From the to the majestic bison that roam freely through Hayden Valley to the bubbling hot springs of Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone National Park is truly like no other place on Earth. There is a common truth among visitors who flock to this park each year. There’s no wrong way to experience Yellowstone. No matter what entrance you use, no matter what activity level you are, and no matter how much time you have to spend, there’s always a great adventure to be had. After being on my bucket list for years I was finally able to visit Yellowstone National Park. Journey with me as we explore the park in four adventure filled days!
Suggested Itinerary: Four Days In Yellowstone National Park
Western Leg: Hot Springs, Geysers and Old Faithful
includes Upper Geyser Basin, Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, Midway Geyser Basin
Central Leg: Canyon Village and Norris Geyser Basin
includes Artist Paint Pots, Beryl Spring, Gibbon Falls, West Yellowstone
Eastern Leg: Yellowstone Lake and Hayden Valley
includes Bridge Bay, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Grant Village, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Northern Leg: Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley
includes Obsidian Cliff, Sheepeater Cliff
Day 1: Old Faithful Geyser
After spending the first three days in Grand Teton National Park, we drove north on scenic Hwy 191 and entered Yellowstone from the southern gate entrance. I was so excited to be in Wyoming! Our destination for the day was to see Old Faithful and to explore other geysers and hot springs in the area. If you head up this way you can make pit stops at Moose Falls, Lewis Canyon Falls, Lewis Falls, Kepler Cascades, and any of the three locations where the highway crosses the Continental Divide. I remember the adventure movie from the 70s “Across The Great Divide” and now I’m finally crossing it myself.
Pulling into the Old Faithful parking lot I realized there was a lot to see. Besides the famous geyser there’s a visitor center where you can learn about the nearby attractions, a few souvenir shops, food shops and Old Faithful Inn, which would be our lodging for the night. But first, excuse me while I run from the car to Old Faithful because it’s erupting again! Where the heck is my camera?
Old Faithful erupts about 20 times a day. A sign is posted in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn that predicts when the next eruption will take place. Old Faithful isn’t the only geyser in the area. As we drove around the parking lot we saw other smaller geysers wildly spitting up water from the ground. Across from the Old Faithful Inn is a boardwalk that leads out to view even more geological wonders. This land is so alive with geothermal activity everywhere you look!
Grand Prismatic Spring
After checking in at our hotel we headed north on Grand Loop Road to visit the famous hot springs of Yellowstone. First we drove to Midway Geyser Basin and parked in the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot. As you cross over the Firehole River Bridge you will see hot steam pouring over the crest of the land and dumping into the river below. We walked up the boardwalk which took us by Excelsior Geyser Crater, a magnificently blue colored steaming spring pool. It really does look like a pool that you might want to jump into but make no mistake. With temps at around 198°F this hot spring can kill!
The colors of Excelsior was just a warm up for what we would see next. The boardwalk wraps around the most famous and probably the most beautiful hot spring in Yellowstone. Behold the stunning colors of Grand Prismatic Spring! This hot spring is enormous! The center is blue but the colors around the center change from green to yellow and then to orange and finally brown. Hot steam slowly rises off the top of this radiant feature. Simply amazing! If you have time I would advise you to do the short hike to Grand Prismatic Spring overlook so you can get an incredible birds eye view.
Our next stop was to see several jewel-toned thermal features at Biscuit Basin. From there we continued south to check out yet another group of colorful hot springs at Black Sand Basin. Finally back at Old Faithful we hiked the boardwalk path that I had seen before through an area called Upper Geyser Basin. This boardwalk hike is simply incredible. How they were able to build such a sturdy walkway through delicate geothermal landscape is just unbelievable. One of my favorite moments was walking through areas that seemed so wild and then discovering so many active geysers and mysterious colorful pools. Be sure to check out some great pictures of these beautiful hot springs in my article on The Colorful Hot Springs of Yellowstone.
Learning About Yellowstone’s Architecture
I wouldn’t think our lodging could impress me as much as the wild landscape that surrounded it, however I was wrong. Old Faithful Inn, the largest log hotel in the world, first opened to the public in the winter of 1904. The architect, 29-year-old Robert Reamer created the inn to reflect what is now considered the “Golden Age” of rustic resort architecture. While I waited to join a free tour of the hotel, I realized how wonderfully cozy the lobby felt. A towering stone fireplace greets you as you enter the massive hotel doors. The lobby fills with music as a man plays piano from the second floor. I decided to grab a coffee and browse through the gift shop to look for that perfect souvenir. Tonight after the buffet dinner we will sit outside on the balcony and wait for an evening eruption of Old Faithful.
