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!
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! It’s no wonder why this area made it to our list of the Best Hikes in Yellowstone National Park.
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.
4) GRAND CANYON OF THE YELLOWSTONE
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!
If you happen to be lucky enough to be heading to Yellowstone National Park in the winter, before your trip you’ll want to be sure and check out Donna and Alan’s blog (from “My Itchy Travel Feet”) on how to visit Lamar Valley in the winter. The photos are amazing, and the information is a “must read” before you go.
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
- FISHING (and if you are fishing, make sure you check out Steph’s blog (from Camping Cooks) on some terrific fishing and cooking tips!)
- 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.
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!
- One of the must-do trails in Yellowstone is the Mud Volcano Trail. Another great trail is Uncle Tom’s Trail. We also put together a full list of the Best Hikes in Yellowstone National Park. Check out our blogs to see what to expect!
- 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.
ADDITIONAL GREAT HIKES IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Yellowstone National Park has a ton of hiking opportunities that weren’t highlighted above. There are hikes that are great for all skill levels. A few that you might want to check out include:
Grant Village, Old Faithful and Madison Areas:
- The Fountain Paint Pot Trail is an easy 0.5-mile jaunt on a boardwalk. It travels alongside geysers, mud pots and springs. This is a great place for picture, although it is crowded.
- The Geyser Hill Trail is on the backside of Old Faithful. There is a slight elevation gain on this 1.3-mile trail, but it provides an elevated view of the Geyser Basin, which is different than the typical boardwalk trail.
- For a walk that includes waterfalls, take the Gibbon Falls Trail. Starting about 4 miles east of Madison, this 0.6-mile trail is quieter than other trails and includes a waterfall.
Canyon Village, Fishing Bridge, Lake Village and Bridge Bay Areas:
- The challenging Mount Washburn trail is 7.3-miles and starts just north of Canyon Village. Though this will take you about 4 hours, it has great views from over 10,000 feet in elevation from a lookout tower.
- The Natural Bridge Trail provides an easy 2.5-mile trek. This hike is not on a boardwalk, which means that it will likely be less crowded than many other trails. The hike leads to a natural bridge, which is worth checking out if you have the time.
Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt Areas:
- The Tower Falls Trail starts just south of Tower Junction. After a 308 ft. elevation gain, the trail leads to a 132 ft. waterfall.
- The Beaver Ponds Loop Trail is a moderate hike that travels through open land before coming upon two beaver ponds. This trail heads right to the Montana border and is about 5.6 miles long. Plan on the hike taking you almost 3 hours, unless you are a fast walker!
- The Trout Lake Trail is an easy 1.1-mile hike that Is great to stretch your legs if you are visiting the Lamar Valley. It passes through an old-growth forest and has only 200 feet elevation gain.
CAMPING IN AND AROUND YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
There are a ton of campgrounds inside of Yellowstone, but there are also a ton of people! If you plan on camping, reservations are recommended, and these are the campgrounds that take reservations:
- Near to Yellowstone Lake is the Bridge Bay Campground. In addition to boat rentals and access to boat launches, this campground has terrific views easily accessible from the campsites.
- The Canyon Village Campground is centrally located near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The wooded campground is not anything special, but the location makes a fantastic base for exploring the park.
- The Fishing Bridge RV Park has only sites for RV’s since it is has frequent bear sightings.
- Nearby the Madison River is the Madison Campground, which has great access to the Old Faithful area.
- The Grant Village Campground has sites for tents and RV’s and is near the West Thumb Geyser Basin.
If you are not able to get a reservation at one of the above campgrounds, don’t fret. Drop in early in the morning to try to get a spot (they fill up fast) or stop by at one of these first-come, first-served campgrounds:
- The Indian Creek Campground is a small campground that is located near Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Just north of the South Entrance is the Lewis Lake Campground. This campground is usually one of the last to fill up since it is in a remote part of the park. However, give it a shot if the others are full.
- The only campground open year-round is the Mammoth Hot Springs Campground. The campground is located just south of the North Entrance with great views.
- Other popular campgrounds include the Norris Campground (near the Norris Geyser Basin), Pebble Creek Campground (with amazing views of the Absaroka Mountains and nearby fishing), the small and remote Slough Creek Campground (in the Lamar Valley) and the Tower Fall Campground near the beautiful Dunraven Pass.
Further detailed information on camping in Yellowstone can be found on the National Park site. This includes information on when the campgrounds have filled up in the recent days, which is especially useful.
Outside the park, the best options for camping are as follows:
- Gardiner, MT is just north of the northern entrance.
- Grand Teton National Park is nearby, and also offers camping (though this can be tough to come by as well).
LODGING IN AND AROUND YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Unlike many national parks, there are plenty of options for lodging inside of Yellowstone. Rooms fill up fast and picking the best place to stay can be challenging. If you are staying in the park for more than a couple of days, we highly recommend seeking out multiple locations to help ease the driving time. Some of the highlights of the park lodges include:
- Old Faithful Area: Near Old Faithful, there are three options. The Old Faithful Inn is the most well-known, largest and most impressive location (with a lobby that should be visited whether or not you stay there!). The Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Old Faithful Lodge are also good options, with the Snow Lodge being a bit more removed from the crowds than the others. The downside of these locations is that they are both near the most crowded part of the park.
