The (Steamy) Heart of Yellowstone

Geyser Hill, Yellowstone National Park

Encompassing over 2.2 million acres and almost 3500 square miles, the geological wonder known as Yellowstone National Park is truly and absolutely huge. It takes up a large chunk of northwestern Wyoming, as well as a scoche of Idaho to the west and Montana to the north.

I point this out because in one eight-hour day, we did a loop around the center of the park, seeing only a fraction of this national treasure. To do Yellowstone properly, you need four days to a week; one day will only scratch the hot, ashy surface. I’d been keen to visit Yellowstone since reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and learning that the park sits on a massive geological hotspot known as a supervolcano. Can’t see dinosaurs in the flesh, can’t touch the flora of aeons long past, can visit a supervolcano.  Check.

Driving from Jackson Hole, Wyoming in late August (still high season), we approached the park’s South Entrance via the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. Through October 2008, road construction on the Parkway will continue to cause the 20-30 minute delay we encountered; ordinarily the 60-mile journey from Jackson Hole to Yellowstone would have taken an hour and a half.

Once in the park ($25 per 7 days, including entrance to Grand Teton), we followed the main road along the twisty Lewis River to lush Lewis Lake and chunky little Lewis Falls. The well-honored Lewis in question is Meriwether of “and Clark” expedition fame.

The Lewis River

We stopped for lunch at the Grant Village Restaurant, which has a soaring ceiling, friendly service, good burgers and iced tea, and a sparkly blue view of Yellowstone Lake through thick pine trees.  20 miles long, this is the largest mountain lake in North America, and cold enough to induce hypothermia within a few minutes.

Pretty lake. Nice lake.

We applauded our young waiter’s recent move from Minnesota, but he lamented his inability to make a go of Wyoming’s outdoorsy lifestyle. He admitted that days earlier he had slipped while climbing Grand Teton, falling back flat on a glacier. A novice ice-climber, he was surprised to discover that, unlike Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger, you can’t really use two pick axes at once to hoist yourself out of danger. Rubbing his shoulder, he assured us that our tame day of driving around Yellowstone was a smart choice.

After lunch, we headed a few minutes west to the section of the park known simply as Old Faithful. In addition to hosting a huge tourist infrastructure and the timely spout itself, Upper Geyser Basin is Yellowstone’s most condensed area of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mudpots, most of which you can see from a network of boardwalks and paved walking paths.

Upon arrival, we’d just missed an Old Faithful eruption and faced a 90-minute wait for another; luckily, a kind tourist urged us to head off the main drag to the boardwalk at Geyser Hill. Turns out there are larger geysers with more staying power everywhere you look, and within a few hundred feet you’re bound to see the Anemone, Beehive or (shown here) Plume Geysers do their remarkable things.

Beehive Geyser

To say the Basin is hot is a grand understatement. The ashy grey ground fairly ripples, burping flakes and jets and clouds and ooze. Bubbling, funneled pools of striking teal blue water bleed out into rainbow rings of color caused by ancient, heat-loving organisms known as thermophiles.

Yellowstone's Beauty Pool, color courtesy of thermophiles

Safe as houses on the path, walking for over an hour, we had the unsettling sense that if this part of the Earth wanted to kill us all, we’d already be dead. Darwinian signs warn visitors not to bathe in these pools or let their pets wander; in our upswell of pro-American feeling on this trip, we allowed ourselves to imagine that these signs were surely meant for hapless foreigners.

Sunset Lake in Yellowstone

Our favorite cluster of geysers and pools, Black Sand Basin, required leaving the Old Faithful area for a two-minute drive. Here, startling Cliff Geyser erupts about 30 feet every few minutes, cool Iron Spring Creek melds into a hot spring, and steamy Sunset Lake casts a cerulean glow. Hardly more than a 15-minute square walk, this mini-basin reads like a Hotspot Top Five.

From here we went in search of mudpots, or as they’re often more delicately named, paintpots. Sad thing was, it was by now well after 4pm and we were close to exhausted. The weather in late August wasn’t exactly hot, but anytime we wander around in the sun for a couple of hours, we’re bound to need a little rest.

