If you’re looking for an outdoor adventure, there’s no better place to go than Yellowstone National Park. It was preserved as the country’s first-ever national park and inspired other countries worldwide to establish their own national parks. These are the best things to do in Yellowstone National Park.
About Yellowstone National Park
The first explorer who returned from an excursion telling tales of Yellowstone – its geysers, sandy basins, bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and wildlife – was ridiculed. Despite John Colter’s insistence that what he saw was real, his friends mocked “Colter’s Hell” as an illusion or an elaborate tale.
It wasn’t until a few years later that the rest of the world saw that Colter was not hallucinating and that this wild world did exist. Today, Yellowstone National Park is one of the most visited places in America. It spans over 2.2 million acres, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem spills over from Wyoming into Montana and Idaho.
Every year, over 3 million people visit the park from all around the world. Most visitors see Mammoth Hot Springs, watch Old Faithful Geyser erupt, or get stuck in Bison-related traffic jams.
There’s no place on Earth quite like Yellowstone, where the world’s tallest active geyser (Steamboat Geyser), the world’s largest hot spring (Grand Prismatic Spring), and the world’s highest concentration of geothermal features (Upper Geyser Basin) love to show off the power of nature.
The main areas of Yellowstone National Park are mostly defined by their road junctions. These include (from north, going clockwise) Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower-Roosevelt, Canyon Village, Yellowstone Lake, West Thumb, Old Faithful, Madison, and Norris.
In addition to the above areas along Grand Loop Road, you’ll also want to know about Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley, and the Beartooth Highway. These are areas within the park or just outside its boundaries that you’ll hear plenty about below.
Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park
If you’re starting to plan your trip, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to do in Yellowstone. I mean, even trying to figure out the thermal features can be overwhelming. There’s Norris Geyser Basin, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin, plus Mammoth Hot Springs, the Morning Glory Pool, and Steamboat Geyser – what does it all mean!?
Are all of the geyser basins different, and which ones are worth visiting? Don’t stress! After countless trips to the northwestern corner of Wyoming, I’ve narrowed it down to the following must-see attractions.
1. Old Faithful Complex – Geyser, Museums, and Old Faithful Inn
Old Faithful Geyser is the most iconic wonder in Yellowstone National Park, and a stop at the Old Faithful complex needs to be at the top of your list. The geyser erupts approximately every 60-90 minutes, and it’s predictable enough that the park rangers post notice of the predicted eruption times, plus or minus 10 minutes.
While you’re waiting for the geyser to blow, spend some time walking around the Old Faithful Inn and Visitor Center. The Inn is a wonder in itself. It’s the oldest and largest log cabin structure in the world, and you’ll find the historic Old Faithful dining room here.
The Old Faithful Visitor Center is a newer addition to the complex, and it tells the story of the park from a geologic and historic lens, and the Yellowstone Tribal Heritage Center is an important place to learn about indigenous ties to this land. Walk around both while you wait for the next eruption, and then step outside to watch the geyser show off! Each eruption can last up to 5 minutes, and the thermally heated water can reach heights of over 180 feet.
2. Upper Geyser Basin & Black Sand Geyser Basin
Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, USA
The geyser area around Old Faithful is known as the Upper Geyser Basin. Beyond the Old Faithful area, there’s Geyser Hill, Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, and an area of thermal features that line the path from Castle Geyser to the Morning Glory Pool.
Old Faithful Geyser is part of the Upper Geyser Basin, and if you take time to walk around, you’ll also get to see Grand, Daisy, Riverside, and Castle Geyser – each of which is considered a major geyser. Along your walk, you’ll also see some impossibly beautiful springs, hot pots, and thermal features, like Chromatic Pool, Blue Star Spring, Grotto Geyser, and the gorgeous Morning Glory Pool.
A five-mile loop hike from the main parking area will take you up Geyser Hill to a good observation point – if you want a unique view of Old Faithful Geyser, time your trek so you can watch it go off from above.
Black Sand Basin is across Grand Loop Road, and you can walk at designated crossings. The Emerald Pool, Whistle Geyser, and Opalescent Pool are some highlights of this smaller geyser basin.
Oh, and if you’re keeping count, you’ll want to note that over 150 thermal features can be found within Upper Geyser Basin… which covers just one square mile.
See Related: The World’s Best Geysers and Hot Springs
3. Have Dinner at the Old Faithful Dining Room
Address: 1000 Old Faithful Rd, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
Before you leave the Old Faithful area, head to the Inn for dinner. Each time I visit Yellowstone, I make it a point to have at least one meal in the dining room – but if you’re here during peak season, be prepared for a wait.
Dinners are served buffet style, and while the menu is simple, everything has always been tasty. The huckleberry barbeque chicken is my favorite, but the prime rib is better than you would expect! There’s always a seafood option and plenty of homestyle sides like glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, roasted veggies, and baked beans.
Dessert varies, and one time I had an apple crisp served warm with ice cream, and let me tell you, it was the perfect way to end the meal.
See Related: Most Famous Landmarks in the USA
4. Fairy Falls & Grand Prismatic Overlook
Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
The one-mile out-and-back trail to the Grand Prismatic Overlook is one that can’t be missed. It rises just over 100 feet from the parking lot, so it’s not particularly challenging, and most hikers will be able to make it up to catch this awe-inspiring view. This is always one of the first hikes I do in the park, as it’s a good one to help with altitude acclimatization.
