The American West is like no other place on earth. The scenery changes constantly, from desert landscapes full of towering rock formations to wooded mountains with lake-filled valleys and snowy peaks that never fully melt. The vegetation and wildlife are as varied as the terrain, and there are endless sights to see if you don’t mind a little adventure.
This part of the world is also home to a number of national parks, my favorite of which is Yellowstone. Bubbling geysers and hot springs, rolling hills and mountains, and free-roaming bison are only a few of the things that make America’s first national park worth visiting.
With the abundance of hiking trails and spectacular sights to see, your first trip can be overwhelming ” I know mine was. But after a couple of weeks exploring some of the popular attractions and lesser-known areas, I’ve put together a list of the top five things to do when visiting this volcanic hotspot.
Go whitewater rafting
Most of Yellowstone is located in Wyoming, but I traveled to the North entrance of the park in Gardiner, Montana, for this. You can take a half- or full-day trip down the Yellowstone River, navigating rapids past tree-dotted fields with snow-capped mountains looming in the distance.
The water is always freezing, but a wet suit and the sun on your face keep you warm the whole way ” unless, of course, you fall in. It’s a great adrenaline rush and a fun way to see some of the scenery.
Hike (slightly) off the beaten path
Do some research before you go to find some lesser-known hiking trails. I wouldn’t recommend getting too adventurous if you aren’t comfortable in outdoorsy situations, but taking one of the paths less traveled can lead to a quieter and more enjoyable hiking experience.
It can also leave you with some great stories to tell, like the time I nearly bumped into a bison (in the most literal way possible) on one such trail. But with that in mind, being aware of your surroundings and possible wildlife is a must on these trails.
Explore via horseback
One of my favorite afternoons from my trip was spent on horseback. Not on a giant trail ride with a bunch of strangers, walking in a straight line, but with just me and my guide, a grizzled old man who knew the park like the back of his hand.
We wandered through fields and rolling hills, ending our trip atop a steep hill with a sweeping view of that corner of the park. Two small coyotes followed us during most of our trip. It was a beautiful way to feel in touch with nature and my inner cowboy, traveling the West the way it once was.
Take in a show by Old Faithful
Unarguably the biggest tourist destination in Yellowstone, Old Faithful is entirely worth seeing. The geyser isn’t the largest or most regular, but it is the biggest geyser that does erupt regularly.
The crowds get rather large during the peak season, with the number of people around the geyser growing as the predicted eruption time gets closer. Although with water shooting 90 to 180 feet into the air, you’re guaranteed a good view regardless of the crowd size, so I wouldn’t be too concerned.
Visit the Midway Geyser Basin
Although there’s something magical to see everywhere you turn in Yellowstone, the Midway Geyser Basin is home to some of the most beautiful natural wonders of the park. Grand Prismatic Spring, which is the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, is a spectacular display of nearly every color of the rainbow, from a deep blue hue to a fiery red.
The area is also home to the Turquoise and Opal Pools, both of which get their names from their respective shades, as well as Excelsior Geyser Crater. Once the largest geyser in the world, it’s now a productive thermal spring, feeding the Firehole River with water that’s nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
It would take weeks to really explore everything Yellowstone has to offer, but you can certainly get a feel for the park in even a few short days. Driving from one end to the other is a great way to take in the scenery, but you have to feel the path beneath your feet to really appreciate the true beauty and grandeur of such an amazing place.
Adventuring through the 3,500 miles of backcountry will put you back in touch with nature and give you a renewed love for all the wild places left in the world. So lace up your hiking boots, pack a backpack and go exploring!
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