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Yellowstone is the King of All American National Parks and one of our family’s favorite travel destinations. After spending several weeks basking in the glory of this place, here’s our list of top 10 things to do in Yellowstone National Park.
As a family, we feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Yellowstone several times. Altogether, we’ve spent a total of three weeks in the park, on four separate occasions. We drove across the 8-loop-shaped roads so many times, visited all of the geyser basins and hiked quite a few trails. Today I want to share with you what we liked best in the park.
And make no mistake, you should plan ahead. There are so many awesome things to do in Yellowstone. Driving time between locations can easily be several hours. So know what it is that you want to see and where everything is located, to make the most of your days in the park (that’s why I also provided a map in the end of this post).
With that in mind, here’s my Top 10 list of…
Things to do in Yellowstone National Park!
1. Old Faithful
Old Faithful is an national landmark and an international icon! This is a highly predictable geothermal feature with over a million recorded eruptions. It’s not the largest nor the tallest geyser in the park but it absolutely deserves a spot on your bucket list.
You will be standing together with a large crowd – so if you want “front row” seats get there at least 30-45 minutes before the scheduled eruption. Don’t worry about it being crowded. The energy of the crowd will add up to your excitement as all of you will be in awe once Old Faithful starts to blow.
The geyser will start sprouting little “burps” and then it will subside. This is where the excitement starts. The bursts will build up and will eventually make a full salvo as the geyser shoots up a spectacular 25 feet blow of boiling water.
To date, we’ve witnessed four eruptions of Old Faithful. All I can say is it never gets old (excuse the horrible pun but it’s true). If you’re spending several days in the park, try to squeeze in two stops to view this spot. Even if you only have a few hours in the park – Old Faithful simply must be one of the things to do in Yellowstone for you.
Oh, and until you get there, check out the Old Faithful web cam to keep an eye on eruptions!
2. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
This 24-mile long canyon formed by the mighty Yellowstone River is yet another world famous attraction. There are several good hiking routes within the canyon – with varying difficulty. Most visitors stick to the short and steep Uncle Tom’s trail which takes you down a flight of stairs to some wonderful viewpoints.
This canyon is so beautiful it can easily take your breath away. Especially during spring when snowmelt makes the waterfall roar stronger than ever. Here’s what it looks like in July 2011, during our first visit to Yellowstone. It was a year with a long winter and heavy snowfall, so you can expect the waterfall to look like this in June during most years.
Not to be missed, this simply had to be the second item on my list of things to do in Yellowstone National Park.
3. Norris Geyser Basin
Witnessing a full-sized geothermic basin is clearly at the top the list of things to do in Yellowstone. Which one to choose? Tricky question. Try to see them all (as we did) but if you’re limiting yourself to just 3-4 basins, make Norris one of them because it’s not unlike any of the others.
Norris showcases samples of all of the area’s thermic features: geysers, fumaroles, mud holes and hot pools. It consists of two primary areas: Back Basin and the Porcelain Basin. There’s some walking to do from the visitors center to where you can see the basin. Overall, your will traverse two-miles, most of which will be on the boardwalk, above the boiling ground.
There are several geothermic basins in this list of things to do in Yellowstone. It’s worth mentioning the safety rules at this point. People actually get hurt and even die while visiting these places so please take them seriously. This is from the park’s website –
Water in hot springs can cause severe or fatal burns, and scalding water underlies most of the thin, breakable crust around hot springs.
Always walk on boardwalks and designated trails. Keep children close and do not let them run on boardwalks.
Swimming or soaking in hot springs is prohibited. More than 20 people have died from burns suffered after they entered or fell into Yellowstone’s hot springs.
Do not throw objects into hot springs or other hydrothermal features.
Toxic gases may accumulate to dangerous levels in some hydrothermal areas. If you begin to feel sick while exploring one of our geyser basins, leave the area immediately.
4. Hayden Valley
Hayden Valley is another Yellowstone must-do you should check out. What really makes this drive special is the animals. Or more specifically, bison. Clearly, wildlife viewing can never be guaranteed but I can say that we drove through this valley at least five times and have never failed to see bison. Lots of bison.
Sometimes they get very close to the road.
Often they are on the road so expect slow driving times. Especially if you happen to have a herd of several hundreds bison crossing the road in front of you. That will be one traffic jam you’ll be happy to be caught in!
Please be careful. Stay in your vehicle and do not approach bison. Stay within 25 yards/meters of these animals to keep everyone safe and happy.
5. Biscuit Geyser Basin (Upper Geyser Basin)
The Biscuit Geyser Basin is another basin which I think everyone should include in their list of things to do in Yellowstone. The geyser basin got its name due to its distinct appearance and knobby formations and it shows its magnificence through color.
Take a walk on the boardwalk that stretches for almost a mile to appreciate the various colorful hot pools and other geothermic features.
The Sapphire Pool alone will really astonish you and will leave you wondering how it got so stunningly blue.
If you have an hour or two to spare, hike the loop trail to the Mystic Falls. It’s just over two-miles in length but there’s a climb which slowed us down when we did it with our kids. Totally worth it though!
