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The Best Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park?

by Kelsey FreyAug 4, 2022
The Best Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park?

Established in 1872 by then-President Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone—the world’s first national park—is famous for its abundance of wildlife and geological features, like Old Faithful. There are so many amazing things to do in Yellowstone National Park, it’s almost impossible to get bored—especially since it’s huge! Just when you think you’ve seen everything, a new animal will pop up or the weather will change (sometimes, you’ll even experience four seasons in one day).

I’ve visited Yellowstone National Park three times now, during the months of February, May, and June. The first two were day-trips, but we camped the third time. Although there’s still so much to explore in depth, I do think I have a pretty good idea of the must-do activities. So without further ado, here’s what I’d recommend doing in Yellowstone and where I stayed.

Here’s a park map you can reference alongside this article.

Where to Stay

tents and RVs parked at Driftwaters RV Resort in Yellowstone National Park

My friend and I stayed at Driftwaters RV Park and had a fantastic time. We were tent camping and were told to pick any spot in one of the grassy areas. The views of the mountains on either side didn’t hurt, either.

front porch of Driftwaters Restaurant in Yellowstone National Park

The food at the restaurant is really good (if you’re a vegetarian, there’s pizza), and my friend and I had fun trying all the huckleberry things. While huckleberries are the official state fruit of Idaho, they may as well be the unofficial one in Montana. I’d definitely recommend the Huckleberry Mule and the Huckleberry Creamsicle. The first is a Moscow Mule with huckleberry vodka, and the latter is huckleberry liquor with cream soda.

If Huckleberry isn’t your jam, they also have beers and a couple other cocktails. Try the Moose Drool (yes, that’s the beer’s name) from Big Sky Brewing, or the Gallatin Pale Ale from Bozeman Brewing Company.

They have live music at their restaurant every Saturday night too, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

Each day, you’ll drive from Driftwaters RV Park through West Yellowstone to enter through the West Entrance of the park. Driftwaters is about 40 minutes from the West Entrance.

woman standing in front of Yellowstone National Park sign

If you’d like to break up your trip, you can also stay at these other spots near the other entrances of the park.

Make sure you look at current road conditions and closures before booking your stay—most of the park is closed during winter, for example. And sometimes weather impacts the park entrances, like the flooding in June 2022.

DAY 1: Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley

Drive Time: Three hours from Driftwaters to Trout Lake in Lamar Valley—this is not a loop, so you’ll need to drive back too

Norris Geyser Basin

Checking out the geysers is one of the most popular things to do in Yellowstone National Park. While you’ll see geysers all throughout the park, Norris Geyser Basin is one of the hotspots.

Follow the path to walk through a bunch of different geysers. You’ll find the tallest geyser (Steamboat Geyser) and the biggest acid-water geyser (Echinus Geyser) in the world. Most of the geysers in the Norris area are acidic, which is uncommon (and thus exciting!).

You can also stroll through Artist Paintpots just south of Norris, a series of small but colorful hot springs.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Water cascades down the travertine limestone terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. These very unique hydrothermal features are streaked with white and shades of brown. The white color comes from the limestone, and the colorful stripes come from thermophiles, or microorganisms that live in hotter temperatures.

While you can’t soak in these hot springs due to their fragile nature—and, you know, the scorching 170 °F (80 °C) water—you can marvel at them from the wooden boardwalk. You can make this walk as short as you’d like—expect it to take around 30 to 90 minutes. You can either do the entire loop or turn back early at one of the many forks along the path. Regardless of what you choose to do, know that there are A LOT of stairs. You’ll definitely get a glute workout in!

If you visit in the winter, you can even snowshoe around the hot springs. The steam that rises up next to the snow adds a cool effect. You can also walk on the boardwalk, but it may be icy. Microspikes or trekking poles are helpful if you have them.

Lamar Valley for Wildlife

bison on road in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone

When I first visited Yellowstone, I was so worried I wouldn’t see any buffalo. My friend laughed at me. “You’ll see,” she said. I started to get concerned after we hadn’t seen any for the first 20 minutes. But then we saw one, off in the distance. I squealed—shrieked?—with excitement. “I can die happy now,” I thought.

