The default activity in Yellowstone is sightseeing. In fact, it’s impossible not to sightsee, because the sights are everywhere. However, sightseeing can be more or less active. Some people do all their sightseeing from a vehicle (car, bus, minivan, snowmobile, RV). That’s fine, but it really limits the experience of the park. Most people will tell you there’s no substitute for walking in the geyser basins or carefully strolling along the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. In any case, many of the park’s most famous sights require some walking; even Old Faithful Geyser can’t be seen without parking the car and walking about a quarter of a mile.
|INSIDER’S TIP: Give the driver a break — take a guided sightseeing tour with the Yellow Bus. You’ve probably seen the bright mustard-yellow buses in the park. On a sunny summer day with the top down and a guide to point out highlights, this is a fabulous way to see the park. After a 50-year absence the 13 passenger buses returned to the park roads in 2007. A special project of the Xanterra Corporation (the park concessionaire), eight of the old 1930s-era White Motor Company buses were acquired groups and individuals from around the country, totally rebuilt and refurbished, The buses operate from Canyon, Old Faithful, and Mammoth with a variety of guided tours that run from one hour to all day. Prices vary by tour from around $16 to $90 per person.|
Yellowstone’s a big and for many people an unfamiliar place. While it’s possible to enjoy the park without knowing much about it, most people will get more from the experience if they have some idea where they are, what they’re looking at, and why it’s important. It’s called orientation, and the Yellowstone region has some great places to help you do it–Visitor Centers. The park has five visitor centers (Mammoth, Canyon, Norris, Old Faithful, Grant Village), and there are several in gateway communities.
Two of our favorites:
- Best overall orientation to the Yellowstone region: Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Between the five museums of this complex, almost every aspect of Yellowstone (natural and human) is covered by superb graphic presentation.
- Best in-park orientation: The Canyon Visitor Education Center, completed in 2006, has a terrific active model of the park and a good presentation of Yellowstone geology.
Sort of a variation on sightseeing, geyser hunting is the pursuit of seeing as many geyser eruptions as possible within the available time. Some geysers are relatively predictable and their eruption times are posted at the Old Faithful Visitor Center and (usually) at each geyser site. These six (Old Faithful, Castle, Daisy, Grand, Riverside, and Grand Fountain) form the core of the hunt; using their predicted times to get into various parts of the geyser basins puts you in place to serendipitously catch eruptions from other less predictable geysers. (There are dozens of these, such as Grotto, Beehive, Giant, Giantess, Lion, and Equinus). This is a pack-the-lunch and hit-the-trail activity unique to Yellowstone National Park.
Geyser hunting should not be confused with geyser gazing, which is a more systematic and generally scientific approach to watching geyser eruptions. This is for serious geyser gazers, many of whom participate in GOSA (Geyser Observation and Study Association). In addition, Park Rangers offer tours geared toward geyser gazers.
Walking — Short Hikes
In addition to walking to and from the park’s attractions, or walking the various nature trails in the geyser basins and elsewhere, there are many short (1 hour to 1 day) hikes in Yellowstone. Many of these hikes are on busy trails, some are off in the solitude of the wilderness. Most of them are easy hiking, but a few are challenging. The best part of all these short trails is that they put you up close and personal with the land and waters of Yellowstone as they have looked for thousands of years.
Animal Spotting and Bird Watching
Over the last twenty years or so, the semiorganized spotting of birds and animals in Yellowstone has grown tremendously. On any day in spring and summer, literally hundreds of people line the parking pullouts along the Lamar Valley, Antelope Ridge, and Hayden Valley, standing (or sitting) for hours with their massive telephoto lens cameras or spotting scopes. Usually there’s a cooler nearby, as well as a sense of community among these people who have come a long way to see the wildlife of Yellowstone (especially bears and wolves) living in its natural setting. Of course, not everybody who wants to spot or photograph birds or animals is at the roadside; the trails beckon to places without other people and unique views of birds and animals in their special habitats.
Almost everybody takes photographs in Yellowstone, but taking pictures or movies as a specific activity has always been popular. Today’s smaller cameras make it even easier to get off the road to hunt up the best locale or get the best angle. Animal photography in particular has become extremely popular, as is attempting to get pictures of many different geyser eruptions (see animal spotting and geyser hunting above). Yellowstone’s photogenic thermal features, landscape, animals, and plant life provide a lifetime’s work not only for avid amateur photographers, but also for professionals.
