Yellowstone National Park: The Complete Guide

The Grand Prismatic Spring
Art Wager / Getty Images
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Yellowstone National Park

Address
United States
Phone +1 307-344-7381

Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park, located mostly in Wyoming and partly in Montana and Idaho, is America’s very first national park. Sitting on top of an active volcano, this park is home to thousands of hydrothermal features, hundreds of geysers and waterfalls, deep rust-colored canyons, and wildlife that often spills out of the pine forests and verdant grasslands and onto the road—bison often cause traffic jams to the delight of millions of annual visitors.

Things to Do

Natural wonders and oddities, alpine lakes, numerous hiking trails for every ability, and wildlife viewing opportunities bring more than 4 million visitors to the park each year. Stopping in at one of the 10 visitor centers is a good place to start to learn about the day’s weather at Yellowstone, which trails you should hike, and if there are any bears in the area. You can also sign up for ranger-led walks or talks, which truly make the experience memorable.

Yellowstone has the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, so every season is a good time to view wildlife in the park. Seeing bison navigate the snow in the winter is just as magical as seeing them roam past a bursting geyser in the summer months. You also might be able to spot bighorn sheep, elk, moose, mountain goats, pronghorn, deer, bears, mountain lions, wolves, and more during your visit.

Best Hikes & Trails

The park is vast in size, comprising more than 2 million acres to explore. With over a thousand miles of hiking trails, you’re sure to find a picture-perfect, on-foot nature experience to your liking. No permits are required for day hiking, so you can feel free to roam.

Be aware of the elevation at which you're starting and ascending, as many of the park’s trails are at 7,000 feet above sea level and higher. Bring more water than you think you’ll need to avoid dehydration, even when it's not hot. Snow and river crossings are concerns, especially in the spring when they'll be more saturated from the melted snow runoff, so be sure to talk to a ranger before you head out.

  • North Rim Trail: Yellowstone is home to its very own Grand Canyon, and the 6.8-mile North Rim Trail offers views of the Yellowstone River winding through this impressive gorge. It's an easy hike, and there's a road that runs parallel to it in case you want to park and hike just a section of it.
  • Ribbon Lake Trail: This 6.1-mile jaunt through meadows and forests runs along the South Rim of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon, peaking at Clear Lake and continuing on to Ribbon Lake. This is a geothermal area, so be sure to stay on the marked paths.
  • Fairy Falls: One of Yellowstone's most impressive waterfalls roars over a 200-foot drop, and the hike to reach it is especially scenic through a young pine forest. There are two different trailheads you can start at to reach Fairy Falls, and both of them are about 6 miles roundtrip.
  • Avalanche Peak: A 6.1-mile hike to the summit of Avalanche Peak isn't for novice hikers, but this strenuous trek is well worth the effort. Pack accordingly since snow can linger on the summit as late as July, and consider bringing a can of bear spray since grizzlies frequent this area.

For even more hiking ideas, check out some of the best hiking trails in Yellowstone.

Thermal Basins

Most people immediately associate Yellowstone with geysers, but these giant eruptions of hot water are just one type of geothermal feature in the park—you can also see mud pots, hot springs, and fumaroles. Located all over the park, these geologic features are easily accessible via boardwalks and well-maintained trails.

Stay on the boardwalk and the marked trails at all times, as it's never safe to veer off the path. Children especially need to be close by and shouldn’t run. The hot springs, thermal features, and runoff are unpredictable and can cause severe or fatal burns.

  • Old Faithful: Old Faithful is perhaps the most famous geyser in the world for its highly predictable eruptions (it shoots boiling water out about once every 90 minutes). Located on the Continental Divide, be sure to check out the other nearby geysers like Aurum Geyser, Castle Geyser, and Grotto Geyser.
  • Norris Geyser Basin: Old Faithful is the most predictable, but Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin is the world's biggest geyser, with eruptions that shoot up to 300 feet in the air. Unfortunately, it's not easy to predict when it's going to explode, and the time between eruptions can range from a couple of days to decades. Also in the Norris Geyser Basin area are Yellowstone's most famous fumaroles, or steam vents. Black Growler has been releasing steam for over a century, and the hillside known as Roaring Mountain is dotted with steam vents for a dramatic display.
  • Mammoth Hot Springs: These impressive structures look like a waterfall that's been frozen in time, but they're actually made up of ancient limestone. Visitors can't bathe in the hot springs, but hiking trails all around provide excellent views of one of Yellowstone's most dramatic features.

