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AARP's Guide to Yellowstone National Park

Exploding geysers, prismatic pools, a Grand Canyon and more make for a magical visit

Grand Prismatic Spring

Welsh Designs/Alamy Stock Photo

En español | John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, first reported the wonders of Yellowstone National Park to the public in the early 1800s. He spoke of a high altitude area south of the route he traveled with Lewis and Clark where mud boiled and water erupted from steaming ground. People found these descriptions so fantastical they jokingly called this magical land “Colter's Hell.” It wasn't until 1870, when the first official expedition mapped and documented the Yellowstone area — finding pretty much exactly what Colter described — that anyone took the region seriously. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, making Yellowstone the country's first national park.

With 4 million annual visitors, it's the country's fifth-most-visited national park, and it's one of the most famous, thanks to its more than 10,000 thermal features, including fumaroles, hot springs, mud pots, travertine terraces and, of course, geysers. Yellowstone has more than 500 active geysers — about 60 percent of the world's total — and sits on top of one of the world's largest active volcanoes.

Its density and diversity of wildlife adds to Yellowstone's appeal. The 2.2 million-acre park — located mostly in the northwest corner of Wyoming, with small sections in Idaho and Montana — is one of the few places in the Lower 48 where all of the large mammals that lived in the region before the Europeans arrived still live in the wild. We're talking bison, black bears, elk, grizzly bears, moose, mountain lions and wolves, among others. The wolves are particularly notable because, after being extirpated from the area (and most of the Lower 48) by the 1920s, they were reintroduced in Yellowstone in 1995. Although this reintroduction was, and is, controversial, it's also a wildlife success story: In early January 2020, about 94 wolves lived in eight packs within the park's boundaries, making Yellowstone one of the world's best spots to see a wolf in the wild.

The park is popular with seniors: 75 percent of visitors during May, June, September and October are 50 or older, estimates Anna Olson, president of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “They call Yellowstone a multigenerational park — go as a child, take your child and take your grandchildren — for a reason. There are lots of very well-maintained, frontcountry attractions that can easily be reached, many accessible for mobility impaired people,” says Olson.

COVID-19 Update

Currently, all Yellowstone trails and sights are open unless previously closed due to road construction. Only one visitor center/information center — the West Thumb Information Center — is open. Just outside the park, in West Yellowstone, Montana, the West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center, staffed by the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, is open.

The park's lodging options through the end of 2020 consist mostly of cabin-style accommodations; most campgrounds are closed. No park restaurants are open for sit-down dining, but there are multiple places to purchase food to go. For the latest information, check the park website.

map of wyoming with yellowstone national park location marked

Getty/AARP

Location: Wyoming's northwest corner, with small sections in Idaho and Montana

Acres: 2,221,766 acres

Highest peak: Eagle Peak, at 11,358 feet

Lowest elevation: Reese Creek, at 5,282 feet

Miles/numbers of trails: More than 900 miles from 92 trailheads

Main attraction: Old Faithful

Cost: $35 per vehicle, good for seven consecutive days (Annual Senior Pass $20)

Best way to see it: Via short walks from the car

When to go to avoid the crowds: September and October, to experience the park without crowds and likely no snow

Plan Your Trip

A few small airports within 100 miles of the park, particularly the one in Jackson Hole (57 miles south), serve Yellowstone with year-round service by commuter airlines and seasonal service by a few major carriers. The two nearest large cities with international airports are hours away by car. Salt Lake City is 330 miles south; Denver, 506 miles southeast.

Depending on your departure or landing spot, you'll choose from five entrances: East (Cody, Wyoming), West (West Yellowstone, Montana), North (Gardiner, Montana), Northeast (Cooke City, Montana) and South (Jackson Hole, Wyoming) — the latter allowing for a stunning drive through Grand Teton National Park on your way to Yellowstone. The gateway towns have their own personalities, and the drive from one to the next ranges from one to four hours. You'll need a week to fully experience the park and its gateways, although most visitors spend about two days in the area.

The park is smartly divided into Upper and Lower sections, each with a scenic loop road that makes major attractions easily accessible by car. The 96-mile Lower Loop hits Grand Prismatic Spring, Hayden Valley and Old Faithful, among other sites. The 142-mile Upper Loop takes you to the Lamar Valley, Mammoth Hot Springs and Mount Washburn. On each loop, you'll find major stops with lodging, restaurants, gas and restrooms at least every 15 miles. Most pullouts and parking areas have vault toilets.

