Travel – Yellowstone National Park (Part Two)

Yellowstone is one the largest National Parks and there was so much information about the park that two posts were needed to cover all the information.  In Part One, I discussed the history of the park, general visitor information for planning a visit and a list of things to see and do.  In Part Two, I will discuss the wildlife found within Yellowstone, such as the bears that made the park famous and the herds of elk that migrate through the park seasonally.  I will also discuss the 1995 re-introduction of the wolves that was so important to balance the ecosystem of the park.  Finally, I will discuss the devastating 1988 wildfire that impacted the animals and plants in the park and set the precedence for future National Park firefighting policies.  Let’s start with some information and tips about safely viewing the wildlife in Yellowstone.

Information about safely viewing wildlife in Yellowstone

The animals that live in Yellowstone can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Upon arriving in the park, I would suggest stopping in the Visitor Center for more information about official rules and regulations concerning wildlife.    Here are some basic rules:

  • Always use designated road pullouts when viewing wildlife, follow the posted speed limits and use caution when driving.   DO NOT STOP IN THE ROAD!
  • Keep a safe distance from all wildlife; especially do not approach bears, wolves, bison or elk. It is illegal to willfully approach wildlife and remain within any distance that disturbs the animal.
  • Use binoculars for viewing wildlife at the safe distance and avoid disturbing them, be sensitive to their natural behavior and environment.
  • Be especially cautious of a female animal and her young; do not get between a mother and her babies.
  • Always store food safely in the car, cabin or campsite.  Use bear safe containers when available.  Bears can cause severe damage to personal property so please be cautious and be safe with food storage.

Yellowstone animals can be seen at any time during the day but in general the best time for wildlife viewing is in the early morning or in the evening when there are less people.  Listed below are two areas within Yellowstone National Park where wildlife viewing is highly recommended:

Yellowstone Bears 1

Hayden Valley –

Hayden Valley is located near Canyon Village at the center of the park.  The valley is named for Ferdinand Hayden who came to Yellowstone in 1891 to do a geological survey of the area. The valley is approximately 7 miles long from north to south and 7 miles wide from east to west, an area that covers approximately 50 square miles.   Hayden Valley is known as an outstanding wildlife habitat and is frequented by bison, elk, bear and coyote as well as smaller mammals and a variety of birds.  The valley is closed to hiking trails that cross the valley as a means to protect and prevent any disturbance to the wildlife or their natural environment, there is no fishing allowed in the river, streams or pond within Hayden Valley.  There are two trails accessible for hikers that follow the edge of the valley, the Hayden Valley Trail on the east side and Mary Mountain Trail on the north side.  Hayden Valley is an excellent place for wildlife viewing especially in the early morning as the sun rises or in the evening before the sun sets because that is the best time to see the wildlife in this area of Yellowstone.

Lamar Valley –

Lamar Valley is a little more remote then Hayden Valley and it is located not far from the Tower/Roosevelt Ranger Station near the northeast entrance to the park.  Lamar Valley is also a great place for wildlife viewing, especially in the early morning hours or at twilight.  In the valley herds of bison and elk are most often seen, the area also has the highest concentration of grizzly bears within the park and it is the best place to see packs of wolves.  When visiting the Lamar Valley be sure to bring a pair of binoculars to see the wildlife at a safe distance. Also, the valley is known for excellent trout fishing in the Lamar River, so maybe bring a fishing pole too!

The WildLife in Yellowstone National Park

Grizzly Bear and Black Bear –

Since Yellowstone first became a National Park in 1872 visitors have been interested in the wildlife of the park, especially the bears.  The grizzly bear (ursus arctos horribilis) and black bear (ursus americanus) soon became as much a tourist attraction as the geysers, lakes, rivers and mountains of the park; it is one of the only places in the United States where the two bears coexist in relative harmony.  By 1889, visitors started to gather behind the hotels at night to watch the bears feeding from the garbage dumps; sometimes the bears were even hand-feed until that practice was prohibited in 1902.

Yellowstone tourists and bears

By 1910, the bears became less cautious and fearful of human contact and could be seen during the daytime along the park roads or in populated areas of the park searching for more human food.  Unfortunately this situation started to lead to human injury inflicted by the bears and in 1916 the first human fatality caused by a bear was confirmed.  In 1931, the National Park Service began to keep detailed records of the bear activity within the park involving human injuries, property damage and incidences when the bear’s actions needed to be controlled.  Throughout the years the situation continued to escalate and by 1969 the annual report recorded 48 human injuries and over 100 cases of property damage.

Yellowstone Bears 5    Yellowstone Bears 2

In 1970, Yellowstone began to implement a new bear management program to eliminate the bear’s dependence on human food which cause the animals to revert to a completely natural diet.  New restrictions were implemented immediately and strictly enforced; the garbage dumps were permanently closed or entirely removed from the park boundaries.  The feeding of bears was prohibited and new bear-proof containers were distributed throughout the park as well as notices posted regarding proper food storage and disposal of garbage.  Bears frequenting popular areas where visitors are present were tagged, removed and relocated far away to the more remote backcountry areas of the park or sadly killed if it was a bear that was a repeat offender.  In 1975, the population of bears had decreased significally and the grizzly bear was put on the threatened list under the Endangered Species Act.  By 2000, studies showed that there was a severe reduction in personal injury to visitors caused by bears, only 1 recorded injury, and a dramatic decrease in property damage to only 14 were reported.  Unfortunately in 2011 the seventh bear-related death in the park occurred.

