Things to do in Yellowstone
Yellowstone has always been on my list of places I need to visit before I die. It’s that super volcano you probably heard of that will erupt one day and destroy the planet, right? If you ever watched one of the disaster volcano movies as a kid, you will have imagined black stone and neon orange lava flowing from every crack in sight. This is what I had in mind before I did any research whatsoever and I was pleasantly surprised when it was completely the opposite.
When planning this trip we initially wanted to either camp or rent and RV but due to COVID most of the campsites were closed, therefore the open ones were full. Also, RVs seem like such a good idea but, they create restrictions within the park itself. You were unable to drive RVs on some of the cool side roads and would have missed out on a lot of wildlife spotting. So, we opted to stay in hotels/lodges instead. In total we had 4 different accommodations outside of the park to coincide with the 5 different park entrances.
The first place we stayed in was Gardiner which is a little place right near the border of Montana and Wyoming. It was closest to the North entrance, this entrance had the most traffic going in and out! We stayed in a Super 8 right in the middle of town. I strongly recommend this town to stay in. There were soooo many places to eat, however, a few weeks prior to our arrival, there was a fire which burned down a couple of local businesses.
We started our trip by travelling to Mammoth, this is the home of the huge hot springs. They look crazy when you are driving up and stick out. It almost looks like snow and the smell of sulphur hits you in the face as soon as you get close. You walk the area on some wooden boardwalks and there is some stair climbing but overall, it is an easy walk. I recommend you spend 2-3 hours here. It was busy but nothing too crazy. This is a must see area.
Undine Falls was the next stop on the way. I thought we were going to have to hike to this one, but it was just off the road. There was a hike nearby that you could do which I think led you to a lower viewpoint but it was closed on this day for unseen reasons. This was a 3-tier waterfall (we are going to talk about so many more waterfalls in this blog post). This area was not very busy and very quick to visit if you were short on time.
Before the close of the day, we started towards the northeast area of the park. We stopped off for a quick hike to wraith falls, the falls themselves were not very spectacular but the little meadow and hike were lovely. On our way through to Lamar valley we saw a black bear, I couldn’t get a photo because it was too far away and I had to use binoculars to see it 🐻
The day started off with going down the street to Flying Pig Rafting. This is an activity which beforehand I was terrified of doing. We booked a Class 1 ‘cruise’ to ease me in for a first timer. We had a lovely guide named Jay who 100% knew what he was doing (which made me feel better). Do not let the photo fool you though, it looks intense, but they positioned a photographer at the ‘roughest’ part of the whole cruise. I love that they had a photographer because I thankfully chose not to bring my phone even though I had a protective pouch to put it in! I really enjoyed this activity far more than I thought I would, and I wished it had been more intense!
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Next, we drove straight through to Lamar Valley which is towards the northeast area of the park. This area was probably one of my favourites in the whole park. There were more Bison than I thought there would be. These big guys are HUGE and can be super unpredictable. To the left you can see just how close these dudes are and how massive, the top of one of them is the same height as the SUV in front! We were so lucky to see big herds of them just chilling out. I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep your distance. stay in your car if they are in the road and roll your windows up fully. A few weeks before, someone was gored by one of these because they got far too close 🐃
There are many places to stop constantly whenever you go down any road. We used the GyPSy Guide app to help us navigate the park as there is absolutely no signal whatsoever. I highly recommend this app and guide, it was about $10 (we got the Yellowstone/Grand Teton combo) and do not regret it at all. You get loads of little facts on the way and it tells you when to stop. It also tells you where to see wildlife down some extra little side roads. If you choose not to get this app it is sooo easy to navigate around as it is one big loop. When you enter Yellowstone, the rangers give you a nice big map which we also used a lot. The photo on the right is a lovely stop off next to a bridge over the Yellowstone River. It was a lovely sunny day, and this was arguably the best view of the day.
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The last few places on Day 2 were Pebble creek (second photo on the left) which was a lovely little part of the river that was perfect for relaxing. There were also some great hikes in the area. We then stopped off at Lava Creek on the way back which had shade from the sun, a great area for a paddle and some picnic areas to eat at. We stopped here for a little dip to cool down as it was a super hot day.
It took us far too long to notice that the North Entrance was home to the iconic Roosevelt Arch. You don’t have to drive through this to get into the north entrance which is why we almost missed it, but I had to stop and take a picture.
