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Be awestruck by the park’s famed geysers and thermal features: Two favorites are Old Faithful, of course, and Grand Prismatic Spring.
Old Faithful, on the Lower Loop’s eastern side, is the park’s tallest predictable geyser, spewing superheated water up to 180 feet into the air for up to five minutes every 60 to 110 minutes. Every eruption can draw more than 2,000 spectators in July and August; boardwalk bleachers fill up, with people standing behind them. To avoid the masses, Olson recommends coming before 9 a.m. “Getting up early has its rewards,” she says.
Another insider viewing tip: Venture up to the second-floor deck at the nearby Old Faithful Inn, even if you’re not a hotel guest. No, you’re not as close to the geyser, but the deck still offers a good vantage point with far fewer people jockeying for viewing spots. Plus, there’s often a staffer selling espresso drinks.
In winter, when you can get to Old Faithful via snowcoach or snowmobile, a big crowd might be just several dozen people. Guided snowmobile tours leave from the east, south and west entrances (advance reservations required).
If the Old Faithful area is crowded, minimize your time there (check geysertimes.org for predicted eruption times) and then head to the otherworldly Norris Geyser Basin for less-crowded geyser viewing.
There’s also Grand Prismatic Spring in the park’s Midway Geyser Basin, just north of Old Faithful on the Lower Loop. It’s the country’s largest hot spring — about 121 feet deep and bigger than a football field. Thanks to microbial mats that can grow in extreme heat, the spring’s pool showcases a rainbow of colors — blue, green, orange, red and yellow — making the spring one of the park’s most popular photo ops. Grand Prismatic never feels as crowded as Old Faithful because its colors don’t come and go like the eruptions do.
Marvel at the power of moving water: In the early 1800s, mountain man Jim Bridger reported finding a canyon so big and deep that you could shout into it at night and be awoken the next morning by your echo. Welcome to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — 20 miles long, more than 1,000 feet deep in some places, and home to three waterfalls, including the 308-foot-tall Lower Falls, the park’s tallest. At the eastern meeting point of the Upper and Lower loops, the canyon has multiple good viewing points. A tip for shutterbugs: At Artist Point on South Rim Scenic Drive, catch the morning light of the rising sun on the Lower Falls and the canyon’s pastel-colored walls.
View wildlife: Yellowstone is often called “America’s Serengeti” for its abundant wildlife. “Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley are both good wildlife-watching areas,” says park spokeswoman Linda Veress. “Some things commonly seen in both valleys are bison and pronghorn, and possibly wolves and grizzly bears.”
It’s easy to do your watching from the comfort of your car. The Lower Loop passes through Hayden Valley; the Upper Loop through Lamar Valley. No doubt, you’ll sometimes want to get out to take photos, but take note: It’s not unusual for bison to gore several visitors every year. “Give the wildlife space,” advises Veress. “Wildlife is unpredictable and walking by a bison that’s just standing there quietly grazing — that can change very quickly if you approach the animal. If you cause an animal to move, you’re too close.”
Park rules mandate visitors stay 25 yards away from bighorn sheep, bison and elk, and 100 yards from bears and wolves.
Honor Yellowstone’s importance as the country’s first national park: Don’t miss the 50-foot-tall Roosevelt Arch at the park’s north entrance in Gardiner. Made from locally quarried basalt, the arch bears the inscription “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people” — a line from the 1872 Act that established Yellowstone (and all of the subsequent national parks) — and President Theodore Roosevelt laid its cornerstone in 1903.
Go hiking, with caution: Yellowstone has 900-plus miles of hiking trails that few people use. Regardless of your fitness level, don’t just charge off down a trail. Remember, black bears and grizzly bears roam here, plus “most of the park lies more than a mile above sea level, so give yourself time to adjust to the elevation,” says Veress. “We recommend everyone know how to hike in bear country and to carry bear spray.” (Watch a video on Yellowstone’s website to learn how to use the spray. Some tourists have mistakenly thought that they needed to spray themselves with bear spray, as they would with insect repellant. Bad idea!)
Close to Old Faithful, the 4.7-mile Lone Star Trail is a mostly flat out-and-back hike on an old service road along the Firehole River to the Lone Star Geyser, which erupts about every three hours. Just south of Grand Prismatic Spring, start up the Fairy Falls Trail to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook, 0.6 miles from the parking lot and a spur off the main trail. The overlook showcases spring’s vivid colors. Note that the elevation gain to the overlook is only about 100 feet, but high altitude makes the hike more work than it sounds. Back on the trail, continue two flat miles farther to the 200-foot-tall falls. Stand on the shore of the pool at its base and see rainbows in its mist. In winter, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe to both attractions.
Take a soak: Just inside the park’s north entrance, a flat, half-mile gravel path along the Gardner River brings you to the mouth of the Boiling River. Where the two waterways meet, you’ll find a 150-foot-long band of natural soaking pools with water temperatures ranging from 80 to 110 degrees. This is the park’s only thermal feature where visitors can go for a soak, so wade in. The pools are open daily dawn to dusk but close during periods of high water (usually in late spring or early summer). Bathing suits required; you can change in the parking lot’s vault toilets.
Get off the beaten path: With its density of waterfalls, Yellowstone’s southwest corner is known as “Cascade Corner.” Most require a substantial hike to see, but you can drive to Cave Falls — it’s only 20 feet tall but spans 200 feet across the Falls River — and you’ll likely have the view to yourself, since this park section attracts fewer than 1 percent of Yellowstone visitors. But be aware that the 90-mile drive from Old Faithful takes almost four hours because you travel on roads with low speed limits, including the 19-mile Cave Falls Road, a dirt road passable by any passenger car.