Bear-proof trash container    Bear-proof trash container 1

So, the bears still remain within Yellowstone National Park and park official continue to follow a program to educate the public on the dangers of close contact with bears and the need for proper food storage and trash disposal.  The grizzly bears are still a presence in Yellowstone but only in the remote areas of the park such as the Hayden and Lamar valleys, there are only approximately 150 grizzly bears within the park boundaries.  The black bear are relatively common in Yellowstone and can be seen more frequently than the grizzly bear throughout the park; the current population is estimated between 500-600 black bears.

Yogi Bear sign

Personal Note: As a baby-boomer child, I grew up with the Sunday morning cartoons and one of my favorites was 1961 “The Yogi Bear Show” created by Hanna-Barbera.  (Yogi actually made his cartoon debut in 1958 as a supporting character on “The Huckleberry Hound Show”) The plot of most of the cartoons was Yogi and Boo-boo Bear trying to steal the picnic baskets from the campers visiting the fictional Jellystone Park.  So, when my family was on a road trip in the early 1970s we made a stop in Yellowstone and I was most anxious to see the bears.  I was not disappointed when a mother and her cubs stopped traffic on one of the roads in the park; luckily we have some wonderful home-movies of our visit.    Many years later, after the more restrictive bear regulations were fully in effect, I visited Yellowstone with my young son and I don’t remember seeing any bears during our trip but we did see bison, elk and even a coyote.

Grizzly Bear, Yellowstone National park  black bear  

Bison –

For centuries now, the bison have roamed the North American continent, long ago there were reportedly between 30 and 60 million.  The Native Americans hunted the bison and used every part of the animal, such as the bison meat for food (the tongue was said to be the most delicious and prized part of the bison to eat), the bison hide was used for clothing, tepee covers, and winter blankets, the bison bones were used for spear handles, knives and needles, the beard and tail of the bison were used for clothing and tepee decorations, brushes, the bladder of the bison was used for pouches and medicine bags and the horns were used for headdress decorations and drinking cups.

Special Note: When the French fur trappers came to this area of the United States, the bison population on the Great Plaines was still very large and they called the bison by another name, les boeufs (meaning oxen), the early settlers called the animal buffalo, a variation on the French name.  The names of bison and buffalo are used interchangeably for the same animal.   The American bison only lives in North American (bison bison), the other two buffalo species live in Africa and Asia.  The African buffalo (syncerus caffe) sometimes known as the Cape buffalo can be found throughout Africa.  The Asian buffalo (bubalus arnee) sometimes known as the Water Buffalo can be found in parts of India and Southeast Asia.


Eventually the bison were hunted almost to the point of extinction, in 1902 there were only 50 bison in Yellowstone and currently the number ranges from 4,000 to almost 5,000 depending on weather condition and food supplies. In 2008 the bison population had dropped to less than 3,000 due to a very harsh winter and a very controversial slaughter of many hundreds of bison due to brucellosis (an infectious disease caused by bacteria, most commonly found in cattle and sheep but can be transferred to humans that eat contaminated meat or animal products).  It was believed the possibly infected bison were killed when they wandered outside the boundaries of Yellowstone in an effort to protect the cattle of the private ranches in the vicinity from the perceived threat.  Since then, the APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) have recommended vaccination to eliminated brucellosis from the bison and elk herds throughout Yellowstone.

Elk –

The Native Americans called the elk wapiti which translate to white-rumped deer.  The North American elk (cervus canadensis) is the largest population of mammals found within Yellowstone National Park.  The northern elk herds spends the summer months mostly in the Lamar and Yellowstone river valleys located in the northern section of the park.  In the fall and winter months the herds migrate to the northwest area of the park near Mammoth Hot Springs eventually settling around Gardiner, Montana or just outside the northwest boundary of the park.  The number of elk of the northern herds has decreased drastically from 16,000 in 1995 when the gray wolves were re-introduction back into Yellowstone to almost 5,000 in 2015.

Yellowstone elk migration 1

The southern elk herds spend the summer months in the area between Grant Village and the South Entrance of Yellowstone National Park.  In the fall and winter months the herds migrate south out of Yellowstone through to the Grand Teton National Park and finally settle in an area known as the National Elf Refuge located in the Jackson Valley.  The average winter count of the elk is approximately 7,500 each winter in the Refuge.  There is also one herd that lives year-round inside Yellowstone Park in an area slightly north of Old Faithful, the Madison-Firehole elk herd is less than 100.

Yellowstone elk

1995 Re-introduction of Wolves into Yellowstone National Park

Lamar Valley is the location where the gray wolves (canis lupus) were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 after an absence of almost 70 years.  When the park was first created in 1872, the population of gray wolves was already starting to decline due to the increased settlement within the area.  Local ranchers, cattlemen and farmers were seriously concerned when many of their horses and cattle were severely injured or killed by wolves.  This very vocal group of citizens lobbied for stricter regulations and controls of these “dangerous” animals, but unfortunately Yellowstone’s national park status did not provide protection for the wolves and in fact many U.S. government predator control programs during the first part of the 20th century helped to eliminate the gray wolves, the last ones were killed in Yellowstone in 1926.