All Yellowstone roads are open for visitors’ cars in summer. From early November to mid-April, only the northern Gardiner entrance remains open to cars, with the road continuing for 57 miles through Tower Junction and on to Cooke City. During these months, when an average of 10 to 20 feet of snow falls, the park only allows snowcoaches and snowmobiles through other entrances.

To drive around the park without encountering crowds, visit in late May to mid-June or in September or October. Snow will likely cover some hiking trails in spring, but the park's wildlife is especially active then and you might see bison calves or wolf pups. A fall visit could bring a dusting (or more) of snow, but the changing leaves and crystal-clear streams will surely make up for that.

From November through mid-December and April through mid-May, most park facilities are closed, including campgrounds, hotels, restaurants and visitor centers. Year-round there is no cell service, although most park hotels and inns offer Wi-Fi in public areas. The majority of the lodging has accessible rooms or cabins, and there are about 15 miles of wheelchair-accessible boardwalks around thermal attractions, including Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring. The boardwalks also have benches for resting.

Where to Stay and Eat

The place to bed down at night in Yellowstone? A man-made structure can hardly compete with Old Faithful geyser, but architect Robert Reamer gave it his best shot with his design for the log-and-stone Old Faithful Inn, a 327-room property on the Lower Loop's western side that has been hosting visitors within easy view of the geyser since 1904. Its rustic charm will hook you instantly as you take in its soaring seven-story lobby with a steeply gabled roof and 85-foot-tall stone fireplace.

Reamer also put his mark on another park icon — the Lake Hotel, at Yellowstone Lake on the Lower Loop's eastern side. In 1903, he led a redesign of the 1891 building. With its yellow clapboard exterior, Colonial Revival design and three porticos, this casually elegant property, which has 296 rooms, including cabins behind the main hotel, contrasts starkly with the Old Faithful Inn, which was designed to blend into the landscape. For a bit of wilderness sophistication, stop by one of the hotel's afternoon piano concerts.

In all, the park offers nine lodging options, all about the same luxury level — nothing too fancy, but clean, and most with no TVs or telephones. Book Old Faithful Inn or Lake Hotel if you're looking to stay at a visitor favorite; otherwise, pick the property closest to the areas you'll be visiting the most. Only two operate in winter: Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins, just inside the park's northern entrance; and Old Faithful Snow Lodge, a short walk to Old Faithful.

Twelve campgrounds with more than 2,000 campsites are tucked into the park's pine forests. Five take reservations, the rest are first-come, first-served. Only the Fishing Bridge RV Park, on the Lower Loop's eastern side, has RV hook-ups. The campgrounds all have flush toilets, sinks, picnic tables, fire pits and bear-proof food-storage lockers, but only some have showers and laundry facilities. Nightly permits range from $27 to $32. To get even closer to nature, the park also has 300 backcountry campsites.

You don't come to Yellowstone to eat. That said, the park's food concessionaire makes a point of using local and/or organic ingredients in its eateries, whether a formal dining room or a more casual cafeteria or deli. (Almost every lodging facility has an upscale restaurant and at least one casual one.) When you're especially hungry, take your appetite to the nightly buffet at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room for huckleberry chicken, prime rib, buttermilk mashed potatoes and more. For something sweet, you can't beat Wilcoxson's Ice Cream, a Yellowstone delight since 1927. Most of the park's general stores stock it. Two standout flavors: Huckleberry and Moose Tracks, vanilla ice cream with peanut butter cups and fudge.

Things to Do

Wooden steps and boardwalk down to Lower Yellowstone Falls

Ray Wise/Getty Images

Lower Yellowstone Falls

Be awestruck by the park's famed geysers and thermal features: Two favorites are Old Faithful, of course, and Grand Prismatic Spring.

Old Faithful, on the Lower Loop's eastern side, is the park's tallest predictable geyser, spewing superheated water up to 180 feet into the air for up to five minutes every 60 to 110 minutes. Every eruption can draw more than 2,000 spectators in July and August; boardwalk bleachers fill up, with people standing behind them. To avoid the masses, Olson recommends coming before 9 a.m. “Getting up early has its rewards,” she says.

Another insider viewing tip: Venture up to the second-floor deck at the nearby Old Faithful Inn, even if you're not a hotel guest. No, you're not as close to the geyser, but the deck still offers a good vantage point with far fewer people jockeying for viewing spots. Plus, there's often a staffer selling espresso drinks.

