To view an array of scenic mineral pools and geysers, visit Biscuit Basin, just a couple of miles north of Old Faithful on the road toward Madison. "There are a number of thermal features, including bubbling pools, all boiling hot and in jeweled colors, including sapphire," notes Sarah Richey, an instructor at the Yellowstone Association Institute.
The nonprofit Yellowstone Association Institute offers a variety of trips, including a four-day Pelican Valley Grizzly Bear excursion. Two guides escort up to eight participants—including beginners—into grizzly territory, searching for scat and tracks. Hands-on lessons include bear biology, safe camping techniques, and conservation. Families can choose a hotel-based program led by a naturalist, who takes you to canyons, waterfalls, and geyser basins.
The Canyon Village to Tower-Roosevelt stretch of the park's main Grand Loop drive is a 19-mile route through iconic Yellowstone landscapes, including the 23-mile-long Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and striking basalt towers.
For the best chances of seeing mega-fauna (bison, elk, moose), take one of the marked trails in the central Hayden Valley.
The Lamar River Trail starts near Soda Butte and branches off into various trails. Bring binocs and hit the trail before 8 a.m. to maximize your chances of spotting the wolves that were reintroduced to this area in 1995.
The park is home to bison, wolves, coyotes, black and grizzly bears, moose, mountain lions, elk, bighorn sheep, pika, eagles, and trumpeter swans. Yellowstone's flora includes lodgepole pine, aspen, and fir trees, and wildflowers such as Indian paintbrush, lupine, sagebrush, and huckleberry.
Perhaps the most popular photo op is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, where tawny rhyolite cliffs plunge down 1,000 feet to the roiling Yellowstone River. After his visit here, the English writer Rudyard Kipling said, "Now I know what it is to sit enthroned amid the clouds of sunset." Two cataracts, the 109-foot-high Upper Falls and the 308-foot-high Lower Falls, are considered must-sees. The canyon, river, and falls are only visible from trails and lookout points, not from the road: Take North Rim Drive, a 2.5-mile one-way road that will lead you to various viewpoints, including Lookout Point and Inspiration Point. Aim for early morning or late afternoon for the best light.
Smart Traveler Strategies
Everyone wants to see Old Faithful. To avoid crowds of other visitors, "get to Old Faithful at dawn and you'll have the place almost to yourself," says park spokesman Al Nash. "People don't realize the park is open 24 hours a day. Or go on a moonlit night for an even more magical experience." Photographers, take note: Those times also tend to be the coolest of the day, and lower temperatures enhance the steam and drama of the moment.
Schedule plenty of time to visit Yellowstone. "Most people try to see the park in a day or two, which is a big mistake," notes Nash. "This is not a drop-in-for-the-weekend kind of place, but that's the way many families do Yellowstone these days. If you can plan a longer visit, you'll have a much more rewarding experience." Stay for a week, for example, and you can spend the first two days at the "must-sees" and the rest of the time discovering the park on your terms, without the accompanying masses.
Most of the congestion in the park is on the roads, so get out of the car as much as possible. The park boasts more than 1,000 miles of trails. "You can go almost anywhere, even Old Faithful, and if you're willing to walk a half mile from the trailhead, you'll likely have the place to yourself," says Sarah Richey, of the Yellowstone Association Institute. For safety, stick to the marked trails and pathways, particularly in the thermal areas, where the water temperature is often at or above boiling.
Day trippers should make a point to stop in at a visitors center (there are five across the park) for a free map and advice about the best bets for a hike and opportunities to spot wildlife. The staff, experts at their particular corner of the park, make it a point to keep up on the trail conditions and resident populations. Bring a good pair of binoculars and/or a camera with a good zoom lens on your hikes: It's unlikely you'll get very close to moose or bighorn sheep. The best area to spot recently reintroduced wolves is the Lamar Valley, at dawn or dusk.
Excursions Outside the Park
With 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is so big that there is no need to leave for other diversions. However, outside the park lie interesting gateway towns, including Cody and Jackson, both in Wyoming. Grand Teton National Park, another headliner, is also nearby.
National Parks Photos
Yellowstone has drawn huge crowds since it became the first U.S. national park in 1872. Just what's all the fuss about?
2015 Traveler Photo Contest
Explore the submissions, share your favorites, and check back for the winning images.