Updated: Sep 28
Yellowstone is perhaps the most complex National Park, but is very accessible even for those wanting to make a day trip to the famous sites within.
Yellowstone National Park is breathtaking with geysers and geothermal points of interest the highlight of many visitors. But Yellowstone is also very diverse offering much more than Old Faithful and hot water pools.
It is the United State's oldest National Parks and is over 2.2 million acres with canyons, lakes and awe-inspiring wildlife encounters.
In the summer Yellowstone offers hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, camping, boating, swimming and much more.
In the winter Yellowstone offers ski and snowshoeing adventures, snowmobile riding, snow coach driving, and even winter camping in the back country.
And throughout all four seasons, Yellowstone will not disappoint. From the excellent visitor's centers to the fauna and wildlife viewing to the Instagram worthy photo ops, the park top's the list as one of the most visited National Park's in the US for a reason.
Crowds, of course, can be bothersome especially around picture perfect vistas or turnouts or when wildlife cross roads or are grazing along side a roadway.
To avoid crowds we suggest entering the park as early as possible and depending on your route, check off the must-see items first. We visited the park and were fortunate that crowds were not as bad as we had anticipated. We spent a great deal of time within the park and wish to return to see the sites that we missed. If you are only going for a day or two, check out this itinerary from our travelling Irish friend Laura: How to Best Spend 2 Days in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park covers nearly 3,500 square miles in the northwest corner of Wyoming (3% of the park is in Montana and 1% is in Idaho). Yellowstone has five entrance stations, and several are closed to regular vehicles during winter. It takes many hours to drive between these entrances, so be sure to check the status of roads at the entrance you intend to use while planning your trip and before you arrive. Fill up on gas and make sure you have food and beverages with you.
Yellowstone's weather can vary quite a bit, even in a single day. In the summer, daytime highs can exceed 70°F (25°C), only to drop 20 or more degrees when a thunderstorm rolls through. It can snow during any month of the year, and winter lows frequently drop below 0°F (-18°C), especially at night. Bring a range of clothing options, including a warm jacket and rain gear, even in the summer.
Yellowstone Park Passes can be purchased at any main gate and are good for seven consecutive days, and it does not matter how many occupants are in your vehicle as you do not pay per individual, but rather one time, for the automobile.
Yellowstone (non-commercial vehicle) - $35.00
Yellowstone (motorcycle or snowmobile) - $30.00 Snowmobile entry limited to guided tours or permit holders. (See below for our recommended tours)
Yellowstone (individual on foot, bicycle, etc.) - $20.00
Every season in Yellowstone sees big changes to what’s happening in the park and what services are available for people to enjoy. July and August are the only months when all facilities, roads, and services are open. Every other month brings a mix of options as the park prepares for, settles into, and then digs out of winter. Roads and gates are open 24 hours of the day in the summer.
It is very important to check out when the roads are open to avoid disappointment.
Click Here to see what roads are open and when they are expected to be open and closed.
It is also very important to check on the status of roads, even when they are declared open. Sometimes roads are deemed impassible, or in need of repair or are closed because of wildlife. Make sure to use the link above to check on the status of the roads and reroute yourself through the park. There are several entrance points and roadways to get to each desired attraction or activity and be prepared to adjust your itinerary if necessary.
Things to Know Before You Go
Be Easy Going
Hundreds of thousands of people visit Yellowstone during the months of June, July, and August. It's also a big National Park and traffic and road construction often make drive times longer than expected.
Cell Service / Internet Don't be surprised if you can't receive calls or texts, even in the few areas you have cell reception.
Drive Responsibly Observe posted speed limits and use pullouts to watch wildlife, take pictures, and let other cars pass.
Stay On Boardwalks Hot springs have injured more people than any other natural feature (including animals).
Bears Are Everywhere Bears are not just the back country, so learn how to travel safely in bear country. Practice safe selfies! Never approach animals to take pictures and always be aware of your surroundings.
Avoid Traffic & Crowds Visit the park during nonpeak hours—before 9 am and after 3 pm. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem includes much more than the park. Plan your trip to take in the vibrant communities, public lands, and natural wonders throughout this area.
What To See & Do in Yellowstone National Park
A very popular attraction in the Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful is a cone geyser. It was named so by the first official expedition to Yellowstonein 1870. It was named Old Faithful because the expedition committee was impressed by its size and regular frequency as the geyser erupts every 35 to 120 minutes for one and a half minute to five minutes.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a primary geologic feature in the Canyon District. Spread across a vast area, the canyon is approximately 20 miles long. The canyon you see today is not very old. It is around 10,000 to 14,000 years old. However, research has shown that there probably used to be another canyon in this location for a much longer period. There are many hiking trails around the canyon, some lead to the Upper and Lower Falls of Yellowstone while some lead to the Yellowstone River.
