"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." - Marcel Proust
Yellowstone was named the first National Park in 1872 for good reason. While all of the 18 national parks we’ve visited are unique in their own way, Yellowstone is the most peculiar natural wonder of all. Yellowstone National Park sits on top of an active super volcano; Yes! you read it right, but not to worry. The last time the volcano erupted was a mere 0.6 million years ago and is not predicted to erupt for another 100,000 yrs. Phew! As a result of sitting atop a volcano, Yellowstone has more geysers, hot springs and mud pots than any place on earth. It also has about 50% of all the world's hydrothermal. And of course, it is home to the most famous geyser Old Faithful. Pretty fascinating right? (great conversation starter with kids!)
As we drove through the park, we listened to the narrated guide via Gypsy APP about the Lewis and Clark expedition. You can feel what Lewis and Clark felt like when they first gazed upon this amazing land. You will feel a gratitude for our ancestors who wisely carved this land to be untainted by man, thus creating our first National Park in 1872. The history of Yellowstone’s inception will make you a proud American. You can read more about the birth of the first national park here. https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/historyculture/yellowstoneestablishment.htm
Before making lodging reservations, I recommend you learn about the areas of the park. Yellowstone is ranked 8th in size of the 10 largest US National Parks. To minimize driving, I would split your stay into two different areas, the east and west side. Canyon Village is a good location to explore the east side of the park, and West Yellowstone is good for the west side of the park. Even with these two split stays, be prepared to drive. This is another thing different about Yellowstone. While the park has plenty of beautiful hiking trails, 3-4 days doesn’t leave much time to hike and see its natural wonders. We chose to drive around the park, make plenty of stops, and do short hikes when we could. If you can spend 7 days, then you can dedicate a day or two just for hiking. Parking lots are crowded, but if you loop around or hover a bit, a parking space will inevitably open up.
The map below should help orient you. There are 8 major junctions/areas in Yellowstone: Fish Bridge Junction, Canyon Village, Tower Roosevelt, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Junction, Madison, Old Faithful and West Thumb Junction. To give you an idea of the distances involved, it took 45min from Canyon Village to Tower Roosevelt and another 35min to Mammoth Springs from Tower Roosevelt. It takes 30 min from Madison Junction to Old Faithful Geyser, and 35min from Old Faithful to Grant Village. These are estimated times, and don’t factor running into a herd of bison – which you will do! Lamar Valley, which is 25min from Tower Roosevelt Junction, is famous for wildlife spotting. Should you lodge in West Yellowstone, it will take you 2-3 hrs. just to get to Lamar Valley. To see the wildlife, you will either need to get up at 3am or be prepared to arrive home around midnight. This is why I don’t recommend staying in West Yellowstone for the whole trip.
Map of the 8 junctions of the Yellowstone National Park
The weather in Yellowstone could be hit or miss. We visited Yellowstone in the first week of August and the weather was superb, 70-80 degrees and sunny. But 4 weeks earlier there was snow on the ground. While the days were warm and dry, the nights and early morning were chilly. If you are not a fan of being cold like me, I recommend visiting Yellowstone between late June to September though this is when it is most crowded. Yellowstone is beautiful anytime of the year; it's just a matter of whether or not you can tolerate cold. Definitely bring lots of layers and sunscreen for this trip.
We entered Yellowstone National Park from the east side as we just came from Badlands National Park. Before entering the park, we spent a night in Cody, Wyoming which is a unique experience in itself. This rodeo stadium is the oldest rodeo in America and named the Rodeo Capital of the World; a true slice of America, and a must see with the kiddos. If you decide to attend the rodeo show, the best view is from the seats opposite of the entrance. You can see the riders get on and off their bulls on this side. The town of Cody is charming and the place to purchase authentic cowboy boots and hats. My girls got the cowboy hats and boots and wore them for the rest of the trip. This is also a good place to stock up on groceries or snacks. You can find more information here, https://www.codystampederodeo.com/
My youngest got a feel for sit on a bull; the female riders; my girls cheered on @CodyStampedeRodeoWyoming
From Cody, we drove the "fifty most beautiful miles in America" which was famously named by President Theodore Roosevelt and entered the east entrance of Yellowstone. It truly is a beautiful drive and lives up to its namesake. As you pass the east entrance, you will go by the Fish Bridge junction, a place where you can watch fish leaping, especially in spring. We saw fish, but none were leaping. We continued our drive heading toward Canyon Village and found an idyllic lunch spot at Otter Creek Picnic area which is situated along the Yellowstone River. We took our time there and enjoyed it since it's so beautiful . You can walk along the river as far or as little as you desire. I recommend this spot. You can find other picnic spots around Yellowstone National Park here: https://www.yellowstone.co/picnic.htm
@OtterCreekPicnicArea. Our daughters exploring the areas along the Yellowstone River.
