Yellowstone National Park is such a magical place that has so much to offer, from fishing to hiking and even snowmobiling. The outdoor recreational activities are endless. But you don’t even have to get out of the car to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. I love animals and absolutely adored the wildlife. It is their home, their park; we are fortunate to be visitors. I will discuss the city of West Yellowstone as well as my experiences in the park. Be prepared for many pictures throughout the post!
West Yellowstone, Montana:
It was a short jaunt of five hours north from Salt Lake City to West Yellowstone. I stayed at Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park and Cabins, just five minutes from the West Entrance. If you don’t travel with a camper or want to stay in a cabin, there are a few hotels in the city but book as far in advance as possible. The city is small but has a quaint charm to it. We saw Newsies at the Playmill Theater, and it was great entertainment for the night. However, I would recommend buying tickets in advance as they tend to sell out.
Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center was an enjoyable experience and an opportunity to see grizzly bears and wolves. Depending on the time of year you visit and your luck, you may or may not see many animals in the park. I don’t consider the Discovery Center a must-see, but if you are looking for something to do outside of the park, this should be a consideration.
Bullwinkles – The food here is delicious albeit a tad pricey. We indulged in homemade huckleberry cheesecake, and it was delectable. We liked it enough to go back for more the next day. I have had elk ravioli and baby back pork ribs, both of which I would order again.
Campfire Lodge Resort – Cinnamon rolls. That’s all you need to know about Campfire Lodge. It is a short drive outside of West Yellowstone, but the food is to die for. It is a very small lodge that gets extremely busy for breakfast. If you want to go, I’d suggest getting there early. Campfire Lodge is also on your path to Earthquake Lake if that is of interest. There is a visitor center, but check visiting hours ahead of time as we went when it was closed (oops!). The history and scenery of the area is amazing, and if you are out at Campfire Lodge, you may as well stop by the visitor center. And yes, those pictures are actual size. Don’t worry, you can eat it all.
Wild West Pizza – Great pizza, great macaroni and cheese – what more do you need?
The National Park Service has a great site outlining the “expected” weather during your visit. I say “expected” as the weather in Yellowstone is rather unpredictable. As the website relates, “Expect big temperature swings, rain, or snow during every month of the year. No matter when you visit, bring a warm jacket, rain gear, and lots of layers.” I strongly agree with this advice. My visits were at the end of May, and I wore gloves, hats, jackets, and leggings.
There are five entrances to Yellowstone National Park:
- North Entrance – through Gardiner, Montana
- Northeast Entrance – through the Beartooth Mountains
- East Entrance – through Cody, Wyoming
- South Entrance – through Grand Teton National Park
- West Entrance – through West Yellowstone, Montana
I’ve had the privilege of visiting the park twice (May 2017/2018) and feel there is still plenty to explore. Both of my excursions were over Memorial Day weekend, so needless to say, it was quite crowded. The park is easy to navigate with a map, and there are a lot of road signs. We packed lunches and spent long days in the park and still left with areas unseen. As you drive through the park, you will often come across areas with several cars pulled off the road. This is a good indication that an animal has been spotted, and if you want a peek, then get in there! But always, always maintain a safe distance from the animals. I’ve seen too many people get way too close for comfort. Usually, if it’s a bear sighting, a ranger will show up shortly to disperse the crowd.
North – The North Entrance, the original and only year-round entrance, is in the city of Gardiner, Montana, and is framed by the Roosevelt Arch. There are shops and restaurants in Gardiner, but we didn’t spend much time there. As you keep driving, you’ll reach Mammoth Hot Springs – an enjoyable small town. You will quickly realize elk line the streets. There is a historic hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs that is available for lodging.
With equal access from the North and Northeast Entrances, you can drive over Dunraven Pass between Roosevelt and Canyon Village. Dunraven Pass is one of the most beautiful, scenic drives in the park. It offers spectacular views at the highest highway elevation in the park and a popular hiking trail to the summit of Mount Washburn with an elevation of 10,243 feet. Dunraven is one of the final roads to open in the spring and the earliest to close in the fall due to snowfall. Grizzly bears frequent the area, so be on the lookout!
Northeast – I haven’t had the opportunity to explore much of the area around the gate. I heard from a family friend that the drive through the Beartooth Mountains is unforgettable. We drove around the entrance briefly but not through the mountain pass. It was very wooded with the fresh scent of evergreen. I would love to go back and explore more.
The Northeast Entrance gives you the best access to Lamar Valley, notorious for its abundance of wildlife including bison, elk, grizzly bears, and wolves. Lamar Valley is my favorite area of the park. I have been very fortunate to see a variety of animals including grizzly bears, black bears, moose, gray wolves, pronghorns, mule deer, osprey, eagles, marmots, bighorn sheep, elk, bison (You won’t get far in Yellowstone without seeing bison.), and coyotes. We woke up before sunrise one day to make the trek from West Entrance to Lamar Valley (about 1.5 hours) for a chance to see a gray wolf. There was word of a den with puppies, and we headed straight there. When we arrived, we were greeted by the chilling and beautiful sound of howling from a nearby pack. We then spotted the den with a few puppies about 3/4 mile away on a hillside. It was one of my favorite experiences of Yellowstone. Once we decided to continue journeying, we quickly pulled off the side of a road to watch a small pack of gray wolves attempt a short hunt of a baby bison. Yes, it was unbelievably amazing.
East – The East Entrance brings you right to Yellowstone Lake. It’s the largest mountain lake at an elevation of 7,733 feet. Yellowstone Inn is a bright yellow beacon situated along the lake. I’d recommend stopping there to take a peek at the gift shop and snap some beautiful photos of the lake. There have been many fires in the east area, so some of the landscape is burned and still recovering.
South – Prior to entering the South Entrance gate, you will have an opportunity to experience Grand Teton National Park as well as historic Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The Grand Teton’s are majestic and truly a sight to behold. We drove through Grand Teton National Park on our way to Jackson Hole, which is a really fun town to explore if you have time. There is a National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole that is home to one of the largest elk herds on Earth. Pretty spectacular. But be prepared to drop a pretty penny in town – it’s not cheap!
West – The West Entrance is where you will want to explore if you are looking for geysers, mud-pots, and steam vents. It is the busiest entrance, so prepare for a long line to enter if it’s during peak times (usually after 9:00 am). My word of advice is to get in the park as early as possible for greater chances to see wildlife and to avoid the traffic.
Fourteen miles from the West Entrance you will find Madison – a major crossroad for navigating through the park. Along the road from Madison to Norris, you will find Gibbon Falls, a popular, and often crowded, viewing area for pictures. We saw a mama grizzly bear and two cubs across the road from Gibbon Falls. Continuing north will take you to the world’s tallest geyser, Steamboat Geyser, at over 300+ feet. Many years may pass between eruptions at this geyser, but it has been rather active over the past year.
Going south from Madison will put you on the path to Old Faithful, a must-see for most. There are numerous areas to stop and get up-close and personal with geysers on your way south. The area around Old Faithful is consistently crowded during peak season. Old Faithful Visitor Education Center is a fun way to pass the time while you’re waiting for the next eruption, and there is a clock inside with the next eruption prediction. Old Faithful Inn was built between 1903 and 1904 and is a beautiful historic log structure worth exploring.
If you continue south past Old Faithful, you will come across Kepler Cascades along Firehole River. Kepler Cascades was one of my favorite stops in the park. It wasn’t overcrowded, and the sound of the water and the fresh scent of the trees was mesmerizing.
One of the last areas of the park I’d like to mention, and one of the most famous, is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. You will come across it along the road between Canyon and Fishing Bridge. Three spectacular waterfalls can be found in the Canyon: Upper Falls, Lower Falls, and Crystal Falls. There are hikes throughout the area. The Falls are always crowded, but the views are absolutely breathtaking. I consider it a must-see of the park. There is a platform that allows you to stand beside the Upper Falls and feel the impressive power. It’s a remarkable area.
There is so much more to Yellowstone than what I mentioned in this post. Yellowstone is really a magnificent area of the country. Please feel free to comment and share your experiences in the park. I can’t wait to go back and explore!