By the 1940s, several independent studies were done by park managers and scientists that indicated that the wolves actually helped to balance the wildlife in the region; an example of this was the dramatic increase in the elk population that was overgrazing the land and systematically destroying the plants and trees.  Then, when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 and the gray wolf was put on the list which would now allow the process of the legal reintroduction of the wolves back into Yellowstone, even with legal authorization the process was met controversy and renewed protest from the ranchers and cattlemen.  Finally in January 1995, 14 wolves were captured in Jasper National Park in Canada and a few weeks later they were relocated to Yellowstone and held in pens until March when they were released into the Lamar Valley, an additional 17 wolves were released in 1996 and these were the last ones because park officials thought that natural reproduction of the wolves would be sufficient to maintain the packs.

Lamar Valley wolves 1

Today, twenty years after the wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone; there are almost 100 wolves that are divided into ten different packs that roam mostly in the northern section of the park, about 22% of the wolves have been equipped with radio collars to tract their movement.  The recovery number goal that was determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was reached in 2002 and since that time the gray wolves have been removed from the endangered species list.  Unfortunately, this means that any wolves that wander outside of the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park can once again be legally shot and killed.  Time will tell what the lasting effects of the re-introduction of the wolves back into Yellowstone will mean but studies are showing that one benefit is a much more balanced ecosystem with a decrease in the elk population since the wolves return.

Yellowstone - return of the wolves

1988 Yellowstone Wildfire

To put the Yellowstone wildfire in perspective we need to first take a look at the National Park Service fire management policy.  When the NPS was first established it was believed that any fire started within a National Park should be immediately fought and extinguished as soon as possible regardless of whether the fire was started naturally by lightning or by humans.  Firefighting crews were established for the purpose to fight the fires on the ground and by the 1940s additional firefighting methods included lookout towers for spotting fires, special helicopters and airplanes with water or fire retardant drop capabilities and smokejumpers (a specially trained fire crew that parachutes into an area to extinguish fires in remote locations).  But over time, environmentalists began to determine that wildfires were actually beneficial to the forest ecosystems for natural tree and plant propagation.  After extensive studies and reports, the National Park Service revised the fire management policy in 1972 to allow fires started naturally to burn out without assistance if there was no risk to human lives or property.  They also allowed controlled burns (prescribed fires to reduce shrubs and trees) periodically set to restore balance to the ecosystems when needed in specific areas.

The 1988 Yellowstone wildfire was the largest one in the history of Yellowstone National Park; almost 800,000 acres in the park were affected by the wildfire.  At the time Yellowstone was experiencing one of the driest summers on record and the severe drought conditions created vast areas of extremely dry grasslands and dense underbrush in the forests.  From mid-June to mid-September several fires, ignited by the dry vegetation and aided by the increasingly strong winds, broke out in various areas of the park.  Per the NPS policy on fire management, the fires that were caused by careless park visitors were attempted to be contained and extinguished by fire crews.  The other fires that were started by lightning strikes were allowed to burn but closely watched by fire crews that intervened when the fire threatened populated areas of the park.

Yellowstone fire - airdrops

Yellowstone fire - firefighters

Then, as the days and weeks passed, the individual fires joined to become larger fires creating a perfect fire storm that was building to massive proportions with potential of burning almost everything in its path and threatening many historic buildings as it progress through the park.  Finally near the end of July the National Park Service started a concentrate effort to control and extinguish ALL the fires that were now engulfing over 60% of the park.   Over 20,000 firefighters were fighting fires in various locations throughout the park and assisted by helicopters and airplanes making water and fire retardant drops, also 4,000 U.S. military personnel were brought into Yellowstone to help with the fire control efforts.

Yellowstone fire - elk in the river    Yellowstone fire - bison

On August 20 the unthinkable happened when 150,000 acres were consumed throughout the day in a series of intense firestorms, the day would become known as “Black Saturday”.  The land destroyed in that one single day exceeded the total amount of land burned by fire since the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, which is a period of 116 years.  The high winds that day caused the fire to jump roads and bulldozed fire lines, burning embers blown a mile away were reported to have started new fires and ground fires raced up the forest trees creating a wall of fire over 200 feet high.

Yellowstone fire - Grant Village    A firestorm passes over the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming during the 1988 historic fire.

NPS staff and other land management agencies proved to be unprepared for the catastrophic situation and the decision was made to close the park to visitors on September 8 and to only allow authorized emergency crews inside the park.  At the point when everything seemed to be out of control nature intervened on September 11 when cooler weather moved into the area, rain and snow at the higher elevations started to fall within the park.  Finally, the fires were being stopped or suppressed allowing the fire crews to completely contain them and eventually all the fires within Yellowstone were extinguished although some areas of the park would continue to smolder in isolated spots until November 18 when the fires were officially declared out.

Controversy and public outrage had started while the fires were still raging in Yellowstone and only intensified afterwards.  The media coverage of the Yellowstone fire was aimed at the mismanagement of the National Park Service and the public demanded to know why the fires had burned for so long without immediate action to extinguish them.  Inaccurate reports indicated long-term health effects caused by the smoke or that the plants and forests destroyed by the fire would never return or the reported animal death count was highly inflated or that Yellowstone would never fully recover and to return to its previous condition.

In fact, the recovery process from the fire damage is slow but it is happening.  Within a few weeks plants appropriately called fireweed started growing.  Most of the areas affected by the fire grow back the previous vegetation through either sprouts not damaged by the fire or a natural process of called re-seeding.  An example of this process is the lodgepole pine which produces serotinous (the process of plant seeds being dispensed by an environmental stimulus rather than seed maturation) pinecones that usually remain closed and will not release seeds unless it is subjected to fire.  Then, by the next spring the forest floors had an abundance of wildflowers growing and within a few years the burned areas were experiencing a rapid regeneration of their ecosystems.  The Aspen tree, once rare in the park before the fire, are now experiencing a high volume of growth in areas that were once dominated by conifer trees, this can possibly be only a temporary situation until the strong conifers grow back or the Yellowstone elk eat the Aspens.  About 300 large mammals died in the fire but reports show that in general the animals in Yellowstone have not been greatly affected and the animal population within the park has been maintained or has even slightly increased in certain species of mammals.

