Last Updated on May 1, 2021 by Janet Frost
As soon as I finished binge-watching Kevin Costner’s Yellowstone TV series, I was yearning to revisit the Wyoming/Montana vistas. We visited Yellowstone National Park during the summer of Covid (2020). While this affected lodging and food, it in no way diminished the beauty and grandeur of this iconic National Park. Over 4 million visitors enter the park annually. If you are planning your own visit to Yellowstone National Park I have some details to help you sort out this massive and majestic destination.
Let’s Go! Learn Things about the wilderness that is Yellowstone National Park…
Yellowstone National Park History
Yellowstone National Park was established as the first National Park in 1872. Reports from the Hayden Survey Expedition in 1871 so amazed Congress, that they enacted the Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872. They set aside 3,437.5 square miles from the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, encompassing portions of three states; Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The Hayden Expedition brought to light the diversity of natural wealth in Greater Yellowstone. Unparalleled hydrothermal features, wildlife, vegetation, lakes, and geologic wonders like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River astonished the politicians back East. Hayden’s 1871 survey team included two botanists, a meteorologist, a zoologist, an ornithologist, a mineralogist, a topographer, an agricultural statistician/entomologist, in addition, an artist, and a photographer. Yellowstone’s unique beauty was suddenly accessible through the photographs of William Henry Jackson and the art of Henry W. Elliot and Thomas Moran.
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Yellowstone National Park Entrances
Yellowstone National Park is huge and you should plan on plenty of driving during your stay. There are 5 entrances to the Park. Each entrance has a slightly different feel, with unique terrain and gateway towns. Which entrance you use will most likely affect where you will be staying and what you will be seeing.
The East Entrance travels one hour out of Cody, WY, crossing over the Absaroka Range at Sylvan Pass. This drive is a beautiful winding road that flows along the North Fork Shosone River. As you descend from the Pass, you have spectacular views of the pristine Yellowstone Lake. After the Fishing Bridgeee area, you will be in Lake Village. This feels like the center of the park, with a visitor’s center, gift shop, general store and several lodging and dining options (Lake Hotel, Lake Lodge, their respective cabins, Bridge Bay Campground and Fishing Bridge RV park). The main roads leading to other park landmarks converge at the Lake.
The Northeast Entrance is just 10 minutes out of the historic mining towns of Cooke City and Silver Gate, Montana. This entrance is the closest to the wildlife haven of Lamar Valley. The entrance road travels through the Beartooth Mountains. So while this might be the most beautiful route, it is a tricky drive for multi-axle vehicles. It winds along the picturesque, Soda Butte Creek, until it meets up with the Lamar River in the Valley. It is rumored that the best place to spot wolf packs is in the Lamar Valley at dawn or dusk. Tower Falls, the Lamar Buffalo Ranch and Specimen Ridge (home to petrified redwoods) are the other landmarks from this entrance. The lodging options for this entrance are Roosevelt Lodge and three campgrounds, Tower Falls, Pebble Creek and Slough Creek.
The North Entrance travels a short 6 minutes from Gardiner, Montana. Before actually entering Yellowstone NP North Entrance, you will pass the historic Roosevelt Arch. This imposing structure was built in honor of Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad to Gardiner, MT. Along this route you find the Albright Visitor Center, historic Fort Yellowstone, and the iconic Mammoth Hot Springs. Lodging options are the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and cabins, Mammoth Campground and Indian Creek Campground. Incidentally, the North Entrance Road is the only road open to regular traffic during the winter season.
The West Entrance enters through the bustling, tourist town of West Yellowstone, MT. They boast being surrounded by three national forests, Custer-Gallatin NF, Beaverhead-Deerlodge NF and Targhee NF. (See below for more details on Greater Yellowstone National Forests.) Entering from the West will put you closest to the major geyser fields. A fourteen mile drive takes you to Madison, the junction of the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers, and a great jumping off point for the geysers. To the north is Norris Geyser Field and to the south are the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins.
