USA Travel

Plan Your Next Trip: Yellowstone National Park

By
Tim Gillespie
on
August 10, 2021

Ready to knock off one of America’s most iconic national parks? Whether you only have 1 day or can spend 5 days, we have you covered. Explore the mountains, lakes, rivers, and valleys of nearly 3,500 square miles of wilderness. Camp, hike, fish, or simply drive through Yellowstone National Park to experience the awe of the park’s natural beauty. Observe a wide array of wildlife such as bison, grey wolves, and grizzly bears, or simply take in the famous viewpoints at Artist Point and the summit of Mount Washburn. Oh, and considering that Yellowstone sits atop a volcanic hotspot, you will be exploring the world’s largest combination of geysers and thermal features.

Looking for that next solo adventure? Read our Top Travel Solo Destinations in the United States.

Do you have questions about how much time you need in Yellowstone National Park, what are the must-see highlights, or what’s the best Yellowstone itinerary to follow? In this article, we’ll be sharing our knowledge of Yellowstone National Park by breakdown itineraries from 1-day to 5-days. 

Important to know:  All of these itineraries are designed for the summer season when all the park roads and facilities are fully open. However, some of these itineraries may work in other seasons, so if you are planning to visit during the non-summer season we suggest checking with the park service for the most up-to-date information about park road closures.

Additional Reading:  Visitor Guide to Yellowstone National Park

Tips and Information for your Yellowstone Experience

Entrance Fees

All visitors will need an entrance pass for Yellowstone National Park. The fee is $35 USD for a private vehicle and is valid for 7 days. Passes can be purchased at any of the 5 entrance gates to the park.

Driving distances & traffic

Yellowstone has no shuttle service, which means you should expect a significant amount of traffic, especially during the peak season of July and early August.  

Yellowstone’s main road is the Grand Loop. It covers a total of 142 miles (225 kilometers) and it navigates the heart of the park, linking up most of the main highlights. Though you could drive the whole road in one day, this is not recommended.  

Road construction is common and traffic often gets backed up due to wildlife crossings, especially in the Hayden Valley where the bison seem to own the road. Just because the map says it is only 20 miles (32 kilometers) between Point A and Point B, doesn’t mean you will get there in 30 minutes. Be patient and take your time, after all, you will most likely be pulling over to take in the scenes and capture some amazing photographs.

Stop at a Visitor Center

There are several National Park Service Visitor Centers in Yellowstone. We recommend visiting one of these centers to get the most up-to-date information about the park during your visit. Park staff will be able to inform you of recent wildlife sightings, trail conditions, road closures, and if there are any ranger-led informative programs on offer.  

Each visitor center also has interpretive displays, information about the park, maps, and gift shops to purchase souvenirs.

Start your day early

Beginning your day early not only allows you to escape the crowds, but it’s also when the views are said to be the best. Animals in Yellowstone are more active in the morning, parking spots are easier to find, and sunrises can be magical.

Go for a hike

It has been said that nearly 80% of visitors to Yellowstone do not walk for more than 20 minutes from their car. With nearly 900 miles (1,400 kilometers) of hiking trails within the park, we strongly encourage you to hit the trail!

Going on a hike in Yellowstone is one of the best ways to escape the crowds. Yellowstone’s backcountry is filled with natural wonders such as geysers, waterfalls, alpine lakes, and grassy meadows full of wildflowers. Hiking trails are designed for all levels of hikers and some are ADA accessible.

Further Reading:  Top Hikes in Yellowstone National Park

Airports to Access Yellowstone National Park

The West Yellowstone Airport (Montana) is the closest airport to Yellowstone. It is located within a short drive from Yellowstone’s West Entrance. Please note that the airport is only serviced from early May to mid-October with flights coming in from Salt Lake International Airport. 

Other airports to consider flying into when visiting Yellowstone include:

  • Jackson Hole Airport; a great option for visiting Grand Teton National Park as well.
  • Idaho Falls Regional Airport; located about 1.5 hours from West Yellowstone
  • Yellowstone Region Airport; located in Cody, Wyoming
  • Bozeman International Airport; 2 hours from Yellowstone’s West and North entrances
  • Salt Lake City International Airport; approximately 4 hours from Yellowstone. A great option for exploring Utah’s national parks as well.

Further reading:  Top Things to Do in Salt Lake City, Utah

Best Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park

We are about to breakdown the daily itineraries for visiting Yellowstone National Park, but before we do, let us highlight the best things to do in Yellowstone:

  • Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
  • Old Faithful & Upper Geyser Basin
  • Grand Prismatic Spring
  • Lamar & Hayden Valley
  • Mammoth Hot Springs

One Day Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park

The must-see sites for any first-time visitor to Yellowstone include Old Faithful, The Grand Prismatic Spring, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and Hayden Valley.