But it got better. I went from “OMG! BISON! PULL OVER!” to “Is that a bear?! Oh…Nope, just another bison.” If seeing bison is your goal, I promise that no matter what the weather, you’ll see at least one. Most likely, you’ll see over a hundred.

Side Note: Did you know that there’s a difference between bison and buffalo? I admit that I thought they were the same animal. Turns out you’ll only find buffalo in South Asia and Africa (the water buffalo and Cape buffalo, respectively), and bison in North America and Europe (the American bison and European bison). So what you’re seeing in Yellowstone are, of course, American bison. What’s the difference? Bison have beards and humps on their shoulders, buffalo don’t. Buffalo horns are larger while bison horns are shorter and sharper. The more you know!

woman with binoculars looking for wildlife in Lamar Valley

While you’ll most likely see wild animals all throughout the park (especially bison), Lamar Valley is definitely the hotspot. I’ve seen moose, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears with their cubs, and huge bison herds in the valley. If you go around sunrise or stay for sunset, you may be more likely to see wildlife, although we saw plenty midday.

If you have time, you can also walk the short one-mile loop around Trout Lake.

DAY 2: Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Lake

Drive Time: Two hours from Driftwaters to West Thumb Geyser Basin—this is not a loop, so you’ll need to drive back too

Grand Prismatic Spring

grand prismatic spring in Yellowstone with vapor

The Grand Prismatic Spring is gorgeous. However, it’s much better viewed from above than from the viewing platform nearby. I’d still suggest going to the main viewing platforms if you have time, but the best part will be the view from the Fairy Falls trail. The trail is only about a mile total and a really easy hike—more of a walk, really.

If you’re visiting on a weekend during summer, you may want to go early or late. The parking lot for Fairy Falls fills up quickly (even though it’s pretty big, it’s very popular), and the viewing platform isn’t that big.

If you can see it from the air somehow, that’d be even better!

Pro Tip: For whatever reason, the Grand Prismatic Spring isn’t marked on the map that the parks service gives you at the entrance. Because you probably won’t have service, you may want to download Google Maps or at least mark where it is beforehand.

Old Faithful

I admit that I skipped Old Faithful. I’m definitely more of a wildlife person than a geyser person. However, it’s one of those famous spots that people say you have to see, so I added it to this list of things to do in Yellowstone National Park. It erupts about once every hour, and you can check out geyser activity predictions to plan your visit.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

This is the biggest geyser basin in Yellowstone. West Thumb Geyser Basin will be much less crowded and congested, so you can enjoy some of the epic geysers in peace. One of the most popular ones—with a really interesting backstory—is Fishing Cone. Located in Yellowstone Lake, fishermen would catch fish in the lake, then cook it in the boiling water. This practice is now prohibited as it’s not very safe and damaging to the cone. One fisherman was badly burned when it erupted!

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake is beautiful—and HUGE. In fact, it’s the biggest high-elevation lake in North America! While swimming isn’t recommended due to the extremely cold water (there were still huge chunks of ice when I visited in early June), it’s still a nice place to sit and enjoy the surrounding nature. There are numerous areas you can pull over and soak in the peace and quiet.

DAY 3: Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Artist Point, Inspiration Point, Tower Fall

Drive Time: Three hours from Driftwaters to Tower Fall—this is not a loop, so you’ll need to drive back too

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The towering cliffs that line the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are epic. I was honestly pretty impressed, especially because I’ve seen the real Grand Canyon and wasn’t expecting much. But it really is amazing!

In this area, you can drive to several different viewing points in the canyon, including Inspiration Point and Artist Point. You can also walk the short Brink of Lower Falls trail. From all of these spots, you can see the Lower Falls of Yellowstone River. It’s really interesting to see the same waterfall from several different perspectives.

Hike in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

There are plenty of day hikes in the canyon area, and it may be nice to stretch your legs after all the driving. For a hike with panoramic views, you can try Chittenden Road to Mount Washburn Trail. This six-mile, out-and-back trail takes you to the top of Mount Washburn. Or, you can walk at the top of the canyon along the Yellowstone River on the Seven Mile Hole Trail. You can hike as much or as little of the 10 miles as you’d like—the views are gorgeous no matter how far you get.