Yellowstone National Park’s South entrance heads north out of Jackson, WY. Jackson is an adorable mountain town and home to Grand Teton National Park. FYI, the town is called Jackson, the popular nickname, Jackson Hole, refers to the entire valley.
It is an hour drive from Jackson Hole to the Southern entrance and another 20 miles once in the park before you reach West Thumb Geyser Basin. From there you can go west to Old Faithful or continue north to Yellowstone Lake. Although this is a long drive, it is spectacularly beautiful and Grand Teton NP is well worth the visit.
Getting Around Yellowstone National Park
If you take a minute to study the Park map above, you can see that the driving roads through Yellowstone form a figure eight, with Mammoth Springs at the upper left and Yellowstone Lake at the lower right. It is 142 miles to complete the entire figure eight loop. You can see the mileage of the respective loops below. These loops are curvy roads with tourist traffic, wildlife crossings and amazing landmarks to stop for. You should plan on at least a whole day for each of the Upper and Lower Loops.
Each year there are road construction projects within the park. I have included the projected road closures for 2021. This same portion of road was closed in 2020 when we visited. You are able to reach the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone before the road is closed. However, this closure adds considerable time and distance to Lamar Valley if you are coming from the East or South entrances.
Major Landmarks in Yellowstone National Park
1. Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake has 131.7 square miles of surface area and 141 miles of shoreline. Its deepest spot is about 410 feet and its average depth is 140 feet. Research has shown that this pristine lake resembles the terrain in the surrounding park. At the bottom of the lake are underwater geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles, with an extraordinary hot spot in Mary Bay where the temperatures were recorded at 252°F. To the southeast the Absaroka Mountains provide a towering backdrop.
Boating and fishing is allowed on the lake and rentals are available through the lodging services. (Be sure to check before your visit for any special Covid restrictions.). There are also several pull outs with picnic tables along the Lower Loop.
2. Old Faithful
Old Faithful is the icon of Yellowstone National Park. There are geyser fields all throughout the Park, some are actually far more colorful and breathtaking. But Old Faithful is just that, “faithful” and it does erupt relatively predictably. The world’s most famous geyser erupts 20 times a day at an interval of every 60-100 minutes. It is typically crowded and will require a wait for the steam to build up. However, if you are at Yellowstone, you must make the requisite visit to Old Faithful.
3. Thermal Basins
While the most famous, Old Faithful is just a small portion of the thermal features in Yellowstone National Park. Well over 10,000 different hydrothermal features have been estimated to be active within the park. All of these features are a manifestation of the volcanic activity deep under the Park.
Get ready for some vocabulary lessons…Hydrothermal features include: hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles, and geysers and travertine terraces. This NPS page gives some in depth explanations of these geologic terms.
There are five types of hydrothermal features readily visible in Yellowstone:
- Hot springs: Pools of hydrothermally heated water.
- Geysers: Hot springs with constrictions in their plumbing, which causes them to periodically erupt to release the pressure that builds up.
- Mudpots: Hot springs that are acidic enough to dissolve the surrounding rock, and typically also lack water in their systems.
- Travertine terraces: Hot springs that rise up through limestone, dissolve the calcium carbonate, and deposit the calcite that makes the travertine terraces.
- Fumaroles: These hot features, also known as steam vents, lack water in their system, and instead constantly release hot steam.
Some of the most dramatic and popular thermal basins are:
- Mammoth Hot Springs displaying active hot springs and travertine terraces.
- Norris Basin is the hottest and most acidic of the thermal features in Yellowstone. You will experience hot springs and fumaroles in this dramatic area.
- Midway Geyser Basin is home to the incredibly colorful steaming crater of Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring. I have to say that this was one of my favorite spots.
- Fountain Paint Pots is a popular stop where you can take in all four of the park’s major hydrothermal features: fumaroles, geysers, hot springs, and mudpots. Nearby is also the Firehole Lake Drive and Great Fountain Geyser.