- Grant Village Area: The no frills Grand Village Lodging is an option here, but it is nothing spectacular. It is on the eastern side of Yellowstone Lake.
- Northern Yellowstone Lake Area: The Lake Yellowstone Hotel is an impressive colonial-style building with a distinctly upper-scale feel. The nearby cabins are also a good option and less pricy. This area of the park is much quieter than the Old Faithful area. While a good place to stay, you should be aware that you will have to drive a fair bit to get to most parts of the park.
- Canyon Junction Area: The Moran Lodge is brand new (opened in 2017) and has the cleanest and most up-to-date feel of any of the accommodations in the park. The Canyon Lodge and Cabins are also good options. This area is a fantastic home-base, as it is located near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
- Tower Junction Area: The Roosevelt Lodge has small cabins. This is a good location for visiting the Lamar Valley and fairly close to Mammoth Hot Springs, but we recommend the Canyon Junction area instead, just due to the amount of facilities in Canyon Junction.
- Mammoth Hot Springs Area: The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel provides a great place to stay if you are entering the park at night or if you plan on spending the better part of a day in the area before heading out.
Reservations for inside-the-park lodging are highly recommended. Details on reservations are available here.
The disadvantage of staying outside the park is simply the distance you’ll have to drive to get into the park. However, there are several good options to consider:
- Gardiner, MT is a fantastic place to stay as it is only about 15 minutes from Mammoth Hot Springs. This “out of the movies” town has a great character, plenty of services and quite a few lodging options. You can also easily find a variety of good restaurants.
- Grand Teton National Park has plenty of options but can also fill up quickly.
- West Yellowstone, MT, has a ton of options. Be advised, though, that this is near the most popular entrance to the park so lines into the park can be long.
WHEN TO GO AND WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU GET TO YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
While not near any particular airport, there are a few options for flights. The nearest airport is Jackson, WY, which is about 2 hours to the south (and you will get to go through Grand Teton National Park on the way).
You can read all about how to plan your trips into the area by air in our blog, the Nearest Airports to Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone is open year-round, with most of the 4+ million visitors coming in the months of May through October (with June through August being the busiest). Be prepared for crowds during the summer, for sure. Wintertime is a very special season, with the park quieting way down and giving visitors a completely different look at the landscape and animal behavior. The fall elk mating season offers great wildlife viewing, particularly around the Mammoth Hot Springs area.
The temperatures in the park average just over 70 degrees in the summer, though temps can soar much higher. Bring a jacket, though, as the temperatures routinely get below 40 degrees at night, even in the summer.
WHAT ELSE TO DO WHEN VISITING YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
With over 2 million acres, there is a ton to explore inside of Yellowstone National Park. However, if you are like many of us, you’ll want to try to couple your trip with a few other nearby wonders of nature. Here are a few suggestions:
- Grand Teton National Park is located to the south by only about 50 miles, and really is a must-do. If you haven’t been to this park, it is phenomenal. The variety of scenery as compared to Yellowstone is impressive, and the massive mountains will take your breath away. Be prepared to spend a few days in this park as well.
- Glacier National Park is a little more challenging to get to, as it is a day’s drive north of Yellowstone. Many people make Glacier the only destination on a vacation, as it is easy to spend up to a week exploring this park.
- Devil’s Tower National Monument is a good place to visit on the way to or from Yellowstone and it located about 400 miles to the east.
- There is a ton to explore in and around Jackson, WY. If you come in the winter, be ready for some of the nation’s best skiing. Summertime is fantastic as well, especially if you like to hike or raft.
- The Beartooth Pass offers a spectacular daytime drive and is about an hour west of Yellowstone’s eastern entrance (near the Lamar Valley).
WHAT TO PACK FOR YOUR VISIT
- One of the best items that we purchased ahead of our visit was the GyPSy Guide for Yellowstone National Park. This app is available for both iPhones and Android devices. Essentially, this app is like a personal tour guide in your car. As you come upon various spots in the park (actually, many spots!) the app will provide you with information not readily available anywhere else. It really is fantastic and worth checking out.
- We have learned over the years that having a good hiking map that shows the landscape is great-not just for hikes, but also for spotting various landmarks. Our favorite series are the waterproof maps from National Geographic, like the Yellowstone National Park map.
- Our favorite water bottle is not a bottle at all, but rather the Platypus Hydration bladder. This goes right in your backpack, carries a ton of water and is easy to clean. They have sizes for kids as well.
- While our itineraries offer a ton of information, hiking details are best found in books such as the Falcon Guide for Yellowstone.
- Finally, you should know that the bugs in and around Yellowstone can be bad. Our favorite bug spray is the Yaya Squito Ban. It is organic and works great!
OTHER USEFUL LINKS ON YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
- Ahead of your trip it’s really useful to know what to spend on your trip. Budget Your Trip has a great post on how much you can expect to spend on a trip to Yellowstone National Park as well as a bunch of other vacation spots in the world!
- 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.
- If you are planning for Yellowstone and also like to listen to podcasts, the series of Yellowstone Planning Podcasts from Everybodys National Parks is outstanding!