Old Faithful probably comes to mind when you think of Yellowstone National Park. And it’s certainly worth seeing, along with other geysers.
But the geysers are just the start of what Yellowstone offers: hiking, biking, camping, fishing, wildlife-spotting and more. If the park were its own state, it would be larger than Rhode Island and Delaware. With stops along the way, it can take two full days to drive the 142-mile Grand Loop. Here are some Yellowstone basics, starting with the geysers.
Most of the park’s easily accessible and most famous geysers are concentrated along a 30-mile drive in the middle of the park, from West Thumb to Madison Junction, and can be seen in a half-day.
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Park visitor centers can provide predicted eruption times for about a half-dozen geysers. Some predictions are in windows of several hours, so you’ll probably spend some time waiting. Old Faithful erupts every 60 to 90 minutes. The exact timing depends on the previous eruption, so the park can predict only one eruption at a time.
Several other geysers are within walking distance, including the tiny Anemone, which erupts every 10 minutes or so. A few more clusters of geysers and hot springs are a short drive north along Grand Loop.
If your timing is right, don’t miss the Grand Geyser, the tallest predictable geyser in the world, reaching as high as 200 feet and lasting up to 12 minutes. You might have to wait a few hours, though. The Grand Geyser has been erupting every seven or eight hours, and the park’s predictions are in four-hour windows.
The Divide hike is about 3.5 miles round trip and takes you to the Continental Divide, the line where water flows toward the Atlantic from one side and toward the Pacific from the other. There’s no sign or any other marker at the top, so you’ll have to use your imagination. The park rates the hike as moderately strenuous, given the climb of about 735 feet.
Mystic Falls is more scenic. The start of the trail is close to the Biscuit Basin cluster of geysers, so you can get geysers and a hike both out of the way with one stop.
Give yourself at least two hours for the drive from the geysers to Mount Washburn. The trail to the top is well-maintained, but the hike isn’t for those out of shape: You’ll climb 1,400 feet to an elevation of 10,243 feet. There are two ways up: The longer route, from Dunraven Pass, is about 3 miles each way, but it’s less steep than the Chittenden Road option. Take the same route down; the parking lots for each trailhead are 6 miles apart.
Views along the way and at the top are magnificent. In the distance, you can glimpse Yellowstone’s version of the Grand Canyon, a gorge formed by the Yellowstone River. There’s a fire lookout tower with an observation deck at the top.
Outside of visitor centers and lodging areas, Yellowstone does not have many vendors, so bring food and water on your hikes.
Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon is worth its own visit. You have several long or short hikes to choose from, along either side of the canyon. If you’re pressed for time, drive to the Upper and Lower Falls and view the rapids before a pair of drops into the canyon. For both falls, use paved overlooks or take short hikes for closer views. Visit the Upper Falls in the afternoon for a chance to see rainbows.
Wildlife and driving
Yellowstone is home to bison, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves and grizzly bears. If you’re looking to see a certain type of animal, ask at visitor centers where to go and the best time of day. Cars stopped or parked haphazardly along a road usually means there’s something worth seeing. You can’t miss the bison herds, but for other creatures, you may need binoculars or a spotting scope.
Bear attacks are rare but, especially if you’re camping or hiking, read up on bear safety.
Biking and boating
You can bike along the Grand Loop on your own bike or by renting one near Old Faithful. There are boating and fishing opportunities as well; permits are required.
Getting there and lodging
Yellowstone National Park covers 3,472 square miles over three states: Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The bulk of the park is in northwest Wyoming. The park has five entrances, with gateway towns offering food and lodging.
Cody, Wyo., is 53 miles from the East Entrance. Cooke City, Mont., is 4 miles from the Northeast Entrance. Gardiner, Mont. is 1 mile from the North Entrance. Jackson Hole, Wyo., is 57 miles from the South Entrance. And West Yellowstone, Mont., is 1 mile from the West Entrance.
The drive from the entrances to the main loop is long, so plan your access point and lodging carefully. There are nine lodges inside the park; consider switching hotels each night to be closer to another part of the park the next morning.
The park has a dozen campgrounds. Seven are first come, first served. Reservations for the others and for the lodges fill up fast.
Nearest airports with car rentals are in Cody and Jackson, Wyo.; Bozeman, Billings and West Yellowstone, Mont.; and Idaho Falls, Idaho. If you have time, it may be cheaper to fly to Denver and drive the 550 miles to the park via Cody.
If you have an extra day or two, visit Grand Teton National Park just south of Yellowstone. The $25-per-car admission for Yellowstone covers a week in both parks. You’ll get magnificent views of the Teton mountain range, plus more opportunities to hike and see wildlife.