Yellowstone National Park: The Best Park (Part 3)

This is part three of a three-part series.  Click here for part one and here for part two

Our Visit to Yellowstone National Park:

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Wake up with wildlife

Our early morning routine continued on day 4, but this time, it was “forced”.  We tried to reserve the “Wakeup with Wildlife tour a couple of months before our visit, but it was full, but we managed to snatch last-minute tickets due to cancellations!  At 6:15 AM, we got on the restored vintage 1937 tour bus designed specifically for national park tours.

Bill, our tour guide was full of enthusiasm even before sunrise.  He took us through Dunraven Pass to Lamar Valley and all the way to Cook City.  When we first started, people were excited to see bison and called them out, but after about an hour, no one mentioned bison anymore.  Instead, pronghorns, elks, osprey, and some waterfowls were the focus.

Too short for telescope

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At Lamar Valley, a crowd gathered with long scopes and huge telephoto lenses, all pointed in the same direction.  There were two wolves, one black and one grey, occasionally moving around.  Bill set up a scope for us to see the wolves, which was interesting to view on the wild, but it was so far away that even with a 40x scope, it was still very fuzzy.

Most people didn’t have a problem looking through the scope Bill set up, but Loretta had to ask Bill to lower the scope because, despite her best tippy toe efforts, she was too short to see!  Bill was very nice and lowered the scope so she can enjoy the wolves.

Dedication to wildlife!

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Wildlife Watch Tailgate

There was a sizable crowd that gathered before 7:30 AM on a cold (by my standards) morning.  One group had a table and some chairs, enjoying hot drinks and breakfast, like a tailgate party!  These were dedicated and patient people who got up before dawn to wait for the animals, constantly scanning the horizon with high powered binoculars, scopes, and telephoto cameras waiting for that bear, wolf, fox, or coyote to show up.  These dedicated folks come out even in much colder weather with snow cover.  It’s actually easier to spot wildlife with snow on the ground because the larger animals are easier to see with the white background.

Another group gathered at the end of Lamar Valley so Bill decided to check it out.  There was a fresh elk carcass in the middle of a stream bed, out in the open and not all that far from the road.  A few wolves were feeding on the fresh kill and people were enjoying the sight until someone with a wolf looking dog stopped and the dog barked at the wolves and the wolves scattered into the trees.  Everyone was waiting patiently for the wolves to come back out, or for a bear to take over.  That never happened because the dog deterred the wolves and the dog never left, ruining it for everyone else.

White dots on the cliff

Bill stopped the bus as we looked up at Barronette Peak, over 10,000 feet, and spotted several white dots on the mountain cliff.  These were mountain goats that moved around the cliff with ease.  I was able to see the goats clearly through Bill’s scope but I did not have the telephoto lens to take a meaningful picture of the mountain goat.  Yet, it was still exciting to see the goats from Bill’s scope.

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Two-headed pronghorn

As we headed back to Canyon Village, satisfied with the sightings, we came upon several pronghorn intermixed with a herd of bison near the side of the road.  They were close enough to take good pictures and I even took a picture of a two-headed pronghorn!  <just checking if you are reading this carefully, LOL>  What a treat!  That was the highlight of the trip for me!!

West Yellowstone and internet

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Canyon Village restaurant – Built for large capacity

Tired of the food at Canyon Village, we drove through Madison Valley to West Yellowstone, a town just beyond the west gate of the park.  The businesses of the town were getting ready to shut down for the season, many in their last week of the season.  We were starved for good internet and West Yellowstone delivered!  We lingered longer than needed at the restaurant to catch up on all the email and news!  It was painful and often impossible to get usable internet in Yellowstone National Park.  We were so happy, but after a few days without the internet, I realized I didn’t miss that much!  Perhaps it’s OK to let loose a bit and not worry about being connected (and being distracted) all the time!