In winter, when you can get to Old Faithful via snowcoach or snowmobile, a big crowd might be just several dozen people. Guided snowmobile tours leave from the east, south and west entrances (advance reservations required).

If the Old Faithful area is crowded, minimize your time there (check geysertimes.org for predicted eruption times) and then head to the otherworldly Norris Geyser Basin for less-crowded geyser viewing.

There's also Grand Prismatic Spring in the park's Midway Geyser Basin, just north of Old Faithful on the Lower Loop. It's the country's largest hot spring — about 121 feet deep and bigger than a football field. Thanks to microbial mats that can grow in extreme heat, the spring's pool showcases a rainbow of colors — blue, green, orange, red and yellow — making the spring one of the park's most popular photo ops. Grand Prismatic never feels as crowded as Old Faithful because its colors don't come and go like the eruptions do.

Marvel at the power of moving water: In the early 1800s, mountain man Jim Bridger reported finding a canyon so big and deep that you could shout into it at night and be awoken the next morning by your echo. Welcome to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — 20 miles long, more than 1,000 feet deep in some places, and home to three waterfalls, including the 308-foot-tall Lower Falls, the park's tallest. At the eastern meeting point of the Upper and Lower loops, the canyon has multiple good viewing points. A tip for shutterbugs: At Artist Point on South Rim Scenic Drive, catch the morning light of the rising sun on the Lower Falls and the canyon's pastel-colored walls.

View wildlife: Yellowstone is often called “America's Serengeti” for its abundant wildlife. “Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley are both good wildlife-watching areas,” says park spokeswoman Linda Veress. “Some things commonly seen in both valleys are bison and pronghorn, and possibly wolves and grizzly bears."

It's easy to do your watching from the comfort of your car. The Lower Loop passes through Hayden Valley; the Upper Loop through Lamar Valley. No doubt, you'll sometimes want to get out to take photos, but take note: It's not unusual for bison to gore several visitors every year. “Give the wildlife space,” advises Veress. “Wildlife is unpredictable and walking by a bison that's just standing there quietly grazing — that can change very quickly if you approach the animal. If you cause an animal to move, you're too close."

Park rules mandate visitors stay 25 yards away from bighorn sheep, bison and elk, and 100 yards from bears and wolves.

Honor Yellowstone's importance as the country's first national park: Don't miss the 50-foot-tall Roosevelt Arch at the park's north entrance in Gardiner. Made from locally quarried basalt, the arch bears the inscription “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people” — a line from the 1872 Act that established Yellowstone (and all of the subsequent national parks) — and President Theodore Roosevelt laid its cornerstone in 1903.

Go hiking, with caution: Yellowstone has 900-plus miles of hiking trails that few people use. Regardless of your fitness level, don't just charge off down a trail. Remember, black bears and grizzly bears roam here, plus “most of the park lies more than a mile above sea level, so give yourself time to adjust to the elevation,” says Veress. “We recommend everyone know how to hike in bear country and to carry bear spray.” (Watch a video on Yellowstone's website to learn how to use the spray. Some tourists have mistakenly thought that they needed to spray themselves with bear spray, as they would with insect repellant. Bad idea!)

Close to Old Faithful, the 4.7-mile Lone Star Trail is a mostly flat out-and-back hike on an old service road along the Firehole River to the Lone Star Geyser, which erupts about every three hours. Just south of Grand Prismatic Spring, start up the Fairy Falls Trail to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook, 0.6 miles from the parking lot and a spur off the main trail. The overlook showcases spring's vivid colors. Note that the elevation gain to the overlook is only about 100 feet, but high altitude makes the hike more work than it sounds. Back on the trail, continue two flat miles farther to the 200-foot-tall falls. Stand on the shore of the pool at its base and see rainbows in its mist. In winter, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe to both attractions.

Take a soak: Just inside the park's north entrance, a flat, half-mile gravel path along the Gardner River brings you to the mouth of the Boiling River. Where the two waterways meet, you'll find a 150-foot-long band of natural soaking pools with water temperatures ranging from 80 to 110 degrees. This is the park's only thermal feature where visitors can go for a soak, so wade in. The pools are open daily dawn to dusk but close during periods of high water (usually in late spring or early summer). Bathing suits required; you can change in the parking lot's vault toilets.

