Yellowstone National Park - What to see and do in our nation's 1st National Park!
Check out my blog post on What to Bring When Visiting A National Park here.
Yellowstone! It's amazing how a single word can symbolize so much imagery. From Old Faithful to the reintroduction of wolves to Yogi Bear to the latest T.V. sensation, Yellowstone means something different to each of us. Whatever images you think of I can say, without hesitation, that after you visit this enormously amazing park you will think of numerous images, all of which you have never seen the likes of before. My pictures do not do this park justice. To date I have visited 30 national parks with Yellowstone National Park being my 29th park visited. I would have to state that Yellowstone NP is in my top five list, and that says a lot! Our countries national parks are very diverse and astonishingly beautiful. You will not be disappointed visiting Yellowstone National Park, you will only wish you had more time to spend here.
Where to Stay
While camping in Yellowstone NP sounds like a fun idea, you need to have camping equipment and obtain a camping reservation far in advance to camp in Yellowstone. If camping is the option you would like and are traveling by camper or car with all of your gear then check out this camping in Yellowstone link. For me, my ideal visit to a national park includes a comfy mattress, indoor plumbing, heat, a coffee maker, and a free continental breakfast. Every national park I visit I will initially search for a map of the park. Yellowstone NP has five park entrances, therefore you should stay in a town nearby one of these entrances. Since my husband and I were flying out of Bozeman Airport (which is 1 hour and 45 minutes North) and the North entrance was closed due to the historic flooding in June of 2022 we decided to stay near the West entrance of Yellowstone NP. We did make this trip part of a triple play (Glacier NP, Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP) and arrived in Kalispell, Montana to visit Glacier NP, drove 6 hours to West Yellowstone, visited Yellowstone NP, drove 2 hours and visited Grand Teton NP. Whew! that was a lot to type, imagine planning it all. At any rate, check out my blog for Glacier National Park and Grand Teton National Park if you would like to try your own trifecta.
My favourite site to search for a nearby hotel is booking.com or is it booking.yeah? I love those commercials! I found a great hotel off of booking.com's website since there were no Marriott properties near the West entrance. There are many reviews for each listing and I always look at the Good to Excellent range. The hotel I chose had a Good/7.9 rating, which is great for the price and location. We stayed at Yellowstone Lodge in West Yellowstone. The hotel included a nice breakfast and is literally a 5 minute drive from the West Entrance of Yellowstone NP, which is a plus when you want to enter the park early in the morning.
When to Go
Yellowstone National Park has nearly 5,000,000 visitors per year!!!!!! The summer months are the most crowded, therefore I usually plan to visit any major national park, especially Yellowstone NP, in the off season (spring or fall). In June of 2022, Yellowstone experienced a 500 -year flood event, which caused catastrophic damage to the North part of the park and ultimately led to the closure of the entire park. Guess when I was planning on visiting the park? June of 2022!!!!!! As fate would have it, the park reopened the day we were arriving. Had I not been able to enter the park I would have been devastated and just plan to spend an extra day in the Grand Tetons, but thankfully, we were able to enter the park. We spent only one day at Yellowstone National Park. If I could replan this all over again I would have stayed for at least two days to visit this park. The vast size of this park makes it difficult to see the major sites in just one day.
Plan Your Day
Plan to enter the park early ( 7 - 8 am) and don't forget to fill up your gas tank prior to arriving (we made that mistake) however, there are a couple of gas stations inside Yellowstone NP. Although the park is open 24 hours a day / 7 days a week, many visitors will begin to wake up and start their tour of the park as well. At the park entrance is a an entry gate where a ranger will collect an entrance fee of $35 per vehicle that is good for 1 -7 days. If you are U.S. Military or a U.S. Veteran ask about getting into the park for free. At the entrance always ask for a park map and a pamphlet about the park. It will provide information about the type of animals that one needs to be aware of while visiting. The top sites to visit in the park do not have very big parking lots and will fill up fast as the day progresses ( You can always park alongside the road near the parking lot, just be prepared to walk a lot farther). Therefore, it is my suggestion that you visit the most desired sites first and then stop by the less desired sites later in the day. The top visited sites in Yellowstone are:
Upper Geyser Basin
Grand Prismatic Spring
Mammoth Hot Springs
Morning Glory Pool
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Old Faithful & The Upper Geyser Basin
First stop, Old Faithful! As luck would have it, there is an amazing visitor centre at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. Follow the directions from the ranger at the entrance to this visitor center which is about an hour drive. Upon arriving you will find an enormous parking lot. Find a spot to park and walk up to the visitor center. Don't worry, Old Faithful is directly behind this visitor center. The rangers at the station will be able to tell you when the next eruption will be so you can prepare to watch it. At the visitor center visit with a ranger and ask as many questions as you would like. Discuss with the park ranger where you would like to visit and how much time you plan on staying in the park. On your park map the ranger will go over with you in detail a plan for your day. They will highlight trails and tell you which ones to visit first and give you alternative ideas. For me this is a must! The national park rangers live in this park and know everything about it. Once you have a plan for your day, make a quick stop at the gift shop for that souvenir t-shirt and visit the facilities. Now we can head out the back entrance to visit our first stop......Old Faithful.
