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UNITED STATES

Compare Our Trips

Trip Itinerary

Get more information about your detailed itinerary, like optional tours, exclusive Discovery Series events, and more.

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13 DAYS FROM $3,495 • $ 269 / DAY
Grand Circle Tour

Trip Itinerary

Take a look at the destinations you’ll discover in the National Parks of the Southwest.

09:10 | 631 views
3

11 DAYS FROM $3,095 • $ 282 / DAY
Grand Circle Tour

5 NIGHTS FROM FROM $1,595

PRE-TRIP EXTENSION

Yellowstone National Park & Montana

DAYS IN UNITED STATES
6

Visit Yellowstone National Park and witness the famed Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, Lower Geyser Basin, and Old Faithful
Experience Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, once a native hunting ground with a unique past, now a beautiful UNESCO World heritage Site

4 NIGHTS FROM FROM $1,295

POST-TRIP EXTENSION

Salt Lake City & Santa Fe

DAYS IN UNITED STATES
4

Experience the lasting glory of the 2002 Olympics when you tour the site in Salt Lake City, complete with commemorative museums and the ice skating rink where history was made 
Take a walking tour of the enchanting city of Santa Fe and experience first hand the famed adobe architecture, unique art style, and irresistible red and green chile sauce

3 NIGHTS FROM FROM $1,395

PRE-TRIP EXTENSION

Denver & the Rocky Mountains

DAYS IN UNITED STATES
3

Enjoy the best view of the Rocky Mountains when you take a tour of the national park, glimpsing a bio-diverse array of plant and wildlife along the way
Tour the ever-changing and thriving city of Denver, known for its farm-fresh cuisine, 300 days of sunshine a year, and walkability

3 NIGHTS FROM FROM $1,095

POST-TRIP EXTENSION

New Mexico: Santa Fe & Taos

DAYS IN UNITED STATES
3

Explore the city of Santa Fe on a walking tour where you'll discover the Spanish Pueblo Revival architectural style of downtown and visit the famed Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Visit Taos Pueblo a UNESCO World Heritage site which features homes built up to a thousand years ago
Discover the Rio Grande Gorge and enjoy the unparalleled vistas of the 50-mile wide, 800 foot deep geological marvel

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Find the Adventure That’s Right for You

Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.

Activity Level 1:

1 2 3 4 5

Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 2:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 3:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderate

Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

Activity Level 4:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

Activity Level 5:

1 2 3 4 5

Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

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Recommended Viewing

Watch this video showcasing what makes this country so unforgettable

Equitrekking: Wyoming

Saddle up and explore the American West the way it as meant to be seen—on horseback.

Produced by Darley Newman
24:12 |   1861 views   
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Recommended Videos

Watch your fellow travelers favorite films & videos

United States: Month-by-Month

There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.

United States in May-June

In May through June, you find the most moderate temperatures, with wildlife active and flowers in bloom, but nights in the desert can be cold and even dip below freezing in Bryce Canyon. Mother animals begin to emerge with their babies in April and May.

Holidays & Events

  • May: Old West Days (Jackson Hole)
  • June: Outdoor Shakespeare performances and music festival season begin (nationwide)

Must See

National parks transform into wet wonderlands after the spring thaw, particularly upper Yellowstone. The melting snow translates into roaring waterfalls at maximum throttle, as well as rushing rivers and creeks. Lakes are at their fullest, yielding post-card perfect reflections in the water.

Watch this film to discover more about United States

Equitrekking: Utah

Ride through the national parks of Utah, discovering the hoodos of Bryce Canyon and more.

24:15 | 1437 views
5

United States in July-August

Summer is the busiest and the warmest season, with temperatures peaking above 100 degrees in Zion. Other regions experience heavy rains. In Arches, for example, there can be flooding.

Holidays & Events

  • July 4: Independence Day is celebrated nationwide with fireworks and barbecues
  • August: Hot Air Balloon festivals take place throughout South Dakota
  • Late August-early September: Moab Music Festival (in mystifying red rock venues surrounding Moab, Utah)

Must See

Pretty much every town surrounding Yellowstone has a rodeo of some kind each year. The nearby family-owned Wild West Yellowstone Rodeo in Montana runs all summer, multiple times a week, with barrel races and bull riding. Cody Nite Rodeo runs every night from July through August for a fun introduction to bronco riding and more. July brings the world’s largest outdoor rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days, to Wyoming, and the Last Stampede rodeo to Montana. Rodeos are a quintessentially-American experience linking the cowboy past to the agricultural communities of today.

