Have you been thinking about visiting Yellowstone National Park for the first time? My recommendation – do it. My first experience was absolutely breathtaking, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit. I’d like to share a few memorable moments from my first visit along with a few lessons learned that might make this trip seem less daunting for your first visit. My experience is based on allocating one full day driving through Yellowstone with frequent stops. I didn’t hike any of what must certainly be the incredible Yellowstone trails.
Getting To Yellowstone
You can enter Yellowstone from five different entrance points (south, west, north, northeast, and east). Each of them has a regional airport that will get you within about an hour drive from an entrance point. I think the regional airport of Bozeman, Montana serves the north entrance; Billings, Montana covers the northeast entrance; Cody, Wyoming covers the east entrance; and Jackson, Wyoming covers the south entrance (you will have travel through Grand Teton National Park); and Idaho Falls covers the west entrance. There is also lodging in Yellowstone. If you are planning to stay several days, it might be worth planning well in advance and booking at one of the limited lodging sites within Yellowstone.
When my opportunity to visit Yellowstone presented itself, I was attending a business meeting in Salt Lake City. This left me with a 4.5 hour drive to Yellowstone’s west entrance. I stayed about 90 miles away in Rexburg, Idaho. I was out of the hotel early and entered the Yellowstone west entrance at 8:15 am on Friday with the intent of spending one full day in the park. Even though summer months are the busiest in Yellowstone, the line was very reasonable at this time. My online $35 purchase of a private vehicle pass was the only entrance fee. The National Park Pass ($85) doesn’t include Yellowstone.
I planned to follow the Grand loop (a long circular route through Yellowstone) and exit out through the northeast passage. This would get me closer to my second destination for this trip – Little Big Horn (site of Custer’s Last Stand). There was a lot to see in Yellowstone, but I wasn’t going to rush. I would see what I could and leave…whenever. Yellowstone was main experience for this trip.
When you enter the park, the ranger will give you an excellent paper map with key sights marked. If you take a moment to look at the map below (the map from the ranger is much better and larger than this one), you’ll see two circular loops in the center of the map – the Upper and Lower loop. These two loops, if followed along the perimeter, form the Grand Loop which was my planned route. There are several visitor centers in the park where you can get gas, refreshments, restroom access, and souvenirs. I entered Yellowstone with a full tank and didn’t come close to running out.
Coming in from the west entrance, I would head south at Madison junction and work my way toward Yellowstone Lake and then travel north to Tower Roosevelt. Depending on my arrival time at Tower Roosevelt, I would head east along the northeast passage (which is said to be spectacular) or head northwest and exit through the north entrance. Exiting through the north entrance gets you back to civilization a little quicker and this would be my route if darkness became a concern. Navigating the tight mountain roads of the northeast passage at night after traveling all day wasn’t something I wanted to do.
To get more out my experience, I downloaded a really cool app that narrates the trip based on the route you are taking with multiple stories about the park and all the places you are approaching. In the image on the right, I downloaded “Yellowstone West Entrance, Madison Counterclockwise” which was my route. I recommend downloading this before you get to Yellowstone. You’ll have cell coverage in most places but not always and large files will be a challenge to download no matter where you are in the park.
My approach from the entrance to Madison junction was quiet and not a lot to see. I think the park sets it up this way so people keep moving along the main entrance. However, once you get on the Grand Loop there are so many spots to pull off the road and enjoy a view. These are paved view points intended for sight seeing with plenty of room to pull over in your car. As a general rule of thumb, if there is a view-point spot, there is typically a good reason it is there and worth stopping. There are also some one-way roads off the Grand Loop. These take you off the main road for a mile or two and bring you back to the Grand Loop. These are often very scenic and exist for a reason.
Firehole Canyon Drive
As soon as turned right to head south at Madison junction, I came across Firehole Canyon Drive. It was an incredible first experience in Yellowstone. I was on this road for probably 20 minutes due to self-imposed frequent stops to look around. The only other car I saw was a tour van which reinforced that I was in a good spot. The below image is just below a waterfall in Firehole Canyon. A marker near this spot indicates this is where two volcanic lava flows once met and have been worn down over time by the Firehole river. I would quickly learn that volcanic activity is a theme that echoes throughout Yellowstone.