Go! Learn Things SAFELY…Every year someone ignores the warnings and falls through the delicate crust around a thermal feature and suffers severe burns and/or death. PLEASE stay on the boardwalks and obey the Park rules. For your safety and the preservation of these geological wonder.
As a photographer, the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park was what drew us to visit. We were not disappointed. Yellowstone National Park is teeming with wildlife, from wolves to chickadees, grizzly bears to the cutthroat trout and so many more. As you drive through the Park, you will encounter groups of cars pulled to the side of the road. This will usually indicate that some exciting wildlife is nearby. If you see cars, orange cones and Park Rangers, chances are it might be a grizzly sighting.
Wildlife is always unpredictable. There are some diurnal and seasonal habits that might help your chances, but it is still pure luck. Dusk and dawn area always your best bet, especially in the summer when middays get warm. Winter and spring are unique times because many of the elusive animals come to the thermal basins for warmth and food. The Park shares these broad suggestions for animal locations:
Animals migrate in and out of Yellowstone in response to the availability of food, so what can be seen at any given location will vary greatly with season, weather, and other factors. Below are a few popular destinations for watching some of the park’s large mammals, and what might be seen during certain times of the year.
Where to spot Wildlife
- Fishing Bridge: Grizzly bears
- Hayden Valley: Bison, black bears, elk, grizzly bears, wolves
- Lamar Valley: Bison, black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, grizzly bears, mule deer, pronghorn, wolves
- Mammoth Hot Springs: Bison, black bears, elk, mule deer
- Madison: Bison, elk
- North Entrance: Bighorn sheep, bison, elk, pronghorn
- Northeast Entrance: Moose
- Old Faithful: Bison, elk
- South Entrance: Moose
- West Thumb: Elk, moose
Generally, I recommend that you try to hit either Lamar Valley and/or Hayden Valley at dusk and dawn. Bring the best binoculars you can afford and consider renting a spotting scope. Many visitors gather around these valleys armed with scopes, folding chairs and snacks.
The bison and elk are easy to spot all around the Park. But as with the thermal area warnings, PLEASE keep a safe distance from all of the wildlife. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly docile and slow bison that hang around the campground. These are wild animals with very dangerous horns and surprising speed.
5. Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands are the heart of Yellowstone National Park. More than 600 lakes and ponds comprise approximately 107,000 surface acres in Yellowstone. Some 1,000 rivers and streams make up approximately 2,500 miles of running water. Wow! That is a lot of waterways. Several of the tributary rivers that later join to create the Missouri River start within the Park. Yellowstone River flows out of Yellowstone Lake at an outlet at Fishing Bridge. It continues to flow north-northwest towards Gardiner, MT. This might river has carved out the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Where to Stay and Eat are the most frequently asked questions and probably the toughest to give a good answer for. National Park lodging is not all created equal, and it is not managed by the National Park Service. There are several different concessionaires that manage park lodgings. Xanterra is the group that manages the lodging and dining in Yellowstone National Park.
Typically, I have been happy with lodging managed by Xanterra. However, with Covid restrictions still lingering into the summer of 2021, I am hesitant to recommend these options. This link will take you to the specific details of the nine lodges in Yellowstone for 2021. Because of the size of Yellowstone National Park, the “in park” lodging is popular. Several of these hotels, cabins and lodges are beautiful historic buildings. But, the lobbies and porches have been stripped of furniture and no lingering is allowed. Housekeeping services are non-existent and the overall ambiance is expensive and disappointing.
The dining is even more difficult. It appears that there might be some very limited “dine-in” services for 2021, but the majority remains take-out only. We found this to be very expensive, long waits and unsatisfactory quality. Even though it will require additional driving and probably changing your base from one entrance to another at some point in your visit, I recommend staying outside of the park until Xanterra fully restores services. Cody, Gardiner, Cooke City, West Yellowstone, and Jackson will provide far better experiences. If you intend to camp, I would check carefully on the Xanterra site for specific restrictions. I know that none of the campgrounds will have showers in Phase 1 of the summer.