Yellowstone National Park is a special place for many reasons. It has enchanted the human imagination for tens of thousands of years. And it inspired an entire field of science and environmental policy. It’s the first national park in the world, and its appeal has stood the test of time. My first trip to Yellowstone National Park was in 2022. While I would usually try to put together a guide related to my experience there, this time I am going to be giving you all more of a thought journal and trip log. There is just too much to see and do in Yellowstone. After one trip, I really don’t feel like I have much to offer. But that being said, maybe this exploration of a few days in this magical place will convince any hold-outs among you to give it a chance and plan a visit.
World’s First National Park
Besides my new friends and collaborators that lived in Wyoming and Montana, the only things that I knew about Yellowstone before I visited was: (1) that it is an exceptionally beautiful place, and (2) it was the world’s first national park.
I think the first point is probably something that most of us know, or are at least aware of. Yellowstone isn’t a premier (and crowded) destination for no reason. But perhaps some among you will be surprised to know that the park was the first national park in the world.
But first, let’s back up. What exactly is a national park? The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN; it’s a big-wig in conservation, believe me) defines a national park as “a protected area managed mainly for ecosystem protection and recreation.” This essentially means that the goal of the government agencies running these parks is to maintain the quality of the environment but with access for recreation of various sorts. In the US, this recreation is limited in National Parks. This typically includes hiking, camping, horseback riding, and biking (although this varies from park to park).
The creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 sparked an entirely new way of looking at the land, and trying to conserve biodiversity even as industrial development required more and more natural resources. Now there are more than 100 countries with a national park system, and the US has 63 National Parks. This concept has not only become a staple of conservation, but an essential part of the outdoor recreation industry, and the lives of many many people, including myself.
All other things aside, this makes Yellowstone hallowed ground for a conservation professional like myself. So planning my first trip to Yellowstone felt momentous; I was going to get to see this special place that captured so many people’s hearts and minds.
I had just moved to Colorado for a new job, and I was in the middle of planning my first trip to Yellowstone. It was during this time that I got an email from a colleague in Wyoming about a flood in Yellowstone. I sent some condolences, but after three years of wildfires devastating my home state of Arizona, and the resulting floods that followed, I was sympathetic but it felt like just another day in the natural resource field. Nature is change, and climate change is accelerating those shifts in ways that are dangerous for people – physically and psychologically. In the West, we’ve all lost something, or seen places that seemed immutable change.
What I didn’t register was just… how big this flood had been.
A few hours after I received that first email, I had one of those moments at work where you’ve run out of a steam to be productive so you start doing tangential things. So, I looked up the flood, just to see what was happening on the ground and how the National Park was doing with handling the impacts.
That’s when I started seeing images and reading about what was really happening, and it wasn’t just any flood. This was a 500-year flood. That means that the impact of this event was a once in 500 years intensity; in other words, we hadn’t seen anything like this for about 500 years. That’s longer than the county of the United States is old.
Nature is Change
Roads were destroyed. People were forced to flee the park and some surrounding communities. Wells overflowed. Buildings collapsed. The river changed its course in places. And the landscape has changed forever.
The only way to understand the damage this did, in some small way, is to watch videos of the destruction. And to truly to know how much this flood changed everything, you’d have to be a local resident in the area. Many of the people I was working with at the time, shared with me how their lives were changed by this powerful shift in the land. We don’t expect to see the landscape change. Or if it does, it creeps on us over the years. We don’t expect to wake up one day and see a place we don’t recognize outside our own backdoor.
But if there is one thing that Yellowstone reminds us, it’s that nothing stays the same for long.
My First Trip to Yellowstone: Slow Drivers and Sad Views
You might be surprised, after all that, to know that my first impression of Yellowstone was not great. I had just been hiking in Grand Teton National Park, and those mountains stole my heart. So, when I drove into Yellowstone for the first time, I just wasn’t blown away by what looked in comparison to be rolling hills. Couple that with the fact that right when I entered the park I found driving to be pretty unpleasant. There was a lot of construction, both planned and unplanned (thanks to that 500-year flood), and there was so much traffic.
