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Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah’s Hot Spot – Yellowstone National Park

By Nick Anis

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The world’s first national park, Yellowstone includes a large “hot spot” that fuels the geysers and other geothermal phenomena that mesmerize more than three million visitors each year. Geologists believe this hot spot area has caused three catastrophic volcanic eruptions in and around Yellowstone National Park.

Eruptions blasted away mountains to smooth a broad flat area called the Snake River Plain. The Snake River Plain is one the most beautiful areas in the lower 48. It is home to the endangered bald eagle, buffalo, and trumpeter swan, and is part of the famed Oregon Trail – the migration path that lead the way to the settlement of the West.

During the past 16 million years the surface of Yellowstone’s massive hot spot (28 miles by 47 miles) has moved along with the Continental Plate – about one-inch per year. This movement has left a progressive string of volcanic fields and calderas from Southern Oregon through Southern Idaho and into Wyoming and Montana at Yellowstone National Park. While there are other hot spots in the world, the only other significant one in the United States is on the Big Island of Hawaii.

“What’s that?” you say. “Just what is a hot spot and a caldera?” I’m glad you asked. A hot spot is the area above a stationary plume of material heated by the Earth’s core. The super-heated plume melts the crust of rock above it, causing powerful eruptions. Ash and lava are violently blown out into the air and onto the land. The crust then shrinks to fill the void and creates a huge depression or volcanic explosion crater, which is called a caldera.

The Hot Spot Exhibit

The National Geographic IMAX Theatre is located in the town of West Yellowstone adjacent to the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It has an excellent interpretive exhibit produced in a public-private partnership with the USDA Forest Service. This exhibit shows hot-spot events that have occurred hundreds of miles apart over the millenium, and how they have shaped not only the area’s landscape, but also the lives of the people living there.

According to Leif Johnson, general manager of the theater, “Part of our mission is to be a first class interpretive center.” Johnson is also the president of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce and an active member of the Yellowstone Hot Spot Association. This 40-ish Renaissance Man of Yellowstone frequently hikes, rafts, and kayaks the area, apparently to learn and study firsthand the secrets of hot spots and calderas. He shares this knowledge and insight with infectious enthusiasm.

Yellowstone, The Movie

The spectacular 33-minute IMAX movie “Yellowstone” is shown on a six story high screen. Admission to the film is $7.50 for adults, $4.50 for children (ages 3-11), and children under 3 are free. Yellowstone is written and directed by three-time Emmy and Oscar award winner Keith Merrill. The filming, which took almost two years, was done on location at Yellowstone National Park. The movie is an abbreviated but highly realistic dramatization of the discovery and establishment of Yellowstone. Starting with the Tukudika tribe, the film chronicles the earliest known inhabitants, continuing with early explorers including John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Party. Colter spent several years in the area as a trapper and explorer. The film finishes with the miraculous wonders of America’s oldest and most visited national park.

The IMAX film includes some of the most spectacular footage ever seen of Upper and Lower falls, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Artist Point, Geysers and Vents, Old Faithful, and Fountain Paint Pots. Wildlife shown in their native habitat includes grizzly bears, moose, elk, mule deer, buffalo, and golden eagles. The grizzly bear, “Bart” and grizzly bear cub in the film were the same ones who starred in the movie “The Bear.”

The theatre complex includes a Starbucks Cafe, gift shop with Native American crafts, Taco Bell Express, and the hot spot exhibit. Actual props that were used in the making of the film are on display in the theatre lobby and outside in the courtyard. The theatre is nestled in the 85-acre Grizzly Park center that includes the Silvertip Restaurant, Northern Bear Trading Company, Michone’s Candies, the Grizzly Gallery, McDonald’s, and the Grizzly Discovery Center. Another key point of interest, The Museum of The Yellowstone, is just across the street.

The Museum of the Yellowstone

The Museum of the Yellowstone has a later model of one of the last remaining yellow touring buses (circa 1936) made by the White Company. Touring buses replaced the stagecoaches that were being used to tour the park around 1915. Museum visitors can see the raging fire that affected 70 percent of Yellowstone park; relive the terrifying 1959 earthquake that made a mountain fall and killed 28 people – the largest quake in the Rocky Mountain Region; and view indigenous wildlife. Also on display are firearms, tomahawks, and clothing used by Indians, US Cavalry, trappers, and cowboys of the period.

