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Yellowstone National Park is the American Dream. Well, not really, but it is one of the most iconic national parks in the US. It was, after all, the first American national park.
I finally made it there on a trip to Jackson and the Tetons in the summer of 2016. It was a quick trip and we didn’t get to do as much as I would like, but do we ever?
We were able to see the main sights, though, so that’s a plus. And even though it was unbelievably busy, I still actually really enjoyed it. So this post is a combination of what we did in Yellowstone and some of the best things to do in Yellowstone.
National Park Pass + Other National Park Deals
- If you’re planning on visiting multiple parks (3 or more) on this trip or within the year, I would highly recommend getting a national park pass. It’s $80 but will pay for itself in about three trips to parks. It’s so worth it and I buy one every year! They’re also great for gifts for the park lovers in your life.
- To help plan the best national park trip ever, this Ultimate National Park Planning Bundle is perfect! You get two ebooks and a planner, saving 50% by getting them as a bundle! If you want all the details, this is the bundle for you. Buy the Ultimate bundle here.
- This National Park Planner (one of the ebooks from the bundle above) is perfect if you just want some guidance in your planning. Buy the planner here.
- Get yourself a little National Park notebook to write all about your adventures while you’re on the road. These from Field Notes are all very cute! Buy a national park journal here.
- Consider reading some of these books set in national parks before your big trip, on your adventure, or once you get home to take you back to the parks until next time.
- Planning a big national park trip? Check out these other posts: National Park bucket list, Make the most of a National Park trip, National Park camping packing list, My favorite National Park hikes, More National Park hikes I love, Underrated National Parks.
What to pack for a camping trip to Yellowstone
Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side. They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.
Snacks – These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when you’ll get hungry! I like EPIC bars (kind of like beef jerky but different), Sahale nut mix things, and Moon Cheese. There’s always the good old Clif Bars and trail mix, too.
Bear Spray – You’ll want to bring bear spray to the Yellowstone area. It’s a good thing to have especially if you’re hiking. If you can’t order it online, you can always buy it there.
Light Jacket – Because you just never know. Weather can change quickly depending on where you are and if you’ll be in any slot canyons, they can get cool depending on the time of day and season. I usually use my rain jacket for this.
Sleeping pad – Gotta make the tent comfy! The one I have isn’t available anymore but this one is similar. It’s self-inflating and just needs a little help filling all the way. Buy the sleeping pad here.
Pillow – If you’re just driving, I’d just bring a regular pillow, but if you’re flying then renting a car, you might want a smaller pillow. This is a good non-inflatible option. Here is a good inflatable option.
Lantern – I love having a lantern for in the tent at night, reading in the dark, or going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The LuminAID is my favorite and you can charge your phone on it. Buy the LuminAID lantern here.
Old Faithful + Upper Geyser Basin + Grand Prismatic Spring
What we did
First, we had to find a parking spot. This wasn’t the easiest, but we had the Smart Car so it was at least easy to park anywhere. Once we found a spot, we wandered through the Old Faithful Inn gift shop.
We got to Old Faithful just in time and didn’t have to wait more than 20 minutes after getting there before it erupted. And holy cow, was it packed. I had seen pictures of the crowds, but it was crazy how many people there were.
After a short wait, it was time, she was erupting! And it was, uhh, cool? Ok, so it wasn’t the coolest thing, and I definitely wouldn’t go just because of it, but I liked it enough.
It was a lot quieter than I expected, like, almost silent, and lasted longer than I thought, too. It’s still totally worth seeing if you’re there, don’t get me wrong. I mean, come one, it’s Old Faithful.
After that, we set off around the Upper Geyser Basin. Chinese Spring was one of the first ones that we came to and probably spent 15 minutes by it because we were so excited to see these things. Neither of us had seen hot springs and geysers like this before.
We walked all the way around the boardwalk seeing springs and geysers of all shapes and sizes. We probably ended up spending an hour or two walking around and taking pictures. Some were erupting as we passed by, others we just missed. Some erupt only one or twice a day and either need planning to see or just luck.
Next up, the Grand Prismatic Spring. This is a giant, incredibly colorful spring not too far from Old Faithful. I would call it more of a walk to the spring than a hike, though.
There are some stairs, then a boardwalk over the edge spring. I think it would be much cooler to see from above, of course, but it’s also really cool to see the steam coming off the top of the icy blue in the center. I believe you can see it from above on the trail to Fairy Falls, but we didn’t do this.
What to do at the Old Faithful Area
- Of course, watch Old Faithful erupt. This happens about every 90 minutes. If you get there just after it does and miss it, walk the boardwalk to the left of it on Geyser Hill to see geysers and hot springs while you wait.
- Check out Black Sand Basin just down the road. You’ll find Cliff Geyser erupting frequently, as well as the Opalescent Pool.
- Not too far past that you’ll find Midway Basin, home of Grand Prismatic Spring. Follow the boardwalk to admire this steaming pool. Check out Excelsior Spring, too. This used to be a huge geyser, but now it’s a 300-foot diameter boiling crater that sends 4,000 gallons of scalding water into the river every minute.
- Stop at the Fountain Paint Pot to watch mud bubble up out of it.
- Hike to Fairy Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Yellowstone. The hike is either 5.4 or 6.7 miles depending on where you start. You’ll find the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook trail at the same trailhead.
- Hike the 2.4-mile trail to Mystic Falls near Biscuit Basin. This is also near the Fairy Creek Trail.
