Complete Guide to Yellowstone National Park
How complete is this guide?
The answer? Not very complete. Like most national parks, this place is pretty big. In fact, you can likely write a book or two about it. If you feel something is missing or needs to be updated, you are welcome to contact us and contribute.
When you think of national parks, chances are that Yellowstone National Park is one of the first things that comes to mind. The iconic landscape of this massive piece of land is synonymous with raw beauty, untouched wilderness areas, and ridiculously amazing landscapes. Throw in the fact that Yellowstone is one of the most seismically active places in the world, and you´ve got the recipe for a truly one of a kind natural experience.
Yellowstone National Park, is a pretty huge place; almost 3,500 square miles to be exact. Trying to plan a weekend getaway or even a weeklong vacation can seem like a pretty tall task with so many different options and attractions. In this complete guide to Yellowstone National Park, we´ll do our best to guide you through all of the different attractions that are available to you and your family so that your next trip to Yellowstone will be unforgettable and unique.
Yellowstone National Park History
While many of us might think that Yellowstone began once it was formally declared a national park, indigenous people have been living in the park for well over 11,000 years; following the herds of buffalo over the mountains and plains. There are over 1,000 archaeological sites scattered throughout the park giving testament to the rich, anthropological history of the area.
In the early 1800´s, during the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Colter, accidentally got separated from the expedition while off trapping animals. He eventually found his way to what is now a portion of Yellowstone National Park. He suffered through an entire winter in the park occasionally fighting with indigenous tribes that inhabited the area and miraculously survived.
When he eventually made it back to the expedition, he told tales of a place that reeked of fire and brimstone (in apparent allusion to the geysers and seismic activity). The rest of the group thought his tales to be the result of too many months out in nature by himself and playfully referred to the place as “Colter´s Hell.”
During the Civil War, in 1862, the area which now compromises Yellowstone was given over to the Department of the Interior. Ten years later, the U.S. Congress and President Teddy Roosevelt the union general who fought during the Civil War, declared Yellowstone a national park, the first ever national park on a worldwide scale.
Yellowstone National Park gets its name from the nearby Yellowstone River which has its headwaters within the park boundaries. The Yellowstone River was named by a pair of French Trappers who translated the river from the native Hidatsa name for the river, which roughly translates as Rock Yellow River.
Since being founded as a national park, Yellowstone has continued to attract the wonder and fascination of millions of people from around the world.
If you do enjoy hiking, however, you´ll find over 1,000 miles of trails throughout the park.
What’s Going On Underneath Your Feet: The Geology of Yellowstone National Park?
One of the biggest attractions of Yellowstone National Park is the hundreds of geysers that dot the landscape throughout the park. While some of them, like Old Faithful, “erupt” every certain amount of time, others are simply unpredictable, making this land of “fire and brimstone” as it was called by one early explorer, a landscape unlike any other. But what causes Yellowstone to be such a hotbed of seismic activity?
Yellowstone National Park sits on top of the northeastern part of the North American Tectonic Plate. Directly underneath this tectonic plate is a stationary mantle hotspot of lava, magma, and other signs of seismic activity. Since Yellowstone is on the boundary of this plate, there are hundreds of places throughout the park where the hotspot just below the earth´s crust emerges to the surface in the form of geysers, hot springs, and sulfur spouts.
Furthermore, the Yellowstone Caldera is the largest volcanic system in North America, commonly called a “super volcano” because of the strength and frequency of the eruptions. When you´re hiking across Yellowstone, a thin crust of earth and rock is all that separates you from one of the largest magma chambers in the world that is thought to be 37 miles long, 18 miles wide and up to 7 miles deep!
Over half a million years ago, a massive volcanic eruption, over 1,000 times more powerful than the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in nearby Washington, created the current landscape and seismic activity. This eruption was so powerful that many scientists consider that it shaped the weather patterns that characterize our current civilization.
This extremely powerful history has left the landscape of Yellowstone with over 10,000 geothermal features including hotspots, geysers, hot springs and much more. Over 2/3 of the world´s geysers are located within the boundaries of the National Park.
Though you shouldn´t be too concerned, hundreds of scientists in collaboration with the U.S. government have set up a permanent station at Yellowstone to study the possibility of future mega-volcanic explosions. Taking a trip to Yellowstone, then, should be considered an adrenaline pumping experience, knowing that you´re visiting a place that could potentially explode at any minute!
