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5 Must See Spots in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is a place that needs to be seen (and smelled!) to be fully appreciated. It feels like someone removed a layer of the Earth and exposed its insides for all to see. It became the world's first national park in 1872. It covers 3,500 square miles spread across Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho and is home to colorful hot springs, fumaroles, mudpots, rushing rivers, towering canyons, bountiful wildlife and of course, geysers. In fact, there are more geysers located in Yellowstone than there are everywhere else in the world combined. All of these otherworldly features of Yellowstone are powered by the volcano that sits under the park. Some even consider Yellowstone a "super volcano", which is a volcano that can spew more than 240 cubic miles of magma in a single eruption. Two out of three of Yellowstone's eruptions have surpassed that mark. Wow. It is this volcanic hotspot and thermal activity that makes Yellowstone as incredible as it is. More fun Yellowstone volcano facts can be found here

Alex and I spent two full days exploring the park and were able to make it to every spot on my itinerary, despite a few storms that rolled through. One of the things I want to mention about Yellowstone is that it is not your typical hiker/backpacker's national park. Yes, there are plenty of backpacking opportunities, however, almost every well-known feature in Yellowstone is within steps from a parking lot or pull-off. All of the spots I have listed below require very minimal hiking. Initially I thought I would dislike Yellowstone for that very reason but I actually really enjoyed it. I didn't need to worry about filling up a pack with the proper amount of provisions and we were able to see so many of Yellowstone's highlights without logging a large number of miles, something I was happy about given how my legs were feeling after my time in the Tetons!

1. Midway Geyser Basin

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Midway Geyser Basin is home to one of the park's most famous features: Grand Prismatic Spring. If you didn't know its name you have probably seen photos of it: the vividly blue pool with a yellow halo and orange streams reaching like tentacles for the boardwalks surrounding it. Grand Prismatic was named by the very first federally-funded expedition of Yellowstone: the Hayden Expedition of 1871 and was named so because of its impossibly vibrant colors. It does seem as if your eyes are playing tricks on you when you look upon Grand Prismatic but those colors have not been photoshopped and there is a very scientific reason for their color. The water temperature of Grand Prismatic varies, the water that bubbles up from the center of the spring it is extremely hot, reaching upwards of 189 degrees Fahrenheit, and very little life can survive here, thus the water is almost perfectly clear and blue. As the water nears the outer perimeter of the spring it has had some time to cool to around 149 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and this is just enough that microorganisms can sustain life. These microorganisms that live in these extreme temperatures are what gives the water its vibrant shade. 

Excelsior Geyser

Excelsior Geyser

Grand Prismatic may be the main attraction in the Midway Geyser Basin but my favorite feature of the area was the lesser-known Excelsior Geyser. Excelsior used to hold the title of world's largest geyser, shooting water some 300' into the air, but it's last major eruption was in 1880. Today Excelsior is a spring and according to the park it discharges 4050 gallons per minute. Although, after experiencing Excelsior up close that's not surprising as it continuously blasts you with a steam with no reprise. 

2. Upper Geyser Basin

No stop to Yellowstone would be complete without visiting Old Faithful in the Upper Geyser Basin. The park claims that Old Faithful isn't the biggest geyser in the park nor is it the most regular geyser in the park, but it is the biggest most regular geyser in the park. There are taller geysers, but the tallest, Steamboat Geyser, hasn't gone off since 2014, and there are more regular geysers but they don't compete with the 130' walls of water Old Faithful shoots out. Old Faithful goes off at an interval of 60 to 110 minutes. Alex and I watched Old Faithful go off 6 times when we were in the park and each time was 90 minutes, almost to the second, from the previous eruption. It is quite the experience waiting for Old Faithful to erupt. There are many moments of excited exclamations: "did you hear that? I think it's getting ready!", "oh no, why isn't it steaming, what if it's stopped forever?!", "what does that gurgle mean?!", and then "AHHHHH!", when it finally erupts. Alex and I watched it go off only once during the daytime hours and once was enough; the boardwalk was jam-packed with people. The other 5 times we watched it go off were during twilight and night and the boardwalks that were full of people just hours earlier were nearly empty. In fact, twice Alex and I were entirely alone on the boardwalk, just watching our own private show of Old Faithful and I can't describe it as anything but magical. 

3. Norris Geyser Basin

Looking down on the Porcelain Basin Loop from the top of the trail

Looking down on the Porcelain Basin Loop from the top of the trail

The Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and most dynamic region of the park. You are able to see all the Norris Geyser Basin has to offer by completing one or two short and easy loops: the 1.5 mile Black Basin Loop or the 0.6 mile Porcelain Basin Loop. Alex and I opted to do both loops as they are so short and accessible and if you have the time I highly recommend doing the same. The hikes will take you past numerous steamy geysers, fumaroles, bubbling mudpots, and hissing sulfurous, springs. Make sure to prepare yourself for the sulfur smell because it is especially pungent in the Norris Geyser Basin! 

Colloidal Pool on the Porcelain Basin Loop

Colloidal Pool on the Porcelain Basin Loop

4. Lower Yellowstone Falls in Canyon Village

Lower Falls and Yellowstone River seen from Artist Point

Lower Falls and Yellowstone River seen from Artist Point

Lower Yellowstone Falls, tumbling an impressive 308' into the Yellowstone River, is the tallest waterfall in the Rocky's. It is located in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and is a sight to behold. There are a multitude of viewpoints to see the falls from but I preferred viewing the falls from the short Red Rock Point trail that descends from Lookout Point. This lookout is much less crowded than Artist Point, which while beautiful was so packed with people you could barely move!

Lower Falls viewed from Inspiration Point

Lower Falls viewed from Inspiration Point

5. Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

The Mammoth Hot Spring terraces, located just inside the northern park entrance, looks like another planet. Hot water pours out of the earth and eats away at all vegetation and life and then dries up, leaving dead trees cemented in the ground. This location is the perfect representation of just how much and how quickly Yellowstone is changing. You can see the remnants of dried up springs that once bubbled water out of the ground, but as the tectonic plate shifted, so did the spring and it came to life in another place. And so this continued as springs moved down an entire mountainside. It's a true testament to the fact that just because Yellowstone looked one today does not mean it will look the same on your next trip. 

Where to stay: Grant Campground, $28/night. Grant Campground in Grant Village is located just 20 miles north of the southern Yellowstone entrance. The price is a bit steep for a campground but it is in walking distance to a stocked store, grille, and restaurant. The campground is always full in the summer and a majority of its occupants are families so it quiets down pretty soon after dark, making sleep come easy. 

How to get there: The National Park Service has an interactive map on their website and detailed instructions on how to reach all 5 park entrances. Click here for more information. 

SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM MY ADVENTURE IN YELLOWSTONE HERE