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Travel Recap: Yellowstone National Park Highlights & Tips

Having just returned from our 3 week trip out west, I wanted to share some of our favorite parts (and some tips) of our trip to Yellowstone. The park was one of our main destinations and the reason for our long journey from North Carolina. It certainly didn’t disappoint.

As you can imagine or may already know, the park is HUGE. In fact, it’s one of the largest national parks in the US (outside of those in Alaska and Death Valley). I’ll be honest in sharing that aside from Old Faithful and knowing there’s an abundance of wildlife in Yellowstone, I went in fairly naive to the park features. We had 4 days in the park and saw so many incredible sights! Today, I’m going to share my top 5.

The sign as we entered Yellowstone from the South. Make sure you have your park pass (or payment options) and ID ready from the rangers at the gate.

1. Old Faithful

Predictable? Indeed it is! But there’s so much more than just Old Faithful at the site. We arrived shortly after the morning eruption, so we saw that we had about 90 minutes to explore before the next one. The Visitor Center was top notch and had lots of great displays to learn about the geyser eruptions and how they occur. They also had a great kid-specific area with interactive displays. Upon entering the center, we went to the ranger desk to pick up the junior ranger booklet, then went into the gift shop to cancel out their National Park passport books and to get our flat pennies and tokens for their collector books. The penny press was actually broken at the Old Faithful center, but a helpful ranger called the Canyon Lodge to confirm that their press was working (we later picked up our penny from that location).

After our time in the visitor center, we walked the boardwalk that took you past various thermal features around the Old Faithful area. There were numerous bubbling features all around Old Faithful, so we had plenty to check out while we awaited the eruption time. As it got closer, part of our group started to make our way to the Observation Point via a short trail that provides a higher level view of the geyser. The rest of our group grabbed front row seats at the rapidly filling lower level area.

The kids checking out one of the thermal features along the Old Faithful boardwalk.

At just a switchback away from the actual observation point, we hunkered down on the trail to where we had a direct view of the geyser. I’m glad we stopped where we did as when Old Faithful was done erupting, there was quite a crowd that came down from the top so we had been able to have a fairly quiet experience to ourselves.

The boys claimed their viewing spot along the Observation Point trail.

Right on schedule (the ranger desk has the estimates for a handful of geyser eruptions that are tracked in the park), Old Faithful started to expel steam and water over a hundred feet into the air. It was so cool to see and lasted for several minutes. You can see in the picture that there were hundreds of people watching from the surrounding area below. There was maybe a dozen of us at our spot on the trail. Old Faithful was definitely a ‘must-see’ activity and seeing it from a the different vantage point and beating the crowds was *chefs kiss*.

Old Faithful with an impressive eruption.

2. Artist Paintpots

After Old Faithful, we headed to see the Grand Prismatic trails and battled the crowds and parking to slowly trudge through the boardwalk. While this is, of course, a must-see and iconic feature of the park, I really appreciated the much quieter trail at the Artist Paintpots feature.

A view of multiple steaming thermal features with trees and cloudy skies in the distance.
Overlooking a portion of the Artist Paintpots trail.

The trail is an easy hike from a dedicated parking lot, and venturing out in the afternoon provided minimal crowds and ample parking. We walked along the boardwalk to view many different features including mud-pots, hot springs, and fumeroles. The bubbling, boiling, and steaming of each of the features was impressive and fun with every corner of the path.

3. Mammoth Hot Springs

This was not the hot springs that I imagined of people lounging in bath-like water, but more terraces and what appeared to be fountained frozen in time and stone. The winding boardwalk around the features was enjoyable, and it was neat to see the different types of formations that were yet another vast contrast in the Yellowstone landscape.

Mammoth Hot Springs looking like cooled lava terracing downwards.

4. Lamar Valley

If you’re hoping to see wildlife, Lamar Valley is your safari of Yellowstone. With miles of lush green land, wooded forest, and water features, you’ll definitely encounter the wildlife that Yellowstone is known for. There are plenty of pull-outs to stop and check out various animals, and the morning and dusk are definitely the go-to times to find the most action. We saw bison, pronghorns, antelope, bears… people were on the lookout for wolves and bighorn sheep. It was fun to see what was in the distance as you drove through the valley. There was a bit of construction along the way, but we never waited too long to progress on our journey.

Antelope in Lamar Valley

5. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Even though we stayed in Canyon Village, we didn’t see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone until the last day as just an afterthought. I can’t believe we almost missed it! With just a couple of turn-offs from the main loop, I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t heard several comments about it as a destination. The views of the waterfall and accompanying canyon were spectacular, and you can see why it is one of the most photographed spots in the park. It was a short drive and had several trails that you could capture various views of the canyon.

View from one of the many overlooks of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

What I didn’t know before I went to yellowstone

While the list of things I didn’t know before our visit to Yellowstone is long, there were several things that were pleasant surprises throughout our stay.

1. You will see wildlife

Full stop. It’s unavoidable. Immediately upon entering the park, we encountered bison along the side of the road. By our third day it was ‘oh the traffic? There’s more bison up ahead.’ All through the park there would be crowds along the side of the road, or you’d encounter a sudden slowdown in traffic. Is it a grizzly? Bison herd? Probably all of the above. I entered the park hoping ‘to just see something’ and Yellowstone more than delivered. Just make sure to give the animals space. Keep the wildlife wild and safe, and don’t be a touron.

A herd of bison in Lamar Valley.

2. Thermal features are Everywhere

I never realized the amount of thermal features that Yellowstone has. Over 10,000, in fact! You’d see them along the side of the roads, or look out into the lake and see a random spot of steam rising in the distance. The park shares the schedule of several geysers, but there’s so much to see at any point during your day. It’s a little wild to think that all of these features have just been occurring in this area, unlike anywhere else in the world!

A colorful thermal feature at Artist Paintpots.

3. Make sure to prepare… to wait

You never know if there’s going to be an animal crossing, or random thermal eruption, that you want to allow plenty of time to go through the park. Pack some snacks, slow down, and enjoy the views! We had to pivot a few times from planned outings only to be told ‘oh there’s a grizzly mama and cubs crossing ahead.’ Cue being stuck in traffic for an hour. When we could, we would wait, or just change our sightseeing plans to another feature along the way or in the opposite direction.

4. if there’s a crowd, try again later

Parking impossible? Not moving on a trail? We found afternoons to be far quieter and many of the major spots than the morning and midday. After a siesta at our campground, we would venture back out to find the overflow parking empty and front row spots aplenty.

5. Services you need, others you’ll have to live without

Need cell signal? That might be a challenge. But gasoline? There are several major stops along the big loop that provide essentials including snacks, fuel, and bathrooms. Don’t play gas tank chicken, but we did find that many services were fairly abundant in the park. Just not that cell signal. So enjoy the disconnect and check out the beautiful surroundings!

Travel recap of Yellowstone National Park with a photo of a steaming thermal pool in front of green mountains

I hope this was interesting and/or helpful as an overview of our favorite sites and tips in Yellowstone. What would you share about your visit that others may not consider?

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