|Peggy L Henderson, author|
The Grand Loop Road
by Peggy L Henderson
What draws people to Yellowstone National Park? Is it the geysers, the hotsprings, the scenery, the animals? If I had to name one thing that makes Yellowstone special to me, I don’t think I could come up with an answer. So, instead of focusing on one thing, let me take you on a tour through this magical place we call Wonderland.
Yellowstone has one main road, called the Grand Loop Road, which is in the shape of a Figure 8. The park’s major attractions are along the road, and fairly easily accessible via short paved walks. There are five entrances to Yellowstone, and we’ll begin our tour at the west entrance, coming through the town of West Yellowstone, Montana.
After entering the park, you’ll be driving (speed limit is 45mph, but you’ll want to go slower than that) along through a forest of tall lodgepole pine trees. Soon, the Madison River comes in view on the left. You will be following this river for the next 14 miles, crossing over it once, as you drive through the majestic Madison Valley. Look for elk and bison in the meadows to the right, and bald eagles and ospreys soaring over the river in search of fish.
When you get to Madison Junction, just past the campground, you can turn north or south. We’ll head south for 16 miles towards Old Faithful for now.
After a brief stop at the Madison Information Station/Junior Ranger Headquarters, where you have a beautiful view of the Madison Valley and National Park Mountain, proceed slowly, since bison are common here, and you could get stuck in a bison jam. Take the scenic route at Firehole Falls Drive to view this 40 foot waterfall in the Firehole Canyon.
|Waterfalls in Firehole Canyon|
When you rejoin the main road, you will be driving along the Firehole River and come upon several geyser basins – Midway Geyser Basin has the largest hot spring in the world in Grand Prismatic Spring.
|Grand Prismatic Spring|
See some mudpots at the Lower Geyser Basin, take a walk around Biscuit Basin, then stop at Old Faithful to watch this geyser erupt (about every 1 ½ or so). Plan to spend a good 3 or four hours here, touring the Lower Geyser Basin.
Continue heading south, and consider getting out of your car for a 5 mile (round trip) hike on an easy paved road along the Firehole River to see Lone Star Geyser. No guarantee you’ll see it erupt, but the walk itself is beautiful and relaxing.
|Lone Star Geyser|
Another 17 miles from Old Faithful gets you to West Thumb Geyser Basin (and the beginning of your route around a small portion of Yellowstone Lake, the largest mountain lake in the country) Along the 21 mile drive along the lake, you’ll pass over the Continental Divide. Stop and view the historic Fishing Bridge fishing there no longer allowed because the bears rightfully get first dibbs at the Yellowstone Cutthroat trout that enter the lake here from the Yellowstone River to spawn).
Continue north along the Yellowstone River, and be sure to stop at LeHardy Rapids. In late June/early July, you might see Cutthorat Trout jumping the rapids to get to the lake.
Shortly after the rapids, you’ll smell the sulfurous gases from the Mud Volcano area. Get out of your car to see the Dragon’s Cauldron and other smelly geothermal features here.
Now you are entering Hayden Valley, a great place to view bison, grizzly bears (you might get stuck in a bear jam, so be patient), and sometimes even wolves. The Yellowstone River meanders slowly through this beautiful, vast valley named for Ferdinand Hayden, the geologist who brought artists and photographers with him when he surveyed the area in 1871, which helped persuade Congress to turn it into a national park.
Sixteen miles from where you left the Lake Area, you are now at the Canyon Area. This is an absolute must stop, to view the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. First, cross over Chittenden Bridge to view the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone. Here, you’ll walk a short distance to Artist Point, where you’ll be awestruck by the view of the Lower Falls, and the spectacular golden and red colors of the canyon walls.
|Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone|
If you’re really brave (and in decent health), take Uncle Tom’s Trail (actually it’s a staircase) two-thirds down into the canyon for a great close-up view of the Lower Falls. Remember, 302 stairs going down is 906 stairs or more going up.
After you drag yourself away from the Lower Falls, drive a short distance to another parking lot, where you can take a half-mile paved (but steep) trail to reach the Brink of the Lower Falls. Be awe-inspired all over again!
If you decide to leave the Grand Canyon area, head north over Dunraven Pass (a bit scary for those of us who are afraid of heights). You’ll want to stop at Tower-Roosevelt, take a short walk and see Tower Fall. There used to be a trail to the bottom of the fall, but it was so eroded away, the park service is not going to open it again in the foreseeable future. You can still get a decent view of Tower Fall from the lookout.
After Tower, you have two choices: head west toward Mammoth Hot Springs, or take the road east to Lamar Valley. I highly recommend this detour through the valley. You will, 100% guaranteed, see bison in great numbers.
|Bison in Lamar Valley|
You’ll probably also see pronghorn amongst the bison, possibly a grizzly, and if you’re really lucky and hang out with the “wolfers” (wolf watchers) at the turnouts long enough, you might see wolves as well. It’s 29 miles from where you turned off the main road to the northeast entrance of the park.
When you’ve seen your fill of bison, turn around and head back towards the main loop, and continue west toward Mammoth. This is where Fort Yellowstone and the park headquarters are located. You might see elk grazing on the manicured lawns in front of brick buildings, but definitely get out of your car and walk the boardwalks along the travertine terraces that make this area famous.
|Mammoth Hot Springs|
The scariest portion of the loop road (for me, anyways) in the park, is the Gold Gate Canyon, where the road almost hangs off the cliffs for a short stretch, but the scenery is spectacular. You’re now heading south to Norris Geyser Basin. Give yourself a good hour or more to walk this basin, which is home to the world’s tallest Geyser, Steamboat Geyser. You don’t want to be nearby when it erupts! (which, luckily, isn’t very often)
From Norris, continue south through the Gibbon Canyon, and back to Madison Junction. If this concludes your tour of the park, head west to the entrance.
Obviously, this was a very quick tour of the park, highlighting only the absolute major attractions. It might give you an appreciation that, while it is doable to drive the Grand Loop Road in one day, and maybe see a geyser or two, and some animals along the way, in order to fully appreciate what this great park has to offer, a week or more is required. And that’s just driving the loop.
I have been to Yellowstone more than twenty times, and I haven’t even come close to seeing it all. Each year brings something new to experience, be it a snowstorm in late June, or almost getting blown into Golden Gate Canyon by ferocious winds, Yellowstone is a new adventure each and every time.
Yellowstone Heart Song is available at Amazon.
Thanks to Peggy for the grand tour of Yellowstone! To find out more about Peggy and her book, Yellowstone Heart Song, visit Monday's RTW article and read her interview and excerpt.