A week and a half through Yellowstone, the Tetons and across Wyoming to Cheyenne. One of the first things we learned while there is that Yellowstone is MUCH more than mountains, trees and animals – there is a ton of volcanic action and is one of the most unique places in the world, and I think the only place that has all 5 different types: geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, terraces and mud pots.
Pro tip: Read the bold stuff if you don’t have time for my ramblings!
Don’t Freak Out, Let’s Plan…
I’ll be frank, beginning to plan this trip with absolutely no knowledge of the park was really overwhelming. I thought everything was hours and hours apart so I actually planned to see way less then we actually ended up doing. We were able to see the entirety of Yellowstone in three days. Driving around is not that bad as the views are scenic and you’ll most likely run into a bison herd or some type of road jam. The longest we drove was 1.5 hours and we still stopped throughout that. You could push it to two days if you are into torturing yourself, though!
This incredibly helpful Yellowstone subreddit was a gem. I am also blessed to work with someone who was a guide in the area for a few years, so I took advantage of that to kick off the itinerary.
TOP 4 THINGS TO REMEMBER TO PACK
- Binoculars and/or Scope – do not scoff! Glass is on EVERY Yellowstone National Park packing list you can find online for a reason. You will not regret investing in a pair of nice binoculars or super-zoom lens for your camera.
- Download maps and music on your phone prior to entering Yellowstone. You will have little to no service through out the park.
- Refillable water bottle or bladder for your backpack.
- Cooler bag for meals on the go.
VISITING YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK TIPS
- Download apps: Yellowstone roads basically make a figure-eight with main points along the drive. Download the NPS Yellowstone app (to plan), offline maps from Google Maps (to drive) and the Yellowstone/Grand Teton tour from the GyPSy app (to learn). I used all 3 at once.
- Get bear spray after you’ve landed. You can’t take it on a plane, even packed in checked luggage, but you can buy, rent from the park or even purchase secondhand. Although you most likely won’t ever see a bear… you don’t want to be caught without it. It made my anxious-self feel better.
- Upgrade your rental vehicle. Get the minivan no matter how lame you think it is. We had luggage, snacks for days, cases of water and other beverages, and VIEWS! That Chrysler Pacifica was like Jeff Bezos’ rocket ship.
Lastly, this is your vacation – see what you want to see at your own pace. We have no children so we did anything and everything, including driving to each of the 5 entrances. At first, we skipped much of the popular geyser basins, but by the end of our third day we were in awe of everything .
Day 1: Travel Day, Bozeman, MT > Gardiner, MT
Fly to Bozeman. I loved flying into the Bozeman airport. It’s small, with only 3 luggage carousels, but everything that you would thing a Montana airport would be. This very small town is being built up as a hippie, trendy mecca in Montana surrounded by good food and exciting views. You will most likely find your first of many bison burgers and elk antlers over the bar.
Stay in Gardiner. Gardiner, MT is right on the edge of the north entrance of Yellowstone, where the Yellowstone Arch is. On the drive from Bozeman to Gardiner, Montana, you’ll see your first (but farmed) buffalo and elk. Gardiner is a nice little pit-stop town with the necessities plus all the trappings of a tourist town including wildlife tours. Tucked away from the main road, cow elk walked down street right in front of the Airbnb that evening.
Day 2: Lamar Valley > Mammoth Hot Springs > Norris Geyser Basin > Canyon
Head to Lamar Valley for sunrise. From Gardiner, getting to Lamar Valley takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes, but we saw our first buffalo about 30 minutes into the drive! Of course that made us super excited to see more, and boy, did we!
There is a wolf den at Slough Creek Camp. I feel guilty sharing this to the public but it is not my place to gate keep visitors from seeing what I saw and I am grateful that I found this piece of info. This is the first time I saw several park visitors with spotting scopes on tripods. The valley has a lot of foothills that animals tend to disappear behind very quickly. After 15 or so minutes and trying to catch everyone’s whispers, we heard them – wolves howling!
Bison are throughout Lamar Valley. As we continued down the road to the northeast entrance, we saw so. many. bison. Giant herds of bison along the road and in the range and down by the rivers that wind through the valley. They were ornery in the early morning, their rut (mating season) lasts through the summer so you could hear the males grunting next to their ladies. On the way back, we got stopped by a bison that was headed toward our car in our lane. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place…
The GyPSy app will tell you the history of what you’re driving through and point out scenic side trips and how long they will take. I would have missed so many off-the-main-drag spots without this app!
Mammoth Hot Springs is almost like “Yellowstone Town Center.” There are also elk here grazing in the grassy square. You’ll see huge features as you approach, smoking earth, bright yellows and stark whites – and quite a few people. This area is fairly crowded, but there is plenty of parking and people coming and going. This was our first hot spring and we were shocked by the smell of sulphuric stank here.
Surprise number 1. Yellowstone stinks. Nobody tells you this.
After Mammoth we continued down the top southwest side of grand loop road. A couple overlooks are here as well as Golden Gate pass. Lots of pull-offs and picnic areas along this road. Once you get to Roaring Mountain, a mountainside that is literally smoking with furmaoles, you will realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore. This is volcano country.
Next stop was Norris Geyser Basin. Parking takes a while in this geyser basin. This was also where the smell really hit us and we were turned off by going too far in. I forced a walk around Porcelain Basin and we left.
