Steamin’ hot springs and whole lot of bison: The 10 best Yellowstone adventures
Rugged Yellowstone National Park has been kickin’ butt and takin’ names since 1872—here’s how to tackle the legend and live to Snapchat about it.
Some things are overrated—pants, the Winter Olympics, Y2K... In the case of Yellowstone, the hype is 1,000 percent deserved. From gushing geysers to painted cliffs, the majesty of America’s first national park will bring you to your knees, no matter the season. Situated on a slumbering volcano and home to proud predators like mountain lions, coyotes, wolves and grizzly bears (note: keep your picnic basket close), the 2.2 million-acre park invites adventure—the moustachioed ghost of Teddy Roosevelt dares you.
1. Swim and soak in Boiling River
The name isn’t exactly inviting, but the water sure is. Created by hydrothermal runoff that flows from Mammoth Hot Springs into Gardiner River, this swirling crossroads of “not too hot, not too cold” perfection offers the chance to soak and wade in a cluster of pools amid rolling Montana foothills. Don’t expect to find ton of signage along the major roadways, though—this natural hot tub keeps a low profile. Find the trailhead halfway between the towns of Gardiner and Mammoth, then head an easy half-mile down a well-marked path that leads right to the water’s edge (see rising puffs of steam? You’re close). The only thing that could make a soak in Mother Nature’s jacuzzi even more pleasant? Front row views of grazing elk, bighorn sheep or pronghorn antelope in the surrounding canyons and crags.
2. Watch the waterworks at Old Faithful
Let’s get two myths about Old Faithful out of the way: It’s not the largest geyser in the park, and it doesn’t exactly erupt on the hour, every hour (this is nature, after all, not a cuckoo clock). But here’s one thing that’s not a myth: Watching Yellowstone’s most famous landmark shoot 8,400 gallons of water 140 feet in the air is awesome, period. It’s like a reverse avalanche, but with H20: No matter how many times you ogle it, there’s still more ogling to be done. Head to the viewing area in the morning or early evening to avoid the midday crowds of geyser gawkers. Better yet? Stick around to explore Old Faithful’s 150 siblings spouting off in the Upper Geyser Basin, which you can crisscross via a network of connected boardwalks. Fun fact: Upper Geyser Basin is home to the world’s largest single concentration of hot springs.
3. Cry “wolf” (but for real) on the Lamar River Trail
Hear that howling? If you’re in the Lamar Valley, chances of it being an actual predator and not your overactive imagination are pretty good. Nicknamed the “American Serengeti,” this stretch of animal-studded park is home to an elusive pack of grey wolves whose presence can certainly be heard, if not seen. Enter the trailhead to Lamar Canyon early in the morning for your best chance at successful wolf spotting (or howl-hearing, at least). The route takes you along the Lamar River, weaving in and out of forests with views of Amethyst Mountain peeking through the leaves. If you do encounter a furry friend—or a few, they travel in packs—the park recommends staying about 100 yards away from Team Jacob so you don’t disturb them. Pronghorn antelope and bison are frequent valley visitors, too: spot them easily without binoculars. For guaranteed wolf sightings, make a pit stop at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, just outside the park’s west entrance. Yes, it’s kind of cheating, but—wolves!
4. Drift across an alpine lake
Get high in Yellowstone (sans the munchies) with a visit to Yellowstone Lake, the second largest freshwater lake above 7,000 feet in the world. When the ice cover breaks up in late May or early June, rent a motor or row boat from Bay Bridge Marina and take it out for a spin—but think twice before playfully splashing your fellow passengers: the water never makes it past a goosebump-inducing 50 degrees, even in the heat of summer. What this lake lacks in swimming potential, however, it makes up for in scenery and cutthroat trout fishing. Tip: Planning on renting a boat? Get your boating license before you go.
5. Cast a line on the Madison River
Speaking of fish, start practicing your wrist-flicking skills now—fishing on the Madison can yield some pretty large catches (this is “A River Runs Through It” filming territory, after all). Flanked by three mountain ranges and protected ranchlands, this an angler’s paradise with great hatches and easy wading access. Team up with a local outfitter and plan your trip between spring and autumn, when salmon and trout are biting. One thing to know before you go: The area surrounding this particular portion of the Madison River was ravaged by a fire in the ’80’s, so if a charred wood aesthetic isn’t your scene, consider casting elsewhere. But if you’re really all about the fly fishing, some Insta-worthy catches (#getaloadofthattail) are guaranteed.
6. Bike and camp on a budget
Take advantage of accommodations that won’t break the bank by traveling lightly-yet-swiftly through Yellowstone on two wheels. Veer away from the beaten path and explore some of the routes open to bike and foot traffic only, like the five-mile route down an abandoned railroad bed that runs along the Yellowstone River near Mammoth Service Road. Reserve a spot ahead of time at Xanterra Parks and Resorts’ five campsites, or arrive at the crack of dawn to stake your claim at any of the National Park Service’s first-come, first-served campgrounds. A limited number of spots at each (except Slough Creek) are reserved just for bikers and hikers. Don’t want to lug a bike across the country to Yellowstone? 1) We don’t blame you, and 2) you can rent one from the gift shop at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
7. Zoom through the backcountry on a snowmobile
Don’t let a little thing like winter slow you down. In fact, thrill seekers will relish the chance to rev things up via the slick stylings of a snowmobile. Rent one at Two Top Yellowstone Winter Tours, or better yet, book a tour to let a guide do the navigating for you. Explore hard-to-reach nooks of a landscape transformed by snow, enjoying more nature and less people as you spot typically shy animals like wolves and elks (who are also enjoying the off-season, presumably). Whether you're out for a laid-back glide or an adrenaline-inducing ride, this is a winter wonderland you won't want to miss.
8. Channel your inner cowboy
Go full-on John Wayne in the wild, wild West with a horseback ride through rugged Yellowstone, the “Magnificent Seven” theme song thumping your head as your noble steed plods along at a comfortable pace. Not the equestrian type? No worries—outfitters like Yellowstone Horseback Riding are experts at matching riders with mounts based on experience and stature. Traverse mountain trails skirting above the park’s north entrance for spectacular views, and top the day off with a campfire and sticky barbecue dinner at an authentic cowboy cookout. If getting on a horse still freaks you out, take baby steps and opt for something shorter: Xanterra Parks & Resorts offers two- to three-hour mule rides along the canyon’s rim. Either way, there’s nothing quite like seeing the wilderness from the back of a horse (or mule). Give it a try.
9. Frolic among the flowers on Mount Washburn
What do red, yellow, blue and violet have in common? They’re all members of ROYGBIV (nope! Not a boy band, guess again), and hues you’ll find in the mosaic of wildflowers carpeting Mount Washburn. Visit in July and spot more than 50 species in bloom, including paintbrush, viola, lupine and pink monkey. Choose your route to the summit by way of two trails approaching from opposite directions: At five miles, the northern approach from the Chittenden Road parking area is shorter but steeper, while the 6.2-mile southern approach from Dunraven Pass Trailhead lets you take advantage of windy switchbacks through picturesque meadows and forests. Either way, chances of spotting bighorn sheep are good. An afternoon walk through fields of swaying flowers? A great way to cap off your morning horseback ride… Just saying.
10. Ogle at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Move over, Arizona—yours isn't the only rocky chasm worth gawking at this side of the equator. At 4,000 feet wide and 1,200 feet deep, the majestic Grand Canyon of Yellowstone packs its own awe-inspiring punches, with nowhere near the amount of insane crowds as its Southwest counterpart. Accessible by two roads from the north and south sides, hit the must-see spots with a drive around this “painted” canyon, observing its marbled walls with their famous mineral tints of pink, yellow, orange and buff. It’s the famous Lower Falls, however, that really steal the show: Be sure to pull over at Artist Point for an exceptional view of this 308-foot watery giant more than twice the size of Niagara. Better yet, lace up your Merrells and enjoy the lion’s share of epic vistas on the North Rim trail, which you can follow for up to 6.8 miles.
Right about now, you’re probably getting amped about your trip to America’s first national park. Guess what—so are thousands of other people. So get a gameplan together and outsmart the crowds by knowing where to go, what to do, and when. You’ll be glad you did!