Get up into the Mountain West and discover one of the frontiers that makes this country a treasure. We recently took a day trip to Yellowstone National Park and I felt like I had just visited 20 different planets by the time I was done. Be forewarned – there is no cell service available in the majority of the park. They hand you a trusty map at the entrance and send you on your way to explore. I’m the kind of girl who does Rome in a day, so here’s how we got the most from our experience!
Yellow Stone Map
Before we left, we downloaded a terrific map and guide from Dirt in My Shoes, created by Ash. Ash is a Park Ranger who frequently has given many tours of Yellowstone National Park, so her advice was on the money! (Get her downloadable itinerary for as low as $5.) Her can’t-miss spots were tried-and-true. My sister lives nearby in Idaho, so we didn’t need a place to stay, which was nice. If you aren’t interested in camping, I suggest staying at an Airbnb nearby for a fraction of the cost of a hotel. (Use this link to save $40 off of your Airbnb stay!) The park entrance fee is $35 per car, but it is good for 7 days. Make sure to hold on to your receipt! We were glad we started from the West entrance and headed north, saving Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic for last. We started seeing animals in their natural habitat right off the bat. I’m not big on zoos, but there really is something to be said for bison, elk, or bears casually eating or walking alongside the road. Take pictures of everything and give yourself time to soak in the scenery.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Going in the beginning of summer was also a great choice. You will visit so many different types of terrain and see a variety of landscapes. Our original day trip guide recommended we do only the lower of the two loops, but we skipped the middle road and did one big loop instead. Near the top west side of the loop is Mammoth Hot Springs, one of my favorite stops of the day. Yellowstone is basically one big volcanic hot spot. Mammoth hot springs is the result of rain and melted snow seeping into the earth and then rising back up. There is a molten magma chamber deep underground that dissolves large quantities of limestone on its way up through the rock layers. This creates a snowy looking white waterfall against a dark mountain backdrop. So eerie and beautiful!
In addition, there are many waterfalls that you can hike to or simply pull off the road and visit. Tower Falls is on the top east side of the loop and is next to a parking lot and cafe. You can park and meander up an easy path to view the falls. This would be a great place to stop for lunch and you can get gas about 5 minutes northwest. Yellowstone is all about stopping; they encourage it! It would be wonderful to get a few camping spots and really dig in and hike the area for a few days.
Up Close + Personal
Although you should be aware the animals are wild, they really seem very gentle and work with the travelers. One of the most fun things about Yellowstone is stopping behind a line of 2-3 cars who are all waiting for a moose or elk to cross. Everyone is always pulling into turnouts to see a natural wonder or a wild animal. We saw various birds down by the Yellowstone lake area and even a few bears. It’s a combination of navigating the road with your map and keeping your eyes peeled for animals you haven’t seen yet!
At first, I didn’t think I would mind if we missed seeing one of the most predictable of all geysers in the park. As chance would have it, we got separated near the end of our trip. We ended up meeting at Old Faithful and were totally wowed by the natural phenomenon that is a geyser! It erupts at almost exactly every 90 minutes, but there is plenty to do in the surrounding area if you arrive a little late. This is the perfect time to grab dinner and relax for a little while. We also packed picnic food and road snacks (which is a must).
Grand Prismatic Spring
I loved the route we took because we ended at the Grand Prismatic Spring at sunset. The Grand Prismatic is a new hike in Yellowstone National Park and is totally Instagram-worthy! It is the largest hot spring in the US and the third largest in the world. Most pictures show off it’s rainbow-like prism colors, but we found most of that covered in steam. Instead, the sunset provided most of the color and it was a gorgeous walk combined with silhouettes and reflections. Total highlight of the day and perfect note to end on.
Other Notable Stops
Take the kids along or road trip alone – it’s fun either way! Multiple stops makes Yellowstone National Park a road trip where you get out and stretch your legs as your heart desires. Finally, be sure to stop at a few of our other favorite spots as you take the grand loop. Our favorites included (going north along the loop): Twin Lakes, Petrified Tree, Mud Volcano, and Dragon’s Breath. The last two are fun and totally kid-approved. You will also enjoy the long, scenic drive along Yellowstone Lake near the end. Whatever you choose to see, however long you choose to stay, it will be a total experience!