There are so many things to do in Yellowstone, that it easily is one of the best national parks in the United States.
If you are planning a trip to the United States that is nature focussed, you really have to make it to Yellowstone National Park. A fantastic nature and adventure destination, Yellowstone National Park is great for families traveling with children too.
If you are thinking of going to Yellowstone and need help figuring out the best attractions and things to do in Yellowstone as well as some of the lesser known places, you are in the right place. Continue reading!
Looking for more national parks? Make sure to read my post The 23 Best National Parks In USA.
A bit more about Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is one of the top-rated national parks in the world, and the in the US. It is so unique it is enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s huge: 2.2 million acres, spread over 3 states – Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
The area of Northwestern Wyoming that now corresponds to Yellowstone National Park was explored in depth for the first time during the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition in 1870 – that’s when the geyser that is now named Old Faithful was first discovered.
The park has a whopping 900 miles (1448 km) of hiking trails.
Most people visiting Yellowstone stick to the most famous attractions – the Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic and Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley – so you may often feel that the park, albeit massive, is very crowded. Yet, getting away from the crowds is easy if you know where to go (or hire a good guide to take you there).
Yellowstone is also famous for the amazing wildlife. You can spot a great variety of animals such as bisons, bears, elk, moose, badgers, wolves and bighorn sheep.
Now, let me show you the best things to do in Yellowstone.
12 Great Things To Do In Yellowstone
Visit Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring, in the Midway Geyser Basin, is one of the best places to visit in Yellowstone – and one of its most crowded attractions. This is the largest hot spring in the US, and one of the largest in the world. The thermophiles, heat-loving organisms that live in the area, are the reasons that the thermal features have such bright colors.
The best time to visit is during the day, when the colors are most visible. The best views are from the viewing platform accessible via the Fairy Falls trail which normally opens in May.
You can get to Grand Prismatic from the Midway Geyser Basin parking lot: just follow the boardwalk all the way to the site. It will take you around 2 hours to visit. Wheelchair accessible!
Go wildlife spotting in Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley is the best place to spot bisons. Other animals you may be able to see are elks, deer, pronghorn, coyote and even grizzly bears. Wolves also live in the area, but are more difficult to see!
The best time to see animals is early in the morning or in the late afternoon.
The valley is at a two-hours drive (around 100 km, or 62 miles) from Old Faithful and towards the northeastern entrance of Yellowstone Park, so it doesn’t get as many visitors as the rest of the park.
Lamar Valley is best visited on a day trip during which you can also see Tower Fall, Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt, where you really should not skip 132-foot (around 40 meters) waterfall, one of the most iconic attractions in the park.
ALSO SEE: Another place to spot bisons is Hayden Valley. There are so many of them that they even cause road-blocks!
For more information about the wildlife in the park, sign up for a ranger-led lecture in one of the information centers.
And Tower Fall
Falling into Yellowstone River, this is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park.
From the parking lot, walk towards the lookout point – it won’t take you more than 30 minutes there and back. There used to be a trail little over half-mile (0.8 km) to the bottom of the waterfall but it’s been closed for a while for maintenance reasons.
Go to Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs are famous for their white, orange and yellow travertine. The area where they are located also includes Mammoth Lower Terraces and Mammoth Upper Terraces, which are connected by boardwalks. Depending on which ones you decide to see the visit can take you up to 2 hours.
Explore the area of Yellowstone Lake
This is the highest lake in North America, which regularly freezes in the winter, and whose waters are particularly cold even in the summer months.
Plan to spend at least an entire day at Yellowstone Lake, during which you can hike, go on a boat tour or even kayak on the lake.
For great views walk all the way to West Thumb Geyser Basin which is on the western side of the lake. You can get there via a trail that is about 1 km (0.6 miles) long and also wheelchair accessible.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel, which dates back to 1891 and is the oldest in the park, is another must-see. It gets tremendously busy so if you are keen on spending a night or two there book at least a year in advance. Otherwise, just pop in to take a look and eat at the hotel restaurant.
Admire all the geysers
Erupting at regular intervals of 90 minutes, Old Faithful is the most predictable geyser in the national park – hence its name! It’s a popular attraction, so don’t be surprised for the crowds.
The Upper Geyser Basin is home to the largest concentrations of geysers in the world, with lots of geothermal activity. The main landmark in the area is the Morning Glory Pool, about 2 km (1.2 miles) from Old Faithful and often referred to as “Fading Glory” because its beautiful colors are – indeed – fading as a consequence of man-caused damage.
Make sure to check out the eruption times of the geyser basin at the visitor center before heading there, so you can decide which attraction to hit first.
It can take you anything between 30 minutes to 3 hours to visit the area of Old Faithful and Upper Geyser, depending on how punctual the eruption is.
The Upper Geyser Basin Loop is 7.2 km (around 4.5 miles) and wheelchair accessible. In the area you will find facilities such as shops, restaurants, a visitor center and even a gas station.
If you are up for more geysers and have half a day to spare, head to the Norris Geyser Basin. It is divided into two sections – Porcelain Basin looks more like a desert; Back Basin is a lush pine-tree forest whose main feature is Steamboat Geyser. Both of them have trails which will allow you to easily walk around and to admire the geysers, geothermic features etc.
