Yellowstone is one of the most amazing places in the United States. I love my California, but Yellowstone made me contemplate moving to Montana just to be closer to it.
I actually left, wanting to thank good Ol’ Theodore Roosevelt for his conservation efforts to keep Yellowstone one our our greatest “National Playgrounds”. In his own words: “the Yellowstone Park” is “something absolutely unique in the world.” He goes on to say, “Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved… The creation and preservation of such a great national playground in the interests of our people as a whole is a credit to the nation…” (1)
Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Lamar Valley are just some of the well-known landmarks that have seduced travelers to Yellowstone National Park. Despite living on the West Coast, we made the 3 day drive to the Midwest to visit this wonderful national park. And boy, did it live up to our expectations and more.
Where We Stayed:
We wanted to visit Yellowstone in the summer, the busiest time of the year as part of a larger summer roadtrip. That means, hotel prices were skyrocket high, so we got creative.
We stayed in Iowa Falls, 2 hours away from Yellowstone’s West Entrance.
Instead of paying upwards of $200+ a night to stay in West Yellowstone, or paying $500 a night to stay in the park; we paid around $60. Yes, we had to drive 2 hours to our destination every day, but we didn’t mind. The trip went fast and we were able to watch the sunrise every morning. Plus we have a very fuel efficient car, so the additional gas cost to us was around $10 more a day.
Know Before You Go:
There is an abundance of wildlife in Yellowstone. So much so the animals will cross the street at anytime, undeterred by the presence of people.
However, getting around Yellowstone (especially in the summer) is no easy task, simply because the park is huge and the roads that wind through the park are mostly two-lane. So whenever an animal is spotted alongside the road, traffic comes to a near standstill as people slow down or pull over to get a glimpse and/or a picture, blocking one or both sides of the road.
We experienced a few animal jams during our visit. If it’s not the people, it can the animals crossing the street. Unfortunately if the bison, elk, or bears happen to decide to cross the road, you may end up sitting there in traffic for a long time.
The wildlife experience is very cool, except for the traffic part.
Every year multiple tourists make the mistake of approaching bison or bears and end up seriously injured. Stay away! The bison look gentle, but they attack when feel threatened. All visitors are reminded that they are responsible for their own safety and should take all necessary precautions.
Also, the hot pots and boiling ponds are no joke. Stay on the path and if travelling with children, keep them nearby or attached to your hand at all times. There are no railings to prevent a child from bolting off the path.
If you or are traveling with someone who needs access to a restroom, Yellowstone is pretty good at keeping you covered. Most of the main attractions have bathrooms. Other sites and along the grand loop road there are drop potty (aka port-a-potty like) so be sure to bring along some travel freshener and maybe some hand sanitizer.
Food, Gas, and Supplies
Each of the main villages has restaurants or general stores, and there are many places to stop and enjoy a picnic. There is a gas station at every “village” as well so don’t panic, but do plan ahead. We saw multiple cars halfway between points getting towed. All these can all be found on the map given out at the entrance.
Join a Ranger Program
National parks are truly the best way to enjoy yourself relatively free of cost. There are so many free programs throughout the summer; from entertaining and educational talks and hikes to evening campfires. Make sure you read your Newspaper provided at the entrance to find a great program to join in on the fun.
Yellowstone National Park Entrance Fees
A seven-day entrance permit to Yellowstone is $30 for a private vehicle and is valid for entry into Grand Teton National Park. If planning on visiting other national parks within a 12-month period, consider purchasing the National Parks Pass for $80. We purchased ours at the gate and it took only 5 minutes. View the National Park Service annual pass options on their site.
How to Get Around:
One of the best parts of Yellowstone is that the main road is a giant figure-8 loop so you basically just work yourself around the loops. Plan plenty of time to move from site to site as Yellowstone is HUGE. The Park map will give you an estimate of how much time to provide to reach your next destination.
To have a relaxing experience you’ll need several days at least to fully adventure out all the wonders the park has to offer. Unfortunately we didn’t have that much time. We scheduled just two days out of our road trip to try and experience as much of the park as we could. And I have to say it was great- even with just two days. We definitely felt that we needed more time, but we enjoyed ourselves immensely with what we could do.
Our adventure began from the West Entrance near West Yellowstone and traveled counterclockwise in the top half of the loop.
What We Saw:
Norris Geyser Basin
We started our morning by taking an early morning stroll along the boardwalks of the Norris Geyser Basin. This geothermal area, the hottest in the park, offers a surreal experience as you wind through a diverse assortment of springs, geysers and pools. You really can feel that you’re now in hot springs country; the place where you can see, hear, feel, and even smell the Earth breathe!
