Following are some thoughts about a first visit to Yellowstone National Park.
Avoid Mid-Summer If Possible
I recommend avoiding the summer crowds by visiting before school lets out in June or after Labor Day. While I have not found summer crowds at Yellowstone to be a major problem (like they can be at Yosemite), I do make an effort to avoid them simply to have a more pleasant visit. Two areas that do tend to get crowded in summer months are Old Faithful and Canyon areas from about 11am to 3pm or so. My visits have been during the height of summer (July) to accommodate the kids vacation schedules, but if I could have scheduled them for after Labor Day I would have. Also, many animals avoid the summer heat by ascending into the surrounding mountains or retreating into shade during the day. By visiting when it is cooler, when the animals are more likely to be at lower elevations, you may have better luck seeing them. This is particularly true of elk which are more numerous and easily seen around the park in Fall.
Appreciate The Morning Hours
The absolute best time to be out and about in Yellowstone is sunrise to 9am. Hands down, no argument. So the best thing you can do is adjust your body clock to get up with the sun. Yellowstone in the morning, without crowds or traffic noise and in the cool morning air, is magic. The wildlife is more visible, steam from geysers and hot springs is thicker and more dramatic in the cold air, there are few cars on the roads and the walking paths and trails are nearly empty. Many times I have been the only viewer of a geyser erupting at this time of the morning, or the only photographer observing a group of elk. If you want to find solitude in the commonly visited Yellowstone sights, you simply must make use the morning hours. At 7:30am most visitors are either asleep in their hotel/rv/tent or contemplating breakfast and are not interested in being outside touring the park; this is particularly true of families. In addition the buses of day visitors won’t arrive for several hours. If you are out and about shortly after the sun rises, you will feel like you have the park to yourself. I make a practice of getting up with the sun every single day that I can while in Yellowstone, and it gives me several hours where I feel I have the place to myself. (The same is not true of sunset, however.) The Geyser Hill boardwalk near Old Faithful is very quiet before 8am, walking it with a camera or cup of coffee and pastry in hand at that time of day is tranquil indeed and the many columns of steam rising around you are pretty neat. There are usually fewer than a dozen people on the Old Faithful benches when it makes its first post-sunrise eruption of the day — contrast that with the hundreds or thousands filling the benches when it erupts in the midday or afternoon. The Artist Point and Lookout Point overlooks for viewing Yellowstone Falls in Canyon may have just a few people, most of them quietly sipping coffee and enjoying the tranquil canyon view, listening for raptors crying and the sound of the falls tumbling. Lamar Valley will have a few wildlife watchers, those who realize morning and evening offer the best chances for sighting bear and wolves. The geothermal hotspots are at their best in early morning, particularly Midway Geyser Basin, with its towering columns of steam rising from Excelsior and Grand Prismatic geysers, and Mammoth Hot Springs.
For wildlife, the early morning rule applies to sunset too. Many animals are more easily observed just after sunrise and before sunset, so if your goal is to see wildlife you would do well to be out looking at those times.
Visit Grand Teton National Park Too
Grand Teton National Park is just minutes to the south of Yellowstone National Park, yet very different. The morning hours in Grand Teton, with the rising sun illuminating the Teton Range and Mount Moran over the Snake River and Jackson Lake, are simply sublime. Hiking is good in Grand Teton, people are few, and your chance of seeing a moose is pretty good if you drive slowly and look carefully. If you are entering or leaving Yellowstone via its south entrance, I highly recommend spending two nights in Grand Teton National Park at the Jackson Lake Lodge or Jenny Lake Lodge, or if on a budget, the Colter Bay Cabins. You can also stay south of the park in Jackson Hole, which offers plenty of nightlife, hotels and motels, but you are missing something by staying there in my opinion. If you do one thing in Grand Teton National Park, it should be to watch the sunrise hit Mount Moran from Oxbow Bend.
A Suggested Whirlwind Tour of Yellowstone National Park
It is true that many people try to “do Yellowstone” in a day or two, especially those from overseas who are on a very tight schedule. Ok, if you must do it that way, in 24 hours you can see Old Faithful and a few other geysers, several waterfalls, herds of bison and probably some elk. But the pace and timing of seeing these things will be less than ideal and you probably won’t experience the real Zen of the place by moving so fast.