Grand Canyon Of Yellowstone
What we did
We hiked to the upper part of the falls. It’s not a super long hike and it’s pretty easy going down. It’s switchbacks down the side of a hill before coming out to a platform looking over the falls.
This is a pretty awesome view, but the platform was pretty crowded when we were there. It was mid-afternoon, so keep that in mind if crowds bother you. It didn’t affect the views at all, though, you pretty much had to take turns at the edge.
The hike back up was a little tougher, but it’s not long, so that’s a plus. If you’re not in great shape, it could be a little tougher, but still manageable. We didn’t have time to hike to the lower falls, and we weren’t totally sure how to even get there. That’ll be saved for another trip, along with quite a bit of other stuff.
What to do at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Area
- Admire the Falls of the Yellowstone from all angles, time permitting, of course. From the North Rim drive, you can access Lookout Point. A trail to Red Rock Point lets you look up at the falls from below the canyon. If you’re looking for something tougher, consider the strenuous descent to the Brink of the Lower Falls.
- Check out the Upper Falls a few miles upstream.
- Visit Artist Falls a little farther south.
- Drive through Hayden Valley and keep an eye out for wildlife. Grizzlies like the open area here. Traffic will be slow if there are animals near the road.
- Stop at the mud volcano. Instead of bubbling, boiling water, you’ll find sulfur-scented mud pools. Sulphur Cauldron and Dragon’s Mouth Spring are must-see’s.
- Look for moose in the Pelican Valley area before walking the Pelican Creek Nature Trail. It’s a one-mile loop taking you through a forest to a fine pebble beach.
- Check out Lake Butte Overlook and admire Yellowstone Lake. On a clear day, you can even see the Teton range 60 miles away.
- Visit West Thumb Geyser Basin. This one is a little different as it sits on the shore of Yellowstone Lake.
- Hike the Ribbon Lake trail, passing by Clear and Lilly Pad Lakes. This hike is 5.8 miles round trip. The Clear Lake area is a hydrothermal area, so stay on the trail at all times.
What we did
For some reason, I was super excited to see the Mammoth Hot Springs and North Yellowstone. I don’t really know why, but I really enjoyed it. You might think it’s just more hot springs, what’s so special about it? Well, they’re still hot springs, but they’re totally different than the other ones. These almost look crystalized.
This is more of a leisurely walk than a hike. There is a boardwalk weaving around the springs, taking you to some of the cooler spots. It’s not a loop so you have to backtrack a bit to get back out, but it’s nothing horribly inconvenient. It’s worth walking to the end, though. You get really awesome views of the springs and mountains together.
I loved the way the springs looked and the colors in the little pools. This wasn’t a super busy place compared to the Tetons and most of Yellowstone. I think it helped that it was later in the day and it looked like it was about to pour.
What to do at Mammoth Springs Area
- Hike the boardwalk terraces just outside of the town area of Mammoth Springs. This is a good place to have a snack.
- Check out the 132-foot high Tower Fall before going over Dunraven Pass to Canyon Village. Turning left over the Yellowstone River here you’ll find a good place to spot bison that like to graze here.
- Just before Canyon Village, stop at the Washburn Hot Springs Overlook to admire the views to the south.
- Go back to the main road and soon you’ll be in Lamar Valley, one of the best places in Yellowstone to see wolves.
- Make sure you drive the Beartooth Pass, which gives you stunning views of the area below.
- Hike the Beaver Ponds Trail. This is a five-mile loop frequented by black and grizzly bears. You might see beavers, but muskrats and waterfowl are more common.
- Hike the 4.2-mile Lava Creek Trail to Undine Falls. You’ll also see the confluence of the Lava Creek and Gardiner River.
Tips for visiting Yellowstone:
- Yellowstone. Is. Nuts. It is so busy. Get into the park as early as possible to help avoid the crowds. Staying later will also help. A lot of people tend to leave for dinner.
- If avoiding crowds is a priority for you, consider staying in the park. There are nine lodges in the park with over 2,000 rooms, but I would still book those early. There are 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 sites as well. Five take reservations, the rest are first-come, first-serve.
- There are bears in Yellowstone, so you need to be prepared for that. Carry bear spray when you’re hiking. If you are camping, make sure you properly store your food and lock your car.
- Make sure you’re prepared when you pack!
- Yellowstone is massive. It takes a surprising amount of time to get from one side to the other, so plan for that. You can see the main points in one day, but you’ll be doing a lot of driving. The road is like an 8, Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring is on the left, Mammoth is at the top, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is on the left. There are other things between, of course, but that’s where the main things are.
- The entire Grand Loop is 142 miles. The Upper Loop is 70 miles. The Lower Loop is 96 miles. Here is a good map.
- There isn’t cell phone service in most of the park. Let someone (a friend, someone at home or your hotel) know of your hiking plans before you go out just in case.
- Bring lots of water and snacks when you’re hiking. ANd don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
- There is tons of wildlife in Yellowstone. Bears, moose, elk, wolves, and bison to name the big few. If you come across wildlife, don’t approach it. Don’t feed it. Don’t touch it. And don’t get out of your car in the middle of a herd of bison.
- Spend at least two days in the park, more if you can. If you only have one, don’t worry. You can still see the main sights, just go in early.
- Be prepared for traffic jams. They will happen if wildlife is near the roads.
Have you been to Yellowstone? What was your favorite thing there? Do you want to go?