Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, is a geological marvel, a landscape dotted with herds of elk and buffalo, a treasure trove of waterfalls and mountains. But it's also considered the Disneyland of the National Parks system in the summer: hot, crowded, and full of lengthy restroom lines. If you're short on time and/or patience (that lonely peak in the Tetons is looking pretty appealing, huh?), here's how to savor the park's highlights in one day.
8 a.m. to 10 a.m.: Old Faithful
Probably the world's most famous geyser, Old Faithful is truly an incredible natural feature. Unlike most geysers in the park, Old Faithful's height, length, and time of eruption have barely changed over the span of 100 years (hence the name). It erupts about every 92 minutes, spouting more than 6,000 gallons of hot water out of the earth for about 20 seconds. Check the estimated eruption time on the board outside of the park gift shop, then peruse the goods inside or pick up some delicious ice cream while you wait. If you don't want to catch the show with the hoards of tourists, hike up to Observation Point to take in the view from above.
10 a.m. to 12 p.m.: Grand Prismatic Spring
North of Old Faithful is this largest hot spring in the country and the third-largest in the world. A well-maintained boardwalk takes you around the turquoise pools and red, cracked earth, where hot water churns under your feet and warms the soles of your shoes. Prepare for a full parking lot and stop-and-go walking traffic here.
12 p.m. to 2 p.m.: Artist's Paint Pots
In the summer, the bubbling mudpots and geysers at this geothermal feature often dry up, but catch them on a good day and you'll be treated to a gorgeous basin full of color and movement (again, appropriately named). A boardwalk takes you up the side of a mountain so you can take in the entire view.
2 p.m. to 4 p.m.: Mammoth Hot Springs
Another hot spring? Yes, and one that’s not to be missed: the limestone hydrothermal field differs from the previous spring enough to make you feel like you've landed on another planet. Its features are constantly changing (sometimes forcing park staff to close walking trails), and beautiful terrace-like structures there contain shifting pools of hot turquoise water. It's hot and humid here for sure—but don't pass it up: dark tree branches rise from the water like skeletons, giving the whole place an otherworldly aura.
4 p.m. to 6 p.m.: Upper and Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
This is a must-see, second only to Old Faithful. Roughly 20 miles long, this canyon is split down the middle by a rushing river of dark blue water, fueled by powerful waterfalls (Lower Falls clocks in at an impressive 308 feet tall). Take one of the hiking trails near the falls for a better view.
6 p.m. to 9 p.m.: Boiling River
Sounds painful, and it can be—be careful where you step when entering this popular soaking area. A 6-foot-wide stream of hot water plunges over rocks into a 50-yard series of thermal pools along the Gardner River. There's easy access from the North Entrance Road and an easy hiking trail down from the parking lot. Because the icy river water meets up suddenly with the boiling hot thermal water, you can find the temperature that's perfect for you. It just might take a few "hot, hot, hot! COLD!" moments. Bring a snack, take a soak, and enjoy your last hours in Yellowstone before hitting the road back to solidarity.
Follow Johnie Gall on Twitter.