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 destination for lovers of adventure and whoever needs a break from the stress of city life, Yellowstone National Park is also a perfect destination for families traveling with children, who usually end up having a blast.
In this post, I will highlight all the best things to do in Yellowstone, pointing out the main landmarks and attractions in America’s oldest national park. I will include the must-see in Yellowstone, as well as some of the lesser known places. Before doing so, let me share some background information on the park and some helpful planning tips.
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 most top-rated national parks in the world, so unique it is enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not to mention it is simply huge – it’s 2.2 million acres, spread over 3 states – Montana, Wyoming (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 – the same one which gave the name to Old Faithful Geyser) and Idaho.
It has a whopping 900 miles of hiking trails: it’s easy to see why hiking is one of the best things to do in Yellowstone.
Although so large, the park may appear crowded at times. The problem is that most people don’t really know what to see in Yellowstone other than the most famous attractions, such as the Old Faithful, or Grand Prismatic and Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley. The good news is that with the right guide and following the right trail, it is possible to get away from the crowds.
Yellowstone is also famous for the amazing wildlife that lives in the area of the park. On a proper trip to Yellowstone it is possible to spot a great variety of animals such as bisons, bears, elk, moose, badgers, wolves and bighorn sheep.
But what would a trip to Yellowstone look like? Continue reading for some of the things to do in Yellowstone that you should definitely try.
Guided Tours Of Yellowstone National Park
One of the best things to do in Yellowstone is to go on a road trip and explore it independently. This obviously works well if you are traveling with friends or with a family, but if on the other hand you are traveling alone, it may be a bit less feasible financially. In that case, you may want to consider joining a guided tour. There are several good options available. Here are the main ones:
- National Parks Family Journey: Yellowstone and Grand Teton – this National Geographic tour by G Adventures is an excellent option for families. It lasts 8 days and takes you to the best places to visit in Teton and Yellowstone.
- National Parks of the Northwest US – a great tour by G Adventures perfect for a younger crowd. It lasts 15 days and goes to many beautiful parks.
- Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone 4 Day 3 Night Wildlife Tour – this tour sold on GetYourGuide comes highly recommended. It lasts 4 days, which means you get to explore the park at a good pace.
- Full-Day Yellowstone Lower Loop Tour from Jackson Hole, Wyoming – operated by Teton Scenic Floats & Fly Fishing and sold on GetYourGuide, this highly recommended tour is perfect if you have limited time in the area. It takes you to all the main landmarks.
- Jackson Hole: Yellowstone Old Faithful, Lower Loop & Wildlife – another popular day tour sold on GetYourGuide that goes to the best places to visit in the area.
Where To Stay In Yellowstone
You will find several good lodges inside the park, hence having ample choice of a place to stay for your visit. Keep in mind that you should be booking your accommodation well in advance – and in some cases 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, you really should consider the location when picking a lodge. In general, Canyon Lodge in Canyon Village is the most centrally located and will allow you easy access to places such as Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, Tower-Roosevelt and Norris Basin.
Keep in mind that lodges inside the park must be booked directly on the official website of the national park. Some of them offer all-inclusive packages.
If you would rather go on the cheap and prefer camping, please consider that 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 your campground in advance.
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. This is the largest hot spring in the US, and one of the largest in the world. It also is one of the most awe-inspiring places in Yellowstone National Park. The thermophiles, heat-loving organisms that live in the area, are the reasons that the thermal features have such bright colors.
As Grand Prismatic Spring is the most popular attraction in the park, it’s also one of the most crowded. The best time to visit is during the day, for that’s 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.
HOW TO GET THERE: You can easily 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
Admiring wildlife is one of the things to do in Yellowstone and you will find many places to do it. Lamar Valley is one of them – head there for the bisons. Other animals you may be able to spot are elks, deer, pronghorn, coyote and even grizzly bears. Wolves also live in the area, but are more difficult to spot! 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) 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. I recommend exploring it on a day trip whose itinerary should also include Tower Fall, Mammoth Hot Springs (more about that below) and Tower-Roosevelt, where you really should not skip 132-foot waterfall, one of the most iconic attractions in the park.
ALSO SEE: Another place to spot bisons is Hayden Valley. There are so many bisons in Hayden Valley that they even cause road-blocks!
TIP: For more information about the wildlife in the park, you may want to sign up for a ranger-led lecture in one of the information centers.
And Tower Fall
This is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park – it falls into the Yellowstone River. From the parking lot, just 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 to the bottom of the waterfall but it’s been closed for a while for maintenance reasons.
Go to Mammoth Hot Springs
One of the most fun things to do in Yellowstone is getting to see the hot water of Mammoth Hot Springs, famous for their white, orange and yellow travertine. Within the Mammoth Hot Springs area, you can go to the Mammoth Lower Terraces and Mammoth Upper Terraces, which are connected by boardwalks. Depending on which ones you decide to stop at 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. Visiting is a must-do and you should plan to spend at least an entire day there. The best way to explore the area is on a hike or on a boat tour or kayak.
Make sure to also walk all the way to West Thumb Geyser Basin which is on the western side of Yellowstone Lake. You can get to West Thumb Geyser Basin via a trail that is about 1 km long and also wheelchair accessible. Once there, you will be able to enjoy the best views of the lake.
One of the places you shouldn’t skip when in Yellowstone Lake is the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, which dates back to 1891 and is the oldest one in the park. It gets tremendously busy so if you are keen on spending a night or two there make sure to book at least a year in advance. Otherwise, you can just pop in to take a look and eat at the hotel restaurant.
