Yellowstone National Park's six don't-miss sites

Beehive Geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

Beehive Geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Yellowstone has about 300 geysers and 10,000 hot springs, bubbling mudpots and steam vents. (Sept. 2009) (Credit: AP)

As we walked along the trail, partly shaded by towering and ubiquitous lodgepole pines, I turned and looked around. We were alone, had been for a couple of miles.

Backpack loaded with raincoats, sunscreen and cameras, and bear spray on my belt buckle, I was on a family tour of our country's first national park -- 3,500 square miles spread across Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with five entrances. With us wasYellowstone, with my family and a guide from the Yellowstone Association Institute.

When I made the observation, guide Carolyn Harwood gave us this fascinating tidbit: Of the park's 33 million annual visitors, only about 1 percent ever leave the developed areas (visitors centers, pullouts, boardwalks).

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Our hike, a 4.5-mile loop that started on the Clear Lake trail, took us through open pastures, where we saw elk, to wooded areas where we were on the lookout for bears, to a spot that looked like the moon with boiling pots of mud and steamy hot springs.

After a couple of miles, we emerged at Artist Point. It's not hard to see how the lookout got its name: A gorgeous view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, its walls painted with a palette of yellow, red, orange and black, the result of hydrothermal alterations to the rocks.

It also affords a spectacular view of the Lower Falls, a gushing waterfall that plunges 308 feet, nearly triple the height of the Upper Falls, just up the river, and twice as high as Niagara Falls.

With several steep climbs and multiple educational breaks -- in which we learned to identify trees by needles and animals by scat -- the hike took about four hours.

The Yellowstone Association works with the National Park Service to connect people to the park through education.

"The best way to really see Yellowstone is to explore it, and that's what we help you do," said Harwood.

The heart of Yellowstone is a caldera surrounded by the spires of the Rocky Mountains. It's actually a giant sleeping volcano. When my 6-year-old heard this, he looked alarmed and asked, "Is it going to erupt?" Harwood paused and sat us down to explain. In the past, it has created massive explosions. It is, in fact, due to go off again. However, scientists will have plenty of warning, and we're not there yet.

That sleeping volcano isn't really so sleepy, either. The hot springs, geysers, mud pots and fumaroles (steam vents) are everyday reminders of the dangers that lurk beneath the Earth's surface. But they make magnificent sites for tourists.

Yellowstone is big, as in 3,500 square miles big. A windy, two-lane road takes you through the high points of Yellowstone National Park. If you only had one day, you could drive it and touch on them all. But I'd recommend at least three: one day for the upper loop; one day for the lower loop and a third day to get off those roads and really explore the park on foot. There are nine in-park lodges with more than 2,000 rooms (book at yellowstonenationalpark lodges.com, and know that there may be more availability in "shoulder" seasons like October and May).

SIX DON'T-MISS SITES

This is by no means an exhaustive list, rather things we did and loved:

1. OLD FAITHFUL It isn't the tallest geyser in Yellowstone, but it is more predictable than most, going off every 30 minutes to two hours. Television screens in the area give you an estimated time of the next eruption. Each eruption shoots nearly 4,000 to 8,000 gallons of water about 130 feet into the air. On our trip, we got caught in a downpour that happened about one minute after Old Faithful erupted. I've heard the eruptions last two to five minutes, but we didn't stick around long enough to find out for ourselves.

2. MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS AREA Visit Mammoth Hot Springs to walk the self-guided trail around Fort Yellowstone, which chronicles the U.S. Army's role in protecting the park. Then drive or walk over to the hot springs area. The terraces are quite different from the other thermal areas in the park. The underground activity causes these step-like travertine formations to grow much more rapidly than they used to (as much as 2 feet a year), and they are constantly changing shape and color.

3. GRAND CANYON OF THE YELLOWSTONE This 20-mile-long canyon, including the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, can be seen from several overlooks throughout the park. Or take one of the other hikes, such as ours, around it. You also can take Uncle Tom's trail 328 steps down to the bottom (warning: it's dangerous and strenuous).

4. YELLOWSTONE LAKE North America's largest high-altitude lake is simply breathtaking. We took a sunset tour ($35; book through yellowstonenational parklodges.com) on a restored 1936 Yellowstone Bus through the area. We ended in Lake Butte at an elevation of 8,348 feet, for a gorgeous sunset over the mountains that frame the lake. The area is also prime habitat for birds and mammals. We saw bears, a beaver (or maybe it was a muskrat), pronghorn deer and waterfowl.

5. THE GEYSER BASINS Yellowstone is home to the majority of the world's geysers. Several basins, notably the Thumb Geyser Basin in the Yellowstone Lake area, the Norris Geyser Basin and the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins to the west, are great for exploring. Don't miss Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Basin, the tallest geyser in the park, which on our visit hissed and spit so much we were sure it was going to go off (it didn't), and the aptly named Grand Prismatic in the Midway Geyser Basin.

6. HAYDEN VALLEY Aside from the geothermic activity, most people come to Yellowstone for the wildlife. Two areas are well known for this in the park: Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. We didn't have time to make it to the first, but Hayden Valley provided not only bison and pronghorn deer but also a good look at a coyote who had just caught a bird of prey for dinner and a possible wolf sighting (it was awfully far away). Staring out over Hayden Valley was like watching an episode on the National Geographic Channel.

LEARN MORE WITH GUIDES

On my recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, we took a hike with a guide from the Yellowstone Association Institute.

Carolyn Harwood was like a walking encyclopedia of park knowledge. She loved talking about the reintroduction of the wolves, the fires of 1988 and the geology of the park. She was our guide for an entire day -- half on a hike, half in the car (with stops for exploring). She brought spotting scopes and found us the best places to look for wildlife.

The Yellowstone Association Institute works in partnership with the park to help educate visitors. Families (up to five people) can book a guide like Carolyn for $495 a day.

Or try one of the institute's Lodging and Learning programs, where you will be based in park hotels and taught by naturalist guides. For example, in the fall, the group offers the Fall Wolf and Elk Discovery, a three-day, four-night program where you delve into the world of wolves and elk and learn about their behavior on leisurely walks ($699 a person, double occupancy). Participants must be 12 or older.

INFO 406-848-2400, yellowstoneassociation.org

IF YOU GO

WHAT The park is in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with five entrances. It is open year-round, but some roads are closed from November to May or June.

HOW MUCH Admission is $25 per car (good for seven days)

MORE INFO nps.gov/yell; call 307-344-2117 for road closings

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