Plan Your Trip to Yellowstone National Park
By Courtney Johnson
The first designated national park in the United States (and the world), Yellowstone National Park saw over four million visitors in 2018. The territory of the park is divided between three different states, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. It spans over two million acres and covers an area of 3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km2.)
With mountain tops, plains, thermal features, canyons and rivers, it might be hard to decide upon an itinerary. Start by downloading the free NPS Yellowstone National Park app for Apple or Android to see live geyser predictions, traffic updates and other important info. Be aware that cell service is spotty within the park, so download the app before you arrive. Select the settings option and tap download offline content. If you forget to do this before hand, the best coverage is by the lodges throughout the park.
To make the most of your trip, use this guide to help you decide how to maximize your trip according to your interests.
If you came to see the geothermals:
Half of the world’s geothermals and geysers can be found in Yellowstone National Park- over 10,000. The Upper Geyser Basin offers the most activity in a small area. Over 150 types of thermal activity can be found here from geysers to pools and bubbling mud pits. Get there early or head there in the evening to avoid much of the traffic and crowds. We recommend looking at the prediction schedule to get the most out of your visit by trying to see Old Faithful, the Daisy Geyser and the impressive Castle Geyser that goes off every 10-12 hours (2x a day) and can shoot up to 90 feet into the air.
The geothermals of Lower Geyser Basin can be seen from Firehole Canyon Drive. The largest basin area in Yellowstone, Grand Geyser, the Fountain Paint Pots, various fumaroles and Leather Pool. You can pair this up with a dip in the water (see all things water below).
In between these two basins is the Middle Geyser Basin. Head here to see some of the largest hot springs in the world. The color and permanent rainbow created by steam suspended in the air directly above Grand Prismatic Spring attracts many visitors.
The most unique sites (and the stinkiest) can be found together near Hayden Valley. Go searching for “dragons” other mythical creatures on the boardwalks and paved trail around to see Mud Volcano and the Black Dragon Cauldron spitting black mud.
Visitors are intrigued by the Dragon’s Mouth, where water shoots out of a cave as steam rises from the dragon’s mouth. Listen closely to see if you can hear the “roar.”
Other thermal areas: Norris Geyser Basin with the recently increased activity of the Steamboat Geyser, West Thumb Geyser Basin and the Shoshone Geyser Basins in the backcountry with 80 geysers.
If you love all things water:
Yellowstone Lake is considered to be one of the largest high altitude lakes in the United States. It is 136 square miles with over 100 miles of shoreline. It is open to fishing, boating, stand up paddle boarding and kayaking. Head to the Bridger Bay Marina to rent any equipment and pay for any fees and licenses you may need. Note that swimming is not allowed in the lake and the water temperature is very cold.
A short .9 mile hike takes you to Trout Lake where you can fly fish for some of the biggest trout around. Take a drive on Firehole Canyon Drive to see Firehole Falls. Along the drive, stop at the Firehole Swimming Area. Open after the spring runoff through the fall, the name is a bit misleading because the water is not actually warm. The temperature is more comparable to a lake or river.
If you visit the park between mid-summer and winter, the Boiling River near Mammoth Springs is open to soak in the warm waters. This is the only warm water place to swim in the park, so it tends to be very popular.
There are hundreds of waterfalls in the park. You can view three waterfalls in the area of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Lower Falls, the largest waterfall in the park at 308 feet, can be seen at various viewing points including from the platform at the brink of Lower Falls. Strong hikers may even take the 328 steps down (and back up) from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the base of the falls where you can feel the spray during strong run off times as well as a rainbow most times of the day. Head to the brink of the Upper Falls platform to see this smaller fall. You can also see this fall from Uncle Tom’s. Crystal Falls can be seen from the South Rim Trail.
The trail to an overlook for Tower Falls is a maintained trail of a mile total and is a popular destination due to its location and general store. For an alpine view, visit Gibbon Falls near the Madison and Norris Junctions. The falls cascade down rocks into a pool.
If you are a hiking sightseer:
There are a large number of day hikes within the park from short strolls to mountain summits. You can combine many hikes with a chance to see some of the best features within the park from a unique view.
In the Upper Geyser Basin, take the Observation Trail for an overview look of Old Faithful and other geothermals. It is a 1.5 mile round trip hike that switchbacks up and back down. Discovered in 1871 by the Hayden Expedition, the only bridge in the park can be seen from the easy 2.8 mile round trip hike on the Natural Bridge Trail. Note this trail has seasonal spring and early summer closures due to bear activity.
The South Rim Trail offers the best views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area including the falls and the canyon itself without having to deal with sightseer traffic. The trail is 1.8 miles point to point (or 3.6 round trip with some tough climbing.) * Note that construction in the area as of June 2019 has closed this trail.
Summit Elephant Black Mountain (3.8 miles rt) to see a spectacular sunset or sunrise and views of Yellowstone Lake. Take the long 6.4 mile round trip route to the top of Mt. Washburn from Dunraven Pass Trailhead or the shorter 5.4 mile round trip from Chittenden Road. Either way, the views will be breathtaking. The five mile Fairy Falls Trail offers a chance to see Grand Prismatic Spring, falls and geysers.
