Visiting Yellowstone National Park: 12 Attractions, Tips & Tours
World-famous Yellowstone, established in 1872, is the oldest national park in the United States and one of the most popular. Sprawling across a basalt plateau in the northwest corner of Wyoming, this magnificent wilderness area spills into neighboring Idaho and Montana. It forms the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest and best-preserved temperate-zone ecosystems on the planet.
One of Wyoming's top attractions, the park is famous for its spectacular scenery, diverse ecosystems, and fascinating geothermal wonders. Yellowstone is home to the world's largest number of active geysers, and offers a window into the powerful forces deep beneath the earth's crust, the same forces that shaped this park and its dazzling and dramatic landscapes.
The scenery ranges from snaking rivers and sweeping green valleys, to vast lakes, canyons, thundering waterfalls, and hissing lunar-like landscapes.
Yellowstone is a land of contrasts. Each season paints a dramatically different scene - from the lush greens and sparkling blues of spring and summer, when herds of bison and elk graze along the river banks, to fall's fiery reds, oranges, and golds, when grizzlies and black bears bulk up on berries, to the white wonderland of the freezing winter.
At any time of year, Yellowstone is a reminder of the awe-inspiring wilderness and abundant wildlife that once covered much of the planet, and it offers an unforgettable safari adventure in the wild American West.
Touring the Park
The best way to tour Yellowstone National Park is by driving around the Grand Loop, a 142-mile-long road that curves around in a figure-eight past the park's most striking natural features. At each attraction, well-maintained boardwalks and hiking trails offer close-up views of the main features, as well as breathtaking viewpoints, and many of the paths are wheelchair friendly.
Driving the entire length of both loops can take between four and seven hours, depending on traffic. In the summer months, the traffic can be stop-and-go the entire way.
If you only have one day to see the park, the best approach is to explore half of the Grand Loop's figure-eight.
Better still, if you are staying in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, you can hit the park's highlights and learn about its fascinating geology and ecology on a Yellowstone Old Faithful, Waterfalls and Wildlife Day Tour. This full-day coach tour saves you the hassle of driving, so you can focus on the wildlife and jaw-dropping scenery. It includes convenient hotel pickup and drop-off, as well as an expert guide, and stops at Old Faithful, the Lower Falls of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and more.
If you are taking a self-drive tour of the park, pick up a Yellowstone attractions map or download the NPS Yellowstone App. The Grand Loop tour described below starts at Old Faithful, near the southern entrance to the park, continues on to the far north of the loop, and finishes near the same point in the south. You can adapt the order of attractions depending on time constraints and which of the five entrances you use to enter the park.
1. Old Faithful
One of the star attractions of Yellowstone, the geyser known as Old Faithful is named for the regularity with which it erupted, shooting columns of water high up into the air.
Today, witnessing this incredible sight is one of the most popular things to do in Yellowstone, though eruption intervals are not quite as regular as in the past. They now vary from 35 minutes to 120 minutes, with an average interval of about 92 minutes.
Old Faithful is not the park's largest geyser, however it does erupt more frequently than other large geysers in the park. The eruptions usually last from one-and-a-half minutes to five minutes and reach heights of between 90 and 184 feet. For the approximate eruption times, inquire at the visitor center.
While you're here, stop by the historic Old Faithful Inn. Built in 1903 to 1904, this legendary hotel is a National Historic Landmark and is thought to be the largest log structure in the world. Even if you only pop in to gawk at the magnificent lobby and its towering stone fireplace, it's worth visiting this famous Yellowstone National Park hotel.
The thermal area known as Black Sand Basin lies about a mile from the Old Faithful geyser, and the two attractions can be combined in one easy trip. It has a reputation for being one of the most colorful spots in Yellowstone.
2. Upper Geyser Basin and Morning Glory Pool
Upper Geyser Basin has the highest concentration of geysers in the world, most of them packed into one square mile. A two-hour boardwalk trail through the area takes you past Old Faithful, the Giantess Geyser, the Beehive Geyser, the Castle Geyser, the Grand Geyser and fountain basins, shimmering in a rainbow of colors.
On the north edge of the Upper Geyser Basin is the magical Morning Glory Pool, named after the beautiful flower.
