of spectacles in Yellowstone, Midway Geyser Basin. Hot water thunderously gushes from geothermal pools to meet the aptly named Firehole River. Check out the Excelsior Geyser Crater. It’s home to the world’s largest geyser, but Excelsior has remained dormant since 1890. This dormant geyser is now a sprawling, steamy hot spring pool with electric blue water. Also at Midway, the extraordinary Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States. Its deep turquoise centre resembles a gigantic eye from above, weeping an exquisite multi-hued rainbow of orange, yellow and green, which form surrounding rings of algae.
Photo / Supplied
The park posts estimated eruption times online of its main geysers, while also at the Old Faithful Inn and visitor centres. North of Midway, Steamboat Geyser, in the Norris Geyser Basin, features the world’s tallest plume at 300 to 400 feet and has become exceptionally active. It was dormant for 50 years until an uptick of eruptions in the 1960s. Catching Steamboat is a matter of luck in Yellowstone’s hottest active basin. Boardwalks leading around the ivory-coloured plain, shuffling you past hissing fumaroles and blue pools. The ground here is so hot that it actually pulses according the National Park Ranger’s talk. Even more remarkable is that despite the heat of those hot pools and geothermal ground, you can send the hoofprints of bison in the ground, who are apparently unperturbed by the scorched earth.
Speaking of the rangers, one of the best free services offered by the National Park Service are the wide array of ranger-led activities, whether it’s a guided boardwalk stroll to understand the interior plumbing of a geyser or guided wildlife watching at dawn. Moose watching is as keenly pursued as wolf-watching is. You’ll generally find them wherever willows grow, given it’s their food of choice. The Gallatin River and the Bechler region is one of their prime spots in Yellowstone. A bull moose weighs in at roughly the weight of two Harley-Davidsons.
Photo / Supplied
Yellowstone lures over four million visitors annually, most who swamp the park in July and August. To dodge the choking crowds and cluttered roads, definitely opt for the shoulder seasons. March and April are best for seeing the bears that have stumbled hungry from their hibernation dens. Bison and elk can be seen calving, while the wolf pups finally emerge from their dens in May. The autumn months of September and October are even better. The crowds have thinned, the mosquitoes are gone and the animals are fattening up for winter. Just as African safaris can soon become addictive, my infatuation with Yellowstone has only just begun. I will be back! www.greatamericanwest.co.nz
I tripped to the American West, via San Francisco, with Air New Zealand. (For Yellowstone, take an onward Star Alliance flight to Jackson.) The full-range of cabin products is available on Air New Zealand’s services to San Francisco. Skycouch is available in Economy, while Premium Economy is an excellent mid-range option including premium check-in, premium seating with increased leg room plus fine cuisine & beverages. For the best sleep in the sky across the Pacific, splurge on Business Premier, entitling you to complimentary lounge access, premium check-in, luxurious leather armchair seating which converts into a fully lie-flat bed, plus fine cuisine & beverages. With well-timed overnight flights, I slept soundly across the Pacific. For best fares and seats to suit, jump to www.airnewzealand.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.
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