You’ll need plenty of time to enjoy these 31 can’t-miss things to do in Yellowstone National Park.
We’ve been chasing warm weather south after our summer in Alaska. That put us in the Montana-Idaho-Wyoming area in mid-August, which is just about the ideal time to visit one of America’s most noteworthy destinations: Yellowstone National Park.
America’s first National Park, Yellowstone was established March 1, 1872 during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. Today, over four million people visit the park each year with over half of them coming during the peak months of June and July.
Encompassing 2.2 million acres, this unique, geothermal landscape is larger than both Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
It’s also home to the impossibly large Yellowstone Caldera, a volcanic crater that measures about 34 miles by 45 miles. This supervolcano erupts every 600,000-800,000 years with the last known eruption occurring 640,000 years ago.
Yes, you read that correctly.
But don’t worry. Despite the seemingly neverending stream of fear-mongering, clickbaity headlines, there’s little chance of Yellowstone erupting in our lifetime.
Instead, this volcanic activity actually makes Yellowstone the ecological wonder that it is. If you’re getting ready for your visit to Yellowstone National Park, you’re in the right place.
In this guide, I’ve highlighted 31 can’t-miss things to do in Yellowstone. The first six things are actual activities–hiking, fishing, camping, etc. The final 25 things are amazing sites and landmarks every visitor should check out.
Got something I missed? Comment below!
Things to do in Yellowstone National Park
But first, a PSA.
How much does it cost to visit Yellowstone? Fees are $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle or snowmobile, and $20 per person on foot or bicycle. Your fee gives you access for seven days to both Yellowstone and the nearby Grand Tetons National Park south of Yellowstone. For $80 per year you can also purchase the America The Beautiful Pass, which gives you unlimited access to every National Park and around 2,000 other federal recreation sites.
Drive the Grand Loop Road
The 142-mile Grand Loop Road takes you everywhere in Yellowstone National Park. Driving the entire loop takes 4-10 hours depending on traffic, wildlife, and places you choose to stop.
Driving the loop can be done in a day. Dawn and I completed it in one marathon, 12-hour session, but we chose to stop at every site and walked a few short trails.
Hiking in Yellowstone
Hiking opportunities abound in Yellowstone National Park with the official NPS website listing 46 different trails to explore. No permits are required for day hiking.
Many of these hikes are over 7,000 feet in elevation, which means less than 77% of the oxygen available at sea level. If you aren’t used to hiking at these elevations, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to complete your hike and pack plenty of freshwater and food.
Check out the Backcountry Situation Report to stay updated on weather conditions by region.
Fishing in Yellowstone
Over 50,000 people fish Yellowstone National Park every year. Fishing season runs from Memorial Day through the first Sunday in November, and permits are required for all anglers 16 and older:
- Three-day permit: $18
- Seven-day permit: $25
- Season-long permit: $40
Permits can be purchased within the park at visitors centers, general stores, backcountry offices, and fly shops.
Cutthroat trout are the only native trout species in Yellowstone, but you can also fish for Arctic grayling, mountain whitefish, and other species.
Click here for full rules and regulations, including what tackle is permissible.
Camping in Yellowstone
Camping in Yellowstone is a great way to enjoy the unique ecosystem the park provides. There are two ways to camp in Yellowstone: in a dedicated campground or in the backcountry.
There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone sporting over 2,000 campsites, but most are on a first-come, first-served system and fill up early. We wanted to park our RV at Madison Campground only to learn it fills up around 8:15 am each morning!
Where did we stay? Since we’re outfitted with solar and a cell signal booster, we like to camp cost-free when possible. We found a beautiful free campsite about 35 minutes from the West Entrance in Cameron, Montana and parked the RV there while visiting Yellowstone.
The image below shows each campground with its fill time for the last day we were there–a weekday. This website shows the same information.
Seven of the 12 campgrounds are RV-friendly but maximum RV lengths vary by campground.
You can make reservations at the following campgrounds, which is suggested for those camping in larger RVs (30+ feet):
- Bridge Bay Campground
- Canyon Campground
- Fishing Village RV Park
- Grant Village Campground
- Madison Campground
Be aware that campgrounds are only open from mid-May until early-October with exact opening and closing dates also varying by campground.
Yellowstone backcountry camping
Want to skip the campgrounds? For $3 per person per night, you and your friends can venture into the wilderness and set up camp. Backcountry permits are required, and you can only get them from Memorial Day through mid-September. Click here for more information.
Horseback riding in Yellowstone
For the equestrians among us, there a few ways to see Yellowstone by horseback:
- Guided tours through licensed tour companies
- Guided tours through Yellowstone National Park Lodges (Canyon and Tower-Roosevelt)
- Private use with your own horse
If you bring your own stock into Yellowstone, there are permits to obtain and guidelines to follow.
