On a cold September morning, I was among geysers and hot springs, followed by wildlife spotting the next day and finally chasing waterfalls and a canyon. It is pretty remarkable how diverse Yellowstone National Park is. Hailed for being the first established national park in the United States and the world, Yellowstone National Park is MAGNIFICENT. Spread across northwest Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone is a place to be experienced. After months of research, I compiled this itinerary for my trip that covers everything you MUST see and do in Yellowstone National Park.
NEED TO KNOW
- When to visit: June through August is peak time, September & October the weather is good.
- Plan ahead – The park is huge with no cell service, so have a planned itinerary. Book logistics in advance as there are no big cities near the park. Stay inside the park or close to the entrance gates.
- How to Get there – By Air from Cody and Jackson, WY; Bozeman and Billings, MT; West Yellowstone, MT; Idaho Falls, ID. The park has 5 entrances from the north – Gardiner MT, northeast – Cooke City, MT; east – Cody, WY; south – Flag Ranch, WY & Jackson, WY; west – West Yellowstone, MT.
- Wildlife Spotting: Drive slow, bring binoculars, and keep your distance. Have bear spray.
The Grand Loop Road (142 miles) inside the park connects all 5 entrances and forms a figure eight. To cover the best of Yellowstone give yourself at least 3 days to immerse in its grandeur.
Day 1 – Old Faithful to Mammoth Hot Springs
Much of Yellowstone is on a giant volcanic crater and hot magma, which is the source of heat for Yellowstone’s hot springs and other geothermal features. It is an unspoken rule to start with the Old Faithful geyser which lives up to its name. Make sure you find out its eruption time and grab a spot.
From here you continue on foot to explore the Upper Geyser Basin, that contains the world’s greatest concentration of geysers and hot springs. Caution: Don’t go off boardwalk or try to touch the springs, they are super hot.
The geysers and hot springs are the most captivating sights with all the beautiful colors you can imagine. If you can get over the smell of sulfur, (similar to that of rotten eggs); you will LOVE this part of Yellowstone. I found every geyser unique and I kept gasping at the colors.
Next, drive north to Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin which are an isolated part of the Upper Geyser Basin.
Head to Midway Geyser Basin where the notable and widely photographed Grand Prismatic Spring is. It is the largest hot spring in the park and the best way to see it is from above. Unfortunately, the hike to Fairy Falls (which gives a good view) was shut temporarily and I was hugely disappointed; because it was very windy and I couldn’t see it from the boardwalk. Excelsior Geyser Crater, a huge boiling vat; is the second best thing with the most pristine blue color.
The Lower Geyser Basin is scattered over a fairly large area and features regularly erupting geysers, hot springs, and a fascinating mud pools. I suggest you explore the Fountain Paint Pot area to see the best or take the Firehole Lake Drive.
At this junction, you have reached the west part of Yellowstone where you can see more geysers at the Norris Geyser Basin but I skipped this. I practically spent the whole day looking at geysers, so at this point I wanted something else. But take the scenic Firehole Canyon drive to view the Firehole River and Firehole Falls. I mean who doesn’t like a waterfall on a scenic drive?
As you continue driving north, the scenery changes to winding roads and cliff sides.
Mammoth Hot Springs is a must see, unlike other geothermal formations in the park. They are shaped like terraces, a product of dissolved subterranean limestone that look like another planet. Interestingly, (although I don’t follow) Star Trek’s planet Vulcan was filmed at Minerva Terrace in the Mammoth Hot Springs.
Day 2 – Lamar Valley to Canyon
I was excited to see some wildlife in Yellowstone and it is hard to miss bison in the park as they often grazing and sometimes even come on the main road. But to see more wildlife, cruise around Lamar Valley in the northeast corner of the park to find wolves, moose, pronghorn, coyotes, etc.
In Yellowstone, you will know if there is an animal around when the cars have stopped. Every time such occasion came, I felt this adrenaline rush. I felt the most excitement when I saw a black bear on top of a tree fiddling around, unaware of the humans close by. What a sight that was!
Head back towards Tower Roosevelt and stop at the General store, also a view-point for Tower Falls. As you continue to drive towards Canyon Village, you pass through the Mount Washburn and Dunraven Pass area, highest road pass in Yellowstone which makes it a good vantage point. Also where the black bear was spotted. Funny story, I kept the car unlocked just in case the bear decided to hurry down and attack me. My logic being, in frenzy I would save time instead of checking other cars.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone welcomes you to a different side of the park. I was honestly awe-struck by the sight of it, so much so that I have a new-found love for canyons. The 20 miles long canyon carved by the majestic Yellowstone River, shines in shades of red and orange. The river forms two waterfalls as it plunges first over Upper Yellowstone Falls and then over Lower Yellowstone Falls, at which point it then enters the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
You can view the Upper Falls from the Brink of the Upper Falls Trail and from Uncle Tom’s Trail. The Lower Falls can be seen from Lookout Point, Red Rock Point, Artist Point, Brink of the Lower Falls Trail, and from various points on the South Rim Trail. Uncle Tom’s trail is my favorite, which provides stunning views of Upper Falls and takes you closer to the base and more often than not a rainbow.
To get more views of the Canyon, head to Inspiration Point, Grand View Point and Lookout Point on the North Rim Drive. At the south wall of the canyon, Artist Point gives you the perfect shot.
Day 3 – East Yellowstone Valley, Hayden Valley & Yellowstone Lake
East Yellowstone valley stretches through Wapiti to the town of Cody popular as the ‘wild west way’ into Yellowstone. This secluded valley is very scenic where the mountains and rugged rock formations meet the plains.
Inside the park, explore the Yellowstone Lake one of the biggest lake in the park. You can view it from Lake Butte overlook but I prefer going to the shore at the Fishing Bridge visitor center. From here you have two options, go south-west (towards Grant Village) for the West Thumb Geyser Basin or drive north towards Hayden Valley. I went with the latter, stopping by mud pots at the Mud Volcano area. Hayden Valley is popular for wildlife spotting but this marshy valley is also very picturesque as the Yellowstone River flows alongside.
Some places I feel, are over hyped. But some are worth the hype. Yellowstone National Park lives up to the hype in my book. Every inch of this natural wonderland is worth exploring, from its geysers and hot springs to its canyons and forests. I will go out and say this, that if you combine Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Park, it will be a trip of your lifetime. It certainly was for me.