Yellowstone National Park: The Complete Guide

The Grand Prismatic Spring
Art Wager / Getty Images

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. Keep reading to learn about how to get to the park as well as what to do and see once you arrive.

How to Get There

Yellowstone has five entrance stations: North, Northeast, East, South, and West—it takes many hours to make it from one admittance location to the other. While the park is open year-round, most park roads are closed to regular traffic from November to April—this is when you can explore the park with less tourists on a snowmobile or snow coach tour. The only entrance that is continually open is the North Entrance at Gardiner, 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.

Nearby towns, within 5 miles, include Gardiner, Montana; West Yellowstone, Montana; East Yellowstone, Wyoming; and Cooke City, Montana. Further afield, within 50 miles, are the popular towns and cities of Big Sky, Montana (home of Big Sky Resort); Jackson, Wyoming (where you’ll find the National Elk Refuge); and Dubois, Wyoming, in Wind River Country.

Fly into Jackson, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana; or Idaho Falls, Idaho. You’ll need to rent a car from one of these locations and drive into the park. Or you can use the services of a tour company to handle the logistics for you. There are many outfitters, like Eco Tour Adventures, that can set up backpacking, bicycling, day hiking, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling tours inside of the park.

Where to Go and Stay Within the Park

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. Whether you’re an intrepid explorer, or someone who chooses to see the park from the safety of your car, here are the best areas to travel in Yellowstone, divided by eight developed areas—all of which have food options, lodges, and campsites (Yellowstone has 9 lodges and 12 campgrounds), and stores.

Canyon Village and the Grand Canyon: See the Mud Volcano, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Hayden Valley, Mount Washburn, Lower Falls, Silver Cord Cascades, and Upper Falls in this area. There’s also a visitor center, campground and lodge, and a general store.

Fishing Bridge, Lake Village, and Bridge Bay: Lake Butte Scenic Drive is a stunner in this area, where you’ll see Steamboat Point, Natural Bridge, Sedge Bay, Storm Point, Yellowstone Lake, and Sylvan Pass. Stay at the Bridge Bay Campground, Lake Lodge Cabins, or at the Lake Hotel and Cabins. Be sure to stop and shop at the two general stores, and pop in the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center.

Madison and the West: There’s much to see in this area, including Fountain Paint Pot, Grand Prismatic Spring, Great Fountain Geyser, Midway Geyser Basin, Terrace Springs, White Dome Geyser, Firehole Canyon, Purple Mountain, the Madison River, Firehole Falls, and Fairy Falls. The Madison Information Station and the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center are great resources.

Mammoth Hot Springs and the North: Pace yourself and see the Boiling River, Canary Springs, Mammoth Hot Springs, Swan Lake Flat, Rustic Falls, Undine Falls, and Wraith Falls. There are two campgrounds, a hotel, a visitor center, and a general store in this area.

Norris Geyser Basin: Treat yourself to a visit to Artists’ Paintpot, Beryl Spring, Monument Geyser Basin, Norris Geyser Basin, Porcelain Springs, Roaring Mountain, Steamboat Geyser, Caldera Boundary, and Gibbon Falls. Museum of the National Park Ranger is here as well as the Norris Geyser Basin Museum.

Old Faithful: The Old Faithful Historic District is one of the most popular sections of the park. Explore Aurum Geyser, Biscuit Basin, Black Sand Basin, Castle Geyser, Crested Pool, Giant Geyser, Grotto Geyser, Morning Glory Pool, Old Faithful Geyser, Sapphire Pool, Mystic Falls, and more. The Continental Divide is here. Two general stores, a visitor center, and one of the most beautiful lodges in America—Old Faithful Inn—are popular for tourists.

Lamar Valley, the Northeast, Tower Fall, and Tower-Roosevelt: Calcite Springs and Soda Butte can be seen here as well as Lamar Canyon and Valley (where wolves are often spotted), Pleasant Valley, Specimen Ridge, and Tower Falls. Accommodations include three campgrounds and a lodge, and there is one general store.

West Thumb, Grant Village, and the South: Abyss Pool, Fishing Cone, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Lewis Lake, and West Thumb draw nature goers to this area. Visitor services include a campground, a lodge, a general store, a marina, and a visitor center.

Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park

This beautiful national park is most known for its scenic trails and wildlife spotting. Learn more about each of these below.

Go Hiking

The park is vast in size, comprising more than 2 million acres to explore. With 900 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. See below for some of the most popular day hikes.

  • North Rim Trail: This 6.8-mile trails offers views of the Yellowstone River
  • Ribbon Lake Loop: A 6.1-mile jaunt through meadows and forests, peaking at Clear Lake.
  • Fairy Falls: This one crosses the Firehole River on an old freight road for 6.5 miles
  • Avalanche Peak: A 6.1-mile hike to the summit at 10,566 feet.

Safety tips: Be aware of the elevation at which you're starting and ascending. 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. 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 and review the Backcountry Situation Report before you head out. Also, it’s always a good idea to tell someone about your plans and let them know when you expect to be finished with your hike. Bring bear spray as well and be alert when in the backcountry.

View Wildlife

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.

Safety tips: Approaching wildlife is very dangerous. As a guideline, always remain at least 100 yards away from bears, bison, and wolves and 25 yards from all other wildlife. Also, use the pullouts to park while viewing wildlife—don’t block the roads. Never feed wild animals.

Photograph the Thermal Basins

Marvel at the park’s thermal basins, where you’ll stare in awe at the hot springs, mud pots, geysers, and fumaroles. Located all over the park, these geologic features are easily accessible via boardwalks and well-maintained trails.

Safety tips: Stay on the boardwalk and the marked trails at all times; 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 can cause severe or fatal burns.

Where to Stay Near Yellowstone National Park

There are many options for lodging outside of the park. In Bozeman, Montana, 90 minutes from the North Entrance of the park, sits the newly opened Kimpton Armory Hotel. While staying downtown, you’ll be within walking distance to shopping and dining on Main Street and you’ll be near the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.

In Jackson, Wyoming, you’ll be less than two hours from Yellowstone (plus 15 minutes from Grand Teton National Park). Stay at The Lodge at Jackson Hole, which is only 20 minutes from the Jackson Hole Airport.

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