Stay as long as you can. There is so much unique scenery inside the Yellowstone super volcano (which is just waiting to erupt!) from wildlife to fascinating thermal activity.
Yellowstone National Park is located primarily in Wyoming, although the largest nearby airport is in Salt Lake City, Utah several hours drive away. Many visitors enter through the Yellowstone West entrance, near West Yellowstone, Montana (near the Idaho border) and self-drive to the various sites as shown on this map. If this is your route, plan on at least 3 full days for enjoying geysers, animals, and hot springs. However, if you enjoy nature, stay as long as possible.
There is no way that Yellowstone can be overrated. Thinking back on this trip, I wish that I could have stayed in Yellowstone for a month. As with anything related to wild animals and nature in general, patience is necessary. Places that look so-so in pictures might end up being a locale in which you would happily spend 3 days. (I know I’m going on and on a bit, but imagine your top 2 or 3 favorite national parks. Now combine them, and then put them on steroids. Now you’re getting close to Yellowstone.)
Yellowstone National Park Lodging
There are several Yellowstone National Park hotels and lodges (keep reading) as well as condos, cabins, and tent camping. There is also a Yellowstone RV park inside the park’s boundaries offering water, sewer, and electrical hookups.
Yellowstone National Park Hotels
There are several hotels in Yellowstone National Park. I always think of national parks as being wild places, so thought there would only be hotels near Yellowstone. Click here for a nice chart I put together.
Although there is a lot of Yellowstone lodging, there are also millions of tourists. I highly recommend making your reservation as far ahead of time as possible, especially May through September.
There is a lot of camping (in additional to hiking and backpacking) available in the park! There is both car camping in Yellowstone National Park campgrounds and backcountry camping.
Yellowstone Fly Fishing
Yellowstone fly fishing must be epic. The most amazing scene was someone standing in the water and up ahead a small group of about 10 bison began crossing. I saw him stop a moment. I imagine, that like me, he was taking a moment to relish where he was on earth. And, I’m sure this book will advise you on the best places to go for the best fish.
Thermal Areas – Hot Springs, Geysers and Bubbling Pots
Later in the day, I reminisced on this scene when my tour guide explained that early western explorers brought back stories of Yellowstone to the cities of North America and Europe, which were considered ‘tall tales’. No one believed that steam and massive water fountains could erupt from the earth.
The scenes really are unbelievable, if you only were to hear a story. Until you’ve seen a 200-foot geyser erupt in real life, you just can’t imagine!
Boiling River Hot Springs for Swimming
Thermal activity in Yellowstone produces scalding hot water, so most of it is untouchable. However, if the water merges with a freezing cold river, you can swim in this mixture. Just don’t let your toes drift too close to the hot spring! It’s easy to burn yourself.
Gardiner River and a giant hot spring merges to make Boiling River Hot Springs.
When: Starting in mid-summer, you can swim here. It’s too dangerous when the river is high earlier in the year.
What to Bring: Swimsuit, sunscreen, hat, towel, drinking water, water shoes (or swim barefoot). You will leave all your items near the trail, which is not always visible from when you’re in the water. So, also bring something nondescript to wrap around your phone, car keys, and other valuables.
Getting There: Near the Yellowstone North Entrance and the Mammoth area, it’s located just south of the 45th Parallel Bridge. Park your car along the road or in the small parking lot. Walk in about half a mile (10 minutes) on a wide, dirt trail. There are steps from the trail down to the water. There are no shops, so bring everything you’ll need.
Toilets: There are toilet facilities at the parking lot.
Rules: Wear a swimsuit; closes at dark; no eating / drinking in the springs; no alcohol.
Artists Paint Pots
I visited Artists Paintpots in the early morning fog. Along with steam and bubbling mud in the paint pots, I was convinced that if I waited just a little longer a unicorn would appear in the magical scene. There were only four other people, and the place is beautiful.
If you visit during midday in summer, don’t expect the fog or much steam, and therefore less magical-ness.
Grand Prismatic Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring has a brand new lookout completed in 2017, which offers a fantastic viewpoint for photos. So, now you can see it from above and from ground-level boardwalks.
Old Faithful Geyser Area
I thought I’d visit Old Faithful and a few other geysers for one or two hours, but I stayed all day. Old Faithful Geyser erupts hourly 106 – 185 feet in the air! The eruptions last three to ten minutes.
