I was able to visit Yellowstone National Park for the first time in September 2020 with one of my best friends and my husband. Given the pandemic, we have placed an emphasis on outdoor activities. Read ahead to plan your future trip to Yellowstone National Park.
This post will focus on having a home base in Big Sky, Montana, and using the West Entrance to get into the park. In addition, this post will contain some considerations for Pandemic travel and a recommendation for a clean place to stay. I also will mark which attractions are wheelchair accessible, given that Yellowstone was much more accessible than some of the other National Parks I have visited.
Top Sights in Yellowstone and a Hidden Instagram Spot
Yellowstone is such a huge park that there is no way you can see everything in a short amount of time. However, we packed our days pretty full and were able to see some amazing sights the two days we were there. Here you will find ideas for a two-day itinerary in Yellowstone, based on entering the park from the West Entrance.
Day 1: Entering the Park and Heading North for the Day
Riverside Drive (Optional) – One of the first things we did was the Riverside Drive, which is a short and pretty drive along the Madison River near the West Entrance, but could easily be cut from your itinerary without missing much if you are short on time.
Several miles past the West Entrance, you reach a fork in the road. We went left.
Terrace Spring – This was a couple of cute little hot springs along a boardwalk. It wasn’t super crowded. (Wheelchair Accessible)
Gibbon Falls – One of our next stops was Gibbon Falls, which is an 84-foot waterfall you can very easily view without a ton of walking or much effort at all–the walk to the falls overlook is 400 feet, and the walk to the lower overlook is 1000 feet. It can get crowded here, much like other popular attractions. Although a simple stop, it was still one of our favorites. (Wheelchair Accessible)
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – This was rather crowded, and the entrance to drive in was backed up for several minutes, yet we were able to find parking. We checked out several of the overlooks since we weren’t prepared enough to go hiking. Fortunately, there are multiple overlooks that gave different views of the canyon. We were amazed by the colors and depth of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The canyon is about 20 miles long, over 1,000 feet deep, and 1,500-4,000 feet wide. I have seen Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and found that Yellowstone’s canyon is equally awe-inspiring. (Some parts are Wheelchair Accessible)
Sheepeater Cliff – This is a cliff and picnic area. Near the parking lot are columnar basalt deposits, or you can go over to see the Gardner River.
Golden Gate – This is a gorgeous albeit scary part of the road. If you are interested in this history, read it here. The view is breathtaking, although slightly terrifying, since a tumble into the canyon below would be catastrophic. You can also see a small waterfall off to the side!
Canary Spring – This is near Mammoth Springs and would be a pity to miss. On the park map, this area is listed as “Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces.” It is more impressive in person–pictures can’t really do it justice. I was pleasantly surprised to see these travertine terraces, as they reminded me of Pamukkale in Turkey! It may not have been as large or as impressive as Pamukkale, but it gives a foretaste of what you could experience in Turkey, all without leaving the United States. Be prepared to smell like sulfur the rest of the day. (Wheelchair Accessible)
In addition, during the course of the day we pulled off the road in some areas just to look at the meadows or to see animals that were further out, like bison and nesting cranes.
A few things we missed along this route that you could research to add or replace in your route are the following: Norris Geyser Basin, Beryl Spring, Artists Paintpots, and Monument Geyser Basin.
To return to Big Sky, we ended up driving out of the North Entrance through small towns and pastureland to eventually loop back down into Big Sky. Since the grass was all golden, it felt much more like a desert drive.
Day 2: Entering the Park and Heading South for the Day
This day, we drove straight from the West Entrance to the fork in the road, and turned right.
Lower Geyser Basin – Here we did the Fountain Paint Pots trail, which is half a mile long and along a boardwalk. It has the following: Celestine pool, Fountain Paint Pot, Red Spouter, Leather Pool, Twig Geyser, Fountain Geyser, Morning Geyser, Spasm Geyser, and Glepsydra Geyser. Fountain Paint Pot is a vat of bubbling mud! (Wheelchair Accessible except for a portion of the boardwalk containing steps.)
