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Yellowstone National Park tops many bucket lists when it comes to checking out the natural wonders of North America. Its Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world, set records in 2018 with 32 eruptions — with 2019 appearing set on blowing that one away. And Spring Geyser also erupted in 2018 after being dormant for 60+ years. Along with boiling water and steam, though, it blew trash from the 1930s into the park!

Indeed, Yellowstone National Park is home to 60% of all the geysers in the world. But there’s more. With around 10,000 geothermal features, you can see at least five types when you visit including fumaroles, mud pots, travertine terraces and hotsprings, along with geysers. With all the recent geothermal activity, it’s the perfect time to plan to visit Yellowstone. So, here are my must-see spots when you do.

Table of Contents

Grand Loop Road Historic District
Mammoth Hot Springs — First Stop on the Grand Loop
Museum of the National Park Ranger
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
Red Rock Point & Lookout View of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Upper Falls of the Grand Canyon
The Lower Loop to Old Faithful
Firehole River & Madison River
Things to Do in West Yellowstone
Plan Your Visit
Acknowledgements

Grand Loop Road Historic District

Yellowstone Western Stagecoach in the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone, Montana.

Yellowstone Western Stagecoach in the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone, Montana.

When Yellowstone National Park opened in 1872 as the world’s first national park, the only way to visit was riding horseback or by pack train. That changed quickly under Superintendent Norris. Indeed, in just seven years he established 234 miles of roads and trails exploring Yellowstone. The completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad spur line in 1883 further opened the park up to stagecoach tours. And visitors from around the world began to arrive.

Visitors found the 140 miles of the Grand Loop included the park’s major features. The Loop starts at the North Entrance into the park, where Highway 89 comes in from Livingston, Montana.

Then, it heads south, passing Steamboat Geyser and miles later, Old Faithful. Right after that, the Loop takes an easterly bend that soon swings north to go past West Thumb and further along, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Finally, it ends up back up at the North Entrance.

Back in those days of stagecoach travel, many visitors entered at Monida, on the Montana and Idaho state lines, spending about five days to see the park.

And the facilities? Well, they ranged from luxurious, like the Irma Hotel (built by Buffalo Bill – it includes a cherry wood bar gifted to him by Queen Victoria), to the Old Faithful Inn (considered the largest log structure in the world), to the more affordable option of camp tours. Much more than basic campgrounds, camp tours offered tasty food and entertainment as well as a place to sleep.

Mammoth Hot Springs — First Stop on the Grand Loop

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

While we’ve visited Yellowstone a number of times (see our article on what to see in the winter), our last visit was the first time we drove the Grand Loop. After spending the night outside the park in the historic little town of Livingston, we entered Yellowstone through the North Entrance, lining up to pay the Gate Pass with a dozen or so other vehicles.

Mammoth Hot Springs appears in just a few miles, although you smell it well before you see it. While some call it a cave turned inside out, I didn’t agree. I thought the white terraces were much more spectacular than dark caves glistening in the sunshine!

Boardwalk at Mammoth Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

Boardwalk at Mammoth Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

There are a number of places to pull off the road and park to get out and walk around at Mammoth, so you can get close to both the Upper and Lower basins. You have your choice of both board walks and more rugged hiking. There are about 50 hotsprings, so no shortage of things to see.

However, the most amazing part of Mammoth Hot Springs is actually the terraces, which are created of limestone dissolved by a carbonic acid solution rising up from inside the earth. As the mixture spews out, the limestone reforms into a solid mineral.

Museum of the National Park Ranger

Museum of the National Park Ranger in Yellowstone National Park.

Museum of the National Park Ranger in Yellowstone National Park.

You’ll find the Museum of the National Park Ranger tucked in off the main road when you reach Norris. However, the first lawmakers in Yellowstone were actually members of the cavalry not rangers. Indeed, the army protected Yellowstone for 32 years. While you might think the rugged terrain would have made it challenging for law breakers to do much, the cavalry had a tough job. Poachers killed animals. Campers bathed and did their laundry in the hot springs! And souvenir hunters took whatever they could break off and carry.

