Are you planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park but aren’t sure where to begin?

As the world’s first national park, Yellowstone is filled with historical sites, stunning landscapes, and great activities. But Yellowstone is massive, covering nearly 3,500 square miles, so how do you prioritize your time in the park?

This guide covers the 22 best things to do in Yellowstone National Park. From hikes to scenic drives, you’ll find no shortage of spectacular ways to spend your days in Yellowstone.

You’ll also find tips on how much time to spend in Yellowstone, the best time to visit, where to stay, and exclusive tips and recommendations.

Do you want more ideas for your trip to Yellowstone? Don’t miss this post!

This post may contain affiliate links, where I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. Read more in this disclosure policy.

Yellowstone National Park At-A-Glance

Before diving in, here are a few highlights to help you plan your trip:

  • Best Time to Visit: Summer is a great time to visit thanks to warm weather and all park amenities being open, but it is also the most crowded time of year. Avoid crowds by visiting in September or early October.
  • Where to Stay: Yellowstone has eight lodges inside the park, plus several campgrounds. The Old Faithful Inn and Canyon Lodge are my favorites, both close to all the most popular places to see in the park. Outside the park, look for hotels in West Yellowstone, Montana.
  • How to Get There: The closest airport is in West Yellowstone (WYS), serviced by both United and Delta Airlines. Other major airports in the region include Jackson Hole (JAC), Bozeman (BZN), and Salt Lake (SLC). Use Expedia to browse flights and find the best price.
  • How to Get Around: The easiest way to get around Yellowstone is by car. Use Expedia to browse deals on rental cars or rent an RV or campervan with Outdoorsy.
  • Best Self-Guided Tour: My favorite way to learn more about the park is with GyPSy Guides, a narrated self-guided tour perfect for road trips and scenic drives. The Yellowstone Guide and the Yellowstone/Grand Teton Bundle both provide incredible commentary and detail about the history and geology of Yellowstone.
  • Don’t Forget: Be sure to get an America the Beautiful National Park Pass ahead of time. This $80 pass is valid for 12 months and get you into all 400+ national park sites (including both Yellowstone and Grand Teton!).

How Many Days Do You Need for the Yellowstone Must-See Spots?

To see the highlights of Yellowstone National Park, you’ll need at least 2 to 3 days. Several days give you enough time to cover the most popular areas like Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

If you have more time to spend in Yellowstone National Park, I recommend at least five days to get the whole experience and visit all park regions.

Read More: Yellowstone Itineraries for 1 to 5 Days

River and geysers with a boardwalk in Yellowstone

Best Time to Visit Yellowstone National Park

While parts of Yellowstone National Park are open year-round, the best time to visit is from May through October. From late Fall to early Spring, the park experiences cold temperatures and harsh winter conditions.

I recommend visiting in May or from September to mid-October to avoid crowds.

Here’s a quick overview of what to expect during each season in Yellowstone National Park:

  • Spring: Temperatures remain cold for much of the Spring, with daytime highs in the 40s and overnight temperatures in the teens. In the Spring, crowds are low, with less than 1,500 people visiting per day. Spring is an excellent time to visit to see grizzly bears and black bears, but many park amenities and roads are still closed.
  • Summer: By early summer, temperatures become more comfortable, staying in the 70s during the day, but dropping to the 30s overnight. Summer is the busiest time of year and peak season in Yellowstone. An average day can see more than 30,000 visitors. Avoid summer crowds by visiting main attractions on weekdays or around sunrise or sunset.
  • Fall: Both temperatures and crowds begin to decline after Labor Day in September. Daytime temperatures remain in the 50s and 60s through October. Visiting in the fall is excellent for spotting bears and elks. Many park facilities and roads will begin to close for the winter.
  • Winter: The winter months in Yellowstone are incredibly harsh, with temperatures rarely reaching above freezing and heavy snow blanketing the park. Much of the park is closed in winter, except a few areas like Old Faithful (accessible by snowmobile only) and Mammoth Hot Springs. If you can brave the harsh conditions, you’re rewarded with solitude and excellent opportunities for spotting wolves.

Read More: Best Time to Visit Yellowstone

Yellowstone River flows through a valley in the fall

Are you planning a national park trip but don’t know where to start? Get my free 28-page national park ebook where I break down everything you need to know to visit all 63 USA national parks.

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How to Get to the Top Things to Do in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is located predominantly in Wyoming (although small parts cross over into Montana and Idaho). The best way to get to Yellowstone is by flying unless you live within driving distance.

The closest airports to Yellowstone National Park are:

  • Yellowstone Airport (WYS) – 5 Minutes to the West Entrance
  • Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) – 1 Hour to the South Entrance
  • Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) – 1.5 Hours to the North Entrance
  • Cody / Yellowstone Regional Airport (COD) – 1.5 Hours to the East Entrance
  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) – 5 Hours to the West Entrance

Read More: 8 Best Flights to Yellowstone

There are five entrances to Yellowstone National Park. The best way to enter the park will depend on where you’re traveling from and what you plan to do within the park.

