The Ultimate Road Trip Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park, USA

Yellowstone is a hotbed of geothermal activity and a sanctuary for abundant wildlife, best explored by road.  
Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National park
From the air, Grand Prismatic Spring is at its most stunning: Its deep colours are caused by heat-loving bacteria that thrive within Photo: F11 Photo/Shutterstock/Indiapicture

America’s oldest national park has 2.2 million acres of forests, lakes, and mountains. Heat and volcanic activity from the centre of the Earth power this landscape filled with mud pots, geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs. Abundant wildlife roams the park and during my road trip through it I was lucky not only to see plenty of bison and deer, but also a pair of grizzlies and a bald eagle.

A road trip is the only way to see the variety and beauty of Yellowstone National Park. Depending on where you are coming from, Yellowstone can be accessed from five different gates, in three different states. My companions and I entered from the east since we were coming from Cody, Wyoming.

A Yellowstone experience can be two days or two weeks. If you only have a little time to spare, take in the highlights via the 230-kilometre-long Grand Loop drive. Even on a longer trip, there is no chance of ever getting bored. There is much to see and do, roads to drive through, paths to hike, sublime vistas to absorb, wildlife to encounter. And most unique of all, the bubbling, gurgling, boiling, steaming earth all around is eternally mesmerizing.

STOP 1: Point of View

Yellowstone has countless vantage points with views of Yellowstone Lake, forests, rivers, and waterfalls. The observation decks at Artist Point, a short walk from the parking lot on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, offer a stunning view of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River as well as of the canyon. This 32-kilometre-long canyon is marked by steep white-and-yellow cliffs that appear to erode even as they are watched. Streaks of pink mineral stain the canyon walls, and vents and spires tell the story of the thermal activity that continues unabated underground. The Lower Falls are also dazzling when seen from Lookout Point on the North Rim which is where we stopped. For those who have the time, hiking is an essential part of the Yellowstone adventure.

STOP 2: Old Faithful Geyser

Few sights in Yellowstone match that of watching a huge plume of steam and water gushing out of the earth, shooting 100-184 feet into the air. I’d first seen Old Faithful geyser in action as a young teen and it’s one of the most vivid memories I have of that month-long trip through the U.S. On this trip I watched the geyser erupt from a vantage point on one of the many wooden board-walks built around the geyser, and had ample time to take pictures and videos. With its reliable eruption times (every 60 to 110 minutes) it’s easy to plan a visit to witness a blowout. After-wards, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center offers a quick lesson on the geology behind the
world’s most famous geyser.

Old Faithful geyser Yellowstone National park

Time intervals between the eruptions at Old Faithful geyser range from 60 to 110 minutes and each individual eruption can last between 1.5 and 5 minutes. Photo: SBThegreenman/iStock

STOP 3: Mammoth Tiers

On a slow drive-through of the Mammoth Hot Springs area, visitors can see the churning thermal landscape, as well as grazing elk right from the car. Step onto the network of boardwalks, however, to see much more. These wooden paths wind their way through a multitude of travertine terraces with changing abstract shapes and contours. Colours change as heat and minerals combine, and bacteria and algae transform the pools and surfaces. A two-hour walk along the Lower Terrace Interpretive Trail is a good way to imbibe the essence of this park.

The terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs change rapidly as a result of intense thermal activity. Springs that are active one year may disappear the next. Photo: Campphoto/iStock

The terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs change rapidly as a result of intense thermal activity. Springs that are active one year may disappear the next. Photo: Campphoto/iStock

STOP 4: Yellowstone Lake and Geyser Basins

Although smaller than some of the others, West Thumb Geyser Basin is a spectacular must-see. In this small area, on the edge of Yellowstone Lake, it’s easy to view all the thermal features that make this park so unique. Hot springs, bubbling pools, mud pots, fumaroles and lakeshore geysers empty into the chilly waters of Yellowstone Lake. Outstanding features include Abyss Pool, a 53-foot-deep blue pond, and Fishing Cone, a submerged geyser that becomes visible only in the summer when lake water levels drop. Time permitting, make a stop at Norris Geyser Basin, a short distance south of Mammoth Hot Springs. It has the world’s tallest active geyser and a colourful display caused by the combination of various minerals and the life forms that exist in this torrid environment.

STOP 5: Grand Prismatic Spring

To get to the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone’s largest hot spring, drive to Midway Geyser Basin and then walk along the boardwalk. Through the steam rising off the surface, a large turquoise pool ringed with orange and yellow comes into view like a dream. Temperatures around the pool are high, especially on a summer’s day. The rainbow colours of this pool producing the effect of a prism are best viewed from a height. Take a slightly strenuous hike up the Midway Bluff trail to get to the perfect vantage point.