If you’re feeling good when you get to the overlook, continue for another mile and a half of relatively easy terrain until you reach Fairy Falls. If you’re still not out of breath, keep going for .6 miles, and you’ll find Imperial and Spring geysers, too! Overall, this is a 5-mile hike out and back from the Fairy Falls trailhead, with another 1.2 miles added if you continue on to see the bonus geysers.
See Related: Best Hikes in the World
5. Midway Geyser Basin
Address: Midway Geyser Basin, Wyoming 82190, United States
Midway Geyser Basin is one of the most visited in the park. Its two main features are Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring. I’ve brought several friends to Yellowstone over the years, and this seems to be everyone’s favorite stop.
Excelsior Geyser Crater is massive, measuring 200 x 300 feet. Every minute, it dumps 4,000 gallons of water into the Firehole River – more on that later. The geothermally heated water in Excelsior is the prettiest bright blue color I’ve ever seen, and you don’t want to miss it.
The geyser has been dormant since the 1980s. In the early 2000s, it had some violently powerful boilings that counted as eruptions, but it’s extremely unlikely you’ll see any major activity here beyond the remarkable runoff into the river.
You’re probably more familiar with Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the park. It’s nearly 300 feet in diameter and more than 120 feet deep. The bright colors from which it gets its name are caused by the microbial mats that line the spring. Grand Prismatic is more colorful in the summer and a darker green color in the winter.
6. Lower Geyser Basin
Address: Lower Geyser Basin, Wyoming 82190, USA
The Lower Geyser Basin is the largest in the park, covering 18 square miles. The Fountain Paint Pot trail leads you around the main features of the basin, including the Fountain Paint Pots, Spasm Geyser, and Celestine Pool.
Around Firehole Lake, the Great Fountain Geyser, Artesia Geyser, and White Dome Geyser all draw visitors looking for eruptions and tons of thermal activity. Firehole Spring itself is gorgeous, too.
By the way – Lower Geyer Basin is actually north of Midway Geyser Basin. Be sure you have a map of the area before you go about plotting your day, as some of the names make no sense! It’s a great idea to book a guided geyser basin tour, so you won’t miss any of the must-see sights.
7. Norris Geyser Basin
Address: Norris Geyser Basin, Wyoming 82190, USA
Norris Geyser Basin is my favorite basin in Yellowstone National Park. It’s the hottest and oldest basin in the park, and it’s changing all of the time. There have been thermal features here for 115,000 years and there’s no sign of it slowing down.
You’ll want to leave plenty of time to explore Norris, and note that it’s made up of two separate trails – one takes you to Porcelain Basin, and the other is a longer loop around Back Basin.
The biggest attraction at Norris Geyser Basin is Steamboat Geyser, the largest geyser in the world. I’ve never been lucky enough to see it erupt, as it’s not predictable, but it’s certainly a wild show to see. The Norris Geyser Basin Museum is also worth your time, as it explains this ever-changing landscape’s dynamics.
Be aware that Norris Geyser Basin is closed early in the season until snowmelt makes it safe to walk the boarded trails.
See Related: Best Places to Travel
8. West Thumb Geyser Basin
Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, USA
If Norris Geyser Basin is my favorite for its sheer size and ever-changing features, I’ve got to mention that I think West Thumb is the prettiest. The colors of the features here and the view of the lake just take my breath away every time I see it, and walking around is one of my favorite things to do in Yellowstone.
West Thumb Geyser Basin sits on the side of Yellowstone Lake and is the first geyser basin you’ll see if you enter the park from the south entrance. At first, you might think that you’re looking at all of Yellowstone Lake – but in reality, West Thumb is just a small portion of one of America’s largest high-altitude lakes.
West Thumb Geyser Basin’s most famous features include the Abyss Pool, Mimulus Pool, Fishing Cone along Yellowstone Lake, and Bluebell Pool. There’s also a visitor center that’s a good first stop for anyone coming into the park from the south entrance.
9. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Area
Address: N Rim Dr, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
Canyon Village is my favorite area of Yellowstone – which is a controversial take, but hear me out. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone itself is absolutely incredible – and there are so many vantage points that provide a different glimpse into the workings of this natural wonder.
From Artists Point or Inspiration Point, you can see into the huge canyon. From either the Brink of the Upper Falls or the Brink of the Lower Falls, you’ll be able to really appreciate the power of the Yellowstone River.
It’s always amazed me just how much water is flowing through the canyon at any given moment. It’s particularly impressive in the spring when the snowmelt raises water levels.
Be aware, though, that the hiking trails around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone area are prime grizzly territory. Be sure to hike this area in groups and carry bear spray. If you’re going out alone, check in with the rangers, who will let you know if any bears are in the area.
Canyon Village is a good place to stay in Yellowstone because it’s centrally located, provides easy access to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and has both a campground and a lodge.
10. Yellowstone Lake and Lake Hotel, Fishing Bridge Area
Address: Yellowstone Lake, Wyoming 82190, USA
Address: Yellowstone National Park, 235 Yellowstone Lake Rd, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
Address: Yellowstone National Park, 22 Fishing Bridge RV Park Rd, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
The Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins is one of the most elegant places to stay in Yellowstone, and walking in will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The rooms sell out well before every season, but if you didn’t get a reservation, you should still stop by to see Yellowstone Lake from the famous white porch.
