Before I get started on my travel tips to Yellowstone, I would first like to say there are several ways to see this gorgeous national park. My family and I had only 5 days and we spent 2 of those days hiking and exploring the park. We missed out on Hayden Valley because the road was closed. You should always check the park's website to get the latest road closures. We didn't have time to visit Lamar Valley because we simply ran out of time. The park rangers and guides I spoke with mentioned that people should try to avoid late June - Labor Day because these are popular months for tourists.
Anyone who plans on doing a self guided tour of Yellowstone needs to download the GyPSy Guide App (Yellowstone National Park $6.99). Be sure you download the app beforehand because there is no cell phone coverage in Yellowstone Park. This is one of the best travel apps I have ever used. The narrator's knowledge and travel tips where spot on. We called him Uncle Buck because of his folksy voice. This is the next best thing to having an actual tour guide in your car. I seriously wanted to buy this guy a beer at the end of the trip and I kind of miss hearing his voice. Again, this app really made our trip so spend the $6.99.
Day 1) We flew into Jackson Hole and flew out of Bozeman. Both airports are roughly 2 hours from West Yellowstone. We chose to fly into Jackson Hole because I wanted to show my kids the charming town of Jackson Hole. I also saved almost $150 by renting a car in Jackson and returning it in Bozeman. I used Alamo car rental. We landed in Jackson Hole at 10:35 am and we were rafting down the Snake River at 2pm. We used Lewis and Clark rafting. Excellent 3 hour rafting with mostly class 1, 2 a few 3 rapids, which was great for my 11 and 13 year olds! Our guide Joe Smith was one of the coolest and funniest guys on the planet. You should try and grab a seat on his raft for sure. We were done rafting by 5 pm so we drove to our AirBNB in Island Park, Idaho. It's a cheaper option to stay in Idaho if you're on a budget. Island Park is about a 25 minute drive to the entrance of West Yellowstone. We loved our 2 bedroom 2 bath cabin in Island Park https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/13759578?bev_ref=&c=.pi80.pkYm9va2luZy92MV9taWdyYXRpb24vcmVzZXJ2YXRpb25fYWNjZXB0YW5jZV9jb25maXJtYXRpb25fZ3Vlc3Q%3D&eal_exp=1601090362&eal_sig=cdc459b5ac032bebeafe50aaf1cd6a7fe675ed9463ec84ba860c2940f6e035b2&eal_uid=3883607&euid=9c98bfe1-ae06-5cb6-f462-b9192ead6234&photo=&s=&user_id=
(If you want to stay closer to the park you can look for properties in West Yellowstone. The little town of Yellowstone is loaded with shops and small hotels. You should definitely check out the Grizzly Discovery center too! https://www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.org )
Day 2) We decided to go horseback riding at Harriman State Park which was about 20 minutes from our cabin. https://www.dryridge.com We paid the $5.00 entrance fee and made our way over to the stables. We chose the $55 two hour ride which went through a forest and up a beautiful ridge. We encountered 3 moose, a coyote and saw a bear print. After the ride we decided to try our luck with the many geocaches in the area. Download the app to your phone and you'll be on your way to an instant treasure hunt. https://www.geocaching.com/play
We dined at the Ponds Lodge restaurant twice and enjoyed the Idaho Nachos which are potato skins loaded with cheese and brisket. The prime rib, bison burger, and pizzas are amazing! http://pondslodge.com
Day 3) We decided to drive the south loop of the park first because everyone wanted to see Old Faithful.
Norris Geyser Basin
Old Faithful may be the most famous geyser at Yellowstone, but don’t miss the easy two-mile trail at North Geyser Basin to sample a variety of impressive geothermal features, including the largest active geyser in the world. Any Yellowstone road trip needs to include it.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Just up the road from Norris Geyser Basin in the Midway Geyser Basin is the aptly named Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States and third largest in the world. Like other hot springs, the center of this one is a vivid blue. What’s more unusual are the orange, green, and yellow pigments around the edges. Any Yellowstone 2-3 day itinerary must include it!
The kaleidoscope of colors is caused by pigmented bacteria that thrive on the minerals here. The colors made me think back to the bright lime green Devil’s Bath that we saw at Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland Park near Rotorua, New Zealand.
Grand Prismatic is one of the most visited destinations in the park so get an early start if you want to find parking (the park entrance opens at 8 am daily.)
To get this bird’s-eye view of the spring, you’ll need to venture beyond the boardwalks though…What a perfect break for a hike
Old Faithful Geyser
Vacationing in Yellowstone wouldn’t be complete without a visit to arguably the most famous geyser in the world. Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 120 minutes for approximately 1 1/2 to five minutes. While it’s not Yellowstone’s largest or most predictable geyser, it’s still a fan favorite!
To make sure you don’t miss it, plan ahead. Cell reception is particularly poor within the park unless you pay for Wifi where it’s available at several lodges. Your best bet for timing your visit is to check with a visitor’s center or ask a ranger at one of the park entrances. The good news: if you arrive early, you can bide your time at a beautiful and historic spot.
Continue south towards Fishing Bridge Visitor’s Center for views of Yellowstone Lake. The lake is the largest one in the park, covering 136 square miles. Of note: this lake has the largest population of cutthroat trout in North America!
Day 4) Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
We set out to visit the north loop. A visit to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a must! Scientists think this magnificent canyon—about 20 miles long— is anywhere between 160,000 and 140,000 years old! It was formed by a series of lava flows over thousands of years after an initial volcanic eruption 600,000 years ago. Glacial activity eventually gave way to the Yellowstone River which deepened and widened the canyon. Stop at Upper Falls Point to see the view (below) of Upper Falls and again at Artist Point for a dramatic view of the lower falls.
If you passed on the Mount Washburn hike earlier, now’s your chance for a short but impressive hike on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim at Uncle Tom’s trail. It’s not easy though…there are 328 steps that descend part way down the canyon near the bottom of Lower Falls!
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
Driving through Yellowstone wouldn’t be complete without seeing this site. These travertine formations—made out of soft limestone—are not like anything else in the park. Some have described them as a “cave turned inside out".
Day 5) Today we visited the Grizzly and Wolf Rescue Center for around 1 hour and then made our way to Bozeman for our flight back home. The drive from West Yellowstone to Bozeman is about 2 hours. Expect to see incredible scenery and maybe some wildlife sightings on the way.