Midway Geyser Basin / Grand Prismatic Spring – The Grand Prismatic Spring is a gorgeous hot spring that you’ll often find photographed. It was in our top three favorite things that we saw at the park. The water is a gorgeous blue and microbes living around the surrounding mats create a lovely orangish color. This is one of the many otherworldly things to behold in Yellowstone. Although the hot steam obscured some of the views of the Grand Prismatic Spring, it was still an amazing thing to behold, as was the entire area, which included the Turquoise Pool, the Excelsior Geyser Crater, and the Opal Pool. (Wheelchair Accessible)
Geyser Hill / Old Faithful Geyser – No trip to Yellowstone would technically be complete without seeing Old Faithful. Since it is so hyped up we were tempted to skip it, but we ended up killing some time waiting around to see it go off. In the end, we were glad we saw it because it was pretty cool. We watched it from the boardwalk going up to Geyser Hill, and could just barely feel the mist from Old Faithful. We walked along Geyser Hill for a while to see some of the other little geysers, but given our time limit and other factors, we decided to turn around and head back to the car. (Wheelchair Accessible)
West Thumb Geyser Basin – West Thumb Geyser Basin overlooks the Yellowstone River and is another inspiring boardwalk with hot springs that are unreal. The hot springs are extremely beautiful and vibrant. It is hard to fathom how such beautiful and deadly things can exist. Please note that there are posted signs stating that throwing coins, rocks, or objects into the hot springs is illegal and subject to a really hefty fine. (Wheelchair Accessible)
After attempting to see Grand Teton National Park, we drove back from the South Entrance all the way back through the West Entrance. We saw two Bison roaming near the road by Old Faithful. After sunset, when we were driving by one of the fields between the Lower Geyser Basin and the road to the West Entrance, we saw a large herd of bison roaming around. Although it was too dark to capture the experience, it truly was a special moment for us.
On this route, these were a few notable things we missed that you might want to research and possibly add or swap out on the itinerary: Lewis Falls, Biscuit Basin Black Sand Basin, Fountain Flat Drive, Fairy Falls, Firehole Lake Drive, Great Fountain Geyser, Firehold Canyon Drive,
Hidden Instagram Spot
Moose Falls – a hidden spot that you might miss, close to the Southern Entrance, is Moose Falls. A very short walk on the trail led us to a view of the bridge we had just driven over, and another short walk further down gave us an amazing view of Moose Falls. This is an Instagram spot you don’t want to miss!
Entering Yellowstone: Why I liked being near the West Entrance
During the course of our trip, we were able to see three of the entrances: the North, South, and West entrances. This will be controversial, since many people recommend the South Entrance, but I recommend the West Entrance for these Reasons:
- The West Entrance is a good gateway for people coming from Montana (Big Sky Area) or Idaho (Island Park or Idaho Falls).
- The most wildlife we saw during the trip, particularly bison sightings, all but one occurred within locations close to the West Entrance–including a dusk sighting of a herd of bison. In contrast, by the South and North Entrance, we only saw Elk.
- Although my friend preferred the South Entrance, the road leading to the South Entrance (between Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone) bears the scars of past fire damage. In addition, we weren’t able to get good views of Grand Teton due to the smoke from the West Coast fires raging in Oregon and California.
- The West Entrance had fairly close access to a vast majority of our favorite stopping places, such as the Grand Prismatic Springs.
- West Yellowstone, Montana, has lodging, shops, restaurants, and gas. We didn’t stop at any due to covid, save for getting gas, but if it weren’t during a pandemic, I think we could have had fun exploring the touristy town.
- I really thought the drive between Big Sky to West Yellowstone was lush and beautiful. We commented on how it felt like driving through Lord of the Rings territory. I enjoyed that drive the most compared to the drives we took from the North and South Entrance.
However, keep in mind that the South Entrance is ideal if you are trying to hit up Grand Teton National Park as well, and the North Entrance is ideal if you’re wanting to see Gardiner, Montana. Like West Yellowstone, Gardiner looked like a fun, old-fashioned touristy town that I look forward to exploring one day when it is safe enough.