We stopped by the Canyon Village Visitor Center to get our map, Junior ranger book and rent bear spray before heading to our lodging. Canyon Village has plenty of restaurants, gift shops, and a hotel, Canyon Lodge and Cabins.
We spent 5 days 4 nights at Yellowstone National Park as part of our 13 day trip, and we stayed at Yellowstone UnderCanvas for our entire trip. If I were to do this trip again, I would definitely split our stay and spend a couple nights in Canyon Lodge and Cabins, so I can explore the east side of the park without having to drive so much. UnderCanvas is about 15min. west of the West Yellowstone town, and about 35min. to Madison Junction. Depending on which routes you take, it can take 2 -2.5 hrs. to get to Lamar Valley from West Yellowstone. Don't get intimidated by all the driving. Though Yellowstone involves much driving, the views are amazing. All along the way, you will encounter wildlife, waterfalls, geysers or rivers. I just want you to be mentally prepared for Yellowstone’s size.
@Views along the drive through Yellowstone National Park
West Yellowstone is a hopping little town, if not touristy. There are a variety of restaurants for sit down or takeout. One highlight of West Yellowstone is the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. It's a place where injured grizzly bears, wolves, and other wildlife are cared for before being released into the wild. If you are interested, I recommend you purchase tickets the first day you get there because the tickets are good for 2 consecutive days. This way you can return another day if you choose to. We bought it the last day so we couldn’t utilize the second day pass. You can find more information via this link: https://www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org/
Since the park is huge, we divided the park into different areas just like we did with Big Bend National Park. Our first stop was Artist Point which offers a view of Yellowstone’s Lower Falls. Artist Point is one of the classic photo spots for all Yellowstone visitors. It is an easy 0.2 mile walk from the parking lot, but you will be rewarded with expansive views of the Lower Falls. From Artist Point, you can hike to the bottom of Yellowstone Lower Falls via Uncle Tom Trail. Uncle Tom Trail is one of the oldest trails in Yellowstone. It's only 0.4 miles but rated difficult because it consists of ~300 steps. This is a spot where people frequently photograph the rainbow over the falls. Going down is easy, but remember every step you take down, you will need to climb back up. If you have the time to hike this trail, it should be manageable.
@Yellowstone Lower Falls
If you like to see more waterfalls in this area, you can check out Upper Falls and Crystal Falls. Since our time was limited, we only visited the Lower Falls.
Lamar Valley, which is about 25min from Tower Roosevelt Junction, is famous for wildlife spotting. The best time to see wildlife is either super early in the morning (5-6am) or late in the day (7-8pm). The nearest lodging is at Tower Roosevelt (25min drive), Mammoth Hot Springs (55min drive), or Canyon Junction (1hr drive). Since our goal for the second day was to see wildlife, and knowing we weren’t going to be able to mobilize the kids (or ourselves) at 3am, we ended the day in Lamar Valley at dusk. We started our day heading north to Mammoth Hot Springs. If you use the Gypsy app, it will tell you interesting stories along the way and point out must see features.
