Yellowstone is filled with amazing sights (geysers, basins, waterfalls, canyons and more) as well as people. Lots of people. There is a reason people from all over the world and the U.S. visit America’s first national park – and you will be surprised by the sheer number of people and foreign languages you hear when visiting. This is what you might expect when you have so many amazing things to see in one place.
One of the advantages of arriving early is avoiding the crowds – and coming from Grand Teton, you can enter through the southern entrance. There are five entrances to the park (which is very, very large) and the majority come in through West Yellowstone so the southern entrance is often much faster. Our plan was to leave early; use this lesser used entrance and visit the east side of the park first before the crowds made their way over.
Travel Tip: We used one of our favorite apps (again) which is the GyPSy Guide. If you’ve followed some of our other trips we have used this app on the Road to Hana and again on Route 100 in Vermont. What we love is this app is a full tour guide without the guide; traveling at your own pace and does not require a GPS Signal.
After leaving Grand Teton, there is one stop along the way which is beautiful in the morning and only a short detour, Oxbow Bend. If you like photography, this is peaceful stop to enjoy the sunrise. The drive from there to Yellowstone then takes just over an hour and a half with some great windshield time.
Upon entering the park, if you head to the east you can arrive at the West Thumb Geyser Basin early. We were there so early in fact, we were the first ones in the parking lot and were able to watch the sun rise over the basin and through the steam with Yellowstone Lake as the backdrop. From there, it was a short drive by Yellowstone Lake to the Mud Volcano. Dodging a few buffalo blocking the entrance and parking spaces, we toured the area to watch the bubbling mud and steam. If you walk across the street, you may also see buffalo standing in the steam baths to warm themselves up in the morning.
Our next stop (if you can call it that) was Hayden Valley. In August, this area of the park is filled with buffalo and we were actually stopped by passing herds in the road for a half hour. This break only forces you to put the car in park and enjoy the view of hundreds of buffalo rolling in the dirt, rutting and testing their dominance against other males. Of course, this varies by time of year so seeing wildlife is never a guarantee in any area but it’s pretty likely if you are visiting Hayden Valley in August.
The next stop is Artist Point and it will quickly become clear why it is called that. Artist Point is an overlook of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and is actually so scenic it often doesn’t look real in photographs with the large waterfall coming down between pale yellow canyon walls. Hence the name yellow-stone. Get it? There are also several trails leading from the overlooks of the falls (Uncle Tom’s Trail, Brink of Lower Falls, etc.) It is worth taking one of the trails on your trip if you can; just to get away from the biggest crowds and stretch your legs.
By this point, you will be getting hungry and it’s a nice stop at Canyon Village to purchase some souvenirs and the Canyon Fountain Grill has at least what tasted like an amazing burger and shake (maybe we were just starving by this point) to enjoy in their 50’s retro diner and visitors area.
After a quick break, you can continue to drive up to Tower Fall to see the 132 foot waterfall and then over Mount Washburn. Driving over the mountain will give you your first view of alpine meadows. Rising out of the forest, the mountain suddenly opens up to wildflowers and rocky tundra in every direction. We dare you to try to keep from singing “The hills are alive…” And be sure to keep an eye out for mountain goats as you wind up, over and around this 10,000 foot elevation – where you can also plan a hike to the top of the peak if you want.
Coming back down in elevation, you can make a quick stop at Calcite Springs Overlook to see the unique formations and even the Boiling River (where you can often swim depending upon the time of year). Finally, it’s a must stop to stroll the Mammoth Hot Springs boardwalks and even visit some of the small town which is home to most of the facilities and headquarters of Yellowstone. Be sure to keep an eye out for elk in this particular area. Afterwards, it is time to check in after a full day of exploring Yellowstone’s east and northern sides.
For lodging, we highly recommend booking the Old Faithful Inn if you can. The prices range from economical to their highest end suites – and the only challenge is, again, booking a year in advance the day they go online. This historic hotel is a landmark stop for visitors. With wooden log cabin sides and stone columns, it is one of the best locations in the park and can save you an hour or more in and out of the park each day. It has the added benefit of sitting across from Old Faithful so you will not need to worry about timing the geyser – but rather see it over and over again from morning to night. Of course, there are a number of other hotels throughout the park (like Lake Yellowstone Hotel, Old Faithful Snow Lodge, etc.) and accommodations in West Yellowstone if the Inn does not work for your plans.
And if you feel you have to find that one secret most don’t know about, each night one family gets to go up into the Crow’s Nest (an original tree house structure in the rafters which is now under repair) and on to the top of the building to lower the flags at sunset. You must contact the hotel ahead of time as only one family each day gets to see this part of the hotel up close and the geyser from the roof of the hotel. For dining, there are limited options other than the villages in the park or the hotels, so most of the time it will be quick meals at the inns or park centers.
