Yellowstone is the oldest of all US national parks. The diversity of its landscapes is truly unbelievable. Dramatic mountain peaks meet low valleys, vibrant hot springs, and frozen lakes. Wildlife is also abundant throughout the park, and the weather usually quite clement during peak season. I had been dreaming about visiting Yellowstone for years. Now that I have, I already cannot wait to return. If you, too, would love to plan a vacation to Yellowstone, keep reading.
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Founded in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park in the world! Across its 3,472 sq mi/ 8,991 sq km located mostly in Wyoming, you will find never-ending forests, grasslands, lakes, and geysers. Yellowstone is America’s second most visited national park, which does not come as a surprise to those lucky enough to have explored it.
Where is Yellowstone and how to get there?
Yellowstone National Park is massive and spreads across three states. 99% of the park is located in northwestern Wyoming with small sections in Montana and Idaho. The nearest international airports are BOI, BZN, BIL, and CPR. Here are driving distances from each airport to the nearest entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
- BOI in Boise, ID – 6h drive to West Entrance
- BIL in Billings, MT – 2h45 drive to North Entrance
- BZN in Bozeman, MT – 1h30 drive to North Entrance
- CPR in Casper, WY – 4h30 drive to East Entrance
I recommend flying into BZM in Bozeman, MT. This is Montana’s busiest airport and close to the North Entrance, Yellowstone’s busiest entrance. There are 5 separate entrances: north, northeast, east, south, and west.
When to visit?
Late spring and early fall offer fewer crowds, but some trails may still be closed, limiting areas of the park you can visit. The cooler temperatures may also cause steam from the pools to obstruct the view. Visiting off season also comes with the advantage of much cheaper accommodations.
Crowds are largest at Yellowstone in the summer, during June, July, and August. However, this is the best time to explore Yellowstone while most trails are open and the pools clearer. The steam is less obstructive when the air temperature is warmer. Visiting during summertime requires a little bit more planning as hotels fill up quickly. Do not wait and risk being stranded without lodging.
Visiting Yellowstone in the winter offers a unique experience. Many of the park’s roads are closed, but you will have the opportunity to ski, snowshoe, or rent snowmobiles. However, keep in mind that most restaurants and accommodations might not be available during this time.
How long to stay?
This itinerary is designed for 3 days in Yellowstone, and that is what you will need if you want to hit all the highlights in the park. The speed limit is low, and there is a lot of distance to cover. As someone who likes to cram it all in, I do not recommend cutting a trip to Yellowstone short. There is so much beauty to explore!
Where to stay and eat?
Unlike many other national parks, there are lots of restaurants and lodging options available within the park boundaries. There are multiple inns, lodges, cabins, and restaurants located throughout Yellowstone National Park. More primitive facilities are also available such as campgrounds and picnic areas. For more information on lodging and eating in the park, click here.
What to do?
The first question I always ask myself before visiting a national park is how long to devote to my visit. Will a day or two be enough, or do I need more time? Visiting Yellowstone had been a dream of mine for a long time, so I knew I wanted to see everything I possibly could. I had devoted 3-4 days to see the entire park. I don’t have the pretension to claim that this itinerary will show you all Yellowstone has to offer, but it will cover all of the main attractions. After all, much of Yellowstone has never seen a human footprint!
It is important that you keep in mind that a majority of Yellowstone National Park remains closed until May, and you may have to adjust your itinerary due to road closures. Click here to see the road-status map and opening dates for the current season. This itinerary takes current road closures into consideration. Now that we’ve got the logistics out of the way, here’s what you can expect to see on your 3-day trip to Yellowstone:
- Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center
- Undine Falls
- Wraith Falls Hike
- Blacktail Deer Plateau
- Petrified Tree
- Lamar Valley
- Trout Lake Trail
- Tower Fall
- Calcite Springs Overlook
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Roaring Mountain
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Steamboat Geyser
- Monument Geyser Basin
- Artist’s Paintpot
- Gibbon Falls
- Stay in West Yellowstone
- Firehole Falls Hike
- Lower Geyser Basin
- Fountain Paint Pot
- Great Fountain Geyser
- Midway Geyser Basin
- Grand Prismatic
- Upper Geyser Basin
- Morning Glory Hike
- Mystic Falls Hike
- Biscuit Basin
- Black Sand Basin
- Old Faithful
- Stay in South Yellowstone
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Lewis River & Lewis Falls
- Yellowstone Lake
- Yellowstone River Rapids
- Mud Volcano
- Sulphur Caldron
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Back to Gardiner, MT
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The first thing you should do when entering Yellowstone National Park is stopping by the Visitor Center. The park rangers will be able to indicate areas where you are likely to see wildlife, particularly bears.
