Explore Yellowstone National Park from Madison Campground
If you've spent any time planning a vacation in Yellowstone National Park, you'll realize that it is too massive to take in all at once. With over 400 miles of paved roads, our camping strategy was to break the park into three sections and build an itinerary for each. Madison Campground, near the West Yellowstone entrance, served as our basecamp to explore the awe-inspiring thermal area of Yellowstone National Park.
Madison Campground (West Entrance Area)
We spent three delightful nights camping at the Madison Campground located on the west side of Yellowstone National Park so we could explore the area between the West Yellowstone entrance through West Thumb Lake Geyser Basin.
- Yellowstone National Park Entrance Fee: $25/vehicle 7-day pass (includes Grand Teton National Park)
- America the Beautiful Pass: $80/year for entrance to national parks and other federal recreational areas.
The pros for Madison Campground are the convenient location near the thermal areas and easy access to the town of West Yellowstone (14 miles). An unexpected bonus is the Madison River where the kids had the chance to swim after our long days out. One night we watched the elk gather near the water's edge.
The Madison Campground cons - no shower access, laundry, or hookups for RV campers. An option would be to use the showers and laundry at Old Faithful Village (16 miles). Another option, and the one we used, is to drive into West Yellowstone (14 miles) for laundry and supplies. By splitting up these duties, we were able to make the most of our time and to take advantage of the food choices at the West Yellowstone grocery stores.
Definitely take the opportunity to walk over to the Madison Campground amphitheater for the excellent evening ranger programs. We learned about the "Ghost of the Yellowstone," (aka the mountain lion) one night and the early history of Yellowstone National Park on the other. Check the Yellowstone Park schedule for other free ranger programs.
- Make early reservations for the popular Madison Campground - it was full during our July stay.
- 278 reservable campsites; no hookups, but dump station available. Generators allowed from 8am to 8pm.
- Fishing license available for purchase at the Madison Campground office.
- All of Yellowstone is bear habitat - keep a clean camp
TIP: Pack layers of clothing - at high elevation, temperatures can range from freezing temperatures to 80F. Don't forget your rain gear.
Yellowstone National Park Map
With huge crowds, a short season, and 466 miles of road, make sure to consider your route for a more enjoyable and relaxing visit. We camped in three different areas of Yellowstone National Park to maximize our stops and minimize travel time.
Download the full map: Yellowstone National Park
TIP: To avoid crowds and for easier parking, schedule the busiest areas first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon
Firehole Canyon Drive
On the way to the Old Faithful Geyser, a brief detour took us on the scenic Firehole Canyon Drive to view the 40-foot Firehole Falls. Firehole Canyon Drive is a 2-mile one way road going from north to south off the Grand Loop. When the water flow is low enough, there is a popular swimming hole located at the end of the drive.
- Closed to RV traffic
- Limited parking
- Swimming Area: No lifeguards on duty; restrooms available
Old Faithful Geyser (Upper Geyser Basin)
After an early start from our Madison Campground campsite, we arrived to a front row parking spot at 6:15am to beat the crowds - and we did! We ate our breakfast and had a coffee while waiting for the eruption of one of the most renowned geysers, Old Faithful, which regularly erupts between 55 - 100 minutes apart, shooting water and steam 100-150 feet into the air. There is plenty of bench seating and accessible boardwalks for easy viewing.
- Check at the Visitor Center for predicted geyser eruption times.
- Stay on the boardwalks and watch children carefully - the water is scalding hot.
- Wipe spray from geysers off your eyeglasses, phones, and camera lens to avoid damage.
Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful Parking)
Before beginning the tour of the Upper Geyser Basin, find out the predicted geyser eruption times from the rangers in the Old Faithful Visitor Center, and then map out your walk around those geyser times. The predictable geysers are: Castle, Daisy, Grand, Old Faithful, and Riverside.
For kids or kids-at-heart, purchase a Young Scientist booklet and conduct your own science investigations as you tour the Upper Geyser Basin. The Upper Geyser Basin has the highest concentration of geysers on the planet so leave yourself plenty of time to explore this otherworldly area of Yellowstone.
The Grotto Geyser entertained us with its unique formations and gurgling, steaming sprays seen from the boardwalk.
- Visitor Center to Morning Glory Pool: 1.5 miles one way; vault toilet at Morning Glory
- Bring sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, and plenty of water for your hike - no shade
- Do not throw objects into the thermal areas
- Protect yourself and the fragile environment by staying on the boardwalk and designated trails.
TIP: After touring the Upper Geyser Basin, buy ice cream to eat on the second floor porch of the Old Faithful Inn to watch a second eruption of Old Faithful.
Black Sand Basin
If you have the time, park at nearby Black Sand Basin, named for its obsidian black sand, to view a few more exquisite thermal features. An easy, short stroll on a boardwalk will take you through highlights such as the brilliant-colored Emerald Pool, the spewing Cliff Geyser, a vivid Sunset Lake hot spring, and the white"bobby sock" lodgepole pine trees in the Opalescent Pool.
- Length: 0.3 miles of accessible boardwalk
Biscuit Basin (Mystic Falls Trailhead)
Don't miss the gorgeous azure blue pool, aptly named Sapphire Pool, at Biscuit Basin. In fact, the Biscuit Basin offers a unique collection of geothermal pools for little exertion. Beautiful mats of thermophiles (heat-loving bacteria) give the vivid rainbow colors that surround the Yellowstone thermal springs.
Looking for a hike to break up your thermal viewing? At the far end of the boardwalk, you can pick up the Mystic Falls Trailhead to see the cascading 70-foot Mystic Falls, but make sure to be prepared for the trek there and back.
- Biscuit Basin: 0.5 miles of accessible boardwalk
- Mystic Falls Trail: 2.4 miles round-trip
- Bring insect repellent, sunscreen, hat, and plenty of water.
Midway Geyser Basin
Midway Geyser Basin, home to the magnificent Grand Prismatic Hot Spring, is another very popular stop in Yellowstone National Park. Due to crowds, best arrival times are either early in the morning or late afternoon. The world's third largest spring and about the size of a football field, it is difficult to get a good view of Grand Prismatic Hot Spring from the boardwalk. If you are looking for a bird's eye perspective, consider hiking up to the viewing platform accessed from the Fairy Falls Trailhead. Although Grand Prismatic is the star of the Midway Geyser Basin, leave time to enjoy Excelsior Geyser Crater, Turquoise Pool, and Opal Pool.
- Boardwalk trail: 0.5 miles
- Restrooms available at Midway Geyser Basin
- Fairy Falls Trailhead Parking Lot: 1.2 miles round trip hike from parking to viewing platform and back.
TIP: Note that when the hot air rising from the Grand Prismatic Spring hits the cool morning air, it results in a disappointing envelope of fog - best views for brilliant color are later in the day.
Fountain Paint Pots (Lower Geyser Basin)
A surprise favorite, the mixed variety of geologic features at Fountain Paint Pots appealed to the kids. Mud pots, fumaroles, geysers, and hot springs all within a small walking area - a dazzling, bubbling, and mud-flinging reminder that Yellowstone remains an active volcano area.
- Boardwalk trail: 0.6 miles
- Restrooms available
West Thumb Geyser Basin
Located on the shores of Yellowstone Lake, the West Thumb Geyser Basin is about 33 miles from the Madison Campground which translates to about an 1.5 hour ride, assuming no traffic or animal jams (but be prepared for those likely events). Another busy parking lot, but with patience, a spot opens up fairly quickly. We had a picnic lunch here first and then enjoyed the boardwalk trail. Don't miss the dazzling blue Abyss Pool with the picturesque Yellowstone Lake as a backdrop. Although it shouldn't have, we were surprised by the intense heat coming off the hot spring pools.
- Boardwalk trail: 0.9 miles
- Restrooms available