Yellowstone Guide – Explore SW Grand Loop Drive from West Thumb to Old Faithful to Madison

    Exploring West Thumb to Old Faithful to Madison

    The 37 miles between West Thumb and Madison Campground may be home to one of Yellowstone’s most iconic attractions, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if that’s all you stopped to see along the way. We’ve detailed just about every major point of interest you’ll find along the way, along with a short description of what to expect. Each of this road segment’s highlights is listed consecutively so you can have a list of which ones your family will want to do.

    Yellowstone Southwest Segment Highlights

    Explore Grant Village to Old Faithful

    • Starting from West Thumb, explore the area’s mudpots, boiling springs, and geysers. Stop at the visitor center.
    • Shoshone Point Lookout provides a one-mile walk through ponderosa forest to a relatively quiet viewpoint along the rim of the canyon. Shoshone Point is also the only area within the park than can be reserved for private events/gatherings
    • De Lacy Creek Trailhead is a 5.8-mile trail along forest edge and meadows to Shoshone Lake
    • Divide Trailhead offers an easy 8-mile round-trip trail along a small creek and stagecoach route, leading to the former site of a lookout tower
    • Lone Star Geyser Trailhead gives way to a 4.8-mile trail along an old service road, along with Firehole River to Lone Star Geyser. The geyser erupts approximately every three hours, spewing up to 45 feet.
    Kepler Cascades
    • Kepler Cascades is a 150-foot waterfall of the Firestone River, viewable from a roadside pullout.  
    • Howard Eaton Trailhead forks off into 4 different trails:
      • Howard Eaton Trail stretches 10.7 miles and can take you to a handful of different lakes; Cascade Lake (2.6 miles in), Grebe Lake (4.5 miles in), Wolf Lake (6.3 miles in) and Ice Lake (10.7 miles in)
      • Fern Cascades Trail is a 3-mile loop trail with opportunities for downhill skiing when permissible
      • Bechler River Trail offers a strenuous, 30-mile, one-way backpacking trail that allows the use of horses
      • Lone Star Geyser Trail is a partially paved, 4.8-mile trail along an old service road to Lone Star Geyser, erupting every 3 hours

    Explore Old Faithful/Upper Geyser Basin

    Old Faithful

    Old Faithful is probably the most famous geyser in the world. Located in the Upper Geyser Basin, the geyser averages an eruption of up to 184 feet in the air every 90 minutes.

    The Upper Geyser Basin has the most concentrated area of geysers in the world with 150 geysers in a 1-square mile area. Enjoy the geysers on 6 trails and walkways from the Visitor Center. Eruptions are also predicted for Castle, Grand, Daisy, and Riverside geysers. Check the park app or the Old Faithful Visitor Center for estimated eruption times.

    When we visited, we arrived just as Old Faithful started to gush. After we enjoyed the eruption, we checked the visitor center for the next forecasted time. We then set a cell timer for half the time and walked down the path to explore the other geysers. Once our timer was up, we walked back to Old Faithful and didn’t have to wait long to watch another eruption.

    Go into the Old Faithful Lodge when you’re exploring this area. This historic lodge was built in the 1920s and features huge logs and stone pillars. Check out the view of Old Faithful from the lobby and dining room areas’ windows.

    Black Sand Basin

    Emerald Pool hot spring in the Black Sand Basin

    Named for sand derived from black volcanic glass, Black Sand Basin is a totally thermal area located one mile northwest of Old Faithful along the main road. Here you’ll find Emerald Pool, Rainbow Pool, and Sunset Lake (which is actually a geyser). Look for Cliff Geyser that erupts up to 40 feet every few minutes.

    Biscuit Basin

    Enjoy a short 0.6-mile round trip boardwalk to explore eighteen pools, springs, and geysers including Sapphire Pool, Mustard Spring, and Avoca Spring. Look for Jewel Geyser which erupts every 4-12 minutes.

    From this parking lot, you can join Mystic Falls Trail a 2.4-mile round trip that leads to 70-foot Mystic Falls. Or you can hike starting at the Artemesia Trailhead which gives access to the upper end of the Upper Geyser Basin. This path crosses the main road, be careful when crossing.

    Yellowstone Tip: To hike to the Grand Prismatic Overlook, park at the Fairy Falls Trailhead lot between Biscuit Basin and Midway Geyser. The lot isn’t very big but there is a secondary dirt lot. Hike the Fairy Falls path 0.6 miles up to the overlook. While the last 0.2 miles is uphill on a dirt path, the view is definitely worth it!

    Explore Midway Geyser Basin

    Grand Prismatic Overlook

    Explore an easy half-mile boardwalk in Midway Geyser Basin. Highlights include the beautiful blue and green water of Excelsior Geyser. This geyser sits in a 200 x 300 crater that discharges more than 4,000 gallons of water per minute into the Firehole River.

    You’ll also see Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone’s largest hot spring at 200-330 feet in diameter and more than 121 feet deep. During the warmer months, the air temperature makes it easier to see all the colors of the hot spring because the rising steam is not as prominent.

    Explore Lower Geyser Basin

    Firehole Spring
    • Firehole Lake Drive stretches along 2 miles one-way drive to view Clepsydra Geyser at the Fountain Paint Pot area of Yellowstone
    Clepsydra Geyser at Fountain Paint Pot area of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, USA.
    • Fountain Paint Pot Trailhead makes for an easy 0.5-mile looped boardwalk adjacent to a myriad of active hydrothermal features

    Explore Fountain Flat Drive to Madison

    • Mary Mountain-Nez Perce Trail presents a somewhat difficult, 20.2 mile point-to-point trail through the center of the park and offers ample opportunity to see many of the park’s largest mammals
    • Fountain Flat Drive/Freight Road Trailhead splits off into the two following trails:
      • Sentinel Meadows & Queen’s Laundry Trail, a 3.8 mile trail following the Firehole River
      • Fairy Falls Trail, a 9 mile trail leading to Fair Falls, which plunges 200 feet
    • Firehole Canyon Drive This 2-mile paved drive starts down by the cliffs of the Firehole River and climbs up the canyon. Spectacular views of the river, log jams, rapids, and three waterfalls will have you stopping often to take pictures. A small parking lot allows you to get out to view Firehole Falls. Be careful though as there isn’t any fencing at this location and the dropoff is steep. One of the park’s two swimming areas is located halfway through this drive. A very small parking lot gives access to a steep staired descent to the river. A popular place to visit, access to the swim hole was closed during our visit. This drive was one of my top 5 favorite sites of the park.
    Firehole Falls

    Explore Madison

    Gibbon River joins the Firehole River to form the Madison River, and Madison Junction provides our stopping point for today. Around the Madison space, you’ll find a picnic area, an amphitheater, restrooms with flushing toilets, an old Park Store, and an Information Center built in 1930. Madison Campground offers plenty of campsites, but you’ll find no formal lodging, restaurants, or other services around, so come prepared if you plan to stay the night.

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    Theresa Jorgensen

    Theresa is the mother of four including twins. She is the owner of SixSuitcaseTravel, a travel site for big families of 5, 6, 7, 8. She enjoys helping other big families build life-long travel memories. Her family's travel bucket list includes Washington, DC (done!), Yellowstone (done!), London, and anywhere in the Caribbean.