The Yellowstone Lake area is a major destination within the park, and along with the hotel, the Lake Lodge Cabins provide lodging. You’ll also find a restaurant and a general store, a cafe, and wired internet access in the business center.
The hotel itself has a gorgeous lobby, and you’ll be able to learn all about the history of Yellowstone Lake by walking through and reading the exhibits. Not many people know that there’s a shipwreck in the middle of the lake!
If you keep traveling around Yellowstone Lake past the hotel, you’ll find yourself at the Fishing Bridge. Head into the visitors center to learn about this historic section of the park, and ask the rangers about any recent grizzly bears in the area.
This is one of the best places to spot a grizzly, whether you want to or not, so be prepared with bear spray while you’re walking around.
See Related: A 5-Day Yellowstone Itinerary You’ll Want to Copy
11. Wildlife Tour of Hayden Valley
Address: Hayden Valley, Wyoming 82190, USA
Hayden Valley is the southernmost large valley of the park, and it’s known for its huge roaming bison herds. It’s rare to spot wolves so far south in the park, but grizzly bears frequent the valley, as do elk, pronghorn, and coyote.
If you’re doing a self-guided tour of the Hayden Valley, it’s crucial to note that off-trail travel is prohibited. The best way to see the valley is by driving through and stopping at turnouts or by booking a wildlife tour through Yellowstone’s Lower Loop.
It’ll be obvious when there is wildlife to see – I always stop if there’s room when I see there’s a crowd in a turnout. Over the years, I’ve seen lots of bears, bison, and elk in the Hayden Valley.
12. Wildlife Tour of Lamar Valley
Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
Lamar Valley is known as the Serengeti of North America, and you’ll find it between Tower Fall and the Northeast Entrance. It’s truly one of the best places in America for wildlife, and you’ll want to pack binoculars and a lot of patience. While it’s home to huge herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn, the big story in Lamar is that of the wolf.
Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 in a hugely controversial move. Now, the valley has been restored as a habitat for every large mammal that called it home in the 1800s. If you’re hoping to spot wolves, booking a wolf tour in Lamar Valley is your best bet. Some tours will focus on just wildlife spotting, while others showcase the entire Upper Loop of Yellowstone.
Though I’ve spent a lot of time looking for wolves in Lamar Valley, I’ve only been lucky enough to spot wolves one time, and it was a magical experience. The best time to see wildlife in either valley is at dusk and at dawn. Be careful if you’re driving out to the valley in the dark, as wildlife love to cross the road with no warning.
13. Tower Fall / Beartooth Highway
Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, USA
Address: Beartooth Hwy, United States
The Tower Fall area is in the northeast corner of the park, and it’s the last major stop between Grand Loop Road and the Northeast Entrance. Many Yellowstone visitors stop at Tower Fall and Tower Junction on their way to the Lamar Valley, which lies between Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance.
This is an essential stop for waterfall lovers, as the Tower Fall overlook is just a few steps away from the parking area, and the cascade is one of the prettiest in the park. There’s a short trail of switchbacks that will take you down to the Yellowstone River, but be aware you can’t see the waterfall from the base of the trail.
If you have some time to spare, continue past the Lamar Valley and drive the Beartooth Highway. If you’re still in the planning stages of your trip, it’s well worth driving the whole road from Cooke City to Red Lodge, Montana. You’ll likely want to stay in Red Lodge or a nearby city for the night before heading back.
The Beartooth Highway winds through the Absaroka (ab-sor-ka) Range that forms the border between Wyoming and Montana, passing remarkable alpine lakes and overlooks, and taking you up to the (incredibly windy!) summit of Beartooth Pass. I’ve driven the Beartooth Highway twice, and both times it absolutely took my breath away.
If you have less time, you can drive the Beartooth Highway until the junction with WY-296, the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. The Byway takes you into Cody, Wyoming, so this is a great thing to do if you’re staying in Cody anyway.
Along the way, you’ll take in the views from Sunlight Creek Bridge and Dead Indian Pass – which has quite a story behind it. Stop at the summit to take in the views while you learn the tale of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.
During the Nez Perce wars, Chief Joseph took his troops up the pass and then disappeared – baffling the Army officers trying to track him down. They assumed he had led his men to the South or to their death, as they couldn’t imagine any way down the gulch that flanks the pass.
Turns out, the Nez Perce and their horses made their way to a lower elevation and safely exited the mountains to move into the Great Plains.
See Related: Best Road Trips in the World
14. Mammoth Hot Springs and Fort Yellowstone
Address: Mammoth, WY 82190, United States
Address: 2 Barracks St, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
Of course, no trip to Yellowstone is complete without seeing the world-famous Mammoth Hot Springs. Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the most unique parts of Yellowstone National Park, known for its hot springs and travertine terraces.
The hot springs are formed when water from the ground is heated by magma, and the geysers erupt when the water is heated so much that it boils, building pressure. The iconic travertines are formed when the hot water mixes with cold water and minerals, which creates a terraced effect.
Mammoth Hot Springs is also home to many wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and bison. In fact, the area around the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is one of the best areas to see elk during their autumn rut.
While you’re here, don’t forget to stop at the Albright Visitors Center and tour historic Fort Yellowstone.
