6 can’t-miss stops in Yellowstone National Park

This iconic landscape is a hotbed of geothermal activity and wildlife—and it’s best explored by road.

Photograph by Tom Murphy, National Geographic Image Collection
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The vibrant Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone’s largest hot spring.

Photograph by Tom Murphy, National Geographic Image Collection
National Geographic is heading back to Yellowstone…Live! In an epic, four-night event, experience Yellowstone National Park as it comes alive after a long, brutal winter. Yellowstone Live premieres June 23 at 10pm EST / 7pm PST.

America’s oldest national park includes 2.2 million acres of forests, lakes, and mountains. Heat and volcanic activity from the depths of Earth power this dramatic landscape, evidenced by its geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs.

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Whether you have two days or two weeks, a road trip is the perfect way to explore Yellowstone National Park’s natural wonders at your own pace. The park can be accessed from five different gates in three different states: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. These winding roads will lead you through sublime vistas and past abundant wildlife, including elk, bison, grizzlies, black bear, pronghorn antelope, moose, and bighorn sheep. But perhaps best of all is the opportunity to witness the eternally mesmerizing, bubbling, gurgling, steaming earth.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

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The rushing Yellowstone River slices through one of the park’s canyons.

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. The canyon is marked by steep white-and-yellow cliffs and its vents and spires reveal thermal activity that continues unabated underground. The falls are an equally dazzling site from Lookout Point on the North Rim. If you have time to spare, a trail hike is an essential part of the adventure.

Old Faithful

Few sights in Yellowstone match that of watching Old Faithful: a huge plume of steam and water gushing out of the ground and shooting 100-184 feet into the air. Perch on one of several wooden boardwalks built around the geyser and watch it erupt with your camera in hand. With its reliable eruption times (every 60 to 110 minutes) it’s easy to plan a visit to witness a blowout. Afterwards, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center offers a quick lesson on the geology behind the world’s most famous geyser.

Mammoth Tiers

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Visitors take in the scenic view at Mammoth Hot Springs, where wooden boardwalks wind through the landscape.

On a slow drive-through of the Mammoth Hot Springs area, visitors can see the churning thermal landscape and grazing elk right from the car. Venture out onto the network of wooden boardwalks that wind their way through a multitude of travertine terraces with abstract shapes and contours. Colors 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.

Yellowstone Lake and Geyser Basins

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A herd of bison move through one of Yellowstone's valleys at sunset.

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 lake’s chilly waters. 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’s home to the world’s tallest active geyser and a colorful display caused by the combination of various minerals and the lifeforms that exist in the torrid environment.

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 during the summer. The rainbow colors are best viewed from a height—take a slightly strenuous hike up the Midway Bluff trail for the perfect vantage point.

Lamar Valley and Firehole Canyon

Yellowstone highlights that are worth the detours are Lamar Valley for its wildlife, and the Morning Glory Pool on the outer areas of the Upper Geyser Basin for its teal and orange waters. Firehole Canyon Drive, which skirts the edge of a cliff along the Firehole River, makes for another interesting drive. Swimming is possible here because the boiling hot spring water meets the cold snowmelt of the river, bringing it to a bearable temperature.

Where to stay

Old Faithful Inn: A stone’s throw from Old Faithful geyser, this landmark, lodgepole pine hotel exudes warmth and old-world charm.

Old Faithful Snowlodge and Cabins: This stylish hotel was made with numerous recycled and repurposed materials as well as wood.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel:This is the oldest lodging in the park going back 126 years, but has recently been renovated in art deco style. Though on the banks of Yellowstone Lake, most rooms don’t actually overlook it, but wildlife can be seen roaming near the building.

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.

Lone Mountain Ranch: A National Geographic Unique Lodge, this clutch of Old West cabins nestles in a forested valley 18 miles upstream of Yellowstone and offers guided horseback, canoe, and cross-country ski trips.

Niloufer Venkatraman is the former editor in chief of National Geographic Traveller India. Her idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. This story was adapted from National Geographic Traveller India.