Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Formed by volcanoes, sustained by the earth's molten rock layers and teeming with flowers, fauna and vistas galore, Yellowstone is one of America's best-loved national parks.
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yellowstone, grand prismatic springs, wyoming, top 10 natural wonders

More than 1,000 miles of backcountry hiking trails through Yellowstone lead travelers to steaming, bubbling hot springs.

Photo by: Lorcel/iStock/Getty Images

Lorcel/iStock/Getty Images

Formed by volcanoes, sustained by the earth's molten rock layers and teeming with flowers, fauna and vistas galore, Yellowstone is quite possibly the grandest example of a national park. Yet, hidden within nature's brambles lies the park's pervasive dichotomy - maintaining this land as a true homage to wilderness versus maintaining this land as a park accessible to visitors. Is it truly wilderness if under the scrutiny of millions of tourists per year? Perhaps it is the sheer magnitude of the park, or the brilliant management of the National Park Service, but indeed, Yellowstone is a testament of nature, of a purely natural environment.

Visitors here are whisked to a land before time - a primitive, bubbling world of pulsing eruptions. Geysers, waterfalls, hot springs and steam vents are as much a part of the landscape as are the animals and foliage. Plants thrive in the park, which hosts some 1,200 native species - even semiarid grasslands and alpine tundra are represented. More than 300 species of birds, including the revered bald eagle, and 59 species of mammals, such as bison, elk and grizzly bears, have made Yellowstone their home.

With an activities list almost as long as the Yellowstone River, the park isn't lacking in what to do. Just be sure to wander off the beaten path, embrace the road less traveled and find yourself face to face with the wilderness that is still Yellowstone.

Geological History
Yellowstone and its surroundings are the result of age-old volcanic activity. Some 55 million years ago, during the Tertiary period, molten magma formed the Abroska and Washburn mountain ranges. Approximately 52 million years later, a volcanic blast created the Yellowstone Caldera - a collapsed volcanic crater 28 by 47 miles in size. Ultimately, glaciers moved through the area, shaping the region into its current landscape. This volcanic activity has marked Yellowstone with an exceptional number of geothermal features. More than 10,000 geysers dot its lands in addition to hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents), mud pots and carbonate-depositing travertine terraces.

Park Activities
Yellowstone is full of landmarks, so it's wise to plan your itinerary in advance. With 370 miles of paved roads, the park's interior is easily maneuvered, and multiple visitor centers have schedules for hikes, talks and campfire programs. Old Faithful Geyser is one of the more popular attractions - blowing off steam every 80 minutes - but don't miss Great Fountain Geyser and Castle Geyser, which are also extraordinary sites. Visitors to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone are rewarded with flame-red canyon walls reaching higher than 1,200 feet and punctuated by a tumbling waterfall. Mammoth Hot Springs features travertine terraces colored by microorganisms, and Yellowstone Lake's 139 square miles offer plenty of boating and fishing opportunities. The scholastically inclined will enjoy the Yellowstone Institute - an organization offering courses on park ecology, history and wildlife.

Where to Stay
Lone Mountain Ranch sets the standard in luxury mountain lodging. The property's 23 cabins feature 1, 2 or 3 bedrooms, vaulted ceilings and stone fireplaces. Rocking chairs rest on the cabins' porches, inviting guests to simply listen to a babbling creek, or watch the sky change colors over distant mountains. The ranch is nestled in the heart of Big Sky Country, four miles from the Gallatin River. Taking advantage of the locale, the lodge offers a number of naturalist activities, as well as fly-fishing seminars, boat trips and tours into Yellowstone, which is only 18 miles away.

Side Trips
Cody, WY, is a town still alive with Old West charm, despite the propensity of tourists en route to Yellowstone to drop by. In Old Trail Town, a veritable ghost town has been assembled from old storefronts and cabins gathered around the region. History buffs will adore the informative Buffalo Bill Museum, and the whole family can kick their heels up at the nightly Cody Nite Rodeo, complete with bulls, broncos, cowboys and cotton candy. 

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