Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Yellowstone National Park - Things You Can't Miss and Hidden Gems Along the Way

In the summer of 2017 my husband and I did something incredibly crazy. We moved with our four children into a 25 foot RV. And then we parked that RV in the middle of Yellowstone National Park.

I had a full time job in the park so I spent 40 hours a week at work. The rest of the time I was out exploring the park with my family. For 12 weeks we lived in the middle of the best vacation ever.

I want to share the places we discovered with you so you can have the best trip to Yellowstone possible. Some of the places like Old Faithful are already well known. But others are hidden gems like Imperial Geyser or the suspension bridge on the Hell Roaring Creek trail.

I'll share tricks for enjoying your visits to the most popular and areas of the park. I'll share details like how crowded the parking lots get and which vault toilets end up disgusting. And I'll tell you honestly about the places that aren't worth your time. (cough Tower Fall cough.)

I've separated this list into general areas. Click on the name of the place to be taken to a separate page with all the info and lots of pictures.

I hope this list helps you as you plan your next trip to Yellowstone National Park.

Southwest Area - Madison Junction to Old Faithful

Firehole Canyon Drive

The Firehole River runs near the Grand Loop Road from Old Faithful to Madison Junction. Most of the time it is a lazy river with low banks. However, when the river passes through the Firehole Canyon it changes completely. Steep banks of stone rise up on either side. Swimming holes form, and in one place the water tumbles down as a 40 foot high water fall. Firehole Canyon Drive is a one way road that follows the old stage coach route through the canyon to give you excellent views of the river.

Fountain Freight Road

Fountain Freight Road is a former road that is now used solely by bicycles and hikers. The 4 mile long trail connects Fountain Flats Drive to the Fairy Falls Parking area. It skirts behind the Fountain Paint Pot area and Grand Prismatic Spring giving a different perspective on these popular areas. Side trails from the main trail lead to impressive sights such as Imperial Geyser, Fairy Falls, and the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook.

Fountain Paint Pots

The Fountain Paint Pot area is named for the paint pots that are located within a short walk of the parking lot. These are the most accessible paint pots in Yellowstone National Park and are worth a visit. However the paint pots aren't the only thermal features in the area. You can actually see all four types of features here - a fumarole, a hot spring, a geyser, as well as the paint pots.

Firehole Lake Drive

Firehole Lake Drive is a three mile, one way road that branches off from the Grand Loop Road less than a mile south of the Fountain Paint Pot parking lot. There are a number of geysers and springs along the drive. The most notable is the stunning Great Fountain Geyser. Firehole Lake is near the end of the drive. There are places to pull over and park all along the drive, and there is a small parking lot near Firehole Lake. This area is always worth a visit, but Firehole Lake Drive is an especially good option when the more popular geyser areas are full of tourists.

Great Fountain Geyser

Great Fountain Geyser is the best show you'll see in Yellowstone National Park. The name is not hyperbole, it really is a Great Fountain Geyser. Pressure below the earth sends huge pillars of water as high as 220 feet in the air. The water shoots out over random intervals for nearly an hour creating a mesmerizing show where you never know what the geyser will do next. While the water patterns are random, the eruption schedule is predictable. With a little planning, you can see this show in person during your visit to Yellowstone.

Midway Geyser Basin

Midway Geyser Basin's best known feature is the Grand Prismatic Spring. This is the third largest hot spring in the world and is famous for it's brilliant colors. The Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most popular features in Yellowstone National Park which makes visiting the Midway Geyser Basin a bit tricky during peak tourist times. If you plan to visit during off-peak times all of Midway Geyser Basin is worth a visit.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most iconic features of Yellowstone National Park. The spring is the third largest hot spring in the world. The brilliant blue water of the spring is ringed by colorful algae that surrounds the spring in vibrant greens, yellows, and oranges. You can view the spring from a boardwalk that runs near the spring, or you can view it from an overlook on a small hill.

Fairy Falls

Fairy Falls is possibly the most beautiful waterfall in Yellowstone National Park. A thin column of water shoots over the edge of a cliff and falls 197 feet before forming a small pool. The waterfall has slowly carved itself into a recess of the cliff, and so the area surrounding the waterfall feels like a hidden oasis. You can reach the waterfall via a relatively easy 5 mile round trip hike.

