Top Yellowstone AttractionsIn a destination with dozens of natural attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the top things to do in Yellowstone, as chosen by AAA editors.
Let the Park Road Be Your Guide
The main park road loops in a great oval through Yellowstone, connecting the junctions of Mammoth, Norris, Madison, Old Faithful, Grant, West Thumb, Lake, Canyon and Tower-Roosevelt (moving counter-clockwise from the north). The road is narrow in places and often rough; a 20-year improvement project guarantees you'll hit the occasional construction delay. Don't expect to get anywhere in a hurry—there are too many things to see along the way, and the inevitable “bear jam” means you'll be getting out of the car along with everyone else to snap a few pictures of the roadside wildlife.
Start in Mammoth Hot Springs (Near the North Entrance)
Tourists return to the park in mid-May after snow crews have cleared the roads. The north entrance at Mammoth is the only one open all year. The red-tiled buildings of Fort Yellowstone haven't changed much since 1891, when the U.S. Cavalry built this post to protect the newly established national park. The Albright Visitor Center & Museum , housed in the former bachelor officers' quarters, traces the history of Yellowstone from early Native American settlements to the modern park. An art gallery displays the works of photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran, whose pictures inspired Congress to preserve Yellowstone for future generations.
A series of boardwalks, trails and scenic drives lead to the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs . This is one of the most dynamic thermal areas in the park, an ever-growing mound of chalk-white tiers and milky fountains. Skeletal trees add to the otherworldly aura. Look for Opal Terrace, the lone formation across the road from the main attraction—this limestone spring is inching ever closer to the 1908 Reamer House, a noted example of Prairie-style architecture. Sandbags have stopped the forward progress, but debate rages over which to save, the geologic feature or the historic landmark.
Things to See in Norris
The park's oldest—and hottest—region of thermal activity is the Norris Geyser Basin, due south of Mammoth on the main road. Park officials recently closed some areas due to the changeable behavior of geysers close to the boardwalk. This bleached expanse of mineral pools and vents is home to Steamboat Geyser, the world-record holder for tallest geyser (500 feet) though it sleeps for months or years at a time. Echinus Geyser was long considered the only predictable geyser at Norris, but its behavior too is fluctuating. The Norris Geyser Basin Museum & Information Station offers exhibits and a daily timetable of eruptions.
While in Norris Junction, make the trip to the Museum of the National Park Ranger . Retired NPS employees volunteer their time to staff the museum, which honors the role of park rangers in protecting national lands. A 25-minute film, “An American Legacy,” traces the history of the National Park Service.
Plan a Stop in Madison
According to lore, the little stone-and-timber ranger station in Madison marks the spot where the idea of Yellowstone National Park first arose. Camping here in 1870, members of the Washburn Expedition—the same men who named Old Faithful—agreed that the wonders of Yellowstone should be set aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
What to Do in West Yellowstone
From Madison, the town of West Yellowstone is a short drive out the west entrance. (Keep your park receipt for re-admission.) Motels, cafes, shops and outfitters line the streets of this bustling tourist center, and there's plenty of fun things to do with kids to keep them entertained on a rainy day. This is a good place to stock up on groceries, bottled water, sunscreen and batteries—prices are higher in the park. The Yellowstone Giant Screen Theatre presents a series of 45-minute films about wildlife, geology and exploration. After the movie, stop at the Yellowstone Historic Center Museum for a history lesson and a look at Old Snaggletooth, a legendary stuffed grizzly. For one of the closest animal encounters you're likely to have at Yellowstone, visit the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center . These creatures—injured, orphaned or removed from the wild for safety reasons—roam together in large outdoor enclosures and interact with staff naturalists. When the wolf pack howls, the hair will stand up on the back of your neck.
