Hot springs, rivers, mudpots, geysers, travertine terraces… There is no end to things you must see on your first visit to Yellowstone National Park.
10 Unmissable Stops to Explore on Your First Visit to Yellowstone National Park
First visit to any national park excites and overwhelms, promising ample unforgettable adventures and plenty of time to spend outdoors. Fist visit to Yellowstone National Park exhilarates all these experiences while simultaneously instilling in you the utmost respect for nature.
Famous for its hot springs and geysers, on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park became the first national park one could visit in the U.S. and the world. Pristine conditions, remarkable scenery, and abundant wildlife were just a few things that inspired the creation of the park. However, what truly needed the protection were Yellowstone’s hydrothermal and geologic wonders.
A Few Things to Learn Before Your First Visit to Yellowstone
Spread over two million acres, Yellowstone National Park preserves more than 10,000 hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles, geysers, and travertine terraces. At the heart of the iconic park is a large volcano whose hydrothermal features attest to the heat still beneath the surface.
This is by far the most unnerving fact you can learn about Yellowstone National Park during your first visit. Nevertheless, the astounding beauty and remarkable natural wonders of the area keep enticing people from all over the world. For those who visit Yellowstone National Park for the first time, here are 10 astonishing things you must see here.
10 Things You Can’t Miss on Your First Visit to Yellowstone National Park
We accessed the park from the South Entrance after spending a day in Grand Teton National Park. This direction determined our route and itinerary. The below places that you should see on your first visit to Yellowstone National Park are listed based on their locations. The first destination is the closest to the South Entrance. The last place you should explore during your first visit sits hours away, near the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone Park.
1. West Thumb Geyser Basin
Tall pillars of thick steam coming from the ground reveal the existence of hot springs way before you see them. The area seems to be getting ready for a special visit by taking a hot bath, cooling some pools and adding heat to the others. The West Thumb Geyser Basin is nothing you have ever seen before. Being the first place to see, it certainly sets your expectations high for the rest of your visit to Yellowstone. You can’t even imaging what is following next, but for now – the West Thumb Geyser Basin.
First Visit to the West Thumb Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park
Hiding along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, the basin is the first place you will visit in Yellowstone upon arrival from the South Entrance. However, its secluded location and smaller size compared with the basins to the west secure fewer visitors. Even those outdoor lovers who visit the southern part of Yellowstone often skip the West Thumb Geyser Basin in favor of other popular destinations.
Most of the West Thumb’s geysers have become dormant in recent years. Nevertheless, they haven’t lost their bubbling attraction and magnetism. The area mostly consists of vibrant hot pools, steam vents, and mudpots. Two circular boardwalk trails less than a mile long snake around the main pools, enhancing your visit and giving you first glimpses of the irresistible natural wonders of Yellowstone.
While every “resident” of the West Thumb Geyser Basin impresses with its unique shape, color, or size of its bubbles, blue-green Abyss Pool and enchanting Big Cone often steal the show. Close proximity to Yellowstone Lake also plays a huge role in irresistible nature of the basin as you will see it during your first visit. Some areas of the West Thumb Geyser Basin seem to submerge in the lake, offering panoramic vistas and a few more reasons to add the place to your first visit to Yellowstone.
2. Old Faithful Geyser
Discovered in 1870 by Washburn Expedition, Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in the world. Whether you travel to Yellowstone National Park alone or on a guided tour, Old Faithful will most certainly be included in your first visit. The geyser is remarkable and faithful although one can argue about it.
Old Faithful was the first geyser in Yellowstone National Park to ever be named. Its frequent and somewhat predictable eruptions gave a solid reason to rely on its loyal patterns and call it nothing else but Faithful. The geyser ejects its hot waters approximately 20 times a day, every 98 minutes plus/minus 10 minutes. Luck was not on our side during our first visit to Yellowstone. We arrived just when Old Faithful’s show ended. Another eruption followed approximately 1.5 hours later.
During short, about 1.5-minute eruptions, Old Faithful surprises the visitors with 3,700 gallons of water being forcefully discharged in the air. Staggering 8,400 gallons fly from the opening in the ground during the longer, 4.5-minute eruptions.
3. Upper Geyser Basin
Home to Old Faithful, the Upper Geyser Basin is located in the southwest section of the park. With over 150 geysers, the place owns the right to be called the most densely concentrated geyser region in the world. From 4-foot tall Beehive Geyser to delightful Morning Glory Pool and uniquely shaped Heart and Ear Springs, the area surpasses all your vague ideas of the geysers and hot springs.
A myriad of boardwalk trails circle around the basin, presenting ample examples of most of the types of Yellowstone’s thermal features. The place is rather big. It can easily become the most time-consuming adventure during your first visit to Yellowstone National Park.
4. Biscuit Basin Loop
Located a short drive away, Biscuit Basin Loop is a short, but valuable addition to your first visit to Yellowstone itinerary. A 0.5-mile boardwalk trail takes you to magnetizing pristine pools with waters so clean that you can’t help but long for a swim. But be sure to resist temptation. The majority of the hydrothermal springs in Yellowstone are too hot and too harmful for living creatures.
