Favorite things to do in Yellowstone National Park
Updated: Nov 9
This post is about things to do in Yellowstone National Park in summer, generally June-September. These are the months that all roads open and the weather is comfortable for camping. Although we highly recommend also going to Yellowstone in winter, it is beyond the scope of this post and has nothing with do with camping.
Without further ado, see below short descriptions of our favorite things to do in Yellowstone National Park. Keep in mind that it is a huge park, and for good reason, we have a long list of must-see places in Yellowstone! The park is most famous for its geysers, hot springs, and wildlife, but it also features amazing waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and other geological features. No matter your age or physical ability, we recommend taking at least three days to explore the park. Here's one suggested itinerary [coming soon] that you can modify to fit your interests.
Things to know before visiting Yellowstone National park
Here are the most important things to know about visiting Yellowstone National Park:
This park is HUGE! Yellowstone has a few entrances, with all roads connecting in a figure 8 throughout the park. On a day without traffic, it would take well over an hour to drive between any two entrances. But rarely is there a day without traffic.
This park is POPULAR in summer! Over 3 million people visit Yellowstone National Park every year, mostly between June-September. Most park roads and services close the rest of the time due to wintry conditions. Check hours of operation here.
Always add an hour or two to your drive time in the park. Expect traffic jams as everyone slows down for bears, elk, bison, wolves, and other wildlife.
Stock up on groceries and plan your gas appropriately. Gas and groceries options are few and far between, and they are expensive. The nearest town to Yellowstone National Park with big supermarkets is Bozeman, MT. It is north of the park, so may not be convenient if you're coming from the south. Wherever you're coming from, look at your route and plan a supermarket stop on the way. The closer you get the to the park, the smaller and more expensive gas and grocery stores become.
It takes a long time to get here, but it's a beautiful drive from all directions! The closest airport to Yellowstone is in Bozeman, MT, about 2 hours north of the park entrance, but it offers limited flights that may not work with your schedule. West Yellowstone, MT, Cody, WY, and Jackson, WY have even smaller airports and usually more expensive flights and rental cars. Salt Lake City, about 5 hours south, may be the most convenient approach option. And of course Las Vegas, if you're adding other Grand Circle parks to your road trip.
Cell phone service in the park could be spotty at times. Most villages in Yellowstone National Park have great cell phone service. But you should expect to lose service on the roads between the villages.
Safety. Read this page regarding animal encounters etiquette and guidelines to hiking in thermal areas. Never feed wildlife and DO NOT SWIM ANYWHERE IN THE PARK.
Weather and road conditions. Yellowstone National Park roads get a lot of snow and close in winter. Check road conditions here before entering the park. In summer, floods and rockfall can damage roads. Most park roads close to regular vehicles from early November to late-April, and open to limited oversnow travel (snowmobiles and snowcoaches) from mid-December to mid-March. The only road generally open year-round to automobiles is from the North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana, through the park to Cooke City, Montana (via Tower Junction). This post, therefore, assumes you're traveling through Yellowstone June-September.
Park entrances, visitor centers, and general areas
As mentioned earlier, there are five entrances to Yellowstone National Park. Most entrances close for a month in fall (November, give or take) and another month in the spring (April, give or take). Only very limited services stay open year-round. Between December and March, you can only travel on park roads in oversnow vehicles. Therefore, everything we mention below assumes you're traveling in Yellowstone between June-September.
South Entrance. If you're coming from Grand Teton National Park, you'll take this road. You'll pass by Grant Village, which has a hotel, campground, and a visitor center. The nicest attraction near Grant Village is the picturesque West Thumb Basin. This is a concentration of hot springs and small geysers on the west shore of Lake Yellowstone.
West Entrance. From the town of West Yellowstone, MT, the west entrance first passes Madison Junction, which has limited tourist services. Turn left (north) to Norris Geyser Basin and later Mammoth Hot Springs. Keep straight (somewhat) to cross the park to Canyon Village. Or turn right (south) to the mythical Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin and later Old Faithful at Upper Geyser Basin. Old Faithful is the most iconic attraction in the park, and therefore offers lots of tourist services. There are a few hotels here, restaurants, an impressive visitor center, a gas station, and a convenience store. Very limited services generally stay open year-round, though the visitor center closes for a month in fall and another month in the spring. Check hours of operation here.
East Entrance. For those coming from Cody, WY, this is a very scenic route but it doesn't offer too much else aside from a nice drive. It leads to Lake Village and Bridge Bay, which is convenient for those wanting to do some boating on Lake Yellowstone. At the junction with the main park road, turn left (south) toward Grant Village or right (north) toward Canyon. Canyon Village sits on the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Not many geysers around, but a very beautiful canyon nonetheless. There's a hotel here, an impressive visitor center, a campground, a gas station, and a convenience store.
Northeast Entrance. The farthest driving from most of the park attractions, but a great one for wildlife viewing, this road leads to Tower Junction. There's a hotel and small shop here, but it's far from everything, unless you're going horseback riding in the park. A right (west) at the junction leads to Mammoth Hot Springs, while a left (south) leads to Canyon Village.