  • West Entrance in West Yellowstone, Montana – best all around as it’s only minutes outside West Yellowstone, Montana.
  • North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana – best for visiting Mammoth Hot Springs and flying in from Bozeman (also the only entrance open year-round)
  • Northeast Entrance in Cooke City, Montana – best for visiting Lamar Valley and driving the Beartooth Highway
  • East Entrance near Wapiti, Wyoming – best for visiting Yellowstone Lake and flying into Cody
  • South Entrance near Moran, Wyoming – best for those also visiting Grand Teton National Park or flying into Jackson Hole

I use Expedia to find the best flight prices and compare routes. Once you find your flight, you can book directly through Expedia to save money, but still enter your frequent flyer numbers to get points!

If you need a rental car, I also recommend using Expedia to find the best deals across brands like Avis, Hertz, Enterprise, Budget, and more.

Where to Stay Near the Best Things to Do at Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park offers eight lodges inside the park, in addition to a dozen campgrounds. To stay inside the park, you should aim to book lodging at least 9 to 12 months out and book reservable campgrounds six months out.

This interactive map can help you search all the available hotels and rental properties near Yellowstone National Park! Simply scroll and click the map below to see what is available!

These are the eight lodges inside Yellowstone, ranked by proximity to the best things to do:

  1. Old Faithful Inn, a luxury inn walking distance to Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin
  2. Old Faithful Lodge & Cabins, a more budget-friendly lodge walking distance to Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin and open year-round
  3. Canyon Lodge & Cabins, a community of hotels and small cabins a short drive from Hayden Valley and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
  4. Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cottages, a higher-end hotel overlooking Yellowstone Lake located 30 minutes from Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and 1 hour from Old Faithful
  5. Lake Lodge Cabins, more budget-friendly cabins along Yellowstone Lake located 30 minutes from Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and 1 hour from Old Faithful
  6. Grant Village Lodge, a waterfront hotel near West Thumb Geyser Basin found 30 minutes from Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin
  7. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, a quaint hotel in the picturesque town of Mammoth, walking distance to Mammoth Hot Springs
  8. Roosevelt Lodge & Cabins, a rustic lodge about 30 minutes away from Lamar Valley, Mount Washburn, and Mammoth Hot Springs

Psst… Are you finding that lodging inside Yellowstone National Park is booked? Consider staying in an Airbnb outside of Yellowstone National Park instead!

Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn from a distance
Old Faithful Inn

There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park, but only eight are reservable:

The remaining four campgrounds are available for first-come, first-served camping.

For more of the pros and cons of each campground, check out this post on camping in Yellowstone National Park.

If you’re planning on staying outside the park, I highly recommend finding a hotel in West Yellowstone. Compared to other nearby towns, staying here will give you the closest access to the top things to do in Yellowstone. 

Some of the top hotels in West Yellowstone include:

  • 1872 Inn, an updated adults-only hotel with 18 guest rooms only minutes to the park entrance
  • The Evergreen, a mountain-inspired lodge with 17 guest rooms in the heart of West Yellowstone
  • Elkhorn Cabins and Inns, rustic cabins with 15 guest rooms just outside the Yellowstone park entrance

Remember that Yellowstone is a top-rated destination. In the summer months, even hotels outside the park will fill up several months in advance. Therefore, I highly recommend booking your accommodations when you get your trip on the calendar.

Read More: Best Places to Stay in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park Packing List

  • America the Beautiful National Park Pass. If you’re planning on visiting multiple national parks in the next year, you’ll save money by getting a national park pass. Get your America the Beautiful Pass now for only $80.
  • Binoculars. One of the best things to do in Yellowstone is wildlife watching. A quality pair of binoculars helps you keep your distance from wildlife but still see the wild animals in their natural wonders habitat. If you’re looking for an entry-level pair, I recommend this pair from Occer on Amazon. If you’re looking to level up your binoculars, I’ve invested in the high-quality (but still somewhat affordable) Vortex Diamondback 10×32.
  • Layers. Even in the summer, overnight temperatures are often near freezing. Therefore, dressing in layers is critical. I recommend packing fleeces and down layers, plus a warm hat and gloves even when visiting in the summer!
  • Bear Spray. Yellowstone National Park is located in grizzly bear country. If you are doing any hikes or long strolls in the geyser basins, you should carry bear spray (like pepper spray for bears!). If you’re driving to Yellowstone, I recommend buying bear spray ahead of time. If you are flying to Yellowstone, you can buy it locally from any sporting goods store or rent it (you can’t fly with bear spray, even in a checked bag!).

Are you visiting multiple national parks in the next year? The America the Beautiful National Park Pass gets you into 400+ national park sites, including all 63 national parks, for 12 months!

Get your national park pass ahead of time for only $80.

Best Things to See in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park has excellent activities for any type of traveler. This section covers the 22 best things to do in Yellowstone National Park, including geyser tours, hiking, scenic drives, wildlife watching, and more!

Before diving in, I want to issue a word of caution.

Many of the top attractions in Yellowstone involve visiting the park’s famous geyser basins. While beautiful, these are dangerous environments. Each year, several people die in Yellowstone by not exercising caution and respecting the incredible forces of nature at work here.

Always stay on the boardwalk or trails for your safety. Do not bring pets or touch any springs or geysers. Never throw trash or other objects into the geothermal features.

1. Old Faithful Geyser

  • Area: Old Faithful
  • Estimated Time: 15 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how well you time your visit to the eruption
Early morning sunrise as Old Faithful erupts in Yellowstone

The Old Faithful Geyser is arguably the most famous attraction in Yellowstone National Park. But, interestingly, it’s neither the largest geyser nor the most regularly erupting geyser in the park, as its name might imply. 

Old Faithful is incredibly popular thanks to its frequent, predictable eruption schedule and easy accessibility. For example, to watch the geyser erupt, you only have to walk a few hundred yards from the parking lot!

An Old Faithful eruption typically lasts anywhere from 1.5 to 5 minutes, shooting up to 8,000 gallons of boiling water 100+ feet into the air.

There are three ways to view Old Faithful:

  • Viewing platform surrounding the geyser. The platform is the most popular and most accessible option. You’ll find benches here for waiting between eruptions.
  • Observation Point on Geyser Hill. If you want to escape the crowds and take a hike, take the strenuous uphill walk to get a bird’s eye view of Old Faithful. It’s roughly 1.1 miles round trip from the viewing platform.
  • Deck of the Old Faithful Inn. If you’ve already seen Old Faithful from the viewing platform, you can catch another show from the front deck of the Old Faithful Inn. The deck is the perfect spot for a relaxing lunch with a view. You can grab food to-go from the deli in the Inn or pack a picnic.

Every day, park rangers release an estimated eruption schedule for the day. On average, the geyser erupts every 90 minutes but ranges from 50 to 127 minutes.

You can find the schedule for that day on a sign outside the geyser, in the Old Faithful Inn, or the Old Faithful Visitor Center.

If you arrive at Old Faithful just before an eruption, you can sit on the benches surrounding the viewing area and wait for the show.

If you arrive at Old Faithful just after it erupted, I recommend exploring the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin first and looping back for the next eruption about an hour later.

This area of Yellowstone is a must-see and therefore very crowded. I recommend arriving before 8 AM to avoid crowds and find easy parking.

2. Upper Geyser Basin

  • Area: Old Faithful
  • Estimated Time: 1 to 2 hours
Multi-colored chromatic hot spring in Yellowstone
Chromatic Pool in Upper Geyser Basin

The Upper Geyser Basin is the larger area home to Old Faithful, but there’s so much more to see here! This area has the most significant density of geysers and other geothermal features globally!

After seeing Old Faithful erupt, continue to walk around the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin. You’ll find four more geysers with predicted eruption times here – Riverside Geyser, Castle Geyser, Grand Geyser, and Daisy Geyser.

The entire loop around the Upper Geyser Basin is about 3 miles roundtrip from the Old Faithful Visitor Center. Most of the route is handicapped accessible on paved paths or boardwalks.

As you tour the Upper Geyser Basin, don’t miss:

  • Heart Spring Hot Spring, a sapphire blue pool shaped like a heart
  • Sawmill Geyser, a unique feature that vigorous splashes water several feet in the air
  • Beauty Pool and Chromatic Pool, two interconnected, deep chromatic springs (only a hint of what’s to come at Grand Prismatic Spring)
  • Grand Geyser, the tallest predictable geyser in the world (it only erupts every ~6 hours, so only stick around if you’re in the area near the predicted eruption time)
  • Riverside Geyser, a giant, predictable geyser that spews into the Firehole River (like Grand, it only erupts every ~6 hours, so only stick around if you’re near the predicted eruption time)
  • Morning Glory Pool, a stunning, multi-color pool at the furthest distance from the visitor center (easily the best feature in Upper Geyser Basin!)
  • Daisy Geyser, a predictable geyser that erupts every 2-3 hours with great views of the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin
  • Castle Geyser, a unique cone-shaped geyser that erupts roughly every 14 hours
Yellow and green hot spring, Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone
Morning Glory Pool in Upper Geyser Basin

If you only do one thing in the Upper Geyser Basin, make it the Morning Glory Pool. The varying water temperatures create a spectacular rainbow display of colors.

This great spot is a must-see (and you can get a lot closer than you can at Grand Prismatic Spring!).

Map of Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone
Map of the Upper Geyser Basin

3. Grand Prismatic Spring

  • Area: Old Faithful
  • Estimated Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour

Grand Prismatic Spring is the crown jewel of the Midway Geyser Basin and one of the most iconic landmarks in Yellowstone National Park. This rainbow-colored hot spring is the third largest hot spring globally and is a must-see geothermal feature.

