Yellowstone is the oldest and perhaps the most famous national park in the United States. It’s home to a shocking variety of natural phenomenon and incredible wildlife. When referring to Yellowstone’s Big Five, it usually means the five large mammals that call the park home- bear, bison, wolves, moose, and elk. From another perspective, it seems like a great way to highlight the biggest attractions in the park- the geysers, Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Lamar Valley and Yellowstone Lake. Come along on a roadtrip to explore Yellowstone’s other big five and beyond!
The Grand Loop is 142 mile road that circles the park. All the Big Five are accessed from it. The entrance roads diverge from the loop, the East and South being the longest. The West, North and Northeast Entrances are just a few miles off the Grand Loop. Give yourself at least two days drive it, although I know some extra motivated travelers do it in one.
Did you know Yellowstone is home to nearly 60% of the world’s geysers? Let’s highlight a few key sites you won’t want to miss!
Of course, you can’t visit the park and skip Old Faithful. This geyser has been erupting regularly since at least 1870. Predicted eruption times are posted within the Old Faithful Visitor and Education Center, as well as in the nearby lodges. Typically, it erupts every 90 minutes, give or take 10 minutes.
There’s seating around the geyser, and if you visit in summer, arrive early! We found a front row seat 45 minutes early, which might seem a bit extreme, but by 20 minutes out, there were hordes of crowds.
Old Faithful is just one of hundreds of geysers within the park, and is actually located within the Upper Geyser Basin. The Upper Geyser Basin Trail winds past many of them on its 4.9 mile loop.
Norris Geyser Basin
While Old Faithful gets all the attention, Norris Geyser Basin is our absolute favorite. It’s the most surreal landscape I’ve ever seen. Perhaps because there isn’t a great deal of hype surrounding this area, we had no expectations, and so were all the more blown away (no pun attended) at first glimpse.
There’s limited parking, with warnings about potential vehicle damage from geothermal activity. Warnings aside, the lot will fill up in summer, but there is overflow parking nearby.
The basin is comprised of two areas, Porcelain Basin and the Back Basin. Porcelain Basin is a must! It’s otherworldly, a barren landscape shrouded in steam. The hottest thermal areas in the park have been measured here at 459°F, although almost none of them are under boiling point.
If you only have time for one thing in Yellowstone, this would be my recommendation!
Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin
Grand Prismatic is one of the most photographed places in Yellowstone, with unrreal colors of orange and blue. Looking on the park map, you won’t even find it listed. It’s a hot spring actually located within Midway Geyser Basin.
Follow the short 0.7 mile boardwalk past Excelsior Geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Opal and Turquoise Pools. The colors, and the unique designs just below the water’s surface, are caused by thermophiles, a heat loving microorganism.
There are no railings along the boardwalk, but don’t be temped to step off it. The temperatures are well above boiling. For a good dose of warning about the potential dangers of going ‘off trail’ in the park, read Death in Yellowstone.
For a view looking down on the spring, hike the Fairy Falls Trailhead. It’s found 1 mile south of Midway Geyser Basin, with a very small parking lot.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
At over 1,000 feet deep and nearly a mile wide in some points, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a sight to behold. It’s 20 miles long, offering both scenic hikes and drives. The two drives, North and South Rim, offer quick and easy access to viewpoints. With short, paved trails to the edge they’re accessible to anyone.
The highlight of the canyon are its Upper and Lower Falls. While these can be seen from above, I highly recommend taking one of the trails for a better vantage point. The trails descending into the canyon are steep, so be prepared! For the best waterfall access, use the North Rim Drive. There’s trails to both the Upper and Lower Falls Brinks, and several subsequent pulloffs with stunning views.
Lamar Valley is the place for wildlife viewing, where you’ll find Yellowstone’s actual ‘big 5’. While most the park is blanketed in forest, or is a barren, thermal wasteland, Lamar Valley is a lush meadow. It’s located in the northern part of the park bordering more wilderness beyond, making it prime for wildlife. Dawn and dusk are the best times to see bear, moose and wolves, so you might want to consider staying nearby. We did in Cooke City, just outside the Northeast Entrance Station, and were able to see a huge herd of bison, and a black bear with her cubs.
