Yellowstone National Park Things to Do Tips by toonsarah
Yellowstone National Park Things to Do: 632 reviews and 1,380 photos
View from Artists Point
My other tip on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone covers the sights of the north rim, while this one focuses on the south, where some of the best views are to be had. The best of all is from Artists’ Point at the far end of the road, which is one of the best places from which to appreciate the colours and the sheer scale of the canyon and spot ospreys; there’s also another excellent view from here of the Lower falls, and the overlooks are partially wheelchair accessible
We also planned to stop at and walk Uncle Tom’s Trail, which sounded great on the trail leaflet (“an unparalleled canyon and waterfall experience”) but were put off by torrential rain and a storm. Oh well, another time!
Lower Falls, Yellowstone Canyon
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone should be high on every visitor’s list I think. It was a bit of a revelation to me – I’d come to Yellowstone to see the geysers and other similar phenomena and hadn’t appreciated how much else the park had to offer. While the canyon isn’t as large or as dramatic as the Grand Canyon itself (and frankly not as good) it is still an incredible sight and worth spending some time exploring. Two roads follow the canyon; one on the north rim and one on the south (you have to return to the main road between your visits to each rim). This tip covers the north rim; I've written a separate one for the south.
On the north rim we stopped at:
- Inspiration Point at the far end of the road – this is the best place to get a general overview of the canyon, for which you’ll need to walk down about 55 steps
- Lookout Point – here we found excellent views of the Lower Falls, with ospreys circulating in the canyon below.
- Brink of the Upper Falls – there's a short walk and some steps down which take you to a point where you’re pretty close to the water’s edge (close enough to feel the spray and get some good photos)
At Steamboat Point on the northern shore of Lake Yellowstone we had our last view of the geo-thermal activity of Yellowstone before leaving the park. The hissing and roaring of Steamboat Springs made an appropriate farewell to Yellowstone, and beyond the springs we had a great view across the lake to Lake Yellowstone Hotel where we’d spent the last couple of nights, and to West Thumb where, coincidentally, we’d had our first sight of the magic of Yellowstone a few days previously.
Nearby you can drive one mile up a side road to Lake Butte for even more spectacular views of the Lake and the surrounding mountains, including the Grand Teton range to the south.
Directions: A few miles east of Fishing Bridge on the road to (or from) the East Entrance
Early morning, Lake Yellowstone
Lake Yellowstone is a real bonus sight. OK you come to Yellowstone to see the geysers and hot springs etc, but this beautiful stretch of water is worth a visit in its own right. Staying at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel we were in a great place to see it several weathers, rain and sun, and at various times of day, of which early morning was my favourite. None of my photos could capture the beautiful light on the hills beyond the lake, but I enjoyed trying!
Around the edges of the Lake the most famous sights are West Thumb Geyser Basin, Fishing Bridge and Steamboat Springs, all of which are well worth seeing – but do take time to appreciate the lake itself too!
The lake has a surface area of 132 square miles and is therefore the largest lake at high elevation (i.e., more than 7,000 ft.) in North America. It is roughly 20 miles long and 14 miles wide, with 141 miles of shoreline. It is frozen nearly half the year (late December or early January through to late May or early June).
Directions: Directions not really needed for something that takes up this much room in the park! Just make sure you don't spend all your time at Old Faithful because if you do you'll miss this lovely spot.
The Yellowstone at Calcite Springs
At this overlook just south of Tower Junction a short boardwalk takes you to a point overlooking The Narrows. This is the most northerly look possible at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Here the river is 500 feet below (not recommended for sufferers from vertigo) and the steep basalt column cliffs on the opposite side of the river, remnants of an ancient lava flow, are home to osprey and hawks. The dramatic scenery here inspired the artist Moran; his paintings of this scene were among those presented to Congress in 1872, leading to the establishment of the park.
