When planning a last-minute trip to Yellowstone National Park, I was overwhelmed by all there is to see—there are more than 10,000 hydrothermal features including 300-plus geysers. But with 3 solid days inside the park, I saw all the highlights and then some. And while most Yellowstone guides describe each feature as “one of the best,” I can easily narrow it down to the best 8.
1. Grand Prismatic Spring
Walk along the boardwalk through the Midway Geyser Basin to get a close view of this iconic warm spring that gets its crazy vibrant colors from heat-loving bacteria. Getting an aerial view of the spring, however, requires a steep climb up an unofficial trail over fallen trees and slippery soil—not an easy trek, but definitely worth it.
2. Porcelain Geyser Basin (of Norris Geyser Basin)
In most of the park, you have to keep an eye out for buffalo and grizzlies (in fact, you should always carry a can of bear mace with you). But at the Porcelain Geyser Basin, I was looking for T-Rex and pterodactyls. Every inch of the Porcelain Geyser Basin is oozing, bubbling and hissing with misty geysers, milky blue pools, and green swirls of something-or-other that make this place look straight up prehistoric. (Bonus: There’s no gag-inducing sulfur smell like the Mud Volcano Area.)
3. Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces
The National Park Service website describes Mammoth Hot Springs as a “cave turned inside out.” Enough said.
4. Old Faithful Inn
This 110-year old, seven-story log structure is simply gorgeous. Take the 45-minute tour to learn about its features and the history of Yellowstone tourism. To get the full old-timey experience, you can book a room at the Inn, though you’ll need to plan in advance or hope for a cancellation as these rooms are in high demand. Note that some rooms have shared bathrooms and the Old House, as opposed to the slightly newer east and west wing add-ons, is said to have “thin walls.” The Inn also gets very crowded with tourists (they gather right outside to witness the Old Faithful geyser), so staying at the Inn gives you a more intimate experience since you can walk around at night once the crowds have gone.
5. Firehole Lake Drive
Though Old Faithful is the most popular geyser in the park (perhaps famous for being famous), there are better geysers throughout the park. Two are located on Firehole Lake Drive. The Great Fountain Geyser has calm pools of water which reflect the sky. Before eruption, the pools begin to fill, overflowing the terraces like gentle ocean waves. And once the geyser erupts, it lasts a while (1–2 HOURS as opposed to Old Faithful’s 1–5 minutes.) Right up the road is the White Dome Geyser, which is simple, but frequent and predictable, erupting about every 35 minutes.
6. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Often noted as the park’s most popular feature, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is pretty impressive. The Yellowstone River flows through the canyon for 20 miles between the Upper Falls and the Tower Falls area. Though the best waterfall along the canyon is the Lower Falls, a green waterfall that drops 308 feet. Trails along the canyon, as well as Artist Point, allow visitors to find the best view of the canyon’s pink and orange highlights.
7. Wildlife, Wild Flowers and Wide Open Spaces
Simply driving around the park is awe-inspiring. Scenic pullouts allow you to park and sit for a while to admire the natural beauty of the park, most of which is in the state of Wyoming. If you only have a day in the park, just drive around the Grand Loops and enjoy the peaceful scenery, particularly Lamar and Hayden Valleys which can be observed from the roadside.
8. Mud Volcano Area
Yes, I earlier called this area gag-inducing (and it is), but it is also a great representation of what makes Yellowstone unique. This area features smelly, muddy, bubbling pools of steam and water that remind us of the Earth’s awesome power—underneath Yellowstone is one of the world’s largest supervolcanoes! Though the water isn’t actually at boiling temperature at many of Yellowstone’s features, heated gas and steam violently force their way upward, creating many of the park’s thermal features including those that resemble boiling pots of water (hence one feature’s name, the Churning Caldroun).
BONUS! Beartooth Highway
Located just outside the Northeast Entrance, this scenic road weaves you through icy lakes and snow-capped peaks to Bear’s Tooth Mountain.