6. Lower Geyser Basin
Another one of our favorite basins that I highly recommend visiting. The Lower Geyser Basin is graced with colorful geysers, springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and stunning pools. You might want to check the gorgeous Celestine pool perfected with an azure blue color. There are also several vibrant looking pots in this area. Everything can be viewed from the boardwalk trail.
One of the unique features here is the fact that the streams of hot boiling water from the hot pools flow right into the nearby river. It’s hard to describe in words or photograph – you really should see this for yourself.
If you have an extra half an hour, take a detour in the nearby one-way Firehole Lake Drive – a scenic three-mile drive around the basin.
7. West Thumb Geyser Basin and Lake Yellowstone
Last geyser basin on my list – promise! I have put the West Thumb Geyser Basin and Yellowstone Lake in one number because they are basically next to each other. The West Thumb refers to a part of the hand-shaped lake.
As the largest body of water in YNP, the massive Yellowstone Lake alone is a beautiful vista to behold. The lake is also the largest freshwater body above 7000 feet (in the whole North America) so it’s really one of a kind.
The geothermic features of the basin are perfectly framed by the lake views.
What’s more, some pools just overflow into the lake water. And if that’s not enough, this is where you can see a geyser that’s literally within the lake! Big Cone geyser may show up above the water line, or be totally immersed, depending on the lake’s water level at the time of your visit.
This is such a spectacular area, I have an entire separate post dedicated to my favorite photos from Yellowstone West Thumb basin.
8. Mammoth Hot Springs
An immense complex of hot springs on a hill of limestone, the Mammoth Hot Springs was formed after thousands of years of cooling down hot water and calcium carbonate resulting in these complex of hot springs.
Unlike other attractions in Yellowstone which are mostly colorful, the Mammoth Hot Springs shows its beauty in a unique way. Seeing it will make you feel like you’re in a winter wonderland – not snow – but a splendor of stunning WHITE marbles and mineral cascades. A view like no other in the park.
Mammoth Springs aren’t always flowing with water. We’ve seen them wet and we’ve seen them dry and they’re beautiful all the same. While there, keep an eye out for the herd of elk that u
9. Artist’s Paint Pots
Bubbly and colorful, the Artist’s Paint Pots is like a giant canvas with lots of oil paint gently melting in the surface.
This spot is blissfully less crowded compared to other basins. It’s small, unique and beautiful so in my opinion belongs to the top 10 list of things to do in Yellowstone. Walk at the 1.1-mile loop to witness everything there – bubbling hot springs, bursting mudpots, milky blue pools, and a hillside hydrothermal area.
Hiking the Artist’s Paint Pots will take you around 30 minutes only so it’s pretty just enough to admire the area, take good shots, and then probably drive to another attraction to make the most of your Yellowstone visit.
10. Lamar Valley
This one is a 40-mile long tributary of the Yellowstone River in the north eastern part of the park. We drove it twice for one purpose: Wildlife viewing.
Lamar Valley is not unlike Hayden Valley except that it’s usually less crowded. You will almost always see huge herds of bison here too, and for our traveling family, the more large animals to view, the merrier! Driving on, the valley narrows and that’s where we got to share the road with bison – more than once.
And check out this awesome video of a herd of bison charging on the same road in Lamar Valley –
Not too many people get to Lamar Valley but I hope these images explain why it’s on my list of things to do in Yellowstone! It’s just super cool being surrounded by these huge beasts!
And there are wolves in Lamar Valley too!
The Lamar Valley is indeed a great place to see the American Wilderness, and if you’re very very lucky, you may even get a glimpse of the famous Yellowstone wolves who call it home. Wolf viewing tip: If you go very early in the morning, right at dawn, you’ll find a spot along the road where wolf lovers are waiting, armed with binoculars and cameras. You can’t miss that because no one else is out in the park that early. You can park next to them and wait along with them.
We did that once. They’re all standing across from the wolf den, hoping to see the animals when they come out. Don’t worry, they’re giving them enough space. When we were there, we didn’t get to see wolves but we did get to hear a lot about them from these people, so it was still worth it.
A Map of things to do in Yellowstone
As always, I try to include a map to help you plan your itinerary. Remember, speed limit in the park is 45 MPH (or slower, around junctions and attractions). Traffic may be delayed – and sometimes even diverted due to any of the following –
- Road accidents
- Animals on the road
- Smoke from nearby fires
- Road construction
- Extreme weather conditions (yes, Yellowstone has rain and even hail in summertime)
These are all frequent occurrences, so don’t try to squeeze too many activities and places to see into one day. Take at least three days for your Yellowstone National Park sightseeing. More if you plan on hiking in the park. Have more time? You can always check out attractions in the town of West Yellowstone or even take a side trip from Yellowstone to Quake Lake.
If you choose to follow my advice and include all of these 10 items in your itinerary, make sure you know where they are and plan your days accordingly –
And now, over to you! If you’re just planning your Yellowstone trip, did you find this helpful? If you’ve been there already, would you add anything to this list? Let me know by leaving a comment and please share this post with your friends too!