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- What to See in Yellowstone
- Safety First at Yellowstone National Park
- Getting Around Yellowstone
Heading to Yellowstone National Park in 2021? Whether you’re going for a day or a week, you’ll need some guidance for getting around. The park is huge – it’s bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island! Here’s how to see the best of Yellowstone and tips for making the most of your time in America’s first national park.
The writer was hosted for this trip.
See the park that sparked a new idea. Not only is Yellowstone National Park the first national park in the U.S., it’s also the first national park in the world! Located mainly in the northwest corner of Wyoming, parts of the park are in Montana and Idaho. Though most visitors are surprised, you can spend a week in Yellowstone and not see it all. With 3,500 square miles and 310 miles of roads, seeing it all can be a challenge. If you only have a few days, here are the best things to do in Yellowstone and tips for making the most of the time you have.
What to See in Yellowstone
A vacation in Yellowstone National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list, families included. Old Faithful Geyser is top of the must-dos since it’s Yellowstone’s best known feature. Park rangers usually post a board near Old Faithful with the approximate time for the next geyser eruption. If you want a seat, allow extra time.
TravelingMom Tip: Arrive early or late in the day to avoid crowds.
Old Faithful is just one of the things to do in Yellowstone. You’ll find more to explore, like…
- vast plains teeming with bison
- boiling rivers
- sulfurous mud pots
- steamy fumaroles
- majestic waterfalls
- deep canyons
There are bears, wolves and bison, oh my! And there are roads to drive, trails to hike and fish to catch. But most of all, there are the geysers.
Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park with Kids
1. Stop at a Yellowstone Visitor Center…First!
Find one of the eight NPS Visitor Centers in Yellowstone, each unique. Located at each park entrance, you’ll find maps, information and interpretive displays about that area of the park.
Some are better than others.
For example, if you come in through the South Entrance, stop at the Grant Visitor Center to learn about fire and the role it plays in the ecology of the park. The Norris Geyser Basin Museum, built in 1932, explains geothermal activity and life among the park’s hydrothermal features. Fishing Bridge Visitor Center is a gorgeous example of rock and stone construction.
If you are hiking, check in with the Park Ranger on duty to find the best hikes for your group’s ability. And if you have animal spotters in your group, rangers always know where to find the animals. Just for kids, check out the Junior Ranger program. Booklets are available in the visitor center’s bookstore and cost $3 and this includes a souvenir patch. It takes a few hours to complete and a pencil. For older kids, consider doing the Yellowstone Junior Scientist Program, an in-depth program that takes a bit longer.
Read More: Guide to Junior Ranger Badges
2. See Yellowstone’s Highlights
The must-see spots to include during your time in Yellowstone National Park include:
- Old Faithful Geyser. If you don’t stay at the Old Faithful Inn, which makes it easy to get up early and have the geyser almost to yourself, plan to have lunch there. We bought really good sandwiches at the deli, then headed outside to the second floor picnic tables that offered an above-the-crowds view of the geyser as it erupted. We stuck around long enough exploring the inn and the visitor’s center to see it erupt a second time! Not hungry, there’s also a coffee cart right inside. For the latest Covid-19 information, including whether or not the Inn’s restaurant is open to the public, check the website.
- Grand Prismatic Spring. Yellowstone’s largest and most colorful hot springs, Grand Prismatic is located in Midway Geyser Basin (so named because it lies between Upper Geyser Basin and Lower Geyser Basin). Hikers who walk the trail to the top behind the spring are rewarded with a magnificent view.
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Formed by a giant volcanic eruption, then carved by the Yellowstone River, this Grand Canyon is richly colorful. Unlike the other Grand Canyon in Arizona, this one is dotted with steam vents. Artist Point is the place to see the Lower Falls. It snowed the mid-September day we visited, so we weren’t able to do the longer grand loop hiking trail, but we did take a short walk along the trail for a truly majestic view of the canyon.
- Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. These are the spots for wildlife viewing. We saw wolves, grizzly and black bears, and pronghorn sheep in Lamar Valley, which is sometimes called the Serengeti of the United States. Hayden Valley is bison central. We saw so many bison in the first two days that we no longer stopped for them by Day 3.
- Mammoth Hot Springs. Here, hot water rises through ancient limestone deposits and the resulting waterfall landscape looks like a melting candle. Fun fact: Mammoth Hot Springs deposits about two tons of travertine limestone (calcium carbonate) each day, according to the park website. This is the area where the park rangers live along side some truly sedate-seeming elk. But stay a safe distance from the resting herd. They are large, powerful animals that will charge if they feel threatened.
3. Take it Slow
A family trip to Yellowstone really is about the journey. This is not a time to rush. For one thing, Yellowstone is a gigantic place. Every corner of it offers something new and different — the reliable Old Faithful that spouts every 90 minutes or so, the bison grazing in the Hayden Valley, the bubbling cauldrons of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
Take the time to walk the boardwalks, but then head off into the woods along the trails for different views, more challenging walks and the chance to see wild animals.
