Geysers and grizzly bears. Rivers and bison. Lakes and mountains. Yellowstone National Park has a bit of everything. Established in 1872, it’s not only the oldest national park in the U.S. but also the first national park in the world. At 3,468 square miles, it’s one of the ten biggest U.S. national parks and the second biggest in the Lower 48 after Death Valley. Averaging over 4 million visitors every year, it’s typically the second-most popular U.S. national park after Great Smoky Mountains.
Rightfully so, Yellowstone is one of those destinations that national park enthusiasts must visit. But given the massive scale of the park, it can be challenging to decide what to see and do. There’s no way to cover it all in a single visit, so we’ve put together a list of some of the top attractions and activities to help you decide.
Given its high elevation, with much of the park averaging between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, the area is prone to long winters with frequent snowstorms. Most visitors come between May and September, with visitation peaking during July. For those who do visit during the offseason, it’s important to note that only two park roads are open in winter, while the remaining roads progressively open and close throughout the spring and fall, respectively. Be sure to check the park website for current information.
View Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park
Many visitors’ favorite activity at Yellowstone National Park is viewing the abundant wildlife. In many ways, the park is like a vast wildlife preserve, and all the large mammals that have roamed the area since before 1872 remain present. These include grizzly bears, black bears, American bison, wolves, mountain lions, moose, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and more. There are also many types of reptiles and fish, and nearly 300 species of birds, including eagles, ospreys, and falcons.
The best ways to see wildlife are from pull-outs and viewpoints along the park roads, and during hikes along the park’s many trails. Wildlife is most active around sunrise and sunset, and, in particular, there are two park areas recommended for seeing large mammals. Hayden Valley is located in the center of the park, north of Yellowstone Lake. Lamar Valley is located in the northeastern corner of the park, between the North and Northeast Entrances.
For the safety of both Yellowstone animals and people, the park service requires that visitors stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards away from all other wildlife. For the best views, bring a pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens.
Unfortunately, coinciding with Yellowstone’s growing popularity, visitors have displayed increasingly dangerous practices in recent years. Some drivers will speed on park roads, in an effort to see it all, while other drivers will park in the roadways to view wildlife. As a result, car accidents are increasing in the park so drive cautiously.
Elsewhere, people on foot will closely approach wildlife to take selfies or even taunt the animals. Other people try to lure animals closer by feeding them, which conditions the animal to approach humans and makes them less likely to survive in the wild. The Instagram account Tourons of Yellowstone collects photos and videos of dangerous behavior from throughout the park. Every year, foolish visitors are injured after approaching wildlife too closely. Sometimes, the attacking animals may have to be killed. In general, if an animal approaches humans, it is the visitor’s responsibility to back off to a safe distance.
Explore Geysers & Other Hydrothermal Features
Yellowstone National Park is home to over 10,000 hydrothermal features, including hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and over half of the world’s active geysers. The reason for the abundance of hydrothermal activity is the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano in North America. Due to heat convection in Earth’s interior, a partially melted magma chamber exists beginning three miles beneath the park, which provides heat to surface features. The volcano hasn’t erupted in tens of thousands of years, but it remains active and future eruptions are remotely possible.
Among the hydrothermal features, the most famous is Old Faithful. The geyser erupts, on average, to heights of 150 feet every 90 minutes. Old Faithful is one of six geysers for which the park service predicts eruptions on their webpage, all of which are located in the popular Upper Geyser Basin, along with over 150 of the park’s 500 geysers.
Norris Geyser Basin features acidic pools and the world’s tallest geyser, Steamboat, with its unpredictable eruptions. Nearby, Artist Paintpots is known for bubbling mud pots (acidic hydrothermal features that dissolve rock) and colorful pools.
