Yellowstone National Park (web site) is one of the absolute best parks in the United States. It is consistently ranked in the top 3 parks in the country. The sheer amount of unique attractions makes it such an amazing place to experience. The numerous valleys, thermal basins, mud pools, geysers, canyons, and wildlife passing right next to your car gives you the feeling that you are in a grand theater going from one play to another. If you have a chance to visit Yellowstone do not hesitate! It is truly a special place.
Interestingly it was Yellowstone that started the entire “National Park” movement as it was the first one to be established as such in 1872. The area it covers is 2,219,791 acres (8,983 km) and it is visited annually by close to 4 million people. The number of visitors is quite large and very noticeable during the peak seasons. So noticeable that it makes it hard to enjoy the park. To give you an example we witnessed 15+ miles long traffic line to exit the park due to road closure. Booking a stay in the park needs to be done more than a year (in some cases two) in advance!
Yellowstone is truly unique when it comes to wildlife. To us, it felt like we were on a safari most of the time. Elk, Bison, and all kinds of other animals just walk freely on the roads and literally around you. Grizzly bears are also common and bear spray is recommended if you are hiking backcountry.
There are nearly 300 species of birds, 16 species of fish, five species of amphibians, six species of reptiles, and 67 species of mammals—including seven native ungulate species and two bear species.
Things to see
First, let’s start with a link to the park map to make things easier to follow. The image below is part of it (click to enlarge). We focused our attention the first few days on the well known major attractions. In the last few days, we visited less known ones and revisited some for another peek. The roads inside the park form two circles one on top of the other like the number 8. There are five entrances to the park. Lake Yellowstone is located at the lower southeastern side of the park.
Now that the map is out of the way let’s talk about the attractions. First, note that half of the world’s active geysers are located inside Yellowstone. 500-700 active geysers per year! They are spread/grouped in what is called basins. Those are Norris, Monument, Upper, Midway, Lower, West Thump, and Backcountry Geyser Basins. Each of these basins contains various geysers, hot springs, mud pots, etc.
Midway Geyser Basin / Grand Prismatic Spring
Probably the most iconic attraction and one that is almost always on the book and magazine covers. The Grand Prismatic Spring is a must-see attraction. Extremely hot water travels 121 feet from a crack in the Earth to reach the surface of the spring. It is the third-largest spring in the world, bigger than a football field at 370 feet in diameter. It is by far the most photographed thermal feature in Yellowstone.
The bright, vivid colors in the spring are the result of microbial mats around the edges of the mineral-rich water. The mats produce colors ranging from green to red; the amount of color in the microbial mats depends on the ratio of chlorophyll to carotenoids and on the temperature gradient in the runoff. In the summer, the mats tend to be orange and red, whereas in the winter the mats are usually dark green. The center of the pool is sterile due to extreme heat.
There are two ways to see it. The first one is climbing the stairs and walking right next to it. This does give you a closer look but let’s face it with that size looking it that close is not going to impress you as much as those famous photos you have seen of the spring.
The second option is to take the Fairy Falls trail (see next attraction) which leads to an awesome overlook of the Grand Prismatic Spring. We recommend both but we liked much more the later view. Seeing it from a distance really makes it stand out. It shows you those bright colors and their contrast with the rest of the landscape. The bellow image is a slightly zoomed view of what you can expect to see from there:
Parking can be tricky if you plan to see the basin in the middle of the day. So have that in mind. Visiting early in the morning or in the late afternoon would be better parking wise but you would not experience the same colors. We found space at the Midway Basin parking after waiting and making a few rounds. Fairy Falls parking was less of a problem during our visit.
Midway Geyser Basin / Fairy Falls
Quite a popular attraction and a very nice trail for a family walk. The trail is .5 mile long and climbs 105 feet. It goes through a few different areas in terms of landscape. Its overlook of the Grand Prismatic Spring is absolutely worth seeing. It is in the initial part of the trail and it is not really difficult to reach. Note that the view is not the same as all the drone photos you might have seen in the magazines. Drones are not allowed at all in the national parks. They apparently are only allowed when it comes to commercial material used to promote the parks.
Upper Geyser Basin / Old Faithful Geyser
Old Faithful is a cone geyser. It was named in 1870 during the Washburn–Langford–Doane Expedition and was the first geyser in the park to be named. It is a highly predictable geothermal feature and has erupted every 44 minutes to two hours since 2000.
Honestly, we did not like the Old Faithful Geyser that much. It felt overcrowded and the actual geyser was nothing special. It is so famous since it is the most predictable and consistent when it comes to eruptions. We watched it do its thing but we felt few of the other geysers in the Upper Basin area were as good if not better (and much less crowded). It might be just us however since we got spoiled with some crazy geyser eruptions during our trip to Iceland.
Upper Geyser Basin / Daisy Geyser
The Daisy geyser was kind to us and gave us a great performance. It sustained its eruption for a good amount of time. Just enough for us to take enough pictures and for our son to enjoy. It was our first geyser eruption we witnessed in Yellowstone. There are benches there as well and a nice wooden walkway around the geyser. Plenty of space to sit, relax, and enjoy.