If you are wearing a hat in the geyser basin areas and it is windy, hold on! We saw quite a collection of hats in the springs.
North Rim Drive
Formed by thousand years of erosion rocks, water, and other natural energy, the Grand canyon of Yellowstone is the main scenic attractions in the park. Twenty miles long, the canyon is up to 4,000-feet wide and 1,200-feet deep in places.
The Lookout Point offers easiest access view of Lower Falls on the North Rim, but there is very limited parking so you may have to walk awhile. The Lower Falls is the largest waterfall in the park with its 94 meters.
It is a short walk from the Lookout Point to the Grandview Point. This walk will offers another great view of the canyon as you walk close to the canyon rim.
South Rim Drive
Get back in the car and drive to the South Rim and go all the way to the end to park.
Here you will see the canyon, the largest Yellowstone waterfall, and colorful cliffs. Heat from the geysers has hydrothermally altered the rock structures leaving mineral stains that mark where the hot springs and steam vents are in the canyon walls. For thousands of years, the hot water has altered the chemistry of the rocks, turning them yellow, red, white, and pink.
You can also view the canyon from Red Rock Point and down Uncle Tom’s Cabin Trail; each stopping point is another way to admire the canyon and waterfall from different angles. Keep an eye out for osprey, we saw many nests and the birds soaring in the canyon.
One of our best family memories was in Lamar Valley. It was our favorite stop. We packed a lunch and a picnic blanket; set up VERY far away from the wildlife and just sat there enjoying the view. We saw bison, elk, and a deer. It would have been nice to see a bear or wolves, but they are most visible in the break of morning and late evenings.
It was an incredible experience to view these beautiful animals in a relaxed setting. Lamar valley is not as widely visited as the rest of the park and while other visitors came and went, we had plenty of time to stretch out and watch the animals roam in their natural habitat.
When you are ready to leave, take the drive to Mammoth Hot Springs. The drive from Tower- Roosevelt to Mammoth is unbelievably beautiful, especially if it’s during wildflower season.
Take your time and enjoy the scenery. The power of the Snake River and the upper and lower falls which carve the canyon is astounding.
Mammoth Hot Springs
If you think you’ve seen it all after driving and hiking to all the geysers just wait…Mammoth Hot Springs is the most unique of them all. The water that pours over the hot springs is responsible for all of the formations in the area. Visitors are left with a frozen “waterfall” effect left behind by years of mineral deposits.
There is a large boardwalk system so you can walk around to the different areas of this site, but there are a lot of stairs. If you are travelling with members that cannot handle stairs, I suggest you drive up to the top and park. You’ll be amazed by how varied the landscape changes– there is also an amazing amount of wildlife just lounging around.
There are two large parking lots at the bottom of the site, and two small parking lots at the top of Mammoth Hot Springs. Drive past the second parking lot when driving towards Madison to take the one way Upper Terrace Loop Drive road up to the top. I suggest you explore the bottom part of Mammoth Hot Springs and then drive to the top, unless your up for a 100+ stair hike.
- Should I Worry About Bears? You shouldn’t worry about them to the point of never leaving your car. Generally, if you taking a country hike, practice safety by traveling with four or more people and carry bear spray. Talk while you’re hiking as well, a startled bear is an unhappy bear.
- Plan in advance. Besides booking your hotel, look into a ranger-led program. There are so many to choose from: horseback riding, fishing, boat tours, guided hikes with rangers, morning wildlife drives, look for wolves with a wolf biologist…. There are plenty of opportunities to learn more about the park and get out of the car.
- Practice a “Just Go with It” Philosophy. Yellowstone is a very busy, especially in the summer with: traffic jams, long lines, and packed parking lots. If you come with a ‘just go with it’ state of mind, you’ll pass the minor inconveniences and enjoy your trip that much more.
- It’ll be crowded, but go anyway. Yellowstone is a worldwide attraction. We saw tour buses and cars from every state in the US (even Hawaii!). The Park is always busy no matter what time you plan to go. But, Yellowstone is so special and so spectacular that it’s still worth making the trip.
Read Yellowstone – Day 2 to read we did the next day!
View All the Places Visited on our Summer Road Trip
- The Works of Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Memorial Edition, Retrieved on August, 2 2017. http://www.theodore-roosevelt.com/images/research/txtspeeches/51.txt