Yellowstone National Park

Scenic Driving

Yellowstone has approximately 300 miles of public roads. Most major features are adjacent to the Grand Loop Road; several one-way drives lead off the loop to areas of special interest.

Park roads are for leisurely driving only. The maximum speed limit is 45 miles per hour on primary roads; other road speeds are as posted. Motor vehicles may be used on roads only. Visitors may encounter snow and hazardous driving conditions during spring and fall, with temporary road closures.

Nearly all the famous sights in Yellowstone are within a couple hundred feet of the Grand Loop Road, a 140-mile figure 8 through the middle of the park. Nature's convenient arrangement obviously makes the sights easy to drive to and from, but in addition to enjoying scenic drives, make sure to get out and try hiking and biking as well!

Recommended Routes

Old Faithful to Mammoth Hot Springs
One of the main routes to Old Faithful is from the south via Jackson, Wyoming, and the South Entrance. The park road crosses the Continental Divide three times. Waters flow east of the divide to the Atlantic, or west to the Pacific. This park route passes five geyser basins—West Thumb, Upper (Old Faithful), Midway, Lower, and Norris—on its way to Mammoth Hot Springs. Sampling the world's largest concentration of geysers, you follow the beautiful Firehole and Gibbon rivers. A visitor center at Old Faithful and museums at Norris tell aspects of the park's stories.

Old Faithful to Madison
In Black Sand Basin, the bright colors of Sunset Lake and Emerald Pool attract photographers. At Biscuit Basin, mineral deposits took on biscuit shapes before a 1959 earthquake triggered changes destroying the biscuits. At Midway Geyser Basin you may walk to Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Spring. Firehole Lake Drive (one way, northbound) loops off the main road to Great Fountain Geyser, Firehole Lake, and various hot pools. The Lower Geyser Basin features the Fountain Paint Pot. Firehole Canyon loop drive (one way, southbound), starting south of Madison Junction, passes by Firehole Falls. Roadside forests are mainly lodgepole pine, some reddened by the feeding of mountain pine beetles, and others burned by wildfire in 1988. West Yellowstone, Montana, is 14 miles west of Madison Junction. From Madison to Norris you drive along the Yellowstone caldera's northwest rim. Gibbon Falls cascade over the caldera wall.

Norris Junction to Mammoth Hot Springs
Norris Geyser Basin's array of thermal features is unparalleled. Steamboat Geyser, the world's largest, erupts at irregular intervals of days to years. Echinus Geyser erupts about once per hour. Porcelain Basin is Yellowstone's hottest exposed area. Exhibits at Norris Museum explain geyser workings.

At Norris Junction you can turn east toward the Canyon area. At Canyon you can go north to Tower or south to Lake (see tours at right). Continuing north of Norris you pass Obsidian Cliff. Obsidian, a volcanic glass excellent for projectile points and cutting tools, was traded across North America by Native Americans. Two miles south of Mammoth Hot Springs the Upper Terrace Loop Drive passes through a thermal area. Gnarled limber pines on some extinct formations are more than 500 years old. At Mammoth Hot Springs, travertine (calcium carbonate) forms spectacular terraces. Most new rock from Yellowstone's geysers is called geyserite a noncrystalline mineral chemically similar to glass Exhibits at Albright Visitor Center portray the park's history and wildlife and tell how the U.S. Army protected the park from 1886 to 1916. Park headquarters is in the buildings of Ft. Yellowstone, a 19th-century cavalry post. Gardiner, Mont., lies five miles north. The Yellowstone River flows north, to join the Missouri River.

To Tower Roosevelt and Canyon Village
The road east from Mammoth Hot Springs leads you four miles to Undine Falls, then 0.2 miles to Lava Creek (picnicking). Three miles farther east look for waterfowl and muskrats at Blacktail Ponds. Next, Blacktail Plateau Drive, a one-way dirt road eastbound, leaves the main road to traverse grass- and sagebrush-covered hills and forests of Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, and lodgepole pine. Watch for pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and elk. Scattered groves of quaking aspen trees turn gold in autumn. The next side road leads to a petrified redwood tree.

Tower-Roosevelt to Northeast Entrance
Lamar Valley, accessible year-round, is winter range for elk and bison. During the park's main season, you may camp at Slough Creek or Pebble Creek campgrounds en route to the Northeast Entrance, 29 miles from Tower Junction. Beyond lie Silver Gate (1 mile) and Cooke City (4 miles), Montana, and the Beartooth Highway climbs to 10,940 feet at Beartooth Pass.

Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon
Tower Fall, tumbling 132 feet, was named for the adjacent volcanic pinnacles. Tower Creek flows into the Yellowstone River. South from Tower Fall, as you drive up Mount Washburn, look east, downslope, into prime grizzly bear country on Antelope Creek. This area is closed to human travel, to offer the bears refuge. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FEED OR APPROACH BEARS. The main road next crosses Dunraven Pass at 8,850 feet elevation, amidst broad-topped whitebark pines and spire-shaped subalpine fir. Meadows produce a profusion of wildflowers during the brief summer. From the Washburn Hot Springs Overlook south of the pass, you can see the Yellowstone caldera. Its north boundary is Mount Washburn and its south boundary is the Red Mountains 35 miles away. You can see the Teton Range on clear days, on the right beyond the Red Mountains.