MORE STOPS

Other Yellowstone highlights that are worth the detours they require are Lamar Valley for its wildlife and Morning Glory Pool on the outer areas of the Upper Geyser Basin, for its teal and orange coloured waters, the result of thermophilic bacteria thriving in its scorching depths. Firehole Canyon Drive skirts the edge of a cliff, along the Firehole River, and makes for an interesting drive as well. It’s one of the few places in the park where we saw visitors soaking in the warm waters without fear of getting burnt. Swimming is possible here because the boiling hot spring water meets the cold snowmelt of the river, bringing it to a bearable temperature.

USA Yellowstone National Park Bison Roadtrip

Though bison or wild buffalo can be seen all over Yellowstone National Park, they are most easily seen grazing and ruminating in herds on the open grasslands of Lamar Valley. Photo: Danita/India Picture

STAYING INSIDE THE PARK: Old Faithful Inn & Lake Yellowstone Hotel

If you can splurge on staying at one of the upscale lodgings in the park, there are several choices. The two most iconic stay options are Old Faithful Inn and Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Note that any accommodation inside the park needs to be booked months in advance, especially for the peak summer (Jun-Aug) season. All these can be booked through www.yellowstonenationalpark-lodges.com.
Old Faithful Inn I stayed at Old Faithful Inn when I was a teen and fell in love with this huge lodgepole pine building with its multistorey lobby. On this trip I walked around its public areas and could see that very little has changed. A stone’s throw from Old Faithful geyser, this landmark hotel exudes warmth and old-world charm (doubles $236-590/ Rs 15,620-39,052).

Old Faithful Snowlodge and Cabins is a stylish hotel made with numerous recycled and repurposed materials as well as wood (doubles $117-272/ Rs 7,744-18,003). Lake Yellowstone Hotel This is the oldest lodging in the park going back 126 years, but has recently been renovated in art deco style. My room was cosy and comfortable, and the hotel atmosphere old-style colonial. Though on the banks of Yellowstone Lake, most rooms don’t actually overlook it, but wildlife can be seen roaming pretty close to the building (doubles $244-590/Rs 16,150-39,052).
Lake Lodge Cabins Not far from the Lake Yellowstone Hotel is another set of charming historic cabins with front porches and rocking chairs. Two fireplaces in the lobby keep the place warm and inviting. Western Cabins are modern, while the Frontier Cabins are more basic (doubles $90-209/Rs 5,957-13,834).

coyote litterYellowstone National Park

An average of six squirmy pups make up a coyote litter. They are born in underground dens where they are looked after for about ten weeks before they start travelling with the pack. Photo: Dan Sullivan/Alamy/Indiapicture

WILDLIFE

Bison or buffalo graze leisurely through Yellowstone’s grasslands. Even before we’d entered the official east gate of the park we spotted a herd of whitetail deer, which we learned to identify by the distinctive white rump patch, frolicking in a patch of grass. Before long we came upon a herd of bison. A young one decided to play, kick, and charge around, then roll on the ground and throw up a cloud of dust, much to the annoyance of the adults in the herd, and pleasure of onlookers. Further along the drive, we saw several graceful elk grazing by the edge of the road. Nearby, our guide pointed out trees on whose lower sections bark had peeled off where bison had rubbed against them to shed their winter coat.
In a remote northeast corner of Yellowstone is Lamar Valley, inhabited by the park’s famous wolves. The animals had been extinct for two decades and were reintroduced to the park in 1995. Elk, bison, grizzlies, black bear, pronghorn antelope, moose, and bighorn sheep also roam the vast open areas of this valley. Driving on the Lamar Valley Road which runs through it, is the best way to observe this wonderful wildlife.
Our drives through Yellowstone were full of animal sightings. At lunchtime the first day, we stopped at picnic tables laid out alongside the Yellowstone River, and watched a group of ducks crossing the blue waters as we enjoyed our sandwiches.

grizzly-bears Yellowstone National Park Wyoming

Grizzly bears bathing, splashing, and frolicking at a waterhole in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Photo: NatGeoCreative/Michael Nichols

Our luckiest moment however, was when we pulled off a road running parallel to Yellowstone River, not far from the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Walking down to the boardwalk, we saw across the river, a small grizzly bear curled up and asleep near a fallen log. In front of it, half submerged in the water lay the carcass of a bison that had been swept off while crossing the swollen river two days earlier. Atop the carcass sat a bald eagle. But the highlight of the road trip through Yellowstone was yet to come. That evening we returned to the spot to see if the grizzly was still there. We were amazed to find not only was it still asleep on the shore, another, slightly larger one had arrived and was sitting atop the dead bison, tearing away at the meat.

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    Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.

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