I can’t mention Lamar Valley without also discussing Hayden Valley, another popular wildlife viewing area. Just south of Canyon Village, Hayden Valley is alot busier than Lamar. However, it’s still prime viewing for bison, elk and bears. We’ve seen them here at all times of day.
Mammoth Hot Springs
The white, travertine terraces can be seen from the road, beckoning explorers. Mammoth Hot Springs is an unusual sight, even in a place as unique as Yellowstone. The terraces were formed (in a simple, non-sciencey explanantion) when the limestone mixed with hot water and carbon monoxide, to form travertine shelves. A 1.4 mile boardwalk winds through the hot springs, and provides some nice, elevated views of the surrounding landscape.
The historic Fort Yellowstone is located near the Mammoth Hot Springs trailhead. Built in the 1890s, its a memorial to little known Yellowstone history. In 1880s, things were bad in the park, between poachers, squatters, and people carrying off the travertine and other materials. So, in 1886, the U.S. Army built a base in Yellowstone and began managing the area. They remained for 30 years, and now, the base is a National Historic Landmark District.
When we first drove up to Yellowstone Lake, I was shocked at its size. As we later discovered, its the largest high elevation lake in North America, with over 120 miles of shoreline. While too cold for swimming, it doesn’t exceed 41°F, boating is popular. The park offers boat rentals from the Bridge Bay Marina on Yellowstone Lake. With the mountains in the distance, it’s a picturesque view.
There are multiple spots to stop along the lake, but there isn’t a trail around it. The East Entrance Road hugs the shoreline for quite awhile, making for a nice drive.
Beyond the Gates
Sure, you can came to Yellowstone to explore the park, but there are some incredible adventures beyond the national park gates! These are all just outside the park, making for easy side trips.
Whitewater Rafting in Gardiner
Gardiner, Montana is just outside the North Entrance, and whitewater rafting is one the town’s best known activities. Flying Pig Adventures has been around for years and has consistently been ranked the top rafting company in Gardiner. Their trips are awesome, the staff are so nice and supportive. They customer service is also top notch. We had to cancel and reschedule our initial trip due the Yellowstone 2022 floods, and they were so understanding. I also love that they support their own team. Following the flooding, when the town’s tourism industry crashed, they ran a benefit to help the employees.
The 2 hour trips head down the Yellowstone River with Class II and III rapids. For something even more adventurous, they offer full day and overnight trips.
Yellowstone Hot Springs
Just a few miles past Gardiner, the Yellowstone Hot Springs are the perfect spot to relax after a day exploring the park. With reasonable rates, the hot springs are well maintained and beautifully landscaped. The springs are comprised of three pools, ranging from the cold soak at 65°F, to the hot pool at 105°F. They’re the nicest hot springs we’ve visited in Montana.
Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness
Yellowstone is surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness, protected national forest land in all directions. However, the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness stands above the rest, in my mind. It stretches through four national forests in both Montana and Wyoming, with over 937,000 acres containing Montana’s highest peak, countless alpine lakes, and one of the most scenic drives in the world. It’s the most ‘alone’ we’ve ever felt in our travels, driving for miles without seeing another soul.
We stayed in Cooke City, more on that below, just outside Yellowstone’s North East Entrance. It’s just a few miles to the Beartooth Highway, U.S. Highway 212, running from Cooke City to Red Lodge, about 65 miles one way. We’ve covered many ‘scenic drives’ in our RVing, but so far, this is my favorite! It isn’t overrun like some other famous highways, but it’s full of stunning views. You will be stopping every few miles for pictures! Without going into a new blog article, here are just a few highlights along U.S. 212.
While not in the wilderness, Lulu Pass is off the Beartooth Highway, right outside Cooke City. It’s a rough dirt road, typically accessible from late May to October. Don’t attempt it without 4×4! It winds up to an old mining community, begun in 1890. Today, there’s a few cabin ruins and some mining machinery. Once you reach the meadow with the mining equipment and small waterfall, that’s about as far as you can go in a truck. Past that, it’s ATV and horseback country.