For the first years of its existence, the park’s superintendents had run into nothing but trouble – including one superintendent who ended up banned for life after sinking his paddleboat in Yellowstone Lake. By 1886, the US Army decided to take over the national park. They marched to Mammoth Hot Springs and set up camp – and Fort Yellowstone was formed.
15. Raft the Yellowstone River
Rafting down the Yellowstone River is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that any thrill seeker will love. Luckily, there are plenty of guided Yellowstone River rafting tours, so you don’t have to hit the rapids alone! You can choose a shorter trip or go all-in with a full-day rafting tour near Yellowstone National Park.
Most of the tours leave from Gardiner, which provides the easiest access to the river itself, and the tours will take you through Gallatin National Forest. If you want a quieter day on the waters within the park itself, you can rent a kayak or canoe from Yellowstone National Park Lodges. Paddling on the huge lake is one of my favorite things to do in Yellowstone.
16. Fly Fishing
Tens of thousands of visitors fish in Yellowstone National Park each year, and park regulations exist to use fishing to protect native species. Because there’s no possession limit for nonnative fish, anglers can cast their reels all day and come home with dinner that’ll last their whole trip.
Brown, brook, rainbow, and lake trout are all non-native, so fish away! There are a lot of regulations to be aware of, and all fishing parties must have a permit. Fly fishing is big throughout the whole region, and you can also find great fly fishing tours down in the Jackson Hole area.
Some of the rules include fish that must be killed and are illegal to release alive, so be prepared for that if you’re casting a line. You can find all of the rules for fly fishing in Yellowstone on the National Park Service website.
Lewis Lake is one of the best areas to fish in Yellowstone National Park, and you can book a guided private fishing tour from Jackson if you don’t want to have to worry about the rules and regulations – your guide will handle it, making sure everything you catch meets park regulations.
17. Hellroaring Bridge Hike
Though this is a day hike, it’s remote, and you’ll only encounter a few people along the way. That being said, this is a true backcountry hike, and you’ll want to be prepared in case of a wildlife encounter.
Though hiking through grizzly territory isn’t my favorite thing to do, the view from Hellroaring Suspension Bridge certainly made this moderate-effort hike worth it. You’ll hike two miles out-and-back starting with a descent of 600 feet that you’ll have to walk back up on your way home.
See Related: Best Lakes in Montana to Visit
18. Dunanda Falls and Bechler Backcountry Area
Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
Address: Wyoming 82190, United States
If you’re an experienced backcountry hiker, you’ll want to explore Yellowstone from a more remote trail. The Bechler backcountry area is, in my opinion, the best section of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for anyone who loves hot springs and waterfalls.
The Boundary Creek trail leads from the Bechler Ranger Station into the wilderness, and you’ll want to be prepared for a night or two in the woods if you’re aiming for Dunanda Falls. If you’re up for it, though, and comfortable camping in grizzly territory, you’ll find the payoff is worth it – Dunanda Falls is a remarkable hot spring waterfall with soaking pools at the base.
Not so sure you can handle a few nights in the Yellowstone National Park backcountry? Why not book a guided tour assisted by llamas? I’m not kidding – Wildland Trekking is a permitted outfitter that leads llama treks into the Bechler area, straight to Dunanda Falls.
19. Roosevelt Lodge Old West Dinner Cookout
Address: Roosevelt Lodge Corral Tower-Roosevelt Junction, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
The Roosevelt Lodge Cookout is one of the best things to do in Yellowstone for families. You’ll want to book your slot well in advance, as these popular horseback riding cowboy dinners sell out pretty quickly.
Guests have the option of taking a horse-drawn wagon or saddling up and riding out to the cookout site themselves. All tours leave from the Roosevelt Lodge, and there are options for 1 or 2-hour trips. The return ride for both is a direct route and takes just 30 minutes.
The ride through Pleasant Valley is beautiful, and once you arrive at the cookout site, you’ll be stoked to see huge steaks on the grill and plenty of cowboy-style sides like coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans, and cornbread.
20. Visit Cody
Address: Cody, Wyoming 82414, USA
Feeling a little sick of sulfur and bison? Make time to visit Cody, Wyoming. Cody is one of five gateways to Yellowstone, about an hour from the park’s East Entrance. The town was founded by none other than Buffalo Bill Cody at the turn of the 20th century when his Wild West show made him one of the most famous people in the world. Buffalo Bill established this town as a tourist destination, and today it’s one of the coolest places in the West.
The nightly prime rib buffet at the Irma is reason enough to visit this small town, and history buffs will enjoy the artifacts from the past throughout the hotel, including the bar, which was gifted to Buffalo Bill by Queen Victoria herself.
There are so many things to do in Cody that you could spend days here, but for most Yellowstone visitors, it’s a day trip or a quick overnight destination. If that’s the case for you, don’t miss the Cody Dug Up Gun Museum, the Trolley Tour, the Street Performance outside of the Irma, and the Buffalo Bill Dam on the Old Road To Yellowstone.
If you’ve got a little more time, visit the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West. This enormous museum complex actually consists of five museums covering “Wild West” entertainment, firearms history, Plains Indian history, a Western art museum, and the Draper Museum of Natural History. This is not a place you want to rush through; your ticket is good for two days because that’s how long it takes to really see it all.
