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Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
If you appreciate wildlife, mountain views, and more thermal features than you can count, then Yellowstone is the place for you. There’s so much to see and do here, so planning ahead is essential. Possibly the most important preparation note is: do not underestimate how massive this park is. It can take well over an hour to drive from different sections of the park, and that doesn’t include the traffic jams you’ll certainly encounter. I’m going to share some information that I’ve gathered over my time working in this park in order to help you plan a perfect trip.

1. The Different Sections of Yellowstone

Yellowstone is a massive park, with each section of the park offering different attractions. It’s impossible to see everything in a day, or even a week, but here are the summarized highlights to help you plan your trip:

· Mammoth

This is the northernmost section of the park, located just outside of the gateway city of Gardiner, MT.

  • The main attraction in this area is the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces.

  • The Terraces are accessible by boardwalk trails, but be aware that there are many stairs.

  • Certain sections of this thermal area aren’t as vibrant as they were in past years.

  • Elk frequent the ground near the Visitor Center.

  • There are many amenities in this section including a Visitor Center, post office, general store, restaurant, hotel, and small gas station.

· Tower-Roosevelt and Lamar Valley

Tower-Roosevelt and Lamar Valley are located on the north and northeastern sides of the park, respectively.

  • Roosevelt is where several activities like horseback riding, stagecoach rides, and the popular old west cookout are based.

  • Wildlife is the main attraction in the area, with many of wildlife sightings being in Lamar Valley.

  • If you head up Dunraven Pass from Roosevelt, you are close to Tower Falls.

  • There aren’t too many amenities at Roosevelt, but there is a small gas station.

· Canyon

This is the area closest to the center of the park, featuring the famous Upper and Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

  • The most popular activity is driving the North Rim Drive to see the different vantage points of the Lower Falls.

  • Wildlife can frequent this area, with Hayden Valley to its south.

  • You can walk to see the brinks of the Lower and Upper Falls, but be aware that the trails can be steep or have stairs.

  • There are a lot of amenities here including various stores, a cafeteria, a grill, lodging, a post office, a Visitor Center, and a service and gas station.

· Lake

This area features Yellowstone Lake, with many different water related activities and views.

  • The Lake area also includes Fishing Bridge and Bridge Bay.

  • Bridge Bay Marina offers several different water related activities such as boat rentals, fishing tours, and a scenic cruise.

  • Bears are often seen in this area, particularly as you head east out of the park or just south of Bridge Bay.

  • There are a lot of amenities here like various stores, restaurants, different grills and bars, a medical clinic, a post office, lodging, and a small gas station.

· Grant and West Thumb

This is the southernmost area of the park, with more forested areas compared to other sections of the park.

  • This is sometimes an overlooked area of the park.

  • There are many tall evergreens along the road, so wildlife is sometimes more hidden.

  • Elk can be seen around West Thumb Geyser Basin.

  • West Thumb Geyser Basin is north of Grant, with thermal features right on Lake Yellowstone.

  • Lewis Falls is also located in this area and can easily be seen from the road.

  • The amenities in Grant Village include lodging, various stores, and a service station.

· Old Faithful and Nearby Geyser Basins

This is by far the most popular area of the park, featuring more geysers and thermal features than any other section.

  • Most of the geyser basins are located in this southern section of the park.

  • The geyser basins in this area include the Upper Geyser Basin, Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, and Midway Geyser Basin.

  • There aren’t many animals in this area due to the high number of people.

  • The ground in and around the basins is very fragile, so be sure to only walk on boardwalks.

  • There are many amenities in this section including various stores, grills, restaurants, a medical clinic, a Visitor Center, and a small gas station.


2. Personal Favorite Spots in Yellowstone

· Lamar Valley:

If you want to see wildlife, this is the place.

  • In May and June, it’s possible to see wolves and bears in this area.

  • The bumpy Slough Creek road will have up close views of large bison herds, and in the early morning is a great place to see wolves.

  • This whole valley is beautiful, especially in the spring with snow-capped mountains.

  • The fall is also a great time with the aspens turning colors.

· Swan Lake Flat:

This is the BEST place to stargaze.

  • Just south of Mammoth is a large, open area called Swan Lake Flat.

  • This is my favorite place to view sunsets and stargaze. If you happen to time your visit with a meteor shower, park in the large pull-off and look up. It’s easy to see the milky way without anything blocking your view.

· Sylvan Pass:

The East Entrance into the park from Cody, WY uses this pass.

  • While winding and very high in elevation, it’s one of the most beautiful drives in the park.

  • Mountain goats are often spotted on the hillside and can jump onto the road.

  • Small waterfalls fall onto the road in the spring, with wildflowers of all colors appearing as you approach Lake Yellowstone.

  • Grizzlies are often spotted (3 named Raspberry, Snow, and Jam are often around) near the Lake Butte turnoff.

  • Fall is beautiful, with the leaves around the East Entrance more vibrant than anywhere else around the park.

· Firehole Lake Drive:

This short drive not far from the Madison area is often overlooked, so you can see some geysers and thermal features without too many people.

