Yellowstone National Park is a difficult place to visit for several reasons. First it’s huge, about the size of Delaware. Next, it’s a really popular destination, so crowds can be a serious problem. Finally, accommodations at the parks hotels are often impossible to get.
For the above reasons you don’t just go to Yellowstone and expect to see everything. A successful trip to this park takes advance planning, often well in advance. Booking a reservation at the Old Faithful Inn is almost impossible through the parks listings site as they usually are all taken on the the first day reservations are open. There are usually a number of reservation options at the town of West Yellowstone just outside the West Entrance which is nearest to the Old Faithful area.
When we visited Yellowstone several years ago we had a couple of advantages. First we visited Yellowstone on a land tour* with nights at the Old faithful Inn included. We were also in the company of an experienced guide that knew where to go and more importantly, when to get there.
With the summer National Park season quickly approaching and Yellowstone being a favorite destination this is a good time to revisit our experiences.
A number of times as we traveled thru Yellowstone we passed parking areas that were in total gridlock. We saw any number of lines of cars that were just not going anywhere. Following are some thoughts to getting the most out of your park visit.
First you should do some research and make a list of those places you really want to get to. This is our recommendation of the top five locations and how to approach visiting them:
#1 Grand Prismatic Spring – Located in Midway Geyser Basin. This area may be small, but it leaves a lasting impression. In addition to Grand Prismatic Spring, there’s Excelsior Geyser, an enormous geyser crater, and the Turquoise and Opal Pools. You reach the field by a bridge across the Firehole River where boiling water flows into the river and steam rises from around the field. This location is very popular and the secret is to get up early and making this your first stop. On most days gridlock begins to set in around noon.
#2 Old Faithful – Located in the Upper Geyser Basin. The area is the largest concentration of geothermal features on Earth. Though the basins other geysers are less predictable than Old Faithful there is one literally going off all the time. There are also miles of walkways and trails thru the basin that are great for hiking and exploring. The Old Faithful geyser is only a short walk from The Old Faithful Lodge with easy access for the handicapped. With the lodges plentiful parking this a great stop anytime of the day and with a number of good restaurants its a great place for lunch or dinner even if you’re not staying there.
#3 Mammoth Hot Springs – The springs is a large complex of hot springs on a hill of mineral deposits that look like an inside out cavern. It was created over thousands of years as hot water from the springs cooled on the surface and deposited calcium carbonate on the hillsides as it flowed. Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District in Yellowstone National Park is a large complex with a good hotel, restaurants and shops and is another good choice as a base for visiting the park.
#4 Lookout Point (Yellowstone Grand Canyon) – The iconic landscape image of Yellowstone is taken from Lookout Point. Only a short walk from the parking area the trail provides spectacular views up the Yellowstone Grand Canyon to the Lower Yellowstone Falls. This is a must see place but can turn into a traffic jam early in the day. Like Grand Prismatic Spring it is highly advisabe to put this on the list of visits early in the morning.
#5 Lower Geyser Basin – This is the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park. It covers an area of over ten square miles compared to the Upper Geyser Basin one square mile. With its large size, the thermal features in the Lower Geyser Basin tend to be in widely spaced groups. Because of the large area and the number of parking facilities and trails it is much easier to visit and find parking at any time of day. In the Lower Basin probably the easiest to get to and most interesting to hike is the Fountain Paint Pot area which features pools, geysers and bubbling mud pots of different colors.
To round out Yellowstone’s list of favorite sights here are another five.
#6 Hayden and Lamar Valleys – Expansive valleys of open meadows excellent for watching animals. Plenty of parking spots throughout both.
#7 Yellowstone Lake – Home to The historic Lake Yellowstone Hotel featuring fishing and tours of the park, Fishing Bridge and visitors center.
#8 Norris Geyser Basin – This Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas.
#9 Tower Falls– This fall on Tower Creek in the northeastern region of Yellowstone National Park plunges 132 feet before joining the Yellowstone river.
#10 West Thumb Geyser Basin – This small, colorful geyser in Yellowstone National Park also features scenic lake views.
The real secret to getting to see what you want is to get up early and know your destination. Also, since Yellowstone is the size of Delaware it helps to select accommodations convenient to getting into the park or better yet stay at one of the parks lodges.
Recommended routes into and thru Yellowstone National Park from each entrance for earliest access to primary locations.
- Yellow – West Entrance and Yellowstone Village to Midway Geyser Basin and on to Old Faithful.
- Blue – East Entrance and Cody to Lookout Point and Grand Canyon trails
- Orange – North Entrance and Gardner to Mammoth Warm Springs on to Midway Geyser Basin or alternately to Lookout Point.
- Green – Alternate route from Mammoth Warm Springs to Lookout Point and Old Faithful to Yellowstone Lake and Lake Village.
*We were introduced by friends to American land tours (ours was with Caravan) and it was a great experience. We traveled in the comfort of a motor coach with some meals and hotels included and we couldn’t recommend a better way of getting around the crowds.