Yellowstone fire- regrowth flowers  Yellowstone fire- regrowth elk

In 1992 a new fire management plan was implemented in Yellowstone National Park as a direct result of the 1988 fire.  Stricter guidelines were developed for managing natural wildfires and included a larger budget and funding for fire management allotted for an increase in staff and equipment for monitoring fires.  Additional revisions to the fire plan in 2004 determined the time natural wildfires could be allowed to burn by setting limits in regards to size, weather conditions and potential danger to lives or property.  These changes did not affect man-made fires; the policy remained the same and it was that all man-made fires should be suppressed as quickly as possible.  The overall view of the role of fire in maintaining a balanced and natural ecosystem as remained the important objective.

Yellowstone fire- regrowth

Special Note:  Please click on the link for Part One of the two part series on Yellowstone National Park for information regarding the history of the park and how it became the first national park in the United States.

Also, be sure to check out the other Travel Post this month about nearby Grand Teton National Park, just click on the link.

Travel – Yellowstone National Park (Part One)

Yellowstone National Park sign

Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular National Parks in the United States.  On a family trip to Wyoming several years ago and we had a wonderful road trip seeing the Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole where we ate buffalo burgers, Cody where we went to a rodeo and Yellowstone Park.  Yellowstone offers visitors beautiful scenery from majestic mountains and waterfalls, lakes and streams, geysers and hot springs.  Visitors can enjoy a variety of outdoor activities and when the day is done there are numerous places to stay overnight ranging from camp sites, rustic cabins or lodge accommodations.  In this Travel Post, I will discuss the history of the park, general visitor information for planning a visit and a list of things to see and do.

The history of Yellowstone National Park

The Yellowstone Caldera (a large depression resulting from the explosion or collapse of the center of a volcano) which covers the northwestern portion of Wyoming and most of the area of Yellowstone National Park was formed about 640,000 years ago by a series of violent volcanic eruptions displacing massive amounts of volcanic material and land mass which created a large depression.  The Yellowstone Caldera which was created, by what is referred to as the “super-volcano”, is approximately 3260 feet deep and covers an area that extends 45 miles long and 28 miles wide.  With each subsequent volcanic eruption that occurred throughout millions of years large amounts of ash and gases were released into the earth’s atmosphere over much of central North America and this caused drastic changes in weather patterns that ultimately lead to the extinction of several species of animals.  After the last “super-eruption” and subsequent smaller eruptions between 640,000 to 70,000 years ago, a lava stratum (a layer of sedimentary rock) was deposited over a period of time to fill the U-shaped area which had been created.  Later the area continued to be altered when water erosion from the Yellowstone River and its tributaries carved deep V-shaped valleys.

Yellowstone - calderaIt has been scientifically documented that there remains a large magma chamber beneath most of the area of Yellowstone National Park which is approximately 27 miles long, 18 miles wide and between 3 to 7 miles deep.  As a result, geothermal activity in the area is constant with over 1200 geysers that have been recorded within the park, 465 are currently active.

Over 11,000 years ago the Paleo Native Americans lived in the region (as previously mentioned in the Grand Teton National Park Travel post, please click on the link for more information) In 1806, John Colter, who had been a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, traveled through the area now known as Yellowstone National Park, he encountered the Shoshone Native Americans and made note of the geothermal conditions in the region.  Mountain men continued to frequent the area to fish, hunt and trap the abundant wildlife.

In 1870, an expedition headed by Henry Washburn with Nathaniel Langford to explore the Yellowstone area.  A Montana writer named Cornelius Hedges was a member of the expedition and he started writing articles for the Helena Herald about the beauty of Yellowstone River and the Great Geyser Basin and urging that these areas needed to be protected.  Others became involved such as William Henry Jackson, a photographer, and Thomas Moran, a painter, who worked with the Hayden Geological Survey team in 1871 that submitted a report to the U.S. Congress.  Eventually President Ulysses Grant signed the Act of Dedication on March 1, 1872 which created Yellowstone National Park.

In the initial years of the parks existence the U.S. Army was commissioned to oversee the administration and maintenance of the park until 1917 when it was transferred to the National Park Service which had been created in August 1916.  By that time, the former horses and carriages were replaced by automobiles.  Between 1933 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policy built park facilities such as visitor centers and campgrounds, constructed park roads and hiking trail and participated in a reforestation plan.

During World War II, tourism fell dramatically and as a result park staff was reduced and the building, roads and trails fell into disrepair.  By the 1950s, the nation was recovering from the war and the park’s facilities were rebuilt to accommodate the increased amounts of visitors.  Today, Yellowstone National Park has an average of 3.5 million visitors annually making it one of the ten most visited National Parks in the United States.

