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, with approximately 10,000 active thermal features.
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—but from a safe distance!
Our advice for first-time visitors? Keep your camera ready and your sense of wonder engaged.
Even if you’re planning to drive from Jackson to Yellowstone and back in one day, you can still pack in all the major sights. To avoid the crowds we recommend you get an early start—plan to set aside 10 to 12 hours of travel and sightseeing time. See Yellowstone's official tips video.
Starting Point: Jackson to Yellowstone Entrance
Time Needed: Approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes (53-miles) to drive from Jackson to the South Entrance of Yellowstone.
Leave around 6 a.m. and enjoy the sunrise along the Teton Range as you drive north the entire length of Grand Teton National Park to get to Yellowstone's entrance. Wildlife is up early too, so keep a lookout for elk, moose and/or bison.
- Check out Old Faithful’s next eruption time at JHT.Guide/oldfaithful when you are leaving Jackson. This allows you to time its eruption with your arrival in the Old Faithful area. Cell phone service is iffy in both parks—especially Yellowstone—so checking our site while still in Jackson is recommended. The rangers at the Yellowstone entrance will also have information on when Old Faithful is set to “blow,” too. Eruption times are approximate—give or take 10 minutes before or after stated time.
- The entrance fee for both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks is $70 for a private, non-commercial vehicle, $40 for a motorcycle. This pass is good for a year not only here, but at national parks across the country! A 7-day pass to only Yellowstone costs $35.
- Download the official National Park Service Yellowstone app and the NPS Yellowstone Geysers App, before you leave town.
- Consider packing lunch the night before to make the most of your time seeing the park and avoiding potential long lines at restaurants or snack bars.
Stop #1: West Thumb Geyser Basin (22 miles from the South Entrance)
Time needed: 30 minutes.
Take a restroom break and stretch your legs by touring the 1/4-mile inner boardwalk loop or the 1/2-mile outer loop on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake above 8,000 feet elevation in North America. This will be your introduction to a variety of geothermal features: bubbling springs of finely milled mud, multi-colored pools and steaming lakeside cones. This stop includes the Thumb Paint Pots, the deep turquoise 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.
The rustic cabin near the parking lot was the original West Thumb Ranger Station. Built in 1925, it now serves as a summer visitor information station. It is in here that you can find out the next Old Faithful eruption time. Learn more about West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Stop #2: Old Faithful Geyser Basin (17 miles from West Thumb)
Time needed: About 2 hours
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 take a ramble on the boardwalk past one of the park’s richer collections of hydrothermal wonders.
We recommend parking behind the Visitor Education Center for easy access to everything. Inside the center you’ll find posted signs predicting the next Old Faithful eruption as well as exhibits on Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features, life in these extreme environments, the volcano beneath Yellowstone and ongoing scientific research in one of the greatest living laboratories on Earth. Children of all ages will enjoy the Young Scientist exhibit room, which includes a full-size geyser model and hands-on exhibits.
The highlight of this stop is, of course, watching the wonder that is Old Faithful, so grab a seat and wait for the impressive sight of up to 8,400 gallons of scalding water reaching heights topping 184 feet. It is important to note that there is a 90-minute interval between eruptions.
Before or after Old Faithful puts on her show, be sure and visit the monumental, multi-gabled Old Faithful Inn. Completed in 1904, the inn 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 in the lobby—on two levels!—where you can plunk down in padded leather chairs, rockers and couches to watch the world go by and take in the magnificence of the inn.
Consider taking a free historical tour of the building that happens daily at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. There is also an outdoor deck accessed through the second level with excellent views of Old Faithful and the other smaller geysers that dot the landscape there.
But 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. There are several walking loops to choose from, from the 3-mile jaunt to Morning Glory to the shorter Geyser Loop walk. Learn more about the Old Faithful area.
Stop #3: Midway Geyser Basin (8 miles from Old Faithful)
Time Needed: 30 minutes
Known as Hell’s Half Acre, a 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 famous, massive Grand Prismatic Spring—the largest hot spring in the United States—extend out from its deep turquoise center.
Walk the 1/2-mile boardwalk loop and consider the hike up the overlook for an even better, once in a lifetime look at this marvel of nature.
Stop #4: Firehole Lake Drive
Time Needed: 20 minutes
Firehole Lake Drive is located about 5 minutes north of the Midway Geyser Basin. Take this one-way drive past many geysers and springs. If you're lucky you will be able to witness the Great Fountain Geyser erupting near the start of the drive; it shoots one of the tallest sprays in the park! There is also a boardwalk offering bird's eye views of the various hot springs.
- Old Faithful erupts in 90-minute intervals so before leaving Jackson, check for the next eruption time
- Download the Grand Teton & Yellowstone park map
- Avoid the crowds by touring early in the day; park gates are open 24 hours a day
- Wildlife Safety: Animals in Yellowstone are wild and dangerous. Stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards from all other animals.
- Thermal Area Safety: The ground is hydrothermal areas is fragile and thin, so stay on boardwalks and designated trails. Do not push or shove other people and keep kids close at hand; water in geysers and hot springs can severely burn you. Do not throw any objects into thermal features.
- Cell phone service is limited in the park though it may be more accessible in some developed areas such as Old Faithful and Canyon Village.
- Junior Ranger Program: Kids age 4 or older can become a Yellowstone Junior Ranger. Stop by any visitor center to purchase an activity booklet for $3 and get more information on earning a Junior Ranger patch.
- Stay hydrated! Yellowstone is located 8,000 feet above sea level, so if you aren’t already acclimated to the higher elevation you should drink plenty of water to avoid altitude sickness.
- Pack a lunch and cooler to avoid the lines
- Bring binoculars, a day pack for short walks and bear spray if going on a hike
- Dress in layers and watch for an afternoon thunderstorm
Stop #5: Gibbons Falls (14 miles from Firehole Lake Drive)
Time Needed: 15 minutes
The Gibbon River tumbles over 84 feet. Be sure to take the short path along the river; it's handicap accessible and great for people of all ages.
Stop # 6: Norris Geyser Basin (9 miles from Gibbons Falls)
Time needed: 30 to 45 minutes
Norris is one of the hottest and most acidic of Yellowstone's thermal areas. Each year new hot springs and geysers appear while others become dormant. There are quite a number of colorful thermals to check out via various boardwalks and trails. Walk out to Steamboat Geyser via Porcelain Basin Walk; it's the world's tallest currently active geyser. Check the Yellowstone app for Steamboat's eruption time, keeping in mind you might be unlikely to see it, although it has had eight eruptions as of June 2018! Learn more about the Norris area.
Stop #7: Canyon Village and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Time needed: 2 hours, maybe more!
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 ( 21 minutes from Norris Geyser Basin).
Your first stop on the way to the Grand Canyon will be Canyon Village where you can get something to nosh on and grab a souvenir or two in the various shops located there. Be sure and visit the Canyon Visitor Education Center that includes interactive exhibits, animations, audio-visual productions and real-time scientific data.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is only 2 miles away from the village. 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. Learn more about the Canyon Village area.
Stop #8: 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
One dinner option on the way back home can be found at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Lake Hotel Dining Room. Open from 5 to 10 p.m., you must make an advanced reservation. Call 307-344-7311 or use the online request form. Another choice is the Grant Village Lake House, a short walk or drive from the Grant Village lodge buildings. The walk through the woods leads to a former marina, where the restaurant provides incredible views of the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Dinner is served between 5 and 8 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis.
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 way to see Yellowstone in the winter is via snowmobile or snowcoach. 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.