Anyone who has ever enjoyed casting a line and hooking a fish can immediately tell that Yellowstone must be a paradise for fishing. In fact, that’s a problem. Too many people have the same idea. Despite the many prime lakes and rivers of the region, the best known of them are often teeming with anglers. At one time the park had no limits, but that ended a hundred years ago. Today almost all fishing within the park is catch and release — fish are not kept, not even for eating. Quite a few areas in the Greater Yellowstone Region are still limited but open to creel fishing (and eating), but even so, the pressure from fishing and increasingly warm waters have damaged fish stocks.
All of this means that fishing as a sport activity isn’t what it used to be, compared to even thirty years ago; however, people who learn where and when to go can have the fishing experiences of a lifetime in the Greater Yellowstone Region. The fish are still around, but more limited in location.
Fishing licenses are required in Yellowstone National Park, and state licenses are required elsewhere. Be sure to check local/park fishing regulations before setting out; they can be fairly complicated and game wardens are not inclined to be lenient with interpretation.
For people bringing their own wheels, Yellowstone Park has a number of routes explicitly marked for riding: Old Faithful between the Inn and Morning Glory Pool; Old Faithful to Biscuit Basin; the old road between Biscuit Basin and the Lower Geyser Basin, Lonestar Geyser Basin Trail. Visitors can rent bikes from the gift shop at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
While some individuals and organized tours do it, long distance cycling in Yellowstone Park is not much fun, especially in high summer. The levels of traffic, stretches of shoulderless roads, curves, and hilly terrain make road cycling hazardous. An exception is the infamous Cooke City to Red Lodge run over the Beartooth Pass. Although this is also a busy stretch of highway, much of it does have wide shoulders or places to pull off and rest. It’s also a heckuva cycling challenge best left to those who are fully prepared.
One exception to cycling dangerous park roads occurs in the spring season, the period between (roughly) mid-March and the opening of park roads to vehicle traffic around the 20th of April. During this time, cyclists and others using wheeled, self-powered equipment, can travel many of the park roads (excluding: East Entrance Road, South Entrance Road, and Madison Junction to Old Faithful) without fear of being run over by the errant RV. Weatherwise this is a rugged time of year — storms (both rain and snow) and cold-snaps can turn a sunny spring day into misery if you’re not prepared. However, spring cycling is gaining in popularity, partly because it is adventuresome and highlights the wilderness feeling of areas that in summer are teeming with people and traffic.
Boating, Canoeing, Rafting, Kayaking
For those who like watercraft activity (boats, canoes, rafts, kayaks), Yellowstone provides limited opportunities. There are pitfalls (pun intended); most rivers in the park have waterfalls and pass through wild canyons. Because of the difficult conditions and to preserve the wilderness character of the area, no boats, canoes, kayaks or rafts are allowed on park rivers and streams. Stream boating is available in Grand Teton National Park, the Lower Yellowstone River, and portions of the Madison River. Park lakes are very cold all year; for those who fall in twenty minutes is the usual survival time even with life vests. High winds and sudden storms are common. Boating on Yellowstone Lake can be a special experience, but only larger power boats should attempt crossing open waters.
Permits are required for all vessels (including float tubes) and a personal floatation vest is required. Power boats are permitted only on Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake. Canoes are permitted on most park lakes, although for practical purposes, only Yellowstone, Lewis, and Shoshone Lakes are much used. A modern marina operates at Bridge Bay on Yellowstone Lake, providing moorage, fuel, fishing tours, boat rental, and marine supplies. A boating ranger station is located at Bridge Bay along with a large RV campground.
Because of its enormous variety of natural features, Yellowstone is arguably one of the best picnic parks you’ll ever see. There are 49 official picnic areas along park roads. Benches at geyser sites, available rocks and trunks of fallen trees provide improvisational picnic places by the thousands. One of the favorite pastimes of geyser watchers is to pack a lunch and go wait for a predicted geyser eruption. All Yellowstone General Stores stock the makings for picnics; most lodge and hotel food facilities have picnic food or will pack a boxed lunch.
Due to tight budgets and low priority, many of Yellowstone’s official picnic areas are in poor condition (over-used and worn grounds, grease-caked grills, dirty and decrepit picnic tables); they are still usable, but don’t expect too much.
INSIDER’S TIP: Many park picnic areas are very close to the highway and located in pleasant but unscenic forest plots. Here are three with a more exceptional location:
- Sheepeater Cliff Picnic Area (#42), Mammoth-Norris road.
