Grizzly bears and bison and moose (Mooses? Meese?), oh my! I just returned from a Labor Day trip to Yellowstone and am stoked to share the top things we did and saw in the national park. It was truly one of the best trips I’ve been on. Crowds were minimal, the wildlife was active and everything was just beautiful beyond belief. Without further ado, here are my top ten things to do in Yellowstone National Park:
Definitely don’t miss the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone when you visit the park. The Yellowstone River flows through the canyon and is responsible for forming the canyon and the gorgeous falls. It is the longest undammed river in the continental United States. You’ll notice the beautiful variety of colors in the canyon rock: especially the yellows and reds. The rock that makes up the canyon was colored via hydrothermal alteration (a.k.a. the rock was “cooked” when the geyser basin was active).
There are many places to stop and admire the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. You can drive or hike along the North Rim or South Rim, passing many epic vista points along the way. We decided to hike along the North Rim Trail, starting at the Lower Falls lookout and stopping at Red Rock Point and Lookout Point along the way. We also stopped at the Brink of the Upper Falls point and Artist Point along the South Rim. All areas are easily accessible from the roads and parking lots, making the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone a tourist favorite.
I was blown away by the stunning colors of Grand Prismatic Spring. The pools boast sapphire blues, canary yellows, gorgeous greens and bright reds. The bands of color that you see in Grand Prismatic Spring are caused by different species of heat-loving bacteria that inhabit the various layers of temperature in the spring.
You can view Grand Prismatic Spring and the surrounding pools via the boardwalk that runs along the surface of the pools. It’s a very short stroll from the parking area and you can get very up close and personal with the action of the geothermal activity. The best way to view and appreciate the colors of Grand Prismatic Spring, however, is via the lookout point along the Fairy Falls Trail (see next point). There, you can see the spring from above and in its entirety.
The hike along Fairy Creek Trail to Imperial Geyser is 6.6 miles (roundtrip) of pure awesomeness. You’ll find the route to the Grand Prismatic Overlook point 0.6 miles from the Fairy Creek Trailhead. The next stop is Fairy Falls. There’s a short route and a long route to get to the falls and then to Imperial Geyser. When you’re headed toward the falls, stay left at the fork in the trail for a shorter (but less scenic) route to the falls. Stay right for the longer route (about 1.5 miles longer each way) through a gorgeous meadow.
We took the shorter route on the way to Fairy Falls and the longer route through the meadow on the way back. We ended up preferring the longer route and got to see some extra thermal pools and bison that way.
When you get towards the end of the Fairy Creek Trail, make sure you go the extra 0.6 miles to Imperial Geyser. It is well worth the extra steps. Hiking in, you walk along a brightly colored river and are hit with waves of heat from the geothermal activity. You wind up at one of the most gorgeous sights we saw in Yellowstone, Imperial Geyser. I think a lot of people are discouraged by the extra hike-age, because we were the only people at the geyser. What a feeling to have such a gorgeous spot to ourselves for a short while!
5. Old Faithful
Old Faithful is the most famous feature in Yellowstone Park and you certainly have to watch the eruption to see what all the hype is about. The geyser erupts about every 90 minutes, and there’s actually a countdown to the estimated eruption in the general store nearby. Old Faithful was gorgeous, but my favorite part of the attraction was seeing how the crowds gather to view the geyser. Although the park was generally not crowded on our visit, there were HUNDREDS of people at Old Faithful. We happened to arrive about five minutes before the eruption so we didn’t have to hang out in the hot sun for too long.
If you want an intimate viewing experience of the bison (or other animals) in Yellowstone, I’d say Hayden Valley is your best bet. The Yellowstone River runs through the basin, making the wildlife viewing prime. Arrive early morning or around sunset to see the majestic creatures roaming in golden light. We drove through one morning around 7 a.m. and there was mist rising off the river as the bison were getting their morning sips of water. I think it was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.
7. Sit in Traffic Caused by Bison
When you visit Yellowstone, it’s inevitable that you will sit in wild-life induced traffic at some point. Your car will be at a standstill and you’ll wonder why until you see the herd of bison taking their sweet time sauntering across the narrow road. My advice is to embrace the experience. You’ll also encounter other cars randomly stopping in the middle of the road to take photos and take in views. It’s all part of the experience!
8. Mud Volcano
Mud Volcano is another geothermal area that is easily accessible from the parking area. The “hike” involves a less than one mile stroll along a boardwalk that takes you past features such as Mud Cauldron, Black Dragon Cauldron, Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The whole area is gloriously smelly due to the sulphuric nature of the features and you’ll see a lot of bubbles and steam.
9. Car Camp in Yellowstone
As opposed to staying in one of Yellowstone’s many lodges or outside of the park, become one with nature by staying in on of the many campsites in the park. We opted for Bridge Bay Campground, a central location right on Yellowstone Lake. We were able to use our site as a hub for the various day excursions we took to visit sites in the park. It was also nice to be able to gather for meals at the picnic tables in our site. The campground was very clean and quiet!
10. Backcountry Backpack
You don’t have to hike far from the main roads to escape the crowds, but you should take it to the next level by going on an overnight backpacking excursion. We went on the 16.4 mile roundtrip trail to Dunanda Falls and Silver Scarf Falls through Bechler Meadows and it was one of the best backpacking experiences I’ve had. We picked up our backcountry permit our first day in the park, and got a site with no problem. We were greeted at the end of the trek by the two stunning waterfalls. There were a few hot spring pools at the base of Dunanda Falls and we were able to switch between the cold water of the falls and the hot water of the sulphur springs. We did camp about three miles away from Dunanda Falls and ended up fording a river to our site in the dark (not recommended) because we were having too much fun in the hot springs.
11. Bonus Tip – Visit Grand Teton National Park
We flew into Salt Lake City and drove through Teton National Park on the way to the south entrance of Yellowstone. I definitely recommend squeezing at least a day into your trip to check out the Tetons if you have the time. We snagged the last campsite in Gros Ventre Campground and posted up for a night. We were able to visit gorgeous Jenny Lake before departing for Yellowstone.