Open May through October, admission for adults is $5.95, students and seniors (60 and older) $4.95, and children (5 and under) are admitted free.

The Grizzly Discovery Center and Bear and Wolf Preserve

Another major attraction in West Yellowstone, also located in the Grizzly Park complex, is The Grizzly Discovery Center, a grizzly bear and gray wolf preserve with naturalistic habitats. Open year round, seven days a week, admission is $7.50 for adults, seniors (62 and older) $6.50, children (ages 5-15) $3.00, and free for children under 5.

Visitors will see six grizzly bears in a 1.8-acre natural setting. The center also has a pack of ten mature gray wolves in their own natural habitat of nearly an acre. There is one pair of alphas, or pack leaders, a large male gray wolf with distinctive dark marking on his back, and a smaller female gray wolf with a lighter coat. These two and the rest of their pack are all magnificent animals with beautiful coats that captivate visitors from around the world. Indoors, visitors will find educational multimedia exhibits, a theater with continuous videos on grizzly bears and other Montana wildlife, and a nice gift shop.

The Grizzly Park complex is decorated outdoors with some striking bronze statuary sponsored by the center’s developers and tenants including grizzly bears, wolves, and bald eagles. According to Johnson the center’s aim is to have the best display of outdoor art in the West. (Judging from the three exhibits I saw, they are well on their way to achieving this goal.)

Visiting Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was established in March of 1872 by an Act of Congress. The park’s borders have changed over the years and it has gotten larger; it now encompasses 3,400 square miles (2.2 million acres), 91% of which is in Wyoming, 7.6% in Montana, and the remaining 1.4% in the state of Idaho. The park is 99% undeveloped, providing a wide range of habitat types that support one of the continent's largest and most varied large mammal populations. There are approximately 1,200 miles of trails, 97 trailheads, and approximately 300 backcountry campsites. There are five park entrances, and 370 miles of paved roads, which are undergoing a five-year repaving process during the relatively short summer seasons.

One of the most famous attractions in Yellowstone is the Old Faithful geyser. West Yellowstone is the closest town to this section of the park. It is a good place begin your trek by car, snowmobile, tour bus, or snow coach around the Lower Loop or Upper Loop of Yellowstone National Park. We were very pleased with the Buffalo Bus Lines bus tour we took, as were the others on board.

If Old Faithful and the two-story Lodge Pine architectural wonder, the Old Faithful Inn is on your itinerary, you should take the Lower Loop. During the summer be sure to get past the road construction barricades before 10:00am or you will have to take a two-hour detour via an alternate route that goes North to Norris and then around 139-square mile Lake Yellowstone. The park is open year-round except for a brief period at the start of Winter when visitors must wait for enough snowfall for the snowmobiles and snow coaches to get around, and for a brief period in spring when visitors must wait for the park service to clear the snow from the roads for use by cars and buses.

There is a lot to see in Yellowstone National Park. The Lower Loop (124 miles returning to West Yellowstone) takes you past hundreds of geysers, vents, mud pots, rivers, spectacular water falls, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and scenic canyons with multicolored cliffsides. The Upper Loop (126 miles returning to West Yellowstone) is just as captivating. In either section of the park you can see buffalo, elk, wolves, bald eagles, and other indigenous wildlife.

Just West of Yellowstone

When one considers Yellowstone National Park’s huge size it is not surprising to learn there are spectacular areas seldom seen by park visitors. Big Springs, for example, is one of the 40 largest springs in the United States. As the headwaters of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, Big Springs maintains a year-round water temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit. It runs continuously with enough pure water to supply a city of one million people. Upper Mesa Falls on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River is also quite a marvel, especially as seen from the special walkway built for viewing; dramatic vibrant rainbows are often seen there. At Cave Falls, nestled in the remote Southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, you can view massive waterfalls from inside a large cave. Traveling further south you will pass through Idaho’s Teton Valley where you will see spectacular views of the famous Grand Tetons named by two unrequited French fur trappers.

