Planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park

August 1, 2016

Are you planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park? We spent 5 days in Yellowstone over the Memorial Day weekend (May 27-June 1). We’ll share our experience along with some tips to help you plan any number of days in Yellowstone. Not everything in the park is open at the end of May, but it is a good time of the year to visit since the crowds are smaller, the weather isn’t as warm and you will see a lot of young wildlife.

The park encompasses about 3,500 square miles and we recommend spending a day in each section. This post breaks down the information so you can make the most of the time you have in the Yellowstone.

There are five park entrances: North, Northeast, West, East and South. Check which entrances are open based on the time of the year you visit. You will want to decide what your goals in the park are when choosing a location to enter through, as well as your lodging. During the end of May, not all of the Yellowstone lodging is open. It is recommended you book your lodging a minimum of 5 months in advance, especially during the summer time.

We made the decision to pick a hotel in the town of Gardiner, near the north entrance for the first two days. We then booked a hotel in West Yellowstone, near the west entrance for the remaining days. It isn’t necessary to stay in different locations but we wanted to shorten our drive time each day. We planned on getting out early in the morning and staying out past dark in the evenings.

North / Northeast Yellowstone

We stayed at the Comfort Inn in Gardiner for the first 3 days. The comfort in is just one mile from the Yellowstone North entrance. The hotel and service was fine, but the internet was slow. We spent a few late nights in the North part of the park and if you do the same, make sure you check what time the restaurants in Gardiner close. There are few dining options in Gardiner, even fewer after 9pm. We did make it to the Raven Grill one evening right before closing and had a good meal.

Mammoth Hot Springs is 4.5 miles from the North entrance. Hot springs, hiking, rivers, wildlife, and rock formations can all be found within 20 minutes of the north entrance. Known for wildlife and big sky views you will see more wildlife in North Yellowstone, specifically in Lamar Valley than any other section of the park.

You will see Bison all day in the northern section of Yellowstone, but if you want to see active Bison and other animals your best bet is to head to Lamar Valley early in the morning. We were in the park by 5:00am as the sun was rising, which gave us an opportunity to see the wildlife without the crowds. One morning on the drive out to Lamar Valley we came across a large group of Bison on and around the road. Since we were the only car on the road, we enjoyed sitting in the middle of the herd taking pictures. Below are a few of the pictures we took that morning.

Left Picture: This Bison was directly in front of our car and finally moved to the side of the road with her baby. As Ryan hung out of the car window to take this shot, the Bison heard the camera shutter and turned to give us this look. The picture was taken with a 24mm lens so gives you an idea how close he was.

One evening coming back from Lamar Valley we were the first to spot a mother black bear and her cub feeding on a hillside in the Tower-Roosevelt area. The second morning we saw a small wolf pack running a herd of bison off the hillside. It is incredible to see three wolves command such respect from a heard of bison. We also saw a few foxes. Interestingly the foxes were all near streams and creeks. The best way to find smaller animals is look for movement. Foxes and wolves blend in to tall grass extremely well.

Note: The picture of the wolves below was shot with an 800mm lens as these wolves where close to a mile away.

On our way out of the park we stopped by Mammoth Hot Springs in the evenings to take advantage of smaller crowds. The Mammoth Terraces are a must see. Make sure to give yourself time to walk the boardwalks and drive the Upper Terrace drive.

The Mammoth Terraces are constantly changing shape and color and the Orange Spring Mound on the Upper Terrace drive has brilliant color that changes from season to season depending on the flow rate, sunlight and temperature.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

We had hoped to catch a sunrise at Blacktail Plateau on the way out to Lamar Valley, but this one way dirt road was closed during our visit. After some research we found out this area opens in early June. It is said this area is great for bison, bears, elk and a great place to take sunrise pictures. The dirt road ends back at the Grand Loop Road and the Petrified Tree. In total honesty, the Petrified Tree was pretty disappointing unless you can get excited about seeing a very old stump.

Central Yellowstone

Mt. Washburn, Dunraven Pass and Canyon Village is considered central Yellowstone. We recommend at least an afternoon, if not a full day in this area. You will not see as much wildlife as in Lamar Valley but the views are incredible. The road between Tower Fall and Canyon Village is closed mid-October to late May.

This area was hit very badly by the fire of 88. Seeing the scorched earth and new growth in an area this large really puts it in perspective. A total of 793,880 acres were burned during this fire. The fire affected 36% of Yellowstone and cost the national park service more than 120 million dollars to put out. Take the time and make the drive through this area. You will climb Mt. Washburn to more than 10,000ft in elevation. There was still snow on the ground in May, and it was very cold at the top of the mountain. There are very few services in this area of the park so make sure you have a plenty of gas and snacks.

After an early morning of taking pictures, we were looking for a place to eat breakfast. The lodge and other locations were not opening for another week so the only option was the restaurant inside the General Store in Canyon Village. The food smelled good, but we decided not to wait the 90 minutes it was going to take because of the line of people. If you want to be ahead of the crowds hit the convenience store for power bars and avoid the lines.

Hayden Valley is south of Canyon Village and is also known for wildlife, but we didn’t spend much time here. We did see herds of Bison grazing and laying around the Yellowstone River that runs through the area. One tip: check with the rangers to find out what areas have the most wildlife activity as it changes with seasonality and bear management.

West Yellowstone

West Yellowstone is all about the Geysers. There is wildlife (Bison, Elk, Trumpeter Swans, etc), but you won’t see the same numbers as in the North. There are a number of large Bison herds in the West and you can expect more Bison traffic jams as you wait for the Bison to cross the road. The few days we spent in the west there were always Bison herds a couple miles west of Madison as well as just North of Madison.