Admire all the geysers
Visiting Old Faithful is definitely one of the unmissable things to do in Yellowstone. Erupting at regular intervals of 90 minutes, this is the most predictable geyser in the national park – hence its name! It’s also one of the most popular places to visit in Yellowstone National Park, so don’t be surprised if you find that it is crowded.
The Upper Geyser Basin is home to the largest concentrations of geysers in the world, and where you will find the Morning Glory Pool – there is a lot of geothermal activity here so visiting is definitely one of the things to do in Yellowstone. I recommend checking out the eruption times of the geyser basin at the visitor center before heading there, so you can decide which attraction to hit first.
The main landmark in the area is the Morning Glory Pool, which is at about 2 km from Old Faithful and often referred to as “Fading Glory” because its beautiful colors are – indeed – fading as a consequence of man-caused damage.
WHAT TO EXPECT: 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 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 about half a day to spare, another interesting geyser basin to visit is Norris Geyser Basin. It is divided into two sections. One is called Porcelain Basin and it is the section of the Norris Geyser Basin that looks more like a desert. The other one is Back Basin, 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.
DID YOU KNOW? 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. It’s such an important place that it was ascriped in the list of national historic landmarks. You can explore the inn and get to know it more in-depth 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 there, 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. With its 39 km length, 1.2 km wideness and more than 300 meters depth in points, this canyon is one of the park’s main attraction. You can admire it from a variety of viewpoints but for an even better experience, make sure to go on a hike – there are many trails to pick from.
The most popular trails in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone 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.
A BIT EXTRA FUN: Whitewater rafting on the Yellowstone River is one of the coolest things to do in Yellowstone. 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 – 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.
JUNE 2020 UPDATE: As the road from Canyon Junction to Chittenden Road is closed access to the trails in the area of Mount Washburn is closed.
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 and visiting the many attractions in Yellowstone National Park. It is located in the northern side of Yellowstone.
A BIT EXTRA FUN: 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, you will be happy to know that one of the best things to do in Yellowstone is driving along the Grand Loop. With its 230 km 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 three-mile one-way road from where you can see more geysers and hot springs.
A BIT EXTRA FUN: Another great spot to drive is Paradise Valley. It is a great place to see more animals and for yet more views.
TIP: Driving is one of the best things to do in Yellowstone, but make sure to check the road conditions on the website of the park before visiting. 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.
JUNE 2020 UPDATE: Beartooth Highway is closed, and the road between Cooke City and Pilot Creek not maintained. The road from Canyon Junction to Chittenden Road is closed with no foreseen opening date.
Other fun things to do in Yellowstone
If you are keen to have an adrenaline filled day, make sure to 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 for an even more fun day.
Finally, and especially if you are traveling with children and hanging around the West Yellowstone area, you may also want to 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.
USEFUL INFORMATION: 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.
What To Pack For Your Trips To Yellowstone National Park
I always recommend traveling light, and it is important to do the same during a trip to Yellowstone National Park.
I generally travel with a backpack such as Osprey Ariel 65. These are the things to carry:
- Hat and sunblock – these are essential if you are planning to visit in the summer, as many of the trails that take you to the viewpoints offer no shade at all.
- Hiking boots – one of the top things to do in Yellowstone is hiking, and sure enough you want to wear the right shoes for that.
- Havaianas sandals – for when you go to the hot springs, or when you have a chance to relax (which will be quite needed after a day filled with adventure!)
- A pair of walking shoes such as Converse All Stars.
- Shorts – if you are planning a trip to Yellowstone in the summer, you can expect the weather to be nice and warm.
- Hiking pants and leggings – and 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 – they are easy to wear and easy to wash.
- One or two fleece sweaters – I know I get cold on flights, and I am worried nights can be chilly in Yellowstone. For the same reason, I’ll carry a light scarf.
- A waterproof and windproof jacket – I love my old one by The North Face. You will need it if you head out nice and early, when the air is cool.
- Swimsuits – among the top things to do in Yellowstone there’s rafting and going to the hot springs, so it will come in handy.
- Toiletry bag – containing the following toiletries: a good solid shampoo and conditioner (I love those by Lush, they are delicate enough even for a child’s scalp); a soap or shower gel (I know the hotels during a trip to Yellowstone will provide it, but I always prefer to carry my own); toothbrush and toothpaste; deodorant; moisturizing lotion for face and body.
- Pharmaceuticals – the typical prescriptions I have to carry around for my asthma, as well as some paracetamol, cold and flu medications, etc.
- Mosquito repellent and sunblock.
- A water bottle that you can refill.
You will also want to buy travel insurance. By the way, you can get it here.
Further readings about the United States
Make sure to read my other posts about US destinations:
- The Best Things To Do In Rocky Mountain National Park
- A Great Itinerary For 3 Days In San Francisco
- The 10 Best Places To Visit In California (That Aren’t Just Cities)
- 15 Unmissable Things To Do In California
- 35 Classic Things To Do In New York City
- A Great Itinerary For A Week In New York
- 5 Days In New York: An Easy To Follow New York Itinerary
- An Easy To Follow Itinerary For 4 Days In New York
- A Fabulous Itinerary For 3 Days In New York
- The Perfect Itinerary To See New York In 2 Days
- A Wonderful Itinerary For A Day In New York
- A Complete Guide To Visiting The Statue Of Liberty
- 10 Things To Do For A Fabulous Trip To Miami
- 10 Not To Miss Hikes Near Denver
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