If you are making the effort to visit Yellowstone you really owe it to yourself to spend a minimum of four nights there, and even that is really only a whirlwind glance at Yellowstone given that it is such a huge park. I prefer a minimum of 7-8 nights, but that is unrealistic for some people. Following is an itinerary that I suggest if you are tight on time and can manage only four nights in the park. It focuses on the Old Faithful and Canyon areas. By the way, I recommend that you avoid shifting from hotel to hotel (or campground to campground) each night since it is a poor use of your time and ties you to the hotel/campground for checkout/check-in each day, which is a serious constraint. By staying in the Old Faithful area for two nights and the Canyon area for two nights you can see all the best spots in Yellowstone from these two locations, especially if you are willing to get going early in the morning to make the most of the daylight.
Arrive at Old Faithful area early afternoon. I recommend staying at Old Faithful Inn (ask for a room facing east so you can watch the geyser from your bedroom) or in one of the Old Faithful Lodge cabins. If you are coming from Grand Teton National Park through Yellowstone’s south entrance, be sure to make brief stops at Moose Falls and Lewis Falls. After getting checked in, spend the afternoon walking Geyser Hill, the centerpiece of the geothermally rich area known as the Upper Geyser Basin. You will probably see a few geysers go off while you do. The five “predictable” geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin — Old Faithful Geyser, Riverside Geyser, Daisy Geyser, Castle Geyser and Grand Geyser — are described in the visitor center near the Old Faithful Inn along with their next expected eruption times. Old Faithful goes off about one an hour, is quite predictable, and you can work it in around your other siteseeing. Don’t make a big deal about it, get away from Old Faithful Geyser and see the others for a much richer experience. Check the times for Riverside Geyser and Castle Geyser particularly. Make your way from the Old Faithful geyser area along the boardwalk and down to Morning Glory Pool at the far end. In between you will pass by the predictable geysers along with many smaller and/or unpredictable geysers as well as springs and vents. For this first afternoon I suggest trying to photograph two geysers in particular. Riverside Geyser, which is beautiful in and of itself, is lit perfectly and has the likelihood of a striking rainbow during its late afternoon eruptions making for one of my favorite Yellowstone pictures. You will need to position yourself “downriver” a little to see the rainbow. (Use a polarizing filter but only turn it part way to maximize the rainbow against the geyser.) Riverside’s eruptions last for 20 minutes or more but the first five minutes are the best. Castle Geyser is another easily photographed geyser provided its expected eruption is convenient for your afternoon tour of the area. Since Castle’s eruptions last so long (30 minutes or more) it is a simple matter to walk around its periphery and find the best angle given the sun, clouds and time of day once it has started. Perhaps end the day by photographing Old Faithful erupting in the final hour of sunlight.
What’s planned: Old Faithful eruption sunrise / Midway Geyser Basin / Firehole Lake Drive / Fountain Paint Pots / Gibbon Falls & Gibbon Meadows / Geyser Hill sunset.
Day 2 — Morning
This is a big day, lots to see, so get going early. Don’t worry if you get tired, you will be done by sunset and can go to bed early.
Start by day off by watching / photographing Old Faithful at its first eruption after sunrise. Position yourself by the Old Faithful Lodge, making sure to get a coffee and pastry in the lobby before you sit down outside to wait. The light is super on Old Faithful at this time of day, and with it coming over your shoulder you will see something like this and there will be very few other people out with you so see and hear it go off. Other than sunset, this is the best time to really admire the eruption.
After Old Faithful’s eruption, hop in the car and venture down the road to Midway Geyser Basin. If the air is cool you will see the steam rising from Midway Geyser Basin well before you arrive, towering hundreds of feet in the air. Spend 30-45 minutes walking the path in Midway Geyser Basin, taking you past Excelsior Geyser and the amazing colors of the bacteria mats of Grand Prismatic Geyser.
Leave the Midway Geyser Basin and continue down the road to Firehole Lake Drive. Take this drive slowly, stopping often and lingering. Since Firehole Lake Drive is a one-way loop, if you want to see something again you must repeat the entire circuit. You will pass Great Fountain Geyser, which is predictable but has a very long interval; pass it by unless someone who knows geysers confirms that an eruption is imminent, in which case stick around for the show. The most easily photographed geyser on Firehole Lake Drive is just a few yards down the road: White Dome Geyser. It erupts frequently but unpredictably. I think I have waited perhaps 20-30 minutes at most for it to go off. Pink Cone Geyser and Firehole Lake are ahead, the last notable stops on Firehole Lake Drive.
After completing the Firehole Lake Drive, continue down the road to the Fountain Paint Pot area, and walk the boardwalk. You’ll see several geothermal features including a constantly erupting geyser (Clepsydra), hot springs and paint pots.
