I recently visited Yellowstone, the oldest national park in the US, and am still hungover on its beauty. A disclaimer: the park is huge, and a leisurely trip would definitely need more days. Having said that, you can still manage to cover most spots in 3 days. So fasten your seat belts; its going to be a long drive!
There are multiple entrances to the park, the North and West ones being the most popular ones. We drove from Salt Lake city to our cabin near the West entrance of Yellowstone. Our adventures started early at 6 am (still not early enough) the next morning with a drive down to Lamar valley in the hope of spotting some rare wildlife. What impressed me the most was the diversity of landscape throughout the park. Sitting atop a volcanic hotspot, it has literally everything: geysers, fumaroles, thermal pools, valleys, lakes, rivers, and canyons. And there is at least one animal you will absolutely not miss there – bisons, who are literally everywhere in the park! After spotting hundreds of bisons, we covered the North loop in the remaining day: Mammoth Springs, Norris basin, Artist point and Inspiration point at the Grand canyon of Yellowstone. In case you want to cut-off some place from this list, my personal suggestion would be Mammoth springs. It was out of the way and eventually not as impressive as some other places. A visit to the Artist point is a MUST; the view of yellow mountains with waterfall cutting through them is incredible.
The next day was entirely dedicated to the West loop: Grand prismatic spring, Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone Lake, and Hayden valley. The Grand prismatic spring, and many of the other thermal pools, are beautiful compilations of colored microbial mats. The Old faithful geyser, named so because of its predictable eruption times, erupts every 90 min. Try to coordinate your visit to the Old Faithful with the eruption time of Grand geyser. The Grand geyser is in the same basin as Old faithful (10 min walk), but has a huge error window, i.e., it can go off after a gap of 4-7 hrs. If you do manage to see it, it is spectacular! Although we had just walked away impatiently, we luckily witnessed its fierce eruption from a distance for about 12 min.
The Yellowstone lake and Hayden valley are great for a relaxing, scenic drive, especially in the evening. The Hayden valley is another famous spot for animal sightings. We had given up on any possibility of sightings after waiting there for an hour with a huge crowd, all staring at a dead bison carcass across the hill in the hope that it would lure the wolves and bears. And as we left disappointed after sunset, lady luck finally smiled upon us: a wolf had killed an elk across the stream, creating a huge traffic block. We raced out of the car and finally saw the predator feast on its kill! As a bonus, a black bear came along out of nowhere for a drink, thus, quenching everyone’s thirst for animal sightings. Absolutely marvelous and lucky day; not for the elk, of course!
The last day was supposed to be a hike up to Fairy falls, which includes a point where you get a great top-view of the Grand prismatic spring. Unfortunately, the road was closed for repairs, so we had to ditch it. We drove through Teton National Park to Salt lake city. This route is longer, but it was insanely scenic! We drove through mountains and fields, amidst rainbow, sunset, and fireworks; totally worth the extra time.
Finally, some parting tips for trip planners:
- Reach Lamar valley before sunrise for best chance of animal sightings. If you are not a morning person, aim for sunset when animals get out for a drink.
- Definitely bring along your binoculars!
- Check the eruption timings of Old faithful beforehand (they are pretty accurate) to plan the rest of your day accordingly.
- If you visit National parks (even small ones) frequently, the Annual park pass, covering two owners, might work out cheaper.