Yellowstone National Park was the first national park, so it is no surprise that it continually ranks as one of the 10 most popular national parks in the United States. In 2017, the park experienced its second busiest year on record with 4,116,525 visits (we contributed 5!). Over 90% of visitors arrive between Memorial Day and Labor Day!
Yes, the most popular areas of the park are busy and parking lots seem inadequate to accommodate the massive crowds during the summer months. However, Yellowstone still deserves a place on everyone’s bucket list. The wildlife and geothermal features are the main draws, but this park has so much to offer. We only had three days, but I am sure we could have easily spent weeks exploring the park and surrounding area!
These are some reasons why we know you’ll fall for Yellowstone National Park, too!
Yellowstone National Park hikes and sights are highlighted in our 18+ page itinerary for Yellowstone National Park.
Since we entered Yellowstone from the south entrance (via the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway), we made our first stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Although not the most talked about spot in the park, this beautiful geyser basin on the shore of Yellowstone Lake is a must see. This area offers the largest collection of hydrothermal features by the lakeshore—some like the famous Fishing Cone can even be found in the lake!
2) OLD FAITHFUL
People travel from all over the world to watch this famous geyser erupt. Since Old Faithful is very predictable, you can easily plan ahead by checking the visitor center for current geyser activity and eruption times. Yes, it IS impressive, and I am glad we were able to share this experience with our children. However, if you are like us, sitting or standing amongst crowds of people is not our favorite place to be.
Don’t let the crowds around Old Faithful scare you away. The boardwalks and trails that wind around Upper Geyser Basin lead to the world’s largest concentration of active geysers and hot springs. Our kids were amazed by the variety of geysers and the depth and color of many of the hot springs. The 1.4 mile walk out to Morning Glory Pool is a great way to distance yourself from the massive crowds. If you are lucky, you may see an eruption or two (or more!) on the way there!
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A trip to Yellowstone National Park wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Midway Geyser Basin to view Grand Prismatic Spring. This rainbow-colored hot spring is one of the largest in the world and is striking! Sadly, the Fairy Falls trail was closed at the time of our visit, so we could only view Grand Prismatic from the boardwalk. However, the new Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook trail is an easy hike to a viewing platform looking down on the Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin. We have a feeling this new trail will be a popular spot after last year’s closure, and since parking is limited at the Fairy Falls trailhead. No matter how you choose to view this popular hot spring, plan to pack your patience—for the busy parking lots and the crowds of people on the boardwalks.
Plan to spend at least a couple of hours in the Canyon area of the park and be prepared to be amazed! The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, carved by the mighty Yellowstone River, is 20 miles long. This place is so amazing and picturesque, you will want to take the time to visit both North and South Rims and get photos from a variety of viewpoints. The South Rim Drive leads to the famed Artist Point with views of the Lower Falls. This was our first stop in the area. The canyon walls look surreal in pastel shades of yellow and pink. The falls are beautiful even at a distance.
However, if you are up for some exercise and 328 steps, take the time to do Uncle Tom’s trail for a close-up view of the Lower Falls! Since the parking area for Uncle Tom’s Trail was closed at the time of our visit, we enjoyed the hike along the canyon from Artist Point to the trailhead. This trail is not very crowded and offers views of the canyon the entire way.
North Rim Drive leads to trails and viewpoints including Brink of the Lower Falls, Red Rock, Lookout Point and Grand View. All are short in distance but some trails like Brink of the Lower Falls and Red Rock are steep, so you’ll have a bit of a climb to get back up. You’ll want to witness the power and feel the spray as the water runs downriver and then plunges over the 308 feet drop, so we highly recommend you put on your walking shoes and take the trail to the Brink of the Lower Falls. Lookout Point was crowded with people vying for the best place to take a photo, so we recommend hiking down the less busy Red Rock trail.
5) ARTISTS PAINTPOTS
Located between Madison and Norris, the 1.1-mile Artists Paintpots trail is an easy way to view a variety of geothermal features without the crowds. This loop trail is a combination of dirt and boardwalk. Climb the steps to reach the paint pots situated on the hillside and to see the view from the top. Looking down from this upper portion of the trail yields beautiful views of the hydrothermal basin below and the pine forest to the north. The day we visited, the stormy skies behind Mount Holmes created a dramatic backdrop for photos!
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and most acidic hydrothermal area in Yellowstone. It is also the location of the world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat Springs. The variety of colors found in the hot springs are evidence of minerals in the water as well as a wide variety of thermophiles (heat-loving microorganisms) that thrive here. The boardwalks around Porcelain Basin were our favorite of the two areas to explore with the milky silica saturated pools and the variety of colors in the bacterial mats around many of the pools. If you have more time, explore the forested Back Basin loop where thermal features are more scattered.
