Top Attractions in Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful Geyser:  The most popular attraction in Yellowstone National Park, the Old Faithful Geyser is a must-see for every Yellowstone visitor.  Many visitors also decide to take a walk around the boardwalks and visit some of the many other geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin, such as Castle, Grotto, Riverside and Daisy.  It's also worthwhile to take the 1.4 mile walk to Morning Glory Pool, one of the most colorful thermal features in all of Yellowstone.  While at Old Faithful, visitors can't miss the world-famous Old Faithful Inn, which is the world's largest log structure. 

Old Faithful erupts more frequently than any of the other big geysers, but it's not the largest or most regular geyser in the park. Old Faithful Geyser's average interval between eruptions is about 91 minutes, varying from 65 – 92 minutes.  An eruption lasts 1-1/2 to 5 minutes, expels 3,700 – 8,400 gallons (14,000 – 32,000 liters) of boiling water, and reaches heights of 106 – 184 feet (30 – 55m).  It was named for its consistent performance by members of the Washburn Expedition in 1870. Although its average interval has lengthened through the years (due to earthquakes and vandalism), Old Faithful is still as spectacular and predictable as it was more than a century ago.   

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone:  Lower Falls and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone may not be as big as the Grand Canyon of Arizona, but it is nonetheless breathtaking. The Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon, at 308 feet high, is one of the most photographed features in all of Yellowstone. There are numerous vantage points on both the North and South sides of the Canyon, many visitors take the time to view the Canyon from both sides.  Also, you should take the 3/8 mile (one way) hike down to the edge of the Lower Falls as the experience at the lip of the falls is amazing.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the primary geologic feature in the Canyon District.  It is roughly 20 miles long, measured from the Upper Falls to the Tower Fall area.  the depth is 800 to 1,200 feet and the width is 1,500 to 4,000 feet.  The canyon as we know it today is a very recent geologic feature.  The present canyon is no more than 10,000 to 14,000 years old, although there has probably been a canyon in this location for a much longer period.  The exact sequence of events in the formation of the canyon is not well understood, as there has been little field work done in the area.  The few studies that are available are thought to be inaccurate. We do know that the canyon was formed by erosion rather than by glaciation.  A more complete explanation can be found in the Geological Overview section.  The geologic story of the canyon, its historical significance as a barrier to travel, its significance as destination/attraction, and its appearance in Native American lore and in the accounts of early explorers are all important interpretive points.  The “ooh-ahh” factor is also important: its beauty and grandeur, its significance as a feature to be preserved, and the development of the national park idea.  The specifics of the geology of the canyon are not well understood, except that it is an erosional feature rather than the result of glaciation.  After the caldera eruption of about 600,000 years ago, the area was covered by a series of lava flows.  The area was also faulted by the doming action of the caldera before the eruption.  The site of the present canyon, as well as any previous canyons, was probably the result of this faulting, which allowed erosion to proceed at an accelerated rate.  The area was also covered by the glaciers that followed the volcanic activity.  Glacial deposits probably filled the canyon at one time, but have since been eroded away, leaving little or no evidence of their presence.

Tower Fall:  Tower Fall is the most recognizable natural feature in the district.  The 132-foot drop of Tower Creek, framed by eroded volcanic pinnacles has been documented by park visitors from the earliest trips of Europeans into the Yellowstone region.  Its idyllic setting has inspired numerous artists, including Thomas Moran.  His painting of Tower Fall played a crucial role in the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.  The nearby Bannock Ford on the Yellowstone River was an important travel route for early Native Americans as well as for early European visitors and miners up to the late 19th century.