We spent our last two nights in the town of West Yellowstone, which offers a lot more lodging and dining options then Gardiner. The Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone is a nice clean hotel. The Running Bear Pancake House is a nice spot for breakfast and we ate both nights at the Slippery Otter Pub, which did stay open late so even when we left the park after 10pm we could get a good meal. The food was very good.

From the Yellowstone West Entrance, it is 14 miles to Madison where you can head North to Norris Geyser Basin and the Artists Paintpots or head south to the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basin. They say there are over 150 geysers in the area so plenty of things to see.

Our recommendation is to visit the geysers late in the evening. We tried to visit some of the popular geysers between 11-5pm and often couldn’t find a place to park and had to deal with large crowds. We did visit some of the geysers early as the sun was rising, but the cold weather in the morning does create more steam and can restrict the views. There are no crowds at 6am and we did get some nice pictures, but really depends on the weather and what you are after.

If you head north from Madison you’ll find Norris Geyser Basin, which is Yellowstone’s oldest and hottest thermal area. It is also home to Steamboat Geyser, which is the world's tallest (300feet) currently-active geyser. Steamboat is not considered a predictable geyser. The last time it erupted was in September 2014.

The Norris Geyser Basin is one that gets very busy and can be difficult to find a place to park. There is a lot to see here with two boardwalks (Back Basin and Porcelain Basin) that are easy to walk and take you around geysers, pools and steam vents.

Norris Geyser Basin

Norris Geyser Basin

If you’re at the Norris Geyser Basin, make sure you visit the Artist Paintpots. This is one you can visit at any time of the day and see blue pools, mudpots and bubbling hot springs. There is a 1.1mile loop you can walk that rises over 100 feet where you have some nice views. We would recommend going to the Artist Paintpots in the afternoon. Then head over to Norris Geyser Basin for the evening. In the evenings there were no crowds at Norris Basin and parking was ample.

Sunset at Norris Geyser Basin

If you only had a day to see the Geysers you would want to head south from Madison to the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone, the Lower Geyser Basin, which includes Fountain Paint Pot, Firehole Lake Drive area and the Great Fountain Geyser. You’ll also want to stop at the Midway Geyser Basin to see the Grand Prismatic Spring and the rainbow-like rings in the spring.

The Fountain Paint Pot area has all four types of thermal features found in Yellowstone National Park, including geysers, hotsprings, mudpots and fumaroles. The boardwalk is less than 1 mile and is an easy walk. The spring is the best time to see the dancing bubbles since the mud gets thicker during the summer heat.

Firehole Lake Drive is a 3-mile one-way side road off the Grand Loop just south of Foundation Paint Pot. You can visit throughout the day and is a great location for sunset pictures. Some thermal features you’ll see are the Firehole Spring (picture), Surprise Pool, Great Fountain Geyser, which erupts every 8-12 hours, the White Dome Geyser, which erupts every 10 minutes to 3 hours, the Pink Cone Geyser and Firehole Lake.

The geyser ranger explained they are using an eruption interval of 11 hours plus or minus two hours for the Great Fountain Geyser. The key is to watch for the water crowning over the edge of the internal ring of the geyser. Once this happens the geyser will blow within 70-110 minutes.

The Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin is the most photographed thermal feature in Yellowstone. It’s the third largest spring in the world and has bright bands of orange, yellow and green around the deep blue waters in the spring. You can expect the parking and crowds between 10am-5pm to be crazy.

Further south is the Upper Geyser Basin, which is home to Old Faithful, Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin. The Black Sand Basin is one you can visit any time of the day and not have to deal with large crowds. You’ll find springs, pools and geysers, some of which have striking rings of color.

Cliff Geyser - Black Sand Basin

Cliff Geyser - Black Sand Basin

South Yellowstone

We spent half a day in South Yellowstone, driving around Yellowstone Lake and heading further south to Lewis Lake, Lewis Falls and Mouse Falls. The food at the Grant Village Dining Room is good and they also have nice views of Yellowstone Lake.

You won’t see Bison in this part of the park, but will see lots of Elk and wildfowl along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. During the springtime you will find Grizzlies in the area feeding in the streams. As you head North at West Thumb there is turn off to see Yellowstone Lake. There is a stream you can see just south of the lake that feeds across the road and continues on the other side. This stream is a great place to look for Grizzlies during the spring. The ranger we spoke with mentioned this area as we just missed the Grizzly sitting in the stream eating fish. Grizzlies use their body to block most of the stream making it easy for them to catch fish.

From the South it is a short drive to the Grand Teton National Park.

Yellowstone in Conclusion

Our time in Yellowstone was a learning experience. We got to see and learn more than most because of the knowledge a good friend (Yellowstone ranger) shared with us. Plan your days ahead of time, use the mornings and evening to your advantage. It is a lot to do all of Yellowstone in a few days.

To see wildlife, stay in the north part of the park and plan to spend time in Lamar Valley. If you want to see geysers plan to spend most of your time in the western part of the park. Be sure to pack your patience. You will be waiting for geysers and crowds of tourists. We didn’t cover this, but pack appropriate clothing. The weather changes fast in Yellowstone and can vary depending on the section of the park you are in. Waterproof boots, gloves, hats, and heavy coats should be considered. Even during the summer months. Enjoy your days in Yellowstone.

See our other blog post on Top Tips for Visiting Yellowstone

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