One way drives

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Firehole River by Firehole Canyon Drive

Firehole Canyon Drive, by a “canyon” carved out by the Firehole River, was a scenic one-way drive with a pullout next to a waterfall.  The entire short drive was very pretty and a hidden gem.  We saw a young man slipping and sliding down a very steep bank halfway down to the river and I was wondering why he went down there.  Was he trying to get to the river’s edge?  There were plenty of other places he could have gone to get to the river but why there?  Soon, he stopped and picked up a drone!  Drones are illegal in all the national parks and I think he knew it because as he picked up the crashed drone, he purposely try to hide it from view and hurried to his car and drove off.

Old Faithful time

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Old Faithful Inn

The day ended at Old Faithful, with a stay at the “frontier cabins”.  Sounds quaint, doesn’t it?  Well, it was a cabin all right.  Very small with just enough room for a double bed, a small bathroom, and a small desk.  It was probably smaller than some RVs but it served our need, with great location, very close to the main lodge, Old Faithful geyser, visitor center, Old Faithful Inn and the general store.  It was minimalistic but good enough for the next two nights.

We watched Old Faithful erupt, but somehow, it seemed less powerful and majestic than the first time we saw it.  Memory has ways to morph over time so perhaps it was the novelty that wore off.  Still, it was amazing this geyser was so predictable and so consistent through the centuries.  Nature shouldn’t be this predictable!  This whole area was built for large crowds, and felt Disney like!

Old Faithful was not the only show in the village.  There was a trail that went around other geysers near Old Faithful, with predicted times of eruption for Castle, Grand, Daisy, Riverside and Old Faithful.  It was well worth the walk around the southern geyser basin with a heavy concentration of geysers.

Dedicated to photography

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Day 5 was another “wake up real early” day, this time, because of photography.  As I explored landscape photography as a hobby, the term “golden hour” kept coming up.  The hour or so after sunrise, and the hour or so before sunset are the golden hours for landscape photography.  We joined the photography themed tour at 6:15 AM, just as it was getting light outside.  Sherri, our guide, stopped at several geyser areas and gave us excellent photography tips.  On the way to one of the stops, there was a bison right next to the road rubbing against a tree.  She ate the bark and lumbered off next to the road.  Lots of camera clicks for this beautiful, close up view of the bison.

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Sherri took us to some beautiful spots before the crowd arrived in the soft morning sun.  The sun was coming in and out of the clouds and the lighting changed constantly.  We were lucky enough to see a small erupting geyser right next to the road that was full of energy.

The secret to viewing the prettiest spring at Yellowstone National Park

After a filling buffet lunch at Old Faithful Inn, we set out to explore the rest of the geothermal features, including the famous Prismatic Spring.  A boardwalk circled the beautiful, blue spring but the better view was from a viewpoint on the hillside, but you can’t get to that viewpoint from the Prismatic Spring parking area!

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Grand Prismatic Spring from the overlook

The way to get there was to start at the Fairy Falls trailhead, and about 0.5 miles up the trail, hang a left at a small sign that just said “Trail”.  It goes up a hill to a very nice viewing platform that gave us a dramatic view of Prismatic Spring.  The scene is awesome but be sure to get there when the air temperature is above 65 degrees to minimize the steam that obscures the view.  We deliberately timed the visit in the late afternoon after the air warmed up above 65 degrees.  While there was a hint of steam, just enough to show it was a hot spring, it was not enough to obscure the view.

Ground level view

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After viewing it from above, we went to the main Prismatic Spring viewpoint which had a boardwalk that surrounded the spring.  At the beginning of the trail, there were steaming water pouring into the Firehole River via several mini-waterfalls.  The rocks at these mini-waterfalls were yellow and red, making it a very colorful picture.

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Grand Prismatic Spring from spring level

The view from the boardwalk was steamy.  There were some amazing colors both in the spring and the areas surrounding the spring.  The yellow, red, and white colors were in sharp contrast with the blue color of the spring.  What a pretty sight.

Prismatic Springs was a major stop for tour buses so there were hordes of tourists that crowded the boardwalk, snapping pictures and poses.  I still found it odd to see people taking pictures with their huge iPads!

Last hike

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Old Faithful Geyser

Day 6 was departure day for us but we had to do another hike before leaving the wonderful Yellowstone National Park.  We started our day with one last view of Old Faithful erupting against the deep blue sky, such a pretty sight!

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Firehole River by the Lone Star Geyser trail – serene and away from the crowd

Our last hike in Yellowstone was to the Lone Star Geyser, a 4.8-mile hike on an old service road that followed the Firehole River.  Lone Star Geyser erupts roughly every 3 hours but there were no predicted times for this geyser.  The trail was gorgeous with fall foliage and the pristine, crystal clear Firehole river.  There were very few people on the trail, another example of how to get away from the crowds in Yellowstone National Park.

Lone Star treat!

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Lone Star Geyser

This beautiful, peaceful trail through the woods all of the sudden opened up to a clearing as we heard the hissing sound of steam and water erupting.  My heart as racing as I picked up my pace.  Could it be that we were lucky enough to catch the Lone Star erupting?

The mist was in the air when we got closer as the erupting Lone Star Geyser came into view.  The sun hit the mist just right and formed a beautiful rainbow that came and went depending on the wind.  We were so lucky to see this geyser erupting.  We timed it just right!

Great company and Limping Larry

Five minutes later, the eruption ceased even as the steam continued to pour out.  People lingered to talk and we met a couple who met at each other at a campground while doing full-time RV.  While we were talking a coyote limped by just behind us.  This was Limping Larry, a famous resident of the area for the last 3 years.  I wondered how a limping coyote can hunt and get food.

Smoking lake

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Spring by Lake Yellowstone

What happens if you put hot springs, mud pots and bubbling geysers next to a large lake with mountains in the background and deep blue water?  You get the West Thumb area of Lake Yellowstone.  It is big enough to resemble Lake Superior and kick up some waves on a windy day.  The color of the water is deep blue, nearly as mesmerizing as Crater Lake.  During the season, scenic cruises, fishing charters, and private boats all enjoy this lake but by mid-September, boating ended for the season.

Against this gorgeous, deep blue lake, right on its shore, were colorful springs with steam rising from the water, mud pools boiling over, and little bubbling water sprouts.  The Abyss Pool with its deep blue clear water that showed the tremendous depth clear down tens of feet into the “abyss” was especially beautiful.

The whole scene of steam rising along the shore of a cold lake was simply gorgeous.  In the early days of tourism, a big “attraction” was to catch a fish on a hook from the cold Lake Yellowstone, and drop the fish still on the hook, into a hot spring on the lake shore and cook it.  How convenient!  The boardwalk at West Thumb made an excellent short loop that was the most picturesque boardwalk in Yellowstone National Park.

The West Thumb area had an excellent view of Lake Yellowstone.  There were hot springs right by Lake Yellowstone so we saw both the hot spring and the beautiful blue lake all in one scene.  The picnic area by the lake was an excellent place where we had our picnic.

As we drove by the southern entrance and headed for Teton, we had to say goodbye to Yellowstone.  I had high expectations for our visit and Yellowstone National Park fulfilled them and more.  I am now more convinced than ever that Yellowstone National Park is the best national park in the USA!

Impressions of Yellowstone National Park:

Is Yellowstone National Park the BEST national park in the USA?  I say YES!  The objectively ranked national park post agrees with me.  Yellowstone National Park packs so many types of features into one place.  It has mini-versions of many of the best features of other national parks, plus one that is uniquely Yellowstone – geothermal features.

Waterfalls, canyons, rivers, wildlife, mountains, lakes, hot springs, geysers, mud pools, petrified tree, arches, iconic inns, fishing, horseback riding, boating, hiking, auto touring, star gazing, Yellowstone National Park has it all.  No other place on earth has such a variety of world-class natural beauty in one place!  Yellowstone National Park is big enough to absorb the crowd that descends upon her each year.  Just a half mile into a hiking trail, the crowd disappears!

Can you tell? I love this park!

Have you visited Yellowstone National Park?  Leave a comment below on your experience.   

National Park Rating:

(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5-star ratings as 1-star ratings.  All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)

Element Rating (out of 5 Stars)
Scenery ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Variety ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Accessibility ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Touring ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Hiking ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Wildlife ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Overall ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Guide to Yellowstone National Park:

Top Attractions at Yellowstone National Park:

  • Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
  • Prismatic Springs
  • Old Faithful
  • Fountain Paint Pot
  • Lamar Valley
  • West Thumb
  • Norris Geyser Basin
  • Mammoth Hot Springs
  • Lone Star Geyser trail
  • Shoshone Lake trail
  • Lake Yellowstone
  • Firehole River Drive
  • Firehole Canyon Drive

One Day Visit Plan:

You can’t do Yellowstone in one day but if you must, you have to pick one area and I recommend the Old Faithful area and the geothermal features around it since it’s unique to Yellowstone for American national parks.

Three days would be the minimum if you want to join the crowd and only do the roadside stops.  Take the short walks, and get back to the car/bus routine and fight the crowds.  Stay at Canyon Village or Old Faithful area.  Grant Village, Madison campgrounds or West Yellowstone are the secondary choices.  Spend one day each at

  • Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area
  • Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Junction areas
  • Old Faithful plus West Thumb areas.

Five days would be much better because it allows you to take some hikes during the day to avoid the crowds, and visit the popular tourist spots in the early morning or later afternoon.  Stay at a central location such as Old Faithful or Canyon Village areas.

  • Day 1: Lamar Valley early and late in the day.  Tower area hikes in the middle of the day
  • Day 2: Norris Geyser Basin early in the day, hikes around the west side of the Grand Loop in the middle of the day, and Mammoth Hot Springs late in the day
  • Day 3: Lower geyser basin, Firehole Lake Drive and Biscuit basin early in the day, hikes around Fairy Falls and Lone Star Geyser, and Firehole Canyon drive mid-day.  Old Faithful and Prismatic Spring late in the day.
  • Day 4: Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, especially Artist Point, early in the day.  Boating or a scenic cruise on Lake Yellowstone mid-day.  Sulphur Caldron and Mud Volcano mid-afternoon, and the Lake Village area late in the day for gorgeous sunset view.
  • Day 5: Hike to Shoshone Lake and around Lewis Lake.  Visit West Thumb late in the day

Practical Info for Visiting Yellowstone National Park:

  • Book early!  Make reservations a year ahead of time!
  • Old Faithful has the most services and centrally located.
  • Canyon Village is also centrally located and had the newest lodges and services.  It is very close to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
  • Lake area is quieter with less hustle and bustle.  Consider this area if you like lakes.
  • The distances between sights to park exits are long.  Allocate proper time for travel.  The time to travel between junctions is 45 – 60 minutes
  • The most popular places get very crowded between 10 and 5.  Go to those places early in the morning or after 5.  Parking is a problem during peak hours, not to mention hordes of tourists that come on tour buses.
  • Spend the middle of the day hiking in one of many beautiful hikes in Yellowstone National Park.  You will quickly get away from the crowd once you are on a trail.  We loved all the hikes we did, including Lone Star Geyser, Natural Bridges, and Shoshone Lake trail
  • For one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset, go to Lamar Valley for the best chance to view wildlife.
  • West Yellowstone and Gardner are the gateway towns with the most services.  If you must stay outside of the park, pick one of these two towns.


Yellowstone National Park Facts:

  • Size: 2,219,790 acres, ranked 8th
  • Visitors: 4,116,524 in 2017, ranked 6th.  The record was 4,257,177 visitors in 2016
  • Peak Month in 2017: 962,404 visitors in July
  • Low Month in 2017: 10,468 visitors in November
  • Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle.

Date Visited: September 10 – 15, 2018

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