Yellowstone National Park is the largest and oldest of the national parks in the United States. It’s located in 3 states, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, but the largest area is in Wyoming.
It’s a volcano! A huuuge one!
It’s one of the most interesting and unique parks in the US. Did you know that it’s actually an active supervolcano? When you walk in this park, there’s magma under your feet and it’s not even too deep down – only 3-9 miles at some places.
Don’t worry though, because according to scientists an eruption in the next few thousand years is extremely unlikely. However, you could experience the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone: geysers, colorful hot springs, fumaroles, bubbling mud pots and steaming vents.
Explore along Yellowstone Grand Loop
Yellowstone Grand Loop is the main road in the heart of the park, and your best way to explore is driving along and stopping at all the famous places. Could you explore the park in 3 days?
Of course, no, but if you love hiking, nature and wildlife, you could easily spend the whole summer there – at least that’s what we felt. But I still think we got the best out of our time there and we’ve seen the most spectacular places.
Day 1: Mt Washburn and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
On the first day we explored the east area of the park from Roosevelt Lodge to Yellowstone Lake.
Our first stop was Tower Fall which is a lovely waterfall right next to the main road.
Stunning wildflowers of Mount Washburn Trail
Then we soon took a turn on Chittenden Road, because the trail to Mount Washburn starts from Chittenden parking area. This 5 miles strenuous round-trip took us half a day, but it was really worth our time and effort!
The slopes were like carpets of wildflowers in various colors. It was the first week of July, and we especially recommend this hike if you also visit during wildflower bloom. Oh, and the scenery from the top is also breathtaking, of course!
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
After returning to the main road the next highlight was the scenic drive at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This pink and yellow canyon of the Yellowstone River with its two amazing waterfalls is an absolute must-see!
The best way to explore it is to drive as there’s no connected hiking trail in this area. Instead there are several astonishing vista points along both the North and the South Rim Drive. They offer great views of the canyon and Lower and Upper Falls.
Some of the vista points require short hikes. Our favorite one leads to the Brink Of Lower Falls. It’s a steep hike, but it offers breathtaking close views of Lower Falls and the canyon. We were rewarded with a beautiful rainbow over the canyon, as well.
Hayden Valley, the home of bison
Then comes the drive through Hayden Valley which is such a different scene after the canyon! Be prepared to see herds of bison grazing in the valley as this is their favorite place. Use the pullouts along the road to stop for observing wildlife and taking photos, don’t cause long miles of traffic jam by stopping in the middle of the road, that’s just annoying.
You have good chance to see coyotes, grizzly bears and wolves, too, in Hayden Valley.
Hayden Valley Geyser Basin
Hayden Valley Geyser Basin offers some exciting geothermal features such as Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Mouth Spring. This last one is probably the most popular from Hayden Valley Geyser Basin, it’s a spring that fills a cave and the water just splashes back and forth against the cave walls. We finished our long day at Yellowstone Lake.
Day 2: Geysers and springs
On our second days we started from the opposite direction – simply because this made sense due to the location of our accommodation. We started the day at Lower Geyser Basin and finished at West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Yellowstone is the largest active geyser field in the world. There are more than 10000 geysers and hot springs in the park. So our second day was all about geysers and hot springs, and we were really lucky to catch some spectacular eruptions – without waiting for long hours.
All of the geyser basins have boardwalks to provide safe access to these geothermal wonders. You should stay on the boardwalks and maintained trails, because it’s prohibited and very dangerous to walk elsewhere in the geothermal areas.
A colorful wonder: Grand Prismatic Spring
Lower Geyser Basin is home to several hot springs, fumaroles, geysers and mud pots. Midway Geyser Basin is located not far from it, and this was the one we were the most excited about.
The reason is: Grand Prismatic Spring. Midway Basin is home to some of the largest hot springs on Earth, including Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest in the park. But it’s not only large, it’s so beautifully colored like a rainbow! There’s a short walk up to a hill located right next to Midway Basin that offers the best views of Grand Prismatic Spring from above.
The most faithful geyser: Old Faithful
Our next stop was Upper Geyser Basin. It’s the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone and also home to the park’s most faithful geyser: Old Faithful. Old Faithful erupts about every 60-110 minutes, the expected next eruption is usually posted at the visitor center. But you will notice the crowd gathering 10-15 minutes before the eruption, anyway.
There are a lot of geysers which shoot up much higher than Old Faithful, but they are not so predictable. We were so lucky to see two big eruptions while we were wondering around the Upper Basin!
Morning Glory pool is also located near the Upper Basin. Its colors are amazing – though sadly it’s in danger because of careless tourists throwing coins into it…
Biscuit and Black Sand Basin
These two smaller geyser basins are very close to Upper Basin. We’ve seen several smaller geyser eruptions here, some of them lasted very long, others erupted repeatedly. Maybe you don’t even notice these geyser basins when checking the park map, but they are so worth to explore!
A trail to Mystic Falls is an easy, short and lovely hike starting from Biscuit Basin.
The most scenic geyser basin: West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb Geyser Basin has the most picturesque views of all the geyser basins as it’s located on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. I can’t recall any geyser shows we’ve caught here, but I definitely remember the wonderful deep blue pools.
You’re probably bored with our enthusiasm about all the geothermal characteristics of Yellowstone by now, but we can’t help it… Even more to come, sorry. 🙂 We became excited not only for the unique scenes and colors, and all the bubbling and boiling things in the park, but for the scientific background, too.
Day 3: Even more geysers and Mammoth Hot Springs
We ended up rescheduling all the geyser basins north of Lower Geyser Basin to our third day. Monument Geyser Basin is a smaller one, and Artists Paintpots is again a small hydrothermal area with colorful hot springs and mud pots.
The hottest geyser basin: Norris Geyser Basin
But Norris Geyser Basin is a very significant one. It’s the hottest geyser basin in the park and it’s the most exciting and unpredictable for scientists.
It’s quite large, too and it has two different parts: Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. Porcelain Basin is unique because of its milky pools. Their color reminded us of… yes, maybe of porcelain. Back Basin has more geysers, including some very impressive ones. We haven’t seen eruptions here though, and they are VERY unpredictable.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Our final stop before leaving Yellowstone was Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. It’s again such a unique place! Hot water ascends through ancient limestone deposits here, and the result is these colorful terraces. There’s a reason why it’s one of the most photographed areas of the park.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Yellowstone is definitely summer! As it’s in the north, and most of the park is also above 2000 meters (~6500 feet), winter is long and cold here.
Most of the roads are closed during winter. They are open usually from May to late October/early November. Even in the summer be prepared with warm sweaters as weather can change quickly and it can be quite chilly.
Best place to stay
Let me start with the fact that it’s a huge park with relatively few lodges. If we also consider that summer is the best season to visit, that means crowded parking lots and overbooked lodges.
With that said, the best way to book your accommodation is to book places in various areas of the park, so you will always be close to a different area to explore. Now good luck with that – really. 🙂
We tried to follow this principle and… it could have been worse. Our timing was not the best, because our visit included July 4th, one of the most popular long weekends in the US. But still we managed to book a night in Roosevelt Lodge (in the northeast) and one in Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins (in the northwest). We didn’t find anything in the Old Faithful area though (in the south), so we ended up staying in Gardiner, a small town in Montana at the north entrance of Yellowstone.
It was a nice place, but we had to drive a bit longer to get to the south area of Yellowstone. But that’s what you can do, if there’s no available rooms within the park: search something in the small towns close to one of the entrances.
So… Does Yellowstone look like a place you want to visit?
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This post was updated in July 2019.
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