Northwest Entrance. Best for visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, if you drive in from this entrance, you'll find yourself in a small town. This area houses the administrative buildings of the park, many of the staff accommodations, as well as visitor services such as visitor center, hotels, restaurants, a gas station, and a convenience store. It's also the closest entrance to Bozeman, MT. Very limited services generally stay open year-round here.
Things to do around Lake Yellowstone
If you're coming from Grand Teton, you'll pass by the western shore of Lake Yellowstone. Approaching from Cody, you'll drive along the north shore of the lake. Expect plenty of scenic opportunities.
Plan to stretch your legs at the following destinations:
West Thumb Basin
Absolutely worth a 10-minute stop despite its popularity!
This is a very popular attraction due to its proximity to the main park road and its ease of access to all park visitors. A short paved path from the parking lot leads to a boardwalk that meanders near small geysers and hot springs. Lake Yellowstone and occasional wildlife make for a superb backdrop to the fumes and steam of the hot springs.
Boating at Lake Yellowstone
It's the largest high elevation lake (above 7000 ft) in North America. In my opinion, the coolest thing is spotting steam rising randomly along the shoreline. Rent a power boat at Bridge Bay Marina or join one of these tours. You can also look into companies that offer kayaking tours, such as this one.
Crossing the Continental Divide
This is a two-minute stop next to a road sign between Grant Village and Upper Geyser Basin, but it's a cool one nonethelesss. How many times in your life do you get to take a picture of the Continental Divide? Streams on the west side of the line flow to the Pacific Ocean and streams to the east of the divide flow to the Atlantic. Not very scenic here, but the information is mind-blowing!
Avalanche Peak Trail
This is a very strenous hiking trail that rewards you with 360 views at the top of Avalanche Peak. The trail begins with the steepest ascent, gaining 2,100 feet in the first 2.1 miles. But the climb doesn't end there. It continues over large talus slopes to a narrow ridgeline that you must cross with extreme caution. Those who make this arduous hike will be rewarded with stunning views of some of the park’s tallest and most remote alpine peaks. Return by the same route. NOTE: This trail is often snow-covered until early July.
Things to do around Old Faithful of Yellowstone National Park
If you've done any research regarding Yellowstone prior to landing on this page, then you have no doubt heard of Old Faithful geyser. However, you'll be surprised to learn how many other geysers and hot springs you should visit in this area, called the Upper Geyser Basin.
Old Faithful Geyser
The park service updates estimated eruption times at this website and at the visitor center. If you just have a few minutes to wait, go grab a front row view for the show.
Upper Geyser Basin Boardwalk
Rent a bike or walk along the other geysers and hot springs. It isn't a necessity to do this long yet easy paved loop, but it's a great way to spend the time while waiting for Old Faithful's next eruption.
Hike to Observation Point
It's a very short hike, but it is very steep. Very much worth it if you want to watch the Old Faithful eruption from a different vantage point.
Midway Geyser Basin (Grand Prismatic Spring)
A short drive north of Upper Geyser Basin is the Midway Geyser Basin, featuring another classic postcard photo destination, Grand Prismatic. You need to make two short stops to see this spring. One stop is to walk the boardwalk along the spring, and the second stop is for the overlook. Only from this higher vantage point can you truly appreciate the vivid colors of the spring.
I say this again, there will be lots of people and it will be hard to find parking. But this is a must-see destination in Yellowstone!
Norris Geyser Basin
It's quite a bit north of Old Faithful, but we're including Norris Geyser Basin in this section because otherwise it's just off by itself. Plus the drive between Upper Geyser Basin and Norris Geyser Basin is beautiful! You'll stop for photos a few times on your way, I'm sure.
This is another short boardwalk along hydrothermal features. I don't know about you, but I don't really get tired of these. There's a small well-made historic museum at the entrance to the Basin that explains the features.
The nearby Museum of the National Park Ranger used to serve as an outlying station for soldiers to patrol and watch over Norris Geyser Basin. It was among the longest occupied stations in the park. After the Army years, the building was used as a Ranger Station and residence. Today, exhibits depict the development of the park ranger profession from its roots in the military traditions through early rangers and to the present array of National Park Service staff. To enhance the story of the park ranger experience, this visitor center is staffed by volunteer retired rangers.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
At Canyon Junction, toward the northeast part of the park, lies a completely different scene from the rest of the park. Instead of geysers, hot springs, or meandering rivers through plains, there's a deep chasm cut through the yellow rock. This deep canyon, formed by the Yellowstone River, features an impressive waterfall that's not to be missed.
North Rim of the Yellowstone
Start with the North Rim Drive and stop at the visitor center, Lookout Point, and Inspiration Point. These are short walks just to stretch your legs and practice your photography skills. If needed, the North Rim is home to Canyon Village, which features a hotel, campground, and a general store.
