With parks cautiously opening up again in various US states and Canadian provinces, I thought it seemed like a great time to share some tips for your first Yellowstone visit. Planning is important to get the most out of your Yellowstone trip, so take the time now to read up on where to stay and what to see and get it right, whether you are visiting this season or next.
I visited Yellowstone and Cody, Wyoming with Austin Adventures in 2019. Here, I gathered my research, personal experiences and reached out to some contacts and friends who are National Parks experts in the US.
Table of Contents
First and Foremost
Did you know Yellowstone was the first national park in 1872? That’s just one of the things that makes Yellowstone so special. The Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872 stated that the Secretary of the Interior “shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park.”
My first Yellowstone visit knocked my socks off. An active volcano, Yellowstone is so insanely huge that you can’t really imagine the scope of the park until you are there inside driving to find Grand Prismatic, Lamar Valley, Biscuit Basin or Old Faithful.
Rich with gorgeous scenery, unique geothermal features that you might never encounter anywhere else in the world, and animals that run freely throughout the park, Yellowstone is magical and it is a must see kind of destination.
The park itself straddles three states! Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. I find that mind boggling.
When Bigger is Better
Covering 3,472 square miles, Yellowstone is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Explore the 2.2 million acre wilderness, but be prepared, you can’t even start to do it in a day. Take all the time you have at your disposal. When we visited we were in Yellowstone for about two and a half to three days. One of those nights we stayed inside the park, one night we stayed in Cody and the last night we stayed in Silver Gate Montana, perfect for our first Yellowstone visit.
Yellowstone Park History
In 1871, the first official government expedition of Yellowstone was led by geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden. That expedition included artist Thomas Morann and photographer William Henry Jackson. Their images, combined with scientific findings, convinced Congress to set Yellowstone aside as the world’s first national Park in 1872.
Let that sink in for a second.
Yellowstone is the world’s first national park.
Who says art doesn’t shape the world? This is one clear instance of the impact that art can have on life and, also on the future. I think that’s my favourite story about Yellowstone and also about the power of art.
Where to Stay Inside Yellowstone:
Stay In Yellowstone, if at all possible!
Less than 1% of people get to stay inside Yellowstone. Let me tell you that it is more than worth the planning. If you can make this happen and can afford to stay inside the park, then, do it, even just once.
For the Convenience and Experience
The sheer size of the park means that you can spend hours driving. There are nine facilities featuring over 2,000 rooms inside the park.
PLAN ahead or you will never be able to make this happen. These spots are extremely popular. Check this year by visiting the website because Coronavirus has meant there have been changes to what is open and when things are opening. Be safe. Don’t be disappointed.
The Nine Spots To Stay Inside Yellowstone
I am not going to get too into the breakdown of every property. We stayed in Canyon Lodge and toured a few other facilities, checking out some of the rooms. Each accommodation inside Yellowstone has benefits and is close to some unique park asset. These are the broad strokes of what you can expect. For more details on where to stay during that first visit to Yellowstone National Park check out the Yellowstone site.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins
Built in 1936, open to summer and winter visitors. Such a cute spot for any time of the year.
Named for Ulysses S. Grant, Grant Village was built in 1984 and is a two storey with 50 rooms and no elevators. There are accessible rooms. This is closest to Grand Teton National Park.
Old Faithful Lodge Cabins
Located near Old Faithful Inn, this historic cabin facility includes a one-storey main lodge built in the 1920′s featuring massive logs and stone pillars.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cottages
Luxurious and exceptional views from Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Nearby cottages are tiny but cute. Lake Yellowstone is stunning. If you have a Lakeview here then honestly that’s high luxury inside the park.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins
Lovely facility. We didn’t tour these rooms, but the lobby area has a ski chalet vibe, featuring wood and open high rooftops. Completed in 1999, the Snow Lodge is the newest of the park’s full service hotels, recognized with the Cody Award for Western Design and Travel and Leisure’s Inn of the Month.
Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins
Built in 1920 near Yellowstone’s Tower Falls area.
Lake Lodge Cabins
Open June through September, Lake Lodge Cabins features a main lodge with a large porch and a spectacular view of Yellowstone Lake. The main lodge is constructed of logs and is a highlight of the building. There are 186 cabins with private baths behind the lodge in recently renovated Western and Frontier styles as well as the basic Pioneer cabins.
The Timeless – Old Faithful Inn
Built in 1903-1904 this is a classic. It is considered the largest log structure in the world. It reminded me a little bit of Montebello in Quebec.
Rustic and a whole lot of history here at Old Faithful Inn. Right beside Old Faithful, so you can’t get more convenient than that. Could be a good pick for a first time visit to Yellowstone depending on what you hope to see and who you are traveling with. There is a restaurant and cafeteria inside.
Canyon Lodge and Cabins
We stayed at Canyon Lodge just one night and that was one of the newer lodges inside the park. It was a luxurious stay within walking distance of the Canyon Lodge Eatery, a clean cafeteria-style restaurant with post office and a few other amenities nearby.
Canyon Lodge is centrally located in the park and from there, Lamar Valley and Mammoth Hot Springs are easily accessible.
