Once we had rented a car (see the last post on car rentals here), we had way more freedom and immediately went to Yellowstone National Park. This was definitely up there as one of my favourite places in America and four days definitely wasn’t enough to see everything.
However, for people with limited time, this post covers some of the main sights in Yellowstone in just four days.
We definitely underestimated the time it would take to get into Yellowstone. The drive there was uneventful but there was a huge queue to enter the park so don’t pack too much into the first day. When you do buy entry consider getting the “America the Beautiful” Pass ($80 annual fee for all national parks).
Once we got in we headed to Madison campsite which is reasonably central (in all honesty it was one of the few that had availability when I tried to book). The roads within the park form a figure 8 and I tried to split the park into quadrants starting with the upper left. This meant starting with Norris Geyser Basin which is the hottest and oldest of the basins in Yellowstone. The springs and geysers are impressive and there’s a museum if you fancy brushing up on your geothermal knowledge.
On our exit, we saw our first bison and realised the warnings about the time delays were true as it stood in a crossroads blocking traffic in all directions. Once we got moving we drove north up to Mammoth hot springs. The drive there was stunning and it was an ethereal experience somehow being the only people there, alongside a handful of deer. The springs themselves are equally impressive; from a distance, they look like a huge pile of snow but close up it becomes a cascading limestone waterfall.
On the way back we stopped by artist paintpots (actually the closest to the campsite but it broke up the drive). This is a pleasant and small walk with a few large springs and some colourful paintpots. If you fancy walking to the viewpoint you can get a birds-eye view of everywhere.
This was a big day, filled with some of Yellowstone’s top sights and covered the lower left quadrant of the park. We started by driving to Old Faithful; the park’s most popular geyser. The infrastructure of the park revolves around here, with a huge visitor centre, museum and hotel (the all you can eat lunch isn’t bad).
The geyser’s name comes from its reliable eruptions, around 20 times a day, with enough accuracy that the times are posted for you to plan your route around. It’s worth a watch and you can also walk up to the viewpoint which leads onto plenty of routes nearby.
We continued on to check out the endless sights in the upper geyser basin before looping back for lunch. Some of my personal favourites were the morning glory pool (ridiculously colourful) and daisy geyser which let out a huge eruption as we passed.
After lunch we went to on a little hike on the biscuit basin trail which passes west geyser and jewel geyser before continuing onto the mystic falls trail. This had quite the incline but gave stunning views of the park before ending at the falls where you could cool off a little bit.
The route back from the waterfall was spiced up a little bit by a snake scare so we got down much quicker than we got up and drove towards Grand Prismatic. This is one of Yellowstone’s most famous springs (it was on the cover of my chemistry textbook at school).
It’s absolutely stunning and you can see it close up from the boardwalks but to get a full appreciation of the colours go to the viewpoint in the trees on the opposite side. We then continued from the viewpoint to go to Fairy Falls which was still quite busy but then if you go even further you reach Imperial Geyser and there was no one else with us.
In all honesty, this was already more than enough but we couldn’t finish the day without being utterly exhausted so we briefly stopped by the Fountain Paint Pots. It was on our way back to the campsite and, like the artist paintpots on day 1, consists of mudpots with a myriad of colours, as well as some geysers for good measure.
Be warned- this day has a lot of walking in. It was an amazing day with probably the best views of the trip but we may have been underprepared on the water aspect so bring lots! For this day (and day 4) we were staying at Bridge Bay as we had only managed to book two nights at Madison and we were at the mercy of no shows as to where we stayed.
The vast majority of the day centred around Yellowstone canyon and the upper right quadrant. We started off on the north side (not sure if it’s called that but on a map its north of the river) to check out the lower falls and you can walk along to the lookout point before continuing to the grand view and inspiration point. It may have been the time of day but this side was definitely the quieter of the two.
The next stop was to drive to the south side and check out the upper falls view before completing Uncle Tom’s trail. This is a 0.7-mile trail that leads to a good viewpoint of the waterfalls. This was the busiest part so we decided to continue along the southern rim trail to get better views and reach artists point (you can drive here but we walked).
The view here is stunning and we saw that the hiking trail continued to Ribbon lake so we kept going. The walk isn’t really long but you need to factor in that you will continuously stop to take photos of the canyon as it continues to evolve and the colours shift in the rock.
It was on the way out that we ran out of water with at least an hour of walking back to the car. The combination of dehydration and the comparison with the stunning canyon meant I was pretty disappointed with the lakes; I wouldn’t massively recommend it if you have a tight schedule (continuing past artists point was worth it for the serenity and improved photo ops though).
This took us well into the afternoon and we were keen to spend some time dedicated to watching wildlife so we headed to Lamar valley which is well known for the wildlife around twilight.
Unfortunately, we didn’t factor in that we would need binoculars so, whilst we did see a lot of wildlife, it was understandably at quite a distance. However, as we were starting to tire of squinting at animals in the distance we turned round to see a stag about 50m away posing in the setting sun.
Following that, as we got into the car we heard a commotion and saw people rushing to video a honey bear darting through the woods chased by a wolf. This was all in the space of 10 minutes after 1.5 hours of sitting watching animals miles away so be patient!
Our last day was the emptiest because day 3 had well and truly exhausted us. This covered the bottom right quadrant which is mostly occupied by Yellowstone lake so there was less available to do anyway.
Again starting from Bridge Bay campsite, we started off exploring the west thumb geyser basin trail. This geyser basin is much quieter than those near Old Faithful but no less impressive, it’s definitely worth a visit if you want to feel less crowded and have more space for photos. The trail is based to the north of the lake and we walked along the edge of the lake afterwards admiring the tranquillity.
There are also some small hikes that are signposted around the lake but as far as I remember they didn’t have a name and the geolocation of my pictures is none the wiser. Regardless we didn’t see anyone else on these hikes and it was a welcome break from the busy sights of the past few days.
It was after these hikes that we went back to Old Faithful centre for the all you can eat buffet lunch (a fair distance from the lake so do be warned). We were getting pretty sick of our boring packed lunches and definitely got our money’s worth devouring bison burgers, elk sausages and plates of brownies.
The afternoon was spent checking out Dragon’s Mouth spring and the mud volcano. The former’s name is due to the roaring steam billowing out from a cave at the base of the hill where the spring sits and is well worth checking out if you’re in the lake area.
Once you’ve had your fill of exploring around the lake then it’s time for another spot of wildlife watching at Hayden valley, another renowned spot for animal viewing. We spent the early evening here and generally used it as a chance to unwind.
Once again we didn’t have binoculars but made friends with some veterans who had telescopes set up and got to watch a bald eagle in its nest.
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I had a lot of fun reminiscing over this trip and I hope this itinerary helps you plan your next trip to Yellowstone!
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