If you you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone, you’ve made a good choice. Yellowstone is a nature-lovers dream and if you’re planning to stay inside the park, you should book earlier than you might think. Reservations can be made up to 16 months in advance and booking early is common practice, so if you wait much later than that, you may find that the rooms are hard to come by. The nice thing is that you can cancel up to 14 days prior to your arrival, so book in advance and plan the rest later. And when it comes to planning, this trip warrants a perfect blend of planning and adventuring. Here’s how we recently spent our 4 nights inside Yellowstone, completing the Grand Loop.
Yellowstone is the largest in the National Park System, covering 2.2 million acres of land with just as much variety in nature. There are 5 entrances into Yellowstone, so you should begin your planning here. We flew into Jackson, WY and enjoyed a day there before a day in Grand Tetons, and then spent some time at a dude ranch in Dubois before beginning our time in Yellowstone. All of our stops were relatively close together and all located south of South Entrance, so this is where we started our adventures in Yellowstone.
When visiting Yellowstone, be prepared to drive a lot and be patient with other visitors and wildlife because the roads do become blocked at times with visitors stopping to take photos (sometimes longer than they should) and animals crossing the road. We were fortunate enough to experience bison crossing the road firsthand and I can assure you, they are in no hurry. It’s quite majestic to watch – especially if they walk right past your car, which was the case with us. The shoulder of the closest bison was, no exaggeration, as tall as the top of the car window… and we were sitting on the road between a mountain and a cliff, so “no sudden movements” was definitely in order. They have their paths and they will stick to them as long as nothing (you) happens to distract or attract them.
DAY 1. We spent about an hour and a half traveling from South Entrance to Old Faithful where we stayed at the historic Old Faithful Inn. There is a visitor center here (where the kids picked up their Jr. Ranger packets*), a couple of gift shops, a grocery store and several restaurants between Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Lodge. Even if you aren’t staying at one of the hotels on the Old Faithful campus, I recommend you walk through the Old Faithful Inn. With the exposed beams and grand entrance, it’s easy to see the history here. There is also a restaurant on the second floor that has a balcony overlooking Old Faithful. It’s noteworthy that our room was in the new wing and overlooked Old Faithful and, since O.F. erupts about every 90 minutes, we were lucky to see it several times from our room. There is also a cafeteria inside the Old Faithful Lodge that has huge picture windows overlooking Old Faithful, as well as a nice sized covered porch with rocking chairs and benches overlooking Old Faithful.
Some noteworthy stops along the way from South Entrance to Old Faithful: You’ll cross the Continental Divide (this happens a few times in the park), Crawfish Creek and Moose Falls (next to each other) are worth a stop.
DAY 2. An easy breakfast on the benches overlooking Old Faithful, then we walked the boardwalks of the Upper Geyser Basin (where Old Faithful is located). Lion Geyser erupted while we were there – which makes a large roaring sound. Each geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin is different in some way; it’s definitely worth the walk to see the variety of hydrothermal features and the unique beauty of each one. Especially if you’re not planning to stop at every hydrothermal spot in Yellowstone (which you may not have time for), this is a great way to see some variety all in one place. Next we made our way to the Mid Geyser Basin. The parking lot is small and was full (there are restrooms here), but everyone parks along the road. It’s a short, flat walk to the 2 features here, Excelsior Geyser Crater and The Grand Prismatic. Grand Prismatic is one of the most amazing things we had ever seen! If you enjoy hydrothermal features, it’s one of the grandest for sure; unfortunate for Excelsior which is equally beautiful in its own right (you’ll pass right by it walking the boardwalk to G.P.), but Grand Prismatic is so large, so mysterious, and so unique with its steaming brilliance, it upstages Excelsior.
We’re always looking for a good picnic spot and after our tour of the Midway Geyser Basin, we decided to picnic right by the car. If you park beside the road, North of the parking lot, there is a naturally under-brushed, forested area and it’s a great spot to pull out the picnic blanket and enjoy lunch under the trees.