West Yellowstone is Abundant with History

West Yellowstone has several fine hotels abounding with history, such as the West Yellowstone Conference Hotel Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort. (That name is quite a mouthful.) Beside the lobby of this 123-room hotel is a fully restored and remarkably preserved Oregon Short Line Executive Car (circa 1903) that was used to transport Union Pacific Railroad tycoons and other VIPs across the nation and into Yellowstone on the forlorn Yellowstone Express. This remarkable piece of railroad and Yellowstone memorabilia is the pride of joy of the hotel’s owner, Clyde Seely. Clyde, his wife Linda, and their four children actually lived in the car in the summer of 1975 while they were building their house.

Although West Yellowstone population is sparse (only 990) the town is teeming with good places to eat. For example, Rustler’s Roost serves some of the best trout in the country and has a great view of the Henry Lake Mountains. Canyon Street Grill has a nice 50’s dinner motif and serves family style breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Probably the most remarkable place to eat in the entire region is Nancy P’s, which is actually an excellent full service bakery. Nancy P’s serves scrumptious continental breakfasts of fresh bakery items, coffee, and juices, supplies several of the area’s restaurants with their baked goods, and makes world-class gourmet box lunches.

The Holiday Inn’s “Oregon Short Line” and the Stagecoach Inn’s “Coach Room” are examples of local hotel-based fine restaurants offering good quality regional cuisine including St. Louis style barbecued spareribs, prime rib of beef, New York steak, fresh trout, salmon, walleye (pike), and so on.

The Stagecoach Inn is a full service 83-room hotel built by Mr. J.L. Gimment of Idaho Falls in 1946 with a “Western Swiss” design that has become a landmark in the area. The large knotty pine lobby has a great big flagstone fireplace, an interesting Territorial brand piano made in Bozeman, Montana, and quite of bit of taxidermy, including an alleged Jackolope, and one of the biggest moose heads I have ever seen.

In the 1950’s “Doc” Bayless ran an illicit gambling operation in the basement complete with wired doors to warn gamblers of trouble. Now that certain forms of gambling are legal in Montana and the hotel is under new management, the casino is on the ground floor along with a card room and poker and keno machines. The first floor also has two lounges, seasonal entertainment, and the full service Coach Room restaurant.

The historic wing of the hotel is at it was 50 years ago with some added conveniences such as a telephone, television, and so on. The newly remodeled rooms left of the moose head – no kidding that’s how they direct you at the Stagecoach- are simple but elegant. The moose patterned bedspreads match the moose patterned panels, and the antlered lamps. The rooms are stylish contemporary Montanian, clean, neat, and quite comfortable. There is only one telephone headset. There are no datajacks, no telephones in the bathroom, and the TV doesn’t have Nintendo – technojocks like me should take a silicon holiday and hop on a snowmobile, or head into the park in a car or tour bus for a pleasant change of pace.

If you prefer even less technology and are partial to horses and fishing, try the historic Parade Rest Guest Ranch just 10 miles from West Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park. It is ideally located for sightseeing but sufficiently secluded for those wishing to get away from it all. The western-style dining hall serves three fresh hot meals a day. Diehard fly fishermen who come after hours can let themselves into the kitchen, where their meals will be waiting for them in the warmer or refrigerator.

The Parade Rest Guest Ranch cabins are roomy and comfortable, but they don’t have any phones, clocks, or televisions. Some of the cabins are heated by gas; others dating back a hundred years or so are heated by wood stoves and fireplaces. Schedules and deadlines generally aren’t that important at the ranch. The staff can pack a meal for guests to take along on daily two-, four-, and six-hour horse back rides into stunning alpine scenery, or when white water river rafting on the Gallatin, or when fly fishing at one of several on-ranch and nearby, streams, lakes, and rivers.

Exhilarating day trips in the area include visits to the north shore of Hebegen Lake, the Madison River Canyon, and Earthquake Lake, which was formed during the devastating 1959 earthquake that killed 28 people.