Imperial Geyser

Imperial Geyser is the best kept secret in Yellowstone. This fountain geyser shoots up water in plumes as high as 15 feet. Adding to the beauty is the colorful pool of water next to the geyser. The geyser is located within a mile of Fairy Falls, and is listed on maps and in guide books as a great add-on to a hike to Fairy Falls, but it should be considered a destination in it's own right.

Biscuit Basin

Biscuit Basin is home to some of the prettiest pools of water within Yellowstone. This area has a wide boardwalk that allows you to approach all the pools and look down into their deep and colorful waters. The trail head for a 2 mile round trip hike to Mystic Falls branches off from the Biscuit Basin Boardwalk.

Black Sand Basin

Black Sand Basin is a small geothermic area located near the Upper Geyser Basin/Old Faithful Area. There are a handful of notable features in Black Sand Basin including Cliff Geyser, Emerald Pool, and Sunset Lake. A hiking trail connects Black Sand Basin to the Upper Geyser Basin.

Old Faithful Area

Upper Geyser Basin

The Upper Geyser basin is the official name of the geyser area surrounding Old Faithful. A large network of interconnected boardwalk and asphalt trails takes visitors up close to a number of impressive thermal features. There are a variety of things to do in the area. You can eat at one of the many dinning options. You can visit the displays or watch an educational movie in the Visitor Center. You can also take in the historic architecture of the Old Faithful Inn. Make sure you plan to explore this area in addition to viewing an eruption from Old Faithful.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful, the name is nearly synonymous with Yellowstone National Park. If you are planning a trip to Yellowstone then you know you are going to visit this iconic geyser. Geyser eruptions happen every 35 to 120 minutes. Generally you can expect an eruption every 90 minutes or so. Eruptions can be predicted based on the length of the previous eruption. All this regularity means that you can be assured that you will see an eruption from Old Faithful. The only thing you need to worry about is where you should wait for an eruption.

Southeast Area - Old Faithful to Bridge Bay

Lone Star Geyser

As it's name implies, Lone Star Geyser is a solitary geyser. The next nearest geyser is Old Faithful which is over 3 miles away. To reach Lone Star Geyser you have to walk or bike over 2 miles on an old park road. The geyser erupts every 3 hours so plan to chill out near the geyser until the show starts. Lone Star Geyser will erupt for approximately 20 minutes.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

This geyser area has many beautiful hot spring pools that are located on the shores of Lake Yellowstone. A boardwalk takes you next to the hot springs and the lake. This is one of the prettiest geyser basins in the park.

Bridge Bay Marina Boat Rentals

If you are looking to make your visit to Yellowstone extra special you may want to consider paying to participating in one of the many adventures offered through Yellowstone Lodges. One of the most cost effective activities is to rent a motor boat for a trip on Yellowstone Lake. You'll gain a whole new appreciation for the lake by spending an hour or two on the water.

Natural Bridge

Geysers and waterfalls aren't the only interesting natural features in Yellowstone National Park. The park also has a natural stone bridge. The bridge is 51 feet high and 29 feet across. You can reach the bridge via an easy 1.5 mile trail along an old road. The trail starts at the aptly named Bridge Bay.

Eastern Area - Fishing Bridge To Canyon

The Beach at Fishing Bridge
Sightseeing in Yellowstone is fun, but it can wear you out. You should plan for some downtime while you are in the park. One of the best places to relax is the beach located behind the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. This sandy beach is especially fun for children who enjoy the chance to run around after a day spent in the car.

Storm Point

One of the best things you can do during your visit to Yellowstone is to take a hike in the back country. You will be able to appreciate the natural wonders of Yellowstone without the distracting crowds of tourists. A hike to Storm Point is an easy back-country hike. You'll walk on a mostly level trail through a beautiful pine tree forest and end on a secluded section of Yellowstone Lake.

