Yellowstone National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the United States. It draws between 3-5 million people annually, and it’s only getting more popular as a vacation destination. And this is for a good reason!
In Yellowstone National Park, there are lots of instances of geothermal heat which creates natural features such as hot springs and geysers that the park is so famous for. The park also has a large portion of uncommercialized land, which makes a great habitat for the many animals that roam the park.
» Spending more time in California? Check out our California road trip guide and where to go wine tasting in California (hint: Sonoma, Napa, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara). If you’re up for a hike, here are some of our favorites in Southern California, as well as waterfalls.
Visiting Yellowstone can be a bit confusing at first. There are lots of things to do and places to explore. Just trying to make sense of all the information can be overwhelming. That’s why we put together this Perfect 3-Day Yellowstone Itinerary, to make your planning easier. We’ve also included some tips to help you have a better visit.
About Yellowstone Park
Yellowstone was made a national park in the late 1800s and has only become more well-known and well-visited since. The popularity of the park, in large part, comes from its animal life. The land is virtually untouched, which is what makes it a very good habitat for the animals that call it home. In the park, you can see bears, wolves, bison, elk, antelope, and dozens of other species.
The geothermal activity is also a big draw. It’s centered on top of the largest super volcano on the continent called the Yellowstone Caldera, still, an active volcano, surrounded by mountain ranges on all four sides.
Within Yellowstone, there are five entrance stations, ten visitor centers, eight developed areas with lodges, and many restaurants and stores, not to mention campgrounds and hiking trails.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone
For campground and lodging reservations, it’s best to plan well ahead. You can contact the Yellowstone National Park Lodges to inquire about availability. Reservations aren’t necessary to enter the park, but staying overnight in the lodges and campgrounds does. These areas tend to fill up months in advance, so this should be the number one in priority planning your trip.
If you’re looking to camp – either RV or tent camping – there are plenty of options. One of the biggest campgrounds for RVs is Fishing Bridge, as it’s located close to Yellowstone Lake. RV camping in Yellowstone has requirements involving the length of the RVs or camp trailers, so make sure to research requirements so that your RV will fit in the campsite.
The Bridge Bay Campground is the best tent camping place in the park. It’s only open during the summer months, so if you’re visiting during a different time of year this won’t work for you. This campground is by reservation only, so expect to plan ahead and make a reservation before you visit.
There are also lots of hotels in the area if you aren’t keen on camping. Staying at the Yellowstone Lodge in West Yellowstone, Montana will allow you to be comfortable but still keep the driving times to the park reasonable. The lodge is very close to the West Entrance and makes driving to the park super easy and quick.
Located inside the park are the Yellowstone Park Hotel, and the Canyon Lodge and Cabins. Staying inside the park can make your trip a lot easier, especially if you’re visiting during off-seasons when most of the campgrounds are closed. There are other hotels within the park, each have their own pros and cons depending on what park entrance you’re using and which places you plan on visiting.
The park has five different entrance stations, and each will take you to a different section of the park. Choosing which entrance to use for each day can be really useful because it’ll help you get to the right place easily.
- The North Entrance is the only year-round entrance, so it stays open through all seasons. To get to the North Entrance, drive to the park via US 89. This is a great start for anyone coming to the park from the Pacific Northwest. The North Entrance takes you to Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the most popular parts of the park. Once you get to the Mammoth Hot Springs, you can then drive to Lamar Valley.
- The Northeast Entrance leads to Lamar Valley and is the best way to start your drive through the valley. This entrance is closed off during the winter due to extreme snowy weather, so keep that in mind. If you’re coming from northeast Montana this is the entrance that will be easiest for you. Before you get to any of the towns near the entrance you’ll drive Beartooth Pass. This section of highway gives a great overlook onto the park, and has beautiful views. The closest towns to the entrance are Cooke City and Silver Gate.
- The East Entrance takes you to Yellowstone Lake, a giant body of clear blue waters. The gorgeous Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which is a must-visit destination for sightseers, is north of the lake and easy to get to from the lake. Using this entrance takes you into the town of Cody, Wyoming, which was founded by Buffalo Bill himself.