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We then drove to a 4.2 mile hike to Bunsen Peak at 8,564ft. This hike was 100% worth it because the views were stunning. We stopped halfway up at the opening in the picture to the right and had our lunch. This was quite an intense hike as it was steep when you got to the top. There were loose rocks to scramble up in parts and it was a very hot day so was very rewarding to get to the top. This was a very high traffic trail, but I still advise that you take bear spray and make lots of noise on the way up. I learned very quickly that bears love to be up high on the mountains.
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We stopped to look at this big guy who was having a little stroll down the road. He was HUGE and scary looking, I tried not to look him in the eye.
The LeHardy Rapids were an interesting stop. Our GyPSy Guide mentioned that this area of the river is believed to possibly be the next location of a potential eruption due to the nature of the rapids and the activity monitored underneath the rapids. You can see the river go from very calm to very rapid, very quickly. You can walk a boardwalk along the length, which we did. It was definitely worth a stop and didn’t take more than half an hour to explore.
Lastly, we stopped at Sheepeater Cliff which is an interesting cliff formed by lava flow setting in this interesting pattern. This is worth the stop, it reminds you that you are right in the middle of a volcanic area. We hiked a little bit down the river that ran along it. There were a lot of people here either taking photos or fishing and there was a nice picnic area if you wanted to stop for lunch.
Day 4 was the start of a long drive from Gardiner to our second hotel stay in Wapiti. Wapiti is a small town on the east side of Yellowstone and was something like a 3 hour none stop drive, but we decided to explore on the way to make it less intense. We stopped at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone which was amazing. We stopped at Upper Falls and hiked to Lower Falls along the Canyon. You can drive and park at the end but where is the fun in that? There were many stops to take photos of the falls along the way, but the Artist Point was the best view as seen in the photo to the right. You can really see how the river carved out the valley.
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At one point you turn the corner and you see Yellowstone Lake. I have seen so many lakes but never have I seen one this huge. At first, I thought it was the sea because it was massive and I couldn’t see the edge. The best view to see just how big and impressive this lake is, was at Lake Butte Overlook. It was a short drive off the main road, and it was definitely worth it. I know that there are far bigger lakes in the USA but if you have never seen one, it always seems amazing.
On the way back to our lodge there were a lot of people stopped by the side of the road near the lake. We got out of the car because if you see this, it is usually because someone has seen some wildlife. It took us a while to see but there were 2 grizzly bear cubs in one of the little meadows, I couldn’t get a photo as they were far away and had to use binoculars to see them.
Day 5 was a long travel day. We made the journey to Dubois from Wapiti which was a good 4 hours. There are few stops in Yellowstone, but mostly Dubois got us close to Grand Teton. I will be doing a dedicated blog post for Grand Teton after this one, so I am going to be skipping those parts. Let’s talk about the Yellowstone stuff for day 5!
On our way down to the south of Yellowstone we stopped at West Thumb Geyser Basin. This was probably the most picturesque of the Geyser Basins because it was right next to Yellowstone lake. One Minute you are walking near a hot spring and a face full of steam, the next you walk alongside the lake which had the most beautiful water colours and reminded me of the beach. Occasionally, you would see a little Geyser in the water, shooting out some steam. I found this place so peaceful. You can see this place as you drive up as there is steam filling the air all around the roads!
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Before we finally got to the south Yellowstone border, we arrived at the Lewis area of the park. This area is named after Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, this is definitely not a history blog so feel free to click the link and have a read. It included a huge lake, waterfall, river and canyon. The lake was pretty big and had some nice picnic areas. My favourite was probably the canyon and the river that ran through it, it was super pretty.
Not a lot happened on day 6. We had explored Grand Teton for 2 days prior and it was time to drive up to our final lodging in West Yellowstone. The weather on this day was disgusting. Torrential rain and epic thunderstorms. I did enjoy that part though and saw some lightning strike the ground ahead of us, which was really cool! So, we stopped at Isa Lake near the continental divide that was covered in big lily pads, which you can see in the photos above.
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We stopped at Kepler Cascades (another waterfall!). The walk way was cool on this one as it was like a bridge over the river. Managed to get some good pictures before the rain started again!
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Before we left the park, we drove down the Firehole Lake Drive. Our GyPSy guide told us that White Dome Geyser to the left was an unpredictable geyser and there was no knowing when it would go off. Well, we were lucky enough that it went off as soon as we stopped the car and I manged to get a picture! This was probably my favourite geyser eruption of the whole trip (yep, even more than Old Faithful!) Mainly because there was literally no one there and you could get much closer.
This lovely picture was a stop on the way into Yellowstone from the West. West Yellowstone itself was quite cool. Really touristy but full of restaurants and shops. The drive in was pretty and we got to see some deer and elk on the way in. We dedicated a lot of time to this area as it probably has a large concentration of things to do.
Midway Geyser Basin was the first big stop. This area was SUPER busy. We ended up in overflow parking which was about 1 mile away from this place. I think when I started to do my research, this area was the most exciting looking because of Grand Prismatic Spring (left). This photo is a level view of it, which doesn’t do it justice but the blue pool against that copper ground next to it was beautiful to look at. We managed to get a bird’s eye view picture of this the day after which is also very pretty.
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Lastly, we drove down Firehole Canyon Drive. Home to a beautiful canyon, river and waterfall. River levels were too high in this area so, the firehole swimming area was closed. This was only a short drive off the main road, so you don’t miss anything important. There is also a good chance to see wildlife here when it is not a busy time.
This was our last day before we flew back home. We spent our last day exploring the Norris area and we went to see Old Faithful. This was also going to be the day we did the short hike to the Grand Prismatic Overlook. We structured our day differently because we wanted to stay in the park for sunset and to stargaze. I am going to briefly touch on Old Faithful. Honestly not worth it at all. The Old Faithful area itself was good, there were other things to look at. But the Eruption from Old Faithful is so very underwhelming and there are many more Geysers that are much better, I didn’t even bother taking a picture of it.
There is an area of the park called Black Sand Basin, which is an area of hot springs. We came here the day before and had a quick look around and I had remembered from my research that there was a Black Sand pool in the area. When looking on the map in this area, I couldn’t see it. We drove out of the car park and I noticed a little path on the other side of the road. We decided to hike it as it was only a short 1 mile hike altogether, I am so glad we did this because there was Black Sand Pool. It was such a quiet area and a cool little feature to look at. If you want to see this pool you will look for the Daisy Geyser Hike Just over the road from the Black Sand Basin car park.
The next big area we decided to explore was Norris Geyser Basin. This area needs some dedication. Again, the car park was absolutely full and we had to park in overflow. The hike to the basic was much longer this time, about 2 miles altogether (this depends on how far away you have to park obviously. There were 2 main areas here and there were a lot of park rangers collecting data in this area. We were unsure if this was just generic data of COVID related data, but it wasn’t any bother. There is a cute little shop here where you can get Yellowstone gifts. I decided to buy myself the Death in Yellowstone Book which is pretty self-explanatory (I have linked to amazon if anyone wants to buy it). I also got myself a little iron on patch for my denim jacket.
There were a large collection of pools and geysers in this area. This place is home to Steamboat Geyser which is quite a big one. We did not expect it to erupt while we were there as it is very unpredictable. There was a lot of steam though! Turns out it erupted about 8 hours before we got there at 1:30am! That was bad luck. But the steam pouring out of this one made the area look like a traditional volcano. When you look at the selection of photos above, you can see how stunning some of the hot pools were, forbidden hot tubs that look super inviting but I didn’t want to end up in that book so just observed them instead!
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We drove to the hike for Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook and again, the car park was full. After talking to a ranger, he recommended that we return after 6pm as it is quieter and there is less steam coming from the pool so we would see it better. So, we decided to do just that. The hike itself was short but very scenic. As you can see in the photos above, when the sun set on the way back, it was magical. The view of the spring from the overlook was stunning, not as good as a complete bird’s eye view shot but still pretty. You could see the colours a lot better here and just how big it was! This has to be a top moment in the whole trip for me so please take the time to do this as it is worth it.
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We stayed in the park at dusk as this is supposed to be the best time to see wildlife, and it was. We saw Bison in the road, herds of Elk and Bison at every turn and even some Coyotes! We headed the Hayden Valley as this is where wildlife likes to congregate and it also far away from light pollution. The photo the right is a stunning photo I took with my phone (Huawei Mate P20 Pro) I took this in my pro setting with a ISO of 1600 and changed the shutter speed to 30 seconds (you will also need some sort of stabiliser like a tripod. I just used my popsocket and proper it up on the car) The longer the shutter speed, the better the shot. You must do at least 1 night of stargazing in Yellowstone while you are there.
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So, what are my final thoughts? This is a long post, so if you made to the end, well done! We had 10 days to explore Yellowstone and Grand Teton. I did a lot of research beforehand and know for a fact that some people do it in as little as 4 days. We decided we didn’t want to cram too much in, and still wanted a somewhat relaxing holiday. So, 10 days was perfect for us. My advice is if you have the time and funds you should make it longer. We felt like we saw and did everything we wanted to. If you love hiking, wildlife and nature you will have the best time here.
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