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Many of you know that we are huge fans of the National Parks, so it was only fitting that we went on a National Parks road trip for our honeymoon last September. Our trip covered six national parks in two weeks. In this post and video, we cover things to do at Yellowstone National Park (including our favorite sights), where we stayed, and some tips to maximize your visit.
Yellowstone National Park is the most popular national park in the US
Yellowstone National Park is one of the largest National Parks at around 2.2 million acres and spans across three states: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. It was also the US’s first national park, established in 1872, and is a place that draws about 4 million visitors every year.
There are five entrances to the park. We entered through the west Yellowstone entrance which is about a five-hour drive north of Salt Lake City. If you’re coming from another direction, you have the option of entering through one of the other four entrances. In fact, even though we came in through the west entrance, we left the park using the south entrance, which connects to Jackson Hole through Grand Teton National Park.
Planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park
In this post and video, I’ll be reviewing our itinerary for visiting the park and some tips in case you’re planning a visit. Keep in mind that we had five days and four nights to explore the park. This was enough time for our trip, although we definitely could have squeezed in an additional day of hiking. Also, we visited in mid-September of 2019, which is considered off-peak season for the park.
Getting to Yellowstone National Park
We started our trip by flying from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. After a five-hour drive from Salt Lake City, we stopped in West Yellowstone for a night before heading into the park first thing the next morning. We stayed at the 1872 Inn, which was just outside the west entrance.
There are plenty of signs for sights to see along the way. However, I recommend you stop at one of the visitor centers for a park map to help you plan your trip. We opted for the West Yellowstone visitor center, located not far from the park entrance.
West Yellowstone has a variety of restaurants and stores to visit. It was a good launching point to start our adventures in the park.
We entered the park using the west entrance, which was busier than we expected given that it was September. After clearing the entrance, we drove a short distance and found our first hot springs.
Terrace Springs is one of the more modest springs in the park, but it was still exciting to see, especially since it’s one of the first landmarks to check out when entering the park.
Since we were staying at Canyon Village for our first two nights, we continued westward into the park. There were plenty of stops along the way.
For example, we stopped at Gibbon Falls to see the beautiful waterfalls that flow into the Gibbon river below. Parking was easy and plentiful when we visited.
Not too far north of Gibbon Falls is Beryl Spring, a steamy hot spring located along the side of the road. The amount of steam generated by the spring was incredible to see, though be warned that it also means that the area has a strong sulfur odor.
A little farther up, we reached Artists Paintpots and were glad to be able to stretch our legs with a short one-mile hike. The hike loops around a basin of bubbling springs, geysers, and mud pots. The trail elevates above the basin, so you get a spectacular view of the artist paintpots and over 50 thermal features surrounding the area.
Norris Geyser Basin
Our last stop of the day before heading to our hotel was the Norris Geyser Basin. This is more of a substantial stop, and I’d recommend putting aside a couple of hours to explore here.
There are two sides of the basin, and we started off with the back basin area. Here, we were able to see the Steamboat Geyser, which unfortunately didn’t erupt while we were there, but we could still see the steam billowing from its base, which was pretty cool.
As with many of the geysers in Yellowstone, the timing of eruptions can be sporadic and difficult to predict, so it’s best to check in with the park rangers at the visitor centers if there is a specific eruption you’re hoping to see.
After exploring the back basin, we walked around the main basin, which was our favorite sight of the day. There were so many spectacular colors, steaming hot springs, and more bubbling thermal pools that made it a really beautiful environment to explore.
Lodging: Canyon Village
After finishing up at the Norris Geyser Basin, we made our way to Canyon Village to check into our hotel, the Canyon Lodge. The hotel was pretty basic, especially for the price.
You’re definitely paying a premium to stay in the park, but it’s worth the cost being so close to many of Yellowstone’s landmarks. Given the vast size of the park, you could waste a lot of time driving in and out each day, so if you can plan in advance, it’s well worth securing your accommodations inside the park. It’s also worth noting that there are campsites available for more reasonable lodging options.
Canyon Village offered many amenities, including a gas station, restaurants, a general store, and a visitors center, along with comfortable lodging at the Canyon Lodge hotel. We did have to book in advance. In fact, we made our booking in January for a September visit.
Dining: Lake Yellowstone Hotel
For dinner, we drove through the Hayden Valley to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel restaurant. We made reservations in advance through the Xanterra website, which we highly recommend as there was a long line of people without reservations waiting for a table.
We spotted a bison right outside the restaurant and had some beautiful views of the lake. It’s worth leaving some time for a slow drive through the Hayden Valley for possible wildlife spotting. We saw bison and wolves, albeit from a far distance on the drive. Definitely bring binoculars!