Canyon Village
A 2.5-mile loop road (one way) leads first to a spur road out to Inspiration Point. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River plunges 1,000 feet. The canyon's colors were created by hot water acting on volcanic rock. It was not these colors, but the river's yellow banks at its distant confluence with the Missouri River, that occasioned the Minnetaree Indian name that French trappers translated as roche jaune, yellow stone. The canyon has been rapidly downcut more than once, perhaps by great glacial outburst floods. Little deepening takes place today. Grandview Point affords spectacular views of the Canyon. Lookout Point affords a vista of Lower Falls and a steep trail descends to a closer viewpoint. Back on the main road, turn left in 0.3 miles to view the brink of the 109-foot Upper Falls. On the main road again, go 0.6 miles south to Artist Point Road and cross Chittenden Bridge to Uncle Tom's Parking Area. Trails here offer close views of the Upper and Lower Falls. South Rim Drive leads to Artist Point for another view of the canyon and Lower Falls. South Rim Drive leads to Artist Point for another view of the canyon and Lower Falls.

Hayden Valley
The road here follows the Yellowstone River's meanderings across a former lakebed. After the great glaciers retreated, Yellowstone Lake was much larger than it is today, and this area was then flooded. The lake left fine silt and impermeable clay soil that permits little tree growth but allows rich shrubland that provides food for a variety of wild animals. Waterfowl, including white pelicans and trumpeter swans, abound in marshy areas. In this open parkland you may see moose, bison, and occasionally grizzly bears. VIEW LARGE ANIMALS ONLY AT A DISTANCE, FROM YOUR CAR OR FROM ROAD SIDES. Do not stop in roadways; use roadside parking areas for your safety. No fishing is allowed for a six-mile section in Hayden Valley. This provides quiet for the animals and views of untrammeled wilderness scenery for you. Stop at Mud Volcano and see the varied thermal features there. You might see spawning cutthroat trout jumping at Le Hardy Rapids, three miles north of Fishing Bridge, in June and July.

The Lake Area

East Entrance to Fishing Bridge Junction
Cody, Wyoming, lies 50 miles beyond the East Entrance. As you cross 8,530-foot elevation Sylvan Pass, watch for pikas and yellow-bellied marmots in the rocky debris of talus slopes. You descend the west slope of the Absaroka Range, an eroded volcanic range named for the Crow Indians. Near Yellowstone Lake a spur road leads to Lake Butte Overlook for a view of this immense body of water. Yellowstone Lake occupies only the southeast quarter of the Yellowstone caldera (see top text). At the overlook you are four miles outside the caldera's east boundary. Just north of the lake the Earth's surface has recently risen as much as one inch per year. This suggests future volcanic activity here. As you drive along the lake's edge, you can see Steamboat Springs. This is a hot spring remnant located on a line of faults, or fractures in the Earth, that also pass through Mary Bay and Indian Pond to the northwest. Bay and pond both occupy geologically recent hydrothermal explosion craters. The bottom sediments in Mary Bay are still very warm. Watch for moose browsing in the sedge meadows and marshes along Pelican Creek flats as you approach Fishing Bridge.

Yellowstone Lake
North America's largest mountain lake! Over geological time it has drained into the Pacific Ocean, the Arctic Ocean via Hudson Bay, and now drains into the Atlantic via the Gulf of Mexico. It is 20 miles long, 14 miles wide, and 390 feet deep at its deepest point. The average depth is about 139 feet. Trout generally inhabit the upper 60 feet because their foods rarely occur below that depth. The average surface temperature in August is about 60 degrees F, and the bottom temperature never rises above 42 degrees F. Swimming is discouraged even where not prohibited: Such cold waters can cause potentially fatal hypothermia or hyperventilation in minutes.

Boating is permitted on some park lakes. Permits—required for all watercraft—and advice on canoeing and kayaking can be obtained at ranger stations at Lake Village or at Grant Village. A marina is at Bridge Bay and boat ramps are at Grant Village.

Traveling toward West Thumb you may walk or bike a rough spur road, starting south of Bridge Bay, to see the natural bridge for which the area is named. Gull Point Drive loops off the Grand Loop Road for a closer view of the lake's edge.

West Thumb and Grant Village
Walk the boardwalk through the geyser basin at lake's edge at West Thumb. Intense heat measured in lake sediments below West Thumb indicates a shallow thermal system underlying this more recent caldera within the Yellowstone caldera. Should the lake level fall just a few feet, an immense steam (hydrothermal) explosion could occur here. That is what created the craters now filled by Mary Bay and Indian Pond, described above. Exhibits at Grant Village Visitor Center, two miles south of West Thumb, highlight the role of fire in Yellowstone. Fishing, boating, and backcountry use permits are available at the ranger station.

Off the Beaten Path
One-way drives of several miles beckon the Yellowstone visitor who has a bit more time to explore the park's offerings. Those include the Old Gardiner Road, which starts in Mammoth, traverses open grasslands with great views, and ends in Gardiner, Montana. The Blacktail Plateau Drive (eight miles) east of Mammoth Hot Springs, with aspen, wildlife, and open views, provides another auto tour opportunity in northern Yellowstone. These rough roads, most of which are gravel, may be closed through the summer. Please check locally for current information.


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