Yellowstone National Park is a massive area of natural beauty waiting to be explored, but if you head there without any sort of research it can be a very overwhelming and daunting experience. Following our first visit to USA’s oldest national park, we wanted to share not only our experiences but also our recommendations on some of the top things to see in Yellowstone. This is by no means an exhaustive list, in fact it is just a brief overview on some top attractions that we consider to be worth visiting.
From amazing encounters with wildlife to breathtaking views across canyons that you will never forget, Yellowstone National Park is a haven of natural beauty. We encourage you to share your thoughts at the bottom of this post regarding your experiences in Yellowstone and what you believe to be the top attractions that visitors cannot afford to leave off their itinerary.
Our visit to Yellowstone was part of an ambitious road trip around Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon across just five days. If you read our recent post on “Yellowstone in a Day” you will know that our time inside the park was fast-paced, though at the same time an amazing experience.
Having spent the morning driving north from Salt Lake City, we took the scenic route via Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park which in itself was an awesome experience…but that’s another story! We arrived at the Yellowstone National Park entrance via Grand Teton National Park around 4PM so we knew that our time that day exploring was going to be limited.
Depending on where you are approaching Yellowstone from will determine the best course of action and where you would be advised to explore first. From the south, Old Faithful is on a direct route and given the reputation of this landmark attraction, we wanted to see this for ourselves.
But as with all national parks there is plenty more to see along the way, or should I say plenty of distractions! Our first stop was at Lewis Falls which (sorry Heather) I could probably now refer to as ‘Heather Falls’ given that she stumbled a little and found her knee hitting the ground!
Back to the waterfall which was a pretty cool experience and you can get some great close-up shots of the falls by taking the short trail, without having to manoeuvre your way down the side of the slopes leading to the base of the falls.
We did manage to see a couple of folks in the river doing some fly-fishing though the highlight was certainly Lewis Falls itself.
A short drive from Lewis Falls took us on to the Grand Loop which is approximately 140 miles long. With a maximum speed limit of 45mph, it is for the most part a slow process to move around but one of the benefits of this is that you are able to experience more of what Yellowstone inherently offers just from the comfort of your car.
As we made our way towards Old Faithful, we stumbled across Kepler Cascades which offers one of the many stops along this part of the loop. From scenic overlooks to confronting bears (both of which we experienced), there is plenty to keep you occupied. Kepler Cascades is a waterfall on the Firehole River and offer a drop of about 150ft from multiple spots.
The overlook provides a great viewpoint and with the sound of water rushing over the edge from multiple angles, this is a popular spot before arriving at Old Faithful (it’s only 2.5 miles from the iconic attraction).
Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin
Unfortunately our timing was a little awry as we arrived at Old Faithful a couple of minutes after the previous eruption at 6:38PM. However, the silver lining was that this allowed us time to explore more of the hydrothermal activity throughout the Upper Geyser Basin.
We even lucked out in catching the eruption of the Beehive Geyser which only erupts once each day.
Our opinion of Old Faithful was a little disappointing, primarily because of the hype surrounding this landmark and also because we simply experienced other geyser eruptions that were more impressive in Yellowstone.
Watching Old Faithful erupt just before it went dark was an interesting experience though for such a popular tourist attraction, I would have figured a little more lighting would have made this a truly spectacular experience (perhaps Yellowstone is trying to maintain the natural feeling of the geyser, but I feel this is already lost with the specific schedule this is on for eruptions!).
Take a moment to watch our video highlighting all of the amazing Yellowstone geysers we experienced – it’s well worth it!
Norris Geyser Basin
Day 2 started with us arriving at the West Yellowstone entrance around 9:45AM after a lengthy drive from our previous night’s accommodation in Big Sky, Montana (Highly recommend River Rock Lodge if you don’t mind driving just over a hour to the park entrance).
We planned on revisiting Old Faithful to experience the eruption during the day, but I also wanted to ensure we had enough time to explore the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We opted to visit this attraction first but en route we stumbled across another awesome spot – Norris Geyser Basin.
Home to the world’s largest active geyser, Steamboat, this is an exhilarating location with a myriad of hot springs and hydrothermal pools and geysers.
Due to time constraints (come on guys, we are exploring Yellowstone in a day here!) we opted against all the way around Norris but this would be a great place to start on a return visit! The views from the top of the trail overlooking the geyser basin are stunning with puffs of steam occasionally rising from various parts of the landscape.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Nothing is quite like the experience of visiting the Grand Canyon, but after exploring the equivalent version in Yellowstone National Park it is a pretty good alternative. The scenic Rim Drive loop of Lower Falls offers an incredible view of the waterfalls and hiking trails allow you to descend to the base of the falls.
The loop also offers a myriad of overlooks providing different angles of the Grand Canyon, including the stunning Inspiration Point and Grand View Point. Not only did we experience the gorgeous views, we also encountered a bison that was close to one of the parking lots and offered some pretty cool photograph opportunities.
Grand Canyon is famous for both the Lower Falls and Upper Falls. Views from the North Rim Drive of the Upper Falls are limited but you can still experience both if time constraints prevent you from driving this route along with the South Rim Drive.
Grand Loop Road
By the time we left the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, we were already deep into the Grand Loop Road.
As mentioned earlier, this scenic loop is over 140 miles and will take a full day on its own probably without having time to see much in between because of the speed limits and amount of traffic passing through.
We covered a shorter ’96 miles’ loop but this still took about 5 hours to complete including various stops. Here are the distances and some of the iconic landmarks in between that you should consider visiting:
- Madison Junction to Norris Junction (14 miles) – Gibbon Falls and Beryl Spring
- Norris Junction to Canyon (12 miles) – Norris Geyser Basin, Virginia Cascade and Grand Canyon
- Canyon to West Thumb via Fishing Bridge (37 miles) – Yellowstone Lake and Hayden Valley
- West Thumb to Old Faithful (17 miles) – Kepler Cascades and Old Faithful
- Old Faithful to Madison Junction (16 miles) – Lower Geyser Basin
Some of these distances are ‘deceptive’ to say the least because of the speed limit issues I mentioned. But the beauty of the Grand Loop is that these restrictive speed limits ensure that you have enough time to appreciate the beauty that is surrounding you.
Overlooks are frequent so be sure to take the time to stop at some of these for an impromptu view of Yellowstone’s finest scenery.
We are just about recovering after a fun-filled adventure exploring Yellowstone National Park but we wouldn’t change anything if we could do this all over again. This list is anything but exhaustive, however it does provide a few key highlights that in our opinion you simply cannot afford to miss when you visit Yellowstone.
Whether you are a first-timer to Yellowstone or a frequent return visitor, you will appreciate the natural beauty each and every time you step through the entrance…Welcome to Yellowstone!
You can view all of our photos from our EPIC trip to Yellowstone here: Yellowstone National Park