Artist’s Point, Uncle Tom’s Overlook, and Upper Falls View
We started day two with a drive to Artist’s Point (via South Rim Drive), which has awesome views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the lower falls. There are a few stopping points in this area, including Uncle Tom’s Overlook and Upper Falls View, which all offer spectacular views of the falls and canyons.
Brink of the Lower Falls
We then headed to North Rim Drive and parked up at the Brink of the Lower Falls trailhead. We hiked the short but steep path to the top of the falls. We took the scenic drive to Inspiration Point for a different perspective on the canyons.
Mammoth Hot Springs
From here, we took Norris Canyon road through the park and turned north at Grand Loop Road toward Mammoth Hot Springs. This was a scenic drive and offered a couple of stopping points along the way, including the “roaring mountain,” which bellowed steam from cracks in the ridge.
We reached Mammoth Hot Springs, which is another popular area of the park to stay. There is a nice hotel with many amenities there, and the main attraction of the area is the hot springs.
We stretched our legs with a loop around the hot springs and made a stop for coffee in one of the many cafés in the area.
Blacktail Plateau Drive (off-road trail)
From Mammoth Hot Springs, we continued along Grand Loop Road toward Tower Junction. A few miles before reaching the junction, we took “Blacktail Plateau Drive,” a scenic unpaved road suitable for most vehicles. This ended up being a hidden gem of the day because we spotted a herd of charging bison along the side of the road.
At Tower Junction, we took the north-east entrance road to explore the Lamar Valley. This was the area where we saw the most wildlife in the park, and it helped that we visited late afternoon/early evening. We saw hundreds of bison in the fields and elk, and there were even some spectators with binoculars on the lookout for Yellowstone’s famous wolves. This was the highlight of the day, and it was such an experience to be able to get so close to the wildlife.
After visiting the Lamar Valley, we drove through Dunraven Pass back to Canyon Village, and we managed to spot a black bear from the side of the road.
For dinner, we were able to grab a quick bite at Canyon Village. We noticed most places closed early, so make sure you plan accordingly when visiting the park.
After checking out from our two-night stay at Canyon Village, our next stop was the Old Faithful Inn for our last two nights in the park.
We made our way to the US highway 191, which loops down past many geysers toward Old Faithful. In fact, this is the area of Yellowstone that is most well-known for its geysers.
There were many stopping points and plenty of geysers to explore in this area. It’s worth picking up a map to help guide you through this area, although we found it easy to just stop each time we saw an interesting sign.
Grand Prismatic Spring
One of the most popular and iconic landmarks in Yellowstone is the Grand Prismatic Spring. Our first attempt at seeing the famous spring from ground level didn’t go well. It was misty in the area, and we weren’t able to get that postcard view that we’d been hoping for.
However, we came back the following day and hiked to a viewing point from the Fairy Falls trailhead. The hike was less than two miles and was fairly easy. It was definitely worth the effort to get a better view of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
After exploring some of the geysers in the area, we stopped for lunch at the Old Faithful General Store and walked over to watch Old Faithful erupt at around 3:00 pm.
Old Faithful gets its name due to the regularity of its eruptions. If you visit one of the nearby visitor centers, you’ll be able to get an approximation of the next eruption. It’s typically every 90 minutes, making it a lot more frequent than some of the other geysers in Yellowstone.
Lodging: Old Faithful Inn
We checked in to the Old Faithful Inn, a historic and beautiful hotel nestled right next to the Old Faithful geyser. The inn was built in 1904 and is the largest log structure in the world. It has multiple levels that overlook the lobby, giving it a magical feeling. We loved the charm of this hotel and enjoyed listening to live music while relaxing with a drink on the balcony.
It’s worth noting that there are a couple of different styles of room, most of which have a shared bathroom. Since we visited during our honeymoon, we splurged on a room with a bathroom that gave us a little more space. However, if having your own bathroom is a priority, you’ll want to reserve your room way in advance.
Dining: Old Faithful Inn Dining Room
We had dinner at the Old Faithful formal dining room and also it’s more casual counterpart, the Bear Pit. Both offered good dining options and were convenient when staying at the Inn.
Grand Prismatic Spring (via Fairy Falls Trail)
On day four, we drove to the Fairy Falls trailhead for our second attempt at viewing the Grand Prismatic Spring. As I mentioned, it was much clearer on our second try and worth the short hike to the viewpoint overlooking the spring. It really is as spectacular as the postcards!
We also explored Biscuit Basin and the Sapphire Pool where we saw geysers erupting as we walked around the basin.
