“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.”
I hummed “Home on the Range” nearly constantly during our trip to Yellowstone National Park. It cannot be understated how completely crazy it is to see buffalo roaming wild. Creatures that weigh up to a TON, just meandering by the roadside. Chomping grass. Stopping traffic. And you peering out the window of your little Subaru with the false sense of security that only humans can enjoy.
Besides the song, the other refrain of Yellowstone was “whoa.” Megafauna by the roadside. Geysers spewing up steam and water from deep within the earth. Mudpots churning. Bubbling hot springs. Bacterial mats in prismatic hues. Oh, and the fact the whole park is on top of a supervolcano that’s ready to blow.
You’ve got to experience Yellowstone National Park for yourself to really get what makes it so special. So, here’s your complete guide including things to do, hiking trails, how to get there, permit info, and campsite recommendations.
Planning a road trip? Check out our Guide to Planning a US National Park Road Trip or our other National Park guides.
AT A GLANCE
Yellowstone National Park is the very first of all the US National Parks. Like the first first. You’ll find most of the 8,983 km2 park in Northwestern Wyoming with parts stretching into Montana and Idaho.
Entrance to Yellowstone National Park costs $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, or $20 per individual (by foot, bicycle, park shuttle bus, railway, raft). If you’re planning to visit 3+ National Parks, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands. Read more about why you should get an America the Beautiful pass here.
When to visit: Yellowstone National Park is at her best during summer, but there’s a short window in spring and fall (shoulder season) that are pretty nice too. Go between May and mid-September unless you’re braced for a real, rugged winter. The park doesn’t close for the winter, per se, but many services in Yellowstone are shut down between mid-September and May.
THINGS TO DO IN YELLOWSTONE
So much to say! So much to do. And all of it extremely cool. Here are some of the unique things to in Yellowstone National Park.
GEYSERS & GEOTHERMAL ACTIVITY GALORE
Yellowstone Caldera is the largest supervolcano in North America.
What’s a supervolcano? According to USGS, “supervolcano implies a volcanic center that has had an eruption of magnitude 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI), meaning that at one point in time it erupted more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material.” It’s assumed that if Yellowstone erupted, it would destroy the surroundings and disperse ash for thousands of miles across the country.
About half of the world’s geysers and hydrothermal features are in Yellowstone (source: NPS) with more than 10,000 features, 500 of which are geysers. Of course, you’ve got the big names like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic, but you’ll see unnamed steam vents and bubbling springs just driving through the park. It’s rare and completely beautiful.
The best spots to see geothermal activity in Yellowstone are on the stretch of road between Norris Geyser Basin and West Thumb. There are literally dozens of pull-offs, but my favorite spots are Norris Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring.
Grand Prismatic Spring, while quite popular (and a bit crowded), is totally worth the stop. Surrounded by pools and geysers, Grand Prismatic is a spring ringed with orange, yellow, and blue, colored by thermophilic bacteria. It’s nice to look at from the ground, but for the best view, drive on to the Fairy Falls parking lot, and walk back towards Grand Prismatic to check it out from the viewing platform.
Norris Geyser Basin is far less crowded than the geothermal features near Old Faithful. From the parking lot, you can walk along the boardwalk over Porcelain Basin (probably my favorite place in the whole park!) with pools, geysers, and steam vents, or to Back Basin to see the largest geyser in the park – Steamboat Geyser.
Another favorite detour is the Firehole Lake Drive. The inconspicuous side road has loads of unique geysers, rogue herds of buffalo, and hardly anyone to share it with.
Just driving through Yellowstone can be spectacular. Due to how big it is, you may split your trip into sections. There’s not so much to see between the West Entrance and Madison Campground, but nearly every other stretch of road in Yellowstone National Park presents some areas of interest.
