Best time to visit: Year Around
Recommended Hikes: Brink of Lower Falls, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hotsprings, Norris Geyser Basin
Ideal For: Wild-life Viewing, Auto-Touring, Fishing, Hiking, Camping, Boating
Where to stay: Campgrounds and hotels throughout the park
Yellowstone is a massive national park and it has it all. The wildlife viewing here is the best in the United States, with abundant bison, elk, bears, wolves, and deer. Yellowstone also has powerful waterfalls and world class geothermal features. The park is open year around, but only the north entrance and northern part of the park are open during winter. All seasons offer advantages and disadvantages, but perhaps summer is the best for being able to see the entire park. Five days or more is a good amount of time to spend if you want to see all of Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park.
Must See Attractions:
Old Faithful - Most geysers erupt erratically - Old Faithful, which erupts roughly every 90 minutes, is the exception. The nearby visitor center shows what time the next eruption will occur - If you just miss an eruption, you can spend the 90 minutes exploring the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin. There is bench seating near Old Faithful which starts to fill up 15-20 minutes before each eruption, and plenty of standing room.
the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - If you've wondered where the park gets its name, it's from the yellow rock walls of the "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" in heart of the park. Lower Falls flows into the canyon with incredible power - and you can hike right down to the brink of it! This is a must-do hike, read more below in the hiking section. There are multiple viewpoints on either side of the canyon, they are all worth stopping at.
Grand Prismatic Spring - The largest hot spring in the USA and the prettiest spring in the park. The spring is so big that it's difficult to see its center, with a multitude of colors expanding out from it. The park service also opened up a new trail in 2017 that goes up the hill behind the Grand Prismatic Spring. It's a cool perspective and worth the short hike to see it. The parking area for this trail is about a mile to the west of the main parking lot for the Grand Prismatic Spring.
Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley - Wildlife is everywhere in Yellowstone, but these two valleys are the most common places to spot wolves and grizzlies. Sightings are usually at a distance, so binoculars and scopes are great to have. If there is a crowd along the road, you can stop and likely look through someone else's scope to see the animals. Wolves are most often seen in Lamar Valley and Grizzlies in Hayden Valley.
Waterfalls - Yellowstone has outstanding waterfalls, many of which can be seen with just a short walk from parking areas. Lower Falls and Upper Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are both must-sees. Tower Fall and Gibbon Falls should both be on your list as well.
Yellowstone Lake - By far the biggest lake in the park with mountains rising from its eastern bank. The West Thumb Geyser Basin is a good place to see Yellowstone Lake in addition to thermal features right on the lake's shoreline.
Mammoth Hotsprings - A white mountain of sulfate deposits, with a network of boardwalks climbing across and over it. Most of Mammoth Hotsprings is currently dry with only a few sections of steaming water flow. The water-flow changes over the years however, and at points in the past and likely again in the future, the entire sulfate mountain overflows with boiling hot water.
Grand Teton National Park - just 12 miles south of Yellowstone - spend at least a day here if you go to Yellowstone. Visitors need to pay the park entrance fee at both parks if visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Read more about Grand Teton National park here.
Wildlife viewing is the highlight of Yellowstone - if you see a big crowd while driving, there is likely a bear in sight. Expect traffic jams throughout the park due to people stopping and parking, and watch out for animals and pedestrians on the road. Bring binoculars!
All wildlife is potentially dangerous. The park rules are to stay at least 25 yards away from large herbivores and 100 yards from bears and wolves. A small amount of visitors have been killed by bears and wolves, any many more have been seriously injured by bison and elk. Do not approach, feed, or harass any wildlife!
Proper food storage is required at all times, and extra caution needs to be used whenever hiking in grizzly territory. Read more about bear safety here.
Hot springs are just as dangerous as wildlife. Every year, people are severely burned and even killed when they fall into hot springs. Almost all accidents happen when visitors leave the boardwalks and fall through brittle ground that breaks away to boiling hot water just a few inches beneath the surface. Stay on the paths at all times, it can save your life!
Much of Yellowstone closes for the winter. However, the north and northeast entrances are open year around, as is the road that connects them within the park. This stretch of road includes Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley, but no other major geyser basins or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Visit in summer or fall to ensure all the roads and park attractions are open.
Yellowstone is a great fishing and boating destination - permits are required to do either, which can be obtained at park ranger stations throughout the park. Wyoming state fishing licenses do not apply, you must obtain a Yellowstone National Park permit.
There are general stores, restaurants, hotels and gas stations at major developed areas throughout the park, including Lake Village, Canyon Village, Old Faithful, and Mammoth Hotsprings.
Yellowstone is bigger than it looks on a map - it can take up to 2 hours to drive from Old Faithful to Canyon Village.
There is no shuttle service, but Yellowstone is a very car-friendly park. You will spend a lot of time driving which is great for chance wildlife sightings. Most attractions like the geyser basins, lakes, and waterfalls are very short walks from parking areas.
Drinking water is available at most developed areas of the park, bring your water bottle to fill up.
Where to Stay:
In the park - I prefer Canyon Village or Lake Village because they are in the center of the park which allows for the shortest daily drive times. There are hotels and/or campgrounds at Canyon Village, Lake Village, Old Faithful, Mammoth Hotsprings, and Tower Roosevelt.
All lodging and camping within the park can be reserved online in advance here.
Hiking (Walking) in Yellowstone
Brink of Lower Falls - Everyone who visits Yellowstone should make it here if they can. Its about a mile one-way with a consistent incline, but it's worth the effort. It leads to the very top of the massive Lower Falls, and you can stand right next to the river as it roars into the canyon. Read more about the hike here.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - there are hiking paths that run along the rim on either side of the canyon, with several famous viewpoints like Artists' Point, Inspiration Point, and Lookout Point. There is a metal staircase on the south rim of the canyon called "Uncle Tom's Trail" that descends close to Lower Falls as well - this staircase is open summers only due to ice.
Mount Washburn - I haven't hiked this peak but I know its a popular one in the late summer when the snow clears - read more about it here.
West Thumb Geyser Basin - I really enjoyed this geyser basin because it is right on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, distinguishing it from the rest of the geyser basins in Yellowstone. Some of my favorite hot springs in the park are here, and the views of the lake are pristine. Don't skip this one!
Upper Geyser Basin - Home of Old Faithful, and also an extensive network of boardwalks through a massive basin of other geysers and hot springs. There is a lot to see here beyond Old Faithful - I recommend walking every stretch of boardwalk you have time for - you might be lucky to time one of the other geyser's eruptions, although they aren't as predictable as Old Faithful.
Norris Geyser Basin - There are two mid-length loop hikes here that are both worth exploring; and they tend to be a little less crowded than the Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring areas.
Artists Paintpots - This is a really cool little attraction. It's a bubbling cauldron of mud that is constantly popping with bubbles. The paint pot itself is really small, just a few feet across, but it's a unique sight compared to every other hot spring. Its located a few miles south of the Norris Geyser Basin.
There are many backcountry hikes in Yellowstone - I have not attempted any of them. Due to the park's grizzly bear population and dense vegetation, I didn't feel comfortable hiking them alone. Read more about some of the backcountry hikes here.