Best time to visit Yellowstone
The best time to visit Yellowstone, weather-wise, is May through the end of September.
Unsurprisingly, tourism volumes closely follow monthly high temperatures.
There are great reasons to visit in every season.
April and May
April and May bring the thaw as bears, wolves, elk, and other animals emerge from winter survival mode. Snowmelt causes rivers and creeks to run strongly. If you visit during these months, check weather and backcountry reports to see which roads and/or areas of the park are open for the season.
June and July
June and July are the peak tourism months with around one million people per month visiting the park. Traffic in the park backs up big time, especially if you don’t get there first thing in the morning. That’s the price you pay for optimal weather conditions. On the plus side, local towns have a lot of festivals in July, such as the Yellowstone Beer Fest, Idaho Summerfest, and Shoshone-Bannock Indian Festival.
August is a great time to visit as temperatures are still ideal but the peak tourism season has begun to subside. We visited in mid-August and while there were still crowds to contend with, they weren’t as bad as those in months prior and the weather was mid-70s Fahrenheit.
September and October
September and October are where things start to get dicey. Temperatures are dropping, campgrounds are starting to close for the season, and road closures may impact your visit. However, two great things correlate with the falling temperatures: visitor counts and lodging rates.
Winter in Yellowstone, defined as any month not previously mentioned, offers a totally different side of the park. Campgrounds and many activities will be closed until April/May, but you can still drive through some roads in the park and brave the backcountry. Note that the North Entrance is the only open entrance for private cars.
Visit the town of West Yellowstone, Montana
West Yellowstone, Montana is a fun summer tourism town with a lot to do. Go shopping, enjoy the local eats, try a beer from a local brewery, and stay at the RV park.
Best time to see wildlife in Yellowstone
You can see wildlife year-round in Yellowstone, but some months are better than others.
- Spring and fall are best for seeing bears.
- Fall is best for seeing eagles and hawks.
- Summer is best for seeing elk, moose, bison, and mountain goats.
- Winter is best for seeing wolves and bighorn sheep.
Keep your eyes peeled, as wildlife is everywhere, though Lamar Valley offers your best chance at seeing most of the big game animals (like wolves) that hide from the touristy areas.
Things to see in Yellowstone National Park
There’s no shortage of things to do in Yellowstone that will keep your group busy for an entire week.
Below are 25 must-see sites as you travel the Grand Loop Road. I’ve organized them in the order in which you’ll see them, starting with Mammoth Hot Springs in the northwest corner of the park.
Mammoth Hot Springs
The Mammoth Hot Springs area has a ton to do; there’s even a hotel here. The hot springs themselves are way cooler (pun intended) than I expected.
Give yourself at least an hour here to walk around the various boardwalk levels that traverse the entire hot springs area.
Photography Tip: Get here in the morning for the best lighting. We ended our Grand Loop drive at Mammoth Hot Springs and had 5:00 pm sun washing out many of our photos. Photos taken in the morning will put the sun at your back.
Norris Geyser Basin
This might be the most impressive geyser basin in Yellowstone as it features the hottest temperatures in the park and incredibly acidic water. Steamboat Geyser is the tallest geyser in the world, shooting water upwards of 400 feet in the air!
Just off the Grand Loop near Madison, Mount Haynes rises above the treeline with a summit reaching 8,218 feet.
Firehole Falls is located on Firehole Canyon Drive, which is just past Madison and right off the Grand Loop. The falls are viewable directly from the road. If you go upstream of the falls there’s actually a swimming area.
Lower Geyser Basin & Fountain Paint Pot
At 18 square miles, Lower Geyser Basin is the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone and discharges an estimated 15,300 gallons of water per minute.
Fountain Paint Pot is a muddy region of Lower Geyser Basin, shown below.
Grand Prismatic Spring
The pièce de résistance of Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Prismatic Spring is a sight to behold. It’s the third-largest hot spring in the world as water bubbles up to the surface from 121 feet below.
Part of Midway Geyser Basin, this spring is the most colorful display in the park thanks to the thermophiles that thrive in the near-boiling water.
Midway Geyser Basin
While the Grand Prismatic Spring is the highlight of this region, the whole Midway Geyser Basin is impressive. Walk from the parking lot across the footbridge crossing the Firehole River, where you can see hot spring water pouring into the cold river.
Next to the Grand Prismatic Spring is this massive, dormant geyser. Frequent eruptions in the late-1800s blew Excelsior Geyser apart, and now it lays dormant, only having erupted once in the last 130 years (1985). Still, it pours over 4,000 gallons of water per minute into the Firehole River.
A short but worthy stop, Biscuit Basin is home to Sapphire Pool, shown below. Biscuit Basin was named for the biscuit-looking rock formations that lined Sapphire Pool, but a 1959 geyser eruption triggered by a magnitude 7.3 earthquake blew away many of those namesake biscuit formations.
