A Traveler’s Guide to Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is located at the headwaters of a river bearing the same name. It was established as a national park in 1872 and since then has drawn countless tourists to the area. Spanning a staggering 3, 468 square miles, Yellowstone National Park is a breathtaking natural wonder in an of itself. Experience the beauty of Wyoming’s abundant flora and fauna, erupting geysers, endless canyons, crystal clear lakes, and mountain ranges that reach to the heavens. This easy to follow guide with sample itinerary will help you plan a memorable vacation to Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park

Day One in Yellowstone National Park

Mammoth Hot Springs

An excellent stop on any natural wonders tour, Mammoth Hot Springs is the first of many surprises Mother Nature has in store for visitors to Yellowstone National Park. The landscape here is constantly changing, as is the behavior of the hot springs. Minerva, a formerly active spring that drew many sightseers to the area, is now bone dry, but never fear – there is always a newborn hot spring to take its place. Jupiter, once a dry shadow of its former self, is now reborn into the bubbling hot spring it once was. So is the cycle of life and death in Mammoth Hot Springs. Hot gases within the earth mix with water to make an acidic substance that, over time, eats away at rock. When air meets with the acid concoction and it in turn erodes limestone in the rock, something truly magical happens: travertine is born. Travertine terraces are everywhere in Mammoth Hot Springs. Pristine water flows freely over the colorful surface of the travertine, forming small waterfalls as it spills over the terraces within the hot springs.

A Geyser of a Good Time

Yellowstone is home to the largest active geyser field in the world, so it’s no wonder this is one of Yellowstone’s proudest and most popular natural wonders. There are 300 geysers – some that erupt like clockwork and others than are entirely unpredictable. The geysers are divided into different sectors which make for much easier and organized viewing: the Upper Geyser Basin, the Midway Geyser Basin, the Lower Geyser Basin, and the Norris Geyser Basin.

The Upper Geyser Basin can be categorized as the most popular because it is home to the most famous of Yellowstone’s geysers, “Old Faithful.” It was discovered quite by accident in 1870 by members of the Washburn Expedition, who happened to see the geyser during one of its frequent eruptions. It was donned “Old Faithful” due to its rhythmic and timely eruptions and it has never let anyone down – erupting millions of times since its discovery. Roughly every ninety-two minutes, “Old Faithful” shows her splendor, shooting water and steam an impressive 135 feet into the air. Like most of the park’s geysers, “Old Faithful” gets her water from deep inside the earth, where rain water and melting snow collect, are heated by magma body, and then forced up through the earth’s surface in the stunning display that is “Old Faithful.” Castle Geyser and Riverside Geyser also call the Upper Geyser Basin home. These two are worthwhile stops, however, their eruptions are not as predictable as “Old Faithful’s,” so be prepared for a bit of a wait. It is recommended that a good portion of geyser touring be spent on this basin, as it is extensive.

The Midway Geyser Basin is located midway between Yellowstone’s Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, hence the name. Though this particular basin is small and seemingly unimpressive in comparison to its predecessor, Midway Geyser Basin is actually home to the largest single hot springs in the world – Grand Prismatic Spring.

The Lower Geyser Basin boasts one of the area’s most popular attractions, the Fountain Paint Pots. The Fountain Paint Pots are a large group of mud pots. Acidity in the steam breaks the ground clay and forms the bubbling mud “pots.” The steam also turns the turns the clay into shades of white, brown, and grey, as if it had been hand painted, making for quite an impressive sight.

The Norris Geyser Basin is home to two very distinct sub-basins: Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. Back Basin is the showier of the two cousins, boasting geysers – make sure to visit the impressive Echinus Geyser – while Porcelain Basin is more relaxed, with its many hot springs and steam vents.

Late Lunch at Bear Paw Deli

A low-key lunch affair for those in a hurry, the Bear Paw Deli is located at the “Old Faithful Inn.” It is a great stop for sightseers who don’t want to spend a lot of time on a midday meal. They offer an array of sandwiches, soups, salads, and other lunch fare, as well as ice cream treats for those hot days in the park. Though not the best value in Yellowstone, prices are reasonable and the convenience and ambiance are worth stopping by for, especially if you are not lodging at the “Old Faithful Inn.” A must see. Dress is casual.

“Bubble, Bubble, Toil, and Trouble”

The smell is undeniable and something most visitors to Yellowstone will recognize instantly: rotten eggs. Don’t be put off by this phenomenon just yet. No, there is no spoiled food lying around the park. In fact, it’s Yellowstone’s Mud Volcanoes – or rather the sulfur therein – that is producing the putrid smell. Hold your nose and grin and bear it because missing out on this natural wonder would be a crime. The Mud Volcano region is a bubbling, acidic region in which sulfur and sulfur-eating bacteria work together in perfect harmony over centuries to turn rocks into hot mud. Looking like something straight out of prehistoric days, Dragon’s Mouth Spring is the area’s most popular attraction. In a cave on the hillside, watch as gases rising from the earth cause the splashing of water against the cave walls at Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The effect? The splashing of water vaguely resembles that of a dragon’s tongue, lashing out toward you in a watery spray.