My driving style, if I were to describe it to you, is… intense. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have road rage, because I typically don’t get mad, but I do get impatient. So, I don’t enjoy road trips as much when I am trapped behind slow drivers. It was crowded and just not as spectacular (to me) as the Tetons. So, the beginning of my first trip to Yellowstone, didn’t have the energy that one might expect.
The good thing is, I didn’t leave Yellowstone feeling that way about the park. It might not be a jaw dropping mountain range, but it should come as no surprise that there is so much to love in this place. It’s a unique landscape in this world. And even if you are somewhat like me in being underwhelmed at first, Yellowstone will win you over.
Old Faithful and a Wonderland of Geothermal Energy
Of course, one of the things that sets Yellowstone apart are all of its geothermal formations and landscapes. Take a moment to stop in a pull out (make sure not to block the road) as you drive the park. There are long stretches of steaming meadows. There is even a part of the river heated by the energy of the earth, and parts of the large central lake bubble. Even the area around Old Faithful is heavily impacted by the geyser and all the little geysers that orbit it.
And let’s talk about Old Faithful. It feels like a literal theme park around that area. Imagine massive parking lots, and multiple lodges, all circling the venerable geyser. Even so, Old Faithful is not to be missed on a first trip to Yellowstone. There is something really special about getting to see this famous landmark do its thing. And don’t be fooled by Ol’ F, she will make it seem like she’s just going to give you a little spout, but just when you are about to give up on her, you will get to see the real thing. They don’t call her Old Faithful for no reason. There’s also something oddly special about the set up here, it really feels like an older version of tourism that carried forward into the modern era.
Besides all that, there were some really really special views that I got while exploring some of Yellowstone’s shorter, geothermal trails. I can’t really do them justice via description, so take a peek at some of the pictures.
That being said, these waters are seriously dangerous. Stay on the boardwalks and trails. People have been boiled alive in these things.
Hiking into the Mountains
The other on-foot exploring that I did while in the park was the Avalanche Peak trail, although I did not finish this trek due to the weather. This is a pretty challenging, 5 mile out and back trail that heads up from the East Entrance Road to its namesake, Avalanche Peak at 10,566 feet. Although not extremely long, this trek is quite steep and primarily consists of switchbacks working their way up the slopes.
The trail is forested and feels quite remote, as it isn’t the most popular part of the park. In fact, when I was there, I was pretty uneasy. I was worried about both bears and the weather. There was snow higher up in the mountains and I wasn’t sure if the weather was going to come down on me. So, I didn’t make it to the peak, unfortunately. But even so, it was a beautiful hike. I enjoyed the forest as it shifted into the higher altitudes.
If you are looking for a quieter area, and a short but steep hike into the mountains, I think this is a great option.
As always, this trip log/guide is not a guarantee of your safety. You need to be responsible for your own safety and do everything in your power to stay safe on the trail. Like me, that might mean that you turn around if the conditions don’t seem safe. You want your first trip to Yellowstone (and all others) to be fun and you come back in one piece.
It’s also important to practice bear safety in Yellowstone and the surrounding areas. Yellowstone National Park has more information on this.
And STAY ON THE TRAIL has new meaning in Yellowstone, particularly in areas with geothermal activity. There have been several horrible deaths in Yellowstone because people went off trail and were boiled alive in the volcanic waters. The way to avoid this is staying on the boardwalks and obeying any closures that you might run into.
Planning a Trip to Wyoming?
Wyoming is the least populated state in the United States, and it is full of beautiful landscapes. If you are thinking about visiting this beautiful corner of the US, be sure to give a look to my Where to Stay Near Yellowstone National Park and our Guide to Wyoming where I’ve gathered some interesting facts about the state as well as all my related posts.