Many people see the beautiful colors of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and think they know how the park got its name. But the park was not named for the yellow canyon walls. The park took its name from the river that runs through it.
The Yellowstone River neither begins nor ends in Yellowstone National Park but flows through park valleys and canyons for over a hundred miles. The river moves north from its headwaters south of the park boundary through meadows and into Yellowstone Lake. Unlike the many other streams that flow into the lake however, the Yellowstone River is the lake’s only outlet.
It traverses the grass and sagebrush-covered Hayden Valley and flows through the 20-mile long Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone which it carved, creating the magnificent Upper and Lower Falls along the way. The river also cut the Black Canyon before exiting the park at the north boundary.
It continues north into Montana and eventually flows into the Missouri River and the Mississippi River and out into the Gulf of Mexico to join the Atlantic Ocean. At 671 miles, it remains the longest undammed river left in the contiguous United States.
The Yellowstone River is the oldest place name in the park and it was named by the Minnetaree Indians hundreds of miles northeast of what is now YNP. It was named for the color of the sandstone bluffs near present-day Billings, Montana rather than the altered rhyolite of the park’s canyon walls. They called it
“Mi tse a-da-zi”which was translated into French by fur trappers and traders and eventually to English as “Yellowstone” by 1797.
The Yellowstone River not only gives the park its name but as an untamed and major waterway, breathes life into the park, nourishing the landscape’s plants and wildlife. And the word Yellowstone has become almost synonymous with preservation of wildness and America’s idea of national parks.