For this itinerary, we will assume you are linking visiting Yellowstone as part of a road trip that involves multiple national parks in the region. This itinerary, therefore, assumes you will begin from Grand Teton National Park, which is located about an hour south of Yellowstone, and home to some incredible hikes.

Early morning: Rise early to catch the sun lighting up the Grand Tetons. Drive along the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Highway, one of the most scenic drives in America, making your way to Yellowstone’s South Entrance. Stop at the visitor center in West Thumb to get up-to-date information about road and trail conditions.

The drive from Grand Tetons to Old Faithful can take about 2.5 hours.

Morning:  Visit Old Faithful and walk the Upper Geyser Basin Loop trail. Allow approximately 2 hours for this experience. Be sure to check with the visitor center to find out the eruption times for Old Faithful, which erupts about every 90 minutes.

Mid-day:  After a snack, head over to the Fairy Falls parking lot and hike to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. The hike is under 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) and will not be as crowded as the view from Midway Geyser Basin. Though, if you don’t mind the crowds, we suggest seeing Grand Prismatic up close along the boarded walkways at Midway Geyser Basin.

Afternoon:  Drive back towards West Thumb and then head north taking in views of Yellowstone Lake, the largest body of water within the park. There will be a few pullouts to take in the scenery along the way. Then drive through Hayden Valley, where you will encounter herds of bison, Yellowstone’s iconic beast. Along the be sure to stop to capture photographs of this majestic animal.

Late afternoon/evening: Drive to Artist Point, one of the most photographed viewpoints in Yellowstone. From the vantage point of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, you will see the Yellowstone river plunge 308 feet (93 meters) over Lower Falls.

Accommodation for the night:  Book ahead if you want to spend the night at Canyon Lodge or reserve a campsite at Canyon Campground. You can also choose to continue driving to Mammoth Hot Springs or stay outside the park at Gardiner, Montana.

Additional Reading: Top Things to Do in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Two Day Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park

We start with the same basis that if you are only visiting Yellowstone for 2 days, then you are most likely doing this as part of a much bigger road trip. This 2-day itinerary is an extension of the 1-day itinerary, but with more time built into it to travel at leisure and see more of the sights in each location.

DAY 1

Early morning:  Rise early to catch the sun lighting up the Grand Tetons. Drive along the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Highway, one of the most scenic drives in America, making your way to Yellowstone’s South Entrance.

  • Hike to Riddle Lake. This 5-mile round-trip hike crosses the Continental Divide as it meanders through small mountain meadows and forests to the shores of a picturesque little lake. Hikers often view elk in the meadows, birds near the lake, and occasionally spot bears.

Mid-morning and lunch:  After your hike, continue driving to Old Faithful. We recommend having lunch inside the famous Old Faithful Lodge, where you can watch the geyser erupt from your table.

Afternoon:  Walk the boardwalks of the Upper Geyser Basin Trail and then head over to the Fairy Falls parking lot and hike to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. If you are feeling up for it, hike to Fairy Falls as well. Consider hiking the Fountain Paint Pot Trail to observe the contrasting hydrothermal features of mud pots and fumaroles.

Evening: Head to West Yellowstone and enjoy dinner at one of the various restaurants or pitch a tent at Madison Campground and sleep under the stars.

DAY 2

Early morning: Drive the Firehole Canyon Drive to the viewing area of Firehole Falls and take a swim to start your day. Then continue driving towards Norris Geyser Basin with a quick stop to view Gibbon Falls.

Morning:  Walk the boardwalks of the Norris Geyser Basin. Learn the history of the region of the park with a visit to the Norris Geyser Basin Museum, a National Historic Landmark, and one of the park’s original trailside museums.  

Mid-day:  After exploring the Norris Geyser Basin, begin your journey to Canyon Village. But first, veer off the main road and drive by the Scenic Virginia Cascades, a 60-foot (18 meters) waterfall.  

Afternoon:  Arrive at Canyon Village and head to any of the lookout points at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Be sure to explore both sides of the canyon at places like Artist Point, Uncle Tom’s Trail, or Brink of the Lower Falls.  

Evening:  Relax around Canyon Village or if you want to add to your Yellowstone experience, considering hiking out to Cascade Lake and pitching a tent in the backcountry. A backcountry camping experience will certainly be a highlight of your trip.

Need help planning that next camping trip? Read our Camping Tips: A Beginner’s Guide to Their First Trip.

Three Day Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park

With this amount of time in Yellowstone, you will be able to see plenty of the main attractions, get a few hikes in, and even overnight in the backcountry. If camping is not your thing, then you should be able to fit a night in at one of the towns bordering Yellowstone, such as Cody or West Yellowstone. For this 3-day Yellowstone itinerary, we will assume you fly into Bozeman International Airport.

DAY 1

Morning: After getting your rental car from the airport, begin your drive to Yellowstone’s North Entrance. Take a quick stop in Gardiner, Montana to load up on supplies before entering the park.

The first attraction you will come to is Roosevelt Arch, which serves as the gateway to the North Entrance. Get out of the car to snap a few iconic “welcome to Yellowstone” photos then continue driving to Mammoth Hot Springs.

Mid-morning: Begin your Yellowstone adventure with a walk around the boardwalks of the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. Here you will get a great introduction to the hydrothermal features of the park.

Mid-day:  After lunch, choose to either hike to Wraith Falls, a 79-foot (24 meters) waterfall along Lupine Creek, or up Bunsen Peak, to take in panoramic views of the Gallatin Mountain Range and the Yellowstone River Valley.

Later afternoon:  After your earlier hike, drive to Boiling River Hot Springs and soak in the river after a full day of explorations.

Evening:  Tonight you will have plenty of options for accommodations. Opt to camp at the Mammoth Campground, sleep at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, or stay outside the park in one of the many accommodations on offer in Gardiner, Montana.

DAY 2

Morning:  Start your day before sunrise and drive out to Lamar Valley, one of the best areas in Yellowstone to observe wildlife. As you drive through this section there will be multiple areas to pull off and spot wildlife.  Tip: If you see a crowd forming, most likely something cool is going on.

However, just don’t drive through this area of the park. One of the best ways to experience Lamar Valley is by going for a hike. We suggest hiking a section of the Lamar River Trail or Cache Creek trail. Both are relatively flat hikes that will provide amazing opportunities to feel isolated from the crowds of the park.

Mid-day:  After your hike, return to your car and drive to Canyon Village. Take in any of the lookout points at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Be sure to explore both sides of the canyon at places like Artist Point, Uncle Tom’s Trail, or Brink of the Lower Falls. 

Late afternoon:  After spending time taking in the views at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, continue driving south through Hayden Valley. This is another area of the park where you are bound to see herds of bison and beautiful open meadows along the Yellowstone River.

Evening:  Arrive at Yellowstone Lake and check into a cabin at the Lake Lodge. If there is still daylight, take a walk over to Fishing Bridge to take in views of this massive lake.

Camping is available at Bridge Bay Campground or if you are traveling in an RV, the Fishing Bridge RV Park.

DAY 3

Morning:  Start your day with a hike out to Storm Point. This popular trail leads hikers through forests and grasslands as it makes its way to a strip of dunes and a rock promontory, offering incredible panoramic views of Yellowstone Lake.

If hiking is not your thing, explore Yellowstone Lake on a guided boat tour.

Mid-Day:  Drive along the lake towards West Thumb Geyser Basin and then head west towards Old Faithful. Along this drive, there will be multiple areas to stop for a stretch and to snap photos of Yellowstone’s incredible beauty.

Afternoon:  Walk the boardwalks of the Upper Geyser Basin Trail and then head over to the Fairy Falls parking lot and hike to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. If you are feeling up for it, hike to Fairy Falls as well. Consider hiking the Fountain Paint Pot Trail to observe the contrasting hydrothermal features of mud pots and fumaroles.

Evening: Head to West Yellowstone and enjoy dinner at one of the various restaurants or pitch a tent at Madison Campground and sleep under the stars.

Thinking of joining a group tour? Read our Ultimate Guide to Your First Small Group Tour.

Four Day Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park

In our opinion, a four-day trip through Yellowstone is the ideal way to experience all that the park has to offer. With this itinerary we will begin from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, entering the park through the South Entrance. This 4-day itinerary exits the park through the East Entrance and ends with a night in Cody, Wyoming, home to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

DAY 1

Early morning:  Rise early to catch the sun lighting up the Grand Tetons. Drive along the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Highway, one of the most scenic drives in America, making your way to Yellowstone’s South Entrance.

  • Hike to Riddle Lake. This 5-mile round-trip hike crosses the Continental Divide as it meanders through small mountain meadows and forests to the shores of a picturesque little lake. Hikers often view elk in the meadows, birds near the lake, and occasionally spot bears.

Mid-morning and lunch:  After your hike, continue driving to Old Faithful. We recommend having lunch inside the famous Old Faithful Lodge, where you can watch the geyser erupt from your table.

Afternoon:  Walk the boardwalks of the Upper Geyser Basin Trail and then head over to the Fairy Falls parking lot and hike to the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. If you are feeling up for it, hike to Fairy Falls as well. Consider hiking the Fountain Paint Pot Trail to observe the contrasting hydrothermal features of mud pots and fumaroles.

Evening: Head to West Yellowstone and enjoy dinner at one of the various restaurants or pitch a tent at Madison Campground and sleep under the stars.

DAY 2

Early morning: Drive the Firehole Canyon Drive to the viewing area of Firehole Falls and take a swim to start your day. Then continue driving towards Norris Geyser Basin with a quick stop to view Gibbon Falls.

Morning:  Walk the boardwalks of the Norris Geyser Basin. Learn the history of the region of the park with a visit to the Norris Geyser Basin Museum, a National Historic Landmark, and one of the park’s original trailside museums.  

Mid-day:  After exploring the Norris Geyser Basin, begin your journey to Mammoth Hot Springs. Opt to navigate the boardwalks around the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces or escape the crowds and go for a hike in the backcountry. We suggest either Bunsen Peak or Beaver Ponds Trail.

Late afternoon: After your hike, drive to Boiling River Hot Springs and soak in the river after a full day of explorations.

Evening:  Tonight you will have plenty of options for accommodations. Opt to camp at the Mammoth Campground, sleep at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, or stay outside the park in one of the many accommodations on offer in Gardiner, Montana.

DAY 3

Morning:  Start your day before sunrise and drive out to Lamar Valley, one of the best areas in Yellowstone to observe wildlife. As you drive through this section there will be multiple areas to pull off and spot wildlife.  Tip: If you see a crowd forming, most likely something cool is going on.

However, just don’t drive through this area of the park. One of the best ways to experience Lamar Valley is by going for a hike. We suggest hiking a section of the Lamar River Trail or Trout Lake trail.  

Mid-day to afternoon:  After your hike, return to your car and drive to Canyon Village. Take in any of the lookout points at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Be sure to explore both sides of the canyon at places like Artist Point, Uncle Tom’s Trail, or Brink of the Lower Falls. 

Evening:  Pitch a tent at the Canyon Campground or spend a night at the Canyon Lodge. Reward yourself with a nice steak dinner at the lodge’s restaurant and then return to the edge of the canyon to gaze up at the stars.

DAY 4

Early morning:  Start your day with one of Yellowstone’s classic day hikes to the summit of the 10,243-foot (3,122 meters) Mount Washburn. If you are not up for climbing a summit, we suggest hiking out to Cascade Lake, a small beautiful hike surrounded by grassy meadows.

Mid-day:  Fuel up on lunch at one of the eateries in Canyon Village or pack lunch and have a picnic along the way in one of the many pullouts in the Hayden Valley. Observe herds of bison along the scenic drive and keep an eye out for bears and coyotes in the distance.

Late afternoon:  Arrive at Yellowstone Lake and enjoy the view of this massive body of water from Fishing Bridge or if time permits hike out to Storm Point. You may even want to rent a boat and explore the waters on your own.

Evening:  Drive out of the park through the East Entrance and spend a night in the town of Cody, Wyoming. Nightly rodeos are part of a summer series that offers visitors a glimpse into the old west and visitors will find plenty of accommodations and restaurants on hand.

Looking for a place to go camping? Read our Top 20 USA Camping Destinations for Your First Trip.

Five Day Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park

With five days in Yellowstone, we recommend following the four-day itinerary and adding in a few more activities or simply just going at a more leisurely pace to enjoy your experience.

Suggested additional activities include:

One Final Note about Visiting Yellowstone National Park

If you want to stay inside Yellowstone National Park, in one of the lodges or campgrounds, you need to make your reservations well in advance.

Reservations open May 1 the prior year for summer (Summer 2023 reservations open May 1, 2022), and March 15 the prior year for winter. Lodges get fully booked one year in advance but cancellations are common, so keep checking back if you can’t reserve the lodge you want.

If you are interested in visiting Yellowstone National Park along with other USA National Parks, consider joining a group tour and exploring this region with other like-minded people on the 7-day Under30Experiences Grand Teton & Yellowstone trip.

Visitors Guides to USA National Parks:

Camping and Hiking articles from Under30Experiences:

For more great travel guides and all of our best content make sure you are signed up for our travel newsletter.     

Tim Gillespie
Tim is U30X's Thailand Manager & Community Builder, and has been living, traveling and accumulating experiences in SE Asia since 2009. He loves being in the outdoors, immersing himself in local cultures, and tasting exotic foods.

LOOKING FOR A SWEET TRAVEL DEAL?

OVER 500 FIVE STAR REVIEWS
last minute deals

FOLLOW THE ADVENTURE

As Seen In...