The spring gets its dramatic rainbow of colors from the varying water temperatures. The hottest water is blue at the center of the spring. As the water temperature cools, the colors change from green to yellow to orange.

This phenomenon is caused by the microorganisms that can survive at each water temperature.

View of Grand Prismatic Hot Springs from the side
Grand Prismatic Spring from the side

A series of boardwalks takes you through the Midway Geyser Basin to see Grand Prismatic Spring. While this lets you see the spring up close, the colors of Grand Prismatic are best seen from above.

To see Grand Prismatic from above, you can take the short hike to Grand Prismatic Overlook via the Fairy Falls Trail. You’ll find this trailhead about 1 mile south of the main Grand Prismatic parking area. 

A viewing platform about 0.5 miles from the trailhead provides excellent aerial views of the spring and its rainbow. Plan to visit in the early afternoon for the most vibrant colors when the lighting shines directly on the spring.

Multi-colored rainbow hot springs - Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone
Grand Prismatic Spring from the Overlook on the Fairy Falls Trail

Since this is one of the most popular attractions in Yellowstone, parking can be tricky here. If you plan to see Grand Prismatic via the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalks, plan to arrive before 9 AM. 

If you’re heading to the overlook via the Fairy Falls Trailhead instead, I recommend visiting in the afternoon for the best lighting, but you may have to circle the lot a few times to find a parking spot. 

Thankfully, both of these lots have high turnover as most visitors don’t stick around for long.

4. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

  • District: Canyon Village
  • Estimated Time: Half Day to Full Day
River winds through Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

When most people think of Yellowstone National Park, geysers, hot springs, and geothermal features come to mind. But dramatically different landscapes are found here too!

On the eastern side of the park, you’ll find the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This iconic canyon was carved by the Yellowstone River and features dramatic rock colors and distinctive geology.

The best way to see the canyon is to take a scenic drive of the North Rim and South Rim, stopping to see the incredible viewpoints and hiking the short trails. These views display the colorful canyon walls and the magnificent waterfalls found here.

The Lower Falls is the tallest waterfall in the park and is about twice the height of Niagara Falls. The Lower Falls is best seen from viewpoints on the North Rim or Artist Point on the South Rim.

The Upper Falls is smaller and quieter and is best seen from the Upper Falls Viewpoint on the South Rim.

I recommend visiting the South Rim mid-morning and North Rim in the afternoon.

On the South Rim, I recommend driving to Artist Point first, planning to arrive about 2 hours after sunrise. I don’t recommend coming here for sunrise as it takes several hours after sunrise for the sun to penetrate the canyon.

Read More: 15 Best Hikes in Yellowstone

Sunset over a distant waterfall in Yellowstone
Artist Point

My favorite attractions on the South Rim are:

  • Artist Point, a viewpoint that provides beautiful early morning or mid-morning views of the Lower Falls
  • Uncle Tom’s Trail, a challenging but short hike that features 300+ steep stairs taking you down to an up-close view of the Lower Falls
  • Upper Falls Viewpoint, an easy walk to a viewpoint from the Uncle Tom’s Trail parking area that provides excellent views of the Upper Falls
  • South Rim Trail, a longer 4+ mile hike that takes you along the canyon, connecting all 3 of the viewpoints above

After exploring the South Rim, head over to the North Rim. The road along the North Rim is a one-way loop, so I recommend stopping at each viewpoint in order so you don’t have to loop all the way around to go back.

Don’t miss these stops on the North Rim (listed here in order along the North Rim Drive):

  • Brink of the Lower Falls, a steep ~0.7-mile hiking trail with switchbacks that take you down to a viewing platform perched just above the Lower Falls
  • Lookout Point, an accessible viewpoint that provides views of the canyon of the Lower Falls
  • Red Rock Point, a difficult ~0.7-mile trail starting at Lookout Point, climbing down to a viewing platform closer to the Lower Falls
  • Grand View, an accessible viewpoint best for seeing the colors of the canyon and the Yellowstone River heading east
  • Inspiration Point, a significant viewpoint that provides views both upstream (towards the Lower Falls) and downstream (through the canyon)

You can also see the Upper Falls from above at the Brink of the Upper Falls, found on an access road between the North Rim and South Rim drives.

Map of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Map of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

5. Biscuit Basin

  • District: Old Faithful
  • Estimated Time: 15 to 30 minutes
Bright blue hot springs pool in Yellowstone
Sapphire Pool in Biscuit Basin

The Biscuit Basin is a lesser-visited, often overshadowed geyser basin. Located just north of the Upper Geyser Basin, this geothermal area features a small cluster of geysers and pools.

This basin got its name from an earthquake in 1959. The quake caused Sapphire Pool to erupt, blowing “biscuits” (or chunks of rock) into the air.