South Rim of the Yellowstone
The longer and more interesting walks are on the South Rim. A pedestrian path follows the South Rim between Upper Falls Viewpoint (from which you can see the Upper Falls) and Artist Point (from which you can see the Lower Falls). I recommend turning this walk into a 6-mile loop hike by combining it with Clear Lake Trail. You can keep going as far as Ribbon Lake and/or Point Sublime if you're trying to view some wildlife, otherwise these points aren't that interesting.
You can also drive along the South Rim between the two points if you're not into hiking. There will be lots of people and it will be hard to find parking, but Artist Point is a must-see destination in Yellowstone!
Hayden Valley lies about halfway between Canyon and Lake Junctions. It's a large expanse of open plains that often attracts wildlife. If you haven't been in a bison-caused traffic jam yet, and you feel major FOMO about it, go to Hayden Valley. You're almost guaranteed a herd of bison crossing the road in front of you at all times of the day. It's also not uncommon to spot grizzlys, coyotes, and foxes. Ducks, geese, pelicans, and otters cruise the river, while a variety of shore birds may be seen in the mud flats at Alum Creek. Keep an eye out for bald eagles, northern harriers, and sandhill cranes.
Seven-Mile Hole Trail
A very strenuous hiking trail that descends to the Yellowstone River. The 10-mile roundtrip trail descends more than 1,000 feet in 2.3 miles. NOTE: You have to return back uphill the way you came.
Mammoth Hot Springs to Lamar Valley
It's a long drive to get here if you're coming from the south, but you have to do it! If you're coming from Bozeman, Mammoth Hot Springs will be on your way. Make it a point to spend at least one full day in this northern part of Yellowstone National Park.
Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District
Mammoth Hot Springs is a lively village inside Yellowstone National Park about 30 minutes south of the small town of Gardiner, MT. The Village houses park administrative buildings, as well as a museum and historic buildings that date to the creation of the park. There are also many tourist services here, including visitor center, hotel, campgrounds, restaurant, and general store. Limited tourist services open year-round.
Travertine Terraces and Upper Terrace Drive
The Travertine Terraces are the hydrothermal features that made Mammoth Hot Springs so famous. You'll see them from the road and you'll immediately stop to have a closer look. There's a short walking path that connects the historic district and the terraces. A short, one-mile loop drive, the Upper Terrace Drive, leads to beautiful views of the terraces, together with Fort Yellowstone and the Gardiner River, and other hydrothermal features.
Beaver Ponds Trail
Beaver Ponds is a 5-mile moderate loop that rambles through sagebrush meadows and stands of trees. You might see beavers or their sign, but you are more likely to see muskrats and water birds. Along the way, look for bears, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and moose.
Sepulcher Mountain Trail
Sepulcher Mountain is an 11-mile strenuous loop hike that climbs 3,400 feet through forest and meadows to the 9,652-foot (2,942-m) summit. Loop continues along the opposite side of the mountain through an open slope to the junction of Snow Pass. You may spot mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and moose along this trail.
Blacktail Plateau Drive
This unpaved, 6-mile, one-way road meanders through alpine forests and meadows. It is an alternate, more rustic way to travel east from Mammoth Hot Springs, with better chances of spotting wildlife along beautiful alpine scenery.
Stop here at sunrise or sunset for an hour of two and watch for bison, black bears, bighorn sheep, elk, grizzly bears, mule deer, pronghorn, wolves, and so many other animals.
Suggestion: Pack a stove, pot, fuel, and a thermos. You'll want to make some hot chocolate while you wait for wildlife to appear.
Other bucket list places to visit near Yellowstone
As if the above selection isn't enough, the more you read about this area, the more days you'll want to add to your trip.
Grand Teton National Park
It's a no-brainer to include this park on the list. It's just a few miles south of Yellowstone! Check out our post about Grand Teton National Park.
Cody is a growing industrial town east of Yellowstone. When staying there, you'll feel the clash of its Wild West roots with today's modern civilization and tourism. Buy yourself and authentic cowboy hat and boots, attend the famous Cody Stampede Rodeo, and check out the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Not to mention that it is a gorgeous drive from Cody to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Cooke City and Red Lodge, MT
On a much smaller scale than Cody, WY, you can visit Cooke City and Red Lodge if you're coming from/going to Billings, MT. The road, of course, is picturesque, and so are the towns.
Big Sky and the Gallatin Valley
A beautiful scenic highway connects the towns of West Yellowstone and Bozeman, MT. The road runs through the Gallatin Valley and near the Big Sky ski area. Thanks to its remoteness, it's still mostly popular with locals. This winter wonderland turns into beautiful alpine scenes in summer.
If you're staying in Gardiner, or just want to go there for a meal, don't miss the original northwest park entrance under the historic Roosevelt Arch. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the park and placed the cornerstone for the arch, which then took his name. The top of the arch is inscribed with "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people," which also appears in the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916.
Yellowstone National Park is a popular summer destination with breathtaking geology, panoramic views, and endless remote wide open spaces. If you'd like more information on any of the destinations mentioned above, please don’t hesitate to contact us.