Crazy Creek Falls is a few miles outside of Cooke City. It’s a short trail from the roadside to a roaring waterfall. Following the trail, climb up to the top of the falls for dramatic views.
Farther along US 212, you’ll drive over Lake Creek Falls. Just past the bridge, there is vehicle pulloff. A short walk back to the bridge, you’ll find a path to a pedestrian bridge over the falls.
Top of the World
The Top of the World Store and Motel is the only vestige of civilization you’ll find between Cooke City and Red Lodge! The shop sells souvenirs and snacks, while also renting kayaks, ATVs and snowmobiles. They have four rooms for rent as well. Once you reach Top of the World, the Beartooth Pass Summit isn’t far!
Stop at the summit for the best views! At just shy of 11,000 feet, there’s often still snow in July. Be on the lookout for marmots both at the summit and along the drive, they are everywhere! It’s a great vantage point of the road winding back down to Cooke City, as well as the surrounding mountain vistas.
Absolutely stunning! If you only have time for one, stop at Gardner Lake Trailhead. It’s just 1.5 roundtrip to the lake, but even the view from the parking lot is a slice of heaven. Not only is the scenery breathtaking, the grassy slopes covered in summer wildflowers, but we only encountered one other couple. It’s solitude at its best.
There are numerous other lakes worth exploring along the drive, including Long and Island Lakes. They’re great picnic spots! And while not at all crowded, we did see the most people at these two. By the most, I mean 5 or 6 cars.
Perhaps the most quintessential western activity, you’ve got to go horseback riding while in Montana or Wyoming! Ranches typically offer a short 1.5 hour option, along with half and full day rides. We hadn’t ridden a horse in years when we took a half day trip, and we definitely felt it the next day!
I highly recommend Skyline Ranch in Cooke City. We had a private trip with our guide, who was incredibly knowledgable and friendly. The half day trip skirts the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness, covering grassland, crossing a few rivers, climbing a narrow trail high in the mountains over a lake, and finally ending with a delicious lakeside lunch.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton is adjacent to Yellowstone’s South Entrance. US 191 leaves Yellowstone entering directly into Grand Teton’s North Entrance. This is an amazing park, and honestly, we enjoyed it even more than Yellowstone. Check out our full blog post on Grand Teton for all the details.
Where to Stay
West Yellowstone, WY and Gardiner, MT have the most lodging outside the park. Within the park, there are nine hotels and lodges, multiple campgrounnds, and an RV park.
Gardiner is less expensive and, in my opinion, has more character than West Yellowstone. Walking distance to everything in town, I can definitely recommend the two following options in Gardiner.
Yellowstone Riverside Cottages
These cute, renovated cottages vary in size, and can accomodate 2, 4 or 6 people. They come with a small kitchen, and some have riverside decks. There is a large deck open to all guests, with beautiful views. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy your morning coffee or catch the sunset.
Wonderland Cafe & Lodge
You can literally see Yellowstone from the front door of the Wonderland Cafe & Lodge. Downstairs, you’ll find an upscale restaurant, while upstairs are stunning suites. They’re an industrial rustic style, accomodating 2-6 people. The biggest draw here is the space. Our 4-person suite had 800 square feet, with a full kitchen and dining room, and a dreamy bathroom.
Skyline Guest Ranch
For peace and quiet, nature and romance, I can’t recommend Skyline Guest Ranch enough! Of all the places we’ve stayed in the last few years, Skyline is one I would go back to every summer. Family owned, the ranch has nice rooms in the lodge, or a private glamping cabin. The glamping cabin is phenomenal! A clawfoot tub with forest views, rocking chairs on the porch, horses grazing in front- need I say more? Breakfast is served daily in the lodge dining room.
We just had a wonderful time here. The accomodations are perfect, the owners are incredibly welcoming, the horseback riding a great adventure. I’m a sucker for farms anyway, we both love the animals everywhere!
In the Park
Whle not romantic, a more cost efficient option would be camping within the park. Canyon Campground, in Canyon Village, is located on the eastern side of Yellowstone. It has clean showers, included for campers, and unlimited hot water! There’s also a nice, large laundry facility.
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