A first timer’s guide to Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is a highly active geothermal area – in fact it’s considered to be a supervolcano.

The supervolcano‘s caldera collapsed and what’s left is dozens of geysers, boiling springs and mudpots alongside forests, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and a huge canyon.

Norris Geyser Basin.

Spread across more than 9,000 square kilometres, Yellowstone is a huge national park and you need weeks to see it all.

But because you will probably only have a few days to explore, here’s a guide to make sure you see the best sites that Yellowstone National Park has to offer.

The best time to visit Yellowstone National Park is between mid May and early November when all the roads are likely to be open. I went there at the end of September – and while it was very cold at night, I was treated to perfect sunny days and autumn colours.

The best way to see Yellowstone National Park is by car – or you can organise tours from Jackson Hole, West Yellowstone or Bozeman.

Madison Campground.

I hired a car and entered Yellowstone National Park via the southern entrance coming from Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park.

From the South Entrance, you can see quite a few attractions on the drive in, including Lewis Lake and Moose Falls.

Hot springs near Fairy Falls.

When you get to West Thumb, you’ll arrive at a junction. If you head right, you’ll head to Yellowstone Lake, which is the largest high elevation lake in North America. The lake is located at 2,357 metres above sea level. There’s also mudpots, boiling springs and geysers around West Thumb.

The left turn from the junction takes you to the main attractions of the national park, and will be what most people want to see during their trip here.

Be aware this side of the park gets very busy – I recommend getting to these attractions early in the day to avoid the crowds.

Old Faithful Geyser.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful Geyser is the main attraction in the park. This geyser goes off at regular intervals, and attracts a big crowd. Timings of the eruptions are posted at the Visitor Centre daily. There are also several other geysers scattered near Old Faithful that are worth a look.

Hot spring at Biscuit Basin.

Geyser basins

After Old Faithful, you have several geyser basins to check out including Black Sand, Biscuit and Midway Geyser Basins.

The Midway Geyser Basin is home to the world’s largest geyser Excelsior and the famous Grand Prismatic Spring – the colourful hot spring that is synonymous with Yellowstone National Park. While there, you should also take the hike to Fairy Falls. The hike to Fairy Falls provides another great view of the Grand Prismatic Basin, and Fairy Falls is also quite beautiful. A little further along from Fairy Falls are two more geysers and you’ll likely have these to yourself. The hike to Fairy Falls and nearby geysers takes about 2-3 hours return.

Grand Prismatic Spring.

The other basins also have some interesting hot springs and geysers. You could do all of these basins and Old Faithful in the same day as they are located very close to each other, and most are short walks.

After these geysers, you’ll reach Madison, which is home to an excellent campground. From the Madison turnoff, you can reach West Yellowstone in about half an hour.

Fairy Falls.

North east of Madison, there’s also a handful of other attractions including Gibbon Fals, Berry Spring and Artist’s Paintpots and then you’ll reach the Norris Geyser Basin.

The Norris Geyser Basin is the parks’ hottest geyser basin. It has a lot of hot springs and geysers to explore, including the Steamboat Geyser. This geyser is said to be the world’s tallest active geyser. Eruptions are infrequent but can go up to 91 metres high.

Imperial Geyser, near Fairy Falls.

Yellowstone River canyon

From the Norris turnoff, I recommend you head to Canyon Village and go to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. There’s many viewpoints to look into the canyon along North Rim Drive. I recommend taking the walk to Inspiration Point and Brink of the Lower Falls viewpoint. There’s are only short walks but they are steep in sections.

Lower Falls, Yellowstone River.

Mammoth Hot Springs

I exited the park via the North Entrance. From Norris, make sure you stop off at Roaring Mountain along the way, as well as Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace.

There’s two carparks for the limestone terraces – an upper and lower one. There’s a short walk taking you through the terraces and this will take about 30 minutes.

Mammoth Hot Springs.

Things to know

  • There are lots of wild animals around the park, particularly elk and bison. Make sure you stick to the speed limit of 45 miles per hour, and expect traffic jams due to wildlife crossings. Animals are most active at dawn and dusk. Remember to keep a safe distance from elk, bison or moose as they can charge if they feel you are too close, and don’t feed any animals. There’s also grizzly and brown bears in the park. It’s recommended to take bear spray with you on hikes, and lock any food away in bear lockers if you’re camping.
  • Given Yellowstone National Park is located above 2500 metres in most parts, it can get very cold at night. Bring lots of warm clothes if you’re camping. I visited in late September and it was below zero Celsius every night.
  • Toilets are available at visitor centres, petrol stations, general stores and at some picnic and sightseeing points. There’s petrol stations inside the park.
  • Entry to the national park is $35 USD per vehicle or you can buy an annual pass for $80 and go to as many US national parks as you like within the year.
  • There’s several campgrounds in the park, however not all of them are open the entire season. Grant Village and Canyon Village campgrounds are only open during the peak summer months. Madison Campground is open from May to mid October and sites cost $33 USD a night. Sites can be booked online.
Madison Campground.

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