You think you’ve seen it all, as far as hot springs go, until you see the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. It looks like you are on another planet! When hot water from the springs rises through the limestone which underlies the Mammoth area, the mineral calcium carbonate is dissolved. It is then deposited at the surface forming the white travertine terraces. Features here are always changing! It is worth taking the time to wander around the boardwalks of the Lower Terraces and Upper Terraces. We explored the area on a rainy summer evening with no crowds. We’ve heard this can be a very, hot area on a summer day due to the lack of shade, so I guess lucked out!
8) MUD VOLCANO
If you can deal with the pungent sulfur odor (not sure our children will every forget it!), you should check out Mud Volcano. The boardwalk loop here winds through a bizarre landscape with turbulent, muddy pools and steaming vents. Names like Dragon’s Mouth Spring, Grizzly Fumarole, Sour Lake, and Cooking Hillside aptly describe the features. Be warned: bison frequent this area. They will walk on the boardwalks and wherever they choose, so be safe and do not approach them. We backtracked the entire distance of the trail since three blocked our access to the parking lot at the end of the loop. Better safe than sorry!
Yes, the geothermal features and waterfalls are impressive, but the abundance and assortment of wildlife attract just as many visitors. Yellowstone National Park is home to more wild animals than almost anywhere else in the United States. Large herds of bison, elk and groups of pronghorn graze and roam free, often along the side of the road. Lamar and Hayden Valleys are two spots where you’ll see the most wildlife and the least number of tourists. Photographers and wildlife enthusiasts line the pullouts with spotting scopes scanning the valleys for signs of wolves, black and grizzly bears, and other wild animals. We never saw any wolves, but we hear the best time to spot them is at dawn. If you don’t mind waking early, maybe you’ll get lucky!
10) SCENIC DRIVES
If you’re planning to explore many of the features already mentioned, at a minimum, you’ll have to drive on the western side of Grand Loop Road. Although the entire figure eight could be driven in a day, we don’t recommend seeing the park this way. Take the time to enjoy exploring, hiking and driving through this amazing park. It is best broken into sections because it is so large, and there’s so much to see and do! Three scenic drives stand out in our minds and you’ll want to be sure to do all of them—Lamar Valley (and east all the way to the northeast entrance station), Dunraven Pass and Hayden Valley. If you have time to venture outside the park, we highly recommend taking the time to drive on the Beartooth Highway up to Beartooth Pass. It’s not in the park, you’ll regret if you miss this drive!
MORE REASONS TO FALL IN LOVE WITH YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
If you have more time, here are some other activities that we suggest:
DAY HIKING (There are more than 900 miles of hiking trails! If you are looking to get off the beaten path, get on your hiking shoes and explore the more remote areas of Yellowstone. Be sure to carry bear spray!)
- RAFTING (Feeling adventurous? Take an unforgettable rafting trip down the Yellowstone River! We used the Flying Pig Adventure Company in Gardiner, MT. The guides are friendly, funny, and generally amazing.)
- RANGER PROGRAMS
- HORSEBACK RIDING
Yellowstone National Park is and will continue to be one of the most visited national parks in the US. With this in mind, we can’t stress how important it is to plan ahead and make reservations when possible.
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FURTHER INFORMATION ON YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Yellowstone National Park hikes and sights are highlighted in our 18+ page itinerary for Yellowstone National Park.
- Our son wrote up a blog post on Yellowstone National Park in 2017-check out what his perspective was on the area as well!
- Yellowstone National Park was highlighted in our blog post on 7 Family Friendly Hikes in U.S. National Parks.
- Nearby Beartooth Pass was highlighted in a recent blog post by our son Andrew.
- To experience similar wildlife as Yellowstone but with a calmer, more relaxed (and less crowded setting), check out Custer State Park in South Dakota. We cover this in our blog six reasons why you'll fall in love with Custer State Park.
OTHER USEFUL LINKS ON YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
- If you love waterfalls, check out this blog by Photo Jeepers: 7 Fabulous Yellowstone Waterfalls
- Traveling with kids? Here are some travel tips for visiting Yellowstone National Park with kids from We3Travel.
- Need information where to stay? This blog by Bearfoot Theory provides some great camping and lodging options in Yellowstone National Park.
- Prefer off-season travel? Check out this article by Only in Bozeman on how to experience Yellowstone Tours in the Winter.