A Local’s Guide to Must-See Yellowstone Sites
Dormant super volcanoes, sky-high geysers, rainbow-hued hot springs, herds of bison, and roaming bears…just some of the incredible things you can see in Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone is the United States’ first national park and it has amazed visitors for over a century. For those of us who call Montana home, it’s also a place to have some epic weekend adventures. And even locals still get astounded by the sheer power and beauty of the park’s top things to do.
So without further ado, here are the best things to see in Yellowstone National Park with tips for making the most of your time there. Best of all, you’ll find some lesser-known spots on this list, supplied by locals!
Important Summer 2022 Update: Please be aware that the towns of Gardiner (by Yellowstone’s North entrance) and Cooke City/Silver Gate (by the northeast entrance) have been massively impacted and damaged by unprecedented flooding. Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley are also heavily impacted and damaged. Expect road and entrance closures in this area throughout the summer.
This is at the top of most people’s list when it comes to things to do in Yellowstone National Park. Old Faithful is a geyser that explosively shoots up into the air every 44 to 125 minutes, which is why it gets its name: you can have faith in the fact that Old Faithful will be erupting again soon.
Why You Have to See Old Faithful
It has a massive plume of geothermal water that shoots up to 180 feet in the air (the average is 130 to 140 feet) consistently throughout the day. This spectacle occurs for anywhere from 90 seconds to five minutes before Old Faithful takes a short break.
How to See Old Faithful
A predicted schedule is posted in the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. If you want front-row seats on the bleachers surrounding Old Faithful, then expect to get there at least 30 minutes before this natural show is scheduled to begin. If you don’t want to sit around waiting for that long, don’t worry – you can still get a great view of Old Faithful farther back. After all, it’s shooting up sky-high!
Where to See Old Faithful
Old Faithful is located in the northwest part of the park, only about 30 miles from West Yellowstone.
Bonus Sights Near Old Faithful
It’s also worth visiting the Old Faithful Visitor and Education Center where you can learn more about the history of the geyser. The center will also help you better understand geothermal activity, which is actively and noticeably happening all over Yellowstone park. The nearby Old Faithful General Store is also a cute souvenir shop to browse through.
Another nearby attraction is the Old Faithful Inn, which is not only a great place to stay for a night or two, but is also a historic hotel that is beautifully built.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring is another geothermal marvel in Yellowstone National Park, and it is definitely grand thanks to being the largest hot spring in the United States. On a worldwide scale, it is the third largest.
Before you think of donning a swimsuit and making the spring your personal hot tub for the day, remember that there is no swimming or bathing in Grand Prismatic Spring – for good reason. It is around 132 degrees Fahrenheit and reaches over 180 degrees at its center!
While the heat and size of the geyser is impressive, that’s not what makes this one of the best things to see in Yellowstone. The aspect that draws people to this natural phenomenon are the colors that shimmer around the lake in shades of bright blue and iridescent orange and yellow. Grand Prismatic Spring gets its colors from its unique geological makeup and due to the way the heat is dispersed, which makes it hard for bacteria or anything else to live in the center of the spring.
Why You Have to See Grand Prismatic Spring
Its rainbow colored water is one of the most unique sites to see in a national park.
Where is Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Springs is located on the western side of the park, not too far north of Old Faithful.
Bonus Things to See Near Grand Prismatic Spring
Two more noteworthy hot springs are located in this area: Opal Pool and Turquoise Pool. Both of these can be walked to from Grand Prismatic Spring. Park your car in the designated Grand Prismatic parking lot off the main road and then use the walking trail to cross Firehole River and continue following the trail around the different hot spring.
If you want to cool off or get some swimming in during your time in Yellowstone National Park, head to the lovely Yellowsotne Lake. You can wade in from the beach or jump off a public dock here – just be forewarned that it will b a bit chilly even in summertime! The lake is situated at a high elevation of 7,733 feet.
