While exploring the country, Yellowstone consistently topped the list of National Parks we wanted to visit. The idea of seeing Old Faithful or the mesmerizing colors of Grand Prismatic Spring had us itching to make a trip out west.
But we’re not the only ones drawn to the first National Park. With over 4 million guests each year, most of those visiting between May and September, Yellowstone can become crowded. The park has millions of acres to explore, but the majority of visitors remain within just a small portion. It’s easy to understand that with limited vacation time guests may not have the opportunity to really head out into the backcountry while still visiting the well-known features. But even if you don’t make it out to the most remote areas, it’s possible to find unique sights at Yellowstone that don’t require huddling into crowds or searching for a parking spot like it’s Christmas at the mall.
Here are 6 of our favorite gems at Yellowstone you can enjoy while avoiding the crowds:
1. Theodore Roosevelt Arch
Emmy actually was the one to request this site. After doing a project about President Roosevelt in school, Emilie has loved learning everything she can about our 26th president. This may be related to the fact that teddy bears are named after him. Nonetheless, when she saw the north entrance to the park was named after Teddy Roosevelt and that he had personally laid the cornerstone during a dedication ceremony, she immediately put this on her bucket list for the park. Her goal was to find that cornerstone.
Surprisingly, this entrance to the park was not overly crowded. As National Park sign photos are fairly popular, I anticipated a long wait to get close to the arch without photo bombing someone’s family portrait. We visited in the early afternoon and while we saw a handful of other people who briefly stopped for photos, overall it was much less busy than other areas of the park.
2. Tower Fall
Prior to our Yellowstone visit, one of the books I read thoroughly to prepare was Photographing Yellowstone National Park by Gustav W. Verderber. Mr. Verderber has visited Yellowstone numerous times in all seasons and provides detailed locations and times to capture amazing photographs in the park. One such section tells of a rainbow which occurs around 8:00 am daily in front of a waterfall. This sounded like the most magical opportunity and I could not wait check out the area.
The book describes a trail that begins in a parking lot approximately two miles south of the Tower-Roosevelt junction. We found the parking lot and Tower Fall, but the trail is no longer accessible due to erosion. Despite being unable to hike the half mile to the bottom of the waterfall, Tower Fall was still remarkable. The walls surrounding the waterfall were formed as lava flows cooled and cracked, causing columns to protrude from the rock. These pinnacles resemble castle towers, making this an inspiring location. In fact a painting of this waterfall, created by Thomas Morgan, was key in the creation of Yellowstone as a National Park.
And while I’ll admit 8:00 am may be a little on the early side, when we were there we only saw two other people. The lack of crowds allowed us to slow down and take in the beauty of the waterfall without worrying about being in the way of others. I think this helped us appreciate it even more.
3. Petrified Tree Exhibit
This small exhibit is a prehistoric redwood that, during a volcanic eruption, was covered with mud and ash. Silica mixed among the wood cells, encasing them with stone. Sadly NPS had to enclose the tree with metal fencing to prevent vandals from stealing pieces. The fence still allows a close view of this fascinating fossilized tree though. I was surprised more guests weren’t checking it out. When we visited there was one other family who was leaving as we arrived. Other than that we did not run into any other guests in the parking lot or on the short walk up to the tree.
4. Old Faithful Observation Trail
Before I describe this trail, I’m going to throw out a disclaimer. For this location, you will still start out in a crowded parking lot, namely at the Old Faithful Inn. But once you head up the trail to the overlook, the numbers of guests around you will dwindle rapidly.
We watched Old Faithful erupt multiple times during our visit. From the observation area outside of the Old Faithful Visitor Center, we crowded in among the boardwalk and bleachers to try to witness this natural marvel, alongside of thousands of other guests. When we watched from the view on top of the hill, there were less than 20 of us. It is a little bit of a climb, but overall not too tough. And the hike up was enjoyable as it felt far removed from the crowds below. When we reached the top, we were able to find a spot on the ground to sit and enjoy a unique view of Old Faithful erupting. While I wouldn’t give up the traditional view of seeing Old Faithful erupt near the Visitor Center, this one is well worth the hike for a more relaxed experience.
5. Firehole Lake Drive
On our first day at Yellowstone, we could not wait to see geysers. The whole thought of these unique formations are part of what makes Yellowstone so special. Firehole Lake Drive gives visitors an opportunity to see a number of these boiling springs in one location.
Guests pack other geyser trails in the park, like the Midway Geyser Basin path or the Old Faithful Boardwalk. Part of the appeal of this trail is that it’s a one way drivable road. Traffic is not overwhelming and there are plenty of pull-offs and parking spots for visitors to step out and get a closer look at the geysers.
6. Artist Paint Pots
The Artist Paint Pots are located on the west side of the park, between Norris Junction and Gibbon Falls. These mud pots are cause by sulfuric acid mixing with sediment to form clay. As gasses escape the mud, it expands and pops. The bubbling clay is amazing to watch as it really does look like globs of paint. In seeing the splatters across the boardwalk, it was surprising to me how far the mud flies.
I will admit the lack of crowds for this location totally astounded me. When researching Yellowstone prior to our visit, websites frequently recommended Artist Paint Pots, so I had anticipated high crowd levels. Maybe it was because it was later in the day (approaching dusk by the time we were leaving), but we only ran into two other families when exploring this trail.
Yellowstone really is a remarkable park. While it’s definitely worth putting up with crowds to see some of the well-known features, there are some amazing locations in the park that are less congested. Hopefully you’ll enjoy these hidden gems as much as we did.