Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring Photo: Adobe Stock
Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring Photo: Adobe Stock

Happy Birthday, Yellowstone!

Here’s a to-do list for your visit to this natural treasure, which has been a national park for 150 years.

In 1872, the U. S. Congress designated one of America’s most spectacular natural regions as the country’s—and reportedly the world’s—first national park. This year, Yellowstone turns 150, and it remains the crown jewel among the country’s many magnificent wilderness preserves.

The park’s breathtaking mountains, alpine meadows, forests, and astonishing thermal basins fill 2.2 million acres—more than twice the size of Rhode Island. Yellowstone is mostly in Wyoming with a narrow sliver of its west side shared by Idaho and Montana.

One thrill of my teenage years was driving from my home in Massachusetts to Yellowstone; I was in awe of its rugged beauty and sweeping vistas. I’ve been back many times. Here are some of my favorite places to visit and passions to pursue.

1. Spot a wolf. 

Drive through the Lamar River valley in the evening, pull over at one of the many turnouts, and set up folding camp chairs. Then scan the foothills a mile away with binoculars or a spotting scope. At dusk, if you’re lucky, you’ll hear and see one of Yellowstone’s eight packs of gray wolves, which were successfully reintroduced here in 1995. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll see them chasing an elk—raw nature at work.

2. Behold the Canyon. 

Go to South Rim Drive and stop at the trailhead to Artist Point. Walk for five minutes and behold the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the thundering Lower Falls immortalized by the 19th-century Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran.

3. See the white pelicans.

Drive down Hayden Valley along the smooth-flowing upper Yellowstone River and watch for flocks of American white pelicans diving for their dinner. Warning: stay away from the giant solitary male American bison that hang out in the roadside sagebrush. I’ve seen them charge tourists who get too close.

4. Gaze into a steaming mineral spring. 

Drive alongside the enchanting Firehole River and pull into the parking lots at—in succession—Fountain Paint Pot, Great Fountain Geyser, and Grand Prismatic Spring. Stroll the wooden walkways and visit the wonders of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal hot springs in wildly brilliant colors caused by living microorganisms called thermopiles. 

5. Pack a picnic. 

Continue driving to Upper Geyser Basin, halfway to Yellowstone Lake, take out the camp chairs and enjoy a picnic while watching the show: Old Faithful geyser—the most famous of 500 spouts—erupts 106 to 184 feet roughly every 45 minutes to two hours. The National Park Service posts timing daily.

6. Watch baby elk at play.

On the road to or from West Yellowstone, Montana, in late June and early July, cow elk with their newborn calves gather along the Madison River—the calves are frisky and hilarious. This is the place for a real camera with a long lens on a tripod.

7. Take a hike.

There are many well-marked trails throughout Yellowstone, from long ones that attract overnight backpackers to shorter ones perfect for children and seniors. Describe what you’re looking for to any of the friendly and knowledgeable park rangers, and they’ll direct you. Always bring water.

8. Catch wild trout.

From even before Yellowstone was a park, anglers from across the country traveled to its rich waters to cast a fly. Although rivers such as the Upper Madison and the smaller Gibbon hold some fine wild brown trout, I favor the haunts of pretty Yellowstone cutthroat, native to such lovely streams as the Lamar River, Slough Creek, and the Yellowstone River itself.

9. Visit the Cody Firearms Museum.

While not in the park proper, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in nearby Cody, Wyoming, is well worth the hour-plus drive from the east entrance. It’s a Smithsonian-caliber museum with a stunning gallery of classic Western art as well as the world’s largest collection of historic American firearms totaling 7,000 pieces.

10. Arrive via Cooke City.

Although less known than popular entrances to the park such as Gardiner and West Yellowstone, the northeast entrance at Cooke City, Montana, is worth passing through. Hemingway, while fishing and hunting here, used to mail his manuscripts from the old general store, which still stands. The drive to or from charming Red Lodge, Montana, over Beartooth Pass is one of the most exhilarating in America. I swear I hear angels sing.