Mammoth Hot Springs:  Mammoth Hot Springs are the main attraction of the Mammoth District. These features are quite different from thermal areas elsewhere in the park.  Travertine formations grow much more rapidly than sinter formations due to the softer nature of limestone.  As hot water rises through limestone, large quantities of rock are dissolved by the hot water, and a white chalky mineral is deposited on the surface.  Although visitors are sometimes confused by the rapidly shifting activity of the hot springs and disappointed when a favorite spring appears to have “died,” it is important to realize that the location of springs and the rate of flow changes daily, that “on-again-off-again” is the rule, and that the overall volume of water discharged by all of the springs fluctuates little.  Mammoth Hot Springs are a surficial expression of the deep volcanic forces at work in Yellowstone.  Although these springs lie outside the caldera boundary, their energy is attributed to the same magmatic system that fuels other Yellowstone thermal areas.  Hot water flows from Norris to Mammoth along a fault line roughly associated with the Norris to Mammoth road.  Shallow circulation along this corridor allows Norris’ super-heated water to cool somewhat before surfacing at Mammoth, generally at about 170° F.

Thermal activity here is extensive both over time and distance.  Terrace Mountain, northwest of Golden Gate, has a thick cap of travertine.  The Mammoth Terraces extend all the way from the hillside where we see them today, across the Parade Ground, and down to Boiling River.  The Mammoth Hotel, as well as all of Fort Yellowstone, is built upon an old terrace formation known as Hotel Terrace.  There was some concern when construction began in 1891 on the Fort site that the hollow ground would not support the weight of the buildings. Several large sink holes (fenced off) can be seen out on the Parade Ground.  This area has been thermally active for several thousand years.

Mud Volcano:  When the Washburn Expedition explored the area in 1870, Nathaniel Langford described Mud Volcano as "greatest marvel we have yet met with."  Although the Mud Volcano can no longer be heard from a mile away nor does it throw mud from its massive crater, the area is still eerily intriguing.  The short loop from the parking lot past the Dragon's Mouth and the Mud Volcano is handicapped accessible.  The half-mile upper loop trail via Sour Lake and the Black Dragon's Caldron is relatively steep.  Two of the most popular features in the Mud Volcano front country are the Dragon's Mouth and the Black Dragon's Caldron.  The rhythmic belching of steam and the flashing tongue of water give the Dragon's Mouth Spring its name, though its activity has decreased notably since December 1994.  The Black Dragon's Caldron exploded onto the landscape in 1948, blowing trees out by their roots and covering the surrounding forest with mud.  The large roil in one end of the Caldron gives one the sense that the Black Dragon itself might rear its head at any time.

In January 1995, a new feature on the south bank of Mud Geyser became extremely active.  It covers an area of 20 by 8 feet and is comprised of fumaroles, small pools, and frying-pan type features.  Much of the hillside to the south and southwest of Mud Geyser is steaming and hissing with a few mudpots intermixed.  This increase in activity precipitated a great deal of visitor interest and subsequent illegal entry into the area.

The most dramatic features of the Mud Volcano area however, are not open to the public.  The huge seething mud pot known as the "Gumper" is located off-boardwalk behind Sour Lake.  The more recent features just south of the Gumper are some of the hottest and most active in the area.  Ranger-guided walks are offered to provide visitors an opportunity to view this interesting place.  Farther in the backcountry behind Mud Volcano, several features are being tested for the existence of thermophilic microbes, which may offer insights into origin of life theories as well as having medical/environmental applications.  The Sulphur Caldron area can be viewed from a staging area just north of Mud Volcano.  The Sulphur Caldron is among the most acidic springs in the park with a pH of 1.3.  Its yellow, turbulent splashing waters bring to mind images of Shakespeare's soothsayers.  Other features which can be viewed from this overlook are Turbulent Pool (which is no longer "turbulent") and the crater of a large, active mudpot.

Yellowstone Lake:  With a surface area of 132 square miles, Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake at high elevation (i.e., more than 7,000 ft.) in North America.  It is a natural lake, situated at 7,733 ft. above sea level.  It is roughly 20 miles long and 14 miles wide with 141 miles of shoreline.  It is frozen nearly half the year.  It freezes in late December or early January and thaws in late May or early June.  Recent research by Dr. Val Klump of the Center for Great Lakes Research and the University of Wisconsin has revolutionized the way we look at Yellowstone Lake.  Figuratively, if one could pour all the water out of Yellowstone Lake, what would be found on the bottom is similar to what is found on land in Yellowstone; geysers, hot springs, and deep canyons.  With a small submersible robot, the researchers found a canyon just east of Stevenson Island which was 390 ft. deep.  Prior to this finding, the deepest spot in the lake was thought to be 320 ft., at West Thumb.