Dinner at Cowfish Restaurant

Located in Lander, Wyoming – a small town easily accessible from Yellowstone National Park – the Cowfish Restaurant is a delectable restaurant offering steaks, chicken, seafood, pasta, and many other dishes. Housed on historic Main Street in an old brick-faced building, the atmosphere is a blast from the past with soaring tin covered ceilings and adjacent bar, the Cowfish and town of Lander have an unmistakable Old West flair. A family friendly dining establishment with reasonable prices and a casual dress code, this restaurant is sure to please.

Round the Ole Campfire

There’s nothing quiet like a campfire to remind us of the Great Outdoors. Gather around with a tour guide to hear stories of Yellowstone’s history. Hour-long programs are offered with topics ranging from local wildlife stories, to Wild West Tales, to 19th Century artisans who populated the culture-rich area. Campfire programs are typically offered through campgrounds, such as Mammoth Hot Springs, Bridge Bay, and Canyon. They usually run from June through August and beginning around 9:00 pm or 9:30 pm when it is dark and chilly enough that a campfire is warranted. A great experience for children and adults alike.

Day Two in Yellowstone National Park

The Canyon Area

Believe it or not, Yellowstone National Park has its very own version of the Grand Canyon. Appropriately dubbed the “Canyon Area” of Yellowstone, this 4,000 feet wide gorge is nothing short of spectacular. There are several vantage points along the North and South rims of the canyon that offer great views. Lower Falls tumbles 308 feet into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone while the Upper Falls plunges an equally as impressive 109 feet. Formed by prehistoric volcanic eruptions and glacial movements, this canyon’s beauty is something not to be missed. Plan on spending a good amount of time here.

Yellowstone Grand Canyon

Saddle Up

Nothing says “Old West” quite like a horseback ride. Whether you are interested in riding for an hour or the entire day, Yellowstone has something to offer. There are many reputable businesses that offer horseback riding. However, the Yellowstone National Park’s very own horseback rides are some of the best. Guides will lead you through some of the most amazing scenery you will ever experience. In addition, the groups are usually small, the tour guides are more attentive, and the value is unbeatable. All rides depart from a private ranch bordering Yellowstone Park. Keep in mind before heading out on the dusty trail: this activity is great for adults and teens, but not recommended for small children.

What a Water-ful World

An often overlooked part of Yellowstone National Park is the more than 300 gorgeous waterfalls. The Upper and Lower Falls, flowing into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, are truly spectacular. They can be seen from as far as one and a half miles away in Canyon Village. Virginia Cascades, Gibbon Falls, Tower Falls, Lewis Falls, and Undine Falls are all noteworthy. Taking a hike to the falls is quite an experience, but locations can also be reached easily by automobile.

A Pow Wow with Heritage

Native American pow wow’s are not only a social event, attracting tribal members from across the country, but also a way of keeping the beautiful and rich culture of Wyoming’s original inhabitants alive. Competitive drum, dance, and chanting competitions take place and there are specialty categories. Wyoming’s largest pow wow is held during the Eastern Shoshone Indian Days, usually held the last week in June. Research the local Native American festivals prior to planning a trip to Yellowstone.

Dinner at The Old Faithful Dining Room

Located inside the beautiful and historic Old Faithful Inn, The Old Faithful Dining Room offer visitors a piece of Yellowstone’s past as well as a great dining experience.

Day Three in Yellowstone National Park

Into the Wild

If you haven’t noticed yet on your trip to Yellowstone, wildlife plays a huge role in the charm and history of the beautiful park. It’s all around. However, there are a few select species to watch for and several ideal places to spot them in their natural habitat.

The Bears are one of the more common species. There are two types of bears that call Yellowstone National Park home: the Grizzly bear and the black bear. The Grizzly is the larger and more aggressive of the two species, weighing in at 400 pounds (females) to 600 pounds (males). Black bears are lighter weight, around 135 to 315 pounds, and are generally more passive. However, both species, as with any wild animals, can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable. Care should be taken when viewing these beautiful creatures in the wild. Bears can be spotted most anywhere throughout the park. However, black bears are more likely to be found in wooded areas and in forest clearings while Grizzlies prefer open meadows.

Bison in Yellowstone National ParkThe American Bison is a respected resident of Yellowstone not because of their large numbers – the population dwindled after the turn of the century and now roughly 3,500 of the original descendants inhabit Yellowstone National Park – but because of their impressive size. The American Bison is 2,000 pounds of pure resilience – and aggression, known to charge at visitors with little to no provocation. The best places to view Bison in their natural habitat during warm months are in Hayden Valley and near the Lower Geyser Basin. Also, in colder months, Bison are known to frequent the Mammoth Hot Springs where they soak in the depths of the bubbling cauldrons (their hoof-prints can be seen in the floor of the springs).