Where to Camp

Yellowstone National Park has 12 campgrounds that provide over 2,000 campsites. Most of them are open from June to September, but the exact dates vary by year and by campground. Seven of them are managed by the National Park Service (NPS), while the other five are run by Yellowstone National Park Lodges.

Backcountry camping is also available for those who want to truly escape from civilization, but you'll need to get a backcountry permit when you enter the park if you want to sleep outside of a campground.

  • Canyon Campground: This campground is run by the Lodge and campsites can be reserved in advance. Its convenient location in the heart of the park means it's not too far away from any of the attractions. It's also located right on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and has easy access to some of the area's best hiking trails.
  • Mammoth Campground: The only year-round campground at Yellowstone, Mammoth is run by the NPS and sites can be reserved in advance. It's close to the Mammoth Hot Springs, hiking trails, and spots for fishing, conveniently located near the park's North Entrance.
  • Grant Village: This is one of the largest campgrounds in the park and sits on the southern shore of Yellowstone Lake. Not only can you enjoy the lake water on warm summer days, but Grant Village also has all kinds of amenities like a store, restaurant, gas station, and visitor center. The campground is managed by the Lodge and sites can be reserved in advance.

If you're bringing an RV into Yellowstone, check out the best campsites for RV camping.

Where to Stay Nearby

Camping isn't the only way to enjoy the majesty of Yellowstone National Park, and there are plenty of options both within the park and in the neighboring towns that range from rustic cabins to five-star resorts. Outside of the park around Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, you can connect with nature at any one of a number of cabin rental options that are within easy driving distance to the national park. If you prefer to stay in a place that has the conveniences of a city, then your closest options are Jackson, Wyoming, and Bozeman, Montana.

  • Old Faithful Inn: For those who want the closest option to the famous geyser, this historic inn offers deluxe hotel rooms and cabin options. There are no TVs, radios, or air conditioning in the rooms, so you'll have no distractions from connecting with nature.
  • Explorer Cabins: Ideal for families, these cabins all have two private bedrooms plus a sleeper sofa in the living room. They're located just a couple of minutes away from the West Entrance of the park.
  • Gardiner Guest House: This homey bed and breakfast is located in Gardiner, Montana, right next to the North Entrance of the park. The Victorian architecture and incomparable hospitality add an extra special touch to your national park visit.

For even more lodging options around the park, read up on the best places to stay around Yellowstone.

How to Get There

Yellowstone has five entrance stations: North, Northeast, East, South, and West—it takes many hours to make it from one entrance location to the others, so be sure to plan out your route in advance. While the park is open year-round, most park roads are closed to regular traffic from November to April because they're covered in snow. The only entrance that is continually open is the North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana, where the famous arch dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt is located. Be sure to check the road conditions, construction, and closures on the road map prior to arriving.

If you're flying into the area, the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana is closest to the North Entrance, but there are smaller airports in Jackson, Wyoming, and Idaho Falls, Idaho. The nearest major airport, however, is in Salt Lake City, which is about five hours away.

Accessibility

Many parts of Yellowstone are accessible to all visitors, including most parking lots, restaurants, overlooks, and trails to the most popular attractions. Detailed maps of each area in the park show which trails are best suited for visitors with mobility challenges, and wheelchairs are available to borrow at all of the visitor centers and lodging facilities except Roosevelt Lodge. Except for Fishing Bridge Park, all of the campgrounds have at least one site that is ADA-compliant and reserved for campers who need it.

Ranger-led programs can be requested with an ASL interpreter with advance notice, and most videos shown at the visitor centers have closed captioning or assistive listening devices available.

Visitors with permanent disabilities can apply for and obtain an Access Pass which provides free admission to recreation areas all across the U.S., including all of the national parks.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Save time at the entrance by buying your pass online in advance, which is good for seven consecutive days in the park.
  • If you're entering Yellowstone through the South Entrance, you'll have to pass through Grand Teton National Park first. It's worth seeing both parks, but be aware that you'll need to pay separate admission fees for each one.
  • If you do plan to visit both parks, consider purchasing an America the Beautiful annual pass. For nearly the same price as visiting the two parks, the annual pass gives the holder and guests free entry into over 2,000 recreation areas around the U.S., including all of the national parks.
  • Mid-June to mid-September are by far the busiest months of the year to visit Yellowstone. Spring and fall see a lot smaller crowds, but fewer services are also available. Winter visits can be magical, but many parts of the park are only accessible by snow vehicles, so make sure you plan out your winter trip and know what you're getting into.
  • Campgrounds that can be booked online often fill up months in advance, while the first-come, first-serve campgrounds may be completely taken by early morning.
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Yellowstone National Park: The Complete Guide