Fountain Paint Pot Trail
Within 15 minutes of leaving Firehole Canyon, I enter the Lower Geyser Basin. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at so pulled over to take it in. My view for 180 degrees consisted of what appeared to be smoldering fires.
A few hundred yards down the road, I came across the Fountain Paint Pot trail which contains a wooded boardwalk built around several geothermal features including those in the image above. Fountain Paint Pot trail is a fairly busy site with a restroom, large parking lot, and there will be a lot of people around.
The image below is of a hot spring and one of the first sites you’ll see on the trail. As I understand, heated water is escaping from cracks in the earth deep below. Hot water rises to surface which releases heat and steam. Once cooled, the cooler water sinks and is replaced by hot water working its way to the surface. I believe the orange bits around the edges are due to either oxidized minerals and/or microorganisms known as thermophils.
A little further down the boardwalk in Fountain Paint Pot. The center of this image contains bubbling mud with heat and gases breaking though in mud bubbles. These mud pots are similar to hot springs but without as much water.
We’ve seen a hot spring with a lot of water, a mud pot with minimal water. Now, we are looking at a steam vent which contains no water. This is heat escaping the earth’s core.
At this point, I begin to realize that Yellowstone might be an active volcano and do some quick research. I learn that not only is it an active volcano, it is so large that it is considered a super volcano and last erupted 640,000 years ago. It is the largest volcano in N. America and one of the largest in the world. Yellowstone Lake covers only a portion of the crater left by the Yellowstone’s last volcanic eruption. If you go back to map I shared at the beginning of this post, you can see a light grey perimeter marking for the approximate Yellowstone crater (caldera)…and it is massive. Oh boy.
My last sight on this trail are a few of the geysers I had seen earlier from the road. Geysers are like hot springs except they have constrictions deep within that prevent water from moving freely to the surface so heat can escape. Water beneath the constrictions creates a buildup of steam. Eventually the steam pushes water past the constrictions and the geyser erupts which allows heat to escape. I waited for a few minutes for some minor eruptions. I didn’t stay too long because the geyser eruption I most wanted to see was Old Faithful which is a few stops down the road.
Heading out Fountain Paint Pot trail, there is another side road called Firehole Lake Drive which I didn’t take, but it seems to be really popular.
Midway Geyser Basin
My first must-see location was the Grand Prismatic Spring. It is located in the Midway Geyser Basin and a very popular spot in Yellowstone. Pulling into the exit, traffic was backed up far beyond the entrance, and it took probably 30 minutes to get into the parking area. This was my only significant traffic wait during the trip. That said, the wait was worth it.
Approaching the site felt surreal. There was a massive plume of steam oozing from the earth on the horizon which hot water spilling down the edges of its outer crater into the strongly flowing and cold water of Firehole river. While the terrain in the images I’ve shared so far may appear to be somewhat flat or consist of gently rolling hills, I am probably at 7-8,000 feet of elevation with towering mountains to the east. The temperature was about 20 degrees less than it was in Salt Lake City, but the sun felt more intense. Mixed with all of this was a strong, intermittent breeze. It was an incredible feeling.
Excelsior Geyser Crater
In the image below, I am standing on a bridge looking at the edge of the Excelsior Geyser Crater. Water is overflowing from the geyser and pouring down its edges into the river below. Oxidized minerals and thermophiles look like lava flowing down the crater’s edge.
The Excelsior Geyser (below) has been simmering since its last eruption in 1985. Back in the 1800s when Yellowstone was first being explored, regular eruptions of this geyser were noted to be as high as 300 feet. Standing before it, I couldn’t help but think it was longer overdue.
The Grand Prismatic Spring
Moving along, I come to Grand Prismatic Spring which is one of the three largest hot springs in the world. In the center, water emerges from cracks in the earth at a depth of a 10-story building. The layers of colors come from different microorganisms and the water temperature is a scalding 160 degrees.
Continuing past the Grand Prismatic Spring, we come to the opal and turquoise pools, respectively.
I spend a little more time in this area before deciding to hit the road again. Up ahead there is Old Faithful, the Continental Divide, Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, stunning mountain vistas, wild animals, and epic waterfalls. I hope you will follow my blog and join me on the rest of this visual tour through Yellowstone. The best is yet to come.