- Nez Perce Ford Picnic Area (#30), Canyon-Fishing Bridge road.
- Yellowstone River Picnic Area (#35), N.E. Entrance road.
Backpacking and Trail Camping
The Greater Yellowstone Area has literally hundreds of miles of maintained backcountry trails, in fact, the distances are so great for some of the trails that only extended camping tours are practical. Backpacking and camping in the Yellowstone wilderness, the adjacent National Forests and National Wilderness Areas, are a magnet for hikers from all over the world.
Yellowstone Park has a tight backcountry set of camping policies. A Backcountry Use Permit is required for all overnight stays. All campsites are officially designated, have limits on the number of people who can use them, and are limited to stays of 1-3 nights per trip. In the park, permits can be picked up only in person and no earlier than 48 hours in advance. Permits are available at most ranger stations and visitor centers. However, specific campsites can be reserved in advance: A request for one or more reservations must be mailed or dropped off in person and must be accompanied by a non-refundable $20 reservation fee. Reservations are handled on a first come-first served basis. The reservation will be confirmed (or denied) by mail. A confirmation must be exchanged for a permit not early than 48 hours in advance. Forms for advanced reservations are available at
One thing: Not all of the 300 backcountry camp sites are reservable, which is why many people wait until they’re in the park to get campsites. Of course, in high summer season there is a good chance that favored campsites are booked. This leads to hiking itineraries stitched together in odd patterns. If all this sounds like a lot of rigmarole, well…it is, deliberately so. The park service has two objectives: Preserve the backcountry from overuse and keep the costs of management as low as possible. The result is that many hikers head for the national forests and wilderness areas that surround the park, where no such trip-altering complications exist.
Camping in the Greater Yellowstone Area has one other wrinkle: Bears. Outside of Alaska, few other areas require such vigilant precautions against bears in camp. Food and cooking supplies must be sacked and suspended from trees (there are explicit instructions on this); camp areas must be kept scrupulously clean; waste must be bagged, sealed, and packed out; cooking and washing must be carried out at distance from tents and sleeping areas. While the danger of a bear in camp is not great, it’s not negligable and becomes much more likely if the camping rules aren’t followed.
Ever since the horse made its way north from Mexico around 1800, Yellowstone has been horse country. Native Americans used them to hunt and for transport. All the early expeditions and commercial activities were powered by horse. However, when another kind of horsepower — the automobile — took over the park in 1916, horses moved into the background as primarily for recreation. However park rangers continue to use horses when patrolling the back country, and every year thousands of people take to the trails on horseback.
Horse corrals are located at Mammoth Hot Springs and Roosevelt Lodge. Guided tours and hourly horse rental are available. Numerous outfitters in and around the Greater Yellowstone Area provide pack trips into Yellowstone country.
The Grand Teton Mountains, Beartooth Mountains, and Wind River Mountains provide the lion’s share of mountain climbing experiences because of their mostly granitic composition. In fact, these ranges provide climbing and mountaineering experiences among the best in the United States. None of these ranges are in Yellowstone National Park. The mountains of Yellowstone are uniformly composed of breccias, agglomerates, and other loose rock of volcanic origin — most of which are poorly suited for serious rock climbing. Unroped mountaineering can be practiced on most Yellowstone peaks, but the park is not considered a prime mountaineering destination.
Winter season has its own activities and its own rules. Snowmobiling is probably the most famous (or infamous) of the activities. Within Yellowstone Park, the regulations on snowmobiling have been tightening, so that now all snowmobiles must be accompanied by a guide and are limited in the number that may enter the park each day. Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, is limited only by endurance and weather conditions. (Exception: skiing on boardwalks and in dangerous thermal areas is prohibited.) The same goes for snowshoeing. Yellowstone park concessionaires have been trying for decades to develop a skiing/snowshoeing reputation, with some success; but the relative remoteness of the park and the truly rugged winter conditions have limited the popularity. (This is great for those who do make it to the park in winter.) Whether skiing, snowcatting, snowmobiling, or driving (on the Mammoth to Cooke City road), the animal spotting is superlative. Winter is the time when the great herds of elk and bison congregate in the valleys (often in and along the road). It’s also when wolves are most visible (bears get to sleep).
The Greater Yellowstone Area provides opportunities for snowmobiling, skiing (both downhill and cross country), winter fishing, and snowshoeing in abundance. Major centers are West Yellowstone, Jackson, Red Lodge, Big Sky, Bozeman, and Cody.