Watch this film to discover more about United States

Equitrekking: Utah

Ride through the national parks of Utah, discovering the hoodos of Bryce Canyon and more.

24:15 | 1437 views
5

United States in September-October

September through October generally means the start of cooler weather, but sometimes residents and travelers will receive the pleasant surprise of an extended summer. However, when the weather finally does begin to cool down, leaves change across the nation, turning a long drive down a freeway into a breathtaking display of gold, orange, and red hues. The scent of the air changes, letting Americans know it's time to start thinking about Halloween costume ideas. 

Holidays & Events

  • September: Grand Canyon Music Festival
  • October: Red Rocks Arts Festival (Moab), Great Northwest Oktoberfest

Must See

With cooler weather, kids back in school, and less crowds overall, this is the time of year to visit the National Parks. Wildlife is often visible (as it is elk-mating season) and the foliage can be spectacular, especially in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, accessible from Montana.

Watch this film to discover more about United States

Equitrekking: Utah

Ride through the national parks of Utah, discovering the hoodos of Bryce Canyon and more.

24:15 | 1437 views
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United States Interactive Map

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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations

Yellowstone National Park

When John Colter, former Lewis & Clark expedition member, made a solo journey into the region we now call Yellowstone, he was dazzled, and he became something of an evangelist for the land. He told anyone who would listen about the canyons, waterfalls, and hot springs—descriptions so dramatic that no one believed him at first. Today, we know Colter was right to be in awe of the landscape, as Yellowstone is one of our greatest treasures.

Declared the first national park in the world by Ulysses S. Grant, its fame has gone global, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. It boasts 10,000 hydro-thermal features, including hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and 500 geysers—half the active geysers on Earth. In a park bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, it has superlative after superlative, from most mammals concentrated in one place in North America (67 species, including buffalo, elk, and grizzly) to largest high-elevation lake (with a surface area of 131 miles). 258 species of birds take to the sky and 290 waterfalls plunge towards the earth in a true American wilderness.

Wolves at the Door

Explore the controversy of the U.S. government’s decision to reintroduce the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park.

©2014 The New York Times
11:28 | 1097 views
9

Experience Yellowstone National Park with us on:

Mount Rushmore

There’s no denying the impact of driving through the Black Hills of South Dakota and seeing Mount Rushmore rise into view. 60-foot faces stare into the horizon from an elevation of 5,300 feet. Clearly, it was an epic task, with Gutzon Borglum’s team of 400 women and men working for 14 years to pull it off. 90% of the work was done by dynamite alone, but the finer details were done by hand with jackhammers and chisels, yielding instantly recognizable portraits of four American leaders.

Borglum chose his subjects because he saw them as key players in our history. Washington was crucial for the birth of the nation, first by leading the revolution and then as our inaugural president. Jefferson shepherded our new land into existence, as primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and then grew it, overseeing the doubling of the nation’s size with the Louisiana Purchase. Roosevelt oversaw a period of rapid economic growth while being mindful to limit the effect of monopolies, and also committed to ecology by protecting our natural resources. Lincoln perhaps had the trickiest job of all: preserving the union when it was on the brink of splitting. Three million visitors come here every year to honor the contributions of these great leaders.

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Mesa Verde National Park

While many national parks have been set aside to preserve the environment, this is not so for Mesa Verde. Establishing the park in 1906, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed that he wanted to “preserve the works of man”: 4,700 archaeological sites built by the ancestral Puebloans who inhabited Mesa Verde from the sixth century until 1300. Some of the oldest and best-preserved dwellings in the United State are found here, including pueblos, masonry towers, pit houses, and farming structures perched on top of mesas.

Mesa Verde is best known for one of its “youngest” features—youngest meaning 800 years old. In the last hundred years of habitation, the Puebloans constructed and lived in dwellings carved into the cliff face or refined from natural alcoves in canyon walls. Surprisingly, within only two generations, they had abandoned their mesa communities entirely, leaving behind rocky ghost towns early in the 14th century. The sites have nonetheless endured and offer a portrait of life before America was called America.