Grand Prismatic Spring, in the Midway Geyser Basin, is the largest hot spring in the world. At 370 feet in diameter and 150 feet deep, the bright blue pool is surrounded by rings of green, yellow, and orange thermophiles (high-temperature microorganisms). West Thumb Geyser Basin is uniquely located along the western shore of Yellowstone Lake. And Mammoth Hot Springs, near the North Entrance, is known for impressive travertine terraces linking hundreds of hot spring pools.
To protect both visitors and the fragile hydrothermal features, no swimming or soaking is allowed in park hot springs. The water in these springs often reaches boiling temperatures and can be highly acidic and contain dangerous microorganisms. Every year, several park visitors ignore these warnings and become severely burned or even die due to illegally entering hydrothermal features. The one exception to this rule is the Boiling River Swim Area, where the Boiling River hot springs flow into the Gardner River, near Mammoth Hot Springs. Parking is limited and reaching the swim area requires a half-mile walk along the river.
Yellowstone National Park has over 900 miles of trails, and much of the park is managed as wilderness. With so many options, it can be difficult to narrow down which trails to hike. One method is to start with the highlights you want to see in the park, such as hydrothermal features, and select a few hikes nearby. Many of the shorter day hikes lead to views of popular park features.
One example is the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail, a short 1.2 miles, out and back, which leads to a stunning view above Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin.
Nearby, the Observation Point Loop allows a higher vantage point for observing eruptions of Old Faithful and viewing the Upper Geyser Basin. The 1.6-mile out-and-back hike to Observation Point can be extended by adding a 1-mile loop trail to Solitary Geyser.
Instead of a quick look at Mammoth Hot Springs, you can see it all by walking a series of boardwalks and trails totaling about 1.75 miles.
Another popular area is the short and longer trails around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near Canyon Village. The mostly short and steep trails, often with stairs, lead to a variety of viewpoints overlooking Upper and Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
Wherever you hike in Yellowstone, the park service recommends taking safety precautions for bears. These include staying 100 yards away, never feeding the animals, and carrying bear spray, which is available in park stores.
Boating and whitewater rafting Yellowstone NP
Boating on lakes in the park is a popular activity. Yellowstone Lake, with a surface area around 132 square miles, is the largest high elevation lake in North America. Plus, there are many smaller lakes throughout the park. Boating season runs from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through the first Sunday in November. Motorized boats, up to 40 feet in length, are allowed only on Yellowstone and Lewis Lakes. Non-motorized boats, such as canoes and kayaks, are allowed on all lakes with a few exceptions.
While rafting in Yellowstone is not allowed on rivers inside the park, whitewater rafting and floating is a popular activity just outside the park. A variety of rafting trips from scenic floats to thrilling whitewater can be found. These include the Snake River through Jackson Hole, the Yellowstone River and Gallatin River in Montana, and the Shoshone River outside Cody, WY.
Camping and Lodging
There are 12 campgrounds inside the park offering over 2,000 campsites. These sites range from tent-only to RV sites with full hookups. The vast majority of campsites can be reserved ahead of time while less than 200 sites are available for walk-ups.
Five of the campgrounds are managed by concessionaire Yellowstone National Park Lodges and can be reserved on their website. The remaining seven campgrounds are managed by NPS. Three of these campgrounds have sites that can be reserved on Recreation.gov.
The remaining campgrounds are either partially or entirely first-come first serve, including Indian Creek (70 sites), Pebble Creek (27 sites), Tower Fall (31 sites), and Lewis Lake (85 sites). First-come, first-serve sites typically fill by early morning, so it’s important to plan ahead.
There are nine lodges in the park offering over 2,000 hotel rooms and cabins. Beginning April 2022, reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance.
Because of the competition for camping and lodging in Yellowstone National Park, many visitors stay outside the park in neighboring communities. There are five entrances to the park, and each connects with communities offering many lodging options. Given there are so many options, you’ll need to do your own research on this topic. But one rule of thumb is to start by selecting which activities and highlights interest you most. Then locate those spots on the map, select the nearest park entrance, and search for lodging in the communities outside that entrance.
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Cover image: Lion Geyser. NPS/Neal Herbert