Where to See Old Faithful and Other Geysers
Back in the park, the main road continues south to the Lower and Midway Geyser Basins . Covering 12 square miles, the lower section features clusters of thermal features including the Fountain Paint Pots, boiling pools of red, yellow and brown mud. The 3-mile Firehole Lake Drive—one of few places where you can watch geysers from the car—leads to Great Fountain Geyser, which erupts from a beautiful limestone plateau. Isolated between the Lower and Upper Basins, Midway is a small area of impressive water features. Grand Prismatic Spring measures 250 feet across. The thermal springs of Excelsior Geyser discharge 4,000 gallons of water per minute into the Firehole River. When he visited in 1889, Rudyard Kipling described this area as “Hell's Half Acre.”
Since the region came to national attention in the 19th century, millions of visitors have traveled to Yellowstone to see Old Faithful . Though not quite as predictable as its name suggests, this 120-foot waterspout erupts every 80-90 minutes on average. Between eruptions, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center shows films about Yellowstone's history and geology and posts times for all “predictable” geysers in the park. Tour buses arrive and depart in a steady stream, and you'll often hear people complaining if Old Faithful is late—as if nature works by the clock! Rather than fight the crowds, go upstairs to the lodge, order a cappuccino and watch the show from the second-floor porch.
Beyond Old Faithful, there are more than 150 thermal features within a square mile on the Upper Geyser Basin . Boardwalks and paved trails loop around a bevy of geysers, fumaroles, hot springs and mud pots. Geysers such as Grand, Giant and Beehive are less frequent than Old Faithful, but no less spectacular. Ancient Castle Geyser has built up a large and impressive cone over thousands of years, erupting for 20 minutes at a time. Each geyser has a different personality, and one of the pleasures of spending time at Yellowstone is getting to know all the characters. The pool at Anemone Geyser drains, fills again, overflows its edges and bubbles into a 10-foot spout, ending with a gurgle. Lion Geyser roars like its namesake. Riverside shoots a 75-foot column of water arching over the Firehole River. When capricious Splendid thunders to life, it throws off the schedule of Daisy, one of the more punctual geysers in the group. Grotto dowses anyone who gets too close.
At the center of all this activity, the Old Faithful Inn is an attraction unto itself. Designed by Robert Reamer with lodgepole framing and a massive gable roof, the main lodge was completed in 1904. Visitors can't help but crane their necks in the seven-story lobby with its huge rough-stone fireplace, gnarled log rafters and wrought-iron clock. Rocking chairs and writing desks line the railings of the upper floors, where guests spend the evening relaxing and writing postcards. If you have a chance, take a historic tour of the hotel; groups meet by the fireplace several times a day.
Fun Places to Go Near Grant Village and Yellowstone Lake
Grant Village—named for President Ulysses S. Grant, who signed the bill creating the national park—is on the southern end of the main road. (Continuing from here to the south entrance, the road leads to Grand Teton National Park ; your NPS receipt is good for this park as well.) Yellowstone Lake dominates the southeast quadrant of the park. Early explorers described it as “a lonely, but lovely inland sea, everywhere surrounded by forests primeval.” Boating and fishing are popular here; the continent's largest population of wild cutthroat trout thrives in these waters. Swimming isn't advised, though—the lake rarely gets above 45 degrees and freezes over completely in winter.
At the Grant Visitor Center , you'll learn about the role forest fire has played in changing the Yellowstone ecosystem. The film “Ten Years after Fire” recounts the 1988 blaze that scorched 1.2 million acres. Throughout the park, you can still see large stands of dry, dead trees with fresh green undergrowth.
Covering 136 square miles, Yellowstone Lake has the shape of an outstretched hand, its largest bay the “west thumb.” The West Thumb Geyser Basin is one of the smallest thermal areas in the park, but its location on the shores of Yellowstone Lake makes it one of the most picturesque. Several formations—including Big Cone, Fish Cone and Lakeshore Geyser—extend into the water. The sapphire spring of Abyss Pool is more than 50 feet deep.
Check out the Wildlife Near Fishing Bridge and Lake Village
From Grant Village and West Thumb, the park road turns northeast toward Lake Village, Bridge Bay and Fishing Bridge. Oddly enough, you can't fish from Fishing Bridge—rangers closed this spawning area in the 1970s to protect cutthroat trout. It's still a good place to observe wildlife, both in the water and out. The Fishing Bridge Visitor Center describes the park's flora and fauna; mounted specimens include a collection of birds, as well as a grizzly sow and cubs and a family of river otters.
