Yellowstone National Park
With three of its five entrances in Montana, Yellowstone National Park has been one of the most popular places to find a once-in-a-lifetime #MontanaMoment for more than 140 years. Explore below and find your own.
“I was literally standing there with my mouth open in disbelief. It was completely unexpected and wonderful.”
The Original National Park
While Yellowstone’s iconic bears, bison and geysers are popular subjects for documentaries and photographs, nothing even comes close to seeing this incredible combination of geology and wildlife. Thousands of geothermal features and springs, such as Mammoth Hot Springs and Grand Prismatic Spring, are scattered among forests, mountains, rivers and canyons. And from megafauna like elk, deer, moose and bears to the tiny microorganisms that thrive in super-heated water, the place is utterly alive.
The roads in Yellowstone National Park form a large loop in the center (in fact, it is actually called Grand Loop Road), with arms reaching out to Montana’s gateway towns of Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Cooke City.
The park’s many iconic geothermal features can be found all along the Grand Loop. Midway Geyser Basin includes Grand Prismatic Spring—stunningly colored by bacteria that feed on its boiling water and a favorite subject of photographers. Norris Geyser Basin, like many features in the park, is ringed by a well-maintained and easily walkable boardwalk. These boardwalks let you get close enough to fully experience these features without putting yourself in danger of heat at places like the Fountain Paint Pots just south of Old Faithful—Yellowstone’s most famous geothermal feature.
“My first look at the spring from atop the hillside was the first time I saw Yellowstone for what it was: Mother Nature’s canvas. The bold colors, the immense size of the crater, the thick blanket of steam coming off the spring on a cold early morning—all amazing feats of beauty.”
Most of the park exists on an alpine plateau, but within this high-altitude ecosystem run several river valleys that are popular destinations for Yellowstone’s animals—and good wildlife lookout spots. Just inside the Northeast Entrance, the Lamar Valley is pretty reliable for daily sightings of megafauna, as are the Hayden Valley and Madison Valley to the west.
Like grizzly bears keeping their claws in shape, we’ve only scratched the surface so far. To get the bigger (and more memorable) picture, slow down, extend your stay and venture beyond the roadways and boardwalks. Yellowstone Lake, for instance, is the largest body of fresh water above 7,000 feet in all of North America. To see it, you can drive the perimeter, camp at the water’s edge or take a boat tour with knowledgeable guides.
Some great finds that many visitors miss include family-style dining at the Roosevelt Lodge Cabins, the many secluded spring-fed river bends on which to test your fly-fishing prowess, and an incredible series of vistas and waterfalls on the hike along the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Ways In and Out of the Park
Bring your hiking boots for some of the park’s 1,100 miles of hiking trails, and make time to explore beyond the park’s boundaries as well. Outside the park, you have a lifetime worth of hiking options—like the many trails throughout the aptly named Paradise Valley that stretches northward from Gardiner to Livingston, corralling the Yellowstone River for the first part of its 692-mile undammed journey to join the Missouri.
While the North Entrance through Paradise Valley may be the most popular, the route to the Northeast Entrance is often called the most beautiful. It’s a longer and steeper drive from downtown Red Lodge, zigzagging over Montana’s highest peaks via the Beartooth Highway, which earns you a piece of homemade pie in rustic Cooke City before you arrive at the park’s northeast gate.
West Yellowstone is the town right outside the park’s West Entrance. You could make your base camp up in Bozeman, one of Montana’s cultural hubs, since that’s an easy but gorgeous trip south to Big Sky Resort, and from there a short drive to West Yellowstone.