Experience Mesa Verde National Park with us on:

Arches National Park

Five miles north of Moab, the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches demands your attention. A whopping 2,000-plus rock formations populate the nearly 77,000 acres, attracting visitors for at least the last 10,000 years (when early visitors left stone carvings to mark their presence). A million people visit the park each year now, delighted by the endless shapes, some whimsical and others majestic.

Deciding what each arch looks like is akin to finding shapes in clouds—it’s all in the eye of the beholder. One formation has been variously known as Schoolmarm Pants, Old Maid Bloomers, Cowboy Chaps, and (currently) Delicate Arch, a 46-foot high span framing a view of the mountains beyond. Another must-see is Balanced Rock, an egg-shaped stone the size of a house perched 128 feet high atop a natural pedestal. It used to have a companion—a boulder named Chip off the Old Block—but erosion took that neighbor down. Visitors flock to see Balanced Rock before it meets a similar fate. Of course, even if one formation loses it shape, there will be 2,000 more to discover.

Experience Arches National Park with us on:

Grand Canyon

Cutting a mile-deep path through the baked rock landscape of northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon is peerless in all of North America. What was once a series of small canyons 70 million years ago became a 277-mile-long wonder about six million years back, when the Colorado River forced its way through the rock. The Grand Canyon is a visible example of the Great Unconformity, in which rock layers differing in age by hundreds of millions of years are found lying atop one another. At the Grand Canyon’s Vishnu Basement Rocks, the layers skip from 1700-million-year-old rock to 550-million-year-old rock—making it some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth.

Humans have lived here since the Ice Age and the Havasupai people still do, in a canyon-floor reservation accessible only by pack mule. Spanish explorers reached the canyon in the 16th century and word spread rapidly. By 1893, the U.S. had declared it a forest reserve, and Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed it a national monument in 1908, with it not formally becoming a national park until 1919. Roosevelt’s words still ring true today: “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”

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Temple Square

Framed east and west by mountains, lovely Salt Lake City is Utah’s most-visited destination. It is famed as the seat of the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). A truly American religion, founded in upstate New York and now approaching its bicentennial, the Mormon church had a rocky road to acceptance, initially facing hostility in the northeast and Midwest, before a westward trek that ended in Salt Lake. They knew immediately that they had found their home and marked a spot for the Mormon Tabernacle just days after arriving. The faithful spent the next 40 years building it, organizing the entire city around it in the meantime.

Known for its choir and 11,600-pipe organ (both of which benefit from the perfect acoustics), the Tabernacle is the city’s showpiece, but not its only attraction. The Family History Library here, originally created to aid with LDS searches for past family members, has become the world’s single largest genealogical resource. Temple Square charms with 35 acres of gardens, trees, and historic architecture. In recent years, the fine-dining scene has come into its own, and a younger, more liberal crowd has found its own niche at local yoga studios, coffee shops, and music venues.

Experience Temple Square with us on:

Featured Reading

Immerse yourself in the United States with this selection of articles, recipes, and more

ARTICLE

Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures: Learn how to make those pictures as perfect as possible.

RECIPE

Fry up some southwest comfort food with this recipe for Navajo Fry Bread.

ARTICLE

Learn about the perseverant spirit of the Navajo, and the trials they’ve faced over the years.

ARTICLE

Learn more about the people who blazed the trail toward establishing America’s first national park.

Capturing Eden

A how-to guide for photographing the U.S. National Parks

by Julia Hudson & Christina Micek

The National Parks of the United States draw travelers by the millions every year, and it’s no wonder. These protected spaces are havens for wild animals, indigenous plants, and landscapes that range from the buttes of Montana to the chasms of the Grand Canyon.

The parks are a dream destination for professional and amateur photographers alike, but the best photography doesn’t happen in Photoshop—it happens right there when you click the shutter. To capture the spirit of these iconic locations, and get the most out of your visit, consider these helpful tips.