You can see the activity of OId Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin live via webcam from the comfort of your home – check it out here.
Visit Old Faithful Inn
Built at the very beginning of the 20th century, this is one of the oldest lodges in the park. A national historic landmark, you can visit on your own or on one of the regular free guided tours. If you go to the terrace on the first floor after the tour, you will be able to enjoy stunning views of the geyser.
Should you want to sleep at Old Faithful Inn, book at least a year in advance.
Admire the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Known as the Grand Canyon of the West, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is absolutely unmissable, whether you have a week or a month to spare in the park. The canyon is 39 km (24.2 miles) long, 1.2 km (0.7 miles) wide and more than 300 meters (984 feet) deep and can be admired it from a variety of viewpoints.
For an even better experience, make sure to go on a hike – there are many trails to pick from.
The most popular trails are Uncle’s Tom, a series of more than 300 very steep steps that takes you to Lower Fall; and the Waipiti Trail, which goes all the way to Artist Point, the most beautiful viewpoint of the Lower Falls of the river in the canyon. Along the trail to Artist Point you will be able to admire the hot springs, natural pools, mudpots, fumaroles and paintpots and the incredible variety of the canyon colors.
You may want to try whitewater rafting on the Yellowstone River – this is the longest undammed river in continental US!
Hike to the top of Mount Washburn
The hike to Mount Washburn is one of the toughest in Yellowstone National Park. Because the area is covered in snow 9 months a year, you can only really access the trail between June and September. The peak sits at more than 3000 meters (9842 feet) above sea level – so between the elevation and the difficulty of the trail this can be considered a strenuous hike.
It will take you up to 7 hours there and back. Make sure to wear appropriate gear and to take enough water and food for the duration of the hike.
Get off-the-beaten-path at Boiling River
Boiling River is a natural hot tub where you can relax at the end of a long day of hiking. It is located in the northern side of Yellowstone.
For more relaxing treatments, check out the historic Chico Hot Springs Resort, famous for its rejuvenating mineral waters.
Go on a road trip along Yellowstone Grand Loop Road
If you fancy a road trip, hit the Grand Loop. With its 230 km (around 143 miles) you can rest assured that you will be able to see most of the park just by following it.
Give it at least a couple of days and make sure to factor in plenty of stops along the way, such as at Firehole Lake Road, which is between Old Faithful and Madison Junction – a 3-mile (4.8 km) one-way road from where you can see more geysers and hot springs.
Check the road conditions on the website of the park before a road trip. Most roads are closed to private cars between November and late-April, when access is only allowed to oversnow travel vehicles. For a road that is accessible throughout the year, you may have to travel to Gardiner, Montana, and take the North Entrance.
Another great spot to drive is Paradise Valley. It is a great place to see more animals and for yet more views.
Other fun things to do in Yellowstone
If you are keen to have an adrenaline filled day, check out the zip-lining in Yellowstone. The most popular place to do it is over the Gallatin River, in Montana, and you can even pair it with rafting.
If you are traveling with children around the West Yellowstone area, go visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, a care center located in West Yellowstone, Montana, that takes care of animals who wouldn’t have a chance of survival in the wild. It is a conservation project that strives to protect animals and raises funds for that.
The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is open year-round from 9:00 am to 4:00 or 6:00 pm depending on the season. Factor in up to 2 hours for your visit. Tickets cost $15 USD and are valid for two consecutive days.
Where To Stay In Yellowstone
You will find several good lodges inside the park, but you must book them well in advance – up to 18 months before visiting, especially if you plan to go in the peak season, between June and September.
Unless you want to stay at an historical location such as Old Faithful Lodge or Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Canyon Lodge in Canyon Village is the best option as it is the most centrally located and guarantees easy access to Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, Tower-Roosevelt and Norris Basin.
Lodges inside the park must be booked directly on the official website of the national park. Some of them offer all-inclusive packages.
For a more budget friendly option consider camping; but you will need to find a campground as free camping is not allowed in the park.
You can find a list of the campgrounds available here. Much like for the lodges, you should try to book in advance.
What To Pack For Your Trip To Yellowstone National Park
It’s best to travel light: a backpack such as Osprey Ariel 65 is ideal. These are the things to carry:
- Hat and sunblock – essential if you are planning to visit in the summer, as many of the trails offer no shade.
- Hiking boots.
- Havaianas sandals – to go to the hot springs.
- A pair of walking shoes such as Converse All Stars.
- Shorts – best if visiting in the summer.
- Hiking pants and leggings – leggings are very versatile for us girls, not to mention very easy to pack: they can be either sporty or dressy, depending on what you pair them with.
- A bunch of t-shirts – easy to wear and to wash.
- One or two fleece sweaters and a light scarf for the chilly nights.
- A waterproof and windproof jacket.
- Swimsuits – for when you go rafting or to the hot springs.
- Toiletry bag – containing a good solid shampoo and conditioner; toothbrush and toothpaste; deodorant; moisturizing lotion for face and body.
- Pharmaceuticals and prescription drugs.
- Mosquito repellent.
- A refillable water bottle such as this one.
You will also want to buy travel insurance. You can get it here.
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