As part of our cross-country drive from Washington, DC to Seattle, Washington, we spent the day in Yellowstone National Park. Since we were on our way west to meet our shipping POD with all of our things, we only had one day to spend in the park. We went in early June and a lot of things were still closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, including all campsites and lodges. But, we lucked out by how empty the famous park is. While Yellowstone is known for its beauty, it is also known for crowds. We had an incredible time with much of the park to ourselves!
As a native Coloradan, Wyoming and Montana are dear to my heart. They have open space, sprawling green space and the majestic Rocky Mountains. I didn’t realize the vast majority of the park is in Wyoming, with only 3% inside Montana’s border. Everything in Yellowstone was unimaginably beautiful. Around every turn, there were craters and geysers and canyons and waterfalls. The very first national park created, Yellowstone truly epitomizes America’s beauty – wildlife and nature in its untouched glory.
The best way I can describe Yellowstone is as an outdoor lover’s Disneyland. The natural landscape is gorgeous and diverse. But the park is incredibly well laid out – roads connect all of the main attractions and you really don’t even have to hike far off the road to get to them. Additionally, since the park is so massive there are numerous visitor centers, souvenir shops and even gas stations within Yellowstone boundaries. It is like it’s own little nature Disneyland.
Walk Along the Grand Prismatic Spring
We really lucked out with our visit to one of the most popular sites in Yellowstone – the Grand Prismatic Spring. When we arrived there was only one other person on the boardwalks around the brightly colored springs. As you may have guessed, these hot springs get their name from its bright colors and shimmering rainbow from the heat of the pools. The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the U.S. and looked otherworldly.
Yellowstone is incredibly well laid out and accessible. The Grand Prismatic Springs are accessible to wheelchairs and are navigated by wide, wood boardwalks. As with these hot springs, most of the sites in Yellowstone are right off of the main road and easily accessible for people of all abilities.
We went pretty early in the morning, probably around 8 AM. If you’re planning a trip to Grand Prismatic, I’d try to go later in the day so that the air temperature is warmer and less steam comes off of the pools. Since we went so early, the air was cool and steam often blocked the view of the colorful pools below.
And if you’ve ever been to a hot springs, you’ll know they reek of sulfur. Since Grand Prismatic is so large, the smell of sulfur wafts through the park and is really strong. But you won’t even mind the smell with views like these!
Watch Old Faithful Erupt
What everyone comes to Yellowstone to see – Old Faithful! Again, during normal circumstances, the Old Faithful viewing area is packed full of tourists and old folks hobbling out from their RVs. But since Drew and I were in Yellowstone during the public health emergency, we were able to get front-row seats to see Old Faithful.
Like most everything in Yellowstone, Old Faithful is well laid out and surrounded by visitor centers, buildings and the famous Old Faithful Lodge, which was built in 1923. Old Faithful is in many ways the heart of the whole park – with sprawling parking lots and visitors meandering around.
The geyser itself was really cool to see – it’s off on its own in the middle of a field surrounded by a view of the mountains. And Old Faithful is, well, faithful! The eruption schedule is on the Yellowstone website and can be tracked down to a 10-minute window.
Since we went during the public health emergency, the park was not overly crowded – but the area around Old Faithful definitely filled up. I’d expect the area to be really busy under normal circumstances.
Scan the Hillsides for Wildlife
Yellowstone is known for wildlife – it’s one of the biggest draws to the national park. Yellowstone is home to bison, deer, elk, moose, bears and even wolves.
When driving through the park, you are guaranteed to see bison. They graze in the fields along the roadside like big, lazy cattle. During our day in the park, we probably saw more than 100 bison and I can all but promise you that you’ll see them during a visit to Yellowstone.
I was surprised that we didn’t really see other wildlife. We arrived at the park pretty early but only saw a lone elk during our day in Yellowstone. Coming from experience seeing wildlife in other national parks, like Rocky Mountain in Colorado, I was expecting to see lots of deer, elk or moose. But so many other people see wildlife when they visit Yellowstone – maybe you’ll be luckier than I!
If you’re planning your own trip to Yellowstone, I’d recommend booking the Wake Up to Wildlife Tour. We were looking forward to it but unfortunately, it was canceled due to COVID-19. The tour leaves around 6 AM and drives through Lamar Valley (pictured below). Animals tend to be out and about early in the morning and around dusk – they’re easiest to spot while grazing in the field. The tour even drives around in Yellowstone’s old-school, historic yellow buses and would be such a fun introduction to wildlife in the park.
Explore the Excelsior Geyser Crater
One of the coolest parts of Yellowstone was the geysers around various areas of the park. The areas like Excelsior Geyser Crater look like they’re from the prehistoric era – craters with deep blue pools protruding through red earth. As you drive through Yellowstone you can see steam coming from geysers around the park. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before!
The Excelsior Geyser Crater was unexpectedly really cool. There are a couple of smaller geysers that you can get pretty close to. There were about two geysers that erupted pretty frequently that were fascinating to watch. Though smaller than Old Faithful, these geysers look like something from Jurassic Park.
Drive Through the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
I didn’t capture good pictures of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone but it was one of the most surprisingly beautiful parts of the park. It’s interesting to see how the landscape changes as you drive through the massive park. The massive canyon was unexpected, you drive down these winding roads through plains and geysers and forests and everything opens into a beautiful canyon with a rushing river.
One destination you should be sure to see when visiting Yellowstone is the upper falls of the Yellowstone River (pictured below). The pictures don’t do the falls justice. They are undoubtedly the largest falls I’ve ever seen and were so majestic. Yellowstone truly has everything you could imagine – mountains, lakes, rivers, plains and geysers.
Have a Picnic at Yellowstone Lake
We stopped at Yellowstone Lake and ate the lunch we packed long the shore. The lake is at nearly 8,000 ft of elevation and is pretty chilly. Though I assume you could swim, the lake probably receives a lot of snowmelt from the mountains and I wouldn’t recommend taking a dip.
The lake is the largest body of water in the park and the perfect spot to stop for a bite to eat while listening to the lulling sound of water.
Drive Down to Grand Teton National Park
When we were driving near the southern part of Yellowstone National Park, we realized we were less than 30 miles from Grand Teton National Park. We decided to drive down and loop back up into Yellowstone later – and we’re so glad we did. The Teton mountain range is beautiful and pierces through the Wyoming blue sky. The jagged mountains are iconic for the region and are breathtaking.
National Parks have an entrance fee of around $25. We have an annual National Parks pass and would recommend investing in one if you’re a fan of NPS. They’re well-worth your money.
Since we weren’t worried about having to pay the park entrance fee, we stopped in Grand Teton National Park for about an hour. There is a really beautiful lake near the north entrance of the park – the Tetons jut out of the water and it makes a great picture spot.
I wish we would’ve been able to explore Grand Teton National Park more – if you’re planning a trip to Wyoming, I’d definitely add it to your list.
Now that we are living on the west coast, we will be going back to Yellowstone soon. You could spend weeks in the park and not explore the whole thing. Yellowstone is an American treasure and should be on any nature lover’s bucket list.
Have you ever been to Yellowstone? What should I check out next time I go to the park?
Thanks for reading!