Yellowstone National Park is one of the most unique of America’s national parks, due to its extensive geothermic activity and the abundance of animals that call this land home. You can see all of these top things in Yellowstone National Park, even if you only have a day or two to spend.
The park is located mostly in the state of Wyoming, but it stretches into parts of Montana and Idaho. It’s a very popular summer destination, with sometimes overwhelming amounts of traffic (thanks to animal watching and road crossings), and the campgrounds and inns are reserved very early for the season.
So the one thing you can do to make your trip to Yellowstone the best it can be is to plan ahead. With this guide, you’ll learn about the top 10 things that every visitor to Yellowstone should include in their itinerary, which will help you plan your days and make necessary reservations.
» See our complete Yellowstone National Park guide with suggested itineraries for 1 to 5 days in the park.
Old Faithful Geyser
Old Faithful is probably the most famous geyser in the world, and it’s a large part of what draws people to Yellowstone. This geyser erupts every hour to two hours, this predictable eruption cycle is how it was named Old Faithful.
This is the most popular attraction inside the park, so if you’re visiting midday you can expect a crowd. Check the eruption times online on the National Parks Service’s geyser activity schedule, and make sure to show up to the geyser 15-30 minutes before the eruption to get a good view.
Geysers, Geysers, and More Geysers
Besides Old Faithful, there are dozens of other exciting geysers to see in Yellowstone National Park. They aren’t all as predictable as Old Faithful, but they aren’t all as crowded either, so…
Here are some of the other amazing geysers you should get a look at:
- Riverside Geyser
- Castle Geyser
- Daisy Geyser
- Grand Geyser
These geysers and more can be found throughout the Upper and Midway Geyser Basin, as well as Norris Geyser Basin.
One of the most stunning is Castle Geyser (pictured above), a cone geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin. It has a particularly large geyserite sinter deposits, which form its cone, and that cone is where it got its name.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs, located near the park’s North Entrance, is a giant terrace hot spring that spans miles. Winding paths of boardwalks and bridges will take you through this wondrous and colorful landscape.
The Mammoth Hot Springs is actually made of a hydrothermal feature called a travertine terrace. This is created when hot water filters up through limestone carrying travertine, then when it reaches the surface carbon dioxide leaves the mixture and the substance cools into a layer of rock. The colorful strips that can be found on the terraces of these hot springs are thermophiles or heat-loving organisms.
Upper Geyser Basin
The Upper Geyser Basin is the geyser basin that contains Old Faithful. This is also the densest population of geysers in the world. There are over 1,000 documented features in this basin alone.
This geyser basin includes the Old Faithful Group, Geyser Hill Group, and the Lion Group. All three of these are beautiful loops of boardwalk to move along and see all the different types of geysers the park has to offer.
Midway Geyser Basin
This geyser group is less densely populated with attractions than the Upper Geyser Basin, but is still worth a visit. Located inside this group is the gorgeous Grand Prismatic Spring, a large colorful hot spring with dazzling blue waters. Thermophiles in the area create colorful channels lined by yellow and orange bacterial mats.
Another geyser in the group is the Excelsior Geyser, a steaming crater containing a vibrant blue pool. Excelsior Geyser did not always look so calm, as it used to be the largest geyser on the planet, before erupting violently and settling into the steaming, boiling pool it is today.
Grand Prismatic Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring is located in the Midway Geyser Basin. It’s a large hot spring that garners its name from the rings of brilliant colors that it boasts.
This is a huge oval pool 370 feet across and 120 feet deep that is surrounded by unusually colorful bands of algae and travertine terraces – the same formations seen on Mammoth Hot Springs. From an aerial view, this pool looks like a giant blue star due to it’s irregularly shaped borders.
The pool steams and bubbles up, forming streams of hot mist that blow in the breeze and sometimes obscure the pool from view. Regardless of this, it adds to the mysterious allure of the spring itself. A half mile boardwalk trail runs part way around the spring, and will also take visitors to the rest of the Midway Geyser Basin’s attractions.
Lamar Valley & Hayden Valley
Lamar Valley, which lies along the Lamar River in the northeast corner of the park, is known as America’s Serengeti due to its easy-to-spot populations of large animals.
With any luck, you’ll be able to see the Junction Butte and Lamar Canyon wolf packs, herds of bison, grizzly bears, bald eagles, and deer, among others. As this is the prime place to spot animals, there are many pullouts along the road, so keep your eyes peeled and pull over if you see any active wildlife.
Hayden Valley is known as bison central. There are often large herds of them milling about. It’s also a good place to spot coyotes, waterfowl, grizzly bears, and wolves.
Hike the Mary Mountain Trail (it’s 21 miles from the Hayden Valley to the Madison area) for a chance to see animals in the wilderness.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a large canyon that follows the Yellowstone River downstream from Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. This canyon is about 24 miles long and up to 1,200 ft deep. While it’s not as impressive as the Grand Canyon National Park in Nevada, it’s got some really stunning features to see.
The Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River are two of those magnificent features. Along the rims and partway down into the canyon are a number of trails and walks, like Uncle Tom’s Point Trail, that you can take to see these stunning natural and hydrothermal features.
If you don’t want to walk it, you can drive along the North Rim and South Rim Drives. One of the most popular viewpoints is Artist’s Point and from there you can walk to Point Sublime (3 miles roundtrip).
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. The features in the basin change daily, with frequent disturbances from seismic activity and water fluctuations. The vast majority of the waters at Norris are acidic, including acid geysers which are very rare.
Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world at 300–400 feet, and Echinus Geyser are the most popular features.
Artists Paint Pots
Gibbon Geyser Basin is where you’ll find the Artist’s Paint Pots, one of several collections of thermal features in the basin. Although this basin is the same size as Norris basin, it’s not as popular and is less mentioned, except for this unique feature that resembles the pots of paint on an artists board.
Artist’s Paint Pots is a group of over 50 springs, geysers, vents and mud pots in varying shades of blue, grey and brown, with a range of different textures.
Artists’ Paintpots Trail is located on the west side of Yellowstone National Park, 3.7 miles south of Norris Geyser Basin (home to the tallest geyser in the world). On the 1.1 miles of the loop you pass mudpots, hot springs, and mesmerizing milky blue pools in this hydrothermal area.
General Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park
- Stop in at the Visitors Center for the latest information about safety hazards, closures, weather and wildlife notices.
- Always stay on the trails when walking and hiking to protect both you from the wilderness and the wilderness from you.
- Clean up after yourself. We all must do our part to preserve the parks, so that everyone can experience the wonders they have to offer for years to come
- Get out of your car (unless there are animals present). Too many people drive through the parks, stepping out here and there for a quick view. To truly experience the park, get out and find a hiking trail.
- Save on park fees by getting a pass. A National Park Pass costs $80 and is good at all parks for one year. This will allow you to pass through the entrance gates more quickly and motivate you to visit more parks throughout the year.
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.