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Yellowstone Falls consists of three falls with the Lower Falls being the most popular and the ones that Thomas Moran painted in his famous painting. (Image: Rebecca Mongrain/Seattle Refined)

A Guide to Exploring Yellowstone National Park

This summer, my family and I packed our bags and headed out on a Western National Park tour. We hit up Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and The Grand Tetons. Many miles were put on our sturdy Subaru as we attempted to eat healthy on the road while taking in our beautiful country. Come along with us as I document our journey to these three parks and share our tips for getting the most out of our national treasures. Today, I’ll be sharing our discoveries about Yellowstone National Park.

After visiting Glacier National Park, we made our way to Yellowstone National Park.

Established in 1872, Yellowstone was first National Park in the U.S. It is also widely thought to be the first national park in the world. The vast 3,500 square mile wilderness stretches across the Yellowstone Caldera which is the largest supervolcano on the continent. The park features explosive geysers, dramatic canyons, hot springs and forests along with hundreds of animal species from wolves and bears to elk, bison and antelope.

We entered the park though the North Gate or the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, Montana after a long drive from Glacier to Yellowstone. The journey takes about 7 hours but ours ended up being closer to 9 hours. We made a few stops along the way - Clyde Coffee in Missoula for our last sip of excellent coffee and lunch at Pork Chop John’s in Butte.

While there is never enough time to properly explore Yellowstone National Park, two to three days is plenty for the average visitor. The roads are configured in a figure 8 with most visitors tackling the upper loop one day and the lower loop the next. This is pretty much the route we choose to take with one exception, we skipped the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyser Basin due to extensive road construction.

Our first night was spent outside the park in Gardiner. The Mammoth Hot Springs hotel was booked and under renovation so the Comfort Inn was the second best choice. Some of our party would say it was the best choice since the hotel had wi-fi and air conditioning, amenities missing from the lodging in Yellowstone. We ate dinner in Gardiner at K-Bar Pizza where I could be heard uttering about feeding children in bars.

As soon as we drove through the arch, my heart began to race and I felt a flush crawl up my face. I could not wait to see Yellowstone again. It had been almost 8 years since my last visit. I worked at Mammoth Hot Springs in college for two summers and as soon as we arrived in the park, made my family go down memory lane with me. I took them past the sad employee dorms and talked their ears off about my summer adventures. While this was my eight visit to the park, it was only my husband’s second trip to the park and my kid’s first visit. The excitement never dulls for me though even though no visit can compare to my family vacation to the park during the 1988 fires.

The Mammoth Hot Springs terraces are ever changing. The colors range from pure white to deep oranges to everything in between. We spent time exploring the terraces on our first night in the park but didn’t venture out for any hikes. The kids were vastly amused by the herd of elk that can always be found lounging throughout the Mammoth Hot Springs area. Visitors have the choice of camping, staying in cabins or the hotel at Mammoth Hot Springs along with ample lodging outside the park in Gardiner.

Our second day in the park sent us driving toward the Roosevelt area and up to Tower Falls. We tackled a short hike at Wraith Falls which was the perfect length at 1 mile roundtrip. We also saw plenty of Uinta Ground Squirrels which excited the kids. We next headed to Mt. Washburn but abandoned any idea of a hike when we noted the elevation gain of 1,400 feet in less than 3 miles. After heading back down the pass, we stopped at the Canyon area for lunch and to check into our lodging. The newly built property hosts over 7 buildings but rooms are pricey at $300 a night. While wi-fi is available for purchase, both my husband and I heard people complaining that it didn’t work. I took the opportunity to check out from the world for a few days which was amazing. Rooms can be booked through the National Park Service 18 months in advance.

Yellowstone has 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 sites throughout the park. Five campgrounds accept reservations while the remaining are first-come, first-served. More information can be found on the NPS site.

One caveat about Yellowstone, the food inside the park isn’t that great. While it has vastly improved in the past few years, it still leaves much to be desired. Guests looking for a good meal will find them outside the park. We ducked out to West Yellowstone for dinner one night and ended up at the Wild West Pizzeria. The pizza was delicious and the beer was perfectly frosty cold.

After lunch at Canyon, we still had most of the afternoon ahead of us so we continued our drive along Yellowstone Lake. Yellowstone Lake is up to 400 feet deep and has over 100 miles of shoreline. At an elevation of 7,733 feet above sea level, the lake is the largest high altitude lake in North America. The kids kept asking if we were at the ocean since they could barely see the other side of the lake.

At the end of our second day, we decided to head back to our lodging and settle in for an early night. The beds were comfy and the room was exceptionally outfitted. Sounds of nature could be heard through the open windows late into the night and early in the morning.

I woke up early on our third day in the park and headed to Yellowstone Falls without my family. The days previous visit had been busy, rushed and packed with hoards of people. While the days in the park were close to 100 degrees, the temperature at 6 a.m. was a crisp 45 degrees. The Falls are gorgeous no matter what time of day you visit them but they were magic at 6 a.m. with no crowds. In fact, I saw only one or two other people as I sat and took in the waterfall. I also spotted an eagle’s nest with little tiny birds sitting in it. Yellowstone Falls consists of three falls with the Lower Falls being the most popular and the ones that Thomas Moran painted in his famous painting.

After returning to our hotel room, I woke my family and we headed to Norris Basin to explore the geysers and paint pots. This was the part of the trip that made me the most nervous. When I worked in the park, I worked with a ranger who wrote a book called, “Death in Yellowstone”. The book details all the horrible ways one can die in the park. With these stories echoing through my mind, I strapped my 3-year-old into a stroller and placed a death grip on my 5-year-old’s hands. We also talked about staying on the boardwalks and never going off the path. When we later saw people off the boardwalks, my oldest kid was quick to pipe up about how they were being dangerous.

Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest and most changeable thermal area in the park. Trails are constantly being rebuilt and moved due to the changing environment. It is also one of the most amazing areas in the park. The hot springs, rainbow colors and pungent smells will intrigue you.

After Norris, we headed to the Grand Prismatic Spring. On our previous visit, morning fog had obscured my husband’s view of the colorful spring and he was determined to see it first hand. The boardwalk heads through the spring and gives visitors an up and close view. It gets crowded early. We arrived shortly after 10:30 a.m. and had to wait 30 minutes for a parking spot and even then we aren't sure it was a legal one. The crowds can be overwhelming on the boardwalk but people were courteous for the most part. This is one spot, I'd recommend getting to early in the day.

Our final stop in the park was Old Faithful, arguably one of the most popular stops within the park. After a long hunt for parking, we arrived just as the geyser stopped and the crowds dissipated. Old Faithful goes off every 60 - 90 minutes with predicted times available at the visitor’s center. Guests looking for a front row seat should claim their spot once the geyser has settled down and the crowds have departed.

The Old Faithful area is packed with restaurants, lodging, visitor’s centers, art centers and natural wonders. There is a nice stroll available through the geyser plain next to Old Faithful. The crowds are plentiful at Old Faithful so bring your patience and expect to spend some time. Stop by Upper, Midway and Lower Geyser basins on your way back from Old Faithful. We spent a few hours at Old Faithful exploring the historic inn, watching the geysers and enjoying some ice cream. Almost all park concessionaires offer a nice hearty scoop of ice cream in a few different flavors - Huckleberry, Moose Tracking and even salted caramel. We made sure to sample the various flavors at the different locations.

After soaking up Yellowstone, our time came to an end. We headed south to The Grand Tetons for a few more days of exploration.