Perhaps you’ve come to Montana to stay at a local resort for a week, attend a family wedding event, or you’re a “local” with out-of-town relatives visiting. In all cases, you’ll probably consider going to Yellowstone National Park.
If so, you may try, like many visitors, to fit as much as possible into a one-day tour of Yellowstone.
Given that there’s no way to see everything in one day, I’d like to offer one primary suggestion: minimize driving. Try to efficiently visit major features, but allow enough time to enjoy them.
When accessing Yellowstone from SW Montana, you will enter from either Gardiner or West Yellowstone. Both gateways can provide you with memories of a lifetime.
The “figure 8” road system inside Yellowstone is often referred to as the Grand Loop. Gardiner is on the Upper Loop and West Yellowstone is on the Lower Loop
Top Three Highlights of Yellowstone
There are 3 major resources that people typically associate with Yellowstone.
Certainly one is the hydrothermal features. In fact, the primary reason Yellowstone Park was created was to preserve the geysers and hot springs. Yellowstone harbors the largest concentration of hydrothermal features on the planet. Early in your planning you’ll want to decide if your group must see Old Faithful Geyser. Many locals will be put off by the crowds but, in reality, the parking and roads provide efficient and quick access to those who know where they’re going. The highest concentration of easily visible geysers is in, and north of, the Old Faithful area.
Another valuable feature is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. This includes not only the major geophysical feature of the Canyon, but also the Upper and Lower Falls. The Canyon area is centrally located and includes portions of both driving loops.
The third resource is wildlife. According to visitor surveys, viewing wildlife is the primary reason people visit Yellowstone today. For wildlife, depending on season, I’ll visit either Hayden (mid-summer) or Lamar (early summer) valley, but I’ll also be constantly alert to opportunistic wildlife sightings. Take a pair of binoculars for each member of your group. If you have access to one, bring a spotting scope as well. It may be essential to turn that speck across the valley into a real live bear.
A single day tour of Yellowstone will, hopefully, include some of each of these features.
Your task, as tour leader, will be to safely and efficiently choose an itinerary that achieves this goal, without overly tiring your group or driving through the most scenic areas in the dark.
Finding Your Way Around Yellowstone
“West” is the most commonly used entrance into the Park. The majority of people will drive the entire “lower loop.” Keep in mind that it will take approximately one-half hour to drive between each major road intersection. For example, after entering the Park it will take 4 hours driving time to enter and exit at West Yellowstone if you drive the entire lower loop.
Enter the Park reasonably early, avoid stopping at the first bison and elk you see, and you’ll immediately put your group ahead of fashionably late tourists. If you enter from West Yellowstone, and you want to see geysers, proceed promptly to Fountain Paint Pot Hill. This site is a must see feature containing all four types of hydrothermal feature: hot spring pools, mudpots, steam vents, and geysers. From there head south to Old Faithful. Considering Old Faithful erupts roughly every 90 minutes, as soon as you arrive, park by the Visitor Center or Old Faithful Inn, run inside and find out when Old Faithful is forecast to erupt. Based on the predicted time, determine your next move: get out to the viewing area, hit the restrooms, or shop for trinkets. After you’ve seen the famous geyser, if you’re determined to visit the Grand Canyon, you should then proceed on to West Thumb junction and head north along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. The picnic areas along the lake are excellent for a midday break.
On the lower loop, your major wildlife area is Hayden Valley. Make a point to stop at the major overlooks of the valley and use your hunting skills to search for bald eagle, coyote, pelicans, herons, wolf, bison, and grizzly bear. In Yellowstone we often see wildlife opportunistically, but the excellent habitat of Hayden Valley increases your odds of success considerably.
A little north and east of the upper loop is Lamar Valley. Lamar is excellent for wildlife, and well known for wolves, “griz” and all the common grazing animals. If you choose to visit Lamar, which is northeast of the “upper loop,” I encourage you to not circle the entire loop itself. It will be a lot of driving.
Immediately north of “Hayden” is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Upper and Lower Falls. Depending on available time choose either Lookout or Artist point for the Lower Falls. Don’t neglect to point out the presence of osprey nests on rock formations and hydrothermal activity emerging from the lower walls of the chasm. If time allows, I like “Brink of Upper Falls” for an up close and personal view of the power of the Yellowstone River.
When exclusively driving the Upper Loop, I like to visit Norris geyser basin for my geyser experience. Steamboat geyser displays frequent “minor eruptions.” It is easy to see and very different from Old Faithful. There are numerous other hydrothermal features to see in the area. If I’m leaving the Park via Mammoth and Gardiner I certainly will do a short visit to the Mammoth Hot springs Terraces.
Personally, I feel there is a fourth feature of Yellowstone which should not be ignored. It’s the cultural history of Yellowstone National Park. Considering that Yellowstone is the world’s first National Park, and is over 150 years old, there’s a tremendous amount of history which has taken place in the area. Yellowstone tales abound, and a little research can give you lots of stories to share with your friends and family.
Any expedition needs supplies, so pack a cooler full of drinks along with the picnic hamper as you prepare to enter “Wonderland.”