The tourist town of West Yellowstone, Montana is right outside the park’s western boundary. The West Entrance is the busiest of all the park entry stations, handling more than one-third of the nearly three million people who enter Yellowstone each year.
A 14-mile road heads east to Madison Junction, closely paralleling the scenic Madison River (a major tributary of the Missouri River), in which geese, ducks, and trumpeter swans are common. Bison and elk are other critters to watch for in the open meadows.
The Madison River is open only to fly-fishing and is considered one of the finest places in the nation to catch trout (although they can be a real challenge to fool). On warm summer evenings, you’re likely to see dozens of anglers casting for wily rainbow and brown trout and mountain whitefish.
At Madison Junction, the road splits, heading south to Old Faithful and north to Mammoth. This is where the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers join to form the Madison River. The 406,359-acre North Fork Fire of 1988 ripped through most of the Madison River country, but the land is recovering well in most places, and wildflowers are abundant in midsummer.
Madison Canyon is flanked by mountains named for two photographers who had a marked influence on Yellowstone. To the north is 8,257-foot Mt. Jackson—as in William H. Jackson, whose photos helped bring the area to national attention—and to the south is distinctive, 8,235-foot Mt. Haynes, named for the man who held the park photo concession for nearly four decades. These mountains and the surrounding slopes were created by rhyolite lava flows.
The Northwest Corner
From West Yellowstone, Montana, U.S. Highway 191 heads north to Bozeman, passing through a small corner of Yellowstone National Park en route. There are no entrance stations or developed facilities here, but the area provides backcountry access for hikers and horsepackers from several trailheads. The drive itself is scenic, and the road is wide and smooth. The road enters the park approximately 10 miles north of West Yellowstone and gradually climbs through stretches that were burned in the fires of 1988 before emerging into unburned alpine meadows near tiny Divide Lake.
North of here, U.S. Highway 191 follows the growing Gallatin River downhill through a pretty mix of meadows, sagebrush, rocky outcrops, and forested hillsides with grassy carpets beneath. Approximately 31 miles north of West Yellowstone, the road exits Yellowstone and enters Gallatin National Forest. It’s another 17 miles from here to the turnoff for Big Sky Resort or 60 miles from the park boundary to Bozeman.
Madison Junction to Norris
The Madison Information Station (307/344-2821) near Madison Junction is open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. late May-September and closed the rest of the year. A small bookstore is also here. Directly behind Madison Campground is 7,500-foot National Park Mountain, named in honor of a fabled incident in 1870. Three explorers were gathered around the campfire, discussing the wonders that they had found in this area, when one suggested that rather than letting all of these wonders pass into private hands, they should be set aside as a national park. Thus was born the concept that led to the world’s first national park. The tale was passed on as the gospel truth for so long that the mountain was named in honor of this evening. Unfortunately, the story was a complete fabrication. Cynics may read something into the fact that National Park Mountain was torched by the fires of 1988.
North of Madison Junction, the road follows the Gibbon River nearly all of the 14 miles to Norris. It crosses the river five times and hangs right on the edge through Gibbon Canyon. The pretty, 84-foot-high Gibbon Falls is approximately five miles up the road and situated right at the edge of the enormous caldera that fills the center of Yellowstone. The 1988 fires consumed most of the trees around the falls, but the new lodgepoles are now topping 20 feet. Another five miles beyond this point, the road emerges from the canyon into grassy Gibbon Meadows, where elk and bison are commonly seen. The prominent peak visible to the north is 10,336-foot Mt. Holmes. On the west end of Gibbon Meadows is a barren area that contains Sylvan Springs Geyser Basin. No maintained trail leads to this small collection of pools and springs, but hikers sometimes head across the north end of the meadows at the Gibbon River Picnic Area. The path is wet most of the summer.
An easy 0.5-mile trail leads to Artist Paint Pots, filled with colorful plopping and steaming mud pots and hot springs. Although it’s a short hike, the paint pots see far fewer visitors than roadside sites, making this a nice place to escape the crowds. The forest was burned in the North Fork Fire, so it’s also a good place to see how the lodgepole pines are regenerating. Just south of the parking area for Artist Paint Pots is a trail to Monument Geyser Basin, where there isn’t much activity, but the tall sinter cones form all sorts of bizarre shapes, including Thermos Bottle Geyser. The mile-long hike climbs 500 feet and provides views of the surrounding country. Another attraction is Chocolate Pots, found along the highway just north of Gibbon Meadows. The reddish-brown color comes from iron, aluminum, and manganese oxides. Just before you reach Norris, the road crosses through the appropriately named Elk Park.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton, 5th Edition