Where to Find Yellowstone’s Captivating Wildlife, Indigenous Heritage, and Uncrowded Places

Here’s how to explore Yellowstone, according to the experts.

Fenced boardwalk near thermal feature at Yellowstone, with mountains in background

Indigenous people referred to Yellowstone National Park’s 10,000 thermal features as the “land of the burning ground.”

Courtesy of Morgan Newnham/Unsplash

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem offers plenty to see, including volcanic plateaus, alpine valleys, and mountain ranges—and thanks to the volcanic caldera hidden beneath the ground, geothermal features you won’t see anywhere else on Earth.

The 3,472-square-mile park in Northwestern Wyoming (and small sections of Montana and Idaho) is also home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48, including the famous reintroduced wolves. In short, there are many reasons Yellowstone National Park pulls in more than 3 million visitors per year. Here are some insider tips on what you should know and where to go on your trip.

View from a trail with forested land in the background

Be on the lookout for bighorn sheep and wildflowers on your way up Mount Washburn.

Photo by Jurekz/Shutterstock

Explore Yellowstone’s geological features

The first volcanic eruption in what scientists call the “sleeping giant” miles below Yellowstone took place 2.1 million years ago, when up to a foot of ash covered the entire western section of the United States. (Don’t worry, the last eruption was 70,000 years ago.)

At the National Historic Landmark of Obsidian Cliff, the molten lava that oozed beneath the park cooled into spiky black obsidian and was even used for toolmaking more than 11,000 years ago. Take in all the translucent dark cliffs of obsidian here along the roughly 20-mile-section of Grand Loop Road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Geyser Basin.

Next up? Hike for about four hours past wildflowers and bighorn sheep to the 10,219-foot summit of nearby Mount Washburn, named after former U.S. Representative Henry Washburn. For dramatic bright blues and greens, head a couple of hours southwest to the waters of the Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway Geyser Basin.

Your trip to the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents wouldn’t be complete without a stroll on the boardwalks of the hottest and oldest, Norris Geyser Basin, located in the north of the park next to the remains of a 600,000-year-old volcanic explosion, known as Mammoth Hot Springs.

“It’s always worth seeing Old Faithful and the other geysers in that area, but I would also recommend also visiting Fountain Paint Pots and Artists Paint Pots mud pots [hot springs filled with boiling mud] to get a good sense of the variety of hydrothermal features at Yellowstone,” says U.S. Geological Survey and Volcano Science Center geologist Mark Stelten, who is researching the magma stored under Yellowstone and triggers for potential future eruption.

And while many visitors know about Old Faithful, one of the best places to see the geyser is from the porch of the Yellowstone Tribal Heritage Center, which opened in 2022 to honor the region’s tribal communities through stories and artwork. Here, you can listen to presenters with ancestral ties to the tribes associated with the park, according to Alyssa McGeeley, a member of the Muscogee Nation with Yuchi heritage who is developing a strategic plan for tribal engagement in the park. McGeeley also recommends other spots with Indigenous history: “Sheepeater Cliff [in the northern part of the park] was once home to traditional wickiup lodges made of wooden poles, and Nez Perce Creek [in the park’s northeast] is a tranquil spot that holds echoes of the 1877 Flight of the Nez Perce.”

About a dozen bison roaming on yellow grass and across highway, with a few parked cars

Although the bison population increased in the 20th century, some bison still face livestock disease.

Photo by Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

Spot a diverse range of wildlife

Wildlife conservation is further along than it’s ever been in Yellowstone’s history, despite habitat disruption from rising temperatures and unpredictable precipitation from man-made climate change. In 2003, it was removed from UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in danger, a sign of progress.

One prime spot for wildlife is Hayden Valley, named after Ferdinand Hayden, who completed the first federally funded geological survey in 1871, convincing the United States to sign a new law making Yellowstone the first national park. Pull over at one of the scenic road stops in this centrally located 50-square-mile section of the park to catch a glimpse of coyotes, grizzly bears, wolves, and bison.

In the Lamar Valley, near the park’s northern entrance, you’re likely to see elk, moose, grizzly bears, badgers, bald eagles, pronghorn, osprey, deer, coyotes, and the park’s largest herd of wild bison. (And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll stumble on the burly beasts in the Tower-Roosevelt area in the northern part of the park too.) Considered to be the last wild herd of American plains bison, this species has continuously lived in Yellowstone since prehistoric times. The National Park Service saved the herd from extinction, raising 21 bison in Lamar Valley to recover the dwindling bison population in the 20th century.

Another success story in the Lamar Valley belongs to the gray wolves. They were completely killed off in 1926 by park rangers, but in 1995 these intelligent and loyal animals were reintroduced from western Canada, and they were eventually taken off the endangered list in 2017. (For a blissfully quiet experience, consider seeing this valley in the winter.)

People dining in landmark historic Old Faithful Inn, with chandeliers and pitched ceiling made of logs

Inside the landmark historic Old Faithful Inn next to the famous geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock

Sleep in and around the park

The 1903-opened Old Faithful Inn is one of the country’s few remaining log hotels and the largest log structure in the world, an architectural marvel that influenced the exposed log-and-wood frame architecture we see throughout U.S. national parks today. For sprawling eco-friendly charm, check into Canyon Lodge and Cabins, and visit Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, one of Yellowstone’s year-round properties.

Feel like venturing outside the park? Glamp at Under Canvas West Yellowstone, a 10-minute drive from the West Entrance, or roam around a dude ranch 30 miles away at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana.

Anna Fiorentino is a storyteller focused on outdoors, adventure, and travel. Her work has appeared in AFAR, National Geographic, National Geographic Travel, Outside, BBC Travel, Boston Globe Magazine, and other publications.
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