2020 Guide to Yellowstone
Yellowstone is a large National Park with a TON to see! We recommend reserving AT LEAST three days to explore all that the park has to offer (5-7 days is even better!). Due to COVID-19 all Visitor Centers are closed for 2020 so we also recommend PLANNING AHEAD! Cell service is seldom available and although the NPS map they give you when you enter is wonderful, it certainly doesn’t have all the details. You want to ensure to maximize your time at the park. The park has ELEVEN main areas and we gotta say it’s worth it to check them all out.
Below we breakdown how we spent each of our three days at Yellowstone. We detail everything we did, what features we thought were most worth seeing, how to maximize your time, and the two apps we recommend you download to plan your trip! Alright let’s dive in!
We entered the park via the East entrance through the Shoshone National Forest after spending a night just outside of Cody, WY (30 min east) at a free campsite. There are also 4 or 5 USFS managed campgrounds between $10-15/night a little closer to the entrance though if you want to stay closer! From this entrance it is a 27 mile drive to Fishing Bridge/Lake Village/Bridge Bay. You will immediately notice that the area north of the road was hit hard during the Fires of ’88 (something worth looking into before you arrive!) but is making a comeback!
We recommend doing the Avalanche Peak hike that is on the right about 8 miles in. Although we weren’t able to do this 4.6 mile out-and-back due to weather, it is known for stunning views of Yellowstone Lake. This hike climbs 2,000 feet in just 2.3 miles so be prepared for an uphill battle to get to experience the views at the top! :)
After your hike you can stop at one of the two nearby picnic areas by Sylvan or Eleanor Lake but we recommend taking a little drive to the “Lake Butte Overlook” to have some lunch or a snack. If you choose to skip the hike (or can’t due to freezing rain conditions like us) this overlook provides beautiful views of the lake! Just below this is where we saw our first Grizzly sighting (w/ a cub!) so grab your binoculars and be on the lookout for wildlife.
From the overlook it is a short drive along the lake to Lake Village. On the way you will see some geothermal activity and also a couple more picnic areas to stop at. The first village you approach is Fishing Bridge and it has a camp store, gas station, and even a mechanic. Just past all the amenities the road comes to a T. We took a left to check out the north area of Yellowstone Lake. We then went left into Lake Village - however, unless you are staying in the lodge or hotel you can skip this as there is not much to see. Instead, keep driving through towards Bridge Bay. The campground at Bridge Bay (seen from the road) had a bison roaming right through the campsites as well as elk scattered in the trees surrounding it when we drove by. Just past the campground on your left is “Gull Point Drive.” This is a beautiful drive around the lakes edge and we saw very few cars while on this drive!
After we did this little loop we opted to head back towards Lake Village and go north to Canyon Village. There is lots to see and stop at on this 16 mile drive so give yourself some time to enjoy it all! First, on the right hand side just a few miles past Lake Village you will see LeHardys Rapids. These are MASSIVE rapids and you might be able to catch some cutthroat trout leaping upstream here. Either way it’s worth stopping and seeing the Yellowstone River flow through these rapids at high speed!
Next, on your left will be the Mud Volcano area which has 9 main hydrothermal features to see on the 2/3-mile paved trail. Mud Geyser and Dragons Mouth Spring were our two favorites but it’s worth seeing them all! Just across the street is Sulphur Caldron which is one of the most acidic hot springs in all of Yellowstone - the pH is between 1-2 which is similar to a car battery acid!
From here you will go through Hayden Valley which is a great opportunity to see wildlife - bison, elk, bears all roam this area esp. in the morning and early evening. Allow yourself some time to drive this stretch because you will want to pull over and see all the beautiful wildlife and also traffic jams happen often!
I know what you’re thinking…Is this day over yet?! NOPE! And you don’t want to miss this next feature of the park - The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone! A stunning canyon with two falls that will be hard to take your eyes off of. We took the “South Rim Drive” and stopped first at Uncle Tom’s Point to see the Upper Falls. These falls are 109ft and the amount of water rushing down is the most robust waterfall we have seen aside from Niagara!
From there make your way to Artist Point. You can either take the South Rim Trail by foot or drive down to the parking lot. This will bring you to a view of the canyon, river and Lower Falls that drop 308ft. Jaw. Dropping. Beauty. Y’all. Soak this view in for a while because it truly is spectacular.
By this time it was getting late, later than we expected. We had originally planned on making it out the north entrance for the night but as the night fell we took our chance and checked in with the Canyon Village campground to see if they had a spot for us to crash for the night. To our surprise, they did! So we settled in, made some dinner and got some rest for another full day.
Bring on all the caffeine today. We opted to take advantage of our accidental night in the park by waking up early to get out and explore on day two! Ideally, we wanted to shoot up the road from Canyon to Tower-Roosevelt but it is closed for the entire 2020 season. So we headed 12 miles west to Norris but turned right and kept going up towards Mammoth Hot Springs. We wanted to beat the expected crowds in the Terraces and it sure paid off. However, if you have your bikes with you or want to hike to see some incredible views of Mammoth - on the road up you will pass the Bunsen Peak trail on your right.