Mudpots/paintpots in Yellowstone

Sadly, resting is not often our travel m.o.; we tend to go until we’re slightly gray, driving like it’s our job rather than just our choice. Cruising through the waterfall-heavy Madison portion of the park was lovely, but by the time we got to the central Norris, ground zero for mudpots, we could hardly have cared less…

…and it was three some-odd hours back to our hotel, the Rusty Parrot in Jackson Hole.

We should have learned our lesson a few months prior when we almost made it all the way from Canada’s Lake Louise to the Jasper Icefields, then had to turn back for our hotel:  if you’re going to keep moving like shark, book different rooms along your route.

In this case, if we’d booked a room in central Canyon Village for even one night, problem solved. We could have even awoken the next morning to explore the adjacent 1,000 foot deep, colorful Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its 2.5 mile scenic North Rim Drive.

Without this hindsight, though, we had little choice but to soldier on and head back to Jackson Hole.

We were almost immediately rewarded with this big, woolly roadside bison, hunkered in the dust. It wasn’t until twenty minutes later, when we’d pass through the Hayden Valley and see whole herds of bison clustered the traditional half-mile from the road, that we’d realize how very unusual this was. Now we can only wonder if the poor guy wasn’t well.

Roadside bison in Yellowstone

The Hayden Valley, which lies between central Canyon Village and the northern tip of Yellowstone Lake, is easily the most spectacular wildlife viewing opportunity. Nigh on 5pm in late summer, one side of the road has plush and golden-lit creek marshes, and the other a tall ridge blanketed with tourists and the telephoto lenses they love. As the sun creeps down, elk, bison, wolves, moose, bears and more tiptoe out from the far-off trees in search of the tasty grasses on this Yellowstone River plain.

Ah, to have had the time (and fortitude, and nearby lodgings) to stay awhile…

However, there were two advantages to the evening drive back. We were lucky enough to drive the full length of Yellowstone Lake at golden hour, the peaks of Wyoming’s mighty Absaroka Range gauzy in the distance, and encountered only a handful of cars the whole way back.

Traffic-free national park driving, even on the verge of hunger and sleep?  Priceless.

Yellowstone Lake at golden hour

PLEASE NOTE:  The South and East entrances (in Wyoming) and the West (in Idaho) are open all summer,
but are closed from early November to May; your only winter entrance options, the North and Northeast, are via Montana.


See related posts
TWT Travel Binder: Wyoming
Wyoming, the Land of…Land
Mighty Grand Tetons You’ve Got There
Jackson Hole: The New Old West


  1. We were out in Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota last summer, so I enjoyed reading your stories about many of the places we visited during that trip.
    Like you, we only had one day to spend in Yellowstone…and, you’re right, it really requires a lot more time to “do” properly.
    We spent a couple of days in Grand Teton, finding it a little more manageable in size to handle in our limited days there. Spent more time hiking the trails there and enjoying the mountain views.
    We happened to stay in Jackson the week of an art festival there. Lots of on-street vendors and special gallery shows.
    Did you get a chance to sit at the bar in the Million Dollar Cowboy bar? It was cheesy, but I had to do it!

  2. I wish I’d seen that arts festival! I was really surprised by the quality of artwork in Jackson Hole…there were some real gems in and amongst the oil paintings of soaring eagles.

    We didn’t go into the Million Dollar Cowboy, just admired its moving-lasso neon sign from outside. I regret not wandering in…when else would we have a chance to take a seat on a saddle indoors, except on a mechanical bull?! Ah, next time.

    We’re hoping to see the area again in winter time — I’ll bet it’s just gorgeous!

  3. Thanks for the Yellowstone post, I found it enlightening. We are planning to take our 17 year old daughter on a 3 week trip “out west” next summer before she goes to college and Yellowstone is on the wish list. It’s helpful to know how long we will need. I had no idea 4 days would be needed there!

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