Even if you don’t jump in the clear blue water, Yellowstone Lake is worth seeing due to its serene beauty.
Yellowstone Lake is a great place for some photo snapping and a recreational adventure during your trip. There are hiking trails, boat rentals, kayak excursions, fishing expeditions, and tons more. A simple drive around the lake is also an idyllic way to spend time there.
Why You Have to See Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park and it boasts gorgeous water and mountain views.
Where is Yellowstone Lake?
It’s centrally located in the park, a short distance east of Old Faithful.
Bonus Things to See by Yellowstone Lake
Walk around the property and have an elegant meal in the onsite restaurant of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, the oldest hotel in Yellowstone National Park.
Want to see not just a volcano, but a super volcano? Then you’ll be going to the right place with a visit to Yellowstone National Park. The park is home to a massive volcano with the potential to have deadly consequences that could impact the entire country. Luckily, it is highly unlikely that this super volcano will erupt in our lifetime.
If you want to see what happened when it last erupted 640,000 years ago then a visit to the Yellowstone Caldera is a must-do.
Why You Have to See Yellowstone Caldera
The Yellowstone Caldera was created during that last eruption and is a 30-mile by 45-mile wide crater in the earth, right in the middle of Yellowstone National Park.
Where is Yellowstone Caldera?
Where is Yellowstone Caldera: It is located a short distance southeast of Old Faithful, still to the west of Yellowstone Lake, and just north of the smaller Shoshone Lake.
Mammoth Hot Springs
If cold weather isn’t your thing, head to Mammoth Hot Springs.
Though they’re too hot to go in, you will get a steam facial as you walk around the terraces lining the edge of the springs. In addition to being a flurry of gurgling and steam, the hot springs are physically appealing to see.
Why Must You See Mammoth Hot Springs?
Mammoth Hot Springs are just stunning to see. The water cascades over a myriad of steps and ledges within the side of the earth that produces an almost otherworldly atmosphere. The intricate designs made out of the travertine rock of the area add to the mystique of the hot springs.
Where is Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs are near the city of Mammoth, Wyoming, near the northeast corner of the park.
Bonus Things to Do
Mammoth, Wyoming is home to a few other interesting sights. You can visit the Albright Visitor Center, which has displays teaching travelers more about the history of what they’re seeing and info about the wildlife in the area.
Another historic thing to see is Fort Yellowstone, the first fort to be built in Yellowstone in an effort to keep a better handle on the vandals and crime that plagued the area back during the Wild West era.
The first photos taken of Tower Fall back in the late 19th century is what spurred congress to designate the region a national park, thus making Yellowstone the United State’s first national park.
Today, you’ll no doubt want to take a photo of this iconic natural wonder while exploring Yellowstone.
Why You Have to See Tower Fall
This massive waterfall plunges from the mountaintop to the river below for an astonishing 132 feet drop, connecting the higher Tower Creek with the Yellowstone River below.
In addition to the gleam of the water, Tower Fall is surrounded by jagged rock formations shaped like steeples and punctuated by green pine trees.
Where is Tower Fall
Tower Fall is located off of Grand Loop Road (note that this road is closed in winter) near the Tower Junction where Grand Loop Road meets with US-212. The best place to get a photo op of the waterfall is from the Tower Fall Overlook near the road.
Artist Point & Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Do the quick and easy hike along the Artist Point trail for an excellent view of Yellowstone Falls. There is an upper and lower waterfall making up Yellowstone Falls and both are striking to behold.
Yellowstone Falls is located within the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. This massive slice in the earth is an erosional feature, likely caused by volcanic activity hundreds of thousands of years ago.
One of the best places to get a photo op of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is from Artist Point, also located off of Grand Loop Road. I suppose if you have a sketchpad, this would also be a great place to draw the setting, too, hence the name, but…it’s much quicker to snap a picture (or two or twenty).
Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park
The wildlife in Yellowstone National Park is a huge draw for people. Fortunately, it’s hard not to see wildlife, particularly when it comes to bald eagles, bison, antelope, and elk. Other species take more luck, such as seeing a bear, moose, or pack of wolves.
You never know when an animal might amble across the road or peer outside of the forests near the road you’re traveling on, so keep your smartphone down and your eyes scanning for wildlife.
One of the best places to see an abundance of wildlife is in the Lamar Valley, nicknamed America’s Serengeti due to its wide expanses of visible land often roamed by herds of animals.
Lamar Valley is located near the central northern border of the park adjacent to the Lamar River. It is home to multiple wolf packs and a huge herd of bison. The Lamar Valley is also one of your best chances for seeing a grizzly bear.
Don’t forget to bring binoculars! It makes it much easier to spot wildlife.
How to Get to Lamar Valley: Head to the western end of US-212 and you’ll soon be in the middle of the Lamar Valley.
Bonus Sights in Lamar Valley: In addition to all the animals you can see, the flora of Lamar Valley is beautiful in its own right, with sun-dappled plains, sprawling sunflower fields, and jagged mountain peaks outlined against the sky.
Other Helpful Tips for Making the Most of Your Time Seeing Yellowstone’s Top Sights
Parking can be a hassle in Yellowstone, particularly if you’re traveling during high season in the summer. Plan to get to places that have a deadline, such as Old Faithful if you want to catch a particular eruption, plenty early in case you have to circle a few times to find a parking spot.
The National Park Service has also put together this handy parking map that tells you what to expect at each lot in the park and also includes data on when parking lots are usually at their fullest.
If you want to avoid timing your visit with peak season, head to the best things to do in Yellowstone when it’s not peak season, which is the last half of June through the end of August. The first week of September also might be a bit busy since not all schools are back in session yet.
Just keep in mind if you hope to go in the spring or fall to not go too early or too late, respectively. If the snow hasn’t melted yet in the spring or if there is a sudden snowfall in autumn, roads leading to these main attractions in Yellowstone National Park may be closed indefinitely until the thaw of summer.
If you are in Yellowstone in the summer, start your day early and be at the park gates as soon as they open to try to beat some of the crowds. You can also have an advantage for certain spots if you stay in the park to sleep, such as at the aforementioned Old Faithful Inn. These hotels in the park usually book up far in advance so plan your trip to Yellowstone early if you hope to stay at one.
From a sightseeing perspective, another thing to keep in mind is that these best things to see in Yellowstone National Park are favorites with visitors for a reason due to the awe-inspiring display of nature many of them offer; however, there is magic to be found all over the park.
I spent a day in Yellowstone with my husband, her sister, and her husband just driving around and stopping at seemingly random spots. But they were beautiful and they were devoid of other tourists. It’s hard not to find the magic in Yellowstone.
Be safe around wildlife while you’re in Yellowstone National Park! If you’re planning to do some hikes – even on Uncle Tom’s trail and the other heavily trafficked, established trails — you’ll want to bring bear spray and bear bells with you. Grizzly bears can be a real, serious threat.
If you cross paths with one, slowly back away and get your bear spray ready. And if you see one in the distance, do not go closer to it! Immediately move away from the direction you see it. That should seem obvious, but news stories will tell you otherwise. Don’t be one of those people!
Other animals that you should keep a safe distance from include bison, moose, and wolves. Bison in particular can look pretty chill just standing there munching on grass, but they can quickly get territorial and charge at you.
If an animal comes near your car, keep your windows up. Also, under no circumstances should you feed any of the animals in the park. Adopt the leave no trace principles and don’t do it unintentionally either. If camping, be sure to elevate your food in the air with a rope around a tree branch where bears and other animals can’t easily access it.
So Many Amazing Things to Do in Yellowstone!
Whether you do and see all the things in Yellowstone on this list, or just some, you’re sure to have an incredible time in America’s first national park. You also might like reading our article on what you should know before you visit Yellowstone National Park so you can put together an unforgettable trip.