Yellowstone is one of our favorite national parks. We have visited almost every year, and we have plans to go again this year. This park has a lot to offer, and our first time guide to Yellowstone will give you an overview of the park. We’ll even help you find all the “must see” spots. Best of all, we have detailed posts on many of these topics if you are looking for more information.
Yellowstone is America’s first national park and is 149 years old in 2021. It is very popular as millions of people visit it every year. It is also the second largest national park outside Alaska. The parks roads are set up in the shape of an 8 with 8 main areas: Mammoth, Madison, Norris, Old Faithful, West Thumb, Lake/Fishing Bridge, Canyon, Tower/Roosevelt. Our first time guide to Yellowstone does not cover each of these areas, but we have written specific posts about each area of the park, so click on the links above.
When to Visit
Yellowstone is open year round. In the winter, only the northern road is plowed, and most travel through the park is via snowmobile or snow coach. There is also limited lodging. Around March, they begin to plow the roads and most venues begin to open up in April.
We love visiting in June when you can spot a lot of baby animals. But any time between May-October is pleasant for a visit to Yellowstone and all amenities are open.
Many people ask us what to do about lodging when visiting Yellowstone. We highly recommend staying in the park. It offers easy access to many of the highlights of the park, and it leads to less driving. Staying in the park can be expensive, unless you camp, so if this isn’t an option, there are hotels in cities near Yellowstone that offer a more affordable price. Our personal preference is to stay in the cabins. It feels like camping, but with a solid roof over your head and private bathrooms. For more information on lodging in Yellowstone, visit our lodging post.
We have stayed at every location in Yellowstone, except West Thumb/Grant Village at the southern end of the park. Our preference is to stay on the East side of the park because we see more animals over there. Canyon, Lake, and Roosevelt all have cabins and lodges, as well as restaurants to make your stay comfortable.
There are 5 visitor centers in Yellowstone. You will find them located at Canyon, Old Faithful, Mammoth, Fishing Bridge, and Grant Village. The visitor centers have wonderful displays to help you learn about the park. You can also find valuable information about road and trail conditions, as well as geyser eruption times at the Old Faithful Visitor Center. We always stop at the Visitor Centers to pick up Junior Ranger programs, too.
There are also smaller information centers where you can still speak to a ranger for information, as well as pick up a Junior Ranger. These information centers are located at Madison Junction, West Thumb, and West Yellowstone.
We love the Junior Ranger program. Every national park (and many state parks) offer this amazing program to help children and adults learn more about the park and also protecting the wild. Make sure to pick up Junior Ranger booklets at one of the Visitor Centers and work on them while you are in the park. Then turn them back in at any of the same visitor centers. In Yellowstone, the program costs a few dollars to pay for the patch and booklet that you receive, but we feel it is worth it.
At Old Faithful, if your children are a little older, make sure to pick up a Junior Scientist booklet. This program costs $5, but we learned so much about the science behind the geyser and also earned a patch. If your kids love Junior Rangers like we do, then they will love the Junior Scientist program.
One of our favorite parts of Yellowstone is the animals. We have lots of people tell us that they visit Yellowstone and have never see a bear, and we are shocked! Every time we visit, we see multiple bears, as well as many other types of animals. There are a few key pointers. First, make sure to spend some time in LaMar Valley and Hayden Valley. This is where the animals like to hangout. Also, mornings and evenings are usually better for animal sightings, especially in the warmer months, but often it is just luck. For details on where we usually see all the animals, visit our Animals in Yellowstone post.
Most people come to Yellowstone to see Old Faithful. It is definitely a must see for your first visit. Old Faithful is pretty reliable with its eruptions. This geyser spurts every 70-90 minutes and the rangers are accurate at predicting the time based on the previous eruption. Check the Visitor Center when you first arrive to see when the next eruption will occur. If it’s soon, like in the next 30 minutes or less, then hang out in the Visitor Center, walk through the stores, or get a good seat by Old Faithful. If it is an hour or more, walk the Upper Geyser Basin loop and check out some of the other hot springs and geysers before Old Faithful erupts.
This is definitely the busiest spot in the park, so plan on crowds of people and parking far away. There are lots of other geysers and hot springs throughout the park. Use our Geothermal Post for details on each area.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Another area of Yellowstone that is a must see is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. This canyon is beautiful and has the yellow stones that the park is named for. It also has two big waterfalls that will take your breath away. The spot that you must visit is Artist’s Point. This is a busy spot, but is blessed with a beautiful view of the canyon and the Lower Falls waterfall. You can also walk along the rim of the canyon. There are many different places to start and end, but we think the easiest spot is from Artist’s Point. There is a trail headed toward Ribbon Lake that takes you right along the edge for a bit before heading into the trees toward the lake.
To see other sights, there is a one-way drive along the canyon rim behind the Canyon lodging area. You can also hike to the tops of the waterfalls. We enjoy stopping at all the viewpoints and admiring the canyon.
Upper and Lower Falls aren’t alone. In fact, Yellowstone is packed with waterfalls. We keep finding more and more cascades every time we visit. A lot of these waterfalls are right along the road, so you can park and walk along the paved overlook to enjoy. Others require a hike. We have written about the waterfalls we enjoy in Yellowstone on our waterfall post. Make sure to find a few to enjoy when you visit. Our favorite is Fairy Falls, which is one of the tallest waterfalls in Yellowstone, but it requires a 5 mile flat hike.
There is a lot of driving involved in Yellowstone since it is such a large park. Please remember to be patient with others, especially the buffalo who often cause major traffic jams. Other than driving along the main roads, we recommend taking many of the side drives. We have found that there are fewer people, scenic views, and unique spots that many people miss when they skip a simple drive. Here are 5 of our favorite drives in Yellowstone. My personal favorite is Gull Point Drive by Yellowstone Lake.
We encourage everyone to get off the road and hike a trail in Yellowstone. We find that this offers a new perspective on the park, and being in nature is more relaxing than traffic. There are hundreds of trails in Yellowstone, and we have not even scratched the surface, but we have a few suggestions. In fact, we have a whole post about easy kid hikes in Yellowstone National Park. We’ve even taken Grandma on many of these. Here are some of our favorites:
We hope our Beginner’s Guide to Yellowstone gives you a little bit of a head start on planning your vacation to this beautiful national park. We have created a whole page dedicated to information on Yellowstone. Check it out for more specific details.