Tower Fall

You can see Tower Fall by completing a short walk to an overlook. It’s 132 feet (40 meters) long. You can also walk the short trail that goes past the falls for another viewing point.

When to Go to Yellowstone National Park

There are things to do in Yellowstone National Park at almost every time of year. Here’s what to keep in mind when you’re planning your trip:

Fall Is a Great Time to Visit

It’ll be less crowded but still warm, and leaves will be changing colors in September and October. However, fires may continue into October, so the air may be smoky.

Fewer Crowds in Winter

My friends and I drove to Lamar Valley on a Saturday in February and only saw a handful of people. And it looks gorgeous in the snow. However, most of the roads will be closed. We were only able to go to Lamar Valley, but in just that one day, we saw moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and, of course, bison. Bears will be hibernating, but you might get lucky and spot some wolves.

Spring = Babies

We saw lots of bison calves, bear cubs, and even a moose calf when we visited in May. It’s also less crowded before Memorial Day weekend. However, the weather can be finicky in spring (it can even snow), so bring layers.

Avoid Weekends

Personally, I’d avoid Yellowstone at all costs on weekends in the summer. July and August will be extremely crowded with tourists, especially since it’s one of the most visited national parks. The weather forecast also often includes thunderstorms in the afternoons, which may interrupt hiking plans. You might also encounter smoke from fires starting in July.

Tips for Seeing Wild Animals

black bear eating grass in Yellowstone
  • Bring binoculars or a spotting scope. Most of the wildlife will be pretty far away and hard to see without some sort of zoom.
  • Pull over if you see large groups of people looking at something on the side of the road. It’s most likely a pretty cool animal. Don’t be afraid to ask what they see—everyone we talked to was so nice. We would’ve driven right by a mama grizzly bear and her cubs if we hadn’t stopped to ask.

Safety Tips

  • Bring bear spray, especially if you plan to go hiking. In one day, we saw three different sets of grizzly bears and two black bears, and they were all just off of the main road. If you don’t want to purchase the $50 one from REI, some places let you rent it. This video has a lot of great info about how to identify bears and use bear spray. If you’ll be here for a while, it’s worth getting a holster for easy access.
  • DO NOT APPROACH WILD ANIMALS. Although they look calm, they WILL charge if you get too close, especially if they have a young one with them.
  • If you’re visiting in winter, bring microspikes or trekking poles for hiking. While you can do it without them, they provide helpful traction in the snow and ice. Just walking on the boardwalk at Mammoth Hot Springs was pretty icy in February. I forgot my microspikes (whoops) and almost slipped countless times.
  • Keep an eye on the weather—it can change quickly! You may encounter winter storms in the colder months, rainstorms in the spring, and thunderstorms in the summer.
  • Drive slow. It’s not uncommon to see wildlife on the road. Bison crossings happen relatively frequently.

Planning Tips for Your Yellowstone Trip

  • Yellowstone is BIG. I’d recommend putting aside at least 2 to 3 days if possible (unless you’re visiting in winter—one day is definitely doable then since most of the roads are closed). My friend and I did a one-day visit and were running from spot to spot so quickly, it was hard to find time to actually enjoy anything. Also be aware that there are five different entrances.
  • You won’t get service throughout most of the park. Download Google Maps, music playlists, and whatever else you’d like to access. An employee will give you a map when you drive through the entrance, but it’s still nice to have one downloaded on your phone.
  • Pack layers. The weather can change quickly! Definitely bring a rain jacket, even in the summer. Expect snow in the winter, rain in the spring, and thunderstorms in summer afternoons.

I’ve only just scratched the surface with this list of things to do in Yellowstone National Park. There’s so much to see and experience. Regardless, I hope you enjoy your visit to this iconic park—the wildlife alone makes it a must visit in my book. And the beautiful scenery is just a bonus!

Kelsey Frey is a freelance writer and full-time traveler usually found exploring the mountains somewhere in Europe or the USA. She’s always looking for a trail to hike or lake to jump into. If you’re curious about an honest account of life without a permanent address, you can follow her on Instagram @sightsbetterseen or pop over to her travel blog at Sights Better Seen to read more about her (mis)adventures.

Image credit: Kelsey Frey