Other hikes to consider: The 2.5 mile moderate loop to Mystic Falls, the Lava Creek Trail (distances vary from 0.9 mile to 8 miles depending on starting point).
If you want to stargaze:
With a lack of a major city nearby, Yellowstone is a perfect place for observing the night skies including stars, planets and the Milky Way. For the best viewing, drive away from the lodges and other light sources. You will want to bring binoculars and/or a telescope for the best viewing. Bring a flashlight or headlamp to light your way. This will also help to alert any nocturnal animals. Making noise is also a good idea to keep animals at a distance. I also recommend you download a star map. Check the official Yellowstone National Park website for dates and times for ranger led programs including ones that explore the night skies. Many of these programs take place at the Madison Amphitheater.
The shoreline of Yellowstone Lake offers wide open skies for celestial viewing. The upper terraces and boardwalks at Mammoth Hot Springs are perfect for star viewing. The boardwalks and/or bike path at Upper Geyser Basin offer a chance to see geothermals and stars with ease for families. Even if there isn’t a night program, the Madison Amphitheater area is a perfect place to try and see a shooting star.
For more adventurous viewing, a hike to the top of Mount Washburn (10,243 feet) or a drive to the top of Dunraven Pass. A star studded drive along the three mile Firehole Lake Drive offers places to pull off and take in the whole sky. Seeing the Great Fountain Geyser erupt amongst the stars is a unique experience.
If you are an animal lover:
From wolves and bison to grizzlies and ospreys, Yellowstone is home to over 100 animal species. Many animals are active during dawn and dusk making them easier to spot when they feed. Spring offers the opportunity to see babies following closely alongside their mamas. Binoculars are a must while a scope is encouraged especially for viewing the elusive wolves. Remember to take proper safety precautions and keep the proper distance between you and any wildlife.
Head to Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley early in the morning or in the evening to potentially spot wolves, black bears, grizzlies and pronghorn. Bisons roam freely around the valleys. Many bird species can be found in the valleys including birds of prey.
Along the Yellowstone River, the cutthroat trout attract bears. Moose can be found near the south and northeast entrance. Around Tower Falls, mountain goats can be spotted on the steep cliffs. While viewing Mammoth Hot Springs, keep a look out for black bears
Nineteen types of raptors can be found nesting and soaring above the cliffs and pines, water birds can be viewed in the wetland areas of the park. Ravens and woodpeckers can be heard all around the park. Reptiles including sagebrush lizards and prairie rattlesnakes call the park home. Amphibians including chorus frogs and toads as well as tiger salamanders roam the marshy areas.
If you want to climb:
Although the best climbing can be found outside the park, bouldering and top rope routes can be found within the park. Glacial Boulder near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone offers problems ranging from V1-V3. The best part about this rock is it is right off the road.
Near Mammoth Hot Springs, you can find the Hoodoos. Despite the name, the rocks aren’t actual hoodoos but just large rocks from a landslide on Terrace Mountain. You will need to hike up the Hoodoo Trail for a short distance from the parking lot. This area offers opportunities for top roping routes ranging between 5.5-5.7 and V2-V3 bouldering.
Get up early, take in some prime animal viewing and head to Lamar Valley for some bouldering. Once you reach the valley, on the left you will see a pull out and a selection of rocks that can be climbed that are fairly close to the road.
If you like to ride your bike:
When people think of Yellowstone, they probably don’t think of bike riding. One of the major reasons for this is that to get around the park, bikes must use the same roads as visitor traffic.
There are campsites reserved for through hikers and bikers for a reduced rate at all campgrounds in the park minus the Slough Creek Campground throughout the summer. Reservations should be made ahead of time as these sites are limited.
Bikes can be rented within the park from May- September at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. In the spring and fall, there are a few select weeks where roads are closed to vehicle traffic and open to bikes only.
The Abandoned Railroad Bed Bike Trail is an eight mile round trip dirt mountain bike trail near the north entrance of the park. The scenery and lack of elevation gain makes this trail popular. Carry bear spray as bears along with other wildlife can be found in this area.
The Fountain Pot Trail is a kid friendly four mile point to point ride that takes you past geysers, through valleys and even by the backside of Grand Prismatic Springs. You can make it a full 14 mile loop, that begins and ends at the Fairy Falls Trailhead. Note that if you do the full loop, you will be on Grand Loop Road with a shoulder.
One of the best paved trails you can take away from car traffic is the five mile round trip trail to Lone Star Geyser. Please note you have to dismount and walk the last few hundred feet to the geyser. The flat and paved 2.9 mile out and back trail to Natural Bridge is also popular for bikers. Although often crowded, the 1.7 mile paved point to point trail from Old Faithful Lodge to Morning Glory Pool allows for park the bike and hike geyser sightseeing.
Other considerations: The one way downhill six mile Bunsen Peak Road Trail and the two mile out and back of Fountain Freight Road for mountain biking.
Courtney Johnson is a freelance sports and parenting writer based in Erie, Colorado. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband AJ and six-year-old daughter Emma. Follow her adventures at http://adventureswithmylittleray.com/