Day 2 — Midday
Depending on your energy and what time it is, you have a few options. Either return to the Old Faithful area for lunch, rest, or walking Geyser Hill, continue down the road. If you choose to keep going for a while, or if elk interest you, I suggest doing the following before you return to the Old Faithful area. Continue on the road to Madison, bear right toward Norris, you will be following the Gibbon River now. You will come to Gibbon Falls after five miles after Madison; it is usually crowded here during midday, perhaps difficult to find a parking spot. The view of the falls from the road on the bluff is poor. If you are adventurous, instead do this: park a few hundred yards downriver from the main viewing area, hop over the wall, descend the dirt slope to the river, walk up the river along the fisherman’s trail to the foot of the falls, and enjoy this view. It is fine.
Once you are done with Gibbon Falls, continue to Gibbon Meadows, which is a broad meadow area about five miles north of Gibbon Falls. The hope here is that you will see elk, they are often in the meadow. If you arrive to a line up of cars, elk are likely the cause of the traffic. If there are elk here, great, stop and admire them while you can. You will likely see more during your visit to Yellowstone but in the event you do not, you want to get a good look now.
Once you are done with Gibbon Meadows, return to the Old Faithful area.
Day 2 — Late Afternoon
On the return to Old Faithful you will pass Firehole Canyon Drive, a one way drive. You are now going the “right” way to take it, since taking it earlier in the day would have required you to double back. Whatever, if you have not taken Firehole Canyon Drive yet do it now. There is a waterfall and swimming hole near the end of it, with parking, if you are hot enough to want a swim.
Also on the return to Old Faithful are two small geothermal areas that might be worth visiting depending on your time: Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin. Biscuit Basin has several nice features such as Sapphire Pool, Shell Spring and Jewel Geyser. Black Sand basin has Emerald Pool and Sunset Lake. However, if it is within two hours of sunset I would suggest skipping both Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin.
Get back to Old Faithful with at least two hours of sunlight left, and make your last walk around Geyser Hill, hopefully seeing one or two geysers erupt that you have not seen yet. This will give you a second chance to see Riverside in late afternoon light. Plus it is a good way to end your stay in the Old Faithful area, with a final walk among the many hot spots on Geyser Hill, winding up at sunset with just a short stroll back to your hotel.
What’s planned: Old Faithful eruption sunrise / Gibbon Meadows / Norris Geyser Basin / Hayden Valley / Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone sunset.
Day 3 — Morning / Midday
If you didn’t get a good look at Old Faithful’s sunrise eruption yesterday, you have another shot at it this morning. So get up, watch and photograph it, then pack up and leave pronto. You are on your way to Canyon this morning, and will pass by many of the places you saw yesterday. If there are any that pique your interest, you can make a quick stop to see them again, but keep moving if you can. In particular, spend some time at Gibbon Meadows if you are there early, look around the periphery of the meadow for elk.
Once past Gibbon Meadows you reach the Norris area. Here you have a chance to visit Norris Geyser Basin. Norris Geyser Basin is worth a visit as it has pleasant boardwalk paths, some pretty springs and a nice open area of geysers, vents and fumeroles. I suggest that you walk through the Norris Geyser area this morning (now), since the features are more attractive in the morning air. If it is, say 11am or later, you may wish to pass it by and visit it tomorrow morning.
On the way from Norris to Canyon is the Kepler Cascades side road (one way). It is worth driving but if you miss it there is no great loss. The cascades (falls) are distant and not too dramatic.
After Norris Geyser Basin and Kepler Cascades drive you will arrive in the Canyon area. Save your first look at the actual Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for later today, or better yet tomorrow morning. Your first view of the canyon should be in morning or late afternoon light for the most visual impact. If it is too early to check in to your hotel/campground in Canyon, then simply grab a picnic lunch in the Canyon village shop, pass through Canyon and head south towards Yellowstone Lake, to spend the afternoon in the Hayden Valley.
Day 3 — Afternoon
After leaving Canyon you will drive along the Yellowstone River (above where it drops into Yellowstone Canyon). Look for swans and pelicans here, and fly fishermen. Eventually the drive opens up into the Hayden Valley, where bison herds are typically seen. Drive slowly, stop at the turnouts, use binoculars to look for bison, elk, coyote, antelope and perhaps wolf or bear. Some of the elevated views overlooking the river and Hayden Valley are magnificent.
At the south terminus of the Hayden Valley is the small Mud Volcano geothermal area. This is a good turnaround point and spot to stretch your legs with a little walk. After spending 20-40 minutes at the Mud Volcano area, return to Canyon through the Hayden Valley again. The late afternoon and sunset time here can be wonderful, and we have often had herds of bison gather around our car as they cross the road and swim across the Yellowstone River.
Eventually you will be back in Canyon. Check in if you have not done so already. Then, to end your day, drive the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It’s a one way drive. You will want to stop at two points, Inspiration Point and Grandview. I suggest saving the south rim and Artist Point for tomorrow morning.
