The type species, S. osborni, was described by Barnum Brown in 1912 from Canadian fossils. A second valid species, S. angustirostris, is represented by numerous specimens from Mongolia, and was described by Anatoly Konstantinovich Rozhdestvensky. A third species, S. morrisi from California, was described in 2013, and a fourth species, S. kryschtofovici from China, is considered dubious.
Saurolophus is known from material including nearly complete skeletons, giving researchers a clear picture of its bony anatomy. S. osborni, the rarer Albertan species, was around 9.8 meters long (32 feet), with its skull a meter long (3.3 feet). Its weight is estimated at 1.9 tonnes (2.1 tons). S. angustirostris, the Mongolian species, was larger; the type skeleton is roughly 12 meters long (39.4 ft), and larger remains are reported. Aside from size, the two species are virtually identical, with differentiation hindered by lack of study.
The most distinctive feature of Saurolophus is its cranial crest, which is present in young individuals but is smaller. It is long and spike-like and projects upward and backward at about a 45 degree angle, starting from over the eyes. This crest is often described as solid, but appears to be solid only at the point, with internal chambers that may have had a respiratory and/or heat-regulation function.
Barnum Brown, who described the first specimens, put it in its own subfamily in "Trachodontidae" (=Hadrosauridae), the Saurolophinae. At the time, this also included Corythosaurus and Hypacrosaurus, the only well-known examples of what would become Lambeosaurinae. Brown thought that Saurolophus had an expanded tip to the ischium bone in the hip, as dinosaurs now recognized as lambeosaurines had, but this appears to have been based on a mistakenly associated lambeosaurine ischium. Additionally, he misinterpreted the crests of Saurolophus and lambeosaurines as being made of the same bones.
Most publications before 2010 classified Saurolophus as a member of Hadrosaurinae, often known colloquially as the "flat-headed hadrosaurs". In 2010, the subfamily Saurolophinae was brought back into use because Hadrosaurus appears to have branched off prior to the "hadrosaurine"–lambeosaurine split. As a result, Hadrosaurinae by definition cannot include the traditional "hadrosaurines". Saurolophinae is the oldest available name for the former "hadrosaurine" clade. Saurolophus, as the name suggests, is a saurolophine, as it has a saurolophine pelvis and a (largely) solid crest.