Old Faithful is one of 500 geysers in Yellowstone NP and one of six that park rangers can predict when it will erupt. Old Faithful erupts around 21 times per day at a height of 90 to 184 feet. There are many benches surrounding Old Faithful for thousands of people to enjoy so grab a seat and wait for the show to start.
While Old Faithful is spectacular to witness the other geysers near Old Faithful are just as wondrous. Just to the left of Old Faithful is the beginning of the Upper Geyser Basin Trail. This trail is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!!! There are signs that will direct you to the trail which begins on a paved path and then becomes a wooden boardwalk. This boardwalk was built because you will be walking along the highest concentration of geysers in the world. Almost 150 geysers are located in this one square mile area. You will witness geysers of all colours and sizes such as the impressive Morning Glory Pool, which is pictured in the top center photo below.
This trail will continue through a forested area in which more geysers are located. Since we were walking along a beautiful trail with many trees for shade and getting hungry we decided to stop to eat our packed lunch and drink some water just off the path. Always remember to bring plenty of water with you in a backpack while hiking to stay hydrated. Also, be vigilant and keep an eye out for wildlife. Once refreshed we continued on our journey. This trail does conclude at the Biscuit Basin Trail where more geysers can be found. This trail is at least 2.5 miles / 45 minutes in one direction. Since we had so much to see in one day we decided to turn around at the halfway point and headed back to Old Faithful. While heading back towards Old Faithful we heard some park rangers pleading with everyone within the vicinity to move towards Old Faithful. Apparently a bear and her cubs made an appearance on the geyser trail. Extreme caution should be taken if one is near a grizzly bear with cubs. While many people would like to see a bear in the wild, the only bear I want to see in the wild are gummy bears (which I enjoyed with my lunch). One should always distance themselves at least two football fields away from a bear, if possible. In addition, buffalo are known to roam many of these areas. Chances are extremely likely that you will see a buffalo right along the street. Extreme caution should be taken with buffalo as well. They have been known to charge people. Please read my blog about wildlife in national parks here.
Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin
Next stop, Grand Prismatic Spring, which is located at the Midway Geyser Basin and is Yellostone's largest hot spring. The parking lot is very small and when we arrived it was already full so we parked alongside the road and walked an easy extra .25 mile to get to the parking lot.While at this site you will enter a boardwalk (.8 miles) and walk almost single-file, one way towards the Grand Prismatic Spring. At 370 feet in diameter and over 121 feet deep, this stunning spring is a rainbow of colours. Bright bands of orange, yellow and green rings amid deep blue water occur because of the presence of bacteria in different temperatures. Each color is made from the type of bacteria that thrive in each temperature ring. There are a few other springs at this location that are amazing to view along the boardwalk, but the Grand Prismatic Spring is definitely the star of the show.
If you would like to view Grand Prismatic Spring from above there is a trail close by that you can visit. You cannot reach this trail from the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk! You need to get back into your car and drive about a .25 mile down the road to the Fairy Falls Trail parking lot. You passed this parking lot on the way to Midway Geyser Basin. This parking lot is a lot larger and we found a parking spot within the lot. To get to the overlook walk down the very wide and flat dirt trail for 0.6 miles until you reach a fork in the road. Take the left fork and continue for an additional 0.2 miles up a steep hill (this can be difficult for many) to a lookout area. The views of the Grand Prismatic Spring are stunning and not to be missed. Continue down the hill and return on the dirt trail you arrived on. This trip took a total of 45 minutes to walk. The Fairy Falls Trail does continue an additional few miles to a waterfall, however we decided to only visit the viewpoint here.
