Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park
Named for its frequent and predictable eruptions, Old Faithful Geyser is the gold standard of geysers and the star attraction of Yellowstone National Park. The steaming, multicolored pool puts on a show every 60 to 120 minutes, when it shoots boiling water up to 180 feet (55 meters) into the air.
Named after Dr. Ferdinand Hayden—whose geological survey in 1871 helped Yellowstone become a national park—the Hayden Valley is one of Yellowstone’s most popular places to view wildlife. Here, in a vast plain that was filled with water when Yellowstone Lake was larger, herds of bison speckle the grasslands and casually cross the road, while elk, moose, grizzlies, and wolves all scavenge and search for food. The valley is located at the geographic heart of Yellowstone National Park, conveniently situated between the Fishing Bridge and Yellowstone Canyon and Falls. In August, Hayden Valley is home to North America’s largest free-roaming bison rut, and is a time when hundreds of bushy brown bison can flank both sides of the road. Aside from its wealth of wildlife, Hayden Valley also houses spectacular thermal formations, from the thick and fickle Mud Volcano to the pungent Sulphur Cauldron. Given its popularity, however, and position at the center of the park, traffic can sometimes be an issue—particularly in the middle of summer—or when a herd of bison has decided to simply park themselves on the road.
Grand Prismatic Spring is not only the largest hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, but one of the largest in all of North America. More than its size though, the spring is famous for its colors that radiate from a deep-blue center out to green, yellow, and red. It’s a spectacular sight unlike anything else in the park.
A drive along Yellowstone National Park’s 142-mile long (228 kilometer) Grand Loop Road takes you past most of the park’s major attractions. Cruise along the figure-eight-shaped road for a ready-made Yellowstone tour featuring Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and more, easily completed in one day or spread out over your own timeline.
While it’s hard to believe from looking at Yellowstone’s eruptive landscape today, there was once a time when this corner of Wyoming was covered in towering trees. Much like the Redwoods of California, these trees were prolific and crawled across hillsides and thrust their way towards the sky, with many species of tropical plants like cinnamon growing nearby. That all changed about 55 million years ago, when explosive eruptions of Yellowstone’s volcanoes forever altered the landscape. Trees were uprooted and caught in debris fields, slipping and sliding in the mud, before finally settling in upright positions like toothpicks standing on end. While many of those trees would eventually die, a few that were fossilized and petrified like stone are still in the park today—the most famous being the Yellowstone Petrified Tree just west of Tower Junction. Located within a protective fence (to keep souvenir looters at bay), the Petrified Tree is a window back to Yellowstone’s tropical past, when the peaks of the mountains we see today were once at the valley floor.
Like many other places in Yellowstone, the Firehole River is a scenic spot that lives up to its dramatic name. As it meanders north for 21 miles (34 kilometers) to join with the Madison River, the Firehole acts as a drainage basin for many of the park’s geothermal features and is the ideal spot for a summertime dip.
Yellowstone is home to one of the largest concentrations of mammals in the lower 48 states, and the spectacular Lamar Valley ranks among the best locations in the park to spot wildlife—black and grizzly bears, elk, bison, wolves, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and several types of birds. It’s easy to see why it’s nicknamed America’s Serengeti.
At Mammoth Hot Springs, geothermal waters heated in Yellowstone’s caldera valley emerge through cracks and fissures, depositing minerals to create terraced travertine formations. Visitors traverse boardwalks above the steaming hydrothermal features, taking in one of Yellowstone National Park’s most impressive natural wonders.
Black Sand Basin is a section of the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Though small, it is packed with exceptional thermal features like geysers, colorful pools, and hot springs, and is often less crowded than its big-name neighbors. Visit as a quick stop during your Yellowstone National Park tour—it’s worth every second.
In 1870, when members of the Washburn Expedition happened upon this Yellowstone geyser, they noted that the shape and structure of the crater resembled a castle’s tower. Since then, much of that stoic tower has gradually dissolved and eroded, although a 90‐foot-high (27-meter-high) column of boiling water still erupts with regular frequency.
More Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park
Of all Yellowstone National Park’s waterfalls, the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River are possibly the most underrated. At a thundering height of 109 feet (33 meters), the Upper Falls are an impressive sight that’s certainly worthy of a stop—and would more than likely be the highlight of virtually any other park.
Fountain Paint Pot is one of several mud pots found within Yellowstone National Park that bursts and pops as the mud thickens throughout summer. The surrounding Fountain Paint Pot area is known for its pools of thermophiles (heat-loving bacteria) that gather to form multihued puddles in the earth, as well as mini-geysers and fumaroles.
There was once a time in the 19th century when you could hear Yellowstone’s Mud Volcano from over a half mile away. Today, however, the volcano has calmed to a crater of bubbling mud—which in itself is a fascinating sight that serves as a Yellowstone highlight. It’s said that when these mud‐filled pools first erupted up from the Earth, that they covered the surrounding trees in mud with their violent, explosive fury. When walking the area’s boardwalks today, it’s mostly steam that rises to the treetops as opposed to blankets of mud, but there’s no denying the creepy nature of literally watching the ground boil. At Dragon’s Mouth Spring, watch as puffs of thick white steam emerge from the mouth of a cave—which legitimately creates a vision of dragons lurking somewhere within. Add in shimmering turquoise pools and the smell of sulphur on the air, and the Mud Volcano Area is an easy stop for experiencing Yellowstone’s fury.
Here in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin, there’s a notable stench of fresh sulphur that wafts on the crisp mountain air. That’s because the geysers here are some of the hottest within Yellowstone National Park, as well as the oldest, tallest, most acidic, and prone to frequent change. This section of the park is believed to have hot springs that are 115,000 years old, and is also home to Steamboat Geyser—which is the tallest geyser in the world. Unlike the famous Old Faithful, however, Steamboat Geyser has an eruption schedule that’s variable and tough to predict, though when it explodes it can send water upwards of 380 feet in the air. The Echinus Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin is the largest acidic geyser in the world, and the core temperature of the earth surrounding it is some of the hottest in the park. Given the elevated levels of heat, this geyser basin is also one of the park’s most likely to change, where hot springs can suddenly turn into fumaroles and geysers can spout without warning. For the best way to experience the basin, enjoy the two miles of boardwalk trails that weave past the geysers and hot springs, stopping to take photos, marvel at the view, and sniff the sulphur on the air.