AST’s Guide to Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park Pixabay Public Domain

Yellowstone National Park Pixabay Public Domain

Established as the first-ever American national park, Yellowstone is a haven of natural beauty, a wonderland of geological science, and a refuge for endangered and threatened animals. The park straddles the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, covering roughly 3,500 square miles. As one of the most popular parks in the country, Yellowstone is a phenomenal destination for student groups, educational field trips, celebratory graduation trips, and family vacations looking for a little recreation.

Signed into being in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone made history - and not for the first time. The national park, or a great portion of it, is set inside the caldera of an ancient volcano, the largest caldera in North America. Though the current caldera was formed from an eruption over 640,000 years ago, this supervolcano remains a hotbed for geothermal activity with over 10,000 geothermal features and two-thirds of the entire world's geysers!

Aside from the geysers, sulfur pools, and boiling mud pits, Yellowstone is also amazingly beautiful. The natural landscape stretches on for miles through sub-alpine forests of the Rocky Mountain system, even holding one of the largest high-elevation lakes in North America, Yellowstone Lake. People love to kayak and canoe over the calm waters (calm except for the hot springs spread throughout) and observe the wildlife that comes to the water's edge. Bear, bison, elk, moose, and even the newly reintroduced northwestern wolf are counted among the species roaming the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a 20 million-acre region that spans the Grand Tetons and several other national parks with Yellowstone at its center. Bison and moose are perhaps the most seen large animals throughout the park, and while it's advised that you keep a distance, observing these giant creatures roaming alongside the park's boardwalks and geysers is a treat.

Now, if your student group decides to visit Yellowstone, you'll first want to stop by the visitor centers. There are nine centers to choose from and each will grant you guides, pamphlets, maps, information on dining and lodging in the park, and more. A few of the centers now house museums, such as the Albright Visitor Center, which was built when the area was still considered the "Fort Yellowstone" Army post. If you're staying in the park, there are 12 campgrounds ranging from RV sites to pitch-your-own-tent style. Some of the campgrounds are closer to wildlife than some people would like, so it's recommended that you research the different campsites before you choose one. If you don't want to camp in the great outdoors, Yellowstone does also has several hotels, inns, and cabin lodgings available.

Geyser at Yellowstone National Park Pixabay Public Domain

Geyser at Yellowstone National Park Pixabay Public Domain

What should you do when you get to Yellowstone? Aside from getting settled, pick an activity. Touring the geothermal features and taking a look at Old Faithful is always a favorite. The geyser is one of the most reliable, always erupting on the clock (hence the name) to the oohs and aahs of the gathering crowds. You might take a look at the Castle Geyser which erupts up to 80 feet high, the Mud Volcano as an extremely active mud spring, or the colorful pools like Rainbow and Emerald Pools that get their color from the algae growing within. The Grand Prismatic is the most famous of these colorful pools and you can see, even from the ground level, the bright blue center changing to green, then yellow, then orange, and finally red at the shoreline. There are several of these throughout the park and it never gets old to view them all.

If you're more of a wildlife bunch, take a hike. Not in a rude way! Literally, take a hike through the various trails in the park to see why Yellowstone is said to have the highest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48. Bears, elk, moose, bison, and others are often seen closer to human habitation in the park but you can see these species and more by hiking through the mountainside. Hike up to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and see the waterfalls crashing hundreds of feet into the Yellowstone River below. Mt. Washburn Trail will lead you there in roughly three miles, giving you some of the best and most panoramic views of the park along the way.

Maybe you prefer to be on the safe side of the wildlife and have a guide to take your group. If so, Yellowstone has you covered with several tour companies offering a variety of programs throughout the park. Let them take you whitewater rafting or canoeing, hiking through the mountains and up to the waterfalls, allow them to teach you the best spots to explore the geysers, and where to see the most active wildlife. These people have been touring for decades and they know all about the park.

The nearby communities of Jackson, Gardiner, Big Sky, Cody, and Cooke County are close enough for a daily escape, a nice dinner, and even for lodging if you prefer not to stay in the park. You'll also find a nice, refreshing variety of attractions here to keep you busy when/if you get tired of hiking.

However you want to do it, there's no wrong way to see Yellowstone. The only crime is never seeing it for yourself! Book your student trip today and finally understand why Yellowstone National Park should be on everyone's bucket list!

Thermal Springs at Yellowstone National Park Pixabay Public Domain

For more information about Yellowstone National Park visit our National Parks Theme Page and check out sample itineraries.