Yellowstone National Park Visitor Information

Yellowstone National Park covers an area approximately 3,468 square miles in the northwest corner of Wyoming with a small portion in Montana and Idaho; it became the first national park in 1872.  Yellowstone was formed by a “super-volcano” that created the Yellowstone Caldera and the park features lakes, rivers, mountains, canyons, geysers and an abundance of wildlife.  The French trappers that frequented the area called the river “Roche Jaune” which loosely translates in English to Yellow River probably referring to the yellow stone or rock that can be seen in the canyons carved by the river in a place now known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park has numerous activities available for visitors and a variety of accommodations ranging from campsites and rustic cabins or lodges within in the park.   (Travel Tip: I would advise making reservations as early in advance as possible especially if you are planning a trip during the busy summer months)

South Entrance 

Grant Village is about 22 miles from the South Entrance to Yellowstone National Park and it is located on the southern part of Yellowstone Lake in an area known as the West Thumb.  Grant Village has a visitor center, camp ground, lodge, cabins, shops and restaurants.  The West Thumb Ranger Station is a great place to get information regarding activities in the park and is the meeting place for ranger-led interpretive walks and presentations.  While in the Visitor Center, be sure to check out the film on the 1988 Yellowstone Fire.  (For more information on the devastation caused by the fire, please click on the link to Yellowstone National Park – Part Two)

Grant Village Visitor Center;Jim Peaco;1987

Travel Advisory: Please be careful in this area of the park because it is frequented by bears that come to fed on the trout in the lake and streams so please store food properly and be aware of the potential hazards.

Yellowstone Lake –

Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in Yellowstone National Park; it is 7,732 feet above sea level and covers 136 square miles with an average depth of 139 feet and the deepest part is 390 feet.  In the winter the lake can freeze over except in the shallow waters along the shoreline where there are hot springs.  Throughout the years there have been multiple proposals to construct dams in the area of Yellowstone Lake as a means of controlling water drainage; eventually these proposals were all defeated.  There is great fishing in Yellowstone Lake and boating is allowed but special permits are needed for both activities.

Yellowstone Lake

West Entrance

Old Faithful Village/Visitor Center –

The Old Faithful Village is about 30 miles from the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park and is located in an area known as the Geyser Basin.  Old Faithful Village has a visitor center, camp ground, lodge, cabins, shops and restaurants.  Be sure to take time to visit the Old Faithful Visitor Center which features exhibits pertaining to the geothermal conditions of the park.  Also while at the Visitor Center check the estimated times of the geyser eruptions.

Old Faithful Visitor Center

Old Faithful Geyser –

Old Faithful Geyser is located the Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park, the area is an active geothermal region.  Old Faithful was given the name in 1870 by the Washburn Expedition because of the geyser’s very predictable pattern of eruptions; eruptions take place on the average every 90 minutes.  A normal eruption lasts between 1 to 5 minutes with approximately 4,000 to 8,000 gallons of water soaring up to heights of 180 feet.  Travel Note:  Old Faithful Geyser is a short walk from the Old Faithful Inn, there are several viewing benches at the observation point but arrive at least 15 minutes prior to an eruption and check the schedule for anticipated times.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful Inn –

Located near the Old Faithful Geyser is the Old Faithful Inn which is the largest log structure in the world, the lobby has an 80 foot ceiling and massive stone fireplace.  The Inn was finished in 1904 and was built in an architectural style known as “National Park Rustic” with exterior and interior framing supported by thick lodgepole logs.  The east wing of the Inn was added in 1914 and the west wing in 1927, it was designated a National Landmark in 1987. Travel Tip: The Inn has a large dining room adjacent to the lobby, be sure to make a reservation in advance to enjoy a relaxing meal before or after viewing the Old Faithful Geyser.

Old Faithful Inn - exterior    Old Faithful Inn - interior fireplace

Central area of Yellowstone National Park

Canyon Village/Visitor Center –

The Canyon Village is located in the center portion of Yellowstone Park, 40 miles from the West Entrance and 43 miles from the East Entrance.  Canyon Village has a visitor center, camp ground, lodge, cabins, shops and restaurants.  The Canyon Visitor Center features exhibits about the geology of the park and focuses on the “supervolcano” which created the Yellowstone Caldera.

Canyon Visitor Center

The main feature in the area is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone which is accessible to visitors from one-way loop road with overlooks and short hikes to scenic viewpoints.  The auto tour starts from the Visitor Center by driving along the North Rim Drive with stops at Inspiration Point, park and get out of the car to walk down steps to an overlook to view Lower Falls.  Another stop is Grand View where ospreys can be seen in the summer months and Lookout Point with another view of Lower Falls.  At Upper Falls View there is a short .3 mile trail from the parking lot to an overlook with a spectacular view of the waterfall, listen closely to hear the power of the river rushing below.

Travel Advisory: Be sure to take walks and hikes slowly if you have any health issues because the high altitude of almost 8,000 feet can affect people with high blood pressure, heart and lung problems.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone –

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is 24 miles long and reaches a depth of 1,200 feet and 4,000 feet wide.  The canyon was formed about 600,000 years ago after the Yellowstone “supervolcano” erupted causing a massive caldera.  The region was further changed by a series of seismic activities which uplifted portions of the area and then later a deep V-shaped valley was carved by years of water erosion creating the deep canyon that is seen today.  As the Yellowstone River flows down the canyon there two waterfalls, the Upper Yellowstone Falls is 109 feet high and about a quarter mile downstream is the Lower Yellowstone Falls which is 70 feet high.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Travel Tip:  I highly recommend a leisurely drive in Hayden Valley located near Canyon Village.  I would suggest either going in the early morning or in the evening before the sunsets because that is the best time to view the wildlife in this area of Yellowstone.  (For more information about the variety of animals seen in the park, please click on the link to Part Two of the two part series on Yellowstone National Park)

