A recent trip brought me to one of America’s treasures: Yellowstone National Park. This massive park sits atop a super volcano – and it’s not difficult to find evidence of this. Hot sulfuric springs, rainbow colors, and boiling water skyrocketing into the air are all just part of a normal day in Yellowstone. Below is an itinerary of the best parts of the park, in my opinion, along with some general advice if you’re planning a trip.
What to see:
We approached Yellowstone from the West Entrance of the Park. There are 4 entrances: North, South, East and West. The South Entrance tends to receive most of the traffic – especially during summer. I recommend coming in through the West Entrance if you are driving from Salt Lake City, a popular airport to fly into when visiting Yellowstone.
Our very first stop after entering Yellowstone wasn’t even planned. When approaching from the west, you will come across a stop called the Painted Pots. This unique landscape is filled with mini, hot, sulfuric springs ranging in color and size. We saw boiling mud pots and see-through colorful springs. It’s a great lead-up to the next stop which is…
Grand Prismatic Spring
One of the most photographed areas of the park, Grand Prismatic Spring is a massive array of rainbow colors. The colors are caused by various types of bacteria that live on the edge of this hot spring. A beautiful surprise located right next to Grand Prismatic Spring is the Excelsior Spring. It was actually easier to observe this spring since you stand above it, rather than eye-level with it. Beautiful Excelsior flows down into a waterfall before meeting with the Yellowstone River. Remember to walk on the boardwalks provided and hold onto your belongings while at this stop – anything that drops off the side of the boardwalk will be boiled!
Old Faithful Geyser and Inn
We ended our first ½ day in Yellowstone at the Old Faithful Geyser. Though there are hundreds of geysers throughout Yellowstone, Old Faithful is the most popular. Although it is not the biggest or (surprisingly) most reliable geyser in the park, it is the biggest of the reliable geysers – making it the most visited geyser. Every 90 minutes or so it will erupt, shooting boiling water and steam over 100 feet in the air. Park rangers are able to accurately estimate within ten minutes of when Old Faithful is about to blow.
A must-see when visiting Old Faithful is the Old Faithful Inn – a beautiful hotel and lodge that fits in perfectly with the scenery of Yellowstone. The impressive lobby boasts log and stone walls that were built in 1903. It’s considered a national historic landmark as the largest log structure in the world. This is the most requested hotel in the park, so be sure to book wayyy in advance if you want to stay here.
If you are interested in wildlife, Hayden Valley should be on your list. Located about 45 minutes from the South Entrance lies the biggest valley in the park. Wake up early or drive through at sunset to catch wildlife. The morning we drove through Hayden we were able to spot dozens of bison (including one that was swimming across a river), a coyote, and a mule deer – they’re huge! It’s so important to remember to keep your distance from these wild animals. Though they look harmless at times, wild animals are extremely unpredictable and we learned dozens of people (and animals) are injured each year due to human error. Although they are massive, bison can be easily agitated and will charge up to 35 mph. They recommend staying at least 25 yards away at all times!
Bonus Tip: On the way to Hayden Valley, stop by a place called Mud Volcano. It’s right on along the road and is very strange but interesting to see.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
One of the most breathtaking areas of Yellowstone is the Grand Canyon. (Not the one in Arizona!) Yellowstone actually has its own Grand Canyon filled with waterfalls and steep, scenic trails. Stretching almost 4,000 feet across, this massive canyon is a must-see. The most impressive part of the canyon is the Lower Falls which can be accessed via trails or overlooks along the road. The Lower Falls is twice the height of Niagra Falls! It was so beautiful to breathe the fresh air around this magnificent canyon.
Mammoth Hot Springs
The most surprising and unique area of the park was Mammoth Hot Springs. Located in the upper west corner of the park lies a town called Mammoth, and it’s a residential town. We were surprised to learn people actually live in the park year-round. This town was founded dating back to the 1800s before Yellowstone became a national park. The military moved into the area due to unlawfulness surrounding the gold rush out west. They set up a military base which existed for years. Generations of families grew up there, resulting in the population residing within the park to this day. This little town has restaurants, a hospital, and more. Could you imagine growing up in Yellowstone?
The main attraction in Mammoth is the hot springs. These strange white and brown structures are a maze of hot springs located on a steep hill. They were created over thousands of years as hot water from the springs cooled and deposited calcium carbonate which appear as steps along the hill. Hiking up the steep trail to the top leads you to a magnificent and other-worldly view. My sister and I hiked up to the top and felt as though we were transported to the moon. It was so quiet, and almost eery, looking over the vast view of the park. It’s worth the trip!
This was my most favorite part of the entire park. We drove through Lamar Valley at dusk – and I felt like I was in a Nat Geo film. The valley was filled with bison – we even saw a stampede! It is really important to try to stay in or very close to your car in the valley, you are sure to see wildlife here. I think I took 500 photos of bison families roaming through this valley – it’s amazing how close they get to your car too. This is a must must must see if you are coming to Yellowstone for wildlife.
What to eat:
Unfortunately, the food in Yellowstone isn’t great. Your options include standard cafeteria style food or overpriced, average tasting restaurant meals. Your best bet is to stop at a grocery store before entering the park to fill up on snacks and drinks for the road trip. Our best meals in the park were at Canyon Village and Mammoth. Both of these stops are bigger with more options for decent food.
What to wear:
Dress in layers! We visited Yellowstone in August and it still dipped into the 40s at night. Weather changes easily in the park, so pack for rain, sun and wind. I wore mostly exercise style clothes: t-shirts, leggings and sneakers with an insulating light jacket. If you plan to hike beyond the typical trails, pack hiking boots and bear spray. Seriously, there are many bears throughout the park!
Overall, this place is a gem. There is so much to explore in every corner of this park. Expect the unexpected and soak it all in.
Have you been to Yellowstone before? What was your favorite part?
Interested in learning more about traveling in Wyoming? Check out these posts:
- Exploring Grand Teton National Park
- Where and What to Eat in Jackson, Wyoming
- Captured Moments in: Yellowstone
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