The American Field Trip Guide to Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone was America’s first national park and remains one of its best-visited. And it’s easy to see why: with its warm colors, burbling mud pots, aqua hot springs, steaming landscapes, accessible boardwalks and expansiveness, Yellowstone is both a natural wonder and a throwback to the national park service of yore.

The MOST IMPORTANT THING

Yellowstone sees over 3 million visitors a year; it’s a hugely popular place. Many of these visitors are not well-versed in Leave No Trace principles, and some of them will ignore posted rules and warnings about going off-trail, touching geothermal features, keeping a safe distance from wildlife, etc.

Please, please, please, whatever you see other people doing, PLEASE keep the rules yourself! Teach those with you to follow wilderness best practices. Kindly inform others of the rules when you see them broken. For your safety, and for the safety of the features and wildlife the park protects, this is an absolutely crucial thing to remember.

Where it’s located:

Most of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres falls in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, but the park overlaps into Montana and Idaho as well. The Continental Divide runs through the middle.

Getting there and getting around:

The nearest airports are in Jackson Hole, West Yellowstone and Cody, but they are each small. Denver and Salt Lake are the hubs, and are 8.5 and 5 hours away from the park, respectively.

Yellowstone has 5 entrances, to the north, south, east, west and northeast. It’s main road, called the Grand Loop, forms a figure 8. A map of the park is located here.

A significant portion of the park is inaccessible to cars during the snowy portion of the year, from about the end of October through mid-April, so check online or call ahead to make sure your route is open.

Where to stay:

Yellowstone is massive and popular, and there are loads of options for accommodations here, including nine lodges run by the park. Inside the park, there are several seasonal lodges, but you’ll need to book up to a year in advance.

On weekdays outside of peak summer season, you can usually find a room or cabin closer to the time of your visit, but it might be one of the pricier options.

Canyon Village is your best bet for a multiple-night stay, since it’s centrally located to most of the park’s main sights.

The Old Faithful Inn is a fun spot to check out, but don’t fret if you can’t secure a reservation there—anyone can enter the inn and check it out, relax on the porch, grab a bite or an ice cream cone, and enjoy the historic and impressive building.

Camping

The park also has 7 first-come, first-served campgrounds and 5 large reservation campgrounds; for more details and to book a site, click here.

We recommend staying inside the park if you can, since it encompasses such a huge area and you don’t want to spend a lot of your time just getting inside the park each day. But there are plenty of options outside the park, too, especially if you’re focusing your activities on the part of the park you’re staying near. West Yellowstone is the most convenient; Gardiner is an option just north of the park, and works well for visiting the Mammoth Hot Springs area.

How long to stay:

As always, we say the longer the better. However, you can experience Yellowstone with even just a day if you absolutely can’t stay for longer; while the park is enormous and deserves a long visit if you have the time, there are so many sites right off the main loop that you can experience quite a bit in a short amount of time.

Beware, though, that traffic, parking and bison jams can all be issues. If you can plan your visit so that you’re only covering one small area per day, you can avoid spending too much time getting from place to place.

We recommend that however long you stay, you plan on getting an early start each day—we’re talking REAL early. Fewer people, easier parking and way more wildlife make early mornings one of the very best times to experience Yellowstone.

When to go:

June through Labor Day is peak season; you’ll probably have nicer weather and no road closures, but you’re also likely to run into traffic, crowded parking lots and packed boardwalks.

Mid-April (when the roads typically open) through May, and September-October are great times to visit, with fewer crowds and more active wildlife. Just be aware that in these shoulder seasons, the weather can turn very quickly; don’t let that scare you away—just wear layers and have a plan B for any weather-dependent activities.

Winter can also be a stunning time to visit. The only road open to cars goes through the north part of the park from Gardiner, MT to Cooke City, MT. Other parts of the park are accessible by snowmobile or snowcoach, and you can snowshoe and cross-country ski on many trails.