Some other geysers erupt every few hours, while others erupt every several years. There’s a geyser app for your phone that provides predictions of eruption times for several of the main geysers. The paths and boardwalks guide you past maybe 30 geysers and pools. The bigger geysers that erupt regularly have benches.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth hot springs area is huge. I spent hours here walking the board walks, and still missed at least a third. I suggest planning for two to four hours in this area, so bring your water and a snack.
#1 – Drones in National Parks
No drone flying is allowed anywhere in Yellowstone or any other National Park. You will get a massive fine, and at least one person has died when they tried to retrieve their drone from a scalding thermal pool and fell in.
#2: Free Showers
You can shower for FREE on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the Yellowstone Lodge. The campground showers are crowded and have limited hours.
#3: Yellowstone Lodge Tours and Geyser Tours
The daily Yellowstone Lodge Tours are FREE and very interesting for Yellowstone facts and history. After the tour, get an ice cream from the ground floor cafe and take it up to the 2nd floor deck overlooking Old Faithful, or rock away indoors in an old fashioned rocking chair.
There are FREE guided tours of the geysers by rangers.
#4 Geyser Gazers (Actual People)
An alternative to a guided tour, is connecting with Geyser Gazers. These people can be found around the geysers and stand out because they carry radios for communication. These people are of all ages, and are more knowledgeable than the rangers (that’s what a ranger told me) regarding the intricacies of each geyser.
For example, some of the geysers are connected underground, and the Geyser Gazers know exactly what to look out for, whether it’s an indicator geyser or waves on another geyser. I learned that if the small geyser next to Beehive geyser begins spouting, it’s an indicator that Beehive will erupt within 15 minutes.
These people love the geysers and are a fount of scientific and historical knowledge. (haha! I just wrote a pun!) I found them happy to answer questions, give a small lesson about geysers, and generally share their knowledge. FREE.
Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are where you’re most likely to see a lot of wildlife, although animals can be found anywhere in the park. Animals you can see in these areas include the Yellowstone wolves!
The day before I visited, people watched a pack of wolves descend out of the hills. Some of those people were back again, waiting with their spotting scopes and binoculars at the ready. We watched and waited, but no wolves today for me. Just keep an eye out for people with spotting scopes parked along the roads. They’re often happy to let you look through their scopes, and chat about what they’re looking at, and information about their gear.
Did you know that in the park’s early days, bears were fed for tourist entertainment? And, they were encouraged to visit the garbage dump. Bleacher seating was built for tourists to watch them. No more!
Animals at the park
Vegans: antelope, elk, bison, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat
Omnivores: Grizzly bear, black bear, wolf, fox, coyote
Carnivores: bobcat, lynx, mountain lion
Also, there are lots of birds, bugs, fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Small mammals include various bat species (yay for mosquito eaters!), rabbit, skunk, squirrels, weasel species (includes river otter), beaver, mice, shrew species.
Yellowstone Wolves and Bears
In case you don’t get to see any wild Yellowstone wolves and bears in the park, you can visit some in a sanctuary / zoo setting in West Yellowstone at a conservation center. I enjoyed learning about their behavior, but it was sad learning that most of the bears in this place were taken out of the wild due to negative human interaction.
Yellowstone Weather and Mosquitoes
One word: variable.
Yellowstone National Park weather varies by the day. Of course, summer is hot and winter is icy cold. The most temperate Yellowstone weather is May to September, and this is the best time for camping. You should definitely check the weather during the week leading up to your trip, so you’re aware of any storms.
Mosquitoes thrive when there is water, so by August, the park is at its driest, and has fewer mosquitoes. I did not use mosquito spray at all during my mid-August backcountry trip.
Grand Teton National Park
Don’t forget that nearby, in addition to other parks, is Grand Teton National Park, which has epic peaks viewable from easy day hikes. You can even climb them.
More Yellowstone Park Information
Hotels in Yellowstone – There are several in the park, and more outside of the park in nearby towns.
Camping, backpacking, and hiking in Yellowstone – I went in the backcountry!!! It was cool and adventurous.
Packing for Yellowstone – You probably have most, if not all, of these things already. Just, don’t forget to pack them!