The Elk is the most abundant large mammal found in Yellowstone National Park. Approximately 25,000 elk spend the summer in the park while roughly 15,000 spend the winter months there. However, September is likely to be the most exciting month for elk viewing. During this month, elks “rut” or enter their mating season and you are likely to hear the unique “bugle” call males use to signal their harem of female elk or to ward off other males that may pose as competition. The elk are most visible to visitors in the early morning or late afternoon. Elk thrive in places with lush vegetations – forested areas that have been recently logged or burned out by wildfire. They are readily spotted in Norris Junction, Elk Park, and Lamar Valley areas of Yellowstone. Also, they love the Old Faithful Upper Geyser Basin, so keep an eye out for them while visiting the famed geyser.

The Grey Wolf was, believe it or not, totally absent from Yellowstone until 1995, when thirty-one Grey wolves were reintroduced to the area from Canada. Since then, the population has grown to 325 wolves and they are an integral part of the ecosystem in the park. Grey wolves feed on elk, so the same areas that are ideal for elk viewing are also ideal for catching a glimpse of the Grey wolf. The Druid Peak Pack, the largest group of wolves in Yellowstone, resides in the Lamar Valley region, so start your sightseeing here.

A few safety tips: do not feed the wildlife and never, under any circumstance, approach animals, especially young, as mothers can be extremely territorial if they feel their offspring are being threatened. If you want to get a closer view of the park’s many creatures, invest in a pair of binoculars – these will more than pay for themselves during your vacation in Yellowstone National Park.

Riding the Rapids

Just as Yellowstone can be nippy during winter months, the summer months can bring around a balmy change in climate. What better way to cool off from the heat than with a whitewater rafting adventure! Feel the rush of the Yellowstone River rapids as you cruise through shallow streams and plunge over rocky waterfalls on your thrilling trip. Whether its your first time or you’re an old hand at the rapids, Yellowstone has something to offer you. There are two ways to go about rafting: renting your own raft or having a guide tour take you down stream. Taking a guided tour is recommended, as an experienced rafter will be with you at all times. Several things to remember before going whitewater rafting:

  • You will get wet, very wet, on a rafting trip, so wear something comfortable (and preferably older) on your trip. Shorts, tanks, and sandals (with straps) are adequate. In addition, sunglasses are a good idea since the glare of sunlight off the water can be nearly blinding.
  • Do not take expensive equipment, such as cameras and the like. The trip is likely to be rough and most electronic gadgets are not waterproof.
  • Always bring waterproof sunscreen. It is easy to return from your rafting trip with a pretty severe sunburn if you are not prepared with all necessary supplies.

With safety precautions taken, plan your rafting experience with one of Yellowstone’s oldest and most reputable rafting companies. A few of the best are Wild West Rafting, Barker-Ewing River Trips, and Lewis and Clark Expeditions.

Dinner at The Roosevelt Lodge “Old West Cookout”

The smell of cowboy coffee and tender steaks barbecuing over an open flame meld into a savory outdoor experience that is the essence of the Old West: an authentic chuckwagon dinner. Gather at the Roosevelt Lodge, one of Yellowstone’s many charming accommodations, for a dinner you won’t soon forget. Cowboys will prepare a feast of baked beans, coleslaw, steaks, corn muffins, apple crisp, and watermelon spears. As you settle down to your fresh meal, you will be serenaded with cowboy songs and storytelling from some of the finest orators the West has to offer. Wranglers, wagons, horses, and dinner are a great experience for members of the family, no matter what age. Plus, it is very affordable. Do not miss this great evening complements of The Roosevelt Lodge.

Cowboy Up

What better way to end your fabulous trip to Yellowstone National Park than with a real live rodeo. The rodeo is no new phenomenon, especially in Wyoming. Aside from entertainment, it is a chance for cowboys and cowgirls of all ages to showcase their talents, some of which are nothing short of spectacular. Barrel racing, steer roping, saddle bronc riding, and the ever-popular bull riding are just a few of the events you will witness at a Wyoming rodeo.

The best one – and the largest – is Cheyenne Frontier Days, held the very last week in July. It is the largest outdoor rodeo in the world. Attracting some of the biggest names in rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days is a huge draw for visitors to Wyoming and natives alike. Not only do they offer a stellar rodeo experience, there is a carnival midway, annual chili cook-off, parade, and authentic replica of an Indian village. Can’t make it to Yellowstone in time for the Cheyenne Frontier Days? Cody, Wyoming also offers a great rodeo and “Wild West” experience in June and July.

For more information on planning your summer vacation to Yellowstone National Park, visit the following website: