Yellowstone Loop Drive| Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
Yellowstone National Park, a diverse and expansive landscape, is America’s oldest designated National Park and is collectively considered to be the first in the world. Established by President Grant in March of 1872, the park stretches across three states: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. It is the second largest National Park in the continental United States, behind only Death Valley National Park, and it is one of the ten most frequently visited.
For an opportunity to see many of the highlights that Yellowstone has to offer, consider the Yellowstone Loop Drive, as we did during our summer visit to the park. Exploring Yellowstone by car will allow you to see bubbling geysers, roaring waterfalls, alpine meadows, and tons of wildlife. This is an adventure not to be missed!
The Yellowstone Loop Drive Details
Total Distance: 198 miles from the South Entrance, 155 miles if you are staying inside the park.
Total Driving Time: Approximately 5 hours and 40 minutes from the South Entrance, or about 4 hours and 30 minutes if you are staying inside the park.
Places with Cell Phone Service: Old Faithful Inn and Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor’s Center
Where to eat: Typically we can’t recommend National Park food, but Yellowstone seems to be an exception. The Geyser Grill (Near Old Faithful) has great burgers for lunch, and though pricey, our dinner at the Grant Village Lakehouse Restaurant was good. Don’t forget to treat yourself to ice cream at either the Tower Falls or Grant Village General Stores!
Driving through Yellowstone in One Day
Of course, the more time you have to explore Yellowstone, the better. Each region of the park has a lot to offer from sightseeing, to observing wildlife, to hiking. However, if you only have one day to visit Yellowstone, it is best to see the park by driving the Yellowstone Grand Loop. Many of the park’s main attractions can be seen on this drive, and depending on how much time you have, you can stretch your legs and take some short hikes along the way.
South Entrance to Old Faithful (57 minutes)
From our home base at Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch, the drive to the South Entrance of Yellowstone was a short 2.5 miles. Starting our day early, we made a brief stop at the park entrance sign for an obligatory photo. This is definitely one of our favorite spots for sunrise with the winding Snake River in the background and not another soul in sight!
The drive from the South Entrance is rather uneventful as you head towards Old Faithful. Without traffic at this early hour, we were able to cover the roughly 40-mile drive in about one hour.
Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin
Old Faithful Geyser is one of the signature features of Yellowstone, and most popular destinations within the park. It’s name dates back to 1870 and the Washburn Expedition that explored the region that would become the national park just two short years later.
One of the hallmark features of Old Faithful, and the origin of its name, is its consistent eruptions. Typically, the geyser erupts once every 1-2 hours, with some variation in either direction. Visitors flock to Old Faithful to watch the 100-180 foot spray for roughly between one-to-five minutes. Benches encircle the geyser and fill up quickly, so be sure to secure a seat early before the crowds arrive.
On our visit, the predicted eruption was pushed back 45 minutes. In the interim, we headed into the adjacent visitor’s center to secure our passport stamp before returning to our front row seats.
If Old Faithful doesn’t fulfill your geyser quota, you’re in luck! The Upper Geyser Basin is chock full of additional geysers and other hydro-thermal features. A boardwalk loops its way along the aptly named Firehole River passing Geyser Hill, Grand Geyser, and Castle Geyser, to name a few. You could easily spend a few hours exploring this region, though I could only handle so much of the smell before we were ready to move on.
While completing the Yellowstone Loop Drive, be sure to also check out the Old Faithful Inn, a historic landmark in its own right that dates back to 1904. We were immediately captivated by the rustic beauty of the log inn and its expansive lobby complete with stone fireplace. Almost certainly a place we’ll stay on our next visit and one of the few locations in the park with cell phone reception.
Note: Between Old Faithful and the Midway Geyser Basing lies Biscuit Basin. For the sake of time, we opted to stop here on a separate day when we hiked to Mystic Falls. You can read about the hike, and see images from Biscuit Basin here.
Old Faithful to Midway Geyser Basin (13 minutes)
A short, seven-mile drive from Old Faithful, and you will arrive at Midway Geyser Basin.
Without question, the highlight at this stop is Grand Prismatic Spring, a colorful, eye-catching hot spring. The largest hot spring in the United States at 370 feet in diameter and 121 feet deep, you can expect plenty of crowds here.
While there is a parking lot closer to the spring, we opted to hike to the overlook and view it from above. Parking at the Fairy Falls Trailhead, a 0.6 mile (one-way) hike takes you to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. It’s a nice perspective from above and allows you to avoid a small percentage of the crowds.
Midway Geyser Basin to Gibbon Falls (25 minutes)
Our drive along the Yellowstone Grand Loop from Midway Geyser Basin then continued north toward Madison Junction. Once we reached the junction, we shifted east before stopping at Gibbon Falls. As resident suckers for waterfalls, when we spotted the roadside attraction, we immediately pulled into the adjacent parking lot. For the best vantage point, head past the crowds and catch the falls straight on.
Gibbon Falls to Norris Geyser Basin (20 minutes)
Back on the road, we continued another 20 minutes until we reached Norris Geyser Basin. If you’re looking for more geysers, then you’ve come to the right place! Norris is located along three fault lines, which is the main reason for its diverse and constantly changing features. We made a brief stop here, before continuing along on our journey to complete the Yellowstone Loop Drive.
Norris Geyser Basin to Mammoth Hot Springs (60 minutes)
The drive to Mammoth Hot Springs from Norris Geyser Basin took us about an hour, and much like the other main destinations in the park, was popular with tourists.