After our picnic, we drove south (a mile or 2) to the parking lot for Fairy Falls where, with a short, flat walk (around 1.5 miles RT), we climbed to the overlook for Grand Prismatic which gives a nice overview perspective of the rainbow of colors and vastness of this natural wonder. After taking a few great pictures, we continued along the trail to Fairy Falls. This is a very easy, flat, hiking trail that leads to the base of the 197’ waterfall and pool where older kids can play in the water and you can observe the contrast between old forest fire devastation against new, lush growth. If you’re okay with 5.5 miles RT, this stop offers big experience for a small amount of effort.
Leaving Mid Geyser Basin, we continued along the West side of the main loop past Madison and Norris and then Right along the base of the Upper Loop to check in at Canyon Village. Upon our arrival, there was a crowd gathered beside the main lodge with a park ranger observing a black bear cub in a small tree. The ranger stayed until the bear finished his nap and went on his way.
Canyon Village Lodge still feels very new and consists of several lodge style 3-story buildings. The rooms are spacious and include refrigerators, coffee machines, large vanities and crank out windows which come in handy in the summer – no air conditioning. The Canyon Village campus has 4 restaurants, 2 gift shops, a large outdoor sporting goods store, ranger station, activities center, campground with facilities and a grocery store. We spent the rest of Day 2 exploring the Canyon Village campus and enjoying dinner at the cafeteria.
A noteworthy stop from Madison to Canyon Village: Virginia Cascade was a nice, 2-mile excursion off the beaten path (on a narrow road) to a quite waterfall.
DAY 3. On day 3 we completed the upper loop; from Canyon Village, we backtracked to Norris, then headed North to Mammoth Hot Springs. Mammoth Hot Springs is the oldest entrance and development in Yellowstone. In the 1800’s, the railway development reached within 600 miles from North Entrance and visitors would take a stagecoach the final 600 miles. Later the railway was extended to be 50 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs which made the stagecoach ride much shorter. The 2nd entrance developed into Yellowstone was West Entrance.
The Mammoth Hot Springs area feels like a quaint township and is home to the Albright Visitor Center. It’s a bit of a drive if you’re staying on the southern end of the park, but there are great sites along the way and it’s well worth the trip. The Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces are absolutely out of this world and amazing to see. Our kids also finished their Jr. Ranger badge requirements here by participating in a Ranger Lead Activity and were sworn in as Yellowstone Jr. Rangers. We ate dinner at The Dining Room which was a great experience – delicious food (we loved the Mediterranean plate appetizer) and great service.
After dinner, we finished the Upper Loop by traveling toward Tower-Roosevelt, then eventually back down to Canyon Village. Upon leaving Mammoth, we immediately began to see an abundance of wildlife; elk were grazing, and black bear were meandering along the roadside. We made a pit stop at Tower Roosevelt and continued toward Northeast Entrance through Lamar Valley. If you’re interested in hiring an expedition guide, this would be the place to do it. Lamar Valley & Hayden Valley are home to much wildlife. While visiting each valley, bison were everywhere grazing, laying and walking across and up the road. The difference is that Hayden Valley is packed with traffic and Lamar Valley is much quieter. After all the excitement in Lamar Valley, we turned around at Trout Lake and made our way back to Canyon Village and called it a day.
Some noteworthy stops along the way to Mammoth Hot Springs: Sheepeater Cliff was on our kids’ Top 3 list. It’s a huge wall made of rows of stacks of flat, round rocks that is great for climbing. Several of the rock rows have fallen, I’m guessing during larger earthquakes in the park, so use caution and this might not be an ideal activity for younger children. There are picnic tables at the site (no restrooms) and we enjoyed a nice picnic along the Gardiner River on the (short) road to Sheepeater Cliff. Golden Gate is also just south of Mammoth and is a beautiful section of the main loop road with a beautiful bridge alongside the Gardiner River right at Bunsen Peak; there is a gorgeous waterfall here as well.
