We covered Yellowstone National Park in a seven-part series several years ago. This is an enhanced and updated single post highlighting the sections of the magnificent park which is also UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our journey began by flying to Salt Lake City, Utah and renting a car for the road trip. The distance between Salt Lake City and West Yellowstone, Montana, which was our home base, is 320 miles/4.5 hours via I-15. We chose to break up the trip by spending our first night in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
⇒From Salt Lake City, take I-15 north toward Ogden, Utah. Continue north toward Pocatello, Idaho. Stay on I-15 to Idaho Falls.
Drive time between Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls is 3 hours through gorgeous scenery.
⇒From Idaho Falls, take US Highway 20 north toward Rexburg, Idaho. Continue north to West Yellowstone, Montana, which is the west entrance into the park. Drive time between Idaho Falls and West Yellowstone: 1.75 hours.
Destination – Yellowstone National Park
The scenic Grand Loop Road through Yellowstone is laid out in a figure eight as shown on the map below. The highest speed limit we saw was 45 miles per hour, but that doesn’t mean much. When there are animal sightings, traffic stops. Bison jams are common, and visitors are at a standstill until the big beasts decide to move out of the way. Heavy traffic also slows travel, especially in the summer months.
Trivia: the Madison is one of the three rivers that converge near Three Forks, Montana to form the headwaters of the Missouri River. The other two rivers are the Gallatin and the Jefferson.
Other points of interest in the Madison area of the park include:
- Terrace Springs
- Fountain Paint Pots
- Midway Geyser Basin
- Fairy Falls
- Firehole River
- Madison Information Station
The Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest area of Yellowstone National Park, in volcanic terms that is. Visitors will find geysers, hot springs, mud pots, steam vents, pools, and lakes at Norris. Steamboat Geyser, the largest geyser in the world, is also located here, though its eruptions are irregular and unpredictable. Hiking and walking trails are the best way to see everything this area has to offer.
Other points of interest at the Norris area of the park include:
- Norris Geyser Basin Museum
- Norris Bookstore
- Norris Campground
- Museum of the National Park Ranger
Canyon Village Area
The canyon village area is home to the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. These are some of the most popular sights in the park.
Trivia: Lower Falls is 308 feet tall, which is twice as high as Niagara Falls, and it is the highest waterfall in the park.
Points of interest in the Canyon Village Area include:
- Overlooks on North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive
- Uncle Tom’s Trail – 328 stairs to a Lower Falls viewpoint
- Canyon Lodge and restaurant
Driving south from Canyon Village toward Lake Village and West Thumb Geyser Basin, visitors will pass through Hayden Valley. This area of the park is a great place to see wildlife and early mornings and evenings are best for sightings.
Just past Hayden Valley is Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Mouth Spring. The area is super interesting and super sulphur-y! Take it from us, the intriguing sights will make you forget all about the smell.
Some of the sights on the Mud Volcano Trail include Mud Cauldron, Mud Geyser, Sizzling Basin, Cooking Hillside, Black Dragon’s Cauldron, Grizzly Fumarole, and Sour Lake. All are aptly named, but don’t be afraid of the smells. This where Yellowstone shows off some of its best volcanic features.
Six miles south of Mud Volcano is the Lake Village area which includes the Fishing Bridge, Visitor Center, Lake Yellowstone Hotel, and marina.
West Thumb Geyser Basin Area
The West Thumb Geyser Basin and Grant Village areas of the park are located approximately 28 miles/30 minutes southwest of the Lake Village area. Located on the banks of Yellowstone Lake, West Thumb, which is a small caldera, has some of the most colorful pool features of the park.
West Thumb features hiking/walking trails (boardwalk), a bookstore and information station, as well as a campground. Grant Village includes a hotel and visitor center.
Upper Geyser Basin Area and Old Faithful
This area of the park sits halfway between West Thumb and Madison and is the most popular section of the park.
While it is not the biggest or most frequently erupting geyser in Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful is certainly the most popular. Visitors flock to the grandstand viewing area to watch it erupt, which it does about every 90 minutes.
Things to do in the Upper Geyser Basin:
- Hiking/walking (boardwalk) trails
- Old Faithful Visitor Education Center
- Gift Shop
- Eat – there are five restaurants and/or grills in the area
- Biscuit Basin
- Black Sand Basin
- Morning Glory Pool
Trivia: the chalky white substance around the geysers in Yellowstone is called geyserite.
Midway Geyser Basin Area
Grand Prismatic Spring, which is the third-largest hot spring in the world, is the star of the Midway Geyser Basin.
Excelsior Geyser once spewed hot water hundreds of feet into the air, but it hasn’t erupted since the mid-1980s. Today 4,000 gallons of boiling water per minute pour from its crater into the Firehole River.
We are including Fountain Paint Pots as a sub-area of the park because we thought the area had some interesting sights, especially the geysers. The area is located between Midway Geyser Basin and Madison.
Trivia: a clepsydra is a water clock, and the name in the Greek language means water thief.
Mammoth Hot Springs Area
The springs in this area have created a series of travertine terraces. A boardwalk trail takes visitors through this amazing wonderland of minerals, water, and thermophiles.
Other highlights in the Mammoth Hot Springs area include:
- Historic Fort Yellowstone
- Albright Visitor Center – museum
- Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel
- Gardiner, Montana
- Heritage and Research Center (in Gardiner)
- Historic Roosevelt Arch at the North entrance to the park
Note: parts of the north and northeast sections and entrances to the park may be closed due to flood damage. Check the website for information about road and trail closures.
The northern part of the park has rolling hills, meadows, and wildlife – what a thrill!
Trivia: Yellowstone’s bison were once on the verge of extinction due to unenforced hunting in the early years of the park. The current genetically pure (haven’t been bred with cattle) herd, which now numbers in the thousands, are descendants of the original twenty-four that were diligently preserved and carefully bred by the park.
The Roosevelt area of the park features Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins, a campground, and restaurant. A general store with fast food and a gas station can be found at Tower. The Tower Fall trailhead is next to the store.
Unfortunately, we were unable to visit this section of the park. The Lamar Valley is reportedly one of the best viewing areas for wolves and other wildlife at Yellowstone. Located in the Northeast corner of the park near the Cooke City entrance, the scenic drive features mountains, the Lamar River, and trailheads for several trails. The drive from the northeast entrance to the Roosevelt-Tower area is 28 miles/1 hour.
Thank you for staying with us through this long post. Yellowstone is the one U.S. National Park that everyone should get to see at least once in their lifetime. And it’s the only one we want to revisit because once wasn’t enough for us! We are going to close the post with an up-close shot of one of the formations at Palette Spring.
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Travel safe, travel smart, and we will see you down the road!
Mike and Kellye
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true products, vendors, and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own. Photo copyright infringement is not intended. Our written content and photos are copyrighted and may not be published without our permission.