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I am a Denver-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Driving Yellowstone’s North Loop

A map of Yellowstone National Park

A map of Yellowstone National Park

The roads in Yellowstone National Park run in the shape of a figure eight. The two circles together are known as the Grand Loop Road. Separately, they’re at least a day each to explore. I recommend more time to sit back and enjoy the scenery and animals, but if you’re in a rush then two days is the bare minimum. In order to travel each, do them separately beginning with the north.

The road west from Canyon Village

The road west from Canyon Village

I stayed in the Canyon Village area, which is where the two loops join on the east side of the park, so for simplicity sake we’ll start there. If you’re staying elsewhere in or out of the park, adjust your itinerary in order to accommodate your interests. As it is, when pulling out of the village, unless you want to stop at the visitor education center there first, we’ll head west on the road that breaks the Grand Loop into an eight.

Loving the view at Ice Lake

Loving the view at Ice Lake

The road is only 12 miles (19 km) across, so it’s a nothing drive. But, as I’ve said before, slow down and take it easy. You’re not likely to see a lot of wildlife on this road, but you never know. And since you have a full day, you’ve got plenty of time. There’s no need to rush. Relax and start the day out right with one of several trails to the lakes on the north side of this road. I picked the one to Ice Lake. It’s only a mile long, so a quick in and out. But it’s a nice place to stretch your legs. And since it’s on the cross road, there won’t be a lot of foot traffic. It’s likely only to be you and nature.

The Virginia Cascasde

The Virginia Cascasde

Once you’re done on the trial, continue west on the road to the Virginia Cascade. This is one of several scenic one way roads in the park that lead to a special spot. Take as many of them as you can, including this one. The cascade is gorgeous. And, once again, there’s not a lot of traffic. So it’s a great spot to relax and take in some of Yellowstone’s beautiful scenery…maybe even over a light picnic breakfast depending on what time you started.

Walking through the Norris Geyser Basin

Walking through the Norris Geyser Basin

By late morning you should be across the loop and to the Norris Geyser Basin. It is because of this spot that I recommend doing the north loop first. If you do the south loop to start, you’ll likely be sick of seeing geysers and not think a thing of what is truly a magnificent spot when you see it. There are a lot of great hiking trails here, generally all boardwalks, and opportunities to see some incredible scenery the likes of which you’ll likely never see anywhere else. But if you see it after the Old Faithful area, it may seem boring and unattractive.

Getting up close to the geothermal features at Norris

Getting up close to the geothermal features at Norris

The Norris Geyser Basin is quite the opposite of boring. The lunar-esque landscape is stunning and full of interesting opportunities to learn about what makes Yellowstone so special. Both times I’ve visited the park I’ve made it my first stop on my first day. And it’s simply so I don’t take it for granted, since there are so many great places to see in Yellowstone.

Once you’re done exploring the trails in Norris – which are all pretty easy, so be sure to slow your stroll and take your time – turn left and head north on the Grand Loop Road toward Mammoth Hot Springs. There are several pullout spots along here, the first immediately after you leave Norris.

An exhibit at the Museum of the Park Ranger

An exhibit at the Museum of the Park Ranger

The Museum of the National Park Ranger is a pretty cool spot. But, once again, if you don’t hit it early in your trip it might be lost in all of the other great things to do and see in Yellowstone. The museum, which covers the history of the national park ranger from the point of being part of the military, is also a great place to see wildlife. There are always bison lounging out in the nearby field. In truth though, there are bison everywhere in the park. So take your time inside the museum, learn a little about the history of the park rangers, and, once you’re done, continue on north.

Nymph Lake

Nymph Lake

It should be after lunchtime by now, so getting to Mammoth in order to grab something to eat will be top of mind. Nymph Lake, Roaring Mountain, Obsidian Cliff, and Sheepeater Cliff are all great stops as you continue north. None should take more than a few minutes, unless you’re looking to slow it down even more and maybe do some more hiking or a little picnicking. If you have more time, use it up and slow down. If not, you can stop, take a few pictures, and continue north.

Sheepeater Cliff

Sheepeater Cliff

As you get close to Mammoth Hot Springs – really the only city in the park – you’ll need to slow down to see a few things, namely the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. This is another one of those one way loop roads that offers access to some amazing scenery. In this case, it’s a whole bunch of hot springs. And they’re worth taking the time to see, but not just from the road. Hit a couple of the short walks along the road, and take some more time to see them from below as you pull into Mammoth. There are a few pullouts there that offer an even more spectacular view of the terrace.

The Mammoth Hot Springs Terrances

The Mammoth Hot Springs Terrances

When you’re done, you’re in Mammoth Hot Springs. This area not only has lodging and food, but also, often times, has some visitors of the four legged variety. Deer, elk, and so forth frequent the town, walking right down the street or plopping down to rest right outside of one of the several buildings in the area. Two of those are the park headquarters and the old Historic Fort Yellowstone. Take some time to see each, as well as just explore the town in general. There’s a lot to see here, and you’re really in no rush now that you’ve had a bite to eat.

Elk in Mammoth Hot Springs

Elk in Mammoth Hot Springs

I’ve said it before: wildlife generally comes out at dawn or dusk. And the road east of Mammoth Hot Springs, particularly around the Blacktail Plateau area, is a great place to see a lot of animals, most particularly black bears. I saw at least six of them – three adults and three cubs – between Blacktail and the Petrified Tree – all in one evening. If it’s still too early, then continue on, take the turn toward the northeast entrance to see the stunning Lamar Valley, and come back to this area at dusk.

The Lamar Valley, while not on the Grand Loop, is a must see. It’s known for its wildlife, particularly bison, antelope, wolves, and bears. It’s possible to see most of them at any time of the day, so don’t worry about when you visit. You’ll be hard pressed not to see something in this area, it’s one of the best wildlife locations in the park, so you’re good to visit most anytime. And as it gets closer to dusk, you’ll be in a good spot to continue back toward the Petrified Tree and a good cruising spot to see bears.

The stunning Lamar Valley

The stunning Lamar Valley

If you’ve come in through the northeast entrance or aren’t interested in seeing the Lamar Valley, then, once you leave Mammoth, head toward Mt. Washburn. It’s only a little north of Canyon, so closer to the end of your trip, but still close enough to return to a good wildlife spot at dusk. You may even see animals along the hiking trails here, most notably big horn sheep and grizzlies. (Be sure to take appropriate safety precautions with whistles, bells, bear spray, and the such when hiking in such areas.) Don’t worry if you chose the Lamar Valley over Mt. Washburn. You’ll drive over the mountain on your way back to Canyon at the end of the day. You just won’t have time to stop for any hiking.

A black bear and her cub near the Blacktail Plateau

A black bear and her cub near the Blacktail Plateau

Once you’re done driving the end of the north loop to spot some wildlife, find a good spot toward Mt. Washburn to watch the sunset. There are several pullouts along the road, so you should have no problem finding a good spot to enjoy the view before returning to the village. It’s just a matter of picking one you like best; for my money I’d choose the one near the top of Mt. Washburn and the turnoffs to the parking area there, as there’s a spot high up on the mountain on the west side of the road that faces the mountains to the west on a steep drop off on the side of the mountain.

As much as you’ve seen on your first day in the park, there’s even more on the next. So once you’re done watching the sun set, grab dinner in the village, call it an early night, and set the alarm so you can get going at dawn the next day. After all, since you came all this way, you don’t want to miss anything – especially all of the great things to see on the south loop. But, more on that next week.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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