  • It’s a one-way road with two main geysers: Great Fountain and White Dome.

  • Great Fountain is my personal favorite geyser in the park, with some “superbursts” that can reach 200 ft high. It’s a fairly predictable geyser, but only erupts about every 10-14 hours.

  • White Dome Geyser is nearby and erupts about every 45 minutes. If you time it right at sunset, it looks like it’s erupting fire.

· Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful Area):

This is by far the most popular area in the park, and for good reason.

  • Crowds can build very quickly, so plan on arriving early or staying later in the day when people start leaving.

  • I like to park near the General Store in order to be a little closer.

  • There are over 150 thermal features in this area, so I would recommend stopping by the Visitor Center for geyser predictions and maps.

  • The most commonly predicted Geysers are Old Faithful, Daisy, Grand, Castle, and Riverside. These times are never precise, so plan on getting to each geyser early and waiting.

  • Other geysers in the area aren’t predictable, so you may get lucky if they happen to erupt while you’re there.

  • Beehive geyser is a personal favorite, but be careful not to stand on the boardwalk right next to it unless you want to get wet. There’s a bench and platform across the river that gives you a nice view.

· Dunraven Pass:

This beautiful drive has been more recently refinished after over a year of major construction.

  • This pass is very high in elevation, so be prepared for sweeping views of the park.

  • For a stunning view looking over Lamar Valley, take the little dirt road heading up to the Mt Washburn Trailhead.

  • Tower Falls is also located on this road, but be prepared for crowds during peak months since the viewing area is rather small.

Bison in Lamar Valley


3. When to Visit

As the summer season progresses, there is a wide variety in crowds, wildlife, weather, and traffic based on the month.

· May:

Best for Wildlife and Reduced Crowds:

  • The weather can be crazy at times, with sunshine and warm weather turning into a snowstorm the next day.

  • I never saw more wildlife than I did in May. This is the time of year to see a lot of bears and wolves. I also witnessed moose, elk, foxes, and plenty of bison.

  • All of the mountains were topped with nice layers of snow, making the views absolutely spectacular!

  • Yellowstone Lake was still mostly frozen, so even though lake activities were closed, sunrise and sunset reflecting on the ice was stunning.

· June:

Good for Beating Crowds:

  • June is a nice time of year to visit the park because it’s late enough in the year for all of the roads to be open, but early enough to avoid peak crowds. The later in June, the heavier the crowds are.

  • More hiking trails open this time of year, but be make sure to have bear spray since it’s still bear season.

  • Wildlife, bears in particular, is still easy to see in Lamar Valley.

  • Park activities like horseback rides, fishing, and various tours begin to open.

  • The crowds around the different geyser basins and waterfalls have begun to pick up, but it’s still manageable.

  • Traffic is worse around areas like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic (Midway Geyser Basin), but it’s fine if you plan to go to busier locations earlier or later in the day.

  • This is also a good time to start seeing wildflowers bloom, especially around Sylvan Pass and Yellowstone Lake.

· July:

Peak Season is Here:

  • Temperatures can get very warm by this time, and lodging inside the park doesn’t have air conditioning.

  • Crowds are everywhere, so traffic can be at a standstill for hours. Trying to park and see different attractions is difficult, wildlife isn’t easy to see due to their avoidance of the crowds, and the surrounding towns around the park are packed.

  • This is also the time of year where smoke from wildfires around the country can be heavy.

  • One good thing about July is that the weather during this month was sunnier compared to other months, however thunderstorms are common.

  • If you do go in July, try and avoid the week of and the 1st week after the 4th of July. That was the most crowded time of the whole summer season.

· August:

Peak is Still Happening:

  • While the crowds aren’t quite as bad as July, they are still very intense.

  • It’s also still very warm during this time of year, so the few swimming areas in the park can be very crowded.

  • Most of the wildlife is harder to see with their avoidance of the crowds.

  • However, this is a unique month to see bison since it’s their mating season. In Hayden and Lamar Valleys, you can hear the bulls’ calls as they try to attract a mate. Just be careful since they are more aggressive if they get annoyed. THEY WILL RAM CARS if you try to make them move off of the road. Just wait until they pass.

· September:

Fall Has Started:

  • The crowds have started to dwindle (though they’re still there).

  • Temperatures are starting to cool.

  • The leaves are starting to change.

  • This is also a good time to see elk around Mammoth and West Thumb since their mating season is during this month.

  • Late September is a good time to see the leaves beginning to change in Lamar Valley and up Dunraven Pass.

  • One thing to keep in mind is that the days are getting shorter, so plan your time so that you aren’t having to navigate in the dark.

  • The weather can also be sporadic since it’s not uncommon to have sudden snowstorms towards the end of the month.

· October:

Winter is Coming:

  • The crowds are greatly reduced, making it so much easier to see more popular sights.

  • The leaves around Lamar Valley, Yellowstone Lake, the East Entrance, and Dunraven Pass are golden and bright in the afternoon.

  • Days are much shorter now, and the weather is very unpredictable. One day can be warm and bright, and then a huge snowstorm moves in the next day.