Black Sand Basin
Though the photo below doesn’t show it, much of Black Sand Basin is covered in obsidian, which is basically black, volcanic glass formed when lava cools too quickly. This basin is one of the most colorful in the park.
Old Faithful Geyser
I could sit and watch Old Faithful all day. In fact, we saw it erupt three times! Eruptions occur approximately every 90 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes. Like most regular geysers in the park, video boards in the visitors centers and other buildings show next forecasted eruption times.
Upper Geyser Basin
While waiting for the next schedule Old Faithful eruption, take a walk around the Upper Geyser Basin. You can see Old Faithful in the distance, and there are plenty of other cool thermal features to see. Many trails originate here.
Old Faithful Inn
The largest log cabin in the world, Old Faithful Inn is worth a visit even if you aren’t staying there.
There’s something cool about crossing the official divide between the eastern and western sides of the Rocky Mountains. It’s like crossing the Mississippi River, only cooler. There are a few points in the park where you cross this divide. This one is past Old Faithful as you head towards West Thumb.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
The West Thumb Geyser Basin is a thermally active area to the west of Yellowstone Lake.
Actually, West Thumb is deeper than Yellowstone Lake with the bottom resembling a crater. That’s because West Thumb was formed by a massive eruption around 120,000 years ago that expanded the size of Yellowstone Lake.
North America’s largest lake over 7,000 feet in elevation, Yellowstone Lake is also home to the largest population of cutthroat trout on the continent.
Fishing aside, that’s noteworthy because cutthroat trout are a Pacific Ocean fish yet Yellowstone Lake flows to the Atlantic. Researchers theorize that Yellowstone Lake used to flow to the Pacific, but the park’s changing topography altered the flow of water.
Mud Volcano & Dragon’s Mouth Spring
Once past Grant Village and West Thumb, you’ll come across Mud Volcano opposite the Yellowstone River. This region isn’t super scenic, but it’s worth a stop to walk around the quarter-mile boardwalk to see Mud Volcano (shown below) and Dragon’s Mouth Spring.
Some of the most acidic (and smelly) waters in Yellowstone can be found just beyond Mud Volcano at Sulphur Caldron. Viewing-wise, this isn’t the most impressive stop, but it’s so close to Mud Volcano that it’s worth a quick visit.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
Along the eastern part of the Grand Loop lies the Yellowstone River. A 20–mile stretch of that river flows through a massive canyon that plunges more than 1,000 feet in sections.
Lower & Upper Yellowstone Falls
Lower and Upper Yellowstone Falls are a pair of impressive waterfalls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Lower Falls is the larger of the two at 308 feet tall, and it’s viewable from a few places such as Artist Point and Inspiration Point.
There’s a three-quarter-mile trail that leads to the top of Lower Falls. While short, it does have a steep vertical climb with several switchbacks. However, the feeling of standing near the top of such a large waterfall is pretty special.
Mount Washburn & Washburn Hot Springs
One of the more popular trails in the park, hikers can climb to the top of Mount Washburn via the Dunraven Pass Trailhead. The trail is 6.8-miles each way with nearly 1,400 feet in elevation gain to over 10,000 feet above sea level, so it isn’t for the faint of heart.
If driving is more your pace, you can follow Grand Loop Road over Mount Washburn to the Tower-Roosevelt region.
There’s also a 13.3-mile loop trail to Washburn Hot Springs that takes you all the way down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and right back up the other side.
Just south of Tower-Roosevelt Junction is this 132-foot waterfall named for the tall spears shooting upward just above the falls. Like the granite tors along the Angel Rocks Trail in Fairbanks, Alaska, these spears were formed by the erosion of softer rock, leaving the harder spears behind.
Just past Tower Fall is a lookout where you can get this shot of Calcite Springs. What are you looking at exactly? It’s that yellowish-white shading along the river’s edge. That stuff is calcite, or basically limestone.
Also of note are some visible black deposits, which are made of both oil and sulfur that have bubbled to the surface from super-hot depths that liquify large quantities of otherwise solid sulfur.
Your best bet for seeing big game wildlife, Lamar Valley is a little off the beaten track but totally worth it. The road through Lamar Valley diverts off the Grand Loop at Tower-Roosevelt and continues to the Northeast Entrance of the park.
About a quarter-mile down a narrowish dirt road branching off from the Grand Loop is this little attraction: the petrified tree.
Fifty million years ago, Yellowstone’s climate was subtropical with a dense redwood forest thriving here. Frequent, violent volcanic eruptions triggered a series of landslides that covered (and preserved) trees like this one.
And there we have it! Are there any other things to do in Yellowstone National Park that you think make the cut? Comment below!