Buffalo roam everywhere in Yellowstone National Park. Take pictures at a safe distance. Similar to bears, try and stay at least two football fields away from buffalo. They have been known to charge people and cars that get too close.
As you can see in the map above ( We started on the West side near Madison and are circumnavigating the park in a counterclockwise direction) Yellowstone Lake is HUGE! We drove passed this enormous lake for nearly an hour. While absolutely expansive ( 20 miles long and 14 miles wide) and I'm certain a wonderful area to visit ( Visit Yellowstone National Park Lodge website for boat rentals and scenic cruises ) we were heading toward Lake Village visitor centre. Visitor Centers are great to get a snack, use the restroom and refill your water bottles.
After freshening up at the visitor center we continued our expedition around Yellowstone NP heading North towards Sulphur Caldron. Also, one can find Mud Volcano nearby, which is a bubbling mass of mud. While Mud Volcano sounded cool, we opted to visit Sulphur Caldron. As the day progressed we began to lose our mojo and Sulphur Caldron just sounded a little more exotic. Sulphur Caldron looked and smelled like a nasty witch's brew. With a ph of 1-2, Sulphur Caldron's boiling waters looked and sounded similar to my stomach after eating a Mexican meal. This area is a just a viewpoint overlooking the spring below. Plan to be amazed. We spent roughly about 15 minutes here.
On the road again and now we are entering Hayden Valley. Once part of Yellowstone Lake, this dried up land is now home to countless wildlife. One can see the largest concentration of bison in the world here. Keep your eyes open for wolves, bears, and elk, which are some of the other wildlife species known to explore this area. Hayden Valley is roughly 7 miles long and basically viewed from one's car. (Did you know about 90% of national park visitors never leave their car?) There are pullout sites along the road to take some photos of the plethora of bison on the open verdant plains. There are so many areas in the park to just enjoy from one's car. Hayden Valley is not to be missed.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Heading further north we entered the area known as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. There are many opportunities to hike this area or just take a short walk to many viewpoints. Yellowstone National Park is located where a huge volcanic eruption took place nearly 630,000 years ago. The empty cavity that once contained magma collapsed forming a long depression. This depression filled with lava which flowed for thousands of years. The Yellowstone River eroded the soft rock and expanded the canyon which still continues today. At the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are three waterfalls, the Lower, Crystal and Upper Falls. The Lower Falls are 308 feet and are the tallest in the park. We stopped at Inspiration Point overlook to witness panoramic views of Yellowstone Falls and the canyon. While one can just park here and take in the views one can also hike the North Rim Trail that begins at Inspiration Point. Plan to spend at least 20 minutes at this impressive site.
At this point dusk was upon us and we had an hour's drive to the Western entrance/exit of the park. The drive back was just as wondrous with nonstop, flourishing forests. Nearly 800,000 acres of forest in Yellowstone had once burned in the fire of 1988 due to small fires that grew quickly because of drought and wind. There have been other fires in the park, but nothing compares to the magnitude of the fire in 1988. Vast areas of towering dead trees filled the landscape, which were dotted with sprouts of miniature conifers beside them.
After a spectacular day of hiking, walking and driving we headed straight to dinner. I personally love Yelp and will peruse their vast array of reviews of local restaurants to choose a place that is not a chain restaurant and really exemplifies the local fare. Therefore, I chose for us to saddle up at The Buffalo Bar, which was just outside the West Yellowstone entrance/exit and 5 minutes from our hotel. The Buffalo Bar lived up to everything I was searching for in a restaurant, which is great service, food and drinks. Their slider flight did not disappoint, nor did their Huckleberry Lemonade.
Sadly, as a result of the historic flooding just weeks prior to our visit, we were not able to visit Lamar Valley or Mammoth Hot Springs, which both look to be distinctively wonderful to visit. Nevertheless, one day we will return to Yellowstone National Park to explore these areas. As a reminder, always check the National Park's website for closures and other pertinent information.
Since we were not able to explore almost half of the park and I love to ride horses I searched for local horseback riding tours near West Yellowstone. Read about my visit to the Diamond P Ranch in West Yellowstone, Montana here.
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