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • History
  • Scenery

Pair with:

Grand Teton National Park lies just south of Yellowstone; the two parks are connected by the lovely John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway. Grand Teton is a hiker’s paradise and has spectacular scenery that’s quite different from Yellowstone. Combining the two makes for a terrific double dose of national parks.

There are lots of other beautiful places in the area too, such as Driggs, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and Jackson Hole.

For activities beyond hiking and sightseeing, check out the rodeo or Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, the Playmill Theater in West Yellowstone, or the darling downtown area of Jackson Hole.

Activities:

Exploring Geothermal Features:

The star at Yellowstone is its geothermal features. The park sits on top of an active caldera, the remains of an ancient supervolcano that has created more than 10,000 geysers, hot springs, bubbling mud pools, fumaroles and more.

From the iconic Old Faithful to the martian landscape of Mammoth Hot Springs, be prepared to be surprised by geysers, engulfed in clouds of steam, delighted by belching mud pots, and surrounded with the smell of sulphur.

A great trip to Yellowstone can be made just by hopping from one geyser basin to the next, exploring every boardwalk trail you can find, reading about each feature in the guides posted at the starting point of every trail, and timing your visit to coincide with geyser eruptions (there are 6 that park rangers can give you eruption time predictions for.)

Watching Wildlife:

Yellowstone is home to huge numbers of large mammals, up to 800 bears, 100 gray wolves and 5000 bison, along with moose, elk, deer and pronghorn. Some of the best spots to settle in and watch for signs of life are in the Hayden and Lamar Valleys, and in the meadows between Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon.

Ranger Programs:

Yellowstone has a wide range of programs available to help you learn more about the park, its flora and fauna, and its history. The programs range from guided hikes to campfire talks; some are specifically geared toward kids. Check listings in the park newspaper (available at any entrance or visitor center).

Hiking:

There are a LOT of trail options in Yellowstone, and hiking is a great way to see the park in more solitude, since so many visitors stick close to their cars.

Research your hiking options before you go on a site like AllTrails. In the meantime, here are a few ideas to get you started:

Mt. Washburn: The popular 5-mile trail to the peak of Mt. Washburn will give you expansive views over the park, Yellowstone Lake and Hayden Valley.

Bunsen Peak Trail: Another trail that sees heavy traffic, Bunsen Peak boasts wide panoramic views.

Elephant Back Mountain: This 3.5 mile loop trail is rated as moderate and boasts great views over Yellowstone Lake.

Fairy Falls: To see Grand Prismatic Spring in its full glory, nothing beats a view from above. This trail will give you that view.

Uncle Tom’s Trail: Steel ladders lead down to the viewing deck of Lower Falls in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Pelican Creek Nature Trail: An easy loop takes you to a beach along the lakeshore.

Rim Trails: Around Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, there are a number of options for hikes along the rim; all are easy and most are paved.

Lava Creek Trail: A tough 8-miler, but worth it for the views and smaller crowds.

Mystic Falls Trail: 2.5 miles roundtrip will take you up to Mystic Falls and an overlook of Biscuit Basin.

Observation Point Trail: An easy trail of just over a mile gets you a birds-eye view of Old Faithful.

Natural Bridge: An easy 2.5 miles to a natural rhyolite bridge over Bridge Creek, this is a good one for families.

Bringing Kids:

Yellowstone is a perfect park for kids. Stroller-friendly boardwalks and bubbling geothermal pools and geysers will delight visitors of all ages. You’re all but guaranteed to see bison, and have a great chance of seeing other wildlife, from moose, bear, deer, elk and wolves to darling yellow-bellied marmots and swooping bald eagles. The park is also one of the more developed ones in the national park system, which means there are a wide range of options for dining and accommodations, making for an easy and comfortable visit.

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from readers about visiting Yellowstone National Park.

How can I get away from the crowds?

Find some solitude off the main Grand Loop Road. Spend some time exploring the Lamar Valley and the area around the Northeast entrance, take a paddle out onto Yellowstone Lake or float down the Yellowstone River. Most of Yellowstone’s visitors stick close to their cars, so getting out onto a trail a few miles will put some distance between you and the mobs. And I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: get as early a start as you can manage!