- The South Entrance, which runs up from Jackson, Wyoming, can take you to two different national parks on one road. You can stop by the Grand Tetons National Park using this entrance if you’re interested in going, as well as it will take you into Yellowstone. This road is the easiest entrance to get to, and will also lead you into the heart of the park where the popular geothermal wonders are.
- Finally, the West Entrance of Yellowstone. If you’re most interested in the geysers, this is the entrance for you as this will take you directly to where most of the geysers are. This route uses US 20, and passes through West Yellowstone, a city that is a popular food stop with some shopping. The West Entrance is the entrance that is normally the busiest, due to the large number of people going to the park to view the famous geysers specifically.
Yellowstone National Park site-specific digital passes are available for purchase on Recreation.gov before you arrive, whether you plan one trip or a number of trips. You can also buy 7-day passes if you’re interested in a longer trip. If you’re looking to learn more about park pass options, and find the right Yellowstone National Park, you can find all that and buy your pass online.
Day 1: Geysers
Norris Geyer Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. The features in the basin change daily, with frequent disturbances from seismic activity and water fluctuations. The vast majority of the waters at Norris are acidic, including acid geysers which are very rare.
Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world at 300–400 feet, and Echinus Geyser are the most popular features.
Gibbon Geyser Basin & Artists Paint Pots Trail
Gibbon Geyser Basin is where you’ll find the Artist’s Paint Pots, one of several collections of thermal features in the basin. Although this basin is the same size as the Norris basin, it’s not as popular and is less mentioned, except for this unique feature that resembles the pots of paint on an artist’s board.
Artist’s Paint Pots is a group of over 50 springs, geysers, vents, and mud pots in varying shades of blue, grey, and brown, with a range of different textures.
Artists’ Paintpots Trail is located on the west side of Yellowstone National Park, 3.7 miles south of Norris Geyser Basin (home to the tallest geyser in the world). On the 1.1 miles of the loop, you pass mudpots, hot springs, and mesmerizing milky blue pools in this hydrothermal area.
The Grand Prismatic Springs
The Grand Prismatic Spring is located in the Midway Geyser Basin. It’s a large hot spring that garners its name from the rings of brilliant colors that it boasts.
This is a huge oval pool 370 feet across and 120 feet deep that is surrounded by unusually colorful bands of algae and travertine terraces – the same formations seen on Mammoth Hot Springs. From an aerial view, this pool looks like a giant blue star due to it’s irregularly shaped borders.
The pool steams and bubbles up, forming streams of hot mist that blow in the breeze and sometimes obscure the pool from view. Regardless of this, it adds to the mysterious allure of the spring itself. A half mile boardwalk trail runs part way around the spring, and will also take visitors to the rest of the Midway Geyser Basin’s attractions.
Midway Geyer Basin
This geyser group is less densely populated with attractions than the Upper Geyser Basin, but is still worth a visit. Located inside this group is the gorgeous Grand Prismatic Spring, a large colorful hot spring with dazzling blue waters. Thermophiles in the area create colorful channels lined by yellow and orange bacterial mats.
Another geyser in the group is the Excelsior Geyser, a steaming crater containing a vibrant blue pool. Excelsior Geyser did not always look so calm, as it used to be the largest geyser on the planet, before erupting violently and settling into the steaming, boiling pool it is today.
Old Faithful is probably the most famous geyser in the world, and it’s a large part of what draws people to Yellowstone. This geyser erupts every hour to two hours(35-120 minutes), this predictable eruption cycle is how it was named Old Faithful.
This is the most popular attraction inside the park, so if you’re visiting midday you can expect a crowd. Check the eruption times online on the National Parks Service’s geyser activity schedule, and make sure to show up to the geyser 15-30 minutes before the eruption to get a good view.
» Pro Tip: Try and have dinner at the Old Faithful Inn. It was built in 1903 out of local logs and stone and is a sight to see. The inn is considered to be one of the largest stone structures in the world. Make reservations well in advance as they fill up quickly.
Day 2: Hayden and Lamar Valleys
Since you’ll be spending a lot of time on roads that could be congested with animals and stopped traffic, plan to spend the entire day