Hayden Valley

North Entrance

Mammoth Hot Springs –

Mammoth Hot Springs is located only 5 miles from the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park and the city of Gardiner, Montana.  The North Entrance is the location of the Yellowstone National Park Headquarters which uses many of the building from the original Fort Yellowstone.  Fort Yellowstone was a U.S. Army post that was established in 1891 to administrate and manage Yellowstone National Park; by 1918 these duties were transferred to the newly created National Park Service.  The Roosevelt Arch was constructed in 1903 at the North Entrance to the park and is named for President Roosevelt who laid the cornerstone for the arch.  Located in the Mammoth Hot Springs area is the Albright Visitor Center, it is the largest Visitor Center in the park and is a great source for park information and there is also exhibits explaining the park’s history throughout the years, there also a short film and a wildlife museum upstairs.  Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is located nearby and it is the winter base for many winter activities such as snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

Roosevelt Arch  Albright Visitor Center

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces –

The Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces were formed almost 600,000 years ago after the collapse of the “supervolcano” that created the Yellowstone Caldera.  The Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces are a result of heat and water escaping through limestone rock fissures in the surface of the earth.  Beneath the area is a large magma chamber which is all that remains of the ancient volcano and this is what supplies the heat that created the terraces.  The water is supplied by annual rain and snow which seeps into the earth and is heated by hot carbon dioxide gases coming from the magma chamber.  The water becomes extremely hot water mixed with the limestone that forms a carbonic acid solution that is then released back to the surface through geysers or hot springs.  Once the water is exposed back into the open air the carbon dioxide evaporates and solid calcium carbonate mineral remains forming terraces that are covered in algae that provide the wonderful colors ranging in shades of brown, red, orange, yellow and green.

Mammoth-Hot Springs Yellowstone National Park

Travel Tip: Visitors can access the Mammoth Hot Springs terraces from the Upper Terrace Drive Loop Drive but I would advise parking the car, getting out and walking on the wooden boardwalks located around the area.  The colors of terraces can changed frequently so don’t be surprised if they look very different from the photos.  Also bison and elk do frequent the area and you might be lucky and see a few!

The North-East Area of Yellowstone National Park

The Tower/Roosevelt Ranger Station is located 23 miles from the North Entrance to the park or 29 miles from the North-East Entrance near the town of Cooke City at the Wyoming/Montana boarder.  The Tower/Roosevelt Ranger Station is one of the last outposts from the time that the U.S. Army management of the park.  The Roosevelt Lodge is located in this area; the lodge includes rustic cabin accommodations for guests and a dining hall with a bar.  Another option for guests at the Lodge is the Old West Cookout that is served outdoors; guests arrive by horseback or on a wagon.  Also located in this part of the park is a camp ground, a store and a gas station.

About 2 miles east of the Tower Junction is a fossilized forest, the 40 square miles of petrified forest was created between 45 and 50 million years ago when the area was covered in volcanic ash repeatedly over 25 different times.  Further down the road is the 130 foot Tower Fall, it was Thomas Moran’s famous painting of the Tower Fall that helped to establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872, another nearby area which was painted by Moran was the Calcite Springs.

Lamar Valley, located not far from the Tower/Roosevelt Ranger Station is another great place in Yellowstone like Hayden Valley for wildlife viewing, especially in the early morning hours or the evening hours before the sunsets. In the Lamar valley bison and elk are most often seen and less frequently seen are wolves, coyotes and grizzly bears.  Lamar Valley is also the area where the wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park after a long absence from the park.  The Lamar River that flows through the valley is a popular destination for fly fishing.

Lamar Valley

Special Note:  Please click on the link for Part Two of the two part series on Yellowstone National Park for information regarding the park’s wildlife including the bear population that was effected by the visitor’s demand for entertainment and the large herds of elk that pass through the park annually.  Also I will discuss the 1988 Yellowstone fire that set precedence for future NPS fire policy and 1995 re-introduction of the gray wolves to the park.

Also, be sure to check out the other Travel Post this month about nearby Grand Teton National Park, just click on the link.

Travel – Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton - sign

On one of our numerous road trips to around the United States we stopped at the Grand Teton National Park, it was part of a visit to the state of Wyoming where we also went to Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole and Cody.  The Grand Teton National Park has beautiful scenery, numerous outdoor activities and a variety of places to stay overnight ranging from simple camp sites in the park to more luxurious accommodations in nearby Jackson Hole.  In this Travel Post, I will discuss the history of the park, general visitor information for planning a visit and a list of things to see and do.

The history of the Grand Teton National Park

The Grand Teton National Park is located in northwest Wyoming.  The Grand Tetons are the youngest mountain range within the Rocky Mountains that were formed approximately 8 million years ago.  The Teton Mountain Range runs from north to south and was thrust upward on west side and downward on the east through a period of seismic activity caused by earthquakes on the Teton fault.  As a result, the mountains rise dramatically above the floor of the Jackson Hole Valley as seen from the eastern side and gently slope into the Teton Valley on the western side.  The highest elevation within the park is the 13,775 feet high Grand Teton peak; the eight other peaks known as the Cathedral Group are over 12,000 feet.  250,000 to 150,000 years ago the canyons and valleys of the Teton Range were formed by glacier activity and then later carved even deeper by water erosion.  A few glaciers still remain within the park, the Teton Glacier that is located on the northeast side of Grand Teton Peak and it measures 3,500 feet long and 1,100 feet wide.

