Yellowstone National Park – Everything you need to know before visiting

Yellowstone National Park was declared our first national park in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant. We love visiting national parks and Yellowstone is one that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Is it my favorite national park? No. However, it is a national park that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Below are highlights of our favorite places that you should see on your visit along with a few tips to make your trip enjoyable.

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

I’m starting with this part of Yellowstone National Park because it was one of my favorite. My way to describe it is mind-blowing. As you stroll along the boardwalk, the landscape is like no other. The Mammoth Hot Springs area is just amazing in that these landscapes exist. It is exactly how I imagined Yellowstone to look. Mind-blowing.

As we were visiting during July when its hot and crowded, my biggest tip is to make sure you have an adequate water supply. There was little shade on the boardwalk and it was hot!

yellowstone national park

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

This is another must see during your Yellowstone visit. Its gorgeous and worth the stop. We stopped on the North Rim trail at Lookout Point to admire the views. From the parking lot, we headed down a short trail in which you come to a fork. Left is a Lookout Point and right is Red Rocks Point Trail. If you are not up with a strenuous hike, I would not recommend going to the right down the Red Rocks Point Trail. We did it first and while it was a nice little workout, you get a similar view from the lookout point (left at the Y) without the extra exercise.

yellowstone national park north rim lookout point

Old Faithful

When you think about Yellowstone, one of the first things that comes to mind is Old Faithful. True to its name, its one of the most faithfully erupting geysers. So of course, you have to go see it while you are there. There are seats in front of it but plenty of space surrounding the area too to hang back and wait for the famous geyser to erupt. It is fun to see! I won’t say it was my favorite thing to see during our visit but again, its a must see while in Yellowstone.

On the drive from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful, we passed several of the smaller geyser areas and we enjoyed walking those boardwalks. Beware that while walking on the boardwalks, you will be smelling sulfur which smells like rotten eggs. Its manageable but not the most pleasant smell. I was so in awe of the landscape that I did not think much about the smell.

yellowstone national park scenery

Make sure to stop by the paint pots. And visit Biscuit Basin. The photo below does not do the incredible shade of blue justice. Nature is incredible.

yellowstone national park biscuit basin

Also along this drive from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful is Grand Prismatic. This was at the top of my list to see and I am so glad we didn’t miss this stop. As is typical in Yellowstone, you are walking along the boardwalks to see the sights and you get to enjoy many different pools on the way to visit Grand Prismatic. Many photos you see of Grand Prismatic are from above. While I wanted to hike Fairy Falls to get the view from above, we did not make it on this trip. I suggest it if you are up for the hike!

Firehole River

My boys never pass up the opportunity to swim. This was not one of our planned activities but sometimes the unplanned turn out to be the most fun! Driving through the park, we saw groups playing in the river and the boys wanted to join in. They had a blast! There was a current that flowed at a decent pace. Not too fast but fast enough that if they didn’t fight against it, they would slowly flow down river. They loved swimming against it. The temperature was warm enough that even I waded in and I don’t swim unless it is super hot. I prefer to have water shoes but the bottom was sandy so comfortable to play in either without water shoes.

firehole river

Don’t confuse Firehole River with Boiling River. Boiling River is one place that was high on my list to visit. It is near hot springs so the closer you are to the hot springs, the warmer the water becomes. Some friends told us this was one of their favorite stops in Yellowstone. However, because we were visiting during the pandemic, Boiling River was not open for us to enjoy. It is on the top of my list to explore on our next visit.

Other areas in Yellowstone National Park

Lamar Valley is one area that we did not explore. I have read that it is one of the best places to see wildlife especially the wolves, however, it is a large area. I would be prepared for longer drives. As wildlife is most active during the early morning or dusk, this is when I would plan to visit for a better chance to spot an animal.

Yellowstone Lake is also on our list for our next visit.

Best Time to Visit

If one of your goals is to see wildlife while in Yellowstone, try to plan to be in the park early in the morning or early evening/dusk. We like to plan our adventure days similar to that schedule typically. We like to venture out in the morning, then come back to walk/take care of the dogs and then venture out again in the evening. This schedule works perfectly for viewing wildlife as they are most active during these times of day.