WILDLIFELots of wildlife inhabit Yellowstone National Park. You will find bears, bisons, wolves, moose, elks, antelopes, birds, and rodents of all kinds. Observing these animals is one of the highlights of any trip to Yellowstone National Park. Remember to always watch wildlife from a safe distance: 25 ft/ 23 m from elks and bisons and 100 ft/ 91 m from bears and wolves. Wildlife sightings can sometimes cause traffic jam in the park. Traveling during late spring allowed us to view wildlife more frequently and more closely as the park was less busy.
We spent the night in Jackson Hole, WY before entering Yellowstone through the South Entrance. The Park route is shaped like an 8, so we decided to cover the area from West Thumb to the West Entrance on our first day. We made a quick stop along the Lewis River to admire the contrast between the dark meandering waters of the river and the bright white snow on the banks. The south entrance had reopened just a couple days prior to our visit, and while the roads were perfectly clear, the snow drifts on the roadside were over 10 ft tall!
After this quick stop, we continued on to West Geyser Basin, which is (in my opinion) one of the most overlooked geyser basins of the park. The blue of the pools was so intense in contrast with the frozen Yellowstone Lake in the background. Each basin is equipped with boardwalks allowing you to walk near the springs safely. I highly recommend walking each loop to enjoy the diversity of each spring and geyser basin. The outer loop of West Thumb’s board walk is about 0.5 mile or 0.8 km.
Next is the Upper Geyser Basin area, one of the most popular in the park. There you will find Old Faithful Inn, the visitor center, and the famous Old Faithful Geyser. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t wowed by Old Faithful. I wouldn’t miss it, but it wasn’t my favorite. I enjoyed the colorful pools, wildlife, and forests even more. Old Faithful’s eruptions are quite predictable unlike other geysers’. The geyser erupts every 100 minutes or so. Click here for the current geyser activity schedule. If you arrive too early, no problem. Enjoy a snack at the inn or start the 1 mi/ 1.6 km hike to the Old Faithful viewing area to watch the geysser erupt inthe distance. We got lucky and arrived only 15 minutes before the eruption and still secured a spot in the nearby viewing area. This viewing area offer close-up views of the geyser.
We left Old Faithful and headed to Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin. While the distance between each attraction in the park may seem short, keep in mind that the speed limit rarely exceeds 40 mph or 65 km/h, and wildlife sightings can slow traffic down even more during the busy season. My favorite pools were Emerald Pool at Black Sand Basin and Sapphire Pool at Biscuit Basin; both were extra colorful.
On the far side of the Biscuit Basin boardwalk, keep going to see Mystic Falls, a beautiful waterfall on the Firehole River. Before heading to Midway Geyser Basin, make sure to hike to the Morning Glory Pool (one of the most colorful in the park) via Artemisia trail. The out-and-back hike to Morning Glory is 2.5 mi/ 3.8 km and takes about 3 hours.
Right down the road from Upper Geyser Basin is Midway Geyser Basin and the famous Grand Prismatic Spring, the most popular hot spring in the park for its impressive size (the largest in the United States with a 370ft diameter) and vibrant colors. When we visited mid-May, we were really bummed to find out the trail to the overlook (a short walk from the Fairy Falls trailhead) was still closed as bears were feeding on carcasses of old buffalos that had died the previous winter. Visit later in the summer and avoid mornings for the clearest views of the pool.
Aftere this brief disappointment, we headed to Lower Geyser Basin and its Fountain Paintpots. There you will also find Great Fountain Geyser. Refer to the current geyser activity schedule for eruption-time predictions. Last but not least, complete your first day in Yellowstone by driving down Firehole Canyon Road to admire the Firehole Falls and go for a quick swim at the Firehole River Swimming Area. Note that this road is closed during the winter season. After a day full of exploring, head into West Yellowstone, ID to spend the night.
On Day 2, we headed to Gibbon Falls. I knew that the National Park Service intervened very little in Yellowstone, even letting fires burn themselves out, but I was amazed at how little Gibbon Falls had changed over the decades. The dead trees you see on the banks of the river have been there for nearly 50 years.
Next, we headed to Artist’s Paint Pots, a fun, very colorful basin of small geysers and hot springs. I highly recommend walking the short trail around Artist’s Paint Pots for great, elevated views of the area. On the way to Artist’s Paint Pots, you will see Monument Geyser on your left.
If you have to skip a basin due to lack of time, let it be Norris Geyser Basin. I enjoyed every minute of our trip in Yellowstone (except when I got a bunch of fiberglass shards in my hand from holding on to a weathered pole trying to take a picture) but Norris Geyser Basin was less impressive than what we had seen the day before. My favorite features were Steamboat Geyser and Emerald Spring.
From Grand Loop Road, we turned left onto Norris Canyon Road. What came next might be my favorite feature in Yellowstone National Park. There is so much beauty in the park, but there is something extra special about the grandeur of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its Lower Falls. The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone are visible from multiple viewpoints: Lower Lookout Point, Lookout Point, Grand View, Artist Point, or Uncle Tom’s Trail.
Because the road from Canyon Village to Tower Roosevelt was closed, we turned around at the falls of the Yellowstone and got back on the Grand Loop heading north to Mammoth Hot Springs. Shortly after getting on the loop, we passed Roaring Mountain. There is a pullout on the right side of the road to admire the volcanic activity on the mount.
Our last stop of the day was the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. The travertine terraces of Mammoth were mesmerizing! They change constantly due to hydrothermal activity, turning new areas into a yellow and ocher wonder while leaving others to fade away into a desert of ash gray.
After another full day, you will want to get a good night’s rest in Gardiner, MT. Visiting the park off season (in late spring or early fall) has the advantage of much cheaper accommodations. For $100 we were able to book a double room with mountain views and within a few hundred feet of the park entrance. Stroll along the quaint streets to shop for souvenirs and enjoy dinner in one of the many local restaurants. In the morning, before heading out into the park for your final day, enjoy breakfast on the Yellowstone River.
On day 3, we headed from Gardiner to the Tower Roosevelt area. Our first stop of the day was Undine Falls, a beautiful waterfall cascading down the Lava Creek Tuff right off the road on the Grand Loop. If you have yet to eat breakfast, consider stopping at Lava Creek Picnic Area, less than half a mile (0.8km) from the Undine Falls pullout.
Next we headed on yet another waterfall hike, Wraith Falls. The Wraith Fall trailhead is located 1 mi/ 1.6 km from the Undine Falls pullout. Wraith Falls hike is an easy 1 mi/ 1.6 km out-and-back hike. The falls are really unique as they ripple down a series of rocks into a veil of foaming water.
If you keep going on Grand Loop, you will drive past Blacktail Deer Plateau. There you’ll be able to admire nature’s resilience and regrowth following the major fires of 1988 that altered the landscape of Yellowstone National Park for decades to follow.
A little before arriving at the Tower Roosevelt Area, you will pass the remains of a petrified tree, fossilized wood turned into a stone-like material. We then kept driving into the Lamar Valley, known for its grasslands and as a great location to observe wildlife.
Related: Petrified Forest National Park Guide
We kept going all the way to Trout Lake trailhead, a small pullout 1.5 mi/ 2.4 km south of Pebble Creek Campground.The trail is short but features a 150 ft/ 45.5 m incline. You can hike to the lake and turn around or hike around it. The lake get its name from the large population of trouts that occupy its waters.
We turned around in the Lamar Valley to head back to Tower Roosevelt. We arrived at Tower Fall in the pouring rain, but the weather calmed down and gave us just enough time to enjoy the view from Calcite Springs Overlook. I was walking back when I saw a group of people all looking and pointing in the same direction. The greatest surprise awaited us. In Yellowstone, that is a pretty good indication that something big is happening. Indeed, a few hundred feet below stood a momma bear and her cub, playing in the woods.
The last section of the park we explored before exiting stretched from Canyon Village to Lake Village along the Hayden Valley. In order to reach it, we had to drive all the way back around the Grand Loop as the road between Tower Roosevelt and Canyon Village remained closed. This will also be the case through the end of 2021. We made a few stops on the way: first at Sulphur Caldron, a mystical pool of smelly sulphur like something out of a witch’s den, then at the Mud Volcano boardwalk, and finally the Yellowstone River Rapids. Our last views in the park were of a still frozen Yellowstone Lake contrasting with the steaming hot vapor of geysers on its banks.
From there, we headed out through the East entrance towards Cody, WY. You can also head back toward the south entrance where you entered the park.
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