The National Park Service turns 100 today (Aug. 25) — and to celebrate, all of the national parks will be free this weekend. If you’re looking for a park to visit, consider Yellowstone National Park — after all, it’s the world’s first national park!
As you plan your Yellowstone adventures, here are 10 must-see spots to explore and enjoy.
1. Old Faithful
One of Yellowstone’s most iconic sights, this geyser receives its name from its prompt schedule, erupting about every 90 minutes. When you arrive, pop into the Old Faithful Visitor Center to check the predicted eruption times. If it looks like it’ll be a while, stroll along the half-mile trail to see the Firehole River and hot springs, or pay a visit to the historic Old Faithful Inn. The stunning log hotel, which was built in 1904, is a National Historic Landmark. Be sure to grab some huckleberry ice cream from The Bear Paw Deli — it’s a great treat to enjoy while geyser-watching.
2. Mystic Falls hike
If waterfall hikes are your cup of tea, Mystic Falls is a great choice. The 3.2-mile loop takes hikers through lush, verdant forests, along a stream, to a beautiful, cascading waterfall. As you explore the base of the falls, look for hot springs feeding into the river, causing steam to rise. Along the trail you’ll also enjoy panoramic views of the Upper Geyser Basin (including Old Faithful), Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin.
3. Mt. Washburn
For more serious hikers, this 3-mile hike offers unparalleled views of Yellowstone. Although strenuous, the hike is great for families thanks to its easy grade, beautiful summer wildflowers and frequent wildlife sightings, including the elusive bighorn sheep and grizzly bears. There are two routes to the summit — one from Dunraven Pass Picnic Area, located 5.6 miles north of Canyon Village, and one from Chittenden Road, located 8.5 miles north of Canyon Village along Tower-Canyon Road. Hikers can escape strong winds at the summit in the enclosed fire lookout. Be sure to bring jackets regardless the season. Also, be sure to make noise as you hike, as bears are known to frequent the mountain.
4. Grand Prismatic Spring and geyser basin walks
Yellowstone National Park includes more than 300 geysers and about 10,000 thermal features within its geyser basins — more than you’ll find in the rest of the world combined! There are a number of geyser basin walks spanning between Old Faithful and Norris Geyser Basin in the west side of Yellowstone, along the Firehole River. Each showcases geysers with varying shapes, sizes and colors. A favorite is Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Geyser Basin, famous as the largest hot spring in the United States. Its still, broad surface features vivid blues and greens that fade into rusty yellows and reds at the edges. Along the same walk is Excelsior, a 300-foot geyser-turned-crater that pours 4,000 gallons of boiling water into the Firehole River each minute.
Yellowstone By the Numbers
• 2.2 million: Number of acres the park takes in across Wyoming, Idaho and Montana
• March 1, 1872: Date Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park
• 44: Yellowstone National Park’s age when the National Park Service was created
• 4,097,710: How many visitors came in 2015
5. Artists Paint Pots
Bubbling, burping mud and strange, other-worldly pools — have you stumbled into a scene from a sci-fi film? It might feel like that as you walk along the 1-mile trail featuring the Artists Paint Pots. The trail, which is a favorite for children, showcases pools of milky blue and chalky white — so colored from iron-oxide minerals — as well as yellow, brown and orange from algae. On the upper loop of the trail you’ll find the mud pots, belching and splattering mud as high as 10 feet in the air. The trail is located 3.7 miles south of Norris Geyser Basin.
6. Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River
The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River is the tallest waterfall in the park, measuring 308 feet — more than twice as tall as Niagara Falls! The waterfall also marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, with breathtaking oranges, yellows, reds, tans, and browns along its canyon walls. You can catch majestic views from Lookout Point along North Rim Drive near Canyon Village Visitor Center. If you’d like a closer look, take the trail to Red Rock Point — or dare to hike down 500 feet (and approximately 300 stairs) along Uncle Tom’s Trail for a stunning vantage point along steel platforms secured into the canyon wall.
7. Tower Falls Hike
This easy, 0.5-mile hike leads to the base of the 132-foot Tower Fall, with water rushing through eroded volcanic pinnacles. Views of the waterfall have inspired visitors since Yellowstone’s earliest days — including artist Thomas Moran, whose painting of the falls played a critical part in the park’s creation, captivating Congress’s imagination through visuals of the dramatic landscape. When the sun hits the falls right early in the morning, it creates a gorgeous rainbow that’s worth the early wake-up time. Although easy, the hike has steep spots along the trail, so be prepared for stirring drops and climbs.
8. Hayden Valley
The so-called “wildlife paradise” of Yellowstone can be found in Hayden Valley. It’s in this subalpine valley that you’ll see the largest rut of free-roaming bison in the world, along with elk, grizzly bears, coyotes, trumpeter swans, Canadian geese, river otters and more. Remember to keep your distance, as tempting as the wildlife look — park regulations require visitors to stay at least 100 yards from bears and wolves and 25 yards from other large animals.
9. Mammoth Hot Springs
Located near the park’s north entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs features both natural majesty and rich park history. The hot springs themselves are limestone terraces and pools that change from year to year, thanks to mineral deposits and changing water flow. The area also features Historic Fort Yellowstone, which belonged to the Army when it ran the park from 1886 to 1916 and now serves as park headquarters. In the fall, herds of elk flood the area to mate, making “the elk rut” quite the scene for visitors.
10. Yellowstone Lake
In the southeast section of the park, you’ll find North America’s biggest alpine lake, measuring 136 square miles of surface area and 110 miles of shoreline. You can drive along 21 miles of it as part of the park’s Grand Loop and enjoy gorgeous views from Lake Village. While there, stop at the majestic 100-year-old Lake Yellowstone Hotel, known for its fine dining. Drive along the road toward the park’s east entrance, and you can also take in the view from Lake Butte Overlook. Visit beautiful lodge.
BONUS: Grand Teton National Park
Did you know that the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park exits into Grand Teton National Park? That’s right — the parks are adjacent! If you want to take the scenic route back to Utah Valley, you can drive through this majestic national park and take in sights such as Jenny Lake, the Grand Tetons themselves and the picturesque town of Jackson, Wyoming. Plan on an extra hour or two if you choose to come home this way — the drive along US-89 and I-80 is only about 30 minutes longer, but you’ll want to spend time sightseeing.
Yellowstone National Park is a six-hour drive from Provo. Take I-15 north to Idaho Falls, then head east on US-20, which also becomes US-191 and US-287. The highway will take you right into the town of West Yellowstone, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park’s west entrance.