Yellowstone National Park is one of my new most favorite spots in the world! It’s beautiful and rugged and full of huge animals. The Park exceeded all our expectations and then some. Noelle here, by the way. Some years back, we went on safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa. During that trip we daily saw elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras and more monkeys than you can shake a stick at. We were in love with nature as it should be, raw and wild. I felt some of those same emotions in Yellowstone National Park, where we saw mountain goats, bison, big horn sheep and more elk than you can shake a stick at!
Again, raw and wild nature… but from the comfort of a car.
Here are my top five spots in Yellowstone.
Mammoth Campground – Hot Springs – Town area
Yellowstone National Park Top Spots
We stayed at Mammoth Campground for six nights. It’s about three miles inside the North Entrance from the town of Gardiner. Originally, we thought we’d be there three nights before moving South to the only other still-open campground at
Lewis Lake. It’s closer to Old Faithful, Grant Village and Fishing Bridge. But after it began snowing, we decided to stay put where we were, with “daytrips” to the Southern areas of Yellowstone National Park. Curiously, the rangers told us that the southern areas in the Park get more snow than the northern part where we camped.
Mammoth, the town
The town of Mammoth has a general/gift store, a hotel, post office, ranger station and Park employee neighborhood of homes. We went into the store, but not really anywhere else. The ranger station was closed, but rangers hung around outside to answer any questions and to keep traffic moving. What we liked best about the town are the elk! They hang out right in town, posing for tourists and causing traffic jams. They were fantastic! During the day, they stay in town, but at dusk they come down the hill, through our campground, and down another hill to the river. Each morning, they make the trek back up to town, presumably for the green grass lawns. They’d literally be right outside our camper as they made their twice-daily trek! What a treat to watch them so closely.
The hot springs in Mammoth are beautiful in their own way. Boardwalks and stairs make the terraces easy to get close to, but they’re also kind of crowded. Because it’s October, 2020 when we visit, everyone is masked up. I didn’t mind, because it’s pretty cold and the mask keeps my face warm. Clouds of mist loom over the springs in the cool air, giving them an ethereal presence. My favorite is Canary Spring, as it’s full of deep blue waters and layers of pools. It’s just gorgeous.
Clear Lake Loop Trail
A little bit of everything Yellowstone National Park has to offer
Another of my favorite spots in Yellowstone National Park is the Clear Lake/Ribbon Lake Trail. You can read my full description here, but what I love about this spot is that it goes through several micro-environments within a short easy hike. We did the four mile loop, which took us through forests, by lakes, along the Yellowstone Grand Canyon with waterfall views and through thermal grounds full of fumeroles and mudpots. This loop probably gets crowded mid-summer, but we had most of it to ourselves, especially on the side furthest from the waterfalls. We parked at Uncle Tom’s Point and looped around to Artist’s Point before taking the South Rim Trail back to the Uncle Tom’s. Even though we didn’t see any animals along the way, this was my favorite hike in the Park.
Yellowstone National Park Top Spots
Yellowstone National Park’s Hayden Valley is home to a huge buffalo herd. This stop is for everyone, as there’s no hiking involved! Multiple pull-outs allow visitors to park and watch the animals from your car or from the parking area. Binoculars are a must…of course, we don’t own any, so if you do and can recommend a good pair, leave us a comment below. The Park is laid out in something of a figure eight pattern, so Hayden Valley is in the lower circle on the NE side. It’s between Canyon Village, which has a great gift store and cafe, and Fishing Bridge, which we didn’t make it to.
As you come into the Park, or from any Ranger, pick up a green flyer titled “Yellowstone Mammals”. It maps areas where each animal is likely to be seen on one side, while the other lists a whole ton of animals residing throughout the Park.
So many animals near Hayden Valley!
Hayden Valley is named after the expedition leader, whose 1871 survey led to establing the Park the next
year. It’s full of fine silt and clay soil, which makes the area marshy and impenetrable to most trees. Instead, shrubs and grasses abound, bringing with them the bison! We parked about a mile north of Sulfur Caldron (also a cool spot) for our wildlife watching. There are quite a few pull-outs, but most cars tend to only stay a few minutes, so that others can pull in behind them for a chance of buffalo viewing.
While we only saw the buffalo during our visit, Hayden Valley is home to coyotes, springtime grizzlies and elk also. Some of the birds in the area are white pelicans, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, ospreys, bald eagles and Canadian geese. We drove a little, pulled over to watch for a while, then drove a little more.