The Paleo Native Americans came to the Grand Teton region over 11,000 years ago.  The Paleo were a migratory tribe of hunter-gatherers that spent the summer months in the Jackson Hole Valley to the east of the mountains and the winter months in the Teton Valley to the west of the Teton mountain range, this pattern of moving from one area to the other was determined by the weather conditions in the region.  The Paleo movement throughout the area was also determined by the availability of the elk herds that would roam throughout the region.

Later, in more current times, the Shoshone Native Americans lived in the same area of Wyoming and established permanent settlements.  The Shoshone were divided into two groups, the first and larger group lived in the Grand Teton Mountains and the other group lived in the foothills, both groups followed the same migratory patterns as the ancient Paleo people that previously lived in the same area.  The Shoshone seemed to have been very spiritually connection with the land and this theory is supported by the stone structures that archaeologists have found in the upper areas of the Grand Teton, the possible use of these structures was for vision quests (a Native American ritual common with the Plains people in which young men would be secluded from the main tribe to participate in a ceremonial attempt to gain a vision of a guardian spirit, typically methods to achieve the vision quest were through fasting or self-torture).  In 1868, the Shoshone from the Teton and Yellowstone regions were relocated by the United States government to the Wind River Indian Reservation which is located 100 miles southeast of Jackson Hole.

John Colter, a former member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, passed through the Grand Teton area during the winter of 1807.  When some of the members of the expedition disbanded on the return trip, Colter decided to join a couple of fur trappers in their search for the lucrative beaver pelts that were potentially available in the area of the Grand Teton.  Colter was eventually hired by the fur trappers and when he passed through the area now known as Jackson Hole, he became the first Caucasian to see the Grand Teton Mountain Range.  Colter became something of a legend in the area and was very successful at the profitable fur business.

It is possible that the Mountain Range received the name from the French fur trappers that frequented the area and called it Les Trois Tetons which when translated means “the three breasts”.  The name of Jackson Hole, the valley east of the Tetons, comes from a fur trapper named Davey Jackson who oversaw the entire region for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.  By the 1840s, the fur trade supply of beaver had declined drastically from over trapping.  Meanwhile the settlement of the western United States began in earnest but the Grand Teton region of Wyoming was not impacted at all because the overland routes of the Oregon and Mormon trails were located farther to the south.

Then, in 1859 the U.S. Government sponsored a year long expedition into the Grand Tetons area.  The expedition was led by U.S. Army Captain William Raynolds which included Jim Bridger, a local guide, and F.V. Hayden, a naturalist.  The expedition explored the area, mapping the territory and identifying the regions plants and animals.  Unfortunately, the expedition was halted due to the Civil War and later resumed in 1871 in the Yellowstone area.  This time the Hayden Geological Survey Team was led by James Stevenson and at this time most of the mountains and lakes were identified and given names.  Included on the survey team was a photographer named William Henry Jackson who took the first photographs of the Tetons that were later published in National newspapers.

By the early 1900s, American settlers finally came to the Jackson Hole valley and started building permanent homes.  The winters were long, the soil was too rocky and the growing season was too short to cultivate crop farms but later the vast empty lands would be perfect for cattle ranches.  In 1907, there was an effort made by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to construct dams along the Snake River to regulate and increase the water flow in the Jackson Hole valley for crop irrigation.

Meanwhile, back in 1872, the Yellowstone National Park had been established further north and the superintendent, Horace Albright, tried to block any further dam construction plans because he felt it would impact the lakes and rivers within the park.  It was proposed that the area to the south of Yellowstone, including the Jackson Hole Valley and the Grand Teton, should be included into the park.  Millionaire John Rockefeller, Jr. who privately owned a large portion of the Jackson Hole Valley agreed with Albright.  The residents in the area opposed this idea and wanted to establish a separate park and a long battle over the land began.  Ultimately, in 1929 President Calvin Coolidge signed the executive order establishing the Grand Teton National Park.

Albright and Rockefeller were not deterred and they remained focused on keeping the Jackson Hole Valley from being commercially used.  So, as a result, Rockefeller started buying even more property in the valley under the guise of the Snake River Land Company and he planned to turn the land over to the National Park Service.  When this plan was revealed to the residents of Jackson Hole it was met with strong opposition because the residents wanted to take the opportunity to establish tourist-based businesses to serve both the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  In regards specifically to the Grand Teton National Park, congressional efforts to prevent its expansion were successful and Rockefeller’s Snake River Land properties would not be included into the park.  By 1942, Rockefeller was becoming impatient holding on to the properties and eventually at his urging he persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to recommend to President Franklin Roosevelt that under the Antiquities Act the land could be protected without the approval of Congress.  In 1943, with President Roosevelt’s approval, the land was donated by Rockefeller and used to create the Jackson Hole National Monument which was adjacent to the Grand Teton National Park.

