The world’s first national park is also one of its most distinctive. From rocky flats dotted with plumes of mysterious steam to bubbling mud pots and geothermal pools in shades of startling aquamarine and goldenrod, there is no place on Earth quite like it. In fact, Yellowstone contains the largest concentration of geysers in the world.
Since its creation in 1872, Yellowstone National Park has become a model of conservation—one of the last large, intact ecosystems in the temperate zone. What this means for visitors? A step back in time to primordial wilderness: untouched, unaltered. It helps explain why Yellowstone has been called “America’s Serengeti” for the richness and diversity of its wildlife. Vast herds of elk and bison graze the plains while storied predators like the grizzly bear and wolf still forage and hunt the valleys. If you’re lucky, you’ll see all four species—from a safe distance!
Advice for first-time visitors? Keep your camera ready and your sense of wonder engaged.
A Perfect Day on Yellowstone’s Southern Loop
Even if you’re planning to drive from Jackson to Yellowstone and back in one day, you can still pack in the major sights. Just get on the road early! Here is our recommended sightseeing loop. You can join it at any point.
Stop #1: West Thumb Geyser Basin (22 miles from the South Entrance)
If you’re approaching Yellowstone from Jackson, this is the ideal first stop. Stretch your legs and take a short stroll on the developed boardwalk. This will be your introduction to a variety of geothermal features: bubbling springs of finely milled mud, multi-colored pools, and steaming lakeside cones. Located right on the shore of vast Yellowstone Lake, this stop includes the Thumb Paint Pots, the deep blue Abyss Pool, and Fishing Cone, where early visitors joked one could catch a fish in the lake and then dunk it directly in boiling water to make dinner.
Stop #2: Old Faithful (17 miles from West Thumb)
Guaranteed to be a highlight of your day in Yellowstone, be sure to set aside a large chunk of time to explore the Old Faithful Inn, catch one of the famous geyser’s on-time eruptions, and ramble on the boardwalk past one of the park’s richer collections of hydrothermal wonders. Inside the new visitor center, you’ll find posted signs predicting the next Old Faithful eruption, so grab a seat and wait for the impressive sight of up to 8,400 gallons of scalding water reaching heights topping 184 feet.
The monumental Old Faithful Inn, completed in 1904, is the largest log structure in the world. Its massive 65-foot ceiling, stone fireplace, and gnarled railings made from local lodgepole pine ensure its stature as one of the most iconic buildings of the American frontier. The inn also features shops, restaurants, and multiple rustic seating areas to take in the views both inside and outside.
Don’t just stick to the inn! The Old Faithful area opens up exploration of the Upper Geyser Basin, where famous beauties like the Morning Glory pool can be found.
Stop #3: Midway Geyser Basin (8 miles)
Known as Hell’s Half Acre, a brief stop at Midway Geyser basin is 100% worth it. The basin’s hot water gushes from geothermal pools to meet the aptly named Firehole River, while tendrils of the massive Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States, extend out from its deep turquoise center.
Stop #4: Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (34 miles)
Many Yellowstone visitors make the mistake of turning around after exploring Old Faithful and the lower geyser basins. Don’t be one of them! The awe-inspiring Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and its dramatic Upper and Lower Falls are well worth the extra driving time. Carved into soft rhyolite stone by the Yellowstone River, the canyon is where visitors can truly see how Yellowstone garnered its name, with a rainbow of colors (including yellow!) in the exposed rock descending to the canyon floor.
The tumbling waters of Lower Falls spiral from a height twice that of Niagara Falls. This thundering vista can be enjoyed from Lookout Point, Red Rock Point, and Artist Point.
Stop #5: Yellowstone Lake (37 miles)
On the final section of your loop from the Grand Canyon back to West Thumb, you’ll cruise through the rolling landscape of Hayden Valley and then along the tree-lined shore of Yellowstone Lake. Bison graze in herds on the open grassland here, and will often amble right up to the road. Follow the signs to Mud Volcano or Lake Village if you feel like another break, or simply enjoy the scenery from your window. Now is the time to relax after an action-packed day.
Eating in Yellowstone
Yellowstone in the Snow
Yellowstone is a marvel during the winter: Steam erupts from acres of glittering snow and bison cozy up to thermal pools to bask in the warmth, their shaggy coats riddled with ice. Most park roads are closed during this time, so the best (non-motorized) way to see Yellowstone in the winter is via cross-country ski or snowshoe. Commercial snow coaches and snowmobile tours allow you to cruise over the snow at brisker speeds, taking in the unspoiled wilderness panoramas and potential elk, wolf, otter, and coyote sightings.
Check the National Park Service website for a full list of winter activities in Yellowstone, as well as listings for approved commercial tour operators.
Feel like a cozy stay within the park? Watch the snow sift down as you enjoy a glass of wine in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Built in a rustic style, yet full of modern touches, the lodge provides the perfect respite from chilly outdoor adventures.