Road Trips

A Marvelous Trip Through Yellowstone National Park

Words BY Zach Dundas

Wildsam

Marcus Moreno

Updated

15 May 2024

Reading Time

11 Minutes

Three days in Yellowstone reveal burbling geysers, roaming bison and more.

Back in 1872, when Yellowstone became our first national park, tales of boiling, steaming wilderness were often considered too weird to be believed. Today—after generations of family vacations and pop culture stretching from Yogi Bear to Kevin Costner—the situation is nearly reversed. The savvy traveler of 2024 might be tempted to skip Yellowstone in favor of some lesser-known, bragging-rights-y destination.

So let’s not be blasé: Yellowstone is staggering. Its 2.2 million acres sprawl into three brawny Western states, holding natural treasures of global importance. You could invest a lifetime learning its backcountry nooks and scientific secrets. (One example: NASA researchers comb Yellowstone hot springs for hints of how life might look on other planets.) All the same, a three-day itinerary provides ample time for wide-open eyes and blown minds. Here, we start in Montana and head south into this volcanic land of lore.

YOU COULD INVEST A LIFETIME LEARNING ITS BACK-COUNTRY NOOKS.

Day 1

Plan a prelude in Bozeman (check out Mountains Walking Brewing) or Livingston (Elk River Books, The Murray Hotel) to catch the Big Sky Country spirit
of outdoorsy quirk. The Paradise Valley gives a preview of the grandeur that awaits—Montanans always try to work in a soak at Chico Hot Springs. In the village of Gardiner, where Yellowstone begins, Flying Pig Adventures can get you out on the free-flowing Yellowstone River for half-day blasts of whitewater rafting. The Roosevelt Arch, dedicated in 1903 by the titular Teddy, marks the park’s north entrance. Two years ago, historic floods wrecked the entrance road beyond; today an old stagecoach path, paved and widened, leads to the bone-white and rust-orange mineral formations at Mammoth Hot Springs. An hour east, on U.S. 212, the Lamar Valley could be the continental U.S.’s best wildlife-spotting place. On “America’s Serengeti,” they all come out to play: wild wolves, bison, elk, coyotes and more. Pack ’nocs or a spotting scope.

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Whitewater rafting is a must for adventurers in Yellowstone. | Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
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The ranger program at Old Faithful. | Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Road Intel

SCENIC DRIVE

The Beartooth Highway laces through spectacular high coun- try—some 11,000 feet above sea level—connecting Cooke City with Red Lodge, Montana. RV drivers: Power loss is an issue at elevation, to the tune of about 3 percent per 1,000 feet.

RIDE RENTAL

Tierra Traveler in Livingston kits out Sprinters with gorgeous kitchens, sleeping quarters and outdoor showers.

CLASSY CAMPGROUND

Sun Outdoors Yellowstone North in Gardiner has 70 sites with hookups clustered around a general store and a deck commanding big-time views.

LOCAL PLAYLIST

Stream Wyoming Sounds, an excellent public-radio service focused on regional artists and live performances.

Day 2

The Upper Loop Road southbound from Mammoth opens Yellowstone’s geothermal wonderland. The Norris Geyser Basin offers a stacked line-up: Black Hermit Caldron (as heavy metal as it sounds), Crackling Lake (yes, it evokes Rice Krispies), Echinus Geyser (so acidic, it’s practically vinegar). The short boardwalk loop through Artists’ Paintpots is a kaleidoscope of gooey, vivid color—but just an appetizer for Grand Prismatic Spring, a rainbow-rimmed stunner best viewed from the easy Overlook Trail. Then, hard left on U.S. 191, part of the park’s Lower Loop, for the grand-pappy of them all: Old Faithful, must-see for its steamy hydraulic fury and the scene of humans—from all walks and every corner of the world— it attracts. The surrounding Upper Geyser Basin is worth a wander too (Riverside Geyser gets some whispering that it’s better than Old Faithful). Old Faithful Inn is a human-made monument, the prime example of architect Robert Reamer’s “Park Rustic” style.

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Hot springs at West Thumb Geyser Basin overlook Yellowstone Lake and the distant Absaroka Mountains. | Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Day 3

If wild rivers, wolves, bison, grizzly bears and half the geysers on the planet weren’t quite enough, there’s Yellowstone Lake, a sweep of blue uniquely large for its more than 7,000-foot elevation. Its depths conceal a dramatic world of underwater geysers, fumaroles, vents, craters and silica chimneys. For those of us without submarines, West Thumb Geyser Basin and tremblor-prone picnic spot Steamboat Point suggest the churning heat below. The Storm Point Trail makes for a mellow lakeside hike. The lake’s lodging scene offers a study in architectural contrast, between 1920s faux-colonial at Lake Yellowstone Hotel (its dining room is the park’s best) and the 1960s modernism of Grant Village. Staying at either provides a moment to bask in Yellowstone’s writ-large splendors. Or keep on circling to catch the East Entrance Road, outward bound toward Cody. Ever fantasized about being in a classic heist movie’s climatic chase? Off you go.

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