The wonders of Yellowstone National Park

In the grasslands of the Hayden Valley, bison roam freely around, often up close along the road. Even though they seem like friendly animals, our guide warned us they are wild and dangerous and to stay in our cars.

The West Thumb area in the central part of Yellowstone National Park is a mysterious site that features geysers, mud pots and hot springs along the shore of Yellowstone Lake.

The Yellowstone River flows down the canyon and is a scenic part of the park.

At right, Old Faithful is the most famous feature in the park. Visitors circle the geyser to watch a huge cloud of steam as thousands of gallons of boiling water burst out of the ground.

In the other-worldly Fountain Paint Pot area, visitors can see this shimmering, steaming blue thermal pool of bacteria-laden water.

The elegant old but recently renovated Lake Yellowstone Hotel overlooks Yellowstone Lake. Built in 1891 when visitors arrived by train or stagecoach, the hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Fountain Paint Pot area of Yellowstone National Park seemed other-worldly with its dead trees, barren landscape, geysers, steam vents, boiling mud and colored bacteria in bright blue circles of water in the ground as I strolled past on the boardwalk. 

In the park’s Mud Volcano area, I watched boiling water steam up and surge out of a cave resembling the lashing of a dragon’s tongue at the Dragon’s Mouth Spring.

All of this was unexpected when I imagined Yellowstone. I just pictured Old Faithful and grazing elk when my friends talked about how much they loved this park. Nor did I picture waterfalls, a grand canyon, meadows dotted with the nation’s largest public herd of wild bison and the world’s greatest concentration of geysers.

The great variety of features in the park turned out to be far more interesting than I expected when I finally had a chance to visit last August.

Yellowstone is one of the most popular parks in the National Park System, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary of preserving and protecting our 58 national parks, plus many national monuments for all Americans to visit and enjoy.   

President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation in 1872 to create this 2.2 million-acre park to protect the hydrothermal natural wonders from commercialization. The nation’s first national park, Yellowstone is located almost entirely in Wyoming but extends a bit into Utah and Montana.


Steaming geysers, travertine terraces, boiling mud

At Old Faithful, which is the most famous feature in the park, I joined the ring of national and international visitors circling it, waiting to see a huge cloud of steam as thousands of gallons of boiling water burst out of the ground, hissing and fizzing, up 135 feet in the air. The geyser went off at 1:15 p.m. and again at 2:45  p.m. in another spectacular burst.

The park’s hydrothermal system sits on the immense Yellowstone volcano with its “underlying partial molten magma body that releases tremendous heat,” according to the National Park Service. I almost felt as if I were on another planet — a living, breathing, boiling entity.

National Park Service officials explained there’s a network of underground natural “pipes” full of hot water that eventually forces this explosion up in the air at predictable intervals — hence the name Old Faithful. The nearby Beehive Geyser is unpredictable and goes off less frequently, but we managed to see it, as well as Old Faithful a second time, from the deck of the Old Faithful Inn, a National Historic Landmark itself. 

With the earth seeming alive with activity and a few stories I heard that the Yellowstone super volcano might explode again any time and obliterate half the country, I did wonder if it might happen on my trip. The National Science Foundation assures visitors it shouldn’t.

On the other side of the park are large travertine terraces where over thousands of years, mineral-laden hot water has bubbled up depositing layer upon layer of travertine, a natural stone material from the limestone family, bringing changes in shape and color from bacteria and algae.


Canyons, valleys, wild animals

Then there’s the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which is roughly 20 miles long, smaller but reminiscent of the big one in Arizona. In this case, the Yellowstone River carved out the canyon. The upper and lower falls and surrounding canyons are spectacular as the water pours down the canyon. Whichever direction we looked, the canyon walls were colorful tones of browns and reds, and on the far side, we saw an osprey sitting on a rocky pillar.

Yellowstone is also well known for its variety of wildlife. Through a spotting scope, I watched a burly grizzly bear lumbering across a meadow alongside a bison herd, and in various places I saw elk and pronghorn. We also observed hawks, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and white pelicans, all of which nest in the park. We kept our eyes peeled for wolves but didn’t see any.

In Mammoth Hot Springs, elk had come down from the hills to mate and rest in the shade of historic Fort Yellowstone while a police officer made sure visitors didn’t get too close and get attacked. I got as close as I could — a few yards away — and the elk shook their racks but didn’t get up and head my way.

In the grasslands of Hayden Valley, Yellowstone’s nearly 5,000 bison roam freely, often up close along the road. Even though they seem like friendly, placid animals, our guide, Brad Bolin with the Yellowstone Association, warned us they are wild and dangerous, and to stay in our cars. One woman foolishly stood at the side of the road with her baby, giving us a scare.


Historic hotel, new eco-friendly lodge

We stayed one night at the grand old Lake Yellowstone Hotel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and overlooks Yellowstone Lake.  In the elegant dining room we enjoyed a delicious dinner of roasted beet and goat cheese salad, Montana rack of lamb, Yellowstone volcano chocolate dessert and wine, after which we walked down to the lake to watch the sunset. In the expansive lobby, we enjoyed listening to a piano player who alternated with a violinist. Built in 1891, when guests often arrived by stagecoach or by train from St. Paul and Chicago, the hotel recently underwent extensive renovations.

On two other nights, we stayed in one of the brand new eco-friendly lodges nestled in the woods around Canyon Village. I enjoyed the new features — travertine counters, floors of recycled materials and lights that went off automatically when I left the room. Out my window the sky was turning pink behind the pine trees, and I appreciated the serenity of the area. 

Yellowstone also has 2,000 campsites, which are popular places to pitch a tent or park a travel trailer.

One hundred years ago, in August 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill to bring Yellowstone and all the other national parks and monuments into a national park system that was charged with protecting and preserving them for the enjoyment of all people.

People from all over come here to see the treasures of Yellowstone — geothermal features, wide-open green meadows with thousands of bison, mountains, waterfalls and many other natural wonders that President Grant had the foresight to preserve. I hope to go again soon; there’s so much more to see.

For more information on Yellowstone, go to


Pamela O’Meara can be reached at or at 651-748-7818.

This video of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming features geysers and shimmering, steaming blue thermal pools of bacteria-laden water. It also shows bison lumbering through Hayden Meadow and along the road blocking traffic.


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