  • If you visit in October, I’d recommend going no later than the second week. Most of the lodges and campgrounds are either closed or about to close, and snowstorms start closing different roads and entrances. If you need to come later in the year, I’d recommend waiting until the winter season is up and running in December.

Overall, my favorite times to see the park are Late May/Early June and Late September/Early October. The crowds are greatly reduced, making it much easier to sight popular attractions. Wildlife and wildflowers are more abundant in June, with the roads and tours fully open. I would highly suggest to AVOID JULY AND AUGUST. Many visitors are sometimes unhappy with their time during these months, and I completely agree with them. If you must visit during these months, be prepared for warm weather, crowds, and reduced wildlife viewing.


4. Lodging and Amenities

There are hotels and campgrounds located all around the park, with the main areas being Mammoth, Canyon, Lake, Grant, and Old Faithful. An important note, especially if you plan to stay in one of the hotels is that you’re in a National Park. Amenities that you commonly find in average hotels are not common due to the remote location. That being said here are some quirks about staying inside the park:

Cell Service is VERY Limited:
  • The best cell provider for the park is Verizon, by far.

Wi-Fi is a Luxury:
  • You can find limited Wi-Fi access in the lobbies of Lake Lodge, Mammoth Hotel, Old Faithful Snow Lodge, and in the lobby and some rooms of Canyon Lodge (not the cabins). You can also usually get limited Wi-Fi in the Visitor Centers as well.

Microwaves are Fire Hazards:
  • Fire restrictions are taken very seriously, so microwaves are not allowed in the rooms for any reason. Cooking in the rooms is also strictly prohibited.

Pay Phones are in the Past:
  • Unfortunately, all working pay phones have been removed from the park at this point. You may need to drive into a gateway city if you can’t find service.

Daily Housekeeping is Not Common:
  • Often, there is not enough staff to clean every lodge room each day, so only turnover rooms are cleaned. Each location is different, so be sure to check at the front desk.

Maintenance Issues Happen:
  • Many properties in the park are very old, so there will be quirks with each one. Most issues are easy to fix, so just call the front desk so they can send someone. Please be patient with wait times, especially in the evenings.

Air Conditioning is Not Used:
  • Park temperatures can vary during the summer, with overall temperatures being on the cool side. During the day, the rooms can get very warm, but the nights are much cooler. Because of this, none of the hotels have air conditioning.

For more information regarding lodging and amenities, check out my post detailing all you need to know.

Canyon Lodge - Washburn Building


5. Wildlife

Yellowstone is home to a wide variety of different animals, ranging from bison to wolves to bald eagles. No matter what you’re viewing, keep a safe distance! Even if the animal seems calm, it can quickly become agitated and get aggressive. You can never know what you might happen to see while visiting, but here’s a brief overview of what to expect:

· Bison
  • Bison are the most common animal found in the park.

  • To see large herds, go to the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. These herds can be anywhere from a few to dozens in size.

  • BE CAREFUL around any wild animals, and bison are certainly no exception! Experts recommend keeping at least a 25 yard (30 meter) distance between yourself and bison. They seem docile most of the time, but you can never predict their movements.

· Elk
  • Elk are one of the most commonly seen animals in the park.

  • If you spend any time around Mammoth or Gardiner, MT, you’ll probably see quite a few around.

  • Like with bison, KEEP YOUR DISTANCE! Experts recommend keeping at least a 25 yard (30 meter) distance between yourself and elk.

· Bighorn Sheep
  • Bighorn sheep are sometimes hard to find.

  • I’ve had the best luck seeing them on the side edge of Sylvan Pass and near Roosevelt on Dunraven Pass.

  • They seem to spook easily compared to bison or elk, so you probably won’t be able to get extremely close. Nevertheless, please keep your distance of at least 25 yards (30 meters).

· Black and Grizzly Bears
  • Bears have been sighted all over Yellowstone during different times of the year.

  • Keep an eye out for local favorite grizzlies: Raspberry, Snow, and Jam around the Lake Butte Turnout area.

  • BE CAREFUL AROUND BEARS!! Keep at least 100 yards (90 meters) between yourself and a bear.

  • If you go hiking in or around the park, TAKE BEAR SPRAY with you and travel in groups of 3 or more. The more noise you make, the more nearby bears can hear you and will move away. You never want to accidentally surprise a bear!

· Wolves
  • While the winter is a better time of year to see wolves, there is still a good chance of seeing them during the summer season.

  • The most commonly seen packs seem to be the Junction Butte pack in Lamar Valley (near Slough Creek) and the Wapiti Lake pack in Hayden Valley.

  • Keep at least 100 yards (90 meters) between yourself and a wolf!

For more information regarding different wildlife and tips, check out my post detailing all you need to know.

Bison Near Mud Volcano


Overall, Yellowstone is like no other place in the world. There's so much to see and do that you could spend a whole lifetime here. Just remember to treat it with respect. We are only visitors.

"A thousand Yellowstone wonders are calling. Look up and down and round about you. " - John Muir

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