You can either hike the 4.3 mile hike to the top of Bunsen Peak or you can hop on your bike and take the 6.3 mile one-way ride up near the hot springs. Other stops worthwhile as you drive up are Roaring Mountain and the Obsidian Cliff. Also, just before you reach Mammoth on the right there is a pullout to take in the view of the surrounding mountains. There is an information board here regarding the Fires of ’88 if you forgot to read up before and seeing all the downed trees has now peaked your interest!
We got to the Terraces early and got a parking spot no problem (something that is a bit more difficult as late morning approaches). We hiked/walked around both the upper and the lower terrace areas. The Upper Terrace is typically a one way drive but was closed to vehicles so we walked it. Few people opt to do this, so it was a nice little walk just the two of us to experience this. The Hot Springs had several features worth checking out but the “big one” is the Canary Falls.
We also enjoyed the sight from the platform at the New Blue Spring. From here we hopped back in the van and headed west to go to Lamar Valley!
The road is 18 miles from Mammoth to Tower and the views to the north are absolutely breathtaking. We stopped at a pull out for a couple hours and just took in the view, enjoyed some guac and soaked in the moment! When we were ready, we continued in to the valley in hopes to see some incredible wildlife.
The Lamar Valley did not disappoint as there was an abundance of wildlife to see! Hundreds of buffalo and elk and even two black bears were spotted as we leisurely drove through and made sure to pull over often. We never caught a glimpse of the wolves but they are known to roam this area so keep your eyes out! As we headed back towards Mammoth we turned off to see Slough Creek - this area has some primitive first come, first served camping and hiking trails. If it is late in the day this would be a great place to hang up for the night as it has a beautiful creek and due to being in the meadows you have unimpeded views of the stars (keep an ear out for the howling wolves too!).
Our goal was to make it out of the West Entrance though, and since we got an early start we had plenty of daylight to keep going! We made our way west to Mammoth and then south to Norris and it was time to get back out and see the Norris Geyser Basin. This basin has several geysers and springs to see but beware the Steamboat Geyser is the “World’s Tallest Active Geyser” and it’s unpredictable and major eruptions can be more than 300 feet! There are signs all along the parking lot warning its contents can be damaging to vehicles (we’re guessing its highly acidic). We took the “risk” and hiked around the Back Basin (skipped the Porcelain) and discovered the last “major” eruption Steamboat Geyser had was about 36 hours before we arrived!
The other notables for us from this hike were the Emerald Spring, Green Dragon Spring and Vixen Geyser. In fact just as we walked by Vixen it started to erupt! Although this geyser only erupted about 30 feet in the air it is JUST off the pathway so it was cool to see it in action so close. By the time we got done exploring the Norris Basin it was getting late so we drove the 28 miles out of the park and headed to Henry’s Lake in Idaho. This camping spot deserves a blog post of its own as we ended up staying for FIVE nights (a record streak for these nomads).
After some RnR at Henry’s Lake, the weekend was over and it was time to dive back into Yellowstone. This time FINALLY seeing the infamous Old Faithful. We had big plans on getting to the park early but an unexpected long workout and our recent obsession with flying our drone kept us from getting there on schedule (whoops). We entered back into the park around noon through the West entrance.
The first 14 miles until you reach Madison is a beautiful drive with the Madison River to the south just beyond the road and Mount Haynes and National Park Mountain in the background. Once we reached Madison campground we took a right and headed towards Old Faithful. There are a couple of options to take a drive off the main road - Firehole Canyon and Fountain Flat. Fountain Flat turns into a bike trail so if you are ready to get some miles in on your bike and take in the view we highly recommend turning at Fountain Flat. If you stay on the main drive the first geothermal region you will hit is the Lower Geyser Basin. This basin is a half-mile boardwalk that takes you to the Fountain Paint Pots where the mud flies high. We also enjoyed the Silex Spring and got to see the Clepsydra Geyser going off while we hiked around.
After we finished up seeing the lower basin we drove over to the Midway Geyser Basin - home of the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone’s largest hot spring! This spring has gorgeous oranges and blues and is 200 feet across. The spring pours almost 500 gallons of hot water each minute. The hike/walk around this area is also a half-mile and it is pretty cool to see the hot water pour into the cold Firehole River below. However, once we made it up to the Grand Prismatic Spring we realized we didn’t have the best angle, but could see in the distance a spot that seemed to have a spectacular view. We followed the trail and noted a parking lot that looked just up the road to hike and see the spring from above!
We expected a sign that would elude to the Grand Prismatic Overlook but the sign actually only reads “Fair Falls Trail” to the parking lot. However, this is in fact the same trail to reach the overlook. As you make your way along the trail you will see a sign that says to hang a left to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. We cannot stress this enough…DO THIS HIKE! The view of the spring from here is absolutely stunning.