21. Visit Grand Teton National Park
Address: Wyoming, USA
If you like hiking, history, and mountain views, set aside a day to visit Grand Teton National Park. It’s not nearly as large as Yellowstone, but I personally prefer Grand Teton for hiking. It’s not as crowded as Yellowstone National Park, there aren’t as many backcountry grizzly bears to worry about, and there aren’t any thermal features waiting to swallow you whole.
That’s not to say there aren’t hazards in GTNP – the world’s most famous grizzly bear lives here, and you’ll be in the presence of wolves and mountain lions, but I find the actual hiking is a bit less remote.
That being said, there aren’t boardwalks here like in Yellowstone. While there are turnouts and overlooks, and some of the trails around the alpine lakes are pretty flat, the terrain can be a lot more challenging right from the start.
Cascade Canyon is my favorite hike (which is a cliche because it’s everyone’s favorite hike), but I also love the trails around Leigh and String Lakes. They’re flat and easy, and rarely crowded if you get there early on a weekday or visit in the shoulder season. Taggart and Bradley Lake make for a moderately challenging hike with stunning views of the Teton Range.
For a full-day hike that’s exhausting but worth the effort, you can hike to Amphitheater and Surprise Lake – and add a side quest to Delta Lake if you’re really in shape. Be warned, though, that the hike to Delta is a mile of steep scrambling, so it’s not for the unsteady or anyone who isn’t conditioned for hiking.
See Related: Best Tours in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
22. Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center
Address: 201 S Canyon St, West Yellowstone, MT 59758, United States
If you’re looking for a place to see some wolves and grizzlies up close, the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is the perfect spot. Some of the animals at the center come from Yellowstone, and some come from Alaska’s borders – all of them are animals that wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild.
The center offers a second chance for these animals and provides a learning opportunity for Yellowstone tourists.
Currently, seven bears and eight wolves reside within the center, along with lots of other critters from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The animals can be seen throughout the year – bears in the center don’t hibernate.
Most recently, the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center opened its “Banks of the Yellowstone River Otter Exhibit,” which is a huge hit among visitors who love to watch otters play.
23. Waterfalls off Grand Loop Road
Address: Grand Loop Road, Wyoming 82190, USA
If you love tracking down a waterfall, you’ll want to stop at the overlooks and turnouts along Grand Loop Road that feature cascades. There are seemingly endless waterfalls in the park, but the easiest ones to access outside of the canyon area are all just a few steps away from their parking lots.
Tower Fall is a must-see, as we covered above. Undine Falls is a two-tier waterfall near Mammoth Hot Springs, and you’ll look down over the waterfall from the road, which makes for an interesting perspective.
The Kepler Cascades on the Firehole River can be found just south of Old Faithful, and the turnout is easy to miss. You’ll get to see the waterfall from a wooden bridge, which I always find to be fun.
The Firehole Falls, just south of Madison, is another must-see waterfall in Yellowstone. Though they’re smaller than the above cascades, the heat of the river makes for a steamy view.
Gibbon Falls can be seen from an overlook and turnout about halfway between Madison and Norris. The parking area has exhibits and displays along with interpretive signs, making this a good spot to stop to learn about the Yellowstone ecosystem and caldera. Iron Spring picnic area is right next to the Gibbon Falls turnout.
Tracking down waterfalls is one of the best things to do in Yellowstone, and the turnouts along Grand Loop Road make it easy.
24. Firehole River Swimming / Wading Area
Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
Editor’s note: There are very few places where you can safely swim in Yellowstone National Park, so please pay attention if you’re looking to take a dip. There is NO swimming allowed in the Firehole River at Midway Geyser Basin or Upper Geyser Basin.
In previous years, the Boiling River was a popular spot for swimming in the park, but it’s been closed for several years now. First, it was closed during the COVID pandemic, and in 2021, the devastating floods that damaged the park also damaged the swimming area.
There is still one spot where you can swim, though – the Firehole Swim Area. You’ll find it two miles south of Madison Junction on Firehole Canyon Drive. Due to snow runoff, it’s usually not open until mid-summer, and sometimes it won’t open at all for the season. Life jackets are recommended, as the current can be strong. No food or drink is allowed, and bathing suits are required.
It’s very important to keep in mind that this is a fragile ecosystem, so soap, shampoo, conditioner, and sunscreen are not allowed to be used. Water toys aren’t permitted, and you can’t go jumping off the rocks or swinging from trees into the water.
Throughout the park, soaking in hot springs is prohibited, and over the years, dozens of people have died by trying to relax and getting boiled alive instead. Even in colder, non-thermally heated waters in Yellowstone, there are dangers – high elevation means cold water, and hypothermia is almost as much of a risk as boiling acid water.
25. Museum of the National Park Ranger
Address: Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190, United States
Visiting the Museum of the National Park Ranger is one of the best things to do in Yellowstone if you spend a lot of time at national park sites or if you love history. The entire museum is focused on the history and legacy of the National Park Ranger Program.
The best part about the museum is that it’s staffed by volunteer retired national park rangers who are more than happy to tell their story. The building itself was restored and rebuilt over the years, but it’s true to its original floorplan as a 1908 soldier station for the US Army.
While most people think of hikes and trails as the top things to do in Yellowstone, taking the time to visit this museum is something I highly recommend. You’ll find the museum just north of Norris Geyser Basin.