My favorite feature in Biscuit Basin is the Sapphire Pool, a brightly colored, sapphire-colored pool. The deep blue hue is one of the most spectacular in the park. Don’t miss the multi-colored Mustard Spring or Jewel Geyser either.

If you want to spend a bit more time hiking, you can connect Biscuit Basin and the Upper Geyser Basin via a 1.2-mile trail each way.

To get to the Upper Geyser Basin from Biscuit Basin, cross the Yellowstone Grand Loop Park Road and take the path from Mirror Pool to Morning Glory Pool.

6. Yellowstone Grand Loop Road

  • District: Connects all of Yellowstone
  • Estimated Time: 1 day to drive in its entirety
Road turns around a rock face overlooking a forest in Yellowstone

The Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park is the ultimate scenic drive, connecting the majority of the park’s most popular attractions. If you only have one day in the park, I highly recommend taking a road trip along the Grand Loop Road.

Initially built in 1915, this 140-mile long loop is the heart of Yellowstone. The scenic drive forms a Figure 8, with Mammoth and Lamar Valley at the top and Old Faithful at the bottom.

If you’re spending several days in the park, you’ll likely cover all sections over several days visiting attractions on this list.

If you want to drive the Grand Loop Road in one day, I recommend this order:

  1. Enter the park through the West Yellowstone entrance
  2. Old Faithful (be sure to check out the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin too)
  3. West Thumb
  4. Canyon Village (don’t miss Artist Point on the South Rim!)
  5. Norris
  6. Mammoth Hot Springs (via Norris – cross the figure 8 as you head north)
  7. Tower-Roosevelt (keep your eyes peeled for bison on this drive!)
  8. End your day with sunset in Hayden Valley near Canyon Village

Of course, if you’re entering the park from a different entrance, you can just start from the nearest area and continue the loop.

Check this link on the Yellowstone NPS website for the latest road conditions.

7. Mammoth Hot Springs

  • District: Mammoth
  • Estimated Time: 1-2 hours
Travertine terraces in Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the more unique hot springs in the park. Located in the northwestern corner of the park near Gardiner, Montana, it’s a must-see attraction if you have a couple of days in Yellowstone.

Unlike other hot springs, Mammoth Hot Springs is made of travertine terraces. These unique formations were formed by geothermal activity beneath the surface, dissolving the calcium carbonate. Eventually, it cools, forming the terraces you see today.

Microorganisms called Thermophiles create the color you see in hot springs, from Mammoth to Grand Prismatic. Here you’ll find the terraces painted orange, brown, purple, and yellow.

Waterfalls across the terraces create a genuinely unique cascading hot spring.

The best way to see Mammoth Hot Springs is on a short walk through the Lower Terraces. The Upper and Main Terraces are accessible on a short scenic drive, but admittedly there’s not as much to see here.

If you’re short on time, I recommend just doing the Lower Terraces.

You’ll find several small parking lots just before you reach the town of Mammoth. The entire loop through the Lower Terraces is a little over a mile, all on the boardwalk or paved paths.

Don’t miss Palette Spring, Minerva Terrace, and Mound and Jupiter Terraces. However, if you choose to venture up to the Main and Upper Terraces, don’t miss Canary Spring.

After visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, be sure to stroll around the small town of Mammoth. I highly recommend stopping at the Albright Visitor Center to check out the informative displays and stamp your national park passport.

Elk rutting (mating) season starts in mid-August and ends in September. During this time, you’ll see plenty of elk throughout Mammoth, including several battling bull elk.

Just remember to keep a safe distance as elk are more aggressive this time of year.

This area is also one of the few areas of Yellowstone open in the winter. Therefore, a trip here during the snowy months provides opportunities for snowshoeing and skiing along the Upper Terraces.

It is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful locations in the park and features two boardwalks, namely the Upper and the Lower Terraces, that you can explore to enjoy more enthralling views.

8. Hayden Valley

  • District: Canyon Village
  • Estimated Time: 1-2 hours
Sunset over a field and river in Hayden Valley in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is renowned for its wildlife. Home to large bison herds, elk, moose, both grizzly and black bears, wolves, and more, wildlife watching should be an essential part of your Yellowstone itinerary.

Hayden Valley is my favorite spot to view wildlife in Yellowstone. This valley is located on the park’s eastern side, stretching from Canyon Village to Mud Volcano.

You have the best chance of spotting bison and elk in Hayden Valley. You may also be able to spot bears and bald eagles!

While the drive through Hayden Valley is only about 7 miles, I recommend spending about 2 hours here to increase your chance of seeing wildlife. Patience is the name of the game in Hayden Valley. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

The best times to see wildlife are the hours after sunrise or before sunset, often called ‘Golden Hour’ by photographers. So if you’re staying in Canyon Village, a visit to Hayden Valley is the perfect way to start or end your day in Yellowstone.

The best way to spot wildlife in Hayden Valley is to find a spot to pull over and wait. Often you won’t see wildlife right away, so your best bet is to bring a camping chair and stakeout.