As far as the best time of the year, we read that spring or fall are less busy times. We visited in July and it was busy. There were times that we would pull into a parking lot and not be able to find a place to park due to all the visitors. An advantage of going early is beating the traffic rush to get into the park. In addition, we found that by evening, the park became less crowded which we enjoyed!

Yellowstone National Park App

Before your trip, download the Yellowstone app. It provides useful information and you will have a map within the park. I loved using it! While on the main roads throughout the park, signage is adequate to get you from one place to another as long as you know the general area that you want to go.

West Yellowstone

We stayed in West Yellowstone which is near the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park (there are four entrances to the park). West Yellowstone is a cute little town that we highly recommend! It has many little shops that are perfect for picking up Yellowstone souvenirs. Its small enough that we enjoyed biking from our RV park around to shop and see the town. We also walked several times to grab food or shop.

There are also plenty of restaurants in West Yellowstone along with stops for ice cream! If you enjoy BBQ food, stop at the Firehole Bar-B-Que Co. We stopped one evening to grab dinner there. By the time I got to the front of the line, they were out of meat for the evening. I am not even joking. We decided it must have been tasty from them to sell out. We stopped another evening (earlier in the evening) and bought a couple different meats and sides to share. It was well worth the stop! Delicious! We also enjoyed eating pizza at the Wild West Pizzeria and Saloon. I love restaurants with unique themes and this is definitely a fun one!

My last recommendation for West Yellowstone is Freeheel and Wheel especially if you are into biking like us (or cross-country skiing). In addition to a cute bike shop, the ladies that we chatted with in the shop were so friendly. They have an espresso shop too so we rode down every morning for a coffee. I love finding places like this while we are traveling. If you enjoy biking, check out my other article on our biking adventures while in Yellowstone.

Grizzly Wolf Center

One of the places I was most excited to visit was the Grizzly Wolf Center in West Yellowstone. I knew that if we were not able to see a bear or a wolf while in the park, at least we would get to enjoy seeing one at the Grizzly Wolf Center. I was most excited as this place offers the opportunity for the kids to hide food within the bear cage and then the bears come out to find the food. Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was not an activity they were offering. I understand but I think my boys would have loved that!

The center is small. You can easily walk through in less than an hour and the time spent there will depend on how long you enjoy watching the animals. They bring out one or two different bears every hour. I enjoyed reading the signs about the history of each of the bears such as why they were brought into captivity. There are two different areas with wolves and we saw some young wolves while we were visiting which were so cute.

There is also a small building that you can watch otters swim and then wonder through an area with some birds. Overall, it makes a nice quick stop but make sure that the price is within your budget for a quicker stop. We may have stayed longer if our boys would have been able to hide food for the bears.

Safety First at Yellowstone National Park

There are signs near many of the boardwalks and along the trails warning people to stay on said boardwalks and trails. Please, please follow the signs. Don’t be one of those stupid people that dies in Yellowstone from stepping into the hot acidy liquid (its happened!) We saw several hats and other belongings that had been lost out into the geothermic areas. Make sure (especially on a windy day) that you secure your belongings so they don’t get blown out where you are not able to retrieve them.

Also, keep your distance from the animals. One of our absolute favorite things is seeing the wildlife. I realize how amazing the wildlife is but they are also dangerous. Don’t be one of those people that gets too close and gets hurt. You know those videos we see. Make sure your trip is enjoyable the entire time by following the simple rules. Okay… rant over.

Fun fact! Did you know that herds of bison (or buffalo if you prefer) are the females and babies. The single bison are males.

herd of bison at yellowstone
bison at yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park Entrance Fee

If Yellowstone is the only national park you plan to visit this year, you can buy a 7-day pass for $35. However, if you plan to visit any other national parks throughout the year, I highly recommend the America the Beautiful pass. For $80, you can purchase an annual pass to get into all national parks. This is a great purchase if you plan to visit more than one park. In addition, if you have a 4th grade student, you get an America the Beautiful pass for free! We were fortunate to take advantage of that when our youngest was a 4th grader!

Please be aware that there are downsides to visiting Yellowstone National Park. Read my article on What Not To Do In Yellowstone National Park for tips to make your trip the best possible.

I hope you have a wonderful trip to Yellowstone National Park. Safe travels!

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