After our first visit to Yellowstone Park a few weeks earlier, we realized the park was so big that it made more sense to break our visit up into two separate visits: one from the east, and one from the west.
We originally entered from the East Entrance, exited through the South Entrance to Grand Teton National Park, looped around through Idaho Falls, and then found ourselves in West Yellowstone ready to hit the attractions we didn’t see the first time.
Camping in West Yellowstone
We camped at Bakers Hole National Forest Campground just north of West Yellowstone. We decided to only stay two nights and opted for electric hookups so we didn’t have to worry about the dogs getting hot during the day, allowing us to spend more time in the park. Not that we had to anyway: the weather was much cooler than when we were visiting the east side of the park just a few weeks prior. Day time temps were 60s and 70s and night time temps were in the 40s or lower.
We were getting a little burnt out from all the activities we had been doing the past month or so and didn’t really want to be at Yellowstone Crazy-Park for more days than we really needed to. We wanted to go see what we needed to see and keep moving – we still had a lot of ground to cover through Montana, including Glacier National Park!
West Yellowstone felt like your quintessential tourist trap town. Several blocks of shops, galleries and restaurants flanked by rental companies, tour companies, hotels, and museums. As the West Entrance to the National Park, it was still over 20 miles from the closest intersection within the park.
Old Faithful Geyser Basin
Our first order of business was to see Old Faithful. I mean, c’mon, you HAVE to see Old Faithful!
As arguably the most famous geyser, this attraction draws tons of people. The attraction has its own on and off ramps to the main road to keep the constant stream of traffic going.
Old Faithful is called that because it is pretty dang reliable and predictable. It goes off regularly in intervals of about an hour and a half.
This gives you plenty of time to stroll around the other less reliable geysers in the basin of which there are many. Some go off once every year, every couple months, every week, every day, etc. but they have no idea exactly when it’ll go off. You have to be pretty luckily or very patient to see them.
We walked by people at Beehive geyser who looked like they had been waiting a while: some had brought padded seats and games to play while they waited. Beehive goes off twice per day with eruptions that spray water 130-190ft into the air! While it would be cool to see, we decided to just head back to get a good seat for Old Faithful.
Old Faithful was right on time for us, and we got quite a show with the golden evening light! As an incredible bonus, Beehive Geyser erupted at the exact same time behind it!
Leaving Old Faithful after the show was a little bit crowded. The sun was starting to set and we were trying to stop and see Grand Prismatic Spring before the light was gone.
Grand Prismatic Spring
With traffic out of Old Faithful and getting into Grand Prismatic, we were a little past prime viewing conditions. Darkness had started to fall so the bright colors that the spring is known for weren’t shining like we’d hoped. It was still very beautiful.
“Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest and one of the most brilliant of Yellowstone’s many colorful hot springs. its massive expanse stretches approcimatesly 200 feet across. The high temperature of its water – 160F – ensures that the spring is often cloaked in steam.
Deep beneath it, magma from an active volcano heats water that rises to the surface through fissures in the rocks. The result is a hot spring that pours almost 500 gallons of hot water EACH MINUTE into the Firehole River (aptly named, don’t you think?). Minerals dissolved in the hot water are deposited and gradually build the gracefully terraced shoulders of this feature.” – sign at Grand Prismatic Spring
What makes it so colorful? The blue is due to sunlight being scattered by fine particles suspended in the water. The yellow, orange, and brown colors are caused by thermophiles which are heat-loving microorganisms that have colorful pigments.
Great Fountain Geyser
As the sun was setting, we drove a back road past Great Fountain Geyser and happened upon the tail end of its eruption! (It was a very lucky evening for geysers.)
Great Fountain erupts once every 9 to 15 hours and shoots 75 to 220 feet high! The sunset colors on its remaining sputters were gorgeous. We happily waited for the sun and the crowds to leave before making our way back home.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Our early morning ride into the park the next day greeted us with some bull elk right beside the road and out over a picturesque marsh area. We were on our way to Mammoth Hot Springs which is about 1.5 hours from West Yellowstone when there isn’t construction along the way – which there was.