Underwater geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles were found at West Thumb and Mary and Sedge Bays.  The hottest spot in the lake was found at Mary Bay where the temperature was recorded at 252° F (122° C). Hollow pipes, or chimneys of silica, several feet in height, were found rising up from the lake bottom at Mary Bay.  It is thought that these are the old plumbing systems of now dormant geysers.  Rock spires up to 20-feet tall were found underwater near Bridge Bay.  Samples of this rock are being analyzed, though it is believed that these features are probably related to underwater thermal activity.  This group of researchers also found that the conditions in Yellowstone Lake are similar to those that occur near the famous hydrothermal vents on the Pacific Ocean's mid-ocean ridge.  Nutrient- and mineral-rich submarine fountains support incredible plant and animal communities, including bacterial mats, sponges, and earthworms.

Norris Geyser Basin:  Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone's thermal areas.  The highest temperature yet recorded in any geothermal area in Yellowstone was measured in a scientific drill hole at Norris: 459°F (237°C) just 1,087 feet (326 meters) below the surface!  There are very few thermal features at Norris under the boiling point (199°F at this elevation).

Norris shows evidence of having had thermal features for at least 115,000 years.  The features in the basin change daily, with frequent disturbances from seismic activity and water fluctuations.  The vast majority of the waters at Norris are acidic, including acid geysers which are very rare.  Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world (300 to 400 feet) and Echinus Geyser (pH 3.5 or so) are the most popular features.

The basin consists of three areas: Porcelain Basin, Back Basin, and One Hundred Springs Plain.  Porcelain Basin is barren of trees and provides a sensory experience in sound, color, and smell; a 3/4 mile dirt and boardwalk trail accesses this area.  Back Basin is more heavily wooded with features scattered throughout the area; a 1.5 mile trail of boardwalk and dirt encircles this part of the basin.  One Hundred Springs Plain is an off-trail section of the Norris Geyser Basin that is very acidic, hollow, and dangerous.  Travel is discouraged without the guidance of knowledgeable staff members.  The area was named after Philetus W. Norris, the second superintendent of Yellowstone, who provided the first detailed information about the thermal features.

Hayden Valley:  The Hayden Valley is located six miles north of Fishing Bridge Junction.  The Pelican Valley is situated three miles east of Fishing Bridge.  These two vast valleys comprise some of the best habitat in the lower 48 states for grizzly bears, bison, elk, and other wildlife species.  Hayden Valley is widely known as an excellent place in the park to view wildlife, and there are hiking trails that traverse the valley.

Lamar Valley:  This wide, expansive valley is home to bison, elk, coyote, grizzly and wolf, and is must-see area for serious wildlife watchers.  Bison and elk are readily visible, and coyotes can oftentimes be spotted.  Visitors who are willing to rise early in the morning or wait up until dusk also may have the opportunity to see bears and wolves.  In fact, Lamar Valley is the #1 destination for viewing wolves.  There are also abundant fishing opportunities in the Lamar Valley.

Petrified Tree:  The Petrified Tree, located near the Lost Lake trailhead, is an excellent example of an ancient redwood, similar to many found on Specimen Ridge, that is easily accessible to park visitors.  The interpretive message here also applies to those trees found on Specimen Ridge.  Specimen Ridge, located along the Northeast Entrance Road east of Tower Junction, contains the largest concentration of petrified trees in the world.  There are also excellent samples of petrified leaf impressions, conifer needles, and microscopic pollen from numerous species no longer growing in the park.  Specimen Ridge provides a superb "window" into the distant past when plant communities and climatic conditions were much different than today.

Yellowstone National Park