Upper Geyser Basin / Castle Geyser
Another popular geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin. We were not able to see it erupt but after the few eruptions, we witnessed that day we were already more than familiar with the experience. It is called a castle geyser since it resembles the look of a small ancient castle.
Upper Geyser Basin / Grand Geyser
The Grand geyser did not disappoint when we were there. Although it did not erupt as high as we expected it sustained the eruption for minutes! Wave after wave it kept going. It surprised us really. We had a great time. It was not as crowded as we expected so that was a plus. Overall we do recommend the Grand Geyser even more than the Old Faithful. You are much closer to the actual geyser and the eruptions seem to last longer.
Geysers are one of the main reasons to visit Yellowstone. Another is to witness the beauty of its thermal pools. There are so many of them spread throughout the different basins. Different sizes, colors, and shapes. They really set apart the park and leave a long-lasting memory. Looking back now geysers fade in comparison to all the colors and beautiful formations the thermal pools showed us. Pictures do not really do justice to the crystal clear blue water and the orange colors around the edges of the pool. Truly amazing creations by mother nature.
Yellowstone Grand Canyon
We have visited few times the Grand Canyon National Park so the Yellowstone version did not impress as much in scale and vastness. It did impress with its colors and waterfall views. It is a must-see either way. After all the yellow everywhere you see there is the main reason the park is named Yellowstone. The hikes and views are exceptional. We visited both the South and the Northside and we recommend both. They have different viewpoints and great spots for pictures. Quite a few people on the trials and the vista points but it is manageable.
The canyon is approximately 24 miles (39 km) long, between 800 and 1,200 ft (240 and 370 m) deep and from .25 to .75 mi (0.40 to 1.21 km) wide.
The canyon village close by offers a good general store and few places to eat. The main cafeteria offers various food options but we found almost all of them to be mediocre at best. During a pandemic, there are not many things to eat in national parks so we did not complain much as you would imagine. The general store has a burger place which is ok if you are into burgers.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Another impressive attraction in Yellowstone is the Mammoth Hot Springs. Located very close to the Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District. The spring was created over thousands of years as hot water from the spring cooled and deposited calcium carbonate.
The hot water that feeds Mammoth comes from Norris Geyser Basin after traveling underground via a fault line that runs through limestone and roughly parallel to the Norris-to-Mammoth road. The limestone from rock formations along the fault is the source of the calcium carbonate. Shallow circulation along this corridor allows Norris’s superheated water to slightly cool before surfacing at Mammoth, generally at about 170 °F (80 °C).
During our visit, there was almost no water on the terraces. There was however still plenty of steam coming out and that presented some nice photo opportunities. This attraction is quite popular so expect plenty of people around you and not many parking spots available.
Located in the northeastern corner of the park, the Lamar Valley, along the Lamar River, in is often called America’s Serengeti for its large and easy-to-see populations of large animals.
Probably one of our most favorite parts of the park. The vastness of those valleys and the amount of wildlife everywhere was mind-blowing. This is by far your best chance to see a bison herd roaming free. We saw at one point probably a few herds in one place. Also, Lamar Valley is considered the best place to see wolves in Yellowstone. We were not as lucky during our visit. You have to be there early in the day or later in order to spot them based on what we learned. In either case, just driving through Lamar Valley is enough to appreciate the beauty of the park.
Staying inside the park would require good planning and booking a long time in advance. For us, we were only able to book the Lake Yellowstone Hotel due to the coronavirus outbreak. During that time period, all major hotels inside the park were closed with few exceptions. Very few respectable restaurants were open and only for taking out. We chose the Lake Yellowstone Hotel due to its great location and good reviews as far as food options go.
Our room was in the Sandpiper Lodge which is part of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel but it is a separate building right behind the hotel main one. Only the Sandpiper Lodge and the cabins were available during the coronavirus pandemic. Both buildings are rated as 3-star hotels. The cabins felt too small for us so we did not consider them at all. Note that the hotel has no wifi and no internet access. The lake is only a few minutes away walking distance and it is gorgeous (especially during sunset time). Almost every time we were at the shore in the late afternoon we saw either multiple elks or few bisons walking around. Beautiful animals.
In general, there are plenty of places to find food in the park. Each village has a nicely packed general store and more than one option for dining. In our opinion, the Old Faithful general store has the best flatbreads for lunch and its dining restaurant was absolutely amazing. Best food we had in the park by far. Their bison ribs were to die for! Lake Yellowstone hotel restaurant is supposed to be also very good by it was closed during our stay. Grand Canyon Village food was nothing special. Mammoth Springs’s food options were decent. We did like their hotdog offerings and their french fries. Overall if you are not visiting during a pandemic you should be good in terms of food.
Yellowstone is an absolute must-see. There is no other park in the USA to offer such a variety of attractions and different wildlife to see. The park is very well maintained and closely monitored in terms of wildfires and road issues. During our visit, various roads were under construction. Rangers for the most part are nice and friendly.
The main concern as always is the number of people in the park. Some people dislike the park on that issue alone. We noticed that at peak hours and on holidays there are more people in the park than there should be. It felt crowded and even unpleasant at times. Thankfully we only had a few days like that and for the majority of our stay, we were way bellowing the park average visitors. So have that in mind when you are planning your visit. The summer season is the busiest. Other than that Yellowstone was amazing to us and we highly recommend it.