Updated: Nov 8
In May of 2023 my wife and I were heading to Washington to spend the summer exploring the North Cascades and were passing within an hour’s drive of Yellowstone National Park and so decided to spend a few days touring the park. Driving from the east, it’s practical to swing over route 212 (also arguably the prettiest entrance to the park) when entering Yellowstone. Two-Twelve winds its way over the Rocky Mountains and plunges into Lamar Valley (you know…where the deer and the antelope play). Folks come from all over the world to photograph the wildlife in Lamar Valley.
If you’re looking at a map of Yellowstone National Park, it’s easiest to plan your route around the figure 8 that creates two driving loops, passing by all the main attractions of Yellowstone. The figure 8’s belt connects Canyon Village in the east with Norris Porcelain Basin to the west. Once we were through Lamar Valley, we headed counterclockwise around the upper loop of the figure 8 to Mammoth Hot springs (astounding in its own right and worth the drive). Next, we wound our way down until we reached the west entrance where we stayed, enjoying shopping, dining options and the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center (yes, they have both grizzly bears and wolves at the exhibit) in the town of West Yellowstone.
The next morning, I set out to explore the south west portion of the figure 8, where the majority of access-friendly geysers and thermal hot springs reveal themselves (and their odiferous gases). One remarkable and rewarding experience was to wake up and be in the park around 6:30 (again, this was in late May) and enjoy the 35+ minute drive into the park with a cup of coffee in hand, searching for wolves and buffalo, as you wind through the emerald landscape. The way the rivers twist themselves around the puffing fog emitting from the ground thanks to nature’s steam plumbing of superheated hydrothermal vents makes for a majestic scene unlike any where else. If you like to walk, one of the best ways to stretch your legs while seeing as many geysers and hot springs as possible, is to park at either the Old Faithful visitor’s center or the Biscuit Basin parking lot and walk between the two. This stretch of hydrothermal activity is part of the Lower Geyser Basin and is chock full of boiling aquatic delights.
Continuing around the southern portion of the figure 8 counterclockwise, you’ll run into West Thumb. This part of the park is unique in that the hot springs bubble up right next to (and a couple are visible in) Yellowstone Lake.
At this point, assuming you started from Yellowstone’s west entrance, you will have a lengthy drive back to your starting point. If you have another day to spend exploring the park, I’d recommend heading back to grab an early dinner so you can be in the park early again the next morning. What you’ll find is that if you stretch your outings into longer days, a lot of your afternoon time will be eaten up simply sitting in traffic in the park. Most folks aren’t early risers, which means the park gets busy in the mid to late afternoons. To avoid long lines of road construction traffic and ‘buffalo jams’ (ya know, when those furry majestic beasts stand in the middle of the road because...they can), plan your entrance (and exit) early.
One last unforgettable place in the park is the upper and lower falls of Yellowstone. These are two splendid waterfalls with impressively grand and unique features. I could have spent an entire morning in and around Canyon Village exploring all the vantage points and walking trails to take in the sites of the waterfalls from many different angles. Again, if you’re a coffee fan, be sure to save your best sips when you’ve got the best views in this area. It won’t take long before you find them.
There are dozens and dozens of smaller places to explore, like Paint Pots (actually, make sure you see this one, it’s a magical place that feels a lot like you stumbled into the Jurassic era), that are noteworthy but not mentioned here because that would turn this blog article into a book. Happy exploring!