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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 South Loop

The Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The north loop, which I wrote about last week, certainly has a lot of great things to see in Yellowstone National Park. But if you only have one day, then the south loop is where you want to spend it. If you have two days, which should be the bare minimum to see the park, then see this area second; since it’s more stunning, in my opinion, you want to see it second so you don’t overshadow anything on the north side of the park.

A close up look at the Lower Falls

A close up look at the Lower Falls

Once again, as I said with the north loop, we’ll start in the Canyon Village since I stayed there on my recent visit. Don’t waste any time in the lodgings there. They really aren’t all that impressive, especially considering you’re staying in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Instead, wake up before dawn and head down to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. There are several overlooks to see the magnificent lower falls, as well as hiking trails to go right up to them. And what better time to do this than dawn, when the sun is hitting them just right from the east?

Hayden Valley

Hayden Valley

As magnificent as the falls are, don’t overstay your welcome. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: dawn is one of the best times to see wildlife. And the nearby Hayden Valley is one of the top spots in the park to see wildlife in Yellowstone. Bears, bison, elk; all of the big animals you want to see are right in this one spot in the park. So be sure to pay them a visit early in the day. If you arrive too late, then it’s likely they’re lounging up in the hills and trees until dusk or you’re battling a horde of other park visitors.

Following the boardwalk at the Mud Volcano

Following the boardwalk at the Mud Volcano

If you didn’t do any hiking at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, then you’re in luck; a short trail on the south side of the Hayden Valley goes around the Mud Volcano area. Sounds disgusting, I know, but it’s a cool area to see and learn about the changing landscape. This is real life proof right here in this one little spot that Yellowstone is changing. Yep. Whatever you see on this visit will likely be totally different on the next, due to the geothermal conditions in the area.

The Tetons and Yellowstone Lake

The Tetons and Yellowstone Lake

Lunch is here, and it’s best to do it in a scenic spot. You’re in Yellowstone, though, right? Every spot is scenic. That’s kind of true, yeah. Some spots are just more scenic than others. And to do it right, this would probably be a good day to have a picnic lunch and sit by the Yellowstone River at the Fishing Bridge. This spot is known for bears – but, yep, this isn’t exactly the time of day to see them – but it’s also known for the stunning scenery across Yellowstone Lake. If you have more time, head east to where the crowds thin out. As you go toward the east entrance there are several pullouts that lookout on the lake and on down to the Grand Tetons. No lie. You can see them from places east of the Fishing Bridge.

No picnic lunch? No problem. Stop in Lake Village for some dining. The cafeteria is the best option, and, I can honestly say since I stayed in the area my first time in the park, not too shabby. It’s also the path you want to take when you continue south. Cut off the main road into the village and go right after the first lodge you see, the Lake Hotel. A narrow causeway cuts through the lake and an overflow pond on the right. It’s a great spot to relax after a big lunch and simply enjoy being where you are. And at this point, you have the time so take advantage.

Yellowstone Lake Overlook

Yellowstone Lake Overlook

West Thumb and Grant Village are far out of the way of any of the big sights in Yellowstone. If you’re coming up from the south entrance the drive is beautiful, but really there’s no reason to stop in this area. Continue on from the lake, but be sure to hit the first pullout once you pass West Thumb. There is an overlook for Yellowstone Lake that is absolutely stunning. It’s worth the delay as you go toward Old Faithful.

Going up and over the Continental Divide

Going up and over the Continental Divide

There are a few other worthwhile delays along the road. Be sure to take the time to stop. The first one is the Continental Divide. There are two spots on the Grand Loop in the park where you can stop at the divide – the place marking whether water flows east or west on the continent – and they’re both along this road, since the line goes up and loops back down on the west before continuing on north as the border of Idaho and Montana.

The Kepler Cascades

The Kepler Cascades

The other spot is the Kepler Cascades. Even though this waterfall is right off the road, few people stop. Everyone is too busy driving this way or that. If you slow down though, you have the opportunity to spot some gems. And this is a great spot the likes of which you haven’t yet seen this day. So stop at Kepler, relax and take in the falls – often times without anyone else around but a passing motorist. Old Faithful, with all of its crowds, will still be there when you arrive.

Watching Old Faithful erupt

Watching Old Faithful erupt

Old Faithful. What can you say about it that hasn’t already been said? It’s timely. Yep. It’s stunning. Sure. But it isn’t all that there is to see in the area. A ton of various geysers and ponds dot the landscape around this area of the park. So allow for plenty of time to see as many as you can. After all, who knows, you may get lucky and be able to watch a geyser that, instead of going often in a timely fashion like Old Faithful, erupts so sporadically that no one can predict it.

I’ll write more about it later, but I recommend hiking the trail that overlooks the geyser basin. From this spot you can not only watch Old Faithful a second time – it’ll likely be going off again just as you reach the top – but also the Solitary Geyser, which erupts quite frequently. Sometimes it’s a few bubbles, other times it’s a huge splash. Wait it out for a while and see what happens.

Solitary Geyser erupts frequently with one big splash

Solitary Geyser erupts frequently with one big splash

Continue through the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin down to Morning Glory – one of the highlights of the park that is, sadly, diminishing in beauty each day due to vandalism – and amongst the rest of the geysers. There’s a lot to see here, and the bulk of your afternoon will be spent in this one spot. Lunch and dinner can also be had in the area restaurants, so don’t worry about figuring out anything to eat. It’s all right here for you.

The beautiful Morning Glory pool

The beautiful Morning Glory pool

Once you’re done, continue on the south loop and go north through the Midway and Lower Geyser Basins. Neither of them will likely be as spectacular as the Old Faithful area, which is why I say see the Norris Geyser Basin before these. If you don’t see it on the first day, you’ll be geyser’d out and not interested. Regardless, stop off and see what you can in these other areas. There’s some great scenery here with the Firehole Lake Drive, the Firehole Canyon Drive and falls, the Gibbon Falls, and Artists Paintpots.

Firehole Falls

Firehole Falls

As the day goes on the beauty of each destination will diminish. Each is still spectacular, but with so many fantastic things crammed in one day they begin to lose their luster as time goes on. So, if you have the time, take a lot more of it than two days to see Yellowstone National Park. If not, jam what you can in, see as much of it as you can, and figure out what you like best so you can see more of it in a slower and more appreciative style on a return visit.

The Artists Paintpots

The Artists Paintpots

When you return to the Norris Geyser Basin turn off, which is a short drive of the Artists Paintpots, you have the option to go any direction you like in the park – exiting to the west, continuing north to Mammoth, or east toward Canyon. If you’re staying in Canyon, or didn’t see the Virginia Cascades on the first day, take a right and head that way. Otherwise, if you’re not heading out, I recommend going back north, hurrying on by Mammoth, and going east on the north loop once again to see if you can spot some wildlife at dusk. If you’re luck, the bears will be out around the Blacktail Plateau or in the Lamar Valley.

Regardless of which direction you select, you’re sure to see something magnificent. After all, think about it, this is Yellowstone. The world’s first national park. It was designated as such for a reason. And that reason is no matter which direction you turn at the intersection you’ll find something amazing. So go off, take more time, and explore what will surely continue to impress you as it did me.

Watching the Gibbon River flow south

Watching the Gibbon River flow south

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5 Comments on “Driving Yellowstone’s South Loop”

  1. Traveling Ted (@travelingted) July 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    some great photographs and great tips for those touring Yellowstone

  2. Ralph July 22, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    Thanks for the great blog, someday I will get to visit the park myself.

  3. 1quest2thenextadmin July 22, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    Nice. 1st timer at YNP late June. Can’t wait to do it again and concentrate on everything I missed

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. My First Time Camping in Yellowstone | Jason's Travels - August 6, 2015

    […] in such a great spot, right in the middle of the park for easy access to both the north and south loops, that it’s difficult to consider staying anywhere else. Especially for the cost. Even though […]

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