The Biscuit Basin is also part of the Upper Geyser Basin area, however the formations for which the area was named have long since disappeared due to the 1959 earthquake. Today, you can see features with evocative names such as Sapphire Pool, Silver Globe Spring, and Black Pearl Geyser.
3. Midway Geyser Basin & the Grand Prismatic Spring Editor's Pick
Named for its location between the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, Midway Geyser Basin boasts two of the park's biggest geothermal features. The mighty crater of the Excelsior Geyser discharges 55 gallons of hot water per second into the Firehole River.
Nearby is the 370-foot-wide stunning Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the finest and biggest hot springs in the park. This is a must-see attraction and a photographer's favorite, with its vivid hues of blue, green, orange, and gold.
4. Lower Geyser Basin
Lower Geyser Basin claims more hot-water eruptions than any other area of the park. A boardwalk trail takes you to the famous Fountain Paint Pots, which simmer with hot, red-hued mud.
A little way south of this on the popular three-mile Firehole Lake Drive is the Great Fountain Geyser, a magnificent spectacle every nine to 15 hours, when it blasts water 75 to 220 feet high into the air.
On the lush green of Fountain Flats, bison and deer often graze, particularly in the early morning and evening.
5. Norris Geyser Basin
The Norris Geyser Basin is famous for being the oldest, hottest, and most active of the hydrothermal areas in Yellowstone.
The basin encompasses two main areas that are open to visitors and accessible via looped trails: Porcelain Basin is a bleak and treeless lunar-like setting steeped in the pungent aroma of the bubbling geysers that surround the three-quarter-of-a-mile trail.
Back Basin is a wooded area with geothermal features scattered along a one-and-a-half-mile boardwalk trail. The most well-known features in this basin are the Echinus Geyser, the largest known acid-water geyser, with a pH close to that of vinegar, and the Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world, which erupts irregularly, shooting water up to a height of 300 feet.
Stop by the Norris Museum to learn more about these fascinating hydrothermal features.
6. Mammoth Hot Springs & Minerva Terrace
On the east flank of Terrace Mountain (8,012 feet), Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the world's finest examples of thermal springs that deposit travertine.
Some 60 hot springs pepper the area at temperatures of between 64 degrees and 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and their scalding waters dissolve calcium carbonate in the surrounding limestone forming a series of constantly evolving travertine steps.
One of the most beautiful examples is multihued Minerva Terrace, a popular subject for photography and one of the enduring images of Yellowstone National Park.
7. Tower-Roosevelt & the Lamar Valley
On the northern edge of the National Park is the little holiday resort of Tower-Roosevelt, home to the rustic Roosevelt Lodge, built in 1920. Notable features in the area are the Tower Fall (130 feet high) and the Petrified Tree. To the southeast is the Specimen Ridge, with the remains of a number of fossil forests superimposed on one another.
From here, you can venture east off the Grand Loop and enjoy an exciting safari experience in the magnificent Lamar Valley, a prime area for viewing wildlife such as large herds of bison, bald eagles, and badgers, as well as coyotes, wolves, and grizzly bears hunting on the open grasslands.
8. Mount Washburn
Named after Henry Dana Washburn, leader of the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, Mount Washburn is a spectacular peak in Yellowstone National Park. It rises to an impressive 10,243 feet and is the main mountain of the Washburn range.
Various hikes lead up its flanks and offer breathtaking views of the park, including the Mount Washburn Trail, considered one of Yellowstone's best hikes. In summer, you can see beautiful wildflowers here, as well as bighorn sheep grazing on its slopes.
9. The Grand Canyon and the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River
Emerging from Yellowstone Lake, the Yellowstone River flows through the beautiful Hayden Valley before it forms two spectacular waterfalls as it plunges into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a steep 20-mile-long gorge that resembles Arizona's Grand Canyon.
The easily accessible Upper Falls on the Yellowstone River plummet 109 feet and can be viewed from the Brink of the Upper Falls Trail and from Uncle Tom's Trail.
A few hundred yards lower down, the Lower Falls are almost twice as high as Niagara Falls. Here, the river plunges 308 feet with a deafening roar. Lookout Point, Red Rock Point, Artist Point, Brink of the Lower Falls Trail, and various points on the South Rim Trail offer breathtaking views.
Notice how the walls of the gorge shimmer in reddish and yellow tones due to chemical reactions in the rock's rhyolite.
