Yellowstone Part II: South Loop Highlights

John Muir called Yellowstone National Park a place where “we may see Nature at work as chemist or cook, cunningly compounding an infinite variety of mineral messes; boiling and steaming flinty rocks to smooth paste and mush—making the most beautiful mud in the world; and distilling the most ethereal essences.”

Muir continued, “It is called Wonderland, and thousands of tourists and travelers stream into it every summer, and wander about in it enchanted.” On our Birdy NPS 100 trip, our family was ready to do just that.

With 500 geysers, 45 named waterfalls, and 10,000 geothermal features, we knew we would not be able to see all of Yellowstone’s treasures in a single trip—perhaps not even in a lifetime. We had four days on our schedule to do as much as we could.

We started our Yellowstone adventures by driving the South Loop of the Grand Loop in a counter-clockwise circle. If you look at a park map, you’ll see what I mean.

Midway Geyser Basin

Upon entering the park from the west gate, we headed south. We first stopped at the Midway Geyser Basin, which Rudyard Kipling aptly called “Hell’s Half Acre.” This area is home to several thermal features, and we were immediately introduced to the freakiness of Yellowstone.

Lunar landscapes surrounded us, with ashy terrain and dying trees. The smell of sulfur filled the air as steam rose from colorful holes in the Earth. This was completely bizarre!

For us, the main attraction in the Midway Geyser Basin was the Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in America. We had seen stunning photos of its rainbow colors (created by the bacteria that thrive in the unique conditions) and couldn’t wait to see it for ourselves. Upon arriving, we were disappointed to discover that we couldn’t actually see the spring from above at this location. We could, however, discern some of the Kodachrome colors around the edges.

We later learned that you can get a view from above by hiking to Fairy Falls, but our attempts to do so were thwarted when we discovered the trail was closed due to bear activity. While I was disappointed, I’d rather let the bears have their space. We were still wowed by what we could see from the ground level, where the steam seemed to vibrate with color.

Hot spring water flows down the hillside to enter the Firehole River here, scorching the earth.

After exploring the Midway Geyser Basin, we were intrigued and ready to see more.

Old Faithful Historic District

The Old Faithful Historic District is home to the geothermal features of the Upper Geyser Basin, including its most famous resident, Old Faithful. You’ll also find historic buildings and the newest visitors center in the park.

Old Faithful isn’t necessarily the largest or the grandest of the Yellowstone geysers. What makes it a favorite is its predictability. Of the 500 geysers in Yellowstone, some erupt at regular intervals, while others don’t. Of the ones that are predictable, their eruption patterns may be known but leave a lot of room for waiting around if you’re hoping to catch the show (for example, the Grand Geyser goes off between 8-12 hours).

This isn’t the case with Old Faithful. As if its schedule were set for throngs of tourists, Old Faithful faithfully goes off every 45-90 minutes. Visitors can check the predicted time for the next eruption on chalk boards located near the geyser…or by looking at how many people are seated on the benches around it. When they are full with additional rows of people ringed around Old Faithful, you can tell an eruption is imminent.

You don’t come to this area to get a back-to-nature moment. It’s a little more like Disney World. However, seeing a geyser shooting water hundreds of feet in the air is truly a worthwhile spectacle, one that you can see in only a few spots on Earth. When you hear the wide range of languages of the people surrounding you, it makes you realize that people actually do come from around the world to see Yellowstone’s amazing sights.

As we found a spot in the crowd, Old Faithful began burping and bubbling, and then it teased the crowds with a few short bursts. Everyone gasped, and many could be heard exclaiming, “Here it comes!” It was fun to be part of the excitement. Finally, Old Faithful roared, spitting a powerful stream of water into the skies above. What’s crazy is that the water kept coming and coming for several minutes before the valve was suddenly shut off.

As we experienced the phenomenon before us, Sam was determined to get a handstand shot of himself with Old Faithful–it’s kind of his signature move. I know those around us probably thought we were crazy. Unfortunately, we never captured the perfect shot, but I did perfectly capture the silly moment:

We returned to the Old Faithful Historic District later in our trip to hike the Observation Point Trail. This 1.5 mile trail took us through the woods and up a hillside to an outcropping of rocks where we could sit a spell and get a bird’s eye view of the area below. We were thankful to have caught an episode of Rock the Park that shared this gem with us, and we thoroughly enjoyed both the hike and the view.

Though Old Faithful is a lot smaller from this vantage point, it is no less spectacular–especially once you look at the rows of people around it and realize how tiny they are and how huge the geyser is. I highly recommend this hike! The boys even gave it a thumbs up.

While Old Faithful is the main attraction, this area is chock full of other geysers, springs, and geothermal oddities. There’s a nice boardwalk trail that loops through the features.

My favorites were the springs dotting the landscape with astonishing colors. The water is startlingly clear and so very bright. It’s surreal to see the smoking towers of steam off in the distance, reiterating the idea that Yellowstone is a place like no other.

The Old Faithful Inn

The Upper Geyser Basin was also a favorite of early tourists, leading park officials to construct a lodge at the site. The Old Faithful Inn isn’t just any lodge–it is one of the largest log buildings in the world and is truly an icon of a bygone era.

While the external architecture is impressive, you can’t truly experience the Old Faithful Inn without going inside. Once you enter the doors, you find yourself inside a massive treehouse. Looking at the four stories above, it seems implausible that this structure still stands, over 100 years after it was built in 1904, and yet it does.

Today’s visitors cannot go to the top two floors, but the bottom two are open to the public.

A grand clock watches over the main room, as it did when Americans first walked on the moon, fought in World War II, and danced through the Prohibition Era.

Amazing details connect the architecture of the inn directly to the natural landscape found outside.

You can stay in this historic structure, with rates ranging from $200-$500 per night. Most rooms have limited amenities since the park has opted to retain the rustic charm of the original structure.

Even if you’re not staying in the inn, it’s a cool place to explore. Be sure to check out the upper deck for a great spot to enjoy a huckleberry ice cream while watching Old Faithful erupt. Old Faithful Inn shows us that not all of Yellowstone’s treasures are found in the great outdoors.

West Thumb Geyser Basin

The South Loop of the Grand Loop Road takes visitors right to the shores of Yellowstone Lake. The geothermal features don’t end where land meets water; instead, they can be found throughout the lake bed.

We were excited to check out the Fishing Cone. During our visit to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY, we learned of a spot where early visitors supposedly fished in the cool waters of the lake and then dropped their catch right into a hot spring to boil dinner on the spot. How cool is that?

The West Thumb basin is also home to several beautiful springs. These brilliant jewels dot the landscape. It’s amazing to see the natural life that thrives in this unusual environment, like the little yellow flowers beside this turquoise pool.

Fishing Bridge & Hayden

The Grand Loop Road continues along the shores of Lake Yellowstone for several miles before taking visitors to the Fishing Bridge area. This is home to the Fishing Bridge RV park (more on this later) and several visitor amenities. The road then winds along the Yellowstone River, providing several scenic stopping points. We enjoyed checking out the Fishing Bridge  and LeHardy’s Rapids (which I talked about in Part I of this series). While large patches of trees throughout Yellowstone have been scalped in wildfires, this area of the park is chock full of towering pines.

As the South Loop of the Grand Loop Road comes to a close, visitors pass through the Hayden Valley, which I also talked about in Part I. Yet again, visitors find themselves in an entirely different landscape, this one offering expansive views of a green valley with snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Final Thoughts

Wow! What a trip! We had planned to do the South Loop in one day, but we soon learned there was too much to see and do. Ultimately, we did the Madison Junction to the West Thumb Geyser Basin section in one day, stopping at most of the major attractions, but this didn’t allow time for any hiking or deep exploration. Luckily, we had seen much of the area between Fishing Bridge and the Hayden Valley on our first day in the park, so we didn’t have to stop as we continued along the Loop.

Our first days in the park thoroughly humbled us to the majestic size and scope of Yellowstone. We were enchanted by this Wonderland, just as Muir had promised.

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7 years ago

I’m a little overwhelmed just reading about all there is to do and see! But I’m especially excited about taking your advice and going on the Observation Point Trail–sounds perfect!

Jennifer Sill
Jennifer Sill
3 years ago

Darn! I’m researching for our family trip. I was hoping to do the whole lower loup in a day. What time did you start and end? Did you stay back in WYS that night?