Directions: Look for the turning on the left a mile or so south of Tower
The Undine Falls are less well-known than many of the other features of Yellowstone but are worth a stop to see. The roadside pull-off offers good views of these two tiered falls located on Lava Creek. The upper section of the falls is 60 feet high and the lower 50 feet. Beyond the falls you can see the mouth of Lava Creek Canyon.
Directions: 4 miles east of Mammoth in the northwest area of the park, on the main road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower-Roosevelt
Elk on Opal Terrace (photo by Chris)
The Lower Terraces at Mammoth can be seen from the viewpoints on the Upper Terrace drive but are best explored on foot, either from there or from the parking lots on the main loop road below. The main features are the terraces themselves (Mound, Jupiter and Minerva, plus Opal on the other side of the road); a number of springs including the colourful Palette Spring; and the weird Liberty Cap formation, a 37 foot high outcrop said to resemble the knitted caps worn by freedom fighters in the French Revolution – though it looked like something rather different to me ;)
The highlight of our visit to Mammoth was the patient posing of a bull elk on Opal Terrace who allowed us to take loads of photos while he (I suspect) warmed his back-side on what was a rather miserable, damp day.
Directions: Mammoth is towards the northern end of the park. You can't miss it - after the Old Faithful area this was the most crowded place we visited in Yellowstone!
Orange Spring Mound
The Upper Terrace Drive at Mammoth is a one-way loop road about 2 miles in length. It’s very winding and only cars are allowed (i.e. no RVs or buses). It provides access to a number of viewing points overlooking the travertine terraces below, some short boardwalks, and a number of features otherwise hidden from view by the trees.
I particularly liked the short stroll to Canary Spring which is great for capturing those bleak landscape photos (dead trees, haunting colours), and offers a glimpse of how the terraces are being constantly created. More fantastic colours can be seen on Orange Spring Mound, one of the features on the back road.
Directions: The Upper Terrace Drive leaves the main northern loop road just south of the main Mammoth area
Mammoth Hot Springs area is the place to visit if you want to get a good sense of the way in which the geological formations of Yellowstone are being continuously created and shaped by the power of the forces below. Here the travertine formations create a series of white terraces and ledges, as seen on many images of Yellowstone. Apparently these formations change much more rapidly than others in the park and consequently the experience can be different for each visitor. As the park website warns:
"the location of springs and the rate of flow changes daily, "on-again-off-again" is the rule, and the overall volume of water discharged by all of the springs fluctuates little."
I confess I was a little disappointed in the terraces' overall appearance as on our visit so few had water in them or running through, so they looked fairly lifeless – an impression strengthened by the gloomy weather that day. Nevertheless this area is still a must on any tour of Yellowstone precisely because it is so different. And our day was made by the sighting of a bull elk posing patiently for those tourists who’d braved the showers.
There are two areas of Mammoth to be explored: the Upper Terraces which you can tour on a one-way loop road, with several good stopping places, and the Lower Terraces, best seen on foot. As there is so much to see I’ve written separate tips on each of these.
Directions: Northern section of the park
Part of the Norris Geyser complex, the Back Basin is an extensive area of geysers, fumeroles etc. A 1.5 mile trail of boardwalk and dirt encircles the basin and leads past a number of features scattered among the trees. The first one you come to is Emerald Spring, a deep blue-green in colour. The next, Steamboat Geyser, is at its highest the world’s tallest active geyser, but these dramatic eruptions are rare. However is is a pretty regular performer and we saw it in action spouting to about 30 feet. Nearby Cistern Spring is a lovely blue pool surrounded by dead trees. Towards the end of this trail you get some great views of the other half of Norris below: Porcelain Basin.
The various features of the Back Basin are more spread out than in some of the other basins which means that this walk is a little less travelled and consequently offers an opportunity to get away from the crowds – although you’re unlikely to find yourself completely on your own.
Directions: Norris is almost in the middle of the park, at the junction of the two loop roads
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