The ranch’s rates average about $100 per person per day for the full American plan, including three meals a day, and unlimited horseback riding and fishing. (State and Yellowstone National Park fishing licenses may also be required.)

In Montana “nearby” means less than one day’s drive, but really truly nearby (about 35 miles away from West Yellowstone) in the Beaverhead National Forest area on Highway 287 North is the Grizzly Bar and Grill. You can fish 13 of Montana’s finest streams and 13 lakes within 30 miles of this restaurant, which explains why many of their patrons are fly fishermen.

The owner, Eric Smith, has many talents including cooking, athletics, and woodworking. The interior of the restaurant is a spectacular display of cedar and Douglas fur carpentry. A large indoor hooded grill explains how the 125-seat restaurant got its name. There is also a hand crafted Douglas fur bar, counter, and a large outdoor patio overlooking the beautiful Madison River Valley.

The Grizzly has quite an extensive menu including steaks, chops, kabobs, ribs, chicken, seafood, big burgers, soups and salads.

Everything is homemade, except the hamburger buns. I found the home baked bread to be extraordinary as evidenced by the three mini loves I ate while I was there.

I tried blaming the rapid disappearance of our bread on our guide, John, but to no avail – I was caught by the crumbs on my lap and a grin on my face.

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filetm.jpg (48857 bytes) The ambiance, presentation, and preparation were all excellent. Everyone loved the food.

Eric, the accomplished cabinetmaker/owner is also quite a cook, although he was quick to give all the credit to his chef, Nick. When we were there (toward the end of the season) there were four people working and the place was about half-full. During peak season the restaurant, which is popular with locals and tourists, has twice as much staff and is teeming with activity.

We got to talking about grizzly bears and the upcoming Olympics and skiing.

Eric mentioned he was skier and friends with Stein Ericson, the famous 1954 Olympic Gold Metal ski champion – and low and behold, Ericson, who is the Ski Director the Deer Valley Resort Ski Resort these days, walked in the door and pulled up a chair to chat with us.

When you’re in a great place to eat in the Madison River Valley, you never know who you are going run into, a foraging grizzly or a foraging Olympic Gold Medallist and ski legend.

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National Geographic Theater
101 South Canyon Street
P.O. Box 504
West Yellowstone, MT 59758

Phone: 406-646-4100
Fax: 406-646-4101

The Museum of The Yellowstone
P.O. Box 411
124 Yellowstone Avenue
West Yellowstone, MT 59758

Phone: 800-500-6923 or 406-646-7814

The Grizzly Discover Center
P.O. Box 996
201 South Canyon
West Yellowstone, MT 59758

Phone: 800-257-2570 or 406-646-7001
Fax: 406-646-7004

Parade Rest Guest Ranch
7979 Grayling Creek Road
West Yellowstone, MT 59758

Phone: 406-646-7217

Grizzly Bar and Grill
1409 Highway 287 North
Camberon, MT 59729

Phone: 406-682-7118

Stage Coach Inn
P.O. Box 169
209 Madison Avenue
West Yellowstone, MY 59758

Phone: 406-646-7381 or 800-842-2882
Phone: 406-646-9575

West Yellowstone Conference Hotel Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort
315 Yellowstone Avenue
West Yellowstone, MT 59758

Phone: 406-646-7365, 800-646-7365

West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 458
30 Yellowstone Avenue
West Yellowstone, MT 59758

Phone: 406-646-7701
Fax: 406-646-9696

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Nick Anis is a computer and technology writer and the author of 24 books who also writes about travel, food & wine, entertainment, skiing and family recreation. He writes for Ziff-Davis, Microtimes, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Travel Watch, TravelGram, and Restaurant-Row. He is responsible for the Restaurant Row Ethnic Dining Guide, co-published by the Long Beach Press Telegram. Nick is a member of the Computer Press Association, The International Food Wine, and Travel Writers Association (IFW&TWA), and the North American Ski Journalists Assn. (NASJA).

Nick can be reached at, Phone: 909-860-6914, Fax: 909-396-0014.

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