Yellowstone was America’s first National Park and in my opinion, is one of the best. No matter whether you have 1 day here or 1 week, it is impossible to see and do everything at Yellowstone. I have been here three times now, spending almost a week each time and I still haven’t seen everything. Since there is so much to see and do, here are the top sights to see to help you plan your time here in Yellowstone National Park.
#1 Old Faithful
You can’t go to Yellowstone and not see Old Faithful at least once. It is the most popular place in Yellowstone, so be prepared for crowds. They say the way you can tell if an eruption is near, is based on how many people are seated around it. It erupts about every 90 minutes. If you go early in the day or late in the afternoon, you will find less crowds. I recommend watching it once from the platform, but then get away from the crowds. If you go walk the Upper Geyser Basin, you can watch Old Faithful erupt with the Old Faithful Inn in the background and hot springs in the front.
While you are watching Old Faithful, make sure to explore the Old Faithful Inn and the Upper Geyser Basin right behind Old Faithful. In the Upper Geyser Basin, there are other predicted geysers, mud pools, and colorful geothermal springs. The walkway is paved or boardwalk throughout. Beware of the bison. The bison tend to roam around this basin and you may turn a corner and run into one. Try to stay at least 25 feet away from them at all times, even if it means going back the way you came from.
The Old Faithful Inn was built in 1904 and has all wooden interior and exterior. It is still open for guests to stay, but be warned it is expensive and you have to book way in advance. Even if you aren’t staying there, wander around the lobby.
Plan to spend about 2-3 hours here, more if you want to explore all over the Upper Geyser Basin.
#2 Grand Prismatic Spring
Probably the second most popular sight after Old Faithful. This hot spring is known for it amazing colors and is part of the Midway Geyser Basin. The Midway Geyser Basin is much smaller than the Upper Geyser Basin and can be explored in about 30 min. If you want to see the full extent of Grand Prismatic Springs though, you need to hike up to the Grand Prismatic Overlook which takes about 30 min uphill. Try to go on a sunny day at midday, if it is overcast the colors won’t be as spectacular and with the cold, you will see more steam. That being said, you can get some amazing photos in the cold.
Parking is definitely an issue here. If you see cars already parked on the side of the road and see a spot, I recommend taking it. There is often a long line to get into the parking lot that is very slow moving. I would recommend doing this one early or late in day to avoid the crowds. Also there are only outhouses available for toilets at this location.
#3 Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley
These are the two locations that I recommend if you want to see wildlife in Yellowstone. But be prepared to go early. We were often up and out of the hotel by 6am and saw most the animals before 8am. While you will likely see bison and elk driving along the main route, your chances of seeing bears, wolves, and coyotes is much higher early in the morning in the valleys. If you see people pulled over to the side of the road and all looking in the same place, pull over and ask them. There are people who live locally who go out everyday to see the wolves and are more than willing to help you see them.
#4 Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth is unique due to the white limestone that surrounds all of the geothermal springs in this region. It has two parts that you can walk between or if you are short on time drive between. The lower terrace is just a short walk where you can see the springs travel down the limestone. The upper terrace takes longer, but given you a view from the top. It takes about an hour to explore both terraces. Mammoth is one location that changes with time and season. When we went in September, it was amazing with blue hot springs. In July, the water had dried out in most areas.
#5 Norris Geyser Basin
This is one of my favorite walks as it tends to be a little less busy. There are two different pathways and both require walking up and down hills, so if you are not in the best shape or require the aid of a walker or cane this one may not be for you as the ground is uneven.
Porcelain Basin is the smaller loop about 0.5 miles and has a lot packed into a small area. you will see hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. As it is shorter, it tends to be more packed. You can easily complete this in about 30 min.
The Back Basin is the other section and takes longer as its 1.6 miles. It features the largest geyser (Steamboat Geyser), unfortunately is cannot be predicted but hopefully you will be lucky enough to see it go off. There are also geothermal springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. The different sights are more spread out, but as it is a longer walk it tends to be less busy. Plan to spend at least an hour here.
#6 Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Yes, there is a Grand Canyon in Yellowstone but it is not the Grand Canyon that you are probably thinking of in Arizona. The canyon is over 20 miles long and thought to be the result of old lava flows. Today, the Yellowstone river flows through it with two magnificent water falls, easily named the upper falls and lower falls. Spend some time driving the upper rim loop along the side of the canyon. If you are in good shape, there is a trail that goes along this. Otherwise there are lots of parking areas to get out to explore the different views.
After you have explored the upper rim loop, take some time to enjoy the falls. A must is going to the brink of the upper falls. a platform takes you the top of the falls and you can look down over the waterfall. If you are in good shape, you can also do the brink of the lower falls. Next is the south rim trail, this will take you to the classic viewpoint, Artist Point. Make sure to stop at the viewpoint for the upper falls as well at Uncle Tom’s trail.
#7 West Thumb Geyser Basin
The West Thumb Geyser Basin, is actually located on the southeast corner of the park. It is so named, because it borders the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. What makes this basin unique is the fact that it is on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. There are hot springs and mud pots here.
Probably the most popular sight is fishing cone. Back in the day, it was named the “Hook and Cook”. It is in the water and fisherman used to fish from the lake, and then dip their fish in the hot spring to cook it. As you can probably guess, this is no longer allowed.
#8 Dragon Mouth Spring and Mud Volcano
This is probably the basin that has the most sulfuric smell, but is worth it. The Dragon Mouth Spring has steam and gases exploding from a hidden cave. Best time to go is on a cold morning as the sun will be shining on the cave and the cold makes the steam more epic.
#9 Fountain Paint Pots
Also called the Lower Geyser Basin. It is a short loop where you will see mud pots, geysers, and colorful hot springs. This is the best place to see the mud pots.
After walking the trail, take the Firehole Lake Drive. It takes you to more hot springs, but also a magnificent geyser, Great Fountain Geyser. It goes off about twice a day and erupts from a pool of water.
#10 Grand Loop Road
If you have hit all of the above sights, you should have hit this one as well. The Grand Loop road is the that takes you around the park. Even if you don’t have time to hit all of the sights above, try to go around the park at least once. It will take you about 3-4 hours depending on traffic. You never know when you will run into a bear, moose, bison, elk, or coyote.
I hope you enjoy Yellowstone just as much as I did. If you have other tips for fellow travelers, make sure to leave a comment below.
Is this your first time to Yellowstone National Park, click here if you want more tips. Why not check out Grand Teton National Park while you are at Yellowstone, click here for the top sights to see at Grand Teton.