Lake Village is home to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel . Robert Reamer, architect of the Old Faithful Inn, redesigned this 1891 railroad hotel in the style of a grand Colonial mansion. With its panoramic view of the lake, the airy Sun Room is a popular gathering place in the afternoons. This is the park's oldest lodging still in use.
What to Do in the Canyon Village Area
On the road north of Fishing Bridge, the Mud Volcano bubbles in its cauldron, and the smell of sulfur fills the air. Steaming water sloshes in and out of the Dragon's Mouth, and various other mud pots and steam vents are within a short walking distance of the parking lot. On cool days, you'll often see buffalo and elk basking in the hot steam. Remember that no matter how docile they seem, these wild animals pose a real threat and must be admired from a safe distance.
The Canyon District contains the most majestic geologic feature in the park, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone . This 20-mile-long chasm channels the Yellowstone River over a vast precipice, creating two roaring waterfalls: the 109-foot Upper Falls and the 308-foot Lower Falls, twice the height of Niagara. Chittenden Bridge allows visitors to view both sides of the canyon. On the South Rim, a paved trail leads down to the brink of the Lower Falls, where you can literally reach out and touch the spray. Only the physically fit and those looking for adventurous things to do should take the trail; it descends 600 vertical feet with many switchbacks and steps. It may also pose a challenge for those who haven't acclimated to Yellowstone's 8,000-foot altitude.
Uncle Tom's Trail on the South Rim is an even more daunting trek. The original path was a series of ladders roped together; the modern route uses perforated steel platforms—an impossibility for anyone with a fear of heights. The reward, though, is an unparalleled view of the thundering cascade.
At the far end of the canyon on the South Rim, Artist Point is aptly named—the yellow and pink cliffs, the white-capped river and the plunging falls make this one of the most photographed vistas in the park. On the North Rim, Inspiration Point provides a different and no less inspiring angle. Ospreys and red-tailed hawks nest in the cliffs here, often soaring and wheeling in the air. Visitors are sometimes startled by the enormous ravens waiting in the parking lot—at 24 inches high, these heavy black birds look like crows on steroids. They're smart, opportunistic and always looking for handouts.
The Canyon Visitor Education Center focuses on the natural forces that created the grandeur of Yellowstone. A room-size relief map illustrates millions of years of volcanic activity in the park; a 9,000-pound globe shows hot spots around the world. Interactive exhibits, dioramas and real-time seismic reports demonstrate how Yellowstone's supervolcano continues to fuel the broiling ground. For a '60s take on magma convection, check out the giant lava lamp.
Head to Tower-Roosevelt for More Scenic Views
The road between Canyon and Tower-Roosevelt runs along 10,243-foot Mount Washburn to the overlook at Tower Fall. Thomas Moran's watercolor of this rocky gorge, “Above Tower Falls,” made a singular impression on congressional leaders in the 1870s. Today his painting hangs in the Smithsonian.
In the northeast corner of the park, Tower-Roosevelt is the gateway to the Lamar Valley. This mountainous plain is home to elk, bison, antelope, moose, black bears and the park's largest population of grizzlies. Several packs of gray wolves, reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, now hunt on the Lamar grasslands. Your best chance to spot these illusive creatures is early morning and late evening; wildlife-viewing bus tours leave from Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins .
Just west of Tower-Roosevelt is Specimen Ridge, a rare collection of petrified trees. Volcanic ash created this fossil forest over thousands of years. The Petrified Tree, an ancient redwood pillar standing alone on a hillside, is easily accessible by car at the Lost Lake trailhead. Tourists destroyed several other examples in the area, carrying them away piece by piece.
The National Park Service offers a variety of ranger-led adventures in the park, ranging from walks along the canyon rim and the geyser basins to evening campfire talks. Check at any of the visitor centers for a schedule.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
Yellowstone National Park, WY
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