Next, the Upper Geyser Basin. This has a TON of geothermal features to see in several different areas - Biscuit Basin, Black Sand Basin, Old Faithful Geyser, Geyser Hill, and the Upper Geyser Hill Trail. Reserve a whole afternoon, at least 5 hours, to experience these areas. Here is a brief summary of each so that you can plan your trip accordingly!
Biscuit Basin is a short little loop but from here you can also hike to Mystic Falls, Observation Point, Summit Lake and the Fair Creek Trail. The notable feature at Biscuit Basin for us was the Sapphire Pool which is piercing blue and oh so clear. It was just formed following a 7.5 earthquake in 1959 so this area is still super unpredictable!
Black Sand Basin, the smallest of the geyser boardwalks at just a 1/4 mile. This loop’s notable stops are the Emerald Pool and Sunset Lake which both have strikingly beautiful colors. This entire area has obsidian around the basin which is where it gets its name “Black Sand.” From this basin you are just about a mile from Old Faithful!
Old Faithful Geyser - Do we need to say more? A must see while at Yellowstone. Although not the largest or most regular, this geyser erupts more frequently than any other big geyser in the park. It erupts about every 90 minutes and lasts 1.5 to 5 minutes. The boiling water it expels reaches heights of 106-184 feet. Crowds gather when its expected to go off (detail on how to check eruptions times later!) so we recommend arriving about 20 minutes before to grab a good spot. After you witness this iconic geyser be sure to stick around and hike around the Geyser Hill and Upper Geyser Hill Trail.
Geyser Hill and Upper Geyser Hill Trail are just above Old Faithful and have several geysers worth checking out! We (accidentally) timed ourselves perfectly to get to see both the Great Geyser and Riverside Geyser go off as we made our way around the trail. Grand Geyser is the world’s tallest predictable geyser reaching heights of 180 ft or more! This geyser is situated closer to the path than Old Faithful and with less of a crowd it is a MUST see!
Eruptions are about every 7 to 15 hours (you can look up it’s eruption time, we promise we’re getting to that!). After the Grand stopped we made our way up the trail to Riverside Geyser and got there just as it erupted. This one is across the Firehole River and when the lighting hits it just right you can see rainbows in the misty air. A couple other notables from these trails are the Grotto Geyser, Morning Glory Pool, & Punch Bowl Spring (looks like a natural jacuzzi!). Finally, the other big predictable geyser is Castle Geyser so if its predicted to erupt while you’re around be sure to plan your time on these trails to catch it! When we were there its next eruption was predicted at 1 something AM so it’s safe to say we didn’t wait around.
Okay, so how do you find out when geysers are predicted to erupt? How about planning your own trip through Yellowstone? And a more detailed map than the one given as you enter? WAIT NO MORE! We have two apps we recommend you download to help plan your trip and help you navigate once you are in park as well! The first is the NPS Yellowstone app. This is where you can see live geyser predictions, a detailed and interactive park map, a “what to see” section (although we hope we’ve detailed this above ;)), and even live campground info!
The second app we highly recommend, not only for Yellowstone but for National Parks, is the "National Park Trail Guide" app! This app is our GO TO whenever planning any time in a National Park. It has detailed trail maps for hiking, a “gem” section for must sees, and you can add what you like to your “My To-Do List” to keep you organized! The trail info is so detailed you almost feel like you are already on the trail, there are photos with most trail info so you see what you are getting yourself into and the entire app is super user friendly. In addition, it has info on camping & lodging, food & drink, visiting tips, as well as some graphs on temperature and precipitation. We just let you in on one of our best kept secrets so seriously go download ASAP. Both apps are linked (apple store) if you click the photos above!
Okay back to the park! We want to touch on how we exited the park and where we camped for the night. It was late by the time we finished up hiking around the entire Upper Geyser Basin so we mostly just made our way south taking in the view. We headed towards West Thumb passing through Craig Pass which crosses the Continental Divide twice. There are three picnic areas and also pull outs at both of the Continental Divide spots if you are looking to cook up some dinner. Once you reach West Thumb it is a left into the village and there is a small geyser basin if you have time (we unfortunately did not). There is also camping, gas a store and a restaurant in this village.
From West Thumb we headed south out the South Entrance. You will pass Lewis Lake on your right and it is a beautiful spot to see the sunset! The drive from West Thumb to the South Entrance is 22 miles and when you exit you will actually pop out IN Grand Teton National Park (another must see!). For a free spot to rest we recommend turning right at the Flagg Ranch area and taking your first right onto Grassy Lake Road. There are several dispersed camping areas with picnic tables and pit toilets here with beautiful views of the Tetons (talk about waking up with a view). This area was just hit hard but a forest fire a couple year ago so many of the trees are charred and bare but still a beautiful and free place to rest and then wake up to experience your next Park!
We hope this guide is helpful in planning your trip to Yellowstone! We absolutely loved feeling like we were on a different planet as we experienced all its geothermal features and stunning valleys. We hope you enjoy your time at the park and if you have any questions feel free to comment below!