The next morning, if you arrive around 10:00 am or before starting from the furthest point out, you can beat the crowds to Norris Geyser, Artist’s Paintpots, Lower Geyser Basin, Grand Prismatic Spring, Biscuit Basin and Sapphire Pool. Each one involves parking and taking the paths or boardwalks through the area. Once the parking lots start to fill, you can park at the trail head for Fairy Falls which may be one of the worst kept secrets in the park now – but will still give you some added room. If you hike up to the lookout you will get a view out over the top of Grand Prismatic Spring – which in our opinion was a much better view than from eye level as you can see all of the various colors at once.
Afterwards you can return to the Old Faithful Inn to enjoy lunch and then casually walk to the Morning Glory Pool (a four mile round trip). This should leave you the afternoon and evening to explore the park (for kids, the Junior Ranger program has some fun activities) or enjoying a beer or glass of wine on the patio above the hotel to watch the geyser erupt one more time.
Please note, seeing most of the biggest sights in Yellowstone in two packed days does not do justice to the time you could spend exploring all of the hidden areas of the park. Many visitors will spend an entire week here alone. But if your goal is to see the Rockies and you want to touch upon the most top sights in the park during an active stay, this plan will help.
One last area we did not mention was the Lamar Valley. However, this is because we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to drive the Beartooth Highway so we knew we were heading out that direction from the park. This scenic drive was once called “the most beautiful drive in America” by famed CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt of On The Road. So we couldn’t pass it up although it did take us quite far out of the path of a straight drive from north to south so that will be up to you if it fits your plans. But it is worth the added day.
Our next morning we made an early departure passing by Yellowstone Lake and over Mount Washburn one last time and then on through the Lamar Valley. Best described as the U.S. equivalent of the African safari, you will pass herds of buffalo and wild animals with sweeping views in every direction. Once you reach the park exit and enter parts of the Shoshone National Forest, the first town will be Cooke City where you can stop for breakfast or to grab coffee and a pastry at the Bearclaw Bakery.
From here you will begin your climb to over 10,000 feet through the forest and then eventually into mountain tundra and more alpine meadows. The first noteworthy stop is the Clay Butte Lookout Tower. This overlook involves driving up over two miles on a windy gravel road until you reach the lookout at just under 10,000 feet in elevation. As expected, there is a tower at the top (because what’s another twenty feet) to enjoy a 360 degree view in every direction.
And our only regret is we did not capture the immense grandeur of the Beartooth drive as well as we wanted in pictures. Each switchback brings up on another unexpected view of grassy, rocky mountaintops or wildflower covered meadows. It could only be described as a combination of Scotland and the Swiss Alps.
The next stop is Beartooth Lake which is a few miles past 296 (Crandall Road) on the left. This pull over is worth a stop to enjoy the alpine lake view or to take a quick stroll if you are not too worried about the multiple signs warning you “this IS bear country”. Finally, a few more miles down the road is the aptly named Top of the World Store filled with souvenirs, T-shirts, socks or something small to remember your journey. And finally it is a windy set of canyon switchbacks with forests and waterfalls heading back down the other side of the mountain to Red Lodge, MT.
One item to note which added to our experience was the Sturgis Bike Rally which was occurring in South Dakota when we were visiting. As we drove, motorcycle caravans would pass us occasionally heading back from the rally on what appeared to be a popular route home.
Overall, the entire drive took us about four hours which meant we arrived in Red Lodge at perfect time for lunch at the Red Boxcar. This renovated train serves american style food (burgers, chicken tacos, hot dogs, etc.) out of the side window. You can enjoy your food on the patio next to the waters of Rock Creek while watching deer stop occasionally across the street to feed.
Travel Note – We actually drove from Red Lodge back to Paradise Valley and stayed at Chico Hot Springs. While the hot springs were fun (especially in the rain) along with a night at the semi-famous Chico Saloon, we actually felt this was a bit of a planning mistake. Red Lodge was such a unique town we would actually recommend spending the afternoon in this quaint town (shopping, sightseeing or visiting the Carbon County Historical Society and Museum) and then staying there for the night. You would most likely look at the Pollard Hotel where Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill stayed and dinner at the eclectic Bogart’s downtown. Red Lodge is ranked as one of the best small towns you’ve never heard of and can best be described as what Jackson Hole might have been like twenty years ago.
And not to miss out on a few pieces of Americana (which we love to find when taking a road trip), within the small town you can find the “Metal Biker Ski Dude” in front of the Red Lodge Inn and a sculpture by Peter Toth named the “Giant Indian Head” in front of the Red Lodge Carnegie Library for a few photo ops of your trip.
With two days of sightseeing in Yellowstone complete and a drive over the Beartooth Scenic Highway to the Top of the World, it was time to make the long drive to the northern half of the trip to Glacier National Park.