Contributor Wendy LaCombe Johnson recently moved from New York City to Oregon, stopping for two days during her cross-country trip in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone, designated by Congress in 1872, was the first official national park not only in the U.S. but in the world; its existence, along with Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks, influenced the 1916 formation of the National Parks Service. The short visit while in the midst of a road trip allowed she and her husband to distill for our readers some of the select sites to be sure to visit.
We drove into the park from Jackson Wyoming, along the Snake River, accompanied by jaw-dropping views of the Grand Tetons. Make a point of pulling over at the Snake River Lookout to see the spot where Ansel Adams took his famous stunning 1942 photo, “The Tetons and the Snake River.” The photo was commissioned by the U.S. government to further inspire visitation to national parks.
Entering the park through the south entrance, you are treated to more pristine views of the Tetons. This is a much less traveled road into the park, and worth the extra $20 admission to Grand Tetons National Park if you don’t have the National Parks Annual Pass.
There are two driving loops around Yellowstone, an upper and a lower. If you are driving either of the loops during the peak tourist months, as we were, be prepared for long stops and delays while bison cross the road, or tourists get out of their cars to take photos of elk grazing alongside a river.
We explored the lower loop on our first day, heading up the east side and dropping back down the west side, ending at Old Faithful. Highlights were the West Thumb Basin walk, where the boardwalk is a low-key meander alongside the expansive and lovely Yellowstone Lake, as well as the lower and upper falls, with breathtaking views. Be sure to take the 384 steps down to the lookout — well worth the climb back up. Also pause at the Artist Paint Pots, little bubbly areas where clay-like mud bloops and blops in a playful, cartoon-like fashion. As we dropped back down the west side of the lower circle, we stopped at the very popular Prismatic Spring. This is the largest hot spring in America, and a ring of rainbow around a pure blue pool of steaming water cast the spot as other-worldly and gorgeous. At Old Faithful we were surprised to see how much man-made development there was: a huge parking lot, three stores, and two inns. We appreciated the viewing area around this time-honored geyser, and there is plenty of room for the hundreds of visitors to observe from any angle. The extensive urban planning did make for an easy flow of all us gawkers. Be sure to check out the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn.
The second day’s highlight of the upper loop drive was a long and lovely walk around the Mammoth Hot Springs. The drive progresses along a spectacular gorge, and the village below the Hot Springs is a nice spot to dip into the country stores to cool off and do some souvenir shopping. Any direction you choose to go along the upper loop will wind up and around a variety of calcium carbonate vents and terraces. The gurgling sounds and sulphur in the air add to the feeling of being on an entirely different planet. Be sure to look down often at the tiny outcroppings of unusual looking patterns in the earth. We also pulled over at the Sheepeater Cliff to take a tiny and refreshing stroll along the creek.
Yellowstone is such a unique environment. We feel incredibly lucky for the two days we had to immerse in this extraordinary park. What recommendations for Yellowstone would you add?