Our travel details are followed by a map, and sample itinerary for the first day of a trip to Yellowstone National Park.
I knew when we made plans for this summer that I would be busy, but I don’t think I realized quite what I was getting myself into. Traveling practically every other weekend has meant that I spend my weekdays trying to get caught up after being gone or working to get ahead before leaving again. I have begun looking forward to my disconnected plane flights to give me a chance to detox and to catch up with the things I enjoy, like writing here.
I’ve been dying to write something about our trip to Yellowstone since we returned, and got started when I posted about our adventures on the way there. Read about our rerouted flight and ensuing fun here. But that snafu was really a small footnote in what turned out to be a beautiful trip. We didn’t try anything truly insane like our 18 mile hike in the Grand Canyon, but we did hike to a hidden overlook of a waterfall, summit a mountain, use our car to herd buffalo, sip cocktails by the lake, stop to watch a baby bear roll around in the grass, and so much more.
Our trip officially started in Jackson, WY, after an overnight bus ride from Pocatello, Idaho. We went to our hotel for a couple hours’ sleep and were back on the road by around 10AM. We had carefully picked Jackson as our jumping off point for the views as we drove through Teton National Park. With every mile, my worries and work stress melted away. The mountains and rivers we passed reminded me how insignificant my troubles are. It’s easy to put things into perspective when looking up at mountains that have stood for millennia, unfazed by our troubles. We didn’t stop much, but the views from the car were enough. If you have more time (like we had originally planned) there are some great lookout points along the drive. Take advantage of them and enjoy the journey.
At some point there is either a checkpoint or an entrance (I can’t recall which) to Grand Teton National Park where park passes can be purchased. They are good for both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and are valid for 7 days with unlimited re-entry during that time. The rangers at this checkpoint were particularly cheerful. I have never met an unhappy park ranger. Every encounter we had with rangers was downright delightful. They’re friendly, helpful, and seem genuinely happy to be there. There must be something about that mountain air that’s good for the soul. They gave us a map of the park and bid us enjoy our trip.
As we continued, the views changed from grass and shrub filled mountain valleys to old pine forests to cliffs overlooking steaming hot springs and rivers. Between the anticipation of the adventures to come and the glorious landscape, I could feel my heart swelling with joy. I could have burst with excitement. These are the moments that make me want to travel even more. The curiosity, the anticipation: it’s like Christmas Eve as a child. Each new view, experience, and memory is better than gold, and each one is entirely unique and completely my own.
Old Faithful & Upper Geyser Basin
We made our way directly to Old Faithful. I think it’s a requirement for first-time visitors to Yellowstone. You’ve got to go see it once, if for nothing else, to say that you’ve been. The signs to get there are easy to follow, and parking was not painful (although we don’t mind parking far out and walking). When we arrived, we knew we wouldn’t have to wait long: there was quite a crowd gathered already. We found a spot where onlookers were seated at benches, giving David and I a pretty great view over their heads. It is an amazing sight to see when the geyser erupts. It is astonishing to think that such power can accumulate just below the surface. And so much water! It is definitely worth the wait and the patience required to stand in a crowd of fellow tourists.
After the eruption, we had planned to hike the Upper Geyser Basin to Morning Glory Pool. The trailhead is within yards of the Old Faithful viewing area, and was surprisingly not too crowded. You actually have two choices for the “trail”: one is wide and paved (bicycles allowed) and is the most direct route to Morning Glory; the other is a wooden boardwalk that wanders and weaves around geysers, hot springs and pools, taking the scenic route, but rejoining the paved road near Morning Glory. Both remain fairly flat, with only a slight incline as you go, so “hike” is kind of an overstatement. Any and all of the paths here would be suitable for families and individuals of various fitness levels. Either path will get you there in about 1.5 miles (2.4km) with the paved road slightly shorter and more direct. I would highly recommend the boardwalk/scenic route. We did both, the boardwalk on the way up, and the paved route on the way back and generally agreed that the paved route was not nearly as enjoyable. If we did it again, we would wander the boardwalk both on the way there and the way back.