What “attractions” are the biggest hits with little kids?

The geothermal features will probably be a huge hit with the younger set. The area around Old Faithful, between the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, has a high concentration of these features. For that reason, though, it can get very busy; for a little more room to run around, try Mammoth Hot Springs, the West Thumb Geyser Basin, and the Mud Volcano area.

We’re going next month with 4 kids and I’m nervous about railings.

Many of the geothermal areas are explored via raised boardwalks, sometimes without railings. Have a talk with your kids about how extremely delicate these spots are—sticking a finger in can change the microclimate and have a big impact on the bacteria that make the pools so colorful. The Jr. Ranger program will be a help to you in having this conversation and in enforcing rules about staying on the boardwalks; the booklet helps teach kids why this is so important.

If you’re worried about one of your kids falling off a boardwalk unintentionally, you can certainly bring a stroller or wagon on most of the trails, or just implement a hand-holding policy :).

Which hikes are the best for kids?

Beyond the boardwalks, the rim of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has several easy and scenic trails. Fairy Falls, Observation Point Trail and Pelican Creek Nature Trail are all good bets for kids of most ages and hiking abilities.

If you need to make your trip to Yellowstone quick, what should you make sure not to miss?

In one or two days, you can drive around Grand Loop Road, choosing among a number of highlights: West Thumb Geyser Basin, Old Faithful and the rest of Upper Geyser Basin, Grand Prismatic Spring, Firehole Lake Drive and Lower Geyser Basin, Norris Geyser Basin with its Steamboat Geyser, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Lake and Lake Village, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Be sure to get a very early start to pack in as much possible and give yourself the best chance at spotting wildlife!

If you don’t want to feel completely frenzied during your time in the park, choose one or two geyser basins, then take time to do a little hiking around the Grand Canyon falls and hang out in the Hayden or Lamar Valleys looking for wildlife and enjoying the views.

It’s so big with a lot of driving. Any ways to make it less driving and more exploring?

Yes! Choose one area, ditch your car early in the day, and spend your time on the trails. You can make a great day out of walking or biking around the Upper Geyser Basin or Canyon Village.

Are there any good state parks outside the national park?

Henrys Lake and Harriman State Parks, on the Idaho side of the park, are the closest state parks. Much of the land east and south of the park is national forest.

What is the best place to spot wolves?

The Northern Range is the best bet for spotting gray wolves, especially the Lamar Valley section. Early mornings and twilight are prime time for wildlife spotting.

Tips from our readers:

“Oh I love Yellowstone! Most people miss out on Lamar Valley, but in my eyes it’s the best part! And don’t get discouraged by all the professional scope watchers. It may seem that you’ll never see wildlife without being in on the radio and expensive scopes. But if you’re patient and/or lucky you’ll have chances to see them too. We saw an entire wolf pack circle a newborn bison without any fancy equipment or tips, just by driving and keeping our eyes open.”

“Avoid the summer.”

“Keep an eye on what roads/sites are open when traveling in non-peak season (summer).”

“Go in the shoulder season to avoid crowds but prepare for the campgrounds to be cold.”

“Take a white water rafting trip!”

“Wildlife with babies can be seen in spring/early summer. Elk are in Mammoth in late fall.”

“You can snowmobile with guides in the winter and it’s FANTASTIC fun.”

“Truly be ready to spend a lot of time looking for parking and hiking in large crowds.”

“Northeast entrance and Beartooth Highway! Not the true Yellowstone experience without those.”

“Go for a winter visit. It is magical. And the wildlife sightings are phenomenal.”

“If you want to backpack away from the crowds, the Bechler River Trail is amazing. Lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs.”

Final thoughts:

Yellowstone is the quintessential national park experience and truly has something for everyone. As with many of the iconic parks, there will be crowds. Embrace the communal experience and enjoy the fact that this place was protected so ALL of us could enjoy it! But remember too, that with an early alarm or a few miles of hiking, you should be able to find some solitude, too ;).

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