Yellowstone National Park: Facts, Location & History

Instructor: Scott van Tonningen

Scott has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and has taught a variety of college-level engineering, math and science courses.

Yellowstone National Park is America's oldest and is truly a jewel, containing mountain beauty, geothermal features, and abundant wildlife. Read on to find out more about this unique part of the American west. A short quiz is provided.

The Most Amazing Park in the World?

Lower Yellowstone Falls
Yellowstone Falls

If someone has a 'bucket list,' a list of things to see or do before you leave this world, then Yellowstone National Park is probably on it. If you have never been to Yellowstone, there have been hundred of websites, books, and videos published on the park. Let's start by examining some of the distinctive characteristics of this national treasure.

Facts About Yellowstone

Here is just a short list of some of the park's amazing features:

  • It comprises over 2,200,000 acres of land - larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined
  • It has 17 rivers and 290 waterfalls that are 15 feet or higher
  • It has the largest:
    • Dormant (but active) volcano in the world
    • Collection of geysers in the world (over 50% of the world's geysers)
    • Concentration of wolves in the world
    • Collection of free-roaming bison in the world
    • Alpine lake (above 7,000 feet) in the U.S.
    • Concentration of large mammal species (deer, bear, elk, bison, etc.) in the continental U.S.

If you want to see volcanic activity, including geysers, hot pools of every color, and evidence of recent eruptions, then Yellowstone is the place for you. In fact, just 4 miles beneath the park's surface lies a caldera of superheated magma that has the volume equal to three Lake Michigans. If you want to see the greatest collection of wildlife in the U.S., including grizzly bears, black bears, elk, bison, wolves, bighorn sheep, and deer, then look no further than Yellowstone.

Grazing bison and a wary grizzly bear
Bison and grizzly

If you love water, including large lakes, rivers and waterfalls, then Yellowstone has one of the most significant collections in the country. Lower Yellowstone falls (pictured at the start of this lesson) is arguably one of the most beautiful in the country. There is also Yellowstone Lake, which fills a natural bowl with depths of up to 410 feet and covers a surface area of 132 square miles. This is all topped off with incredible mountain beauty, from its low elevation of a mile high to Eagle Peak, at 11,358 feet above sea level.

Location and Geology

Maps of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone maps

96% of Yellowstone National Park is contained in Wyoming, located in the northwestern corner of the state, while 3% of the park is in Montana and 1% is in Idaho. The park is nearly square, ranging 63 miles north to south and 54 miles east to west. It's situated on a massive, dormant volcano that is part of the Rocky Mountains. The caldera, which is a bowl-shaped depression in the Earth caused by a volcano, covers 1,350 square miles, and comprises nearly 40% of the park, as shown on the following map:

The Yellowstone volcanic caldera
Caldera map

Within the caldera, volcanic activity is evident everywhere. You can see geysers, beautiful superheated pools of water, colorful mineral terraces, and grottos. In all, there are some 10,000 thermal geological features. You may even feel a mild earthquake - the park experiences 1,000-3,000 of these annually.

Glory Pool and Old Faithful Geyser
Hot pool and geyser

If you are like most visitors, you will want to see the geysers. There are at least 300 geysers in Yellowstone. A geyser occurs when a pocket of underground water in the vicinity of rock is superheated by magma. As the superheated water nears the earth's surface through constricted 'plumbing,' it quickly changes to steam and erupts into the air.

Castle Geyser
Castle geyser


It is estimated that 640,000 years ago, one of the largest eruptions on earth occurred to form what is now Yellowstone. Estimates are that this eruption had a force 10,000 times that of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Since then, there have been other small eruptions. There have also been some large earthquakes. One of the most famous was the Hebgen Lake quake in 1959, just outside the park. Twenty-eight people died in this 7.3 magnitude quake.

Native Americans began to settle here about 11,000 years ago. Lewis and Clark passed very near this area in their 1804-1806 exploration of the west; one member of that party, John Colter, was the first to encounter the geothermic features of the region. Between 1869 and 1871, three important explorations were made into the Yellowstone region that paved the way for its creation as a national park. The last of these was the Hayden Geological Survey.

Hayden's report convinced Congress that Yellowstone should be set aside as a park and, in 1872, the act was signed into law by President Grant. Following the establishment of Yellowstone as the country's first national park, the nation had to decide how to administer this region. There was no National Park Service, so responsibility fell to the U.S. Army. From 1886 until 1916, Fort Yellowstone, built near Mammoth Hot Springs, guarded the park. You can still tour this fort today.

Historic Fort Yellowstone
Ft Yellowstone

Over the past 140 years, Yellowstone has undergone numerous changes. The National Park Service, which was created in 1916, took over administration from the U.S. Army. Tourist traffic increased dramatically, and today Yellowstone sees around 3,000,000 visitors a year. This growth led to one of the biggest changes in the history of the park - the bear management program. Between 1900 and 1969, bears were allowed to coexist with humans throughout the park and the bears became dependent on human garbage and handouts.

Bears getting handouts - circa 1960
Bears at car

By 1969, the park had 48 bear-related human injuries and 100 property damage incidents annually. Finally, in 1970, the National Park Service put in sweeping changes to remove bears to more remote regions of the park and force them to return to natural eating habits. Today, you can still see bears in the park - just look for cars pulled off to the side of the road and people leaping out with their cameras. You will probably find a bear in the area!

Bear in a more natural state
Bear at river

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account