A Tourist's Guide to Exploring Yellowstone National Park

May 19, 2016
Candyce H. Stapen

If you're headed to Yellowstone National Park this summer, use this guide to plan your trip.

A geothermal feature at Yellowstone. Photo: Candyce H. Stapen.

A great place to celebrate this year’s 100th anniversary of the National Park Service is at Yellowstone, the nation’s first national park. With plentiful wildlife plus the world’s highest concentration of geothermal features, many consider Yellowstone the jewel in the National Park system. Here’s a guide on how to make the most of your Yellowstone National Park vacation.

Lodging

At 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is big. Mitigate the amount of time you spend driving by staying at two lodgings, preferably for at least two nights each. Near Old Faithful, the iconic geyser, good choices are the historic Old Faithful Inn with its timber walls and soaring atrium and for a more modern feel, try Snow Lodge, built in 1999 and open in winter. Seeking romance and great food? Then reserve the125-year-old Lake Yellowstone Hotel, renovated in 2014.

Activities

An osprey seen on a wildlife tour of Yellowstone. Image by Candyce H. Stapen.

Wildlife Tours. You are almost guaranteed to see some of Yellowstone’s 4,900 bison. They graze along the road and in meadows and often walk past the hotels. On drives you are likely to spot deer, elk, bighorn sheep and, if lucky, a black bear.

To increase both your wildlife sightings and your understanding of the animals, reserve a Yellowstone Association Institute (YAI) tour. The naturalist guides use their spotting skills to locate critters and then setup high-powered viewing scopes that afford up close views of the critters. You might see wolves, osprey, and mountain goats, especially in the Lamar Valley, a rich wildlife viewing area.

Also, remember that wildlife are most active in the early morning and early evening.

Upper Falls. Video by Candyce H. Stapen

Waterfalls

Yellowstone offers more than 40 “major” waterfalls. The Lower Falls, Yellowstone’s largest waterfall, drops an impressive 308 feet into a canyon. The Upper Falls cascades 109 feet.

Western Dinner

Consider booking the Old West Dinner Cookout if traveling with children in grade-school or younger. They will like covered wagon ride, the cowboy lore and the songs, not to mention the steaks and beans.

Stars

Stroll away from the lodges at night and look up at the dazzling display of stars.

Dragon's Mouth Hot Spring. Video by Candyce H. Stapen.

Geothermal Attractions

Everyone seeks out Old Faithful, the iconic geyser with a reputation for regularity, erupting every 90 minutes or so. See Old Faithful by 8 a.m. before the day visitors arrive or in the late afternoon or evening, after the day trippers leave. Be sure to walk the Upper Geyser Basin boardwalk, near Old Faithful, to view additional geysers and geothermal features.

Visit Fountain Paint Pot in the Lower Geyser Basin, an area also featuring hot springs, geysers, mud pots and fumaroles (steam vents). View Mammoth Hot Springs’ travertine terraces, created by hot waters seeping through limestone.

Practical Tips

Pack for multiple seasons. Even in summer low temperatures at night can hover near freezing and daytime highs shoot in the 80s. Pack layers.

Carry a flashlight. Since the park keeps the outdoor lighting soft, bring a flashlight for comfort, especially when traveling with young children.

Use binoculars. If you want to see what a bison or elk looks like up close, view them through your binoculars. For safety, park rangers say that visitors should stay 25 yards away from the animals.

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