Go on a scenic drive through the Lamar Valley (between Tower Junction and the East Entrance) for wildlife sightings. Drive through the Geyser Basin, anywhere between Mammoth and West Thumb, for geothermal activity. Drive towards the interior to see the massive Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Or cruise right through the South Entrance to explore Grand Tetons National Park.
You really can’t go wrong.
It’s not so often you get to use the word “megafauna”, but Yellowstone has a lot. Grizzly bears. Bison. Wolves. Oh my.
And while some National Parks have wildlife as a draw if you’re lucky, spotting wildlife in Yellowstone is basically a guarantee. The best spot to see wildlife in Yellowstone is in the Lamar Valley. The long stretch of road has expansive views, and you may spot Rocky Mountain Wolf, coyote, Canadian Lynx, cougars, black bears, grizzly bears, bison, elk, moose, mule deers, or mountain goats.
Another place rife for wildlife sightings is between Mammoth and Gardiner, either early morning or around sunset. I’m talking tons and tons of elk. Lying in the field, eating from from hotel trees, and if all else fails, in the 7/11 parking lot.
HIKING & BACKPACKING IN YELLOWSTONE
You won’t get to bag many peaks, but the highlights of hiking Yellowstone are the backcountry geysers and wildlife spotting. The sweet spot is finding a trail that is interesting but with light or moderate traffic. Below are a few of the best hikes in Yellowstone National Park (using the term “hikes” pretty loosely), but you’ll find tons more by searching on AllTrails.
Specimen Ridge and Amethyst Mountain Trails (13km)
Specimen Ridge is a meandering hike across 13km in the Lamar Valley with decent views, light traffic, and wildlife spotting opportunities. More info here.
Fairy Creek Trail to Imperial Geyser (10km)
Ferry Creek Trail isn’t terribly interesting terrain, but there are a few spots along the way that make this walk worthwhile (namely The Grand Prismatic Overlook and Imperial Geyser). It’s a crowded and somewhat underwhelming start, but once you get to Fairy Falls, things get significantly more unique. More info here.
HOW TO GET TO YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
The closest major airport to Yellowstone is West Yellowstone Airport (WYA), but other options are Bozeman Yellowstone (BZN), Idaho Falls Regional (IDA), or Jackson Hole (JAC). Since there are so many different entrances to Yellowstone, your transit times and options from the airport will vary. You can check out this list of overland tours and shuttle operators from NPS.
As with all the US National Parks, the only practical way to access Yellowstone National Park is by private vehicle. Your other option is to book a tour that includes transport.
GETTING AROUND THE PARK
You can look into going to Yellowstone on a tour, but again, the best way to travel within the park is with your own car. It’s also worth noting that while the park is open year-round, some roads through the park are closed to cars from November to May.
There are twelve campgrounds and tons of historic lodges. But here’s my shortlist of some of best places to stay in Yellowstone.
Historic Lodges | There are tons of historic lodges and places to stay in Yellowstone. The largest is Canyon Lodge and Cabins with more than 400+ guest rooms and 100+ cabins, but there’s a handful of other places like Grant Village Lodge, Lake Hotel and Cabins, Lake Lodge Cabins, and Roosevelt Lodge that offer accommodation across price points.
If you’re looking for the most iconic lodging experience, the Old Faithful Inn is your spot. It’s a national historic landmark and the largest log structure in the world (for whatever that’s worth). Rooms with private bath from $207
Madison Campground | While it’s not the largest campground in Yellowstone, Madison Campground still has 278 well-equipped sites and is one of the best large sites for its central location. Sites from $27.
Norris Campground | Norris is a first-come-first-served campground right smack in the Norris Geyser Basin. There are 111 sites with picnic tables and flush toilet access. First-come-first-served, but more info here. Sites from $20.
Slough Creek Campground | Slough Creek is tiny with just 23 campsites, but it’s one of the best campsites for wildlife in all of Yellowstone (even wolves!) since it’s in the Lamar Valley. First-come-first-served, but more info here. Sites from $15.