Hiking in Yellowstone National Park
With over a thousand miles of trail and 3,500 square miles of mostly wilderness area, Yellowstone certainly has more than enough areas to explore. While it is hard to narrow down the list of “must-do” hikes to just a few, we´ve attempted to give you list of the top five day hikes at Yellowstone that will introduce you to the incredibly rich and diverse landscape of the park. For more options, be sure to visit the Visitor´s Center once you get to the park, and always check with park rangers since some trails are periodically closed off due to abnormally high geothermal activity.
Uncle Tom's Trail
From the South Rim of the Yellowstone Canyon Area, Uncle Tom´s Trail offers a short but strenuous hike that will give you some fantastic views of some of the best waterfalls in the park. The trail is actually a metal staircase that will take you down 328 steps to the rim of Yellowstone Canyon. The views of the canyon and the Lower falls are spectacular, though the hike back up will certainly tire you out. It´s not every day, however, that you´re able to descend into a steep canyon without the use of ropes and climbing gear.
Lava Creek Trail
This 8 mile round trip hike leaves near the Mammoth Campground. If you´re looking for a quality hike that will take you by rivers and creeks, through steep canyons, and also offer quality overlooks, this is the hike for you. If you´re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of a herd of buffalo passing through the river which is a sight definitely worth seeking out.
Mount Washburn Trail
Just north of Canyon Village, you will be able to find the Mount Washburn Trailhead. This 6.4 mile round tripper is a fairly easy hike with only a few moderate uphill climbs making it a great option for a family hike. There are several sweeping lookout points that will give you access to incredible scenery. These lookout stations are also some of the best places in the park to look for wildlife including grizzly bears, buffalo, and everything in between.
Fairy Falls Trail
If you make a reservation to see one of Old Faithful´s early eruptions, don´t head back to camp right away. Just north of the Old Faithful Geyser you will find the Fairy Falls trailhead. This easy 5 mile round trip hike will take you very near the Midway Geyser Basin and the Grand Prismatic Spring. The Grand Prismatic Spring is easily the most colorful geyser in the whole park and will remind you of a deserted Caribbean beach, minus the not so lovely smell of sulfur. There is also a new growth forest that can help young children understand the importance of reforestation efforts.
Backpacking in Yellowstone National Park
Not every traveler or visitor to Yellowstone is content with the short and fairly easy day hikes. While the day hikes definitely show you some of the most unique features of Yellowstone, they are also usually pretty crowded with tourists, especially during the summer months. If you´re wanting to explore a bit of the less explored areas of Yellowstone, below you´ll find several quality backpacking trips that will take you into the places inhabited by only buffalo and grizzly bears.
Our fellow backpackers like to use an ultralight backpack to carry all their gear. Check out our ultralight backpack reviews. We also made a pretty in-depth guide about the best hiking backpacks available in the market today. It's all in this post. Make sure to check it out before your great adventure.
Sky Rim Trail
The Sky Rim Trail is a one of a kind backcountry trail that traverses the Gallatin Mountain Range in the northwestern part of the park. Bordering the park is the Gallatin National Forest, and this trail takes you right along the edge of the park. The 21 mile round trip is strenuous at times, especially during the summit of the 9,899 foot Big Horn Peak. Once you make it up to the top, however, you´ll be rewarded with some of the best panoramic views the park has to offer, including an uninterrupted view all the way to the Grand Teton National Park which you can see on a clear day.
Another attraction of this trail is the herds of sheep, found appropriately on Sheep Mountain, another moderately difficult summit that you´ll have to cross. Start your trip at the Dailey Creek Trail, and if you plan to spend a night or two camping on the trail, apply for a backcountry permit and seek out the best view for a perfect night. There are frequent afternoon storms, so be careful when picking the best spot for camping. Make sure you bring a durable and waterproof tent to get you through those stormy nights. We have made a list of all the quality tent brands you should check out before your big adventure.
Thunderer Cutoff/Cache Creek Hike
This is only an 18.5 mile hike, but the scenery is so astounding that you will want to stretch it into a day or two hike. Also located in northeastern Yellowstone which is one of the least developed parts of the park, this trail starts at the Thunderer Cutoff trail before taking you through the Cache Creek drainage all the way to the Lamar River where you´ll meet up with the relatively easy Lamar Creek Trail.
