You’re taking the quintessential Yellowstone trip—one week(ish), all the postcard-worthy sights. Let us present to you: the Grand Loop Tour.
The Grand Loop circles through Yellowstone National Park, creating a main drag that cruises past the Park’s most famous highlights. Start anywhere, and feel free to knock off just one portion on your trip—as long as the following classic sights stay on your long-term bucket list.
Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin
Let’s start with the most iconic of Yellowstone images: the reliably spectacular Old Faithful. Plan a couple hours to wait for an eruption and take in the blast, which shoots up to 184 feet into the sky. Check in at the visitor center to find out when the show starts, then tour the grandiose, century-old Old Faithful Inn if there’s a little lag time. (For the full experience, book a night there—but do so well in advance.)
Once you’ve knocked off the Park’s biggest draw, check out the 250 other geysers within walking distance—welcome to the Upper Geyser Basin, the largest concentration of geysers in the world. A 1.5 mile stroll from Old Faithful takes you past the Grand and Castle groups, and another mile takes you into the Cascade Group and Biscuit Basin (with closer trailheads accessible by car, if you prefer).
Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic’s deep blue waters turn yellow and orange toward the edges, splintering into golden rivulets. At 370 feet across, the bubbling, steaming hot pool is so vast it’s hard to take it all in from ground level—shimmy up the hillside just a few steps into the Fairy Falls trail for a better view. (For more distraction, hike or bike up to Fairy Falls, a 200-foot plunge.)
Norris Geyser Basin
The acid waters of the Norris Geyser Basin kill off plants and trees, creating a whitewashed, scorched-earth that bubbles and churns with erupting geysers, deep-hued pools and ghostly steam vents. Take a couple hours to tour each of the easy, mile-long boardwalks of Porcelain and the Back Basin, catching geothermal wonder every dozen feet.
Mammoth Hot Springs
At Mammoth Hot Springs, a multicolored scene of bright ivory fountains streaked with greens and oranges bubbles brightly alongside the greying slopes where geothermal activity has slowed. Spend an hour or so trekking the gently sloped, short boardwalks that crisscross these travertine terraces.
You’ll drive past it at least once, and it’s right off the road, AND it’s a great snack and bathroom stop, so hop out and appreciate 132 feet of free-flowing waterfall.
Mount Washburn’s relatively easy 6-mile round-trip trail, outstanding 360-degree views of nearby mountain ranges and proliferation of wildlife make it one of the most popular hikes in the park. Plan for a half-day hike, ascending 1400 feet into potentially cooler weather. Note: in the summer, thunderstorms can be likely, so hike early in the day, if you can.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
On good weather days, you’ll see a row of easels set up on the canyon rim, as artists attempt to capture the multicolored canyon walls, turbulent waterfalls and raging river of the ridiculously scenic Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. From the North Rim, take the Brink of the Falls trail to … literally … the brink of Lower Falls, where a dizzying 63,000 gallons per second blasts over the edge during peak runoff.
For the casual sightseers, easy, flat trails with good viewing angles into the chasm wind along both the North and South Rims. For a little more cardio, scurry down 500 feet of stairs on Uncle Tom’s trail on the South Rim to get a closer gander at the Lower Falls.
Lake Yellowstone is huge—at 20 miles across, it’s the largest high-elevation lake in North America. To up the cool factor, it rests in an ancient caldera. Take an hour-long cruise on the Lake Queen, or rent your own fishing boat. Even if you don’t stay at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a Southern colonial mansion-style lodge, plan to at least have a drink in the Sun Room
So, these are Yellowstone’s main draws—which really means that they’re just the tip of the iceberg, as there are plenty of worthwhile places to pause. (See Yellowstone, Off the Beaten Path for more ideas.) Watch the signs along the road, and if one piques your interest, pull over. With this much natural beauty and wild landscape crammed into a small area, chances are, it’ll be well worth the stop.