Mammoth Hot Springs is located in the northwest corner of Yellowstone and is 5 miles from the border of Montana and Wyoming. It's one of the most popular features of Yellowstone so be prepared for a crowd. If you enter the park from Bozeman/Gardiner, this would be your first stop. There is a visitor center and lodging at this junction, and it would be a good option to spend the night there and see wildlife the next morning. From Mammoth Hot Springs, you can get to Lamar Valley in 45 min to an hour. We spent an hour at the visitor center which gives a nice historical overview of the park road construction and topography. There are hiking trails around Mammoth with various levels of difficulty. With so much to see in Yellowstone but with only 4 days, we couldn't possibly do any long hikes. When in the Mammoth Hot Springs area, you could drive another 5 min north and go for a swim in Boiling River, one of the two swim areas in Yellowstone. It's where the large hot springs merge into Gardner River. You can find more information about swimming in the Boiling River here, https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/swim-yellowstones-boiling-river
@Mammoth Hot Springs
After Mammoth Hot Springs, we drove toward Lamar Valley. The drive is breathtaking and dotted with many viewpoints along the way. We stopped to see Undine Falls which is a pull out view spot right off the road and doesn’t require hiking. From this area, we spotted mountain goats in the distance. On this drive, you can also do an easy 0.9 mile round trip hike to Wraith Falls, which is rated easy for all ages.
Views from quick stops along the drive to Tower Roosevelt
Since we had extra time before dusk, we did a quick hike to the Tower Falls which is a short walk from the parking lot and doable for all ages. The view is spectacular and it's just a short drive south from Tower Roosevelt Junction. We then checked out the Petrified Tree. It's fascinating for the kids to learn about how a volcano eruption petrified trees into stone. It's estimated to be around 50+million years old. The kids were super excited because it was their first time seeing a petrified tree. After that we headed to Tower Roosevelt Junction for dinner and waited till 6-6:30pm before heading to Lamar Valley. Sunset doesn't start until almost 7:30-8pm during summer time in Yellowstone.
@Tower Falls and @Petrified Tree
As we drove to Lamar Valley, we were lucky to see lots of wildlife. As you are driving here, remember a few things. First, people get so excited to see wildlife that they will suddenly pull their cars in and out like crazy. So please be careful and keep your distance. Second, when you see people parked along the road, this is a cue that there is wildlife activity which you should check out. Finally, be prepared for traffic congestion either from visitors or herds of bison – but usually both. In Lamar Valley, we saw black bears in three different areas along the drive. One time, we saw a mama black bear with her cubs which was super cool for the kids. In the valley, you will mostly see herds and herds of bison. Some people spotted a grizzly bear with binoculars which we didn't have :( Definitely bring binoculars for this trip
Mamma bear and her cubs @Lamar Valley
We headed south toward Old Faithful Geyser. We started our day with a swim in the Fire Hole River, the second designated swim area in Yellowstone. We loved this spot! The water is warm and has a beautiful view. The water is not very deep and even the kids can walk through most areas. I recommend water shoes for this area since some spots were slippery. For the very young ones, a float device would be needed. You can find more information about swimming in the Fire Hole River here. https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/swimming-soaking.htm
Swimming @Fire Hole River
We stopped at Kepler Cascades next, which is one of 45 named waterfalls in Yellowstone. As the name suggested, what is special about this waterfall is how it cascades down over multiple drops. We didn't know that Yellowstone has so many waterfalls, 45 named and 100 not yet named. You will notice this throughout the park as you will see many waterfalls along the drive.
@Kepler Cascades Waterfalls
Our next stop is the most anticipated spot, the Grand Prismatic Spring. The parking here was challenging as expected, but as I mentioned earlier, if you wait for a little bit or make a couple of loops, you will find a parking spot. Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States and ranked 3rd largest in the world. Along with Old Faithful Geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring is also one of the iconic features of Yellowstone. As the name "Prismatic" implies, the hot spring has spectacular rainbow colors. Follow the path from the parking lot and it will lead you to and around the Grand Prismatic Spring. But to truly appreciate the beauty of the spring, I recommend you drive a little further south, park your car and follow the trail to Fairy Falls. About 0.6 mile from the trail head, you will see the sign to the Grand Prismatic Springs Overlook. To me, this is a MUST DO! If you ever see the beautiful photo shot of Grand Prismatic Springs, this is where it was taken from. The clearer the sky, the more you can appreciate the color of the springs. We went around early afternoon, and it was great. Even though the hike to the overlook was only 0.6 mile, it has 105 ft change in elevation, so it can be difficult for very little ones.