I had two thoughts when we reached Mammoth Hot Springs, the first being that it looked nothing like the Mammoth here in California that I’m familiar with! The landscape almost looks live you’ve landed on another planet due to the abundant thermal activity. It took us quite some time to find a place to park as the crowds flocked to the terraces and the visitor’s center.
Much like our visit to the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center, Mammoth Hot Springs seemed to be one of the few places where we had any sort of cell service. After a brief break at the visitor’s center, we headed over to the hot springs terraces.
Water from the Norris Geyser Basin flows into the Hot Springs in Mammoth, and subsequently through limestone carrying calcium carbonate. This process eventually leads to the formation of travertine terraces, one of Mammoth’s most distinctive features.
Boardwalks allow you to walk along the terraces and take in the unique landscape of the hot springs, which are weirdly fascinating.
We even encountered an elk who was happily relaxing and taking in all the tourists.
Before long, the clouds began to roll in and we decided to it best to get moving before the rains came. From Mammoth Hot Springs it is just a short drive to the North Entrance of the park, and Montana, so we decided to hop in the car and continue driving to the historic entrance.
Mammoth Hot Springs to North Entrance (10 minutes)
My other thought when we arrived at Mammoth was that we could keep driving and visit Glacier National Park, but I quickly realized another six hour drive was a bit ambitious for this day. I was, however, excited to visit another state on this road trip, and within a few short minutes, we crossed the Wyoming-Montana border.
The drive to the North Entrance of Yellowstone is about five miles from Mammoth and located in the small town of Gardiner, home to less than 1000 residents. A visit to the park’s North Entrance means viewing the Roosevelt Arch.
Pretty cool to think that this arch, created in 1903, had a cornerstone laid by then President Theodore Roosevelt. Visitors at that time were brought by train to nearby Cinnabar, Montana and then transported via horse drawn carriage into the park. They were greeted at the entrance by the words “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” a truly perfect mantra for all the National Parks.
North Entrance to Tower Junction (50 minutes)
Making our way southeast, we headed back to Wyoming through the North Entrance en route to the Tower-Roosevelt region of the park. We made a quick stop at the 45th Parallel before continuing on the 45 minute drive.
The highlight of the Tower area of the park is Tower Falls which drops 132 feet to the Yellowstone River below.
Due to erosion, you can no longer hike to the bottom of the falls, something Julie did on a previous visit, and we found out the hard way on this visit. While there was a sign indicating that the trail was closed, it was off to the side, so we missed it, and made our way downhill only to find the trail roped off near the bottom.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can continue down the trail, opposite the falls, to the Yellowstone River at the bottom. Be aware though, that the trail is slippery here as it’s mostly just loose sand, and you can’t see the falls once you reach the bottom.
After the making the trek back up the hill, we decided to reward ourselves with some ice cream at the General Store. A well deserved and delicious reward!
Tower Junction to Canyon Junction (38 minutes)
Back on the road, we continued south towards Canyon Junction as we headed to our next stop, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Along the 40-minute drive, we made a quick pit stop to check out a roadside super bloom in the Mt. Washburn area.
We arrived at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone late in the day which meant the crowds had lessened a bit. There are several viewpoints where you can take in the falls including both upper and lower falls.
While many waterfalls often are formed by glaciers or snowmelt, the falls here are a product of erosion and the powerful super volcano that created Yellowstone. To witness the falls firsthand is pretty incredible. We started with the views from above the falls and then made our way down to the brink of the falls for an up close vantage point.
After visiting the Brink of the Falls, we made additional stops at Lower Falls, Lookout Point, and Grand View. During our visit the North Rim Trail, Inspiration Point, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin viewpoints were all closed for restoration projects. Be sure to check these in advance of any trips to the falls.
Grand Canyon to Grant Village (60 minutes)
Leaving the falls behind, we jumped back on the road, but not before being greeted by a local resident of the area.
Our drive from the Grand Canyon to Grant Village should have taken about an hour, but we were delayed by crowds of cars that had pulled over to look at a bear across the river. This is definitely one of the drawbacks to spotting wildlife in the parks, as onlookers will create traffic just to catch a glimpse of an animal.
In the two instances we spotted bears on this trip, neither one was in a location that was easily visible to the eye, and even less so for the camera. It was frustrating to have our trip delayed as people stood in the middle of the road to try and take pictures on their cell phones of what will turn out as anindiscernible brown spot in a patch of green bushes. While annoying, we had to remind ourselves that it comes with the territory, and made the best of it as our car slogged along the highway, and past the the traffic jam.
We arrived at Grant Village around 8:30 p.m. and were happy to see the Grant Village Dining Room was still open and serving dinner. I’ve mentioned before that National Park food is hit or miss, and our dinner at Grant Village was more of a hit. Maybe it was because we had been in the car all day, but we were overall happy with dinner.
With our bellies full, we made the rainy, 40 minute drive back to the Lodge at Flagg Ranch. Capping off an epic road trip adventure on Yellowstone Loop Drive, we crashed into bed for a much needed good night’s rest.
Have you visited Yellowstone National Park? Have you done the Yellowstone Loop Drive? Let us know in the comments below!
MORE FROM YELLOWSTONE & GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARKS:
Hiking to Mystic Falls
Hiking to Amphitheater Lake
Hiking to Bradley and Taggart Lakes
Four Places to Photograph The Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park