Mud Volcano

The Mud Volcano area is the most popular geyser area on the east side of Yellowstone. The features here are mud pots made from sulfuric acid that breaks down rock into sticky clay. The violently churning mud makes this area feel much more wild than other thermal areas in the park.
Canyon Village Area

Canyon Village

Canyon Village is centrally located in Yellowstone National Park which makes it a perfect stop no matter what route you take through the park. You'll want to spend time at the nearby canyon and view the spectacular waterfalls, but you will also want to schedule some time in the village. The Visitor Center is one of the best in the park with displays about the Yellowstone Super Volcano. There are several shopping and dining options available. Canyon Village's central location also makes it a great place to spend the night. There are over 500 rooms available, or you can book a site at the campground.

Upper Falls vs Lower Falls

As you've been researching your visit to Yellowstone National Park you've no doubt read about the two stunning waterfalls on the Yellowstone River. The waterfalls are both magnificent, but their names are less than stellar. Upper Falls and Lower Falls are hardly the most memorable names. You are probably wondering, what are the differences between the waterfalls?

Upper Falls

The Upper Falls of the Yellowstone is the first waterfall on the Yellowstone River. The water rushes around a bend and then down 109 feet. A short trail leads to an overlook right on the brink of the falls. Standing on the edge of the waterfall and watching the water plunge downward is one of the best sights in Yellowstone.

South Rim

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the location of some of the most iconic views of Lower Falls. Make sure you take in the panoramic vistas at Artist Point. If you are agile enough you should hike down the 308 stairs on the Uncle Tom's Trail to a vantage point that is lower than the waterfall. If you have the time take a hike on the South Rim trail or venture onto some of the back country trials.

North Rim

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is lined with great vantage points where anyone of any ability can view the Lower Falls waterfall. This iconic 308 foot high waterfall is visible from Lookout Point and Grand Point. A 3/4 of a mile round trip hike takes you down to the Brink of the Lower Falls. The Red Rock trail takes you to a lower point in the canyon with a great view point.

Northeast Area - Canyon Junction to Roosevelt

Mount Washburn

Mount Washburn is not the tallest mountain in Yellowstone National Park, but it is the most accessible. It's 10,243 foot high summit can be reached by two trails. The trail with the best views is 7 miles round trip and starts at Dunraven Pass. Both trails lead to an observation tower at the summit where you can see an impressive 360 degree view of the Yellowstone back country. Hiking this mountain is an excellent way to spend your time in Yellowstone.

Tower Fall

Tower Fall is often billed as being a feature on par with Yellowstone Falls and Old Faithful. But that is not the reality. The viewpoint for the waterfall has two huge flaws that mar the experience of visiting this waterfall. 1. You can't see the full waterfall from the viewpoint. and 2. The parking area is often over-crowded. Save yourself the headache and skip this waterfall.

Calcite Springs

Calcite Springs themselves are small thermal springs at the base of a cliff. You view them from far away and they aren't all that interesting. But the whole landscape on display at the Calcite Springs View Point is interesting. You can look into a section of the Yellowstone river canyon and see millions of years of geologic history displayed in distinct and prominent layers.

Roosevelt Lodge

The Wild West lives on at Roosevelt Lodge. The rustic lodge building was built in 1920 and, aside from the modern cars in the parking lot, you'll think you've gone back in time. Cabins surround the lodge and offer an affordable lodging option. The most popular things to do in the area all involve horses. You throughout the day you can go on a stage coach ride or a horse back ride. The signature activity in the area is a wagon ride to an Old West style cookout dinner.

Northern Area - Northeast Entrance to Mammoth

Lamar Valley

Do you want to see wildlife in Yellowstone? Don't waste your time driving around the Grand Loop with the other tourists. The best place to see wildlife is the Lamar Valley in the Northeast area of the park. This is the least visited part of the park, which is one reason it's the best place to see wildlife.

The Petrified Forest

Most people think that there is only one petrified tree in Yellowstone National Park. However, Yellowstone actually has the largest petrified forest in the world. These fossilized trees are massive and are worth the effort to find if you have the time and the stamina.