This trail is only meant for serious backpackers as you´ll spend a little bit of time off the trail through creek beds, but is well worth it if you have some basic navigational skills. Just before you make it to the Lamar River, you´ll be able to see Death Gulch, which is a geothermal basin for Wahb Springs. If you want to (carefully) explore some of the geothermal activity of the park on your own, this is a great opportunity.
Near the Cache Creek and Lamar River you have a pretty good chance of running into herds of bison as well, so make sure to be on the lookout for all sorts of wildlife.
Mary Mountain Trail
This 20 mile backpacking trip will take you into a different part of Yellowstone which may make you feel like you´re in a completely different ecosystem. The thick grasslands of the Central Plateau of Yellowstone are the favorite abode of the herds of bison, and you might find that you run into a traffic jam of buffalo during your trip.
For adventure seekers who have always wanted to look for a grizzly bear in the wild, this is most likely the best place to do it. Fatal bear attacks have occurred in this area, so take precaution and make lots of noise to alert the bears of your presence.
This unique trail starts in the grasslands, rises through thick pine forest before taking you to Mary Lake, a charming small mountain lake which is synonymous with true wilderness.
Family Activities at Yellowstone National Park
You don´t have to venture into the wilderness to brave the bears and bison in order to enjoy Yellowstone. There are dozens of family oriented and family centered activities that make Yellowstone a great place for a memorable family vacation. Below we´ll explore four different activities that can be enjoyed in family and leave your kids with lifelong memories of the beauty of this one of a kind national park.
Visit the Geysers
Without a doubt, one of the best attractions of Yellowstone for young kids is seeing the super-hot and sulfur-smelling water erupt hundreds of feet into the air in the form of geysers. A child´s imagination can run wild when contemplating these truly unique spectacles along with boiling mud pots, steam vents, and hot springs that look like a tropical beach.
The Upper Geyser Basin has the highest amount and concentration of geothermal features anywhere in the park (and in the world, for that matter). A nice boardwalk makes for an easy path allowing kids to see the unique geothermal features while also keeping them at a safe distance. Midway Geyser Basin is home to the world´s largest hot spring and is also a family friendly place to stop.
A Family Bike Ride
Though you might not want to take young kids for a cycling tour on the paved roads that you´ll have to share with cars, Yellowstone National Park also has hundreds of miles of dirt roads that are open to mountain biking.
Blacktail Plateau Drive is a sweet seven mile trip through meadows, mountains and forests and will definitely get you some great opportunities for wildlife sighting. Another good family ride to consider is the 5 mile cruise along the Old Gardiner road which is graveled. This old road is the best place in the park to spot elk and pronghorn which might be a bit safer for young kids that going into the heart of grizzly country.
There are several places around the park where you can rent bikes, including near the Old Faithful Geyser which allows you to explore some of the geothermal activity in the area from the safety of your bike.
If you´re not a huge fan of pedaling, signing up for a horseback riding trip is the quintessential family activity, and you´d be hard pressed to find better scenery for a trip that at Yellowstone National Park. The wide open meadows and plains of Yellowstone make it a perfect place for a horseback ride and can get younger children a higher vantage point to spot distant wildlife and appreciate the views.
There are a number of horseback riding outfits in and around the park, and you could even sign up for a covered wagon ride so that you and your family can get the true Wild West historical experience. Most horse operations require children to be at least eight years old to sign up, so make sure to plan accordingly.
White Water Rafting
Trying to hold on to your tube while going through a class five rapid might not sound like a great family activity, but the rivers that run through Yellowstone National Park have a number of easy to moderate rapids that are family friendly. The Yellowstone River, Madison River, and Snake Rivers all offer cool rafting expeditions, with the Snake River being the most intense of the three.
Some rafting companies even offer complete packets that combine zip lines with white water rafting adventures; a perfect combination for family fun. It's not a necessity to go through a company, you can take your own white water inflatable kayak or canoe to go rafting yourself, but be safe and go with people.
Other Things Not to Miss at Yellowstone National Park
There simply isn´t enough space here to list ALL the great things to do and places to explore around Yellowstone. One of the most unique aspects of this park is that its natural biodiversity allows it to offer all different types of activities for different people. While the vast majority of visitors to the park stick to the most well-known attractions, getting “off the beaten path” and doing things that most visitors would never think of is a way to make your Yellowstone trip stand apart from the rest. Below you´ll find a couple of quality options to spice up your trip to Yellowstone.