Lower Yellowstone River Falls
Lower Yellowstone River Falls or just the Lower Falls is the biggest waterfall in Yellowstone. The most photographed spot in Yellowstone National Park, the waterfall is 308 feet tall.
There are various points from where you get stunning views of the fall, namely, Inspiration Point, Artists Point, Grandview Point and Lookout Point. A couple of these points stand directly above the waterfall- an amusing and thrilling experience to have.
Uncle Tom's Trail Hike
Uncle Tom’s Trail takes you from the top of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the base of the Lower Falls. A challenging hike, it involves around 328 steps to reach the Lower Falls. Although tackling the 328 steps on the way down seems like a breeze, remember you also have to come back up! Carry plenty of drinking water with you along with some energy bars.
Firehole Canyon Drive
A beautiful scenic drive, the Firehole Canyon Drive is a hidden gem amongst the pine trees. It is a 2 mile long, one-way drive which takes you through the stunning Yellowstone Canyon. On the way, you will pass Firehole River, Great Fountain Geyser and Firehole Falls. At the end is a swimming area where the whole family can enjoy.
Norris Geyser Basin
The Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and the most changeable thermal area in Yellowstone. Many hot springs and fumaroles can be found in the basin. Most of them have temperatures above the boiling point! Very volatile, the Norris Geyser Basin is part of one of the world's largest active volcanoes. To add to that, it sits on the intersection of three major faults! Due to its volatile nature, new hot springs and geysers appear at the Norris every year. Nature at its chaotic best, some features in the Norris Geyser Basin can undergo dramatic changes within minutes. For example, clear pools can become muddy and start boiling!
The best location for spotting wolves, eagles, bears, elks, pronghorns and Bisons in their natural habitat. The Lamar Valley is a must visit while on your Yellowstone vacation. The best time to see these animals is at dawn or dusk, when they are most active. Join a guided tour to get the most out of your visit. And don’t forget to carry your camera!
Grand Prismatic Spring
Full of vivid colours, Grand Prismatic Spring is nature at its best. Located in the Midway Geyser Basin, the spring is the park’s largest hot spring. It measures approximately 370 feet in diameter and is over 121 feet deep. The vivid colours in the spring are the result of pigmented bacteria in the microbial mats that grow around the edges of the mineral-rich water.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest water body in the Yellowstone National Park spreading out over 132 square miles. Situated at 7,733 feet above sea level, the lake has 141 miles of beautiful shoreline. It is frozen half the year, from the months of December/January to May/ June. Hike around the lake, rent a motorboat and zoom across it, go kayaking or simply pack some snacks and have a picnic on its bank.
Mammoth Hot Springs
A visit to the Mammoth Hot Springs will leave you feeling like you have stepped on Mars! Having a very interesting terrain and unusual landscape, Mammoth Hot Springs is a complex of hot springs and is situated on a hill of travertine in Yellowstone National Park. The rock structures are impressive and the hot steam rising from the ground is intriguing. Exploring the region is a little difficult though- there is a staircase to get to the top. On the top there is a wooden walkway that allows you to see the hot springs from all angles.
The Hayden Valley is a great place to see wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. Centrally located within the national park, you are likely to encounter bison, elk and grizzly bear on your visit. You might also get to see ducks, pelicans and geese. The only way to explore the valley is in your car.
One of the highlights of the Yellowstone National Park, the Castle geyser erupts to a height of around 90 feet every 10-12 hours. The height of the geyser itself along with its shape, changes after every eruption that causes minerals to deposit around its opening.
The eruption stays for about 20 minutes and often you will find people waiting to see the hot water jet vertically into the air. The geyser was named in 1870 after resembling a Castle or Fort that is believed to have a greater eruption in the past than its current flow. However, even today, the bubbles and the steaming hot water are rather fierce and are best seen from a distance.
The Mystic Falls is 70-feet cascading kind of waterfall and a hike up would let you experience the stunning views and the splendid beauty of the Falls and the surrounding areas. The hike is somewhere around 1.2 miles and would begin at the Biscuit Basin and the striking vistas on your way up would leave you stunned. The climb is a steady one and there’s also a lookout point on the way from where the views of the giant Geyser at a distance is spectacular.