Day 2: Canyon Village, Norris Geyser Basin and West Yellowstone
After thoroughly exploring Yellowstone’s western side, today’s adventure would take us north and through the central part of the park. We drove south from Old Faithful then around Yellowstone Lake till we arrived at Canyon Village. For the next three nights we’d be staying in Canyon Lodge. The village has a few restaurants, gift shops and even a little post office! Canyon Village was recently renovated and has wonderfully nostalgic 1950s camping vibe to it. I absolutely love it!
After checking in we headed west on highway 89 towards Norris Geyser Basin. We spent a little time looking through the visitor center then hiked down a boardwalk that lead to even more geysers, steam vents and bubbling mud pits. Norris is one of the hottest and most acidic of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal areas. Next we drove south to the Artists’ Paintpots. This was an easy enough 1/2 mile walk that allowed us to to get a birds eye view of more bubbling, steaming, colorful pits. Finally we explored Gibbon Falls until our stomachs began to growl. Dinner time!
Since we were so close to the western entrance gate we decided to use it to have dinner in West Yellowstone. This popular area has so many more restaurants to choose from. We wound up eating a delicious meal of wild game meat and veggies. Delicious! Afterwards we walked up and down the streets ducking into various souvenir shops before making the 1 hour drive back. I was a little worried about driving at night since there are so many animals in the park and could cross into the road at any time! However, we drove slowly and were fortunate enough to be guided by the light of a spectacular supermoon!
Day 3: Hayden Valley and the Mud Volcano Area
By now we were itching to see some animals so we started the morning by driving to Hayden Valley, one of the best places to view wildlife in the park. It didn’t take us long to find a crowd of visitors snapping pictures of hundreds of wild bison grazing near the river. Bison are one of the most sought after animals in the park and are such an iconic symbol of the Old West. At one time there were more than 60 million bison in North America. However, they were hunted and brutally slaughtered during the nineteenth century. Fortunately, conservation efforts in the 20th century helped the population of bison grow to healthy levels again.
Next we took a pitstop at the Mud Volcano. This fun little area includes attractions with whimsical names such as Dragon’s Mouth Spring, Grizzly Fumarole, and Black Dragon’s Cauldron. The actively bubbling mud pits here remind me of a witches cauldron. I can only imagine how mind blowing the first frontiersmen felt as they witnessed the hot steam billowing out of the cave at Dragon’s Mouth Spring. I would have been terrified! It’s really amazing to see how active the earth is here and that it has been this active for centuries.
Take a Scenic Boat Tour of Yellowstone Lake
Driving along the narrows of Yellowstone River is wonderful. We saw fly fisherman casting their rods into the river’s edge in search of prized cutthroat trout. The scenes reminded me of the movie “A River Runs Through It”. Someday I’d like to return to the river near LeHardy Rapids and try to catch myself a trout. Not too far down the road Yellowstone River opens up to Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation lake in North America.
At Bay Bridge Marina we jumped out of the car to stretch our legs and to get a better look at the little harbor. We arrived just in time to purchase tickets for the last scenic boat tour of the day. It was pretty relaxing to just sit back and listen to the boat captain’s history lessons while viewing the amazing scenery from the boat. We ferried along Stevenson Island where we were able to see the Wreck of the E.C. Waters.
E.C. Waters was a greedy arrogant business man who tried to profit from anything he could. He created a monopoly of businesses including ferrying guests in a steamship around Yellowstone Lake. He brought native and non-native animals to Stevenson Island for guests to enjoy. However, people constantly complained about his terribly volatile attitude and his despicable treatment of animals. The Parks Department tried to break up his monopoly by introducing another boat company to the lake. In 1905 E.C. purchased an even bigger ship for a whooping $60,000 which he named after himself. Authorities refused to license his ferry and so it sat and sat and sat until its eventual demise. There were legal battles but finally after dealing with him for so long, the Park Superintendent banned him permanently from the park in 1907. He would never be allowed to return.