We then made our way back to the Old Faithful Visitor Center to check out eruption times before exploring Geyser Basin on foot. Just a short walk from the Old Faithful Inn is a geyser basin with accessible boardwalks to explore the many geysers and springs in the area, including the colorful Morning Glory Pool.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
On our last day, we checked out of the Old Faithful Inn and drove south to West Thumb to explore our last geyser basin before leaving the park. This is one of the few geyser basins next to water, and it looks out across the huge Lake Yellowstone. We explored the area and enjoyed sightings of elk grazing near the warm geysers.
We then drove to Grand Teton National Park where we spent the next couple of days.
During this trip, we did come back to Lake Yellowstone for a kayaking tour with Rendezvous River Sports. This was one of our highlights of the trip. We were able to get a completely different perspective of the park from the water and enjoyed kayaking past West Thumb geyser from the water.
Yellowstone National Park should be on your bucket list
Yellowstone National Park exceeded my expectations. The things you’ll see in the park are truly unique, and the abundance of wildlife is hard to believe. I went into this trip thinking that Yellowstone wouldn’t live up to the hype, but I was glad to be proven wrong.
Highly accessible for all ages and mobility
One thing that impressed me about Yellowstone National Park is its accessibility. Most of the major attractions are easily accessible by all ages and levels of mobility.
Since there is so much geothermal activity in the area, many of the paths are restricted by a boardwalk or defined trail. This means that it’s important for parents to watch little ones who might try to walk off the path. However, it also means that folks with mobility challenges can enjoy all of the sights and sounds of the park.
Additional tips and considerations
If you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
1. Make dinner reservations in advance:
We had to settle for an early reservation at the Lake Yellowstone hotel and a late reservation at the Old Faithful Inn Dining room because we didn’t book until the week of our stay.
I highly recommend making dinner reservations as soon as you’ve booked your trip as the dining rooms have limited seating and fill up quickly.
Also, If you’re planning on eating around Old Faithful, you may want to time your reservation around the time of an eruption since it tends to be quieter before all the crowds come in.
2. Get a room charge card:
When you check into the park hotels, you often are given the option of placing charges to your room. You can charge meals and even some gift store purchases on this card. This is particularly useful if you’re a points and miles enthusiast. The final bill will charge everything to your room, which codes as lodging, meaning that you earn extra points if you’re using a card with a travel bonus category.
3. Join the Yellowstone Forever Foundation:
There is a one-off charge of $35, and membership comes with a free gift and 15% off purchases around the park. Not only are you contributing to a great cause, but it’s also tax-deductible.
4. Bring reusable water bottles:
The park does have water stations at the visitor centers. Rather than paying money for bottled water, I highly recommend refilling bottles at the stations to save money and reduce plastic waste.
5. Use cruise control when driving through the park:
It’s easy to get distracted with all the sights and wildlife, and I often lost track of the speed limit while driving through the park. To help keep you at the right driving speed, I recommend using cruise control.
6. Bring binoculars:
It’s hard not to have a close encounter with wildlife while visiting Yellowstone. However, many of the most sought-after wildlife like bears and wolves are usually farther away. I recommend packing a pair of binoculars so that you can get a better look at the wildlife.
7. Download offline maps and any other entertainment before entering the park:
Expect limited to no connectivity while in the park. Even when connected to WiFi, we struggled to download pictures. We liked this aspect of the visit because it was nice to disconnect during our honeymoon, though I did notice a lot of grumpy teenagers who couldn’t load their Instagram feed over WiFi.
8. Prepare for temperature and weather variations:
The temperature can vary significantly from day to day, so pack with this in mind. One day, it was in the 60s, and two days later, temperatures were in the 30s! We had to buy extra hats and gloves at the visitors center to keep us warm.
9. Pack polarized sunglasses:
Polarized lenses filter much of the glare, especially when looking at water. Since you’ll be visiting many geysers, having polarized lenses can help you see more of the contrasting colors and improve visibility.
10. Be prepared for bear sightings:
Rent (instead of purchasing) bear spray
While we didn’t have any up-close encounters with bears, we did listen carefully to the ranger’s warnings and rented bear spray while in the park. We rented ours from the Canyon Lodge visitors center, which worked out at $28 for three to seven days, and we could drop it off at a location near Old Faithful on our last day in the park. This was cheaper than purchasing a can, especially given you can’t take it home on a plane.
Consider a bear bell
We also purchased a bear bell for $4 and followed the guidance to stay 25 feet away from bison and 100 feet from bears.
The guidance from the rangers was to hike with no less than three people. Since it was just the two of us, we thought the bell might be handy to create more noise while walking along some of the less busy trails and paths.
Don’t disturb the wildlife
Unfortunately, we did see some people getting dangerously close to some of the bison in the area, which is a terrible idea. Visitors are injured every year because they get too close to the animals. It’s not worth risking your life for a photo!
Have you been to Yellowstone National Park? If so, what are your recommendations?