It is a distant yet very vivid memory. The memory of hearing about the Yellowstone for the first time when I was probably a 5th grader, and our geography teacher told us about this oldest national park in the world. A supervolcano that has erupted several times (the latest eruption was more than 1,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, WA) to become the largest volcanic system in entire North America. Growing up in a nonaffluent family in a small town in North Bohemia thousands of miles away made the idea of seeing the place with my own eyes unthinkable. Not until some 20 years later.
Our journey started before the Memorial Day weekend of 2018 in Salt Lake City. The majority of Yellowstone National Park is situated within the state of Wyoming with no major domestic airport. Fortunately, with round-trip airfare prices next to nothing, the capital of Utah, we quickly nicknamed >Slaný<, ended up being the best option to fly to from New York. The goal was to pick up a rental car upon arrival and drive up north to the town of West Yellowstone on the border of Montana and Wyoming, our basecamp for the first two nights. I remember getting very excited when I was handed the car keys and saw Jeep Wrangler engraved on it. And I couldn’t wipe the ear-to-ear grin off my face until the lunch stop in Idaho Falls. We thought the four-hour flight and five-hour drive would make us tired but the urge to peek inside the national park at least for a little bit won.
In just four hours, also thanks to long daylight hours, we encountered numerous herds of bison casually strolling alongside the main roads. That became quite a mundane scenery later in the trip and felt like if these gigantic animals have been an ever-present part of our lives. We also pulled over for short walks on wooden boardwalks connecting geysers of various sizes, colors and, last but not least, sulfurous odors. At the end of the day, we paid a visit to the most famous of them all, the Old Faithful, and witnessed one of its periodical eruptions. Finally, the tiredness hit us hard. We barely ate dinner and went straight to bed at our low-key motel aptly named Moose Creek Inn.
Most American national parks are easy to navigate, think car-centric, and the Yellowstone is no exception. When you look at the map, you'll notice the number eight pattern created by what is known as the Grand Loop Road. Entering the park from West Yellowstone, we decided to split the upper and lower loops into two full days. Was that enough? To scratch the surface and see the highlights, yes. To explore more remote parts of the park and enjoy the serenity of miles-long trails, not at all.
So if you don’t have a whole week, these were our favorite areas and trails within the national park that I can recommend adding in your 48-72 hour itinerary:
Mammoth Hot Springs - as you can guess by its name, these are giant hot springs formed into travertine terraces. The whole area resembles the Turkish site of Pamukkale. Although it’s interconnected with wooden boardwalks and belongs to the most popular highlights in the park, you can still find a quiet spot for your personal contemplation.
Scenic road from Tower Fall across Mt Washburn to Canyon Village - this is a road less-traveled with fantastic views everywhere around you. The national park is known for its large population of black bears and grizzlies, and this was the stretch of the Grand Loop Road where we were lucky enough to see both.
Upper & Lower Falls of the Yellowstone and the trail along the canyon - easily the most breathtaking scenery with people crowding the vistas from early morning. Once you make your way at least 500ft from the trailhead and main viewpoints, you’ll have the trail just for yourself as most visitors are surprisingly not keen on hiking that much. We enjoyed a great 6-mile hike along the rim of the canyon with parts of the trail still covered in snow.
Yellowstone Lake and the trail along the Mary Bay to the Storm Point - the largest water body in the area with snow-capped mountains peeking in the distance. We decided to go on a short hike along the Mary Bay accompanied by herds of bison on every step. The trail leading to the Storm Point is also populous with bears, the sign warned us. We saw none but stumbling upon decomposing dead animals spooked us enough that we ran out of all sing-along songs to keep the bears away and had to rely on good old Spotify to keep our company.
Old Faithful Geyser - possibly the world’s most famous geyser, which is also very predictable in terms of its periodic eruptions, is one of the main draws in the national park. The fact you can watch the eruption while having dinner in the nearby inn of the same name takes the magic away, though.
Grand Prismatic Spring - if you’ve ever seen at least one photo from the Yellowstone, chances are it was the Grand Prismatic, which happens to be the third largest hot spring in the whole world. What makes this one so unique is the brightly colored crust that forms a ring around the hot spring itself. Unfortunately, the weather was too foggy for us to see it. And we even tried coming twice. Maybe the third time's the charm in the future.
After the Yellowstone, we drove south to explore its lesser-known cousin, the Grand Teton National Park, which I’ll cover in the next photo journal.