Some noteworthy stops from Mammoth to Canyon Village: Blacktail Plateau Drive is between Mammoth & Tower; a 6 mile off the beaten path twist and turn through the forest. Just after you reenter the main Upper Loop road, Petrified Tree will be on the right. Between Tower & Canyon is another off the beaten path detour through Mount Washburn.
DAY 4. After taking a few short hikes in Yellowstone, we were excited for our biggest trek in the park, The South Rim. During our visit, the Southernmost portion of the trail was closed, but we parked in the Uncle Tom’s Trail lot (there are restrooms there) and began our hike very close to the Upper Falls. This hike is easy up to the Lower Falls overlook, then it can be strenuous through Uncle Tom’s Trail, but the work is well worth it for the views and it does level back out as you approach Artist Point and continues to be more moderate all the way to Ribbon Lake. The canyon carved by the Yellowstone River is massive and a grand site for all to see. There are several wide spots along the way to stop, have a picnic or a snack, and just be in nature. Even though the trail is popular, as you move above Lower Falls overlook it becomes less crowded and more about you and nature. The Canyon of Yellowstone was a highlight of our trip and when you’re planning your trip, you can plan to see it from the South or North Rim. We chose the South Rim for 3 reasons: Artist Point, to extend our hike up to Ribbon Lake, and preferred the steady incline along the South Rim to the down and back staircases of the North Rim.
For the 2nd half of Day 4 we had planned to continue south through Hayden Valley toward Yellowstone Lake, but the traffic was heavy, so we decided to return north to Tower Falls. Although we also hit some traffic heading north due to a bear sighting and the lot at Tower Falls was overflowing, there were still places to park along the roadside and the easy jaunt to the Falls was perfect after our big hike that morning. We wrapped up our afternoon with a delicious bowl of ice cream at the Tower Store.
DAY 5. Our time in WY was wonderful, but all things must come to an end and this was our day to travel home. We made the most of our departure from Yellowstone; from Canyon Village, we completed the lower loop which meant our completion of the Grand Loop – success! We used what time we had to get the kids’ NPS passports stamped at Fishing Bridge and Grant Village, and we’re so glad that we made those stops. To say that Yellowstone Lake is impressive is an understatement. This lake is huge with a beautiful beach at the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center. It definitely left us wanting to see more of Yellowstone. And with that, I’m off to plan our next trip which will definitely include time at Yellowstone Lake and the marina. Happy adventures to you. Please let us know if this was helpful and comment here if you have any questions or specific details you’d like to know about our trip. #RuggedNationOutdoors
Important things to note:
- Grocery store prices are about 50% higher than what we see at home and, originally, the plan was to exit the park to shop, but we decided it was worth the contribution to our park system and the ability to spend more time in the park to just shop inside the park. We had bought basic supplies (plates, napkins, sandwich bags, etc. at the grocery store in Jackson). We brought a collapsible, insulated picnic basket as well as a small insulated bag with us from home, so it kept food good for lunch. Milk for cereal we kept in the fridge in the room.
- There isn’t any air conditioning in guest rooms at Yellowstone lodging. With windows open, you may not need it, but it can get a little warm in the late afternoon during the summer. Each room we stayed in had a fan, but this is something to be prepared for.
* We like picking up the kids’ Jr. Ranger packets early on our NPS trips so the kids have plenty of time to complete the activities as we go along without needing to plan the trip around them or feeling rushed. The activities are fun and educational and the kids really enjoy them. Always allow plenty of time if your kids participate in this program. In large parks, like Yellowstone, it may take a few hours (and some things are on a schedule) to complete all the requirements to get their badges. Also a note that in Yellowstone they actually earn a patch, not a badge.
Gear we used on our trip to Yellowstone National Park