Know your filters

Managing glare in the daytime is a major challenge for many landscape photographers, so you’ll want to plan ahead and bring a filter for your camera lens. Filters come in a variety of functions, from protecting the lens from scratches, to blocking ultraviolet light—these invisible rays can end up affecting your final image, producing purple halos or a general haziness. Polarizing filters eliminate the brightness of reflective surfaces such as water, and heighten contrast; beyond these, there are filters for color adjustment, special effects, and graduated exposure (part of the filter is darker than the rest, which is particularly useful when shooting landscapes with sky above). Make sure you practice a bit at home first with your chosen filters, so you don’t spend precious travel time figuring them out!

Composition matters

In the National Parks, beautiful photographic subjects are easy to come by—everything from a flower to a canyon can feel particularly moving in the majestic environment of a park. But a photograph can seem flat without the right composition—so it’s important to consider how you organize your shot as much as what it contains.

The traditional guideline is known as the “rule of thirds.” Basically, the photographer mentally imposes a 3x3 grid on top of the image, and attempts to have something of interest in each of the nine squares. However, don’t let this supposed law control your shots; rather, experiment with different positioning and see what interests you. It might mean lying on the ground to get an eye-level photograph of an animal, or it may mean framing an image with a nearby plant, or climbing on a nearby rock. Just remember: In photography, as in travel, the goal is to find a new point of view.

Don’t poke the bear

The National Parks are rich habitats for so many animals, and there is nothing that compares with the thrill of spotting bison, mountain lions, or other iconic American creatures in the wild. But a word of caution: You won’t want to miss the sometimes quick glimpses of these creatures, so get very familiar with your camera settings and equipment beforehand!

Don’t come too physically close to these animals, since their protected status means they aren’t necessarily used to coming in contact with people. This is why a telephoto lens is a must, although exactly how long will depend on the skittishness of the animal. If you’re planning to travel with a long lens, you’ll want to think about bringing a tripod—or, since you’ll likely be doing some walking through the parks, a “monopod” that can double as a walking stick. For many travelers, a teleconverter is a good solution—these smaller and lighter lens options are easier to pack and carry.

Try alternating between close-ups of the animal, and wider shots that incorporate its environment. This may require swapping out narrow- and wide-angle lenses, but it’s worth it to have a variety of pictures to choose from later.

Capturing the big stuff

The National Parks are full of mountains and other massive subjects. It can be tricky to photograph these without losing some of their majesty, but a well-planned image can convey an impressive sense of grandeur—so it’s well worth the effort!

If you’re shooting from the base of a mountain, for example, you can emphasize height more dramatically with a portrait, or even a telephoto, lens, which will help you to compress the subject without too much distortion. If you’re further away from your subject, you can emphasize distance with a wide-angle lens—our photography team recommends trying a focal length of 20-30mm. A wide-angle lens increases the depth of field, or distance at which the image remains in focus, so your viewer can take in the full scale of the landscape.

Watch the light

Don’t forget to consider the angle of the light; if your subject is evenly lit from the front, it can flatten your image (filters will help a lot here, too). Try to take your pictures from the side, or at a time of day when you can see some shadows on the surface—a slightly sideways, or “raking,” light is ideal.

Capturing Eden

Recipe: Navajo Fry Bread

Also known as Indian Fry Bread, this southwestern dish has a somber origin. In 1864, the Navajo people were forcibly removed by the U.S. government from their ancestral homelands in an exodus to New Mexico known as The Long Walk. Finding the land unsuitable for agriculture, the Navajo were required to invent new recipes out of their meager supplies. Needing little more than lard, flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder, Fry Bread quickly became a staple.

Today, the bread holds a sacred place in the Navajo cultural identity, but has also gained widespread appeal throughout the southwest United States, where it’s served at state fairs, festivals, and cooked up at home as comfort food for all to enjoy.

