I will start by saying that pictures don't do justice to the amazing visuals of Yellowstone National Park. I recently visited the park with my family over the 4th July weekend and below is my recommendation.
Planning your visit
Before I go any further, I will credit the blogger here for jumpstarting me on my journey to the national park. There are many ways to get to the park. The park shares the borders with Wyoming and Montana and is surrounded by airports most of which are easily 2 hours away. We landed in Bozeman, Montana which is 2 hours 40 minutes away. The other airports I considered included Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The rentals are really expensive for some reason. The catch here is to ensure that the car you rent is conducive to drive in the terrains. We were originally offered a convertible Mustang for a 3-member family. While it was enticing, the rental company themselves advised an upgrade to a CUV like a Ford Venue. It is just that the upgrade made sense given the hilly terrains and the number of hours you would be sitting in the car.
I strongly recommend staying in the park. The park itself has 5 different hotels - Old Faithful Inn, Canyon Lodge, Lake Lodge, Lodges near Old Mammoth Springs, and Old Roosevelt Lodge. We stayed at the Old Faithful Inn. Our other options would have been Canyon Lodge which has more food options. The Lake Lodge has a really good restaurant, a beautiful view of Yellowstone Lake, and is quaint but just away from all the places to visit. The location of Old Roosevelt Lodge is a pass.
The park doesn't have Mobile and Internet connection. The Old Faithful Inn doesn't have air conditioner but we never felt the need for one. We heard that Verizon works well and there are few hotels that say which provider works with them. Irrespective, just prepare for a digital detox. You will be on physical maps.
Day 1: Reach the park
We left Chicago in the morning and reached Bozeman, MT in the afternoon. Bozeman is in Mountain time so we gained an hour. We rented the car and drove to the national park. We got to the park via the West Entrance and reached the hotel by afternoon.
After checking in, we walked about the Old Faithful Geyser and sat down to see the geyser spring in action. The Geyser's near the Old Faithful seem to be predictable. Most hotels list the timings with a +/- time margin. For example, Old Faithful spring is predicted within the +/- 10-15 minutes of accuracy but the Grand Geyser has a 2 hour window. So always check for timings and assemble at least 30 minutes prior to the show.
After the show was done, we walked the entire upper Geyser basin for 3 hours. We saw several geysers - the grand being the best.
So on day 1:
Check the Old Faithful Geyser
Walk the Upper Geyser Basin and just complete the entire geysers.
If you live in a different lodge (e.g., Old Mammoth) you can adjust your schedule accordingly. Always begin Day 1 by visiting the attraction that is closest to your hotel.
Day 2: Old Mammoth Springs
We drove from Old Faithful to Old Mammoth. It is easily an hour drive with a lot of mountain terrains and curvy / windy roads. Have both your hands on the steering! Old Mammoth takes about 90 minutes. You start at the base and climb the stairs to the terrace of the Old Mammoth. After you see the breathtaking views, descend back to the base.
You can then drive to the Roosevelt Arch. The Roosevelt Arch exits you out of the park but since you have to buy a 7-day park permit, you can re-enter the park without paying any additional fees.
The Roosevelt Arch is majestic and is the most appropriate way to say Welcome to Yellowstone. I'd recommend getting lunch here in the neighboring town called Gardiner, MT. After that head back up to Old Mammoth Springs and drive towards Roosevelt Tower. This was the most underwhelming part of the trip. The fact that we spotted a bear with its baby and a few Bisons made it worthwhile. The Roosevelt Tower itself is non-existent.
We then drove to Lamar Valley. Lamar Valley is beautiful with access to wild life and on the way stopped by Undine
Falls. We then quickly stopped by Norris Geyser. We were a bit disappointed. The Steamboat Geyser hasn't erupted in a while and probably the best attraction. Rest was a long walk in the hope of finding something. However, the geysers here are unpredictable and we weren't lucky.
On the way back, we stopped by Midway Geyser Basin / Grand Prismatic Spring. It is a beauty and not to be missed. We then retreated back to Old Faithful Inn.
So on day 2:
Old Mammoth Springs
Roosevelt Tower (a bit underwhelming)
Undine Falls (we just stopped for a scenic picture)
Midway Geyser Basin/Grand Prismatic Spring
Day 3: Lake Yellowstone, West Thumb Lake, and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
On Day 3, we went to the West Thumb Lake. The drive itself was long from Old Faithful Inn. We stopped by the Lake Lodge and went to a Marina enroute that offered scenic boat rides and even ability to rent your own boats. We didn't actually rent a boat. We saw a few Elk's and then continued our drive to West Thumb Lake.
The West Thumb Lake is was gorgeous. The Geysers are always awesome but the tranquility of the lake and the beauty simply over powers the geysers for once. We walked around the Geysers for about 30 minutes or so, took a lot of photos, and moved onto Hayden valley and towards the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
It truly is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We stopped by the North Rim, South Rim, Upper Water Falls, Inspiration Point, Artist Point, and several other one-off spots. We didn't dare down the Lower Falls just given the number of steps and our energy levels.
Note: If you are into hiking or walking, you can walk from North to South Rim through a trail to your hearts content. It is just not for everyone! Plan accordingly.
We stopped by the Canyon lodge for lunch. This was the best food in the mountains.
In the middle of mountains we saw a driverless "van" or automobile pilot called T.E.D.D.Y. We missed the schedule but came back again for dinner and got a ride to experience it.
So on Day 3:
West Thumb Lake
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone - North Rim, South Rim, Upper Falls, Lower Falls, Artist Point, Inspiration Point, and others
T.E.D.D.Y. Driverless Automotive experience
Few more views of Old Faithful.
Day 4: Head back
On Day 4, we simply headed back to Chicago. It was a 2.5 hour drive devouring the Big Sky and the drive that gives you a feel for Switzerland into the airport and then a 3 hour flight back.
Reflecting back, it was truly a phenomenal experience. People often talk about Switzerland, I'd say give Yellowstone a try. For once, I felt like the photos cannot do justice and should be experienced via the best camera given to humans (i.e their eyes).