Where can you see the world’s largest mineral hot spring, a volcano plug, and a lake formed by an earthquake? Your route to and from Yellowstone includes some of the most unusual natural wonders. Whether you are approaching the park from the north, south, east or west, this list includes an awe-inspiring stop for your road trip.
1. Flathead Lake, Montana
It sounds too huge to comprehend, but Flathead Lake covers nearly 200-square-miles of the state, making it the largest natural lake in the western United States. Carved by Ice Age glaciers, it stretches 30 miles long and 15 miles across at its widest point. Drive the 28 miles north to south around it to really get a sense for its beauty and size. It is fed by the two rivers: the Flathead and Swan. You also can camp, fish, swim or boat there from one of the 13 public access sites maintained by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
The southern half of Flathead Lake is within the boundary of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Reservation. Recreationists must purchase a tribal recreation permit.
2. The Sinks at Sinks Canyon State Park, Wyoming
Just outside of Lander, Wyo., lies Sinks Canyon State Park where the curious Popo Aggie River mysteriously vanishes into a large cavern, known as The Sinks, only to reappear about a half-mile down canyon. This natural phenomenon is worth a visit, and the park itself is home to great hiking trails, areas of picnic and places to watch rock climbers hanging from ropes high on the canyon’s rock walls.
Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails
3. Earthquake Lake, Montana
See the powerful impacts of the Aug. 17, 1959, earthquake that hit this area of southwestern Montana and created Earthquake Lake. When the 7.5 earthquake struck just before midnight, it triggered a massive landslide on Sheep Mountain that raced down the mountain at 100 miles per hour and killed 28 people in its path. Today, you can visit the visitor center 27 miles northwest of West Yellowstone on US-287, and learn more about Earth’s powerful forces.
Custer Gallatin National Forest
4. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Looming above the rolling landscape near Gillette, Wyo. is Devils Tower, an incredible rock formation. A sacred spot for the Lakota and other Native American tribes, it also is a mecca for rock climbers who are attracted to its fine cracks. The tower was formed by magma that made its way in between or into other rock formations, but there’s still mystery around how that process took place. Discover this amazing sight yourself. If you are not going to climb, bring your binoculars to watch climbers ascend the tower. The monument is open 24 hours a day, 7 days per week year round. The Visitor Center and the Devils Tower Natural History Association Bookstore are open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Devils Tower National Monument
5. Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho
For a far-out place, Craters of the Moon in central Idaho is well-worth the drive. The lava field here, which covers 618 square miles, formed between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago. You can stretch your legs and take an hour-long walk to the North Crater Flow trail, Spatter Cones and Devil’s Orchard Trails. You’ll feel as if you are walking on the surface of the moon amid this black and barren landscape. Or if you only have 30 minutes, stay in your car and drive the scenic 7-mile loop.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
6. Boars Tusk of the Red Desert, Wyoming
South of Yellowstone near Rock Springs, Wyo., you’ll find the largest living dune system in the United States – the Kilpecker Sand Dunes. In its center rises a 400-foot butte. It’s all that’s left of a long-extinct volcano. Over thousands of years it has eroded down to the volcanic plug. The formation is a fun, moderate climb, but take extra care as the rock is really loose. To see the Boars Tusk, take a 4WD vehicle on Chilton Road east of Highway 191 and north of Interstate 80. Check in with the Rock Springs Visitors Center for directions.
Sweetwater County Tourism Board
7. Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, Wyoming
You will find a town that revolves around mineral hot springs when you stop in Thermopolis, Wyo.,which is a Greek term meaning “hot city.” The town is named after the hot water that comes from Big Spring. Every day, it releases 3.6 million gallons of water containing at least 27 different minerals. Hot Springs State Park, at the edge of town, is home to three pools, each offering different services. Don’t miss the 104-degree Fahrenheit therapeutic pool at the free State Bath House. You can rent towels for a nominal fee.