10. Hayden Valley
Often dotted with large herds of bison, the gorgeous Hayden Valley is a prime spot for wildlife viewing. In the spring and early summer, grizzly bears often roam here looking for newborn bison and elk. Coyotes are also easy to spot on the rolling green meadows.
Birders will also have plenty to see. Bald eagles, northern harriers, sandhill cranes, shorebirds, ducks, geese, and pelicans are some of the species that inhabit the area around the mud flats and river.
11. Mud Volcano
A few miles below Fishing Bridge are the striking mud pots of the Mud Volcano Area and the simmering Sulphur Caldron, one of Yellowstone's most acidic springs.
Take care to stay on the boardwalks. From the parking lot, a short wheelchair-friendly loop passes by the steam-belching Dragon's Mouth Spring and the Mud Volcano. If you're more mobile, you can take the steep half-mile loop past Black Dragon's Cauldron.
12. Yellowstone Lake
The largest high-altitude lake on the continent (7,737 feet), Yellowstone Lake is an angler's paradise. Submerged nutrient-rich fountains nurture an amazing diversity of plant and animal life such as earthworms, sponges, native cutthroat trout, as well as invasive lake trout. Birds are abundant here, especially many species of waterfowl.
On the northwest shore of Yellowstone Lake are the little townships of Bridge Bay, Lake Village, and Fishing Bridge, with motels, campgrounds, and various leisure facilities.
The West Thumb, an offshoot on the west side of Yellowstone Lake, is a water-filled caldera with hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, and geysers all within a relatively small and scenic area.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park
Staying in Yellowstone is the best way to experience the park, but you can also book accommodation outside the park in West Yellowstone, Gardiner, Cooke City in Montana, and near Yellowstone's East gate in Wyoming. Here are some highly rated places to stay in convenient locations in and outside the park:
- In the Park: Yellowstone National Park lodging includes nine lodges operated by the concessionaire of the park, ranging from rustic cabins to hotel rooms. If you'd rather sleep under the stars, Yellowstone camping options are abundant.
- In West Yellowstone, less than a two-minute drive from Yellowstone's west gate, the pet-friendly Kelly Inn West Yellowstone offers impeccably clean rooms, with bright log cabin-style decor, as well as a heated indoor pool, hot tub, and sauna. Rates include continental breakfast.
The cozy Explorer Cabins at Yellowstone come with kitchenettes, and the BEST WESTERN Desert Inn, with an indoor pool, is only two blocks from Yellowstone's west entrance and within walking distance of restaurants.
- In Gardiner, about a mile from the north entrance to Yellowstone, Travelodge by Wyndham Gardiner Yellowstone Park offers clean rooms with a free breakfast. Some rooms come with kitchenettes.
Also with complimentary breakfast, The Ridgeline Hotel At Yellowstone, Ascend Hotel Collection has an indoor heated pool, hot tub, and saunas and is only minutes from the north gate.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Yellowstone National Park
- When to Go: Wondering about the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park? Most visitors come in summer, when the Grand Loop can reach saturation point. But to avoid the crowds, try visiting in late spring, when many young animals are born, or in the autumn (until mid October) for the beautiful fall colors. Winter offers a completely different experience. Seeing the park under a thick blanket of snow, without all the tourist crowds, can be magical.
- Winter Tours: If you are going to be visiting the park during the winter, you may want to consider taking a Yellowstone Snowcoach Tour. This is a very unique way to see the park.
- Operating Hours: Yellowstone National Park is usually open throughout the year, but many roads are closed from November to April. During winter, most of the roads are only open to snowmobiles and snow coaches, with the exception of the road between the north and the northeast entrance, which is open year-round.
From the south entrance, you can drive the John D. Rockefeller Parkway, one of the most scenic roads in the country, all the way to Grand Teton National Park for spectacular mountain scenery and superb wildlife viewing.
West Yellowstone is also a popular tourist stop and gateway to the park. Highlights include the Yellowstone Historic Center, the West Playmill Theatre staging local productions, and the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.
For information on other places to visit and things to do near Yellowstone, see our page on the top attractions in Jackson Hole. Looking for outdoor adventure? Head out on some hiking trails in Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park, or cast a line in some of the best fly fishing destinations in Wyoming.
Official site: http://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm