Post Summary: 10 Yellowstone off the beaten path sights to explore that are big on nature and small on crowds.
Visiting Yellowstone National Park and seeing this stunning natural wonder should be on everyone’s American bucket list. We might even rank it as the best national park in the west (sorry Grand Canyon). Here’s the thing with being the best…everyone wants to go.
Over 4 million people travel to Yellowstone every year and the numbers are bound to go up as its popularity rises. If you aren’t prepared for the crowds of Yellowstone, you might arrive there and be sorely disappointed with the traffic jams, the parking issues, and small boardwalks that you have to share with fellow selfie-taking, camera-wielding visitors.
Here’s the thing, getting off the beaten path in Yellowstone is NOT hard. In fact, the best-kept secrets of Yellowstone are not that secret.
Here’s a roundup of 10 non-touristy things to do in Yellowstone that will get you away from the crowds and in touch with Yellowstone’s sublime beauty.
It goes without saying that backpacking through Yellowstone is a fantastic way to venture away from crowds, but not everyone is up for a multi-day trek through the backcountry. All the options below are meant to be relatively easy and accessible in a day.
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10 Off The Beaten Path Yellowstone Adventures
1. Hiking in Yellowstone
The easiest way to get away from the crowds of Yellowstone. Go for a walk. It’s that easy! Most visitors to Yellowstone drive to the hot spots like Old Faithful or Midway Geyser Basin, walk to the sight, and then promptly go back to their car. You’ll lose 90% of the crowds by finding a hike. It doesn’t even have to be an unknown hike! Our favorite hike in Yellowstone is Storm Point in the Fishing Bridge area. It’s well known, and even then, we had it mostly to ourselves. Here are some hikes in Yellowstone to consider:
Point Sublime Trail: An out and back 2.7-mile hike that takes you to a lookout point. The hike has outstanding views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the unique color formations on the canyon walls.
Hike Mount Washburn: This famous hike is a strenuous 6 miles round trip hike. It offers 360-degree views at an elevation of 10,243 feet. It’s a great place to spot bighorn sheep and bears.
Hike Bunsen Peak: This 4.6 miles round trip hike is a moderately strenuous hike that offers panoramic views. You’ll be able to see Mammoth Hot Springs, the Yellowstone River, and more on this outstanding day hike. The last stretch is difficult, but the reward is worth the work.
Specimen Ridge Day Hike: A strenuous 3-mile round trip hike that offers breathtaking views of the Lamar Valley.
2. Visit in the Winter
If you truly want to have Yellowstone to yourself, visiting in the winter is guaranteed to get you some solitude. Visiting from December to March isn’t as easy as driving up to the park and enjoying the winter wonderland. You will have to do advance planning since most of the park is inaccessible by car. Rather, you’ll have to arrange for a snow coach or snowmobile to bring you in. How magical is that? You can learn more about visiting Yellowstone in the winter HERE.
If that’s a tad too adventurous for you, visiting in late Spring and early Fall is another great way to see the park sans crowds. Parts of the park may be closed due to snow, but the advantages are it’s a better time to view wildlife, and you have the potential of spring blooms or fall colors. July and August are the busiest times in the park, so aiming for June or late September is best.
3. Lamar Valley
The Lamar Valley isn’t an unknown spot, but its remote location means fewer people make the drive to see this remarkable spot. Located in the park’s NE section, the Lamar Valley is famous for being a prime spot to view wildlife. If you want a memory that will last a lifetime, drive up to the Lamar Valley and get there before sunrise. Pull out some camping chairs, a hot beverage, and watch the sunrise over the Lamar River. Once the sun rises, you’ll be in the Lamar Valley for prime wildlife viewing times (dawn). Look out for bears, wolves, bison herds, coyotes, and foxes.
4. Trout Lake
On your visit to Lamar Valley, hike out to Trout Lake for some solace at this crystal clear lake. It’s a beautiful 1.2-mile round trip hike that gains 150 feet in elevation, so while it’s short, the beginning of the hike is a climb that will bring a good burn to your thighs.
5. Shoshone Lake
Take a scenic hike to America’s largest backcountry lake, Shoshone Lake. A 6.1-mile out-and-back hike to Shoshone Lake is a great way to spend the day away from the crowds. An easy hike will take you to an obsidian beach to skip rocks or have a picnic. If you hike it in the summer, bring some water shoes and a bathing suit for a frigid dip in the waters. As for any hike you do in Yellowstone, always be bear aware and have bear spray with you.
6. Grizzly Lake
Another beautiful lake to visit is Grizzly Lake in the North section of the park. This 6.7 miles out and back hike takes you into golden meadows and the charred remains from the 1988 fire in the park. For those wanting a shorter hike, Grizzly Lake’s grassy banks are accessed two miles into the trail. You can shorten the hike by walking to the lake, enjoying the views, and heading back.
7. Blacktail Plateau Drive
Take a scenic drive on this 6-mile one-way dirt road where elk, bison, wolves, and bears frequently visit. While wildlife sightings are not guaranteed, it’s still a pleasant drive into the woods and meadows of Yellowstone. The drive is an easy 30 minutes but is best done slowly to take in the scenery fully. RVs and trailers are not permitted on this road. The road takes you back to the Grand Loop Road near the Petrified Tree. Add in a quick jaunt to see the Petrified Tree for another Yellowstone hidden gem.
8. Old Gardiner Road
If you’re in Mammoth visiting the Mammoth Hot Springs or the Boiling River, a great, easy addition is the Old Gardiner Road. This old stagecoach road is a 5-mile one-way dirt road that follows the paved road from Mammoth to Gardiner. The road takes you up to sweeping views of Mammoth and Gardiner, with the possibility of spotting elk, bighorn sheep, bison, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. Take it slow and carefully, and your car will manage on this rustic dirt road.
9. Firehole Lake Drive
Firehole Lake Drive is an easy 2-mile one-way drive near the Lower Geyser Basin. Fewer people visit this easy to find spot that we kind of marvel why more people don’t visit. The drive will take you to several stop-off points where you can park and walk along boardwalks to view different hot springs and geysers. We drove it close to sunset and think that’s one of the best times to visit this beautiful area.
10. Imperial Geyser
The Imperial Geyser is a great off the beaten path destination that can easily be added to the very ON the beaten path destination of the Grand Prismatic Overlook and the Fairy Falls trail. The Fairy Falls trail is a great 5-mile hike that leads you to a beautiful 200-foot waterfall. Most end the hike there, but an easy addition is to hike an extra 1.6 miles to Imperial Geyser. Imperial Geyser has no boardwalks, so there’s something a little more “wild” about viewing this beautiful hot spring. The geyser frequently erupts, so you might get lucky and watch it explode. A good tip is to get to the Fairy Falls Trail Parking lot area early in the day (8:30 A.M) to start your hike to Fairy Falls. Skip the fork in the road that goes left to the Grand Prismatic Overlook. Instead, on your walk back, go to the overlook when it’s late morning, and the colors will be more vivid.
To find all the above, we suggest downloading the Yellowstone App for the best directions. Make sure to download the app before leaving since wifi and cell service are hard to come by. You can also purchase this detailed paper map from National Geographic.
These are a small sampling of the countless opportunities to explore Yellowstone off the beaten path. In truth, all you have to do is take a road and see where it takes you.
Yellowstone is so big; you’re bound to find a beautiful place to call your own. Get up early, go left when everyone goes right, and I’m sure you can find a quiet spot to marvel at the beauty of Yellowstone.
Need help planning your trip to Yellowstone? Check out all our Yellowstone guides that include a detailed itinerary, what to do with kids, what to pack, and recommendations for affordable lodging outside the park.
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