But the wait and the long drive were well worth it!
One of the most fascinating things about the springs is their ebb and flow. They constantly change. Long-lasting springs can dry up while new ones form and start building up on the travertine hills and forming their pools. Each one is different with varying temperatures and bacteria and color. Every time you visit you will see a different hot springs area.
Norris Geyser Basin
On our return trip from Mammoth Hot Springs, we stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin. This basin was not really on our radar, but we are so glad we stopped! The hike was beautiful and we found some amazingly beautiful geysers and springs here.
Porcelain Geyser ended up being one of my personal favorites of the visit! Its soft baby blue and creamy pink colors were fantastic.
There were seemingly hundreds of brilliantly blue and turquoise springs.
The Norris Geyser Basin is also home to Steamboat Geyser, which is the world’s tallest currently-active geyser. During major eruptions, water may be thrown more than 300 feet into the air. Major eruptions are very irregular and unpredictable. When we visited, the last major eruption hadn’t happened for nearly 2 years! So I guess it could blow at any minute! In the meantime, Steamboat entertains with frequent minor eruptions of 10-40 feet every few minutes.
The final thing we had to see was the Paint Pots which are mud pots formed when sulfuric acid (formed by microbes from hydrogen sulfide gas) breaks down rock into clay forming a gooey, viscous, paint-like mixture that bubbles and gurgles. These are so fun to watch!!
Yellowstone National Park – Overall
After seeing most of the park, we can see why it is arguable the most famous of the National Parks. It is so easy to see so many amazing natural wonders in one general place that are relatively easy to access by car (despite the long distances). It is full of wildlife, mountains, lakes, rivers, canyons, waterfalls, geysers, springs, meadows, and more. The geological features were unreal and utterly amazing.
Despite its beauty, we saw a lot of “stupid” in Yellowstone: bad drivers, people stepping off the boardwalk in the geyser basins, people dipping their fingers into hot springs, people dropping things in the springs and geysers, people taking selfies with the bison, people walking their dogs on the trails, people hiking mountains in flip flops,…the list goes on. It’s a wonder the National Park Service lets anyone in at all!
Driving in the park in the summer is miserable, and we’ve heard that even the “off seasons” are getting busy with everyone trying to get away from the crowds. There were way too many cars for parking at the attractions. There were also a lot of Rent-an-RV motorhomes that we were pretty sure were being driven by someone who had never driven an RV before, bless their hearts.
Overall, Yellowstone National Park is a must for everyone. You just have to brave the stupidity and the traffic and do it, because otherwise, you will miss out big time.
Get up early, go in the shoulder seasons, or just be patient with the thousands of others who need to see these wonders! Take lots of pictures, go on lots of hikes, seek out amazing viewpoints, and go home so exhausted that you need another vacation because it will be worth it.
…Just please don’t be one of the stupid people! 😉
Watch this blog’s corresponding video here:
Travel Stage: After Idaho Falls, before heading north towards Glacier National Park
Date Range: August 10 – 12, 2016
Summary: West Yellowstone, Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Great Fountain Geyser, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, Paint Pots, and then we share our thoughts on the most popular National Park overall.
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Saturday 25th of April 2020
Your information is so helpful! We normally don't take big family vacations, but since my son is heading to college in Montana in August, we are taking advantage of this. It's stressful trying to plan out our trip so thank you for making it a little easier!
Wednesday 15th of April 2020
We plan to go to Yellowstone September 2020 and your information is very helpful! Thank you!
Thursday 16th of April 2020
Hey Debbie! Glad you found it helpful! I hope the pandemic doesn't impact your travel plans too much this fall ? Yellowstone is such an amazing place and September would be a beautiful time to visit!