There are lots of paved pull offs along the roads that wind through Yellowstone. Stop at every one. Or at least many of them. Even if there aren’t wild animals in sight, the views across the land, the intense blue sky and the clean mountain air are worth a few minutes of appreciation.
4. Appreciate the Traffic Jams
In Yellowstone, a traffic jam isn’t called a traffic jam. It’s a bison jam. Or, if you’re really lucky, it’s a bear jam.
The stopped traffic means someone has seen something — a grizzly bear eating berries in the trees, a herd of bison taking their time crossing the road or, if you’re very, very lucky, the elusive wolves that were re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995. (My Austin Adventures guide, who has spent about eight months ushering visitors around the park, had never seen the wolves before our trip!)
When you see a bunch of cars pulled off the road or a group of people with their tripods set up or peering through their binoculars, stop the car! And don’t be a jerk and block the road. Find a safe spot to pull all the way off of the pavement, even if it means you have to walk back to the best viewing spot.
5. Pack Right
The first day of our visit, it was sunny and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4C). The next, it was 32 (0C) and snowing. Packing layers is the key. And, if you want to hike the Yellowstone trails, bring sturdy hiking boots. My tennis shoes weren’t always up to the challenge.
The most important thing to pack: patience. Whether it’s waiting for Yellowstone’s largest geyser, Steamboat Geyser, to erupt (unlike Old Faithful, the most predictable and active geyser in the park, there can be several days or more between Steamboat eruptions) or watching a pack of wolves wake for the day, things at Yellowstone move at their own pace. Patient people are rewarded with lifetime memories.
6. Rise Early
This is the last thing my husband and kids want to hear, but the early riser catches the best views. Animals in Yellowstone are more active in the morning and the sunrise is breathtaking. Besides, only serious animal watchers and Yellowstone fans are in the park at that early hour. Chances are greater that early morning traffic jams mean wildlife is out and about. And double bonus, parking isn’t a problem at the popular spots too.
7. Bring Binoculars
Or rent a pair. My tiny binoculars were not powerful enough to see the wolf pack as anything more than tiny black spots moving around the field. But the powerful (and super expensive) Swarovski viewing scope another tourist had rented made it possible to see the wolves’ faces as they played in the morning sun. In the past, everyone was happy to share their equipment so everyone, especially children, could see the wild animals up close. Post-Covid, this may not be the case, so you may want to arrange your own rental. And caution kids not to touch the scope.
8. If You See Something, Say Something
In my family, this does not carry the same ominous message as it does when you hear it from law enforcement. In our family, it means yelling “scenic vista” when you’re driving along. That way, everyone gets to see the amazing sights out the car window. In Yellowstone, it could mean catching a glimpse of Yellowstone Lake, bison grazing in a field or a rainbow after a rainstorm.
9. Stay in the Park for at Least One Night
We stayed one night in Canyon Lodge and Cabins, near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its Lower Falls. The surrounding Canyon Village offered restaurants, a post office and some cute shops selling unique Yellowstone souvenirs.
Other Yellowstone lodging options include:
- the most elegant lodging option is Lake Yellowstone Hotel
- Old Faithful Inn, next to Old Faithful Geyser, is one of the largest log structures in the world, but only 12 of the 90 rooms have private baths
- Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, near the North Entrance, is the only park hotel that is accessible by car in the winter.
There also are plenty of campsites and backcountry camping if you’re into that sort of thing, which I’m not. Or, you can rent an RV and stay in a nearby RV park!
Wherever you want to stay in Yellowstone, book early. And be tenacious. People do cancel reservations. So if you haven’t gotten a reservation at the spot you want, check the website regularly. Something may have opened up.
The properties are managed by concessionaires, not the National Park Service.
TravelingMom Tip: If you book a stay at the Old Faithful Inn, be sure to check whether your room has a private bath. Only 12 of the inn’s 90 rooms have en suite bathrooms. Showers, toilets and a super cute “tub room” are located down the hall.
Safety First at Yellowstone National Park
My Austin Adventures guide loved to tell us that the “most dangerous thing at Yellowstone isn’t a bear. It’s other drivers.” It’s tempting to watch the wildlife as you drive by, but don’t. Just don’t. Pull off the road. Park the car in a safe spot. Get out and take a look. And when you’re crossing the road to get a better look, remember to look both ways. Really.
Getting Around Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $35 per vehicle.
Yellowstone National Park offers five entrances.
- North Entrance—Closest entrance for Bozeman, Montana
- Northeast Entrance—Scenic highway to Billings, Montana
- West Entrance—For families trying to add to their state count. Enter or exit through the west entrance to add Idaho.
- East Entrance—Scenic highway to Cody, Wyoming
- South Entrance—The busiest entrance and gateway to Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming.
Seasonal closures affect in Yellowstone National Park. July and August are the only months that all roads and facilities are open.