Get off the beaten path: With its density of waterfalls, Yellowstone's southwest corner is known as “Cascade Corner.” Most require a substantial hike to see, but you can drive to Cave Falls — it's only 20 feet tall but spans 200 feet across the Falls River — and you'll likely have the view to yourself, since this park section attracts fewer than 1 percent of Yellowstone visitors. But be aware that the 90-mile drive from Old Faithful takes almost four hours because you travel on roads with low speed limits, including the 19-mile Cave Falls Road, a dirt road passable by any passenger car.

Gateway Towns

Jackson, Wyoming

John Elk/Getty Images

Jackson, Wyoming

A former railroad town, Gardiner is home to about 800 people, about 3,000 elk, the Roosevelt Arch and the Corral restaurant (order a bison burger and milkshake). In Cooke City — Yellowstone's smallest, funkiest, most remote gateway — residents number about the same as the number of years the 134-year-old Cooke City Store, one of the country's oldest General Stores, has been serving the community. Despite being small, the town serves up some of the area's best pastries, made fresh every morning at Bearclaw Bakery.

Cody and Jackson are similar yet so different. Both have a Western feel, staged downtown gunfights, rodeos, an amazing museum (Cody's Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Jackson's National Museum of Wildlife Art) and populations of about 10,000. And then they diverge: Cody plays up its wild, frontier vibe while Jackson goes fancy — although not so fancy you'll find designer boutiques around its elk-antler-arched Town Square.

If you plan to splurge on a hotel, Jackson happily obliges with the cowboy cosmopolitan Amangani, with a 2:1 staff-to-guest ratio; and the Four Seasons Jackson Hole, which black bears and moose sometimes visit given its location at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. For tasty bites, Jackson foodies will steer you to the steak tartare pizza at Snake River Grill, the elk bolognese at Trio Bistro and the cinnamon brioche at Persephone Bakery Cafe.

For a dose of Wild West history in downtown Cody, overnight in the Irma, founded in 1902 by Buffalo Bill Cody himself.

West Yellowstone (population: about 1,300), beautiful year-round, really shines in winter, when almost as many snowmobiles and Nordic skiers roam the streets as cars. The town's annual Nordic skiing festival over Thanksgiving weekend draws more than 3,000 skiers.


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En Route

From Salt Lake City, the park's west entrance (West Yellowstone) is the shortest distance, about 325 miles. But you'll only drive a little farther for significantly more scenery by taking U.S. Highway 89 to the south entrance (Jackson). The highway goes through Logan Canyon (near the quaint, outdoorsy college town of Logan), along the shore of Bear Lake (a Caribbean-blue body of water) and up the Snake River Canyon to Jackson and Grand Teton National Park before arriving at Yellowstone.

From Glacier National Park, 300 miles north, the most direct route (on U.S. Highway 93, Interstate 90 and U.S. Highway 89) takes you down through Montana, with lots to see and do: Wander around Missoula's historic downtown of crenellated brick buildings or go fly-fishing on the nearby Clark Fork River; explore Butte's Butte-Anaconda Historic District, important for its mining and labor union history; and visit Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies, a Smithsonian affiliate with an extensive collection of dinosaur fossils, including the world's largest Tyrannosaurus Rex collection.

 

Old Faithful Geyser erupting at Yellowstone

Peter Unger/Getty

The most famous feature in the park, Old Faithful, puts on a steamy show every 60 to 110 minutes.

 

Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park

lucky-photographer / Alamy Stock Photo

Grand Prismatic Spring is the country's largest hot spring — about 121 feet deep and bigger than a football field.

 

bison at Yellowstone

Jouko van der Kruijssen/Getty Images

Yellowstone is home to thousands of bison, roaming free in the park.

 

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River

UrsaHoogle/Getty Images

Lower Falls is the park's tallest waterfall, spectacular in the early morning light.

 

Grand Canon of Yellowstone, USA, Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park

blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo

It's not the Grand Canyon, but this Grand Canyon is mighty impressive: 20 miles long and more than 1,000 feet deep in some places.

 

Old Faithful Inn

John Elk III/Alamy Stock Photo

Old Faithful Inn has been hosting visitors within easy view of the geyser since 1904.

 

Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs

Josh Forden/Alamy Stock Photo

Mammoth Hot Springs features dramatically steaming pools of hydrothermally heated water, often tinted with color by microorganisms.

 

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