West Yellowstone, Montana is the western gateway to Yellowstone National Park. The west entrance is open to regular vehicle traffic from late April to early November. It then closes to all vehicles until mid-December. December 15 through March 15 is a season of guided over-the-snow travel on snowmobiles and snow coaches. The west entrance closes to vehicles on March 15 until a season of bicycle-only travel in early April and opens again to regular vehicles in late April.
To visit Yellowstone, established in 1872, is to experience the world’s first national park. Marvel at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and be awed by the many geothermal features of the park, including hot springs, mudpots, and geysers, such as Old Faithful, one of its most popular features.
Visitors can explore the mountains, forests, lakes, and waterfalls and watch wildlife along the rivers or in the open grassy meadows. Open year-round (with the exception of a few weeks each spring and fall), each season brings a new perspective to this vast ecosystem. People from around the world visit to fulfill this lifelong bucket list item. We like to think they all leave with a new appreciation for the wild lands in addition to an experience they will never have anywhere else.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a view that can’t be missed. The canyon extends roughly 20 miles from the Upper Falls to Lower Falls. In geologic terms, the present canyon is relatively new at only 10,000 to 14,000 years old and was formed by erosion versus glaciation. The Upper Falls are 109 feet high, and the Lower Falls are often described as being more than twice the size of Niagara Falls, although this only refers to its height (308 feet) and not the volume of water flowing over it. There are two viewing options, the South or North Rims.
Local tip: Early mornings and evenings are the best time to photograph the Canyon and avoid heavy traffic. There is an easy, short hike to Artist Point in the Lower Falls—one of our favorite spots.
Don’t miss the Canyon Visitor Education Center. The center, completed in 2006, is a combination of museum, electronic library with hands-on technology, and visitor center. It is the geology center for Yellowstone with two stories of exhibits all focused on the Yellowstone Supervolcano.
Old Faithful, named by members of the 1870 Washburn Expedition, was once called “Eternity’s Timepiece” because of the regularity of its eruptions.
Watching Old Faithful erupt is a Yellowstone National Park tradition. The most frequent large geyser, each eruption is different and even the occasional bison wanders by.
We also suggest stopping in at the Old Faithful Inn. The Inn stands as a testament to one architect’s vision of incorporating magnificence into a fantasy experience of light, forests, and rusticity. It is a place that deserves credit for its own 100-year survival in spite of earthquakes, wildfires, and some of the meanest winter conditions a building can endure. The most impressive part is gazing upward through seven stories of log frames and wooden stairways, built with gnarled limbs of lodgepole pine.
Yellowstone is home to 60 percent of the world’s geysers. Check out the Fountain Paint Pot’s boardwalk area that contains a short walk through spurting geysers, mudpots, and beautiful hot pools.
Firehole Lake Drive is a five-mile, one-way road that allows you to get up close and personal with several hot pools, geysers, and even a steaming lake. Norris Geyser Basin is home to Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser.
And, of course, a visit to Yellowstone is never complete until you have seen the Grand Prismatic Spring, the park’s largest hot spring and earliest described thermal feature in Yellowstone. One of our favorite areas is the Artists’ Paintpots with a spectacular view of hot springs, geysers, and colorful, gurgling mudpots.
With a surface area of 132 square miles, Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake at high elevation in North America (i.e., higher than 7,000 feet). It is frozen nearly half the year. If you were able to see the bottom, you would find the same geysers, hot springs, deep canyons, and fumaroles found on land in Yellowstone. Tours, fishing, boating, and kayaking are popular activities during the summer months. Hotel restaurants near the lake will even cook your catch of the day.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel, locally shortened to just Lake Hotel, is the oldest working hotel in Yellowstone Park. The site for the original hotel on the shores of Yellowstone Lake was a meeting place for Indians, trappers, and mountain men. Artifacts from the Fishing Bridge area date back to 10,000 years before present day. Today, the Lake Hotel offers a variety within its 158 rooms enjoyed by over 75,000 visitors annually. The Lake Hotel is also known for its large, elegant dining room. The casual elegance of the restaurant ensures every type of visitor feels comfortable.
Most everyone is familiar with the Upper and Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, but there are several others that are equally spectacular and awe-inspiring. In total, there are more than 300 identified waterfalls in Yellowstone and many can be seen from roadside trails. One is Tower Fall, 132 feet tall and named because of the towers of rock that surround it.
Fairy Falls is a popular hike from Midway Geyser Basin. Firehole Falls (pictured) is just south of Madison Junction along a one-way drive (and even more impressive in the winter, if your guide is nice enough to take you there). One of the best waterfall hikes is Mystic Falls, behind Biscuit Basin. Some other popular waterfalls are Gibbon Falls, Kepler Cascades, Osprey Falls, and Undine Falls.
Lamar Valley, known as America’s Serengeti, features long rolling hills, tall grasses, and large herds of ungulates (bison, elk, and antelope). The surrounding mountains are home to both grizzly and black bears as well as several of Yellowstone’s wolf packs. It is known as a wolf-watching mecca since they were reintroduced in 1995.
The Lamar River, a tributary of the Yellowstone River, runs through this area and is home to many wonderful hikes.