Often, when I travel through Yellowstone, I like to imagine the park before roads. Roads take us to the geyser basins, the lakes, and the valleys. These roads attempt to show us Yellowstone’s heart. In many ways, Hayden Valley is the heart of Yellowstone.
Geographically, Hayden Valley is the heart of the Yellowstone plateau. The plateau rises 8,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by 12,000 foot mountains. Hayden Valley, the largest valley in the park, is really an old lake bed. During the Pinedale glaciation, which ended around 14,000 years ago, water from Yellowstone Lake flooded this 17,000 acre valley.
Historically, Hayden Valley is also the heart of Yellowstone. Early visitors, from Native Americans to the first European trappers, used the valley almost like a compass, while navigating across the plateau.
Biologically, Hayden Valley pumps life into Yellowstone. In August, the valley is the scene of the largest free roaming bison rut that occurs in North America. Grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes, elk, moose and dozens of bird species call Hayden Valley home.
Hayden Valley was named after Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Dr. Hayden led the first official exploration of Yellowstone in 1871.
Artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson accompanied Hayden on that exploration of Yellowstone. The paintings and photos from that trip helped convince congress that Yellowstone was worthy of protection.
In Hayden Valley, the Yellowstone River is closed to fishing. This added protection helps maintain one of the most pristine watersheds found in the western United States.
It’s fitting that this valley, which remains so important to the health of Yellowstone’s wildness, was named for a man that was so instrumental in Yellowstone becoming the world’s first national park.