Big Sky: A Cool Home Base
I’ve been to Big Sky once before for a hike to Ousel Falls, so we thought Big Sky would be a nice location to stay. It is a cute touristy location reminiscent of Switzerland and is a ski resort town. We rented an Airbnb called “Big Sky – Gallatin River Retreat.” It was a really luxurious home and was one of the cleanest Airbnbs I’ve stayed at. It is managed by Beehive Property Management, which also manages some other listings in the area. Unlike an Airbnb I had stayed at in Polson, MT, this one was nearly immaculately clean and included preventative touches like leaving out an unopened sponge for guest use, and removing spices and condiments from the kitchen that could be conduits of germs. The house was large and spacious, with enough beds to host a large family. I was very pleased with their commitment to enhanced cleaning procedures: things like using a strong disinfectant, and quality control measures to ensure the cleaners are doing a good job. This is one of the few places where the hefty cleaning fee is actually worth it!
Big Sky is tricky during the off season as restaurants in Big Sky Town Center and elsewhere can potentially be closed or operating at reduced hours. We really thoroughly enjoyed getting takeout from Ousel & Spur Pizza Co., which had some of the best pizzas we have ever eaten, and Pinky G’s Pizzeria, which had friendly staff and was one of the only places that was still taking orders at 9:30pm, a time when many of the other restaurants were closed or had already locked their doors to prevent new customers from walking in.
Big Sky has opportunities for outdoor recreation, hiking, and biking. I highly recommend hiking Ousel Falls if you have time.
Be aware that Big Sky is bear country, so pack your bear spray and take other precautions.
Animals – Don’t get close to any wildlife. People have been seriously injured and killed. Practice bear safety, especially with food, and carry bear spray with you. Also, people will suddenly stop, slow down, or cause traffic jams when animals are sighted. We were stuck in traffic for quite a while due to people trying to pull over to look at bison.
Traffic jams – Aside from the traffic jams caused by animals, some of the parking lots also get to be hectic, especially when people are waiting for someone to pull out of their parking spot. This was especially an issue at some of the geyser basins and the Grand Canyon.
Restrooms – A lot of the restrooms are gross in the park. At the lower geyser basin, I even heard a tour guide tell his tour that the better restrooms were 30 minutes away. I found the best restrooms were at Old Faithful, both in the store and in the general restroom. They are the most sanitary since they are cleaned regularly and are flush toilets.
Bring a Facemask – The park is crowded, despite Covid, but we’ve heard it is less crowded than it normally would be. I was pleased to see a vast majority of people wearing face masks. I ended up being happy that we wore face masks to add an extra layer of protection. We also packed our own lunch and were careful to use copious amounts of hand sanitizer throughout the trip.
Binoculars – The really serious wildlife watchers seemed to have brought binoculars, and our friend lamented not having binoculars. Consider bringing or buying a pair if you plan on spending a good chunk of time watching wildlife.
Download the app – I followed the very wise advice of a blogger I know, Sarah Arnstein of the blog She Travels, and we downloaded the app ahead of time. Here is the app information. The Yellowstone NPS app isn’t perfect, and is at times annoying, but it was helpful to figure out our general area in the park as well as judge if we wanted to make a stop or not, as it gave some info and pictures of the various attractions. As Sarah had warned in her blog post (linked above), and as we found, there was very little cell reception in the park, and although a couple of times we could get texts or notifications on our phones, often we couldn’t search the internet for anything due to how bad the reception was.
Travel – Starting around mid-December, people can only visit Yellowstone by snowcoach or snowmobile, as explained on the Yellowstone National Park website. Basically, most of the park roads are closed to cars from November to April or May, so you need to plan your trip carefully based on time of year.
Overall, Yellowstone National Park was fun, otherworldly, and filled with some beautiful sights. Although we were exhausted at the end of each day and felt that we packed a lot of amazing sightseeing into each day, I know that we just barely scratched the surface of the United State’s oldest national park, which spans 2.2. Million acres.