Best Things To Do in Yellowstone
Yellowstone is known for its red-tinged canyon walls and awe-inspiring natural wonders like Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, but you can't miss exploring some of the park's hiking trails and basins for striking views of the park's waterfalls, forests and alpine lakes. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone's trails are especially popular with adventurous travelers. Other park activities encompass everything from horseback riding in the backcountry to fishing at the lake, so plan to hit the sites that cater to your interests. Venture to Yellowstone Lake for a boating expedition or head north to Hayden Valley or northeast to Lamar Valley for excellent wildlife-watching opportunities.
Updated July 29, 2020
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Formed over thousands of years of erosion caused by wind, water and other natural forces, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the primary attraction in the Canyon Village area and one of the park's most popular hiking spots. The canyon stretches approximately 20 miles long and nearly a mile wide. Just as remarkable as the canyon's terra-cotta hued cliff walls is its river, which is the longest undammed river in the country, meandering for more than 600 miles through Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota.
"Amazing," "beautiful" and "fascinating" are just a few adjectives recent visitors used to describe this natural wonder. Most praised its hiking trails (like Artist and Lookout points), but a few said to check the National Park Service's Canyon Area Construction Projects page before you arrive since several paths are either partly or completely closed for renovations. Another tip: Get to the canyon early or late in the day to avoid rubbing elbows with hordes of tourists.
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The world's most renowned geyser is a must-see for every Yellowstone visitor. Although it isn't the largest geyser in the world, Old Faithful's eruptions are definitely awe-inspiring, averaging around 130 feet high. Like its name suggests, you can count on Old Faithful erupting approximately every hour and a half (the nearby visitors center can provide you with a more accurate schedule). There are several ways to see Old Faithful's power: You can join the hordes of tourists who gather around the perimeter or find a less hectic spot in the nearby Old Faithful Inn's dining room. More adventurous travelers can enjoy the mile-long hike out to Observation Point for a bird's-eye view of the Upper Geyser Basin.
Recent visitors enjoyed seeing Old Faithful, although some felt it wasn't as impressive as other Yellowstone geysers. Many, however, said this geyser is worth checking out. Despite it's fairly predictable schedule, Old Faithful's eruptions occasionally occur sooner than expected, so consider arriving early.
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Sitting in the heart of Yellowstone's West Thumb area is Yellowstone Lake, the park's largest body of water and the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in North America. First visited by Lewis and Clark's scout, John Colter, in the early 1800s, Yellowstone Lake has since become a popular destination among anglers and boaters. During the winter, many animals (think: bison and grizzly bears) trek to the more shallow areas of the lake's southern shores, where the water doesn't freeze due to the geothermic activity that takes place beneath the surface. But most of the lake freezes over by early December and can stay that way until early June.
For panoramic views, travelers suggest driving around this lake. When the weather is warmer, many say a picnic lunch by the water's edge can't be beat. And if you're interested in bedding down in the area, several recommend staying at Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins, which overlooks the lake and is a National Historic Landmark. Tours of the hotel are also offered via Xanterra Parks & Resorts and Buffalo Bus Touring Company.
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The Midway Geyser Basin's Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States, approximately 370 feet in size and around 121 feet deep. But its rainbow waters are what really make it fascinating: While the center of the pool's cerulean hue is pretty characteristic, the deep reds, bright yellows and fiery oranges encircling the edges are not. These colors are caused by pigmented thermophilic bacteria that thrive on the rich minerals produced by the geothermic activity. The color of the bacteria is determined by the temperature of the water – the center is too hot to support life – which is then reflected when light hits the organisms.
This natural wonder is one of the park's most photographed sights, so expect crowds when you visit. You may find fewer visitors if you arrive early, but fog is common until late in the morning on cooler days, so travelers recommend arriving around 10 a.m. No matter when you go, visitors say the attraction's Fairy Falls overlook will provide you with the best views.