Camping and RV Sites
Do check for availability and openings this year. Also, these will fill up fast this summer.
- Fishing Bridge RV Park is not likely to be open in 2020. But, here are some other options.
- Madison Campground, Grant Village Campground, Canyon Campground and Bridge Bay Campground are all good options. Canyon has the luxury of an exceptional location.
How to Do the First National Park
Things Not to Miss on Your First Trip to Yellowstone:
If it’s your first Yellowstone visit, you’ll want to plan on spending at least one day on the “Lower Loop Road” and at least one day on the “Upper Loop Road,” says Kasey Morrisey of Austin Adventures.
“Along the Lower Loop, you’ll want to see Old Faithful, Fountain Paint Pots, Grand Prismatic and Lake Yellowstone. On the Upper Loop, you’ll want to check out the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs and I always recommend making a side trip out to Lamar Valley near the Northeast Entrance (it’s worth the distance!)”
The most famous of all the geysers in Yellowstone, you can’t miss Old Faithful. It’s relatively easy to catch this one erupting actually. It erupts every 60 to 90 minutes on average. There’s information inside Old Faithful Inn that tells you when to expect an eruption. Set within Yellowstone National Park and overlooking the famous Old Faithful geyser, this rustic seasonal lodge in a 1920s stone-and-wood building and it’s located overlooking Old Faithful.
Located near Old Faithful, you can easily do Old Faithful and Biscuit Basin in one day. That should give you plenty of geyser highlights for your first Yellowstone visit.
Fountain Paint Pot
Fountain Paint Pot Trail consists of various geothermal features that are evidence of Yellowstone’s active volcano status. Due to the thermal activity in the area you need to stay on the boardwalk. The geothermal features inside the park are: geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.
Grand Prismatic is another one of those must see features for your first Yellowstone visit. It is simply iconic. This area gets extremely busy though so pick your time. Also, there are multiple viewing spots where you can see Grand Prismatic, but if you want some of the best photos, then you need to take a short hike up to a lookout that is elevated slightly. You will probably see bison on your way and the lookout might get crowded, but having that slight incline to look out over the prism of colours makes all the difference in the world.
Lamar Valley and Glaciers
Did you know that Lamar Valley was carved by glaciers? Lamar Valley is sprawling and a vast expanse of plains. It is also one of the best spots to spy wolves in Yellowstone. But early in the morning is your best bet for that. Also, Lamar Valley is gorgeous and you can often spy hundreds of bison crossing the “road.”
Lamar Valley is on the northeast, in fact, we left for the night and stayed in Silver Gate Montana, returning through the northeast gate on our last morning.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is one of my favourite spots for photos. Roughly 640,000 years ago, a volcano erupted in Yellowstone emptying a large underground chamber of magma. Thousands of miles, the ash flowed until the roof collapsed and the lava flowed, forming a giant caldera, which filled with lava and sediments for hundreds of thousands of years. This area is now gorgeous multi-coloured rock and canyon, with a river running through it.
Right near Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Artist Point is aptly named. Should be plenty of parking nearby and there’s some nice hiking in the area. When you get there you will see why it is called Artist Point. If you paint, draw or sketch, take a photo for a reference image and then paint it later.
The largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park, Yellowstone Lake is 7,732 kms above sea level. Yellowstone Lake is the largest alpine lake above 7,000 feet in North America.
Mammoth Hot Springs
This was one of my favourite spots. It is a long drive though from all the other features that are popular like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic so you have a couple of options. Come in via a different entrance, or do Mammoth Hot Springs and Mammoth Terraces on a different day.
Soda Butte Cone
We saw a pack of wolves not far from Soda Butte Cone. The cone is near the northeast area of the park.
Safety in the Park
Death by Selfie
DON’t be that guy or that girl…on your first visit to Yellowstone or any visit to ANY of the National Parks.
We hiked near Ribbon Lake and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone which is also where roughly three tourists a year die as a result of poor choices. There’s a perch that is precarious here that too many tourists see as an invitation to take the perfect selfie. But that selfie actually often leads to death. So, play it safe and do not step outside the natural boundary.
Follow the Rules
Entire books have been written about all of the devastating accidents and deaths in Yellowstone, since it first opened. Follow the rules. If the sign says no pets near Old Faithful, then keep CUJO far far away from the geyser. There’s a reason the signs are up! You can get burnt, and little people could fall in, if not cautious and well supervised.
When Is the Best Time of Day to Spot Wildlife?
“If you know where to look, you can find wildlife any time of day in the park,” says Kasey Morrisey, president of Austin Adventures, a family-run award-winning group travel company based in Billings, Montana.
Morrisey says any wildlife enthusiast will tell you that the best times to see wildlife in Yellowstone are at dawn and dusk. Especially in the summertime (when most visitors come to Yellowstone), the cooler temperatures in the mornings and evenings get the wildlife up and moving. The hot sun midday has most wildlife hanging back in the shady areas where they’re harder to see.
Wildlife Spotting Tips
Less than 2% see wolves when visiting Yellowstone. The wolves are next level wildlife spotting. The average lifespan of a wolf in Yellowstone is 4-5 years. Outside Yellowstone that lifespan is 2-3 years.
“It’s worth it to catch a sunrise in Lamar or Hayden Valley (around 5:30 AM midsummer) to capture both the beauty of Yellowstone in the morning and a chance to see wildlife like wolves, bears, coyotes, elk, and bison,” says Kasey Morrisey.
Want to See Exciting Wildlife, Wake Up Early
The early bird, right? This is a lesson I learned when traveling with Sam Friedland, a guide with Austin Adventures. Time of day matters, as in go in the early morning or as the sun is setting. You have greater chances of spotting wildlife. But, listen, always be respectful. This is their home, not yours.
Check visitor centres to see what’s been seen today and where. There’s always a report daily. Don’t forget binoculars, if you have a pair. You will use them in Yellowstone.
Start at Tree Line
Sometimes, you might consider following a commercial tour van. They have the info and will be in the loop on where the latest sightings have taken place. Don’t be annoying about it in any way. Just keep your eye on the people in the know. It might serve you well on the journey in the park. National Park Obsessed’s Jennifer Melrose says if you train your eye to start at the tree line you can pick up movement and colours that will help you to spy wildlife.
Ask someone at the side of the road with a gigantic lens what they are looking at. We found people super kind here and the one day when we were hunting for wolves but couldn’t see any, we saw a small cluster of people with telescopes. So we stopped and they let us look through their scopes too. Of course, right now everyone should still be using good judgement regarding social distancing. Take that into account.
Rent a Spotting Scope
It’s easy to rent a telescope or spotting scope in several places on the way in to the park. Or, the night before you go into Yellowstone get that in order in whatever town you are staying in or passing through before your visit. These rentals were super inexpensive. I was shocked that it was often less than $20 for a day. DEAL!
Return if You Have to
“You could do everything right and still not see anything, some days. Yellowstone National Park is not a zoo, animals go wherever they want,” says Jennifer of National Park Obsessed.
Once you’ve been on a guided tour and then you return you are going to be the smartest person out there at figuring out where to go to see the wildlife and geothermal features.
Random Yellowstone Trivia
Snowmobiling capital of the world.
- Did you know that there’s a drive through snowmobile McDonald’s at Yellowstone?
- There are 6-12 visitor centres in the park.
Northeast entrance is the one you take to get to Beartooth Scenic Highway. Beartooth, as the name suggests, is a mountain that looks like a tooth. While it is outside of Yellowstone, I highly recommend making this journey at some point as well.
How many days should you spend Inside Yellowstone?
“I think if you do your research and know what sights you want to hit, you can see the top features of the park in two days (one day for lower loop, one day for upper loop),” says Morrisey of Austin Adventures. “These two days will consist mostly of driving and walking a few boardwalks – but, you will get some epic photos of the classic sites of Yellowstone along the way. If you want to dive deeper into Yellowstone and fit in some hiking along the 900+ miles of hiking trails in the park, you should plan on spending 3-5 days. There’s also much to be seen and done outside the park that flies under the radar, but is just as incredible!
When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Yellowstone?
Yellowstone is amazing any time of year, but if I had to pick a favourite time to visit, I’d pick June, Morrisey says. “This is the time when the weather is relatively descent, many of the hiking trails are open (although you’ll probably still run into snow at the higher elevations), the baby animals are out and about, the wildflowers are popping off, and there is NO smoke from wildfires as it’s still green and wet. In a close second place for me personally is visiting Yellowstone in the winter when there’s no crowds and awesome wildlife watching opportunities.”
Should You Choose a Tour Operator like Austin Adventures?
I can think of a hundred reasons to go with a tour operator into Yellowstone, but will settle for sharing just a few.
First of all, Yellowstone is HUGE (2.2 million acres) and there is so much to see and do. Since most visitors have limited vacation time, many people don’t want to “waste” time trying to figure out where to go or what to do.
“A local tour operator with a planned itinerary has guides who know the route, the must-sees, the secret hideaways, and the best wildlife hot spots. Having an expert guiding you through the park will be money well spent. You’ll fit more into a day than you ever thought possible, and you’ll definitely learn a thing or two along the way,” says Morrisey.
Leave the driving to someone else. That’s huge for me, as a writer and photographer. Had I been the one driving well I would have seen very little and honestly, there’s no doubt I would have been lost.
“Having your transportation and the driving taken care of so you can look out the window at all the incredible scenery is a huge plus. And many tour operators provide anything from a simple box lunch to elaborate picnic setups – either way, you don’t have to worry about standing in line at a busy café (which are few and far between in Yellowstone) when you could be out exploring the wilds. And last but not least, I hear all the time that people want to hike in Yellowstone but are scared of bears (honest truth!) Booking with a guide who knows what they’re doing in bear country will make you feel safe and like you can actually get out there and hike all those trails, something many visitors skip out on when visiting the park.”
Yellowstone is Magical and Well Worth the Time
I feel like your first visit to Yellowstone might not be your last. It is magical and dynamic of course as wildlife spotting change every year. The unique geothermal features are worth the visit alone. Make it matter by reading up on what to see and how to see it first!
Have you been to Yellowstone?