Many of the displays in the museum are from this era, so you can see things from regulation field boots to narrow cots with mosquito net frames in the bunk room. The museum building is actually a 1908 structure used as a patrol cabin.

Yellowstone’s first park rangers, some of whom had been cavalry in the park, took over in 1918. Today, there are several types of rangers: law enforcement, campground, and interpretive. And in my experience, they’re all pretty amazing people intent on serving the park systems.

If you want to check out Steamboat Geyser, to see if it’s going to erupt, it’s right outside Norris, too.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River

First view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone off the North Rim Road in Yellowstone National Park.

First view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone off the North Rim Road in Yellowstone National Park.

Our next turn crossed the Grand Loop in the middle, instead of following it all the way around. The reason? We planned to stay in West Yellowstone, instead of heading back North. Plus, we’d already seen the 14-mile section from Norris to Madison on a previous trip.

And, I’ll be honest and say I was really looking forward to spending time taking photos at what I’d been told was the gem of the park — the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The Grand canyon, formed in rock and sediment some 150,000 or so years ago, has been gradually gouged away by the Yellowstone River. Over 20 miles (32 km) long and a 1000 ft (305 m) deep, the canyon ranges from 1500 to 4000 ft wide. I found simply spectacular!

Our first view of the canyon was from North Rim Drive, with its numerous overlooks that take you right to the edge. From there, you can watch the Lower Falls rush over the rock to fall 308 ft (93 m). Sections of the hiking tail parallel the drive, so we saw a number of hikers. And me? I walked along the drive for a good half-mile, mesmerized by the beauty of the scene and taking photos.

Red Rock Point and Lookout View of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park.

If you’d like a short walk down into the Canyon and some amazing views, then you’ll likely find the trail at Red Rock Point (accessed from the North Rim Drive) your best option. It’s just a mile round trip, with around a 500 ft elevation change. Some of the steeper parts have wooden stairs while the rest is paved.

As you descend, you’ll see the Lower Falls from a whole new perspective. The Yellowstone River is visible in many places too, whenever the trees thin out. The video below, made for the trekplanner.com site, gives you an idea of the breathtaking views.

Eventually, the river in the bottom of the canyon seemed to simply disappear between the narrow rock walls.

Upper Falls of the Grand Canyon

Upper Falls of the Grand Canyon in Yellowstone National Park.

Upper Falls of the Grand Canyon in Yellowstone National Park.

Canyon Village is a good place to plan a rest break, as you’ll find all of the necessary facilities. The Visitor Education Center is here too, and has some good exhibits to explain the geothermal features of the park. You’ll also find 24-hour restrooms open.

If you plan to explore all of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, you’ll also want to spend some time exploring the Upper Falls and South Rim. While the Upper Falls only tumble 109 ft (33 m), they’re still pretty amazing.

When it comes to hiking, Uncle Tom’s Trail descends from the east down a series of stairs attached to the cliffs. The South Rim trail is partly paved and connects Wapiti Lake Trailhead with Uncle Tom’s Point, so there are many different angles to see the falls and canyon from.

The Lower Loop to Old Faithful

Mud volcano in Yellowstone National Park.

Mud volcano in Yellowstone National Park.

The Lower Loop, or southern portion of the Grand Loop, has the greatest number of hydrothermal features. Indeed, many Yellowstone visitors spend most, if not all, of their time in this section as it’s where you’ll find the most famous geyser of them all, Old Faithful. When you’re driving the loop, be prepared, as traffic slows down to an absolute crawl. We were stopped, idling, for a full half hour in one spot to watch wildlife.

After leaving Canyon Village, you’ll head towards West Thumb. The Mud Volcano and the Sulphur Cauldron, on the way, are both fascinating, giving a nice contrast of features. Fishing Bridge has a small museum and another visitor center, if you didn’t take time to stop at Canyon Village, while West Thumb has an information center.

Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

Once you reach the Upper Basin of Yellowstone, you’re near Old Faithful. Of close to 500 geysers in the park, it’s most famous, mostly because it erupts at such regular intervals. That makes it great for viewing, so you can situate yourself in the seating area at the Old Faithful Inn and Visitor Center or from various viewpoints you can walk to in a mile or so wide radius.

Indeed, you’ll find boardwalks taking you between major geysers, past beautiful pools, other smaller geysers and intriguing formations. Don’t worry if it gets near twilight, as many who stay late in the park say Old Faithful’s eruptions are more spectacular in the lower light levels.

Firehole River & Madison River

Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.

Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.

One thing you can be sure you’ll see plenty of is wildlife as you follow along the Firehole River from Old Faithful to Madison, then the Madison River into West Yellowstone.

According to the Park’s website, there are are nearly 300 species of birds, 16 species of fish, five species of amphibians, six species of reptiles, and 67 species of mammals in Yellowstone. That’s a lot!

I’ve seen the most bison during fall season. What makes the herds here special is that they’ve been free-range since prehistoric times, as they never entirely disappeared due to the park’s protected status from 1872 on.

With 500 grizzly bears in the park, chances are good you could see one either early in the morning or later, at dusk. You’re guaranteed to see elk, no matter the time of day or year, as there are over 15,000 in the park.

Things to Do in West Yellowstone

Grizzly bear at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana.

Grizzly bear at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Montana.

The town of West Yellowstone is a great place to stop, whether you plan to go in and out of the park for a number of days, or have done the Grand Loop and are continuing on.

Our favorite place? The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. It’s home, of course, to grizzly bears and wolves, along with a number of different birds-of-prey. If you visit first thing in the morning, you can see the animals being fed — kids might even get the opportunity to become Keeper Kids and hide the bear food in the daytime area before the animals are brought out.

There’s tons of information throughout this not-for-profit center. And of course, even the youngest visitors can spend hours watching the animals and birds.

Snow plow at the Yellowstone Historic Center Museum in West Yellowstone.

Snow plow at the Yellowstone Historic Center Museum in West Yellowstone.

Yellowstone Historic Center Museum had lots to see and learn, too, as it covers a century-and-a-half of the park. From the stagecoach in the photo at the beginning of this article, to the snow plow above, things have changed a lot.

And if you’d like to check out Yellowstone from a whole different vantage point, catch the film at the Yellowstone Imax theater, where Yellowstone is always playing!

About the Photo

The photo in the header above was taken by Linda Aksomitis of the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.

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Top Things to See in Yellowstone National Park Driving the Grand Loop

Top Things to See in Yellowstone National Park Driving the Grand Loop

Top Things to See in Yellowstone National Park Driving the Grand Loop

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Plan Your Stay in West Yellowstone

West Yellowstone is a great place to stop, whether you plan to go in and out of the park for a number of days, or have done the Grand Loop and are continuing on. We stayed at the very comfortable Brandin’ Iron Inn, which is just a couple of blocks from the West Entrance to the park at West Yellowstone. We loved the Firehole Bar-B-Que that served Texas-style meats/ However, even if it’s full, there are lots of different types of accommodations to suit all preferences and budgets. 

Yellowstone Historic Center – the History of Travel Through Yellowstone National Park – https://www.yellowstonehistoriccenter.org/

Hiking the North Rim Trail on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River – https://www.hikespeak.com/trails/north-rim-trail-grand-canyon-of-the-yellowstone-river/

West Yellowstone – https://www.destinationyellowstone.com/

Yellowstone National Park – https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm

Acknowledgements

Our stay at the Brandin’ Iron Inn and attraction tickets in West Yellowstone were provided by the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce.

Brandin' Iron Inn

Brandin’ Iron Inn

Room, 2 Queen Beds








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