Driving the Park
There are five park entrances that allow access to the park from Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. I entered the park from the east entrance and stopped at the Lake Village Visitor Center. I spoke with the ranger there who gave me some great information on driving the park. The map they give for free (which can be found below this post) is broken into section, separated by major junctions. Each segment on the map takes roughly 30 minutes to drive without stopping and without slow traffic. There is a lot of road construction heading toward the south entrance from old faithful so this section takes much longer to drive.
I recommend doing old faithful early in the morning since the viewing area is not covered and it can be very hot in the middle of the day. At the moment she is going off every hour but when I was here 12 years ago it was going off roughly every thirty minutes; check with the ranger about timing. As soon as old faithful is done everyone makes a run for his or her car, which is a lot of people all tying to get out ONE exit. If you aren't in a hurry (which you shouldn't be because your on vacation) I would just sit for a few minutes and let it clear out. Check out the visitor center, general store and grab a drink or an ice cream.
After you enter the mud volcano area and park you will want to walk to the far left of the parking lot. Start your walk on the furthest boardwalk, rather than the boardwalk to the right. Taking the left route will loop you back to the parking lot in a counterclockwise direction. If you decide to take the clockwise approach be prepared to walk up a steep incline. This area has a very distinct sulfur smell, which is originating from the hydrothermal areas on the trail. You will know you are in the right area when you smell that.
Norris Geyser Basin
This basin is considered to be the hottest location in Yellowstone. There are roughly 2.25 miles of trails that you can explore. On those trails you can see the tallest active geyser in the world and colorful hot springs that house some the on the most extreme microscopic organisms on the planet. Since this area is so active be sure to stay on the paths. You will know you are in the right place when you hear the hissing of geysers and smell the pungent odor being emitted.
The petrified tree is easy to get to. You can park your car at the boardwalk entrance and walk a very short distance to the tree. It is gated to make sure it stays in pristine condition. The tree was trapped during landslides that happened over 50 million years ago. There is a picture at the base of the tree that shows what the area looked like in 1907. You will see there used to be two trees but over time people collected wood chips from the tree which ultimately lead to its destruction.
Mammoth Hot Springs
This area houses a handful of intricate hot springs that are covered with different colors due to calcium carbonate deposition and algae that live in the warm water pools. This algae can make the area brown, orange, red and green. The area has a boardwalk with stairs that loop back around to the parking lot. You can also drive to the top if you do not want to walk.
This area was named after the Sheepeater Indians, which lived in the park area. The cliff has hexagonal stacks that make it very unique. The cliff was made from lava deposition during a basaltic flood over 500,000 years ago.
Tower fall is one of the parks most popular waterfall areas standing at 132 feet high. You can take a short hike down to a viewing platform that is located behind the general store, which will put you above the waterfall, looking out at it. From there you can walk down a steep 0.5-mile path to the base of the waterfall. This area can be slippery and many parts drop off so I highly recommended wearing shoes with good tread. If you make the journey down you will hike up the same path that you took going down.
Lamar (Yellowstone Association Institute)
Lamar is one of my favorite places in the park. It is where I saw the most animals and seemed to have a much calmer pace to it; not as many cars rushing by. Heading out to the Lamar Valley is a must, especially if you want to have a close-up encounter with some bison. These giant animals graze right next to the road and more often then not are blocking traffic or walking right next to your car. Make sure to get an epic selfie with these awesome giants! Be on the look out for wolves here. If you are really lucky you may get to see the lamar pack.
Camping and Lodging
Camping and Lodging in the National Park
Campsites and lodges fill up very fast here, especially in the summer. If you want to stay in the park be sure to reserve campsites and hotel rooms early. Since this trip was a last minute thought my friend and I were unable to stay in the park since everything and I mean EVERYTHING was booked. I even spoke with a ranger about sleeping in the car, inside the park, in one of the side road pullouts. They give tickets if they find you sleeping overnight so head out to one of the national forests to sleep if you need to.
Camping in the National Forest
We decided to head out the Northwest entrance towards Cooke City since we were up that way checking out the bison. We headed into the National Forest where we found an available campsite. You can camp anywhere in the national forest except for the red area in the picture below due to a high level of grizzly bear activity. The campsites within this area are for hard sided vehicles only. There is no tent camping. I spent the night sleeping in the back of my car, which worked out really well. If you camp outside of this "hot zone" you can tent camp. Just be bear aware and make sure to properly store food and cosmetic items.