October 2023

Yellowstone - The Granddaddy of Them All

Yellowstone has been on our bucket list for some time. After having the first trip canceled from Covid, we finally made our way to this other-worldly destination at the end of the 2023 season.

I'll get into the route we took, where we stayed, and a few other recommendations, but let me share the most important one immediately. If you are lucky enough and the stars align, head to Yellowstone at the start or the end of the season to avoid the mass of tourists.

For us, the timing was perfect. We were able to cover the entire park in 3 full days. While some top spots were busy, we had no trouble finding parking and never waited on the roads, with a few exceptions. There was some construction and had one stretch down to one lane. That added about an hour to our trip. If you go, check the park updates on traffic and construction so you aren't surprised.

Starting From the North - Day 1 in Mammoth Hot Springs

We flew into Bozeman and headed to the North Entrance of the park. It takes about an hour and forty minutes, but it's an easy and beautiful drive. If you are hungry, stop in the town of Gardner before you enter the park. They have some great spots and more options than you'll find at the hotels.

We arrived in the evening and got settled in the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. They have a range of rooms, including suites, deluxe rooms, hot tub cabins, and cabins without baths - something for every budget. It underwent significant renovations in 2019, blending early 20th-century charm with modern-day conveniences. It's a great place to start your visit as it's right next to Mammoth Hot Springs and always seems to have elk roaming the lawns and streets.

We got an early start on day 2 to make it to Lamar Valley before 10am. The earlier you go, the more wildlife you'll see. On the way out, we did a quick tour around the Upper Terrace of Mammoth. You can easily spend an hour here, but I wouldn't recommend it. Also, if you take the route we did, you'll end up here on the last night and can explore the area some more if you still have the energy.

Next, we headed out to Lamar Valley. Known as America's Serengeti, Lamar Valley is a premier location for wildlife viewing, where you can see bison, elk, pronghorn, grizzly bears, and wolves. We weren't lucky enough to spot bears or wolves, but we still loved the experience. The Valley is an amazing sight, and everyone will enjoy scanning the landscape to see what they can find.

After a few stops and plenty of photos, we headed towards the Roosevelt Lodge Cabins for lunch. Unfortunately, they had already closed for the season, so we missed out on what was supposed to be an incredible stop. If you go near the start or end of the season, be sure to check the opening and closing dates so you don't end up in the middle of the park without food or snacks.

Then, it was off towards the Canyon Lodge & Cabins, our hotel for the night. Canyon Lodge is the largest hotel in the park, with more than 500 rooms. They recently underwent a $90 million expansion, but more importantly, it is only a half mile from the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

After a quick lunch in the Canyon Village, we headed out to tour the attractions nearby. If you look at the map, you can see the route we took, starting with Artist Point. This spot is one of the park's most iconic viewpoints, offering a breathtaking view of the Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

Next was the Upper Falls Viewpoint. It is a short hike but worth the walk and offers another great view of the Canyon and falls. Back in the car, we headed over to the Brink of the Lower Falls. You can either take it easy and see the view near the parking area or hike to get right next to the falls. It's short but very steep. Bring some water! Once you get down, you will be standing on top of the falls, looking down at Yellowstone River and the Canyon.

If you continue along the North Rim Drive, you will eventually reach Inspiration Point. This iconic view is yet another one you won't want to miss.

Day 2 - Canyon Lodge & Cabins

Since we covered a lot of ground on Day 1, we let the kids sleep in a bit on the second day. If you are up and about, you might as well drive out to Hayden Valley, another killer spot to see wildlife. The mornings in Yellowstone are something special. You won't see many cars or people, and the landscape takes on a whole new feel.

After a quick bite, we checked out and got on the road. We're heading South towards Old Faithful, and there are plenty of spots along the way. We meandered through Hayden Valley and saw plenty of bison and elk but no bears or wolves. Before long, you'll make it to the Mud Pots. This is another hydrothermal area with bubbling mud and hissing fumaroles. They have a nice boardwalk, and you can either hit the two attractions near the parking lot or take 20 minutes and walk the entire circle.

Our original plan was to eat lunch at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, but again, they were closed for the season already. Regardless, we went to the area and explored the lake's shoreline. It's massive and beautiful, with the Grand Tetons off in the distance. An excellent spot to stop is Pumice Point. If you plan ahead, you could have a picnic here or grab a few pictures and be on your way.

As you head towards Old Faithful, there is another excellent stop called Sand Point. After you park, you'll find a trailhead that takes you through some dense forest, but before long, you'll end up on a beautiful black sand beach. This was our last stop before heading to Old Faithful Inn for our third night.

Day 3 - Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Inn is a historic hotel built in 1903. It is considered a masterpiece of log architecture and sits right next to the iconic Old Faithful geyser. If you aren't staying in the hotel, do yourself a favor and spend some time in the lobby. Shockingly, they built this 120 years ago, and it's even more impressive that it's still standing.

The Inn has a buffet-style restaurant, bar, cafe, and gift shop. The food is overpriced and honestly not great - but it's your only choice. But you didn't come for the food! The first thing you need to do when you arrive is check the geyser times. You'll find them at the front desk, and they will help you plan your visit to the geysers around the hotel.

You can easily spend a few hours exploring this part of the park. There are geysers everywhere, and all are accessible via a boardwalk. Since Old Faithful is the easiest to see, I would try to make it to a few others if your timing works.

After exploring this area, you will return North towards Mammoth. There are some impressive sites along the way, and your goal is to make it to West Yellowstone (outside of the park) for lunch.

One of the first stops is Black Sand Basin. This geothermal area is known for its colorful pools and geysers. A shorter boardwalk loop makes this a quick stop, but it's packed with thermal features.

If you aren't geysered-out by now, you can hit Biscuit Basin. Be sure to check out the Sapphire Pool, known for its bright blue color. Apparently, this area got its name from biscuit-like sinter formations destroyed in the 1959 earthquake.

The stop you absolutely can't miss is the Fairy Falls Parking lot. A less than a mile hike puts you at the best viewing spot for the Grand Prismatic Spring. DO NOT go to the parking lot specifically for the spring. It's crowded and pointless. The best view is from the trail.

If you feel energetic, you can continue another mile and a half to the Fairy Falls. This waterfall is one of Yellowstone National Park's tallest, dropping about 200 feet. It cascades down a cliff in a delicate, wispy manner, which may have led to its "fairy-like" name. Be sure to arrive early as this is a popular hotspot with tourists.

From here, you'll head out of the park into West Yellowstone. This town has restaurants, shops, and the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. If you have not seen bears or wolves in the wild, stop at the Discovery Center. You'll see these amazing animals up close and learn quite a bit.

Once you're ready, head back into the park and continue north. There are three good options to stop on the way towards Mammoth. First is Gibbon Falls, a quick stop with a fantastic view of the falls and landscape. Second is Norris Geyser Basin, the largest geyser basin in the park. And finally, Virginia Cascades. This picturesque drive is worth the quick detour, and you'll get a nice photo op with another cascading waterfall.

You'll end your trip back at Mammoth Inn. They do have a dining hall that serves a nice dinner. You can't make a reservation, so plan in advance. After a good night's rest, you'll be off to the Bozeman airport in the morning. Remember that it's pretty small, and they don't have many priority lanes, so plan accordingly.

Maps and other resources

Before the trip, I mapped out every stop. Be sure to download the park in Google Maps for offline viewing. The cell service is either horrible or non-existent. Feel free to edit these if you want to make any changes to your plan.

I also picked up a few guide books to help with my planning. The first was Best of Yellowstone & Grand Teton by Moon and the second was Exploring Yellowstone Like a Local. I would recommend grabbing both to give you all the necessary background and detail for your trip.

If you are into photography/video, I also grabbed the Insta360 X3 camera. The ability to capture 360 degree footage and the invisible selfie stick made for some great shots on the trip. If you haven't seen the reviews on this you should check it out.

I hope you get a chance to visit this amazing place!

Yellowstone - The Granddaddy of Them All

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