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One of the best places to catch a glimpse of Yellowstone's fascinating wildlife is Hayden Valley. This lush valley north of Yellowstone Lake is a highly visited gathering place for bison, elk, coyotes and grizzly bears. While you can get a good view of the valley from the Grand Loop Road, you need to get out your car for the best perspective. Hikers should check out the area's two trails: The Hayden Valley Trail runs parallel to the Yellowstone River from Yellowstone Lake to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, while the Mary Mountain Trail traces the valley's northern edge. While you're exploring, be sure to check out some of its geothermic features, such as Mud Geyser and Sulphur Spring.
Past visitors praised the valley's scenery, but many were most excited about seeing its various animals. For a better view of harder-to-spot critters like wolves, several suggest bringing a pair of binoculars. Just remember to keep a safe distance from the animals. The National Park Service advises staying at least 100 yards away from wolves and bears and roughly 25 yards away from other kinds of animals.
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Old Faithful may be Yellowstone's most well-known geyser, but this geothermal hot spot in the Norris area is the park's oldest and hottest. From its boardwalks, visitors can see rare acid geysers like Echinus Geyser, as well as the tallest active geyser in the world, Steamboat Geyser.
Although the basin's geysers rarely erupt, recent travelers highly recommend checking out this geothermal area, saying it's an "other-worldly place" and the "best geyser basin in Yellowstone." A few, however, caution that it can get crowded and run out of parking spaces at the main lot, so consider arriving early or late in the day. Sunrise and sunset are especially beautiful times to visit.
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Sitting just southwest of the North Entrance in the aptly named Mammoth Hot Springs area, Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the park's more unique attractions. Known for its terraces – formed over centuries of hot water bubbling up from the ground, cooling and depositing calcium carbonate – Mammoth Hot Springs' travertine formations are often described as natural sculpture. As you explore, keep an eye out for elk grazing near the edge of the springs before terrace-hopping along numerous boardwalks down toward the bottom. Also, avoid direct contact with the water, which can easily cause burns.
According to recent visitors, Mammoth Hot Springs is "an amazing spectacle" that can't be missed. For some of the attraction's best views, travelers suggest walking up to the Upper Terraces. Hikers, meanwhile, can enjoy longer treks on one of Yellowstone's hiking trails, many of which start near the springs.
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Located between Yellowstone's Northeast Entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs in the Tower-Roosevelt Area, Lamar Valley is a wildlife haven. In fact, this valley is often referred to as "America's Serengeti" because it has an abundance of animals. Bison are most commonly spotted here, but you may also catch a glimpse of grizzly bears, pronghorns, bald eagles and wolves. The remnants of a former hot spring are also situated in the eastern part of the valley.
Previous visitors said passing through Lamar Valley is a must. You'll have ample opportunities to see bison. Some may even cross Beartooth Highway (Lamar Valley's main thoroughfare, which also goes by Northeast Entrance Road) at times, so stay alert when driving. If you're looking for a scenic spot to stop for a bite to eat, some travelers suggest packing a picnic lunch to enjoy during your drive. Just remember to never feed or get too close to the valley's animals. The National Park Service recommends staying at least 100 yards away from wolves and bears and 25 or more yards away from other creatures like bison and elk.
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Those who want to learn about Yellowstone wildlife in a more controlled environment should take a break from the park and head to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. Located just outside the park's West Entrance in West Yellowstone, Montana, this nonprofit center offers a detailed history of bears and wolves in the Yellowstone area and insight into conservation tactics. It offers a diverse selection of hands-on activities and programs, such as the Keeper Kids program, which gives children the chance to learn about grizzly bear behavior while a naturalist and animal keeper usher them into a bear habitat to observe how bears hunt for food.
Although some previous visitors felt the center was a bit small, most said its habitats housing live bears and wolves and large viewing areas were great. To avoid feeling crammed in the tight space, a few travelers recommend visiting during the park's offseason.
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