Yellowstone National Park is the nation’s first national park and still remains one of the most popular and visited parks in the country. Some people argue that it was the first established national park in the world. Yellowstone became a national park in 1872 and has been captivating visitors ever since. During our time at Yellowstone National Park, we continually felt like we were on a different planet. The landscape is vast, beautiful and wild.
Why Visit Yellowstone National Park?
Image by Manel Vinuesa from Getty
It might be easier to think of reasons not to visit Yellowstone. Seriously, the park is unbelievable. There is so much to see and do and the grandeur of it all makes it an unforgettable experience.
One of the primary reasons to visit Yellowstone, though, is the abundance of hydrothermal wonders. With over 10,000 thermal features, Yellowstone is the best place in the world see hydrothermal phenomena such as geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents. Over half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features are located in Yellowstone National Park. Even if you’ve never been to the park, you’ve likely heard and seen pictures of Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in the world. But, Yellowstone offers so many more thermal features than just Old Faithful.
Probably the second most popular reason to visit Yellowstone is to experience the diverse wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see deer, moose, wolves, bighorn sheep, elk, bison, bears, and more just driving through the park. As with thermal features, Yellowstone National Park has the largest concentration of wildlife in the contiguous United States.
Whatever the reason for your visit, Yellowstone offers something for everyone and is a can’t miss national park.
Things to Do
There is no way we can cover all of the things to do in Yellowstone in one blog post. Our goal is to highlight some of the most popular activities to give you some ideas for your trip.
Experience the Incredible Thermal Features
Located in the Upper Geyser Basin, Old Faithful is probably the most recognized feature in the park and no trip would be complete without seeing it erupt. An eruption is quite fascinating.
The geyser erupts about every 1.5 hours and can shoot water nearly 200 feet in the air! Old Faithful is one of only six major geysers that are predicted regularly by the staff which is remarkable considering there are over 500 geysers in the park. Its regularity is the basis for its name and one of the reasons that developers were able to build viewing areas and lay the foundation of the village and visitor center that exists today at Old Faithful.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin. There are 150 geysers in one square mile so there are lots to see other than just Old Faithful.
Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the park and is one of the most interesting sites you will ever see. The colors are so intense and beautiful that it’s hard to even believe your eyes. The hot spring is huge—between 200 and 330 feet in diameter and over 120 feet deep.
Be aware that parking at the hot spring is limited and doesn’t have enough capacity for Yellowstone’s large crowds. Try to get there early to get a parking spot or plan some extra time to wait for a spot to open up.
Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces
The Mammoth Hot Springs are located near the northern entrance of the park, and the springs offer visitors unique viewing experiences. You can walk along boardwalks above the hydrothermal features and get an up-close and personal view of the hot spring terraces. I can’t explain how these terraces are made, but I can say that they are really interesting and particularly inspiring.
Norris Geyser Basin
Take a stroll along the boardwalks at Norris Geyser Basin and enjoy the oldest, hottest and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. Hike the three-quarter-mile trail Porcelain Basin or the 1.5-mile trail that goes around Black Basin. Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world, is located here. Although eruptions are uncommon, if you get the chance to see one, it will be something you remember for the rest of your life.
Here are some of the most popular day hikes in Yellowstone National Park:
- Mystic Falls Trail and Fairy Creek (3.5 miles and rated moderate)
- Canyon Rim North Trail to Inspiration Point (7.9 miles and rated moderate)
- Uncle Tom’s Trail (.6 mile and rated easy)
- Artists Paintpots Trail (1 mile and rated easy)
- Dunraven Pass to Mount Washburn (6.8 miles and rated difficult)
- Bunsen Peak Trail (4.4 miles rated moderate)
- Lava Creek Trail (8 miles rated difficult)
Yellowstone is home to several of the most famous trout streams, including the Yellowstone, Gallatin, Snake, and Madison. In fact, anglers from across the world visit Yellowstone specifically to fish and they are an important part of the park’s native fish conservation goals.
Cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, arctic grayling, are some of Yellowstone’s native fishes that are crucial to its ecology. Be sure to read up on Yellowstone’s specific and strict fishing regulations before you head out on the lakes and rivers.
Both guided and private horseback riding trips are available to Yellowstone visitors and an incredible, unique and memorable way to explore the park. There are outfitters who offer day trips and even overnight backcountry trips. Yellowstone National Park Lodges also offers one-to-two-hour rides at Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon.
Consider exploring beautiful Yellowstone from a different perspective by canoeing, kayaking, and motorized boating the park’s rivers and lakes. With a permit and inspection, you can bring your own watercraft. Otherwise, the lodges provide rentals at Bridge Bay Marina on Yellowstone Lake. You can also book guided services from these companies.
When to Visit
Yellowstone is a seasonal national park. At an average elevation over 8,000 feet and surrounded by large mountains, it’s understandable that some of the park is closed during winter. That doesn’t mean that winter is not a great time to visit the park, just understand that the conditions are fairly extreme.
Therefore, summer is the most popular time to visit the park and the time when all of the facilities are open. To determine which season is right for you as well as what amenities are generally available, please check out this information page.
Where to Stay
There are 12 campgrounds with 2,000 sites offered at Yellowstone National Park. While this sounds like a lot, the spots fill up quickly in high season and the park only takes reservations for five of the campgrounds with the rest being first-come, first-served.
Fishing Bridge RV Park is the only campground that offers full hookups for RVs. Some of the campgrounds can only accommodate smaller RVs, so you’ll want to check the descriptions of each one on the NPS camping page.
The good news is, there are a great number of campgrounds outside the park to choose from if you aren’t able to reserve a site in advance. There are several to choose from near each of the five entrances to the park.
There is also dispersed RV camping (boondocking) spots throughout the forest. You can find these spots by using the official US Forest MVUM’s (motor vehicle use maps). Here’s a great list of all your options for camping around the outside of the park.
Getting to and Around Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming but, technically, it resides in three states with three percent of the park in Montana and one percent in Idaho. There are five different entrance stations to the park but since the park covers around 3,500 square miles, it can take several hours to drive between the stations. Therefore, bringing your own vehicle is highly recommended for exploring the park.
It can take hours to travel the 50 miles from Old Faithful to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone because of traffic from the number of tourists in the park. But also, the buffalo tend to slow your travel down and it’s not uncommon for an entire herd to block the road for a long period of time. So, plan to travel slowly throughout the park. Some companies provide shuttle services and tours if you’d prefer to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Tips and Tricks Specific to Yellowstone National Park
Besides the obvious tips of getting your accommodations booked well in advance and remember to bring your camera and binoculars, here are a few more tips for visiting Yellowstone:
- You’ll definitely want to stop at a Visitor Center upon arriving in Yellowstone. With it being such a big and complex park, there’s always a lot going on and updates you’ll want to be aware of. Rangers can also give you the best tips for what to do during the specific times you’re visiting and your preferred activities.
- Consider seeing the top attractions, such as Old Faithful, in the early morning or evening to avoid crowds. This is also the best times to spot wildlife.
- Don’t forget to spend time stargazing! Go outside after dark, with of course a flashlight and awareness of wildlife, and either walk or drive a short distance away from your campsite or lodge. You’ll enjoy a dazzling night sky.
- Pack for all seasons! Bring layers as the days can be hot and the nights can get chilly, even in the middle of summer.
- Visit nearby Grand Teton National Park while you’re in the area. It’s only a short drive and you absolutely won’t regret it!
For the latest info on visiting Yellowstone National Park, visit the park’s website.