View of Grand Prismatic Springs from Grand Prismatic Springs Overlook
We didn't plan to visit but we saw a sign for the Great Fountain Geyser, so we stopped by. There wasn't very much to see but there is a sign that says it will erupt between 7-9pm. Yes, it's a 2 hours window! Yikes! We didn't want to sit there and wait so we went straight to Old Faithful Geyser, the most famous geyser in the world. When it erupts, it can be as tall as 100-180 feet tall. Old Faithful Geyser was named for the regularity of its eruptions. You can get the schedule of its eruptions by checking the website (https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/geyser-activity.htm ) or calling the Old Faithful visitor center. There are other geysers nearby that you can walk to if you have to wait for the next eruption. This area is also the home of the largest log style structure in the world, The Old Faithful Inn. I recommend you take a walk through the lodge, appreciate the rustic feel and be amazed at what was built in 1904.
@Old Faithful Geyser
Since we had to go back the same way we came from, we decided to give Great Fountain Geyser another shot, and we were so glad we did. Great Fountain Geyser erupts twice a day and due to the wide range of hours when it would erupt, it's hard to see it unless you time it right. We got lucky to see it and even more lucky to see it at sunset. Seeing this geyser at sunset is the top 3 of the most memorable events for me. Great Fountain Geyser is my absolute favorite geyser. When it erupts, there will be a series of water gusts with some lapse time between the bursts until enough up pressure is built up to give its biggest water outflow. It has been recorded to be as high as 75-100 ft, and it usually lasts for an hour. As the water gust out, it creates a glassy mirror that reflects the colorful sunset. There is no fancy camera in the world that can capture this spectacular view. It takes some coordination and patience, but you can definitely see it if you desire. We ended the day with high satisfaction.
@Great Fountain Geyser ; Different colorful shades of sunset and eruption of Great Fountain Geyser
We drove south to West Thumb Junction to explore that area. To be honest, when we first got to West Thumb Geyser, we were a little geysered out! ☺ But we did it anyway. It was worth the stop. The geyser is located right on the west thumb of Yellowstone Lake, which gives its name. It’s about a mile walk and features a small but colorful geyser with an amazing view of Yellowstone Lake. As you walk the path, you see how the geyser itself merges into the lake. There are a lot of fish holes, which are pretty neat to see. This walk is doable for all ages. Just like any geyser visit, watch the kids carefully and keep a distance from the geysers to avoid any accidents.
@West Thumb Geyser
We then drove to Yellowstone Lake. What a gorgeous lake! Here you will find a general store and the beautiful Yellowstone Lake hotel. This area is also where you can take a boat tour, rent a boat or do water activities like fishing, kayaking, paddling, etc. It was predicted to rain that day, so we decided not to go on the lake. We opted to relax at the hotel where we had drinks and enjoyed live music and the view of Yellowstone Lake. In the hotel lobby, there is a little library with someone sitting there to help you. My kids borrowed books and enjoyed reading at the lobby. They were given some coloring activities as well.
We spent the morning at the Grizzly and Wolves Discovery Center. It was fun for the kids to see the grizzly bears up close, especially when we carried the bear spray the last few days if we were to encounter grizzly bears. Luckily, no bear spray needed here☺. We got to see baby wolves as well as their stories.
We ended our Yellowstone trip by doing a drive through Grant Village and headed to our next national park adventure, Grand Teton.
Must-Bring List: Camera, binoculars, swimsuits, water shoes and sunscreen.
Check the park opening schedule. Certain parts of Yellowstone are closed in the winter. Just keep in mind when you are doing the planning and google the driving distance, it might not be accurate since certain roads are closed in the winter. So it might appear longer, but in the summer, it may be a lot shorter since the roads are opened up.
You should combine this trip with a trip to Grand Teton National Park. I will post about Grand Teton soon.
If you have two weeks, you can also combine this trip with Glacier National Park (6hrs drive from Yellowstone) or Badlands National Park (7-8 hours drive from Yellowstone). We started our trip in Badlands National Park/Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Devil Tower, Cody before coming to Yellowstone and ended our trip at Grand Teton National Park.
Another good option to explore Yellowstone is via RV-ing. I wouldn't drive one of those big RVs because parking would be a nightmare. Class B CamperVan would be great or you can leave your RV trailer at campground and drive around with your tow vehicle.
Last but not least, make plan early especially if you plan to stay inside the park. The booking can go as far out as a year out. This is true for all national parks.
Double rainbows over our tent @Yellowstone Under Canvas