Most wildlife will be far away. The best way to get an up-close look is with a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. I invested in the Vortex Diamondback 10×32 binoculars which provide 10x magnification.

Read More: How to Spend 1 to 5 Days in Yellowstone

Bison grazes in a field in Yellowstone's Hayden Valley

The best places for watching wildlife in Hayden Valley are:

Of course, there are plenty more excellent viewpoints. Generally, just drive slowly and pull over if you want to stop to look at wildlife. Always be sure to pull off the main road and not block traffic.

If you want to learn more about wildlife in Yellowstone, consider visiting the Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, just outside the park!

9. Lamar Valley

  • District: Tower-Roosevelt
  • Estimated Time: 1-2 hours
Bison crossing the road in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone

Another popular wildlife viewing area in Yellowstone is Lamar Valley, located in the northeastern part of the park. Lamar Valley is a great area to spot bison, bears, coyotes, and wolves

Like Hayden Valley, the hours after sunrise and before sunset are the best time to spot wildlife. However, if you stick around after sunset, you may hear wolves howling in the distance.

It’s common for bison to cause traffic jams in Lamar Valley crossing road to graze in a new meadow. Always be sure to keep your distance from the bison and stay in your car if they are nearby.

There’s plenty of excellent pull-offs in Lamar Valley for wildlife viewing. However, wildlife will be further away as the valley is more expansive than Hayden Valley.

I highly recommend bringing a pair of quality binoculars or a spotting scope for a closer look.

Lamar Valley is relatively isolated, far away from many attractions in Yellowstone. It’s about an hour from both Canyon Village and Mammoth Hot Springs.

A trip to Lamar Valley is well worth it but requires an early wake-up call or a late night.

10. Mount Washburn

  • District: North of Canyon Village
  • Estimated Time: 4 hours
Sign reading 'Mount Washburn' in Yellowstone

If you’re looking for a hike (and escape from the crowds) in Yellowstone, don’t miss Mount Washburn. As one of the highest points in Yellowstone National Park, the 10,200-foot mountain provides excellent panoramic views.

There are two ways to hike Mount Washburn:

  • Chittenden Road to Mount Washburn – 5.6 miles, 1482 feet elevation, 5% average grade
  • Dunraven Pass to Mount Washburn – 6.8 miles, 1394 feet elevation, 4% average grade

Both routes have a reasonably mild average grade (between 3-5%). Dunraven Pass does require a long section of switchbacks and is about a mile longer but is somewhat more scenic.

The Chittenden Road route is shorter and a bit easier, but the path is also used as a service road for horseback riding and cyclists.

Both trails provide views of wildflowers and opportunities to see bighorn sheep and mountain goats. In addition, the top of Mount Washburn offers spectacular views from the fire lookout of Yellowstone National Park below.

I recommend saving this hike for a few days into your trip to Yellowstone to give yourself time to acclimate to the elevation. The summit of the trail is over 10,000 feet. 

Read More: 15 Best Hikes in Yellowstone National Park

11. Norris Geyser Basin

  • District: Norris
  • Estimated Time: 1-2 hours
Blue creek flows through ground in Norris Geyser Basin

Norris Geyser Basin is home to fascinating geysers and pools, including Steamboat Geyser – the tallest active geyser in the world. You’ll also find rare acidic geysers and colorful, thermophile-filled pools.

The larger Norris Geyser Basin comprises two adjacent basins – Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. Both are only accessible via the boardwalk trails starting at the Norris Geyser Basin parking area.

From the Museum, you can complete a 0.8-mile loop through the Porcelain Basin and a 1.7-mile loop through the Back Basin. Since Steamboat Geyser is rarely predicted to erupt, Porcelain Basin tends to be more interesting.

In the Porcelain Basin, start your walk at the Porcelain Basin Overlook to get your bearings. Don’t miss Constant Geyser, colorful runoff from Whirligig and Pinwheel Geysers, Crackling Lake, and Congress Pool.

The Back Basin is the longer of the two loops and home to the world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser. However, Steamboat eruptions are rare, sometimes going years between eruptions.

Don’t miss Emerald Spring, Cistern Spring, Echinus Geyser, Puff ‘n Stuff Geyser, Green Dragon Spring, and Porkchop Geyser.

Map of Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone
Map of the Norris Geyser Basin

12. West Thumb Geyser Basin

  • District: Grant Village
  • Estimated Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour
Sunrise over blue hot springs and Yellowstone Lake in West Thumb Geyser Basin

West Thumb is one of my favorite geyser basins in Yellowstone. Its location along the shores of Yellowstone Lake provides both incredible views and unique geothermal activity.

Unfortunately, this trail is often overshadowed by the nearby Upper Geyser Basin, but I highly recommend the stop, particularly if you’re heading south to Grand Teton National Park.