Rockefeller retained his other large personal property holdings in the Jackson Hole Valley for the private use of his family; it was known as the JY Ranch and it was located at the southern border of the Grand Teton National Park. Then, after World War II, the public focus shifted to preserving our national resources and the Jackson Hole National Monument that Rockefeller had fought so hard to establish was finally incorporated into the Grand Teton National Park in 1950.  Then, in 1972 24,000 additional acres located between the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks were added to the National Park Service, in honor and recognition of Rockefeller previous efforts the land between the two parks was named the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.  Eventually the JY Ranch previously owned by the Rockefeller family was donated to the park to establish the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve in June 2008. (Laurance was the son of John D. Rockefeller)

Grand Teton - barnGrand Teton - wild flowers

Grand Teton National Park Visitor Information  

Today, the Grand Teton National Park has an average of 2.5 million visitors annually making it one of the ten most visited National Parks in the United States.  The National Park Service manages both the Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway jointly.  There are numerous activities available for visitors and a variety of accommodations ranging from campsites and rustic cabins or lodges within in the park to hotel accommodations ranging from inexpensive to luxurious spas and resorts in nearby Jackson Hole.  (Travel note: I would advise making reservations as early in advance as possible especially if you are planning a trip during the busy summer months)

Listed below are several points of interest, travel suggestions and tips to consider when planning a visit to the Grand Teton National Park:

  • Visitor Centers – I always recommend when visiting any of our National Parks, it is a good idea to start at the Visitor Center where visitors can get maps, brochures, hiking and boating permits and current weather information or road closures.  Also be sure to check the schedule of Ranger presentations or guided hikes which are a great source of information about the park.  The three Visitor Centers in the park are opened seasonally so check ahead for opening dates and times.  The Colter Bay and Jenny Lake Visitor Centers are the most popular but there is also the Moose Visitor Center.  (Travel Tip: Another recommendation for families with small children is the Junior Park Ranger program which is a wonderful way for children to learn about the wonders of our National Parks)

Grand Teton - Visitor Center exterior  Grand Teton - Visitor Center interior

Grand Teton - Colter Bay Visitor Center

  • Jackson Lake – Jackson Lake is the largest natural lake within the park, 15 miles in length and 5 miles wide.  Before the Grand Teton became a National Park a dam was constructed on Jackson Lake to control the water distributed to the area.  Sports activities available to visitors at Jackson Lake include fishing, canoeing, sailing and windsurfing.  Stand-up paddle boards are allowed but a park permit is required and available at the visitor centers.  Personal watercrafts are prohibited within the park.  (Travel Note: Jackson and Jenny Lakes are the only lakes within the Grand Teton where motorboats are permitted.  There is an interesting 2005 study concerning the water quality of the lakes that indicates that both lakes were considered clean and levels show that they had not been impacted by air or water pollution)

Grand Teton - Colter Bay Village Marina

  • Jenny Lake – Jenny Lake is another popular destination in the park, it is over 7 miles long.  Jenny Lake is also the starting point for many day or overnight hikes.  Located a short distance away from Jenny Lake to the west is the largest waterfall in the park, Hidden Falls is 100 feet high.


  • Snake River – The headwaters of the Snake River are located in nearby Yellowstone National Park.  The river flows south and west into Jackson Lake located in the Grand Teton National Park and from the Jackson Lake Dam, the river continues its southern course as it twists through the park past the city of Jackson Hole.  Throughout the centuries the river has gone been called many different names, the Shoshone Native American called the river “Yam-pah-pa” which was the name of a herb that grew abundantly along river bank.  The first documented “discovery” was in 1800 by Canadian explorer David Thompson who recorded the name as “Shawpatin”.  In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed near the area on their journey to the Pacific Ocean and it was named the “Lewis River” or “Lewis Fork” for Meriwether Lewis the co-leader of the expedition.  Ultimately, the name reverts back to the Shoshone who would use sign language gesturing their hands into an S-shaped motion to indicate fishing in the river but explorer misinterpreted the gesture to mean a snake and it became officially known as the Snake River.  Please click on the link to the Grand Teton website for more information regarding fly fishing or river rafting,

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams

  • Mountaineering and Rock Climbing – The Teton Range has also become a mountain climber’s destination and there are many challenging routes that can be accessed from Jenny Lake area.  To speak in general terms mountain climbing can be divided into several different types, in this post I will briefly discuss two types – classic mountaineering when the mountain is traversed with the goal of reaching the summit and rock climbing, sometimes called bouldering, when the rock face is climbed with a minimum amount of equipment or with just the hands, also known as free climbing.  Evidence of the Native Americans climbing the Grand Tetons can be found at “The Enclosure” located about 530 feet below the summit of the Grand Teton Peak which was discovered in 1872 by members of the Hayden Geological Survey expedition, there is some debate as to whether the summit was actually reached.  The first official ascent of the summit of Grand Teton is credited to a group led by William Owen in 1898.  (Travel Note:  In the late 1950s a gymnast named John Gill came to the Grand Tetons and started climbing the large boulders near Jenny Lake.  He developed a new style to rock climbing that used many of his acquired gymnastic techniques, he was the first to use gymnastic chalk to keep hands dry while climbing and also to secure and improve better handholds for stability)

The Enclosure

  • Chapel of the Transfiguration – The Chapel of the Transfiguration is a small log chapel located in the park.  The 22 foot by 50 foot chapel was built in 1925 and is designed in the shape of a T with exposed log interior wall and stained glass windows on either side.  The large window behind the altar was specifically built to frame the wonderful view of the Grand Tetons Cathedral Group of mountains.  The chapel was originally built for the employees and guests of the dude ranches of the Jackson Hole Valley with the construction materials and labor funded by the local ranchers.  In 1980 the chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  (Travel Trivia: The chapel was used in the 1963 movie “Spencer’s Mountain” starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara which was being filmed in Jackson Hole)

Grand Teton - church  Grand Teton - Chapel of the Transfiguration interior
Be sure to check out the other Travel Post this month about nearby Yellowstone National Park, just click on the link.