Follow along with the recipe below and try it for yourself. With its crispy golden brown exterior and decadently soft, chewy center, it tastes great as a snack on its own, but it’s also commonly used as a base for Navajo Tacos. Top the bread with ground beef, beans, onions, green chili peppers, or whatever your favorite toppings may be, and enjoy a new take on taco night. Navajo Fry Bread also makes for an excellent dessert: Glaze it with honey, butter, cinnamon, or powdered sugar, and enjoy it as a light, sweet after-dinner treat.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon powdered milk
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Vegetable oil for frying (you can also use Crisco or lard instead)

Preparation:

  1. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt, powdered milk, and baking powder. Pour the water into the mixture all at once and stir the dough with a fork until it begins to form one large lump. Cover the bowl with a towel or cloth and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Powder your hands thoroughly with flour and hand-mix the dough into a ball. Mix the dough well, but don’t knead it, your goal is to keep the Fry Bread light as it cooks. Cut the dough into four pieces, then shape and lightly flatten each one into a disk of about 5 to 7 inches in diameter using your flour-covered hands.
  3. In a cast-iron skillet or deep, heavy pot, pour a 1-inch layer of vegetable oil and heat it on your stove top to about 350 degrees F. You can use a cooking thermometer to check on the temperature, or toss a small scrap of dough into the pot and see if it starts to sizzle.
  4. Using metal tongs, gently lower a piece of dough into the oil, taking care not to make a splash. Use the tongs to submerge the dough into the oil, and cook a few minutes until golden-brown, then flip and repeat for the opposite side. Remove the cooked bread onto a paper towel to soak the oil, and repeat the process for the remaining pieces of dough.
  5. Layer your choice of sweet or savory toppings on the bread and serve, or eat it plain as a light fried snack.

Prep Time: 45 minutes

Cook Time : 8 minutes

Servings: 4

Recipe: Navajo Fry Bread

The complex history of the Navajo

From the “long walk” to code talk

By Philip McCluskey, for Grand Circle Travel

In 1864, General James H. Carleton sent a message to Manuelito, the last Navajo chief who had yet to surrender to the US Army. The message was simple: Surrender or face war. "My God and my mother live in the West, and I will not leave them," said Manuelito. "I shall remain. I have nothing to lose but my life."

A bloody and defiant past

Manuelito said these words during one of the most painful times in the history of the Navajo (also known as the Diné, which means "the people")—a period that included the infamous "Long Walk." American forces had killed or captured thousands of Navajo people, and forced the remaining members of the tribe (more than 9,000 people) to march the 300 miles from Window Rock, Arizona to Bosque Redondo Reservation in New Mexico. Starvation, bitter cold, disease, and exhaustion took its toll. Between 200 and 300 people died on the 18-day trek, and more than 2,000 died during the extended incarceration at Bosque Redondo.

Manuelito’s defiance was a reflection of Navajo sentiment at the time: anger at the continued takeover of their ancestral lands. The Navajo leader eventually surrendered in 1866—primarily because his people were starving—and was sent to Bosque Redondo where he endured the same terrible conditions as the rest of this people. His commitment to his people never wavered. In 1868, he traveled to Washington, DC and negotiated for a new reservation in his people’s traditional homeland. The treaty signed there established the Navajo as a sovereign nation.

Today, the Navajo Nation is one of the largest Native American tribes in the United States. Set on 27,000-square-miles of land stretching across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, the Navajo reservation is home to more than 170,000 members of the tribe (the Nation itself has more than 300,000 registered members). The Navajo people are proud of their history—in particular an episode that included helping the very army that had caused them so much pain and grief.

Fighting for the future

It happened during World War II, when the US Army was looking for a form of battlefield communication that was effective yet undetectable by enemy forces. A man named Philip Johnston, who grew up on a Navajo reservation, had the idea to use the Navajo language as a code. As a complex, esoteric language (it was estimated that only 30 non-Navajo could understand the language at that time), Navajo would be undecipherable by enemy forces, Johnston contended. The army was skeptical at first, but eventually approved a pilot program that would include 29 Navajo men.

The program was started with 211 words that were commonly used in the military, which were translated into Navajo. The "code talkers" were drilled again and again on the code—even a minor mistake, after all, could mean the difference between life and death. After the code was in use for a while, it was expanded by an additional 200 words.

The code was used in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945 in battles such as Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, and successfully befuddled the Japanese. They were unable to decipher what they were hearing, which made the code one of the most important secrets of the war. The code talkers were not officially recognized until 1968—when the program was declassified—but were eventually commended by President Ronald Reagan, who declared August 14, 1982 as "Navajo Code Talkers Day." In 2001, the living code talkers were presented with medals by President George W. Bush.