Read More: 7 Day Grand Teton and Yellowstone Road Trip

Yellow, green, and blue hot spring overlooking Yellowstone Lake

The short 0.5-mile boardwalk trail takes you through the features and along the western shore of Yellowstone Lake. The best feature in the West Thumb Geyser Basin is the Abyss Pool, a stunning teal-blue pool over 50 feet deep.

In addition to the Abyss Pool, don’t miss Fishing Cone, Black Pool, Thumb Geyser, Seismograph Pool, and Lakeshore Geyser.

Map of West Thumb Geyser Basin in Yellowstone
Map of West Thumb Geyser Basin

13. Yellowstone Lake

  • District: Lake Village
  • Estimated Time: 30 minutes to a half-day
Expansive view of Yellowstone Lake with a tree in the foreground

Yet another unique landscape found in this park is Yellowstone Lake. The expansive lake features more than 110 miles of shoreline and is the largest high elevation lake in North America.

How much time you spend here will depend on your interests. If you’re just passing through the area, I recommend visiting the historic Lake Hotel and driving to Lake Butte Overlook. There are also several picnic areas nearby for a relaxing lunch.

While the cold waters of Yellowstone Lake don’t lend themselves to swimming, the lake makes an excellent boat excursion.

If you have more time to spend at Yellowstone Lake, I recommend taking a boat tour or renting a boat from Yellowstone National Park Lodges. Options include a scenic cruise, private boat rentals, and guided sightseeing and fishing tours.

14. Old Faithful Inn

  • District: Old Faithful
  • Estimated Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour
Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn from a distance

The Old Faithful Inn is the crown jewel of the Yellowstone National Park lodges. The inn is the best located and most historical of the nine lodges inside Yellowstone. 

The lodge first opened in 1904 as the first hotel in Yellowstone National Park. Today it is featured as a National Historic Landmark. Even if you aren’t staying here, it’s worth stopping in to look around or have a meal at the restaurant. 

The stunning multi-story lobby is an impressive demonstration of rustic architecture. The staff offers a free guided tour of the hotel, and you can find the geyser prediction times for the day at the front desk.

Tiered floors and rafters in Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn

However, the best feature of the lodge is the view from the front deck. Located on the hotel’s second story, the deck provides direct views of the Old Faithful geyser.

As a result, the deck is a great place to relax with a picnic lunch (or grab-and-go from the cafe downstairs) and watch the geyser erupt.

After visiting the Old Faithful Inn, be sure to check out the newly constructed Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. 

Read More: Best Places to Stay in Yellowstone

15. Fairy Falls Trail

  • District: Old Faithful
  • Estimated Time: 2 hours
Waterfall in front of a cave and rock wall in Yellowstone

Fairy Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park. The trail starts at the Fairy Falls Trailhead, the same path used to get to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook

The trail passes through forested areas before reaching the waterfall at the trail’s end. Be sure to carry bear spray on this hike!

As you hike to Fairy Falls, be sure to stop at the overlook on your hike. After the lookout, the trail continues several miles until Fairy Falls. 

Read More: 15 Best Hikes in Yellowstone National Park

16. Boiling River Hot Spring

  • District: Mammoth
  • Estimated Time: 1-2 hours
Steaming, winding river in Yellowstone

The Boiling River is a stretch of the Gardiner River, located just north of Mammoth. The geothermal activity underneath the surface heats that water in this section of the river, creating a large hot spring.

But unlike other hot springs and pools in Yellowstone, you can swim in this one! The cool water of the Gardiner River flowing in cools the hot spring water, resulting in bathtub-like temperatures. 

Boiling River is a great option if you’re looking for a family-friendly summer activity for active kids in Yellowstone! Just remember to bring water shoes as the river is rocky and supervise kids (there’s no lifeguard here!).

The Boiling River Hot Springs is closed in spring and early summer since water levels are higher from snowmelt. The hot springs are best enjoyed from July to September.

To get here, head about 2 miles north of Mammoth towards Gardiner. From the parking area, it’s a short, flat walk to the river.

17. Tower Fall

  • District: Tower-Roosevelt
  • Estimated Time: 30 minutes
Waterfall framed by trees and rock spires at Tower Fall

Tower Fall is one of the tallest waterfalls in Yellowstone National Park, dwarfed by only a handful of cascades, including the Lower Falls in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Fairy Falls.

The 132-foot waterfall drops into a pool through a narrow spire-filled canyon.

While you can no longer hike to the bottom of the waterfall due to trail erosion, you can take in the incredible views of Tower Fall from the Tower Fall Overlook. This viewpoint looks down upon the waterfall and is incredibly picturesque.

The overlook is only a short walk from the Tower Fall parking area, making it a reasonably accessible viewpoint off the Grand Loop Road.

18. Firehole Canyon Drive

  • District: Madison
  • Estimated Time: 2 hours
Overlook of tree-lined river and swimming hole in Yellowstone

If you’re looking for a scenic drive to help you escape the crowds on Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road, don’t miss the Firehole Canyon scenic drive

This short 2-mile drive follows the Firehole River, passing Firehole Falls and a popular swimming area. While the swimming hole can get crowded here on a warm summer day, it’s nothing like the crowds found at the nearby Old Faithful area or Grand Prismatic.