See Related: Best Museums in the US to Visit
26. Roaring Mountain Area
The Roaring Mountain area is often a blip on visitors’ radars, but seeing it is always one of my favorite things to do in Yellowstone, so it’s on my list. The mountain is sort of off by itself, north of Norris and south of Mammoth Hot Springs, but it’s impossible to miss. Just keep an eye out for a huge hill venting from dozens of fumaroles.
It looks as if the whole mountain is smoking – and I guess, technically, it is. In the past, there were even more fumaroles venting steam from the sides and top of Roaring Mountain, which is pretty wild to imagine.
See Related: Best Hot Springs in Montana
27. Stargazing / Milky Way Spotting
If you’re a night owl, you’ll find that stargazing is one of the best things to do in Yellowstone. The park’s dark skies make for a stunning sight when the weather is clear because millions of stars light up the night.
Yellowstone’s peak season for tourism also lines up with Milky Way season – that is, the galaxy’s core is visible during certain nights each month. You’ll need to look to the skies during a new moon – or at least close enough to a new moon that only a small sliver of the moon is visible.
The core of the Milky Way rises and sets just like the moon and the sun, so it’s only visible at certain times and from certain directions. Use an app like PhotoPills to plan your trip. My favorite place to watch the galaxy’s core rise is at Pumice Point on Yellowstone Lake in July or August.
See Related: Best Cameras for Travel Blogging
What to pack for a trip to Yellowstone National Park
If you’re getting ready to pack, take a look at our Complete Yellowstone Packing List and make sure you’ve got everything you need. If you’re just starting to do your research, here are the basics:
- Warm, comfortable clothing: Even in the middle of the summer, nights can be brutally cold in Yellowstone. You’ll want to have lots of layers.
- Waterproof jacket: Afternoon rainstorms are common in the spring and summer, so it’s always a good idea to have a waterproof jacket on hand.
- Hiking boots: There are plenty of great hiking trails in Yellowstone, so comfortable, sturdy boots are a must.
- Bear spray: You can’t fly with bear spray, but have a plan to pick some up before you go into the park.
- Camera: You’ll want to document your trip to Yellowstone, so don’t forget to pack a camera. If you don’t have one, consider renting from Lensrentals.com
- Sunscreen: Even on cloudy days, the sun can be quite strong at high altitudes. Be sure to pack sunscreen to protect your skin.
- Snacks and drinks: Concessionaires are far apart, so having some good snacks in your car is the best way to ensure you don’t waste time driving out of your way for lunch.
With these items, you’ll be prepared for whatever Yellowstone throws. So pack your bags and get ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone
If you are looking to stay inside the national park, there are many options for lodging. You can choose to stay in one of the park’s hotels, lodges, or one of the nearby towns. There are also many camping options available both inside and outside the park.
Stay Near Yellowstone National Park – Yellowstone’s Gateway Towns
There are four main gateway towns to Yellowstone National Park, and if you cannot get lodging within the park itself, they all make for a good place to stay. You’ll find park entrances are easy to get to from any of these towns.
Gardiner and West Yellowstone are the closest towns to Yellowstone National Park, while Cody and Jackson are a little farther away. They are both worthy destinations in their own right, though, so they’re very popular places to stay near Yellowstone.
Address: Cody, Wyoming 82414, USA
I’ve talked about Cody as a day trip destination, but what if you’re looking to stay here for a few days? Lots of people choose to stay in Cody as their base camp for a Yellowstone trip.
Regardless of how long you stay in Cody, it’s a good idea to drive the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, either on your way into the park or as a separate scenic drive. It connects to the Beartooth Highway, which will bring you into Montana to the east or to the park’s Northeast Entrance near the Lamar Valley.
Along the way, you’ll spot views too beautiful to be real. The Sunlight Creek Bridge is the highest in Wyoming, and there’s a parking area where you can stop to see a gorgeous view. At the highest part of the highway, you’ll find a turnout area that explains the history of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce tribe and how this pass helped them outsmart the US Cavalry in 1877.
If you’re staying in Cody, you’d better stay at the Irma Hotel. This is the luxury hotel that Buffalo Bill Cody himself built to draw travelers to his new frontier town.
2. West Yellowstone
Address: West Yellowstone, Montana 59758, USA
West Yellowstone is the closest town to a park entrance, and it’s also home to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. The small, budget-friendly town is the best pick if you’re staying near Yellowstone with kids. There are lots of hotels and campgrounds nearby, and if you run out of lodging options, the nearby town of Island Park is also a hit.
If you’re in the park and want to get away from concessionaires, West Yellowstone is also a great place to grab lunch or dinner. There are lots of laundry facilities in town, so many travelers take a day in West Yellowstone before continuing their exploration of the park itself.
Staying in West Yellowstone? Book a guided hiking tour to familiarize yourself with the Yellowstone ecosystem, or join a small group tour of the Lower Loop. If Grand Primsatic and Old Faithful are at the top of your must-see list, this van tour is a great choice.
The Explorer Cabins are good to book if you want a kitchenette and the option to have some space to spread out. Yellowstone West Gate Hotel is a more traditional family-friendly hotel with a pool and a free continental breakfast. If you’re on a romantic retreat, book a room at the Elkhorn Cabins for some peace and quiet.
Address: Gardiner, Montana 59030, USA
Gardiner is the closest town to Yellowstone’s famous Roosevelt Arch, and it’s a popular choice for anyone hoping to primarily explore the northern side of the park. The town sits on the Yellowstone River, so the views from just about anywhere are incredible.
Gardiner is so close to the park’s north entrance that you can actually walk to the Arch from most places in town, and you can bike to the Mammoth area if you’re feeling ambitious. There are a lot of great restaurants in Gardiner, and it’s another town that makes for a good “zero-day” destination.
Gardiner is also one of the best towns to use as a base camp for guided tours. There are tours that showcase the whole park with public small group options as well as private options. Because Gardiner is so close to the north entrance, it’s a great place to kick off a tour of the Lamar Valley.
Looking for a luxury experience? Book a private Yellowstone tour from Gardiner and you’ll see the park in the best possible way.
The Yellowstone Riverside Cottages are my pick for places to stay in Gardiner, as the view of the river can’t be topped. The Ridgeline Hotel is a more luxurious option, and the Antler Lodge is a good choice for families and travelers who prefer a spot with free breakfast.
Address: Jackson, Wyoming, USA
Jackson is America’s quintessential Western town, and it’s a great place to stay if you want your trip to involve Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. While it’s a bit further from Yellowstone itself, it provides straightforward access to the southern end of the park and a lot less traffic than you’ll get from Gardiner or West Yellowstone.
That being said, if you’re using Jackson as a gateway town, it’s best if you also stay a night or two in the park. The drive is long, and bison jams in the Hayden Valley can make it even longer.
While it might seem like it’s not worth the extra driving, the convenient access to Jackson Hole Airport, Grand Teton, and the town itself makes this my favorite base camp. While you’re in town, be sure to grab a drink at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, take a photo under the Elk Antler arches, and drive up Shadow Mountain for a beautiful view of the Teton Range.
A lot of ecotours and sightseeing tours leave from Jackson, so if you’re looking for adventure, you can likely join one of these. If you want to see both parks in one fell swoop, this small group tour of Grand Teton and Yellowstone is a hit. Want an upscale experience? It’s hard to top this full day private tour that leaves right from town.
Jackson offers a range of lodging options, but they’re all pricey. The Ranch Inn and Antler Inn are good budget options in town. The Lexington is an upscale hotel without an outrageous price tag, and its location is perfect for heading north. The Wort Hotel, right near Town Square, is the place to stay if you want a world-class luxury vacation.
See Related: Best Restaurants in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Camping in Yellowstone National Park
Camping is one of my favorite things to do in Yellowstone, and it’s a great way to experience all the park has to offer. There are 12 front country campgrounds located throughout the park, and if you plan to camp, you must reserve your spot in advance.
Like hotels, campsites sell out quickly, and if you’re planning a last-minute trip, you may have a hard time finding a spot in the park.
Bridge Bay, Grant Village, and Fishing Bridge campgrounds are all close to Yellowstone Lake. Fishing Bridge is in prime grizzly territory, so you can only camp there if you have a hard-sided camper or RV.
Canyon Village is my favorite campground in the park thanks to its central location, although some campers may find it too loud and busy. If you want to feel a little further away from it all, try to book your tent site far from the bathrooms and RV sites.
If you want to stay close to the water and get some kayaking in, Lewis Lake Campground is for you. Madison Campground is great for anyone who loves to listen to elk bugle in the fall, and it’s taken over by beautiful wildflowers in the spring and summer.
Slough Creek is a very quiet and remote site in the heart of grizzly and wolf territory. Tents and small RVs are allowed, and to get there, you’ll need to take a two-mile dirt road. There are only 16 sites, and it’s considered the prime location for wildlife enthusiasts.
Indian Creek is another small, remote campground – but the views of Electric Peak are hard to beat. You’ll find Indian Creek between Norris and Mammoth, so it’s a good spot to stay if you want to explore the park’s thermal features.
All campground opening and closing dates vary – with Mammoth being the only one open year-round. Tower Fall is close to Roosevelt Lodge, and its dates are TBD for the 2023 season. Norris and Pebble Creek campgrounds are closed in 2023.
See Related: Best Camping Spots in the World
Staying Inside Yellowstone National Park
If you want to minimize your time on the road, staying in the park is the easiest option. It does require quite a bit of planning in advance, though. Lodges in Yellowstone frequently sell out months in advance – in fact, you can book your stay as early as 13 months ahead of time.
While it’s not uncommon to find a last-minute room in the summertime due to cancellations, rooms in the park are pretty basic and come at a hefty price. That being said, the convenience of staying in the park is typically well worth the price tag.
Best Lodge Inside Yellowstone National Park
When choosing a lodge in Yellowstone, there is no better option than the Old Faithful Inn. This historic hotel was built in 1904, and as we covered above, it’s the world’s oldest and largest log building.
I was lucky enough to stay in the Old Faithful Inn for a night in September 2022, and despite there being no TVs or air conditioning – and our room being way at the far end of the wing – it was an experience I will never forget.
The Old Faithful complex offers the Inn, the Old Faithful Lodge, and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Both “Lodges” are newer, and the Snow Lodge is the place to stay in the winter.
The other lodges in the park are Canyon Lodge, Grant Village Lodge, Mammoth Hotel, Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Lake Lodge Cabins, and the Roosevelt Lodge. Each offers a one-of-a-kind stay in a historic building and close access to a different section of the park.