Hellroaring Creek Trail Suspension Bridge

The northern section of Yellowstone appears to be nothing but wilderness. So it's quite surprising to see a suspension bridge spanning the Yellowstone River in this area. The bridge was constructed to give hikers and equestrians access to Hellroaring Creek. The bridge is located 1 mile down the Hellroaring Creek trail. Don't let that distance fool you. The hike to the bridge requires descending 600 feet down multiple switchbacks.
Mammoth Area

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs is an appropriate name for this area. These stone terraces are, in fact, mammoth. They completely cover a hillside. The terraces are made of travertine rock that formed as minerals in the hot spring water were deposited over hundreds of years. A network of boardwalk trails and stairs allow visitors to walk next to the stone cliffs. Various parts of the terraces still have water flowing over them. When air temperatures are cool you can see billows of steam rising from the terraces.

Boiling River

After a while it can be pretty boring to just look at hot spring after hot spring after hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. If you are looking to enhance your hot spring experience then plan a visit to Boiling River. Soaking in the mix of hot spring runoff water and the Gardener River is a good way to experience Yellowstone as more than just an idle spectator.

Western Area - Mammoth to Madison Junction

Norris Geyser Basin

Norris Geyser Basin is unlike any of the other popular areas of Yellowstone National Park. The geysers are hotter, the trails are longer, and the features aren't as well known. If you are prepared for a long walk in an area with little shade then you can have an enjoyable visit to this area. But if you are expecting just another quick jaunt down a boardwalk you aren't going to like Norris Geyser Basin very much.

Artist Paint Pots

Many features in Yellowstone are known for putting on big shows. There's the height of Old Faithful, the size of Grand Prismatic Spring, or the volume of Lower Falls. But one of the most memorable features in the park is a humble little hot spring that shoots up spurts of mud. Watching mud bubbles form and then pop in unpredictable patterns is always a joy at Artist Paint Pots.

I want to highlight some great guidebooks that helped my family find awesome things to do while we were in Yellowstone.

A Ranger's Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes by Roger Anderson and Carol Shively Anderson. This book was an excellent resource as we planned out which hikes we wanted to do. It also gave us great step by step guidance on the trail. My favorite feature of the book was the extra notes about the areas that were included along with the trail instructions.

Day Hikes of Yellowstone National Park Map-Guide by Jake Bramante. This is more of a map than an actual book, but you'll be amazed by the amount of text that Jake has managed to include on this map. The hikes are ranked by difficulty so you know ahead of time what you are getting yourself into.

Yellowstone Treasures: The Traveler's Companion to the National Park by Janet Chapple. I wish I'd had this book while we lived in the park. I picked this book up at the local library when I needed help remembering the little details for some of the things we'd visited in the park. This book is probably the most in depth guide to the park I've ever seen. There are maps, there are historical facts, there are details about every named feature in the park. I highly recommend owning this book. (It's on my Christmas List.)

* * *

You can also read more about our amazing summer by following these links to the posts I wrote while we were in Yellowstone.

It's wonderful!!! --- Published May 30, 2017
Every Day is an Adventure --- Published June 12, 2017
Lots of Wildlife --- Published June 23, 2017
Personal Victories --- Published July 6, 2017
What a Joy, What a Life, What a Chance --- Published July 14, 2017
The Inconvenient Life --- Published July 21, 2017
Water Features --- Published August 5, 2017
Last Three Weeks --- Published August 23, 2017


  1. How close are all these locations to each other? How many days do you think you would need to plan for to cover most or all of them?


    1. Oh boy, the answer to that question could really be a whole blog post in itself. (And probably will be in the future.) The short answer is that to drive the full Grand Loop Road is about 160 miles. How many days you spend in the park really depends on what you want to see. It can be done in as little as two days, but you'd really have to rush and you'd have to skip a lot of the smaller features. I would recommend between 5 and 8 days if you really want to immerse yourself in the park.


I would love to hear what you think. Did I get it right, or was I dead wrong? What was your experience like?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Ritter Island - Hagerman, Idaho - Re-visit

Ritter Island is an interesting feature along the shores of the Snake River west of Twin Falls, Idaho. The waters of the Snake River sur...