We cruised by the majestic Yellowstone Hotel before returning to the harbor. I imagine this would also be a nice place to stay for a few days. I would love to charter a small fishing boat with a personal guide who could show me how to catch lake trout!
Exploring Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
It was certainly a busy day but there was one more place we wanted to explore. Very close to Canyon Lodge are places where you can get some of the most amazing views of the canyons that enclose Yellowstone River. Places like Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Artist Point and Grand View are literally a photographer’s paradise. The different views of the waterfalls are absolutely stunning. This is a side of Yellowstone that everyone must see! I would recommend you visit each and every point of interest to get the various views that are so different from each other but every bit as stunning as the next. We arrived as the sun was setting so there was a bit of that golden hour glow to everything!
Day 4: Mammoth Hot Springs and Northern Yellowstone
For our final day of exploration we would travel to the northern most part of the national park. We drove west along Norris Canyon Road from Canyon Lodge and turned north on Highway 89. Our first stop was a place called Roaring Mountain. As we approached it looked as though this grey mountain had just caught on fire. There were no red flames of course, but steam seemed to be rising from vents all over the mountain. The vents, called fumeroles, are holes in the surface of the Earth from which hot volcanic gases and vapors are emitted without any liquids or solids. We could hear the hissing sounds these fumaroles made but learned that in the early 1900s the fumaroles roared so loudly they could be heard from several miles away.
A little further north we arrived at our second stop, Sheepeater Cliff. This basalt lava cliff was named for the Shoshone Indians that once lived in this region. They earned the name sheepeaters (or Tukadika) due to their use of bighorn sheep. I’ve seen similar columnar jointing like this at Devils Postpile in California. This scenic location is right along the Gardner river. A few fisherman were tucked into the brush trying their best to catch trout. From the river’s edge you could see another set of basalt columns that can be reached via a short trail.
Mammoth Hot Springs
The drive up to Mammoth Hot Springs is very scenic and if you’re lucky you might see bighorn sheep along the way. Once arriving at the Upper Terraces we parked so that we could walk some of the boardwalks that have been set up for close viewing. Wow! These terraces were formed over centuries. Hot water bubbles up from the ground then cools the calcium carbonate deposits creating these incredible structures. I had just started enjoying these mighty formations when when I realized I had forgotten my backpack on a picnic table near Sheepeater Cliff. Panic! As we drove back I was convinced that my bag would be stolen and I’d have no remaining identification to travel home. But guess what? After an hour of driving back, my bag was right where I left it! Thank you honest people who maybe never even noticed the bag. I was so relieved so we drove back and continued to re-explore the Upper Terraces and then down to view the Lower Terraces.
It was very hot and time for lunch so we headed to the Mammoth General Store to see if there would be anything good to eat. On a normal year you would find more food here but this was no ordinary year. Just two months ago on June 13, 2022, Yellowstone suffered from the largest historical flood on record. There was a ton of damage to the park and roads. In fact a large part of the park was off limits to visitors including the north east entrance road at Tower Junction which leads to the Lamar Valley, a great place to view bears and if you’re lucky wolves. The road north to Gardiner, Montana was also closed so we didn’t go to the Boiling River to swim like some tourists do. This posed huge problem for the park since Gardiner is one of the main roads to get supplies and food into the national park. We were told food would be limited during our stay so we were happy with the cold cut sandwiches we bought from the store and content to wash it down with a cold beer.
Visitor Center & Museum
On the grounds of Fort Yellowstone is the Albright Visitor Center and Museum. This former army building built in 1909 hosts interesting displays, artifacts and photos to tell the story of Yellowstone National Park. I learned about native tribes who predated white men in the area. I also learned about brave frontiersmen like John Colter who literally had to run for his life from the Blackfeet Indians. I also learned about how the mighty bison population almost diminished to extinction from European hunters in the late 1800s. Fortunately those numbers have reversed and now the bison thrive within the park.
On the way back to Canyon we stopped by the Petrified Tree (looked more like a stump) and another beautiful waterfall at Tower Fall. The day was quickly coming to an end and so was our 4 day adventure through Yellowstone. There is still so much more to explore here but I felt we got a great introduction to America’s first national park. Yellowstone, I love your natural beauty and I hope to see you again very soon.