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The bison practically stepped out in front of our car in Yellowstone

What to Do in Yellowstone When You Only Have a Day

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One spring my husband and I had an intense weekend of traveling that included a 17 hour drive from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Calgary via Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

We’d visited Yellowstone years ago in the dead of winter to cross-country ski out of the lodge near Old Faithful. (I highly recommend this multi-day trip.) But we’d never seen the park without a blanket of snow. Although we’d been warned that the traffic would be horrendous, and it was, we still wanted to see some of the iconic sights. Here’s what you can do in Yellowstone when you only have a day.

                       

Updated May 2021. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The drive from Jackson Hole to Mammoth Hot Springs

It’s only 137 miles to drive between Jackson Hole and Mammoth Hot Springs. According to Google maps you should allow about 3.75 hours so I wouldn’t recommend and out and back trip.

Stay in Jackson one night and at Old Faithful Inn another and then head to your next destination. A day and a night is perfect if you’re crowd-adverse and you just want a taste of the sights in the summer months.

The Old Faithful Inn, built in 1903-1904, offers a great location. It’s an hour’s drive back from Mammoth Hot Springs – and a perfect spot with its unbeatable location, to spend a night. Then you can cover off Old Faithful and a handful of other geysers too – if you go for an evening or early morning walk.

In Jackson a few ideas on where to stay include Inn on the Creek, just 3 blocks from the town square. For a luxury boutique hotel check out The Wort Hotel. There is also a Hampton Inn in Jackson Hole.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

West Thumb Geyser Basin was one of our stops in the park. Although we only spent a short time in the area walking the outer loop, it was a treat to see all the thermal features.

You have a choice of walking a couple of loops – all on boardwalk. Both get you good and close to springs, mud pots, vents and pools. The outer boardwalk takes you on a section along Yellowstone Lake – a huge lake, 20 miles long by 14 miles wide with an average August temperature of just 60°F.

Along the shore you can see the Fishing Cone, Big Cone and Lakeshore Geyser – just below the surface.

There are geysers in the area but the eruptions are less intense than other thermal areas in the park. Abyss Pool in particular shouldn’t be missed with its’ vivid colours. The birding is surprisingly good in the area too.

Even if you’re short on time, I’d recommend the 30 minutes or so it will take you to leisurely walk around the West Thumb Geyser Basin.

Viewing platforms provide an up-close experience to the thermal features
Viewing platforms provide an up-close experience to the thermal features
The water is so hot people can get scalded
The water is so hot people can get scalded
Walking the boardwalk beside Yellowstone Lake
Walking the boardwalk beside Yellowstone Lake
Colourful views in the West Thumb area
Colourful views in the West Thumb area
What a range of colours
What a range of colours
The Abyss Pool
The Abyss Pool
The Painted Pool, West Thumb Geyser Basin
The Painted Pool, West Thumb Geyser Basin

Uncle Tom’s Trail to Lower Falls

It’s a short but strenuous hike via Uncle Tom’s trail to the base of stunning Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park. Between paved inclines and 300 steps, you’ll descend more than 500 feet to get some wicked views of not only the falls but the superlative canyon scenery.

The steps to the Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park
The steps to the Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park
The Lower Falls on the Yellowstone River
The Lower Falls on the Yellowstone River are 308 feet tall – over twice the height of Niagara Falls
Beautiful Canyon Country along the Yellowstone River
Beautiful Canyon Country along the Yellowstone River
The stairs leading down to the falls can get jammed
The stairs leading down to the falls can get jammed

Look for wildlife as you drive through Yellowstone

Yellowstone is home to more than 200 species of animals including bison, wolves, elk and bears along with more than 300 species of birds. Wolves were only reintroduced in 1995 and they now number approximately 370. I saw my first moose ever in Yellowstone in the middle of winter but I don’t know how easy they are to spot in summer.

Elk are the most common large animals so no doubt you’ll spot some of them. Approximately 20,000 elk that make up seven unique herds call Yellowstone home.

Two of the hardest animals to spot are the lynx and the wolverine. Buy a lottery ticket if you see either one of these. 

Use common sense especially when you’re driving. There are so many animals in this park that it would be very easy to hit one. The speeding car in front of us missed a bison by mere inches. It’s just not worth it. And for heaven’s sake don’t feed the animals ever! And be bear aware. I’d suggest familiarizing yourself with these tips for staying safe in bear country.

We were lucky to see bison on several occasions while driving
We were lucky to see bison on several occasions while driving
Bison moult every spring
Bison moult every spring

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone

A highlight of any visit to Yellowstone National Park has got to be Mammoth Hot Springs. Allow at least an hour. The area will wow you with its travertine terraces, gurgling hot springs and ghost like trees.

The area is best appreciated on foot. If you have the time, walk all the boardwalks and trails in the area as each offers a slightly different vantage point. Visit in the off-season if possible as this is one busy park. It’s one area in the park that is open year round.

The hot springs have been around for thousands of years. Today over two tons of calcium carbonate in solution flows daily via a fault from the Norris Geyser Basin. The travertine comes in a variety of colours – green, red, brown and orange – tinted by warm water loving algae.

The flow of the hot springs changes – sometimes daily. Small earthquakes have closed some vents so no two visits will ever be exactly the same. Look for the limber pines – some of which are reportedly over 500 years old.

Mineral deposition, Mammoth Hot Springs
Mineral deposition, Mammoth Hot Springs
Mineral layers in the travertine
Mineral layers in the travertine
The Liberty Cap
The Liberty Cap
Ghost forest
Ghost forest
Wat to do in Yellowstone includes a trip to Mammoth Falls
Elevated boardwalks ensure easy accessibility
The crowds can be a little wild though mid-June wasn't so bad
The crowds can be a little wild though mid-June wasn’t so bad
What looks like a lake of travertine
What looks like a lake of travertine
What to do in Yellowstone - walk all the boardwalks as the views are very different
Make sure you walk all the boardwalks as the views are very different
Travertine terraces - and they are all named
Travertine terraces – and they are all named
Ribbons of mineral laden travertine
Ribbons of mineral laden travertine

Location of Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs are located at the north end of Yellowstone and accessed via the north entrance off of Highway 89. The road to the hot springs remains open all year round. In the “town” of Mammoth Hot Springs you’ll find the Albright Visitor Centre, the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, gas, food and other amenities.

Yellowstone is truly one of America’s great national parks but in my opinion it is best visited outside of the summer months when highways get jammed with traffic. Still the sights are like nowhere else you’ve probably been, so this park makes it into one of the must see sights in the country.

Further reading on things to do in the United States

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What you can do in Yellowstone National Park when you only have a day

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