The boardwalk was built for the protection of both the hot springs and the tourists. In many places, there is only a thin crust of earth covering a layer of piping hot, acidic water just underneath. The pools that line either side of the path are diverse and colorful, ranging from rust reds to bright yellows, vibrant greens, and vivid blues. Hot springs constantly bubble up and sporadic geysers are intermittently playful and powerful. We loved reading the geysers’ names and wondering how they came to be. My standout favorite was the “Economic Geyser” (Is it fiscally conservative?).
The path ends at Morning Glory Pool, and she is even lovelier than the pictures. The colors fade from deep indigo to green to yellow and orange, with rust-colored streams of hot water running off and down the hill.
Morning Glory, although she is stunningly beautiful today, has a bit of a sad history. People were careless, and for years threw coins, trash, and rocks into the pool. The bacteria that form the layers of vibrant color depend on the flowing hot water from the depths of the underground system. With the flow of hot water all but stopped by the human contributions, they began to die and the pool began to turn muddy brown. Without the intervention of conservationists, Morning Glory would no longer be a sight to see. They pumped out all of the rubbish and debris, clearing the natural pipe of blockage and over time, her beauty has been restored.
The walk back to Old Faithful was much less exciting due to our choice of path, but it was worthwhile when we ended up passing by a grazing bison as we neared Old Faithful Inn. He didn’t mind us at all, but I was still glad to have several yards and a sturdy-looking wooden fence between us. After much ogling and picture taking, we proceeded inside the lodge. Old Faithful Inn is truly a behemoth of a lodge. It is constructed in true log cabin style, but on such a grand scale that it is at once rustic and magnificent. There are three major balconies overlooking the main lobby and a massive stone fireplace mounted with an equally massive clock. We grabbed sandwiches from the deli and a coffee, and enjoyed them on the terrace overlooking Old Faithful. We must have had just the perfect timing, because it erupted again while we enjoyed our lunch.
Staying inside the park is expensive, but if I were going to stay, I think Old Faithful Inn would be tempting. It has so much character. They sell out as much as a year in advance, so if you have the money to spend and want to stay here, book your rooms early. And even if you don’t plan to stay here, it is definitely put it on the itinerary to stop in for lunch or a drink. A cup of coffee or tea one evening in a cozy chair in the lobby would be glorious.
Link to reservations at Old Faithful Inn here.
Hike to Fairy Falls & Imperial Geyser
Revitalized, we headed back to the car to drive to our next stop: the trailhead for the hike to Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser. This turned out to be one of my favorites from the entire trip. Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful are major tourist attractions for a reason: they’re amazing. But there’s something special about experiencing the beauty and majesty of nature a little more privately. I like the feeling of adventure that comes from being alone on the trail, and the unique awe of discovering a waterfall, or a view and feeling for a moment that it’s just you and nature.
Here is a link to a good overview of the hike.
(If you follow this link, note the trail to Picture Hill was closed during our visit and therefore is not mentioned in this post.)
The trailhead is between Old Faithful and Midway Geyser Basin and starts at Fountain Freight Road. You’ll know you’re in the right place by the big steel bridge crossing Firehole River. Following Fountain Freight Road north, you pass along the back side of Midway Geyser Basin. The views here are phenomenal: steam rising from the plains, framed by pines. The trail is relatively flat, and gravel-paved. After a mile (1.6km), you will see the turn off for the Trail to Fairy Falls on your left, probably marked by some bicycles that have been left behind while their owners hike to the falls. As the path makes its way through the pine forest, you will probably want bug spray.
2.6 miles (4.2km) from the trailhead, the path emerges at the bottom of the 200ft (60m) falls. The waterfall isn't massive in terms of the volume of water, but in terms of the drop. Spectacular! The whole hike, we were pretty well on our own, passing only a few hikers headed the opposite direction. I was thrilled to have a private little moment with just David and I and the beautiful Fairy Falls. The water was freezing and crystal clear. The aptly named Fairy Falls are magical and well worth the hike.
Crossing over the river on some fallen logs, we continued on the trail toward Imperial Geyser. At first, near the river, the path wasn’t really well defined, but it quickly became apparent we were headed the right way and the path materialized before us as we left the rocky riverbank. It only takes an additional half mile (0.8km) to reach Imperial Geyser. The path passes through a lovely grassy meadow and then alongside a bubbling hot spring. Once you reach Imperial Geyser, the pool is an artwork of blues ranging from inky to pastel, with a rust-colored frame around the edges. The National Park Service states that Imperial Geyser erupts infrequently, but it was almost constantly erupting while we were there. It would burst high into the air, then continue bubbling and frothing for a few more seconds before subsiding, but you only had to wait a minute or so for it to start again. After the crowds of Old Faithful, this felt so much more personal. With a total hike of only 3 miles (approx. 5 km), this was so little effort for such a gem of a reward. I soaked it all in before we had to start the hike back. If you decide to do this hike, keep in mind that you still have a three mile hike back to your car. Keep an eye on the time and know what time the sun sets if you’re hiking in the late afternoon/evening.
Midway Geyser Basin & Hotel in West Yellowstone
We finished off our first day in Yellowstone by walking Midway Geyser Basin. Turquoise Pool and Prismatic Spring are lovely, as their names entail, but my strongest memory here was the Excelsior Geyser and crater. Excelsior was once a massive geyser, erupting over 300 feet in the 1800s. The crater is gigantic, and it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the kind of destructive power that created it. First time visitors to Yellowstone should probably put this on their list, particularly since Old Faithful, the hike to Fairy Falls/Imperial Geyser, and Midway Geyser Basin are all quite close to one another.
We headed back to the car, knowing it was best not to wait for the sun to go down to head to our hotel in West Yellowstone. First, you really don’t want to be on the road in Yellowstone NP at night. They try to limit light pollution inside the park, so no streetlights. There are too may critters (including big ones like bison, dear, and bears) to risk killing them and/or damaging your car. Second, in the summer it doesn’t get dark until 10PM, and we were running on three hours of sleep. We stayed at the Moose Creek Inn (website here) and although it is not the Four Seasons, it was perfect for us and within our budget. We had a second floor king room and found it comfortable, quiet, and clean. When you’re really there for the park, the hotel room is just a footnote, a place to sleep. Moose Creek is within walking distance of numerous cute shops, bars and restaurants, so dinner was simple and easy. We actually ate at a Mexican restaurant, serving food out of a retrofitted bus. Surprisingly good food and so much fun!
From Jackson Hole to West Yellowstone, I wouldn’t change a thing about Day 1 of our Yellowstone adventures. Below is an idealized itinerary (assuming your flight didn’t get rerouted to anther state the night before).
Map for Yellowstone Day 1 Travel
Itinerary for Yellowstone Day 1
7:00AM – Wake up in Jackson Hole, WY
7:45AM – Ready to go and everything is packed in the car
8:00AM – Breakfast in Jackson Hole
8:30AM – Walk to the park at town center for quick photo op with antler arches
9:00AM – Start the drive through Grand Teton National Park toward Yellowstone
10:30AM – Pass South Entrance Ranger Station
- there is time added for stops for photos
11:30AM – Park at Old Faithful
- possible stops for photos
12:00PM – Depending on timing of next Old Faithful eruption, watch Old Faithful or explore Old Faithful Inn
12:30PM – Lunch at Old Faithful Inn
1:30PM – Hike Upper Geyser Basin to Morning Glory Pool
3:00PM – Head back to Old Faithful Inn
- Relax, have a snack or coffee, explore the inn, and/or watch Old Faithful
3:45PM – Drive to trailhead for hike to Fairy Falls & Imperial Geyser
4:00PM – 7:00PM Hike to Fairy Falls & Imperial Geyser
-Plenty of time for photos and enjoying the views
- There is time to hike up picture hill if path is open
7:00PM – Return to car and drive to parking for Midway Geyser Basin
7:00PM – 8:00PM Walk Midway Geyser Basin
8:00PM – Begin drive hotel in West Yellowstone, MT
8:50PM – Arrive at hotel, check in, & drop off bags
9:00PM – Find & eat dinner
10:00PM – Back to the hotel, shower, & go to bed
For more itineraries, advice, and details from our trip, see Yellowstone: Day 2+.