Avoid the Grandstands to see Old Faithful
Old Faithful is arguably the park´s most well-known and famous feature. Especially during the summer months, thousands of people line up to see it´s timed explosions. The park has even built bleachers too help accommodate the crowds but if you don´t get there on time, chances are that you´ll be trying to see the eruption over the head of someone in front of you.
For a more “private” showing of and Old Faithful eruption, simply walk around to the back of the geyser along the boardwalk. From there, you can leisurely hang your feet over the boardwalk and watch Old Faithful erupt without all the fanfare of hundreds of other tourists crowded around you.
Get a Private View of Yellowstone´s Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is another favorite for tourists, along with the beautiful Upper and Lower Falls at the canyon. Instead of trying to meditate on the beauty of nature while surrounded by hundreds of talkative tourists, try this alternative, little-known path to get a view with solitude of the Canyon and the falls.
From the Upper Falls parking lot, walk left of the overlook (most of the crowds just go to the overlook). A short trail over two wooden bridges will get you a beautiful view of the upper fall complete with rainbows and mist. Best of all is that you will most likely have the place all to yourself.
Try Out a Naturally Jacuzzi in a Thermal Pool
While most of the thermal pools around Yellowstone are so hot that they´d end up giving your third degree burns, there is one gem of a pool that allows you to swim in it comfortably. Not many tourists know of this tiny, thermal pool, but it´s only a ten minute drive from Mammoth.
Head north until you reach a sign that says “welcome to Montana.” There, park on the right side of the road where you see a trailhead. Only 1/3 of a mile up the path you will find the Boiling River which is (as its name implies) a thermal river that is boiling hot. Though you can´t bathe there, a couple more minutes up the path and you´ll find that the Boiling River flows into the Gardiner River (which is a regular cold water river.
Where these two rivers meet you´ll find a perfect mix of hot and cold waters and steam rising up around you. This unique thermal pool is truly a one of a kind Yellowstone experience.
Watch the Bison Take a Steam Bath
If you are wanting to get a National Geographic-esque wildlife picture while at Yellowstone, Mud Volcano offers you a great chance for a great shot. Herds of buffalo usually enjoy the Yellowstone River near Mud Volcano, and a couple of geysers rising out of the river banks are also a place the bison go to warm up. Getting a shot of these majestic animals while geothermal steam rises up around them with the Yellowstone River in the background is definitely Instagram worthy.
Best Time of Year to Visit Yellowstone National Park
The vast majority of tourists show up to Yellowstone during the summer months and for good reason. The summer weather at Yellowstone averages a comfortable 75 degrees and offers long days of sunlight. At the same time, all the park attractions are open (unless unexpected geothermal activity is occurring). The downside of visiting Yellowstone during the summer, however, is the crowds which can be suffocating, especially at some of the most famous attractions such as Old Faithful.
In the spring months of April and May, you´ll be able to miss the biggest crowds, though the weather is unpredictable. Temperatures can rise into the 60´s, but a snowfall isn´t out of the question either. Some of the main roads will probably be closed until mid April meaning that some things will be off limits. However, the beauty of watching the park emerge from its winter hibernation is well worth the extra cold.
Early fall time is our recommendation for the best time to visit Yellowstone. The weather is still decent while the main summer crowds will have started to diminish. It´s also a great time to see certain types of wild flowers while the bison and other wildlife will just out foraging before the winter months hit.
Winter at Yellowstone is a treat for adrenaline seekers. Be forewarned that the park experiences heavy snowfall and bitter cold. However, if you come prepared, you´ll get the deepest type of solitude and some truly magnificent winter scenery.
There aren´t many places in our world where you can go and say that you were walking around the mouth of a super volcano ready to erupt at any moment. Yellowstone National Park offers visitors a unique perspective of the geothermal activity going on just below the earth´s crust. At the same time, Yellowstone is a place alive with herds of bison, elk and pronghorn and one of the best places in the lower 48 states to see a grizzly bear.
In this complete guide to Yellowstone National Park, we´ve done our best to choose some of the best hikes, backpacking trips, family activities, and other unique activities to make your Yellowstone experience truly unforgettable.