Yellowstone National Park is a big place and exploring it by region might make the most sense. We explored Yellowstone from the east entrance and stayed just outside the park. Here are some of the things you can see and do from the Yellowstone East Entrance.
Where to Stay Near the Yellowstone East Entrance
We stayed just outside of Yellowstone National Park at a National Forest Campground just three miles outside of the East Entrance gate. It was aptly named Threemile Campground.
First Glimpse of Park
Our first day we decided to wait until the evening, hopefully when traffic was down, to do a little touring of the park. We quickly became aware of two big characteristics of Yellowstone:
1. How huge it is!
We drove for twenty minutes into the park and didn’t see an intersection. There we a few pull-offs and parking lots, but we were still miles from the nearest main attraction, which was the Fishing Bridge area. It’s bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
2. How bad it smells!
We were so surprised about this. After hearing about Yellowstone and Old Faithful for years, no one ever told me that it stunk like rotten eggs!
Yellowstone is a giant caldera, which basically means it is sitting on top of a gigantic super volcano. Thermal activity is Yellowstone’s volatile subconscious always threatening to surface – the monster in the basement, the catastrophe waiting to happen. This is what gives it all its amazing thermal features: hot springs, mud pots, geysers, and fumaroles. Click the images below to learn more about these features.
The park sits on the Yellowstone Plateau, at an average elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. The plateau is bounded on nearly all sides by mountain ranges of the Middle Rocky Mountains, which range from 9,000 to 11,000 feet in elevation.
Because of the park’s sheer size, we decided to break up our Yellowstone exploration into two separate stays. The first would be to explore the east side of the park before going south down to the Tetons, west to hit Idaho Falls, and then come back up north to West Yellowstone to visit the west side of the park.
This was so we could move our RV closer to where we wanted to explore. Otherwise we’d be driving hundreds of miles per day to see some of the further away attractions.
From the Yellowstone East entrance, we planned to hit Yellowstone Lake, Mud Volcano, Canyon, Tower Falls, and West Thumb Geyser Basin. In these areas, we would see Mt. Washburn, the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River (which are huge by the way), and a good variety of geysers, mud pots, and springs.
We went in the early mornings to beat the crowds and left before noon to avoid the midday crowd peak and let the dogs out of the fifth wheel. (We had no hookups at our campground and it could get pretty hot in the fifth wheel by midafternoon.)
Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park. It is one of the first things you’ll see coming in from the Yellowstone east entrance as you come out of the mountains. The lake is 7,732 feet above sea level and covers 136 square miles with 110 miles of shoreline.
The surface water is cold enough to kill by hypothermia, but the lake bed beneath is a geologic hot spot. Though the lake bed thermals cannot be seen from the surface, steam vents around the lake are clues to its underwater activity.
Mary Bay and Indian Pond beside the lake are hydrothermal explosion craters from long ago filled with water.
In 1870, explorers stood in awe as Mud Volcano spewed mud into the treetops, shaking the ground with each eruption. Two years later it was a pool of bubbling, muddy water. Mud Volcano had blown itself apart!
For many decades, visitors have been intrigued by Mud Volcano’s powerful order. The smell comes from hydrogen sulfide gas rising from Yellowstone’s magma chamber.
Microorganisms or thermophiles use this gas as a source of energy, and then help turn the gas into sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid breaks down the rock and soil into mud. Many of the colors you see are vast communities of thermophiles, but some of the yellows are pure sulfur.
Mt. Washburn is one of the most known mountains and hikes in the park. It is hikeable from two locations: Chittenden Rd and Dunraven Pass.
We were tipped off that the Chittenden trail was more scenic, so we took the 3-mile trail up 1,400 ft to the summit of Mt. Washburn at 10,219ft.
Along the trail, we saw lots of mountain goats (including babies!) and even some snow – in July! Magic happens near the treeline!
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is about 20 miles long and parts of the canyon are nearly 1,200 ft deep. The canyon is forever growing longer, deeper, and wider as the mighty Yellowstone River plunges over falls and erodes and sculpts the rhyolite rock.
The Upper Falls of the canyon are 109 feet tall.
At 308 feet, the Lower Falls is the tallest waterfall in the park. In terms of height alone, it’s more than twice the size of Niagara Falls. Lower Fall of Yellowstone seen from Lookout Point. See the rainbow? Standing next to the surging brink was absolutely amazing!
A short hike, and considered a must-see, Tower Fall is a 132ft waterfall that is the second most popular in the park.
The name “Tower” is derived from the towering volcanic formations surrounding the top of the falls. The ‘towers’ were created by the erosion of softer rocks and leaving the harder rocks standing.
Visitors used to be able to get down near the base of the falls, but in 1985 the Student Conservation Association, in cooperation with the National Park Service, began a rehabilitation program on the trail to the base so it was closed.
They are still rehabilitating and the trail is closed, but you can go down to the river’s edge for a beautiful view as well.
A friend of ours told us that his favorite hike in the park was Avalanche Peak. It is a strenuous hike, but the views are outstanding. The Avalanche Peak trailhead is located on the road to the East Entrance to the park at a small parking lot.
The hike is 5 miles roundtrip, and you climb 2,100ft in elevation. This is a strenuous hike that is all uphill to the summit. At the summit, you are rewarded with a million-dollar view from 10,568 feet of Yellowstone Lake, the Tetons in the distance, and the rest of the park.
Located just west of the Fishing Bridge, this natural bridge was formed by frost and erosion. Bridge Creek found an underground route through cracks in volcanic rock, freezing broke away pieces and erosion carried the rubble away, leaving the isolated rock above.
Discovered in 1871, it was made available to the public in 1881 when a trail was constructed across it. The trail is no longer open, but you can hike up and around it. A rather large tree sits on top of it. It spans 29 feet and is 51 feet high.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
The West Thumb Geyser Basin sits beside Yellowstone Lake’s West Thumb which was created by a volcanic explosion about 150,000 years ago. It has some beautifully colored hot springs that overflow into the lake, and much of the Thumb remains ice-free in the winter due to this thermal activity.
We saw a LOT of wildlife! From bison to elk, to mountain goats and even grizzly bears!
Yellowstone, Take 1
We had so much fun our first time through Yellowstone! Despite a large amount of driving we did to get around, we were marginally successful at avoiding the worst of the crowds.
Now that we knew more about the park, we were very excited to come back in a few weeks and visit the West side of the park, where we would see the famous Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Mammoth Hot Springs! But first we had to visit the Tetons.
Planning a trip to Yellowstone?
Planning a trip to Yellowstone? Check out these other Blog Posts about our visit:
Getting to Yellowstone, Which Entrance Should I Take?
Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyoming
Grizzly Bears of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone National Park – West & Overall Thoughts
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