Yellowstone travel guide

Surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, cut through by deep canyons, waterfalls and rivers, and covered in vast swathes of petrified forest where bears, wolves, elk and bison roam, Yellowstone National Park is a primeval landscape so vivid and raw that the reports of early explorers were treated with disbelief. Even today, while the roads are heavy with traffic in summer, Yellowstone has a definite edge to it that other parks lack.
Wolf packs and bears compete to prey on wary elk and deer, while colourful hot springs bubble and geysers spurt boiling water into the air.
But don’t think it’s all about the wildlife and the geothermal features. There are many fascinating historic sites and cultural experiences to discover across Yellowstone. You can try your hand at panning for gold, hunt for dinosaur fossils, admire ancient rock art and visit heritage museums that trace the story of America’s oldest national park. Find out more in our Yellowstone travel guide.
Yellowstone is/isn't

Yellowstone is…

an explosively beautiful stage for the most exciting animal encounters in North America.

Yellowstone is not…

somewhere to rush around. Wildlife viewing requires patience, and the park is so huge it takes hours to drive across.

Yellowstone map & highlights

Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park spans an enormous 9,000km2, and almost all of it is wilderness. As well as wildlife including wolves, bears, elk and bison, the park is known for its hot springs and geysers, such as Old Faithful, Mammoth Springs and the Grand Prismatic Spring. The reason for all this geothermal activity is that Yellowstone National Park is actually inside an active supervolcano. Almost the entire park falls within the Wyoming state lines, but there are corners in both Montana and Idaho. There are five separate entrances to Yellowstone, and given its scale, often a lot of driving involved. For instance, two of the most popular destinations, Old Faithful and the Lamar Valley, are over two hours apart by road. Small group tours offer the clear advantage that all the logistical headaches are handled by the organisers while you soak up the scenery.

1. Bears

There are up to 600 grizzlies and another 600 or so black bears wandering around Yellowstone. It’s one of the few places in the USA where you can see bears interacting with other large animals such as elk, bison and wolves. Your best chance of seeing bears is in spring, around the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. Whether hiking or not, keep a safe distance between you and Yogi, and make sure not to leave any tempting foodstuffs around.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

2. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Carved by the Yellowstone River, the Grand Canyon is almost 40km long, and up to 365m deep. There are hiking trails on both sides of the canyon; the steep ‘Uncle Tom’s Trail’ is among the most popular. There are numerous lookouts including Inspiration Point, Artist Point and Point Sublime that offer stunning views of the Upper and Lower Falls.
Grand Prismatic Spring

3. Grand Prismatic Spring

The largest hot spring in the USA, the Grand Prismatic Spring is a real jaw-dropper. Its waters take on all the colours of the rainbow, and fluctuate gradually by season. The colours are created by minerals and bacteria in the water. The spring has the same problem as many Yellowstone landmarks: it gets very busy. See it early in the morning if you can before the crowds arrive, and take the Fairy Falls Trail above it for the best view.
Lamar Valley

4. Lamar Valley

Where there is prey there will be predators, and the Lamar Valley is not short on either. Together with the Hayden Valley, Lamar is often referred to as the ‘Serengeti of the United States’. Here you might see wolf packs, vast herds of elk and bison, bears and prowling coyotes. It’s best explored at dawn or dusk with binoculars, when wildlife is most active. This is also one of few areas in Yellowstone still accessible in winter, and great for snowshoeing.
Mammoth Hot Springs

5. Mammoth Hot Springs

A unique and beautiful landscape of travertine limestone terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs resembles a huge steaming waterfall, or a cave turned inside-out. It takes around an hour to explore by the upper and lower boardwalks. During the summer it’s a good base for hiking, while in the winter, like Lamar Valley, it’s a popular spot to strap on a pair of snow shoes. Elks are often seen around here during the autumn rutting season.
Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin

6. Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin

Probably the tallest geyser in the world, and certainly the most famous; as the name suggests, Old Faithful keeps a fairly reliable schedule, erupting around 20 times every day for up to five minutes. The jet can reach 43m. In the wider basin there are another 250 or so geysers, several of them similarly impressive. The schedule is posted nearby, so get there early for an unobstructed view; mornings are best to avoid the coach tours.
Wild Bison

7. Wild Bison

Beware: Bison – if you see it on a sign, take heed. These huge, powerful animals regularly cause traffic jams by meandering across the road, often with their calves alongside. Most of the time they take little interest in human presence. If you ever forget that Yellowstone is a wilderness and we but visitors in nature’s domain, the park’s vast bison herds will remind you. Watch, in fascination, from afar.

8. Wolves

Grey wolves were controversially but successfully reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, having been killed off some 50 years earlier. There are now around 75 wolf packs here, each consisting of between four and seven animals. They can be observed in several areas, but especially around the Lamar Valley. Wolf tracking in winter is a thrilling activity, usually guided by expert wolf ecologists that can recognise individual animals by sight.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Yellowstone or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: rayb777] [Bison: Chloe Leis] [Bear: Hans Veth] [Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone: Bernard Spragg. NZ] [Grand Prismatic Spring: Chris Leipelt] [Beaver - Lamar Valley: Yellowstone National Park] [Mammoth Hot Springs: Russell Feldhausen] [Old Faithful - Upper Geyser Basin: Emily Campbell] [Wild Bison: Joshua Case] [Wolf: David Tostado]