A visitor told us there were elk in West Yellowstone, so we headed toward Madison Junction and the western entrance. No elk, but we exited the park and grabbed a drink at the Slippery Otter in West Yellowstone, MT – a very small entry town to the park.
We decided to skip Artist Paint Pot and Gibbon Falls and save those for our “geyser tour” on the last day in Yellowstone. After those stops, there is not a lot to pull over for on the road to Canyon, although scenic, of course. There are places to eat at each hotel location, which has a campsite and cafeteria, sometimes a restaurant.
Animals come out at dawn and dusk. We were so pumped about animals, that night we drove into Hayden Valley, which is just south of Canyon. Here we found our first bull elk and a lot more bison. Greg documented bison swimming across the river this like he was filming for the Discovery Channel.
DAY 3: Canyon > Hayden Valley > Yellowstone Lake > W. Thumb > Old Faithful Inn
We drove through Hayden Valley in the morning (can you tell we were wildlife-crazy by then? and stopped to see Mud Volcano and Sulfur Caldron. This was the smelliest place in the park.
If the road was open, this is where I would have driven up Canyon to Tower to see Dunraven Pass and do the Mount Washburn hike, see Tower Fall and other stops along this route.
See the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone in the morning. We hit quite a few overlooks, starting at South Rim Drive to Artist’s Point, which is breathtaking. Uncle Tom’s trail was closed – 300 steps bolted to the side of a canyon cliff – not sure if we’d do it if it were open. The South Rim offers Wapiti Lake and Ribbon Lake Trails – we decided to skip these and head to the North Rim for more views. Brink of the upper falls puts you right over the falls, with amazing canyon views. The North Rim’s “View of the Lower Falls” where rainbows appeared!
Surprise number 3. People say to be at Artist’s Point about 10 am for rainbows, but you can see one at North Rim’s View of the Lower Falls.
Rent a boat to check out Yellowstone Lake. A lot of the lake is off-limits to boaters, as the winds were a bit too heavy. Plus, there are hot vents and rocks and things all through these 45-degree waters. We packed our lunch and binoculars in a wet bag and stayed out for about an hour and a half, which will get you a loop around the accepted area and a 20-min stop for lunch.
Storm Point is a popular 2.5 mile loop hike. This takes you through the woods and along the lake. This is a nice hike with beaches and more hot features.
Drive the east entrance toward Cody. It is one of the most beautiful parts of the park. We considered driving to Cody, but it’s about 80 miles so we stopped at the entrance – but this was one of the most beautiful parts of Yellowstone in terms of scenic driving. Past this, huge mountains and dense pine forest showcase Yellowstone’s eastern backcountry. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Tour groups here were scoping out mountain goats.
The Old Faithful area is very developed, with three lodges and various dining opportunities, gift shops and otherwise. The Old Faithful Inn is an incredible work of architecture. Although crowded in the lobby, Greg and I climbed all over the place and read about the history of the place. It is definitely a unique marvel to behold. Our room was essentially a log cabin straight from 1905 and made of lodgepole pine and what we suspect to be bison hide. Shared bathrooms and showers, to boot. It takes you back.
Visit West Thumb Geyser Basin. This is a cool boardwalk loop that showcases some of the hot features along – and in – Yellowstone Lake.
We were staying in the oldest part of the Old Faithful Inn and had front row views of Old Faithful all day (and all night) long. Of course, after we got ready for bed we saw people gathering again at sunset and so I watched Old Faithful erupt for the second time at 10:08 pm in my PJs.
DAY 3 – Paint pots, Geysers, Pools & Springs
The geysers were growing on us, and whether it was the wind or just how it is, this area did not smell like our first encounters did.
The drive from Norris to West Thumb is full of geyser basins and other thermal features.
- Artist Paintpot Trail, a quick loop for our first mud pots.
- Gibbon Falls, along the side of the Yellowstone Caladra
- Fountain Paint Pot (lower geyser basin) you will see at least 1 erruption
- Firehole Lake Drive which holds Great Fountain Geyser and is 100% worth the side trip. There are a ton of geysers on this road but they are not marked on the Yellowstone app for some reason.
- (skip Grand Prismatic on this drive)
- Biscuit Basin, which is a cute, quick loop boardwalk.
- Trail to Mystic Falls at the back of the boardwalk.
- Old Faithful Area and Upper Geyser Basin
Skip Grand Prismatic until the late evening. Steam will be less in order to see the full colors, and crowds will be less. You have two viewing options: Fairy Falls trailhead lot for an above-view (recommended) and the boardwalk lot for an up-close view.
Later that night, we took some drinks and posted up at the end of the OF Inn parking lot, situated just at the right angle to see Grand Geyser go off around 9:30 pm, sunset. It was huge, larger than Old Faithful. Then, we noticed Castle Geyser erupting! Which was honestly one of my favorites and looks like an elementary school volcano. This one goes at intervals of around 14 hours, so we were lucky to see it. We finished off our night with a late night Old Faithful eruption and hit the hay. Safe to say we closed out the Yellowstone leg of the trip with a bang!
Nearby – Grand Teton National Park & Jackson Hole
Finish off your trip in the tetons. South of Yellowstone, worth at least the loop! Make this the beginning, middle or end of your trip as there’s much to be seen. But I digress, this is about Yellowstone, so I end here (thank goodness). Enjoy!