On that note, adhere to park’s regulations and stay on the wooden boardwalks while exploring Yellowstone during your first visit. The ground underneath is slumping and moving geologically, making the usefulness of the wooden paths undeniable. As you will learn while planning your first trip or at the time of your visit, the boardwalks in Yellowstone Park fulfill a double function. They keep the visitors safe while preserving the powerful, yet fragile features of the park.
Nevertheless, back to the Biscuit Basin Loop. The place is usually spared from all the hustle and bustle typical for the Upper Geyser Basin. Thus, turn this visit into a leisurely walk while letting the colorful hot springs and gushing geysers such as Black Opal Pool, Sapphire Pool, Shell Spring, Jewel Geyser impress you once again.
5. Grand Prismatic Spring
If you have time to see only one hot spring on your first visit to Yellowstone, then make sure it is the Grand Prismatic Spring. Turquoise water pool with signature yellow and orange color ground around it is a highlight of Yellowstone National Park. The largest hot spring int he United States and the third largest in the world nestles in the Midway Geyser Basin.
It would be an understatement to simple state the size of this thermal feature. The place is so big that you can see only a small part of it when standing next to it. Don’t worry if you can’t take those iconic photos of the Grand Prismatic Spring on your first visit to Yellowstone. There is alway the second or third time.
If you insist on the full view and stunning pictures of Grand Prismatic Spring, you should hike to an overlook accessible from the Fairy Falls Trail. Wide and relatively flat near the pool but strenuous at the top, the trail runs for about 0.8 miles one way. It takes approximately 40 minutes to hike the entire distance to and from the overlook.
6. Gibbon Falls
As you leave the geysers area in search of different views on your first visit to Yellowstone, roadside Gibbon Falls encourages you to drive farther in this direction. Located on the Gibbon River, between the Norris Geyser Basin and Madison Junction, it is a sight not to miss. The water plunges from a 84-foot tall cliff and gradually descents down rocky walls until dissolving in the river.
Gibbon Falls barely makes to the list of places to see on the first visit to Yellowstone National Park. Nevertheless, it makes for a nice transition from the area dominated by the thermal features to park’s diverse landscapes occupied by mountains and valleys.
7. Norris Geyser Basin
After an uncountable amount of the geysers and hot springs, it might be tempting to skip the Norris Geyser Basin when you visit Yellowstone for the first time. (My husband was certainly longing for the different views.) Nevertheless, give this place a chance to prove your wrong.
The Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic thermal area in Yellowstone National Park. Almost all features of the basin have raised the temperatures to the boiling point, adorning themselves with ever-changing bubbles. Let me assure you, this is the sight the majority of the guests of Yellowstone National Park look for on their first visit.
8. First Visit to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
The first real change in scenery comes with the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, a place you must visit at least once. Merciless erosion along with the powerful Yellowstone River, flowing over softer rocks, united their forces in shaping one of the most remarkable features of the park.
The canyon is over 24 miles long, measuring from the Upper Falls to the Lower Falls area. The Upper Falls drops from 109 feet. It comes into full view at the Brink of the Upper Falls Trail and the Uncle Tom’s Trail.
The dramatic 308-foot Lower Falls, however, exceeds in popularity among Yellowstone’s first-time visitors. Many viewpoints allow you to visually gauge the unstoppable force and appreciate the remarkable beauty of the lower waterfall that gave birth to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. The most popular of them are the Artistic Point, Inspiration Point, and Lower Fall’s Brink.
9. Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
Aching to see how rocks form before your eyes on your first visit to Yellowstone National Park? Head straight to Mammoth Hot Springs. The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs are nothing but living sculptures, created by water and its forceful actions and everything that happens to be on its path. The travertine is never static, constantly shaping and rebuilding itself. It is believed, only about 10 percent of the water in the Mammoth Hot Springs area is visible on the surface. The remaining 90 percent is trapped inside, out of the sight, but never stops working.
10. Lamar Valley
Even during your first visit you should expect to meet some of the representatives of the abundant wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. The animals, oblivious of your interest in them, pop up and disappear as they please. You can cross the entire park and barely get a glimpse of its feathered and four-legged inhabitants. But all things come into play when you visit Lamar Valley, the first place to venture to in order to see the rich wildlife of Yellowstone.
Surrounded by towering mountains, this river valley is home to the famous Junction Butte and Lamar Canyon wolf packs. Large herds of bison and pronghorn can be often seen grazing in Lamar Valley. The abundance of food and irresistible location attract grizzly bears, coyotes, deer, bald eagles, and osprey. In other words, there is a hundred reasons to add a visit to Lamar Valley to your first adventure in Yellowstone National Park.
Nearby Places to Add to Your First Visit to Yellowstone
- Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (2 hours 40 minutes)
- Jackson Hole, Wyoming (2 hours 26 minutes)
- Glacier National Park, Montana (6 hours 15 minutes)
- Big Sky, Montana (58 minutes)
- Cody, Wyoming (1 hour)
- Gardiner, Montana (3 minutes)
TIP: For more information about visiting Yellowstone National Park for the first time, please check the following guides.
- Visit Grand Prismatic Spring (The Ultimate Guide)
- Yellowstone Beyond: 9 Things You didn’t Know about Yellowstone
- Visit Midway Geyser Basin (Beyond Grand Prismatic)
TIP: Check out our guide to the historic buildings in the American West to learn about human history and some of the important landmarks in Yellowstone National Park.
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