Best Time to Visit Yellowstone National Park
Most people visit Yellowstone during the regular season, from June to September. Some facilities do open as early as April and close as late as November. The best time to visit Yellowstone is in late August or early September, before concessionaires close for the fall but after kids are in school and the crowds dwindle.
June tends to be wetter but with ample opportunities to spot newborn wildlife. Early fall draws fewer crowds, but the weather can be frigid, and fewer facilities are open. Peak tourist season is in July and early August.
During shoulder seasons, conditions in the park can change quickly, so it’s always a good idea to check the National Park Service website for updated information on road and facility closures.
Winter in Yellowstone National Park is a magical place. The crowds are diminished during the cold months and natural wonders like hoarfrost and rime ice turn geyser basins into stunning wonderlands.
If you are visiting Yellowstone National Park in winter, you’ll want to plan well in advance. Most of the park roads are only open to over-snow travel, so you’ll need to be part of a permitted tour group to gain access, and only certain snowmobiles are allowed. Most services are closed for the season, as well.
If you’re an experienced winter traveler, you may be eligible for a non-commercially guided permit. Check park regulations to ensure you meet the requirements, and don’t count on it – only four groups are allowed at each entrance each day, and the permits are awarded via lottery.
How to Get to Yellowstone National Park
A lot of people fly into Salt Lake City airport, too, on their way to Yellowstone. SLC flights tend to be cheaper than the smaller, closer airports, but that comes at a price: SLC is about six to seven hours from the South Entrance to Yellowstone.
If you’re planning to bookend your trip by visiting Grand Teton National Park, Salt Lake City makes more sense. You can also book a tour of Yellowstone that leaves Salt Lake City, so you won’t have to worry about driving. Otherwise, you’re better off flying into one of the closer airports, and you’ll need to rent a car, and I recommend a high-clearance vehicle.
There are five entrances to Yellowstone: North (Gardiner, MT), Northeast (Beartooth Highway), East (Cody, WY), South (Grand Teton National Park via the Parkway), and West (West Yellowstone, MT).
The West and North entrances are the most popular; you can expect the longest lines. It makes sense, as West Yellowstone and Gardiner are just a few minutes from either entrance. The gateway towns from the other entrances are significantly farther.
Travel Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park
Here are some tips for getting the most out of a trip to Yellowstone National Park:
- Carry bear spray – even if you never intend to leave the boardwalks. Grizzly bears roam the entire park.
- Pay attention to area closures. Do not leave the boardwalks – there’s a real possibility that you’ll fall through the thin crust over a thermal feature and boil yourself alive.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks. The food options in the park are limited and far apart, so bringing your food at least for lunch is a good idea.
- Wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Don’t bring brand-new shoes, though – make sure you break them in at home.
- Carry a paper map. Cell phone service in the park is not great, and you’ll find your phone dying quicker than you’re used to. A paper map is useful to help plan your day.
- Stop by every visitor center you come across. The Rangers and Yellowstone Forever Institute staff are full of knowledge as well as updates about wildlife spotting, wildlife closures, and park safety.
If you want to plan a trip to Yellowstone, visit the National Park Service website to plan your itinerary!
See Related: Things to Do in Jackson Hole in Winter
Full Video: Top 10 Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park
Map of Yellowstone Attractions
How many days do you need in Yellowstone?
It depends on what kind of trip you’re looking to take in Yellowstone, so we’ll assume you want to see as much of the park as possible. With that in mind, we recommend spending at least 4 to 7 days in Yellowstone.
If you’re short on time, you can still see a lot of the park in 2 or 3 days. However, with only 2 or 3 days, you won’t be able to explore Yellowstone’s different regions and world-famous attractions.
During the busiest summer months, bison and bear traffic jams can back up roads for miles, limiting how far you’ll get. You may be able to see each main geyser basin in two days, but you’ll likely have to pick whether you want to explore the northern or southern part of the park on limited time.
There is no such thing as “too much” time in Yellowstone. If you can plan a week or more, you’ll have plenty of time to explore the gateway towns, the geyser basins, the wildlife valleys, and likely even Grand Teton National Park.
Do I need a permit to enter Yellowstone National Park?
Permits are required for backcountry camping, and reservations are required for front-country camping or lodging. Boondocking or sleeping in your car overnight is not allowed – you must be in a campground or at an approved lodge to spend the night in the park.
You’ll need a pass to get into the park. I recommend picking up an America the Beautiful National Park Pass, but if this is your own National Park trip this year, you can get away with a single entrance pass that’s valid for 7 days.
What activities can people do at Yellowstone National Park?
At Yellowstone National Park, visitors can engage in a multitude of activities. Hiking is a popular choice, with over 900 miles of trails available. Wildlife watching is another key activity, as the park is home to diverse species like wolves, bears, and herds of elk and bison. Visitors can also enjoy fishing, camping, and guided tours for a more immersive experience.
What do most people do at Yellowstone?
Most people visiting Yellowstone National Park explore the unique geothermal features, including the world-famous Old Faithful geyser. Wildlife watching is widespread, with many hoping to catch sight of the park’s iconic wolves and bears. Hiking among the park’s diverse and beautiful trails to appreciate the stunning landscapes is also typical.