Mud Volcano is nearby and worth a stop as well. Hayden Valley is full of the reasons we came to Yellowstone, from wildlife to Cooking Hillside. Who isn’t enchanted by names like Dragon’s Mouth Spring, Churning Cauldron, Sulfur Cauldron and Grizzly Fumarole? Not to mention Sour Lake, which looks like a nice place for a swim but holds waters as acidic as battery acid.
Old Faithful – Crown Jewel of Yellowstone National Park
A visit to Yellowstone isn’t complete without a visit to Old Faithful. This iconic feature says “America” to me for some reason, like I’m finally a real American because I’ve seen Old Faithful. It’s an interesting feeling to recognize that I’ve equated a landmark as being patriotic, but it’s where I’m at. Perhaps, this being an election year has me feeling more patriotic than usual. But standing in a crowd, which this year is probably only American, and watching Old Faithful do her thing roused unexpected emotions in me.
Anyway, the majority of the world’s active geysers are here, in the Upper Basin. Old Faithful erupts most often of the big geysers, but it’s not the largest or the most regular geyser in the Park. On average, it erupts about every 90 minutes, and we happened to arrive about ten minutes prior to one. We stood in the crowd, where you can literally feel the excitement building. Parents are telling children what’s about to happen, other parents are scolding naughty children, other parents are wrestling screaming children. We feel thankful for adult children! 😉
Old Faithful’s eruption lasts from 1.5 to 5 minutes, expels 3,700-8,400 gallons of boiling water and reaches a height of 106-184 feet. Watching it is spectacular!
Geyser Hill near Old Faithful
Geyser Hill is home to many more geysers, pools, fumeroles and mudpots. Pick up a booklet along the boardwalk for a self-guided tour. One geyser, not detailed in the booklet, but part of our guidebook (Lonely Planet’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks), is Chinese Spring. In the past, it was used as a tourist laundry, actually by a Japanese man. He would toss in clothing and soap, which would force an eruption. The tourist’s clothing shot out into the air with the water and was supposedly clean. This practice is banned now, but within the last week I read that some men from Idaho tried to boil chickens in a geyser. Instead of dinner, they received fairly hefty fines.
Old Faithful and Geyser Hill are certainly among my top five favorite spots in Yellowstone National Park.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone National Park Top Spots
Another of my top five favs in the Park is the Grand Prismatic Spring. It’s five or so miles north of Old Faithful and it’s the size of a swimming pool! There are two ways to view it, and we opted for the “view from above”. We parked at the Fairy Falls trailhead, which was a little crowded. It says no RVs, but since we’re a truck that happens to have a camper in its bed, we easily parked. We walked across the Firehole River on a small trestle bridge and walked a mile or so along Fountain Flat Drive to the viewpoint. Most of the way is flat and easy, on a wide gravel cycling and hiking path, with only the last portion being
uphill. We chatted along the way and arrived at the crowded lookout.
There’s a theme in Yellowstone…crowds…and our visit is in late October!
The Grand Prismatic Spring is 370′ wide and 121′ deep. It’s the Park’s largest and deepest hot spring. The algae around the edges of the spring create a rainbow of colors, which is stunning around the deep blue of the water. Visitors can also view it from a boardwalk around the pool by parking at the Midway Geyser Basin. We enjoyed the view from the lookout, but I’m sure it’s just as gorgeous up close!
Narrowing down the choices at Yellowstone National Park is soooo hard…
It’s super hard to narrow my choices of favorites in Yellowstone National Park to just five. We went on so many hikes and explored as many “pull-outs” as we could. You can literally drive for a mile and take the “next stop” to another amazing adventure, like Nymph Lake with yet another awesome name. We hiked the Beaver Pond Loop Trail near Mammoth Hot Springs. While we didn’t see any beavers, we did see their habitats along with some beautiful mountain views. We also hiked Rescue Creek Trailhead, which was mostly
flat and good exercise. Probably hot in the summer though, since there was almost no tree cover.
Another day we hiked to Wraith Falls, a quick little walk that had zero crowds! The opportunities to get away from crowds and into the wilderness are endless.
Of course, talking about my favorites in Yellowstone wouldn’t be complete without a picture of my very favorite human, big hair and all!
I’m already dreaming about returning to Yellowstone National Park for another visit. Maybe a whole summer?