The Madison area isn’t a major stop in Yellowstone, though Madison Valley is quite scenic and is a good place to see wildlife.
Though not a “must-see,” Madison is an underappreciated area in Yellowstone National Park. Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley get all the love, but Madison is nice as well!
Things to do in Madison
There are a surprising number of things to do in this area!
Look for Wildlife in Madison Valley
If you enter from West Yellowstone, the most popular entrance, you’ll drive 14 miles to Madison Junction.
After crossing Seven Mile Bridge (so named because it is equidistant between the park entrance and Madison Junction), you’ll enter Madison Valley.
I almost always see wildlife in this valley. Bull elk, black bears, coyotes, and bison have all made an appearance for me.
The Madison River begins at Madison Junction (where the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers meet) and flows west through Madison Valley.
It then flows through West Yellowstone, Hebgen Lake, Madison Canyon (which is now Earthquake Lake due to the massive earthquake of 1959), and meets up with two other rivers to form the Missouri River at Three Forks, Montana.
The river was named by Lewis and Clark in honor of James Madison, who was then Secretary of State and would later become the 4th president of the United States.
(Lewis and Clark never entered Yellowstone, but a man on their expedition likely did. I tell the story of the famous John Colter in my Grand Teton audio guide. Yellowstone was once called Colter’s Hell).
There are places in the valley where you can drive along, walk along, and even put your feet in the river.
If you are exiting through West Yellowstone, you can take a right shortly after Seven Mile Bridge and drive on Riverside Drive. This will take you right along the river with some stops where you can get out and enjoy the river, likely in solitude.
You can also fish in the Madison River!
Mount Haynes is a nice place to pull over to see the Madison River as well as the most prominent peak in Madison Valley.
Mount Haynes was named after Frank J. Haynes, who was an early park photographer and travel guide writer. He did a lot to promote the park in its early days.
In fact, I’ve designed my Yellowstone guide after his!
National Park Mountain
Another peak you can see in Madison Valley is National Park Mountain.
This gets its name from an alleged conversation early explorers had while camping near here, in which they said the area should be set aside as a national park.
Unfortunately, there is no documentation that this conversation took place, and the idea of a national park didn’t formulate until two years later when Yellowstone was set aside as the world’s first national park.
Like Mount Haynes, all you can do is look at the mountain – there are no trails to climb it.
At the Madison Junction parking lot is a little building that was built in the 1930s.
It’s called an information station. It’s kind of like a small visitor center. It is staffed by a ranger.
You can ask questions, get a junior ranger book, attend ranger programs, get your national park passport stamped, and buy books here.
Early on, Yellowstone decided to create many small visitor centers and information stations due to the enormous size of the park and the fact that it has 5 entrances. Most national parks have one large visitor center, but not Yellowstone.
We’ve attended multiple ranger programs over the years here. They are held during the day and at night in the campground amphitheater.
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Park rangers are always incredibly polished and interesting. They receive a lot of training before giving these programs.
I highly recommend attending a ranger program on your visit if possible!
Located just south of Madison Junction is a little side road that takes you into Firehole Canyon.
This is a scenic little canyon where you can pull over to see Firehole Falls, a small waterfall.
This is also one of two areas in the park where you’re allowed to swim.
But be careful – I haven’t done it but my wife says it has an undercurrent and it’s kind of dangerous. Make sure to bring life jackets if you decide to swim.
Also, though the river is named Firehole River, and it does receive a lot of boiling water from Excelsior Geyser Crater upstream, it’s not actually warm. It’s just a little less cold than most rivers in Yellowstone.
Just north of Madison Junction is a more scenic waterfall called Gibbon Falls.
This roadside stop is one of my favorite waterfalls in the park.
This is actually located on the edge of the caldera – the “opening” at the top of the Yellowstone volcano. Yes, you are in a volcano when visiting Yellowstone.
To the west of Madison is the gateway town of West Yellowstone.
Nearly a million tourists enter the park every year through this tiny town of 1200 people!
There are many things to do in West Yellowstone, including the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center and Earthquake Lake (mentioned earlier).
Besides fishing, there are many more activities you can do in the Madison area.
There are some lesser-known and lesser-crowded hikes here, such as the Harlequin Lake Trail, a short (1.6 miles out-and-back) and secluded trail among pine trees ending at a lake.
You’ll also find the Purple Mountain Trail, a longer (6.6 miles out-and-back) trail that gets up to an overlook.
I haven’t done either of these, so I’ll refer you to Yellowstone’s page about hikes in the Madison area.
Yellowstone isn’t known as a biking park, but in the spring and fall it has a BIKERS ONLY period when you can safely ride on the Grand Loop Road without sharing it with a ton of cars.
Since West Yellowstone opens earlier than other sections of the park, biking through Madison Valley is common.
Yellowstone also has dedicated biking/hiking paths that are partially paved or gravel, but there aren’t any of them in the Madison area.
Snow coach and Snowmobile
In the winter, Yellowstone mostly turns into a snowmobile park. From West Yellowstone, you can take snow coaches or guided snowmobile rides to Old Faithful. You can even spend the night at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge.
There are MANY skiing opportunities in Yellowstone National Park, including in the Madison and West Yellowstone area. Visit that link to find out all of your options from the official Yellowstone website.
Where to Stay in Madison
Madison doesn’t have any lodging, but it does have the Madison Campground.
The Madison Campground is one of the more popular campgrounds in the park because it’s large and it’s centrally located, making it easier to get to all areas of the park from one home base.
We’ve stayed at Madison many times and we really enjoy the location, the valley views (just a short walk from the campground), the ranger programs, and the fact that it has a dumping station.
For more on camping in Yellowstone, see our complete guide to camping in Yellowstone.
Where to Eat in Madison
There are no restaurants, gas stations, or general stores at Madison.
The closest places to eat are 14 miles away in West Yellowstone, or 17 miles south at Old Faithful.
So if you’re camping, bring your own food! We always recommend packing picnics anyway.
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