In his remarks, President Bush said that America was paying tribute to the code talkers and to the "tradition and community that produced such men, the great Navajo Nation." The story of those Navajos, he said, was "a story that all Americans should celebrate, and every American should know."

Like their long-ago leader Manuelito, the Navajo have remained in spite of the many difficulties they have faced—and their story continues to unfold.

 

The complex history of the Navajo

The Lesser-Known Names of Yellowstone

The people who helped make the world’s first National Park a reality

by Philip McCluskey, for Grand Circle

The man most often associated with the founding of Yellowstone National Park is Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States. It’s understandable; after all, Grant was the man who signed Yellowstone into existence in March 1, 1872, enshrining this two-million-acre plot of land as a "public park … for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

That day marked the creation of the world’s first national park—and the beginning of a new era of conservation, wildlife protection, and tourism that has since taken root all over the world. It’s not hard to see why this place was chosen. Yellowstone is geologically fascinating: There are more than 10,000 thermal features in the park, including geysers, mud pots, and fumaroles (fissures that emit steam from under the Earth’s crust). The park is also home to scores of mammal species such as bears, bison, moose and mountain lions. And of course, it is a stunningly beautiful landscape of grasslands, rivers, mountains, and waterfalls that has left visitors in awe for more than 140 years.

And while Grant can certainly be credited with officially designating the wilderness as a protected natural playground, he is far from the only one responsible for making this first great American park a reality.

Paradise Found

After hundreds of years in which Native Americans were the sole visitors to this region, John Colter was the first person of European descent to explore it. Colter was a mountain man who was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and spent the winter of 1807-1808 discovering the area now known as Yellowstone on his own. In spite of brutal conditions (including temperatures that often dipped to 30 below zero), Colter made his way hundreds of miles through the unforgiving wilderness. When he returned to civilization, he told stories of geysers and gurgling cauldrons. Many dismissed his descriptions and playfully called the region "Colter’s Hell."

After the Civil War, interest in the American West grew, and other people began to see that the area Colter described was more paradise than purgatory. One of them was Nathaniel P. Langford. While he lived a fascinating life during which he was a tax collector and a Montana vigilante, Langford was better known as a member of the famed Washburn–Langford–Doane Expedition to Yellowstone in 1870. He was an active proponent of the idea of national parks—so much so that he would say his first two initials stood for National Park. Langford was chosen the park’s first superintendent, and Mount Langford, in the park’s Absaroka Range, is named after him.

Establishing America’s first national park

While tales of the explorations of this region certainly piqued the interest of Americans, it is difficult to imagine Congress taking the unprecedented action of creating a national park without the members of the Hayden Geological Survey.

The survey’s leader was Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, a geologist and physician who served as an Army surgeon during the Civil War, eventually rising to be the chief medical officer of the Army of the Shenandoah. After the war, he was named the geologist-in-charge at the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, and in 1871 was assigned to do a survey of Yellowstone. Though dozens joined Hayden on the expedition, two men stood out (in addition to Hayden himself) for the impact they would have. They were not geologists, but artists: painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson.

Moran was an illustrator who was recommended to Hayden by the financier Jay Cooke, who spoke of the artist’s "rare genius." Moran joined the team and drew 30 different places along their route, which captured the true beauty of the region and later the admiration of Americans. His career took off: Today, one of Moran’s paintings, The Three Tetons, can be found in the Oval Office of the White House. The painter was forever linked with the park, and he embraced the connection: he even signed some of his paintings "TYM" for Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran.

Jackson was recruited by Hayden after he’d taken photographs of scenery along the Union Pacific Railroad. As an artist in a relatively new medium, in a place that hadn’t seen cameras before, Jackson was able to create stunning photographs of scenery most of the world had never seen. As it had with Moran, the Yellowstone expedition launched Jackson’s career—one that would continue for another 70 years until his death in 1942.

Hayden’s survey, along with Moran’s sketches and Jackson’s photography, captured the imagination of the nation and the attention of its legislators. It wasn’t long before Congress passed a law to make Yellowstone the first of many national parks, and for the bill to find its way to U.S. Grant’s presidential desk.

On that day in 1872, President Grant did indeed make history. But he was merely the last in a long line of intrepid men who helped make it happen.

The Lesser-Known Names of Yellowstone

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