19. Lower Geyser Basin

  • District: Madison
  • Estimated Time: 1-3 hours
Spewing, tall geyser at sunrise in Yellowstone
Great Fountain Geyser

The Lower Geyser Basin is one of the lesser-visited geyser basins in Yellowstone (but still expect some crowds midday!). This basin is known for the Fountain Paint Pot Trail and the Great Fountain Geyser.

The Fountain Paint Pot Trail features several hydrothermal features, the most notable of which are the mud pots. These are brownish-gray pools resembling boiling clay or mud.

The crown jewel of the Lower Geyser Basin is the Great Fountain Geyser. However, it only erupts roughly twice a day, usually spread out about 12 hours between eruptions.

If you time your visit right, you’ll be able to watch the geyser erupt for nearly one whole hour! The Great Fountain Geyser can reach heights over 200 feet.

Great Fountain Geyser is a predicted geyser, so you can find estimated eruption times at the visitor centers, lodges, or on the Yellowstone Geyser Activity page.

20. Mud Volcano

  • District: Between Canyon Village and Lake Village
  • Estimated Time: 30 minutes
Steaming mud pot in Yellowstone

This geothermal area is characterized by its muddy pools, steaming fumaroles, and sulphuric odor. It’s also a popular spot to see bison grazing amongst geothermal features, typically in the field across the river.

The most notable features are the Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The Mud Volcano resembles a boiling pot of mud carved out into the rock.

At Dragon’s Mouth Spring, a cave emits steam, complemented by belching and huffing noises, making you think a dragon is hiding just out of sight.

While this geothermal area is less impressive than others in the park, it is still worth a quick visit if you’re in Hayden Valley.

21. Blacktail Plateau Drive

  • District: Tower-Roosevelt
  • Estimated Time: 1 hour
Long, unpaved road through a field in Yellowstone National Park

Blacktail Plateau Drive is a one-way unpaved scenic drive between Mammoth and Tower-Roosevelt. This relatively unvisited route is the perfect escape along the Grand Loop Road

The scenery of the rolling hills is impressive, and it’s an excellent opportunity to spot wildlife off-the-beaten-path. Keep your eyes peeled for bison, elk, and even bears!

The road is unpaved, so I recommend a high-clearance vehicle like an SUV. While AWD or 4×4 isn’t required, it does make the drive more accessible and provides some peace of mind when driving on unpaved surfaces. 

22. Roosevelt Arch

  • District: Mammoth
  • Estimated Time: 15 minutes
Stone archway over the Yellowstone National Park entrance

Back when Yellowstone National Park was first founded, the main entrance through the park was at the northern end near Gardiner, Montana. This entrance has been memorialized with the stone Roosevelt Arch just north of Mammoth.

The arch is named after former President Theodore Roosevelt. He was a famed lover of national parks and a crucial part of establishing the National Park Service.

In addition to this arch, you’ll find several more nods to President Roosevelt in the United States’ first national park, including the Tower-Roosevelt region of Yellowstone.

Seeing the Roosevelt Arch only requires a quick visit. You can walk or drive through the arch at the North Entrance of Yellowstone.

Frequently Asked Questions About What to Do in Yellowstone

What is the number one attraction in Yellowstone?

The most popular attraction in Yellowstone National Park is Old Faithful, located in the Upper Geyser Basin. Here you’ll find the largest concentration of geysers and hot springs in the world. Plan to spend at least a few hours here.

What is the best way to explore Yellowstone?

The best way to explore Yellowstone is on a hike or walk. Much of Yellowstone’s popular geothermal geyser basins have boardwalk paths or trails, making them easily accessible for most visitors. 

What is the most interesting thing about Yellowstone National Park?

Not only is Yellowstone America’s oldest national park, but it also preserves more than 10,000 geothermal features and is home to the densest concentration of hot springs in the world. Plus, Yellowstone’s landmass is larger than Rhode Island.

What should I be careful of in Yellowstone?

The most significant danger to visitors in Yellowstone is in the geyser basins. Always stay on the trail and never touch any features, pools, or geysers. Keep a close watch on children. If you encounter wildlife, keep at least 25 yards away.

Final Thoughts on the Best Things to Do in Yellowstone

While Yellowstone National Park is large and filled with great things to do, you can use this guide to prioritize your time in the park.

If you only have a few days in Yellowstone, I recommend focusing on these top 10 things to do:

  1. Old Faithful Geyser
  2. Upper Geyser Basin
  3. Grand Prismatic Spring
  4. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
  5. Hayden Valley
  6. Lamar Valley
  7. Yellowstone Grand Loop Road
  8. Mammoth Hot Springs
  9. West Thumb Geyser Basin
  10. Yellowstone Lake

If you want to learn more about Yellowstone National Park, check out these posts!

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