There is a lot to see and do within Yellowstone National Park as well as the surrounding area. If you are pressed for time, or do not have a vehicle or planned itinerary, these trips and activities will help you save time and money while seeing the top destinations within Yellowstone:
Where to Eat & Drink in Yellowstone National Park
There are several restaurants, grills and snack food offerings within Yellowstone. Here are our choices for the where to eat and drink in Yellowstone:
Mammoth General Store
Yellowstone General Stores has a total of 12 stores conveniently located around the park in all major areas. Most of the general stores are in historical park buildings with rich history of their own, like the general stores at Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, and Mammoth Hot Springs to name a few.
All Yellowstone General Stores offer a food and beverage service that can range from sit-down diners to snack shops that serve ice cream and hot dogs. Yellowstone General Stores also offer groceries as well as gear and supplies needed for camping, fishing, hiking, cookouts, wildlife watching, and boating to help prepare you for days of adventure in the great outdoors.
The Mammoth General Store is open year-round. During the summer season they serve ice cream for those hot summer days, and in the winter they serve hot food items during the day.
Old Faithful Inn Dining Room
The menu is varied, offering delicious options for most any taste and budget. The lunchtime Western Buffet is a great value, and quick for those who want to spend most of their day outside. For a more leisurely lunch and dinner, the selection ranges from salads to steaks, and from sandwiches to fresh fish. Dinnertime also includes our signature buffet loaded with favorites including prime rib of beef!
Another popular gathering spot is the Bear Pit Lounge. Adorned with etched glass panels inspired by the original wooden Bear Pit Murals, the lounge offers a pleasant locale for a drink, appetizers and fond recollections of the day.
The Lake Hotel Dining Room
The Lake Yellowstone Hotel stands majestically on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. The classic white columns accent the yellow exterior, a vision that stands apart from the surrounding forest and meadows.
The Lake Yellowstone Hotel Dining Room menu is creative and upscale, with unique dishes of fresh fish, wild game and more. Our commitment to sustainable cuisine (local and/or organic) is no more prevalent than at this casually elegant restaurant.
Canyon Lodge M66 Grill
Offering full-service dining in a casual Mission 66-themed setting, the M66 Bar & Grill features a menu of house-made soups, entrée salads, and creatively prepared beef, chicken, pork, Red trout and vegetarian dishes. Dinner reservations are required.
Another popular gathering spot is the M66 Lounge. The lounge offers a pleasant locale for a drink, appetizers and fond recollections of the day.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park
There are literally thousands upon thousands of choices when it comes to accommodations at Yellowstone National Park. There are a variety of motels, hotels, lodges, bed and breakfasts and camping opportunities inside and outside the park.
The inside park accommodations are harder to come by and some rooms are reserved years in advance. Accommodations outside the park are slightly less expensive so take that into consideration as well.
Booking.com has discounted hotel rooms from 20-50%, and I would start to use the search below to see what is available. Alternatively, you could check out hotels.com as they do offer up some amazing deals, and they have their own points accumulation program where you can get free nights.
Below are the most popular choices for accommodations within and very close to Yellowstone National Park:
Tips on Visiting Yellowstone National Park
See Old Faithful In the Early Morning or Late Afternoon
Almost everyone who enters the park heads to Old Faithful. For a more intimate experience, explore the Upper Geyser Basin in the early morning before the day visitors arrive or in the late afternoon after they leave.
Visit Yellowstone Lake in the Afternoon
While the day visitors view Old Faithful and the surrounding area, head to 136-square-mile Yellowstone Lake, the largest in the park. Consider signing up for a guided boat tour or rent your own boat.
Get Out of the Car
Don’t just see Yellowstone’s wonders through your car window. Walking even a ½ mile on a boardwalk or trail offers you a more complete sense of Yellowstone’s features and landscape.
Your best chance of spotting the park’s legendary bison as well as other critters is in the early morning or evening.
Visit Lamar Valley
Often less-visited than other areas, Lamar Valley’s habitat draws wildlife and the open vistas create optimum viewing conditions. You may see elk, bear, coyote, bighorn sheep, and eagles, especially if you arrive early.
Go outside after dark. Walk 100 yards from your lodge or drive a short distance to a turnout, then park, scan the lot for wildlife and if none is present, exit your car to look up at the dazzling display of stars. With little light pollution, the night sky is a wonder.
Stay a safe distance from the wildlife. If you want to see what a bison or elk looks like up close, view them through your binoculars.
Pack for Winter in Summer and Summer in Winter
Even in summer low temperatures at night can hover near freezing and daytime highs shoot into the 80s. Pack layers and rain gear as weather is very unpredictable.