What’s planned: Hayden Valley / Artist Point and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone / Tower Falls / Lamar Valley / Mammoth Hot Springs
Today you could sleep in (until 8:30!) if you wish. If you want to have a good look at wildlife, however, get up with the sun and return to the Hayden Valley, driving the length of the slowly and stopping often to look. Chances are good that you will see some things you did not see yesterday, since the early hour and lack of people may make the wildlife more plentiful. Try to return to Canyon by 9am to make the most of your visit to Artist Point.
Now, go view Artist Point on the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This is the classic view of the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the source of millions of photos and many paintings. You’ll see why when you get there. During summer I highly suggest getting there by 10:00am, since a rainbow forms in the spray of the falls around 10am when viewed from Artist Point. It may be crowded by this time at Artist Point, since tour buses do visit this spot as well as virtually all of the visitors staying in the Canyon area. So arrive early, relax, and you will see that the crowds come and go and you can find some quiet out on the point itself eventually.
After Artist Point, on the way back out the south rim drive, make a stop at the Upper Falls where there is a parking area. These are less impressive than the Upper Falls but still worth seeing. If you want to get in a quick (one hour for the fit, add 30 minutes if not) aerobic workout, take Uncle Tom’s trail down into the canyon for a close up view of the Lower Falls. There is a good view of the Lower Falls at the bottom, but you can pass it up if you don’t have time. It is quick going down, slower going up, and you will feel the burn in your thighs.
Time to head to the Lamar Valley. Ideally you will leave Canyon to head north through Dunraven Pass to the Tower-Roosevelt area. However, if the Dunraven Pass road is closed for construction you will need to drive the long way (through Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs to reach Lamar Valley), in which you will need to push your Artist Point visit earlier in the day (8:30am instead of 10am) to allow for the longer drive. Tower Falls is just off the Dunraven Pass road, and is a short walk from the parking lot to the view point.
Once you reach the Lamar Valley, slow down and take the drive along the length of the valley slowly. Stop often, use binoculars and look for wildlife. This is perhaps the least crowded part of the park yet it offers beautiful views of bison herds, pronghorn antelope, perhaps a bear or wolf, and gently rolling hills overlooking the Lamar River. Spend a few hours at least driving the length of the valley.
Note: in 2005 the Slough Creek wolf pack could be observed from bluffs along the dirt road leading to the Slough Creek campground using spotting scopes as they went about their daily routine. Similar possibilities with the Slough Creek pack may still exist. Early morning and sunset are good times to watch for them.
Its time to choose. Do you want to return to Canyon the long way, via Mammoth Hot Springs, or return to Canyon on the Dunraven Pass road? The latter means you miss the sights of Mammoth Hot Springs but allows you to stay in Lamar Valley until dark, are good plan for viewing wildlife. The former is a long drive but if you enjoy geothermal features Mammoth Hot Springs is a place you don’t want to miss, the terraces and springs are beautiful.
Assuming this is your final day in Yellowstone National Park, you have a few options. You may wish to begin the day early with a last sunrise drive through the Hayden Valley, looking for bison and elk. You may take in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone one more time, this time from Lookout Point on the north rim of the canyon, which offers a different angle and closer view of the falls than Artist Point. A rainbow is visible in the Lower Falls when viewed from Lookout Point around 10:15am, a little later in the day than at Artist Point.
Whether you exit the park to the north, west or south, you will pass by Norris Geyser Basin. If you have not yet visited this area, this morning is a good time to do so.
Exiting via the North Entrance. If you leave the park via the North Entrance (Gardiner, MT) then a stop at Mammoth Hot Springs is called for since it is right on the way. Plan a minimum of one hour to drive the Upper Terrace Drive, add another hour if you wish to walk the Lower Terrace boardwalks. In fall months, elk are often found on the lawns and nearby hills of Mammoth Hot Springs, so it is good to spend some time looking for them too. On the way to Mammoth Hot Springs you will pass Sheepeater Cliffs, accessible via a short side road. Usually yellow-bellied marmots and Uinta ground squirrels, also called whistle pigs for their distinctive vocalizations, can be found perched on the large boulders at the foot of the cliffs, near the picnic area.
Exiting via the South Entrance. In this you have a long, but pleasant drive, passing by many of the spots you have seen already. Depending on your time you will almost certainly stop at a few. In order: Gibbon Meadows, Gibbon Falls, Firehole Canyon Drive, Fountain Paint Pots, Firehole Lake Drive, Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin, to name several.
A Good Map
Here is a great Yellowstone map to help you get your bearings: