Yellowstone National Park is the quintessential American National Park.
Along with the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone is what most people think of when they hear the words “American National Park.”
But Yellowstone is huge. It takes 3 full days just to see the biggest sights in Yellowstone.
Plus, it takes so long to get to Yellowstone that you can’t afford to miss anything. You want to see all of the big sights on your first trip.
I’m here to help. Here are my must see things to do in Yellowstone National Park.
You knew this was going to be on the list. You already know you’re going to see Old Faithful.
Old Faithful is large and easy to visit. It’s surrounded by a parking lot with thousands of spaces.
Old Faithful erupts every 90 minutes. Chances are good you won’t have to wait long for an eruption.
If you’re early to Old Faithful’s eruption, walk around to see other geysers as part of the Upper Geyser Basin. There’s an easy walking path loop that takes you to the main sights.
The area around Old Faithful is home to more geysers than the rest of the world combined. Yes, that’s a real fact – not an internet fact.
Want an overhead view of Old Faithful? Walk behind the Upper Geyser Basin area to the Old Faithful Viewing area, on the hill above the geyser. If you’ve already seen one eruption from the benches, check out your next eruption from the hiking trail.
Old Faithful is the heart of Yellowstone, and it’s a must visit sight for a reason.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Moving north from Old Faithful, you’ll encounter the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin.
The Grand Prismatic Spring is the multi-coloured spring you see on Instagram all the time. It genuinely looks like that in person.
Although it’s a little hard to get a perfect top-down view of the Grand Prismatic Spring like you see on Instagram, it’s still absolutely worth a visit.
There are two options for visiting the Grand Prismatic Spring:
Option #1: Park at the Fairy Falls Trail Parking Lot: To get to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook, park at the Fair Falls Trail Parking Lot, then walk 15 minutes to the overlook. You get a top-down view of the geyser like you see in photos. If you want to capture the colours, then this is the way to do it.
Option #2: Park at the Grand Prismatic Spring Parking Lot: Walk across the bridge to see the edge of the Grand Prismatic Spring. You won’t get a top-down view of the geyser, and it’s difficult to see the colors, but you can still see the edges of the geyser and the color variations. If mobility is an issue, then this is the better option.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Before I visited, I had no idea Yellowstone had its own Grand Canyon. But it does. And it’s spectacular.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a must visit sight and thing to do in Yellowstone National Park. In fact, TripAdvisor tells me it’s the number one thing to do in Yellowstone.
Some fast facts about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone:
- You can visit the north and south rim, and there are plenty of great sights on each rim
- You can hike between parking lots. Or, you can drive between each parking lot without missing anything.
- The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is 24 miles long, and 4,000 feet wide / 1,200 feet deep at points
- You can find plenty of viewpoints for both Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls, both of which are worth visiting and seeing.
We spent a full day driving around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (from our base at the Old Faithful area).
There are plenty of things to see and do, easy and challenging hikes, and even a central rest area where you can get groceries, refuel, and recharge (Canyon Village).
If you don’t have time to drive all the way out to Lamar Valley, then Hayden Valley is a good runner-up.
Like Lamar Valley, Hayden Valley has some of the best wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. We got stuck in our first bison jam here. Bison tramped across the road in front of our car for around an hour. It was very cool to see.
If you’re driving a loop from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone back to Old Faithful, then Hayden Valley is along the way.
Old Faithful Inn
Don’t miss the Old Faithful Inn while visiting the Old Faithful geyser. Built in the winter of 1903 to 1904, the inn is straight out of a movie.
The Old Faithful Inn is a national historic landmark, and it’s easy to see why once you get inside. The interior is interlaced with intricately carved wooden beams and poles.
The Old Faithful Inn also has a great patio where you can overlook the geyser (or just enjoy a drink with a view of the surrounding hills). Alternatively, you can enjoy a full meal at the popular restaurant.
Yellowstone Lake is a massive lake at the heart of Yellowstone National Park. It’s also the largest high elevation lake in North America.
The lake is so high and cold that it freezes over completely each winter. Although you can swim in the lake in summer, it’s very cold.
We drove around the lake, but you can also do a boat tour to see the islands and other sights around the lake.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
The West Thumb Geyser Basin is a must see sight in Yellowstone. Located right beside Yellowstone Lake, West Thumb Geyser Basin has similar geysers to other parts of the park – but it’s right beside the lake.
You can see geyser water running into the lake. You can also see geysers in the lake. It’s a cool spot.
Walk the boardwalk around West Thumb Geyser Basin to see all of the geysers in 30 to 60 minutes. You may also see wildlife in this spot.
You’ll see bison all over Yellowstone National Park. However, Lamar Valley is the best place to see bison and other wildlife.
Visit Lamar Valley at sunrise or sunset for the best wildlife viewing opportunities.
On a good day, you’ll see elk, deer, bears, coyotes, wolves, bison, and more across Lamar Valley.
The only reason Lamar Valley is at the bottom of my must-visit list is because it’s remote: it takes 2 hours to get to Lamar Valley from the heart of Yellowstone. The opportunity cost of visiting is high, especially because you can see bison in other areas of the park.
However, if you have extra time, or if you’re exiting or entering through the Lamar Valley side of the park, then it’s absolutely worth a visit.
The Beartooth Highway has the most badass name of any highway in the world – and it has the scenery to back up that name.
Open exclusively in the summer, the Beartooth takes you over the 10,947 foot Beartooth Pass. Called “The most beautiful drive in America” by some, the Beartooth Highway is a winding, white-knuckle, picturesque drive that’s a must-visit if you’re entering Yellowstone from the east during the summer – especially if you’re interested in dramatic mountain vistas.
Like the Lamar Valley, the Beartooth Highway is at the bottom of this list because of its remoteness. It’s far away from the center of Yellowstone. Unless you’re entering or exiting from this direction, it will take a significant amount of time out of your Yellowstone itinerary to drive the Beartooth Highway – but it’s absolutely worth it regardless.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is located at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park (the one closest to Bozeman). It’s a unique area that feels like a spot where cavemen and woolly mammoths took baths together.
Mammoth Hot Springs consists of two parts, including the Mammoth Lower Terraces area and the Mammoth Upper Terraces area. Both have multiple spots and things to see.
Pro tip: You can swim in the water by Mammoth Hot Springs. Look for the spot in the river where you see people hanging out. It’s called the Boiling River. Although it was officially closed for the pandemic, people still swim there. It’s a great place to enjoy natural hot springs in Yellowstone, as it’s difficult to swim in other rivers within the park.
Other Sights to See in Yellowstone
It takes 2 to 3 full days to see everything listed above. If you still have time, consider visiting the following attractions. They’re great to add on, but I wouldn’t consider them bucket list items.
Norris Geyser Basin: The Norris Geyser Basin is located between Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It’s an easy 30 to 60 minute walk through a geyser-rich area. It’s similar to other geyser areas around the park, and it’s cool to visit. If you want sprawling vistas with geyser views, then the Norris Geyser Basin is the place to be.
Mount Washburn: There are plenty of hikes in Yellowstone, including some surprisingly long hikes. Mount Washburn is a great hike for its view to effort ratio. It’s a strenuous hike (2 to 3 hours one way) and it’s not for everyone, but it’s ideal for those looking for a challenge.
Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center: Located in West Yellowstone (a town on the west side of the park), the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is a great way to get up and close with Yellowstone’s animals without actually encountering them.
Boiling River: Up above, we mentioned that you can swim by Mammoth Hot Springs. That’s the Boiling River area. The aptly-named area is one of the few spots in the park where you can swim in warm, hot spring fuelled-water.
Final Word: Yellowstone is a Must Visit National Park
You know Yellowstone is a must visit National Park. You don’t need a blog called the Wandering Boozebag to tell you that.
Whether you’re on a cross country road trip or flying in for a special trip, Yellowstone is an essential stop in the United States filled with must see sights and things to do.