Many years ago, we took a typical multi-day trip to Yellowstone National Park. About the only specific thing I can recall about That trip was how difficult it was to find good food in West Yellowstone. For the last 23 years, we have lived a one day drive from Yellowstone National Park, and we visit it in spurts, 10-12 trips so far. On each trip we stay for two or three nights. The way we organize our visits might not work for a longer stay, but here are some important considerations you should be aware of. Yellowstone National Park is big- 251 miles of roads inside the park. If you do no more planning than making a list of the things you want to in some order of how much you want to see them, you will spend most of your trip in the car. Grouping the park's roads and your trips into regions helps minimize running around and gets you to a lot of sights. The Park helps us out a bit in organizing sight seeing with a 142 mile loop road that goes to nearly all the main sights. Yellowstone roads are sort of designated by names of the road junctions-- Madison, Canyon, Grant, Norris, Tower, Mammoth.
Yellowstone's sights can be roughly classified into a few categories:
All Yellowstone's top sights except Mammoth Hot Springs are south of the Madison to Canyon road. Mammoth Hot Springs is iffy. It is a top sight if it is running or "active" in park parlance, When you visit the thermal pools between Mammoth and Old Faithful. you will see lots of remarkable colors in the nearly boiling temperature water. These colors come from wild bacteria and algae that thrive in Yellowstone's hot waters. So it is with Monmouth Hot Springs, sometimes. When the springs are active, when hot mineral laden water is flowing down the sequence of stacked terraces, the hot pools are populated by a colorful panoply of algae. This is a remarkable sight to see, but if the hot water flow is shut off by real time geological processes, the colorful bacteria die and all you have to see is a pile of small white basins. Almost all geologic processes take a very long time. What we see in Yellowstone today took the Yellowstone Hot Spot 2, 000, 000+ years to create (see tip Yellowstone: The Nearby Regions for the Hot Spot). There are a few very rare exceptions where geology happens in present time. Mammoth hot Springs is one of those exceptions-- it can be colorful or all white, as the geology water heated by volcanic action changes. If Mammoth Hot Springs is not active, don't feel bad if you miss it. Even if you are staying at Mammoth or Gardiner, MT, a visit to the north region is time consuming and not Yellowstone at its best. This is worth doing if Mammoth Hot Springs is running. otherwise, it goes to bottom of the list of major sights.
Norris or Madison to Old Faithful. This is the scenic heart of Yellowstone National Park. Don't miss Norris Geyser Basin, the largest and generally most active thermal site. There are several thermal sites on the road south to Old Faithful. The last time we were there (October, 2019), the small Firestone River Geyser Basin (take Firestone Lake Drive) was the best. It took us four tries over three days to get a parking place at the deservedly popular Grand Prismatic Spring. Driving south on the Firehole Canyon Road is very scenic, with waterfalls (must go north to south). And then there is Old Faithful, which we don't find all that interesting and skip unless we are escorting out of town guests who have never see Old Faithful because everybody wants to see Old Faithful.
The road from the town of West Yellowstone to Madison runs though a pleasant valley along the Madison River. The valley floor is a hot spot for seeing wildlife.
Mammoth Hot Springs, US Rt 212 to Tower Falls. Buffalo herds and waterfalls on the way. This 50 mile road across the top of the park is the only road in Yellowstone than is open all year long. The top spot for winter time wolf spotting. Accessible by a scenic mountain drive from Cody, WY. The road south over Mt Washburn, Yellowstone's highest peak, connects to the Madison-Canyon road. The Mt Washburn road includes the lower Yellowstone River Canyon.
Madison to Canyon. The fastest road in the park and the direct connection between the east and west regions. Also, all roads, all two of them, from north to the rest of the park intersect this road. . Old Faithful is the most commercialized place to visit, stay, or eat within the park. Canyon Junction Village comes next.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the highlight of the central region. Overlooks are accesses by road on both ides of the canyon. Artist's Point is the grand terminus of the road on the east side of the canyon. The top view points are Artist's Point; Inspiration Point, on the opposite side of the canyon and closer to the falls.
The only decent quick lunch within the park is at the Canyon Village Cafeteria. Guess right, and its almost good.
Canyon to West Thumb/Grant. Mud volcanoes; Hayden Valley is another top spot for wildlife; West Thumb Geyser Basin, generally small geysers but the least crowded Geyser Basin. The East and West roads meet at West Thumb/Grant for the south exit of Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park. Unless you are staying in Cody, WY, put the east route at the bottom of your list. There is more to see in the other regions.
You need a lunch philosophy when you visit Yellowstone. After you invested so much time and money in coming here, how much of the daylight hours do you want to devote to sitting at a table in a place to eat lunch instead of being out exploring the park? If 60-90 minutes is OK, go to one of the sit down full service restaurants (Mammoth, Old Faithful Inn; Yellowstone Lake Inn at West Thumb/Grant. Ratings indicate the sit down restaurants are better than the fast food joints. If you want fast food, its available at all the above except maybe not Grant (I can't recall). However, the many burger joints are bad and over priced. but then, everything in Yellowstone is overpriced, but at least you should try for decent over priced food. The one option there is the Canyon Village cafeteria.
Mammoth Hot Spnigs is iffy. It is a top sight if it running. "Running" means Travertine is a rock like the mineral deposit formed by evaporating hard water. There are both hot and cold water travertine formations, but hot water ones form much faster because hot water hold more dissolved mineral than does clod water. When you visit the thermal pools on the west trip, you well see lots of remarkable colors in the nearly boiling temperature water. These colors come from wiled bacteria the thrive in Yellowstone's hot waters. So it is with Monmouth Hot Springs. When the sprigs are active, when hot mineral laden water is flowing, the hot pools are populated by a colorful panoply of algae. This is a remarkable sight to see, but if the hot water flow is shut off by real time geological processes, the colorful bacteria die and all you have to see is a pile of small white basins. When the hot water shuts off, you get a cold water travertine basin-- a pile of white rock bowls shining in the sun. This looks exactly like a cold water travertine basin, and we have one of them about 12 miles away. The terraces are colorful, not white.