Your entrance to the park will determine which places you visit first. When you enter the park they give you a map that shows the whole park. Those are great to use to take notes on where you want to visit and make note of what wildlife you saw at different points.
Gibbon Falls is between Madison and Norris on the West side of Yellowstone Park. There is a large parking area and a nicely paved walk down to a viewpoint of Gibbon Falls and Gibbon River. One part of the paved walkway has a nice climbing area of rocks for kids. When you get to the viewpoint of the falls, make sure to keep your eyes on the rocks off to the right. We saw bird nests tucked into the rocks.
Lower Geyser Basin
The Lower Geyser Basin has a great stop at the Fountain Paint Pot Trail. There is an easy walk to quite a few different scenic spots.
The picture above is the Silex Spring. It is a deep blue hot spring and surrounded by red rock. You can watch the bubbles come from deep within the spring.
The Paint Pots are mudpots that burble up. The amount of activity seen depends on the time of year. There is more burbling after rains and in the Spring. By the end of Summer and into the Fall, the mud is thicker and there isn't as much activity.
There are also quite a few geysers to see along the trail. The Fountain Geyser eruption can last over 20 minutes!
You can't visit the lower loop of Yellowstone without a visit to Old Faithful in the Upper Geyser Basin. There is a great education center you can visit while you wait for the eruption. They also have an estimated time of eruption - geysers tend to run on their own schedule, but they can predict it pretty close to within 10 minutes of eruption.
Plan to get a seat at the viewing area early! It gets quite crowded. Between eruptions, you can walk the boardwalk to other geothermal areas.
Fishing Bridge and the Lake Village area are quite a beautiful stop to make on the East side of Yellowstone Park. The parking at Fishing Bridge is limited, but if you find a space, you won't regret taking the time to stop.
We followed a short nature trail on the east side of the bridge to the edge of Yellowstone Lake. We were keeping our eyes out for otters, but didn't see any. We were surprised to see other wildlife though.
There were 2 pelicans on the lake when we arrived at the area. They must know the best fishing spots. There were pretty wildflowers along the nature trail and some short offshoots up into the woods.
On the hills on both sides of the road at Fishing Bridge, there were natural dirt trails. Those are actually where the bison cross. There was a whole herd crossing and traffic was at a standstill. We looked over to the left and saw a Dancing Buffalo (well, that's what we called it)! This beautiful creature stood in the dust and danced around, kicking up more dust, until it was just right for him to lay down and roll back and forth. I guess he needed a dust bath. When he was done, he stood up and climbed the trial up the hill.
Hayden Valley/Yellowstone River
While traveling on the East side going North, you will pass grasslands of the Hayden Valley area. You follow the Yellowstone River for 16 miles and it is breathtaking. There are quite a few small places to stop along this stretch of drive.
The LeHardys Rapids is a wooded area where you can see squirrels climbing the trees next to the river. With it being wooded, it is a bit cooler and would make a great spot for a picnic.
In the grasslands along the river, you need to keep your eyes open so you don't miss wildlife in the tall grasses. This bison was about 15 feet from the road, just sleeping in the grass during the middle of the day.
We also saw a bear that was quite a distance from the road down by the river. The first picture in this section was from an overlook area. With binoculars or a strong lens on your camera, you can see across the open area to the wooded area. When we visited, there was a small family of elk, including a baby.
Other areas of note:
- Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin
- Norris Geyser Basin (where the northern and southern loop meet on the west side)
- West Thumb on Yellowstone Lake (near South entrance)
- Yellowstone Falls (Grand Canyon of Yellowstone)
This elk was with a few friends near Canyon Village. They didn't even mind the cars parked near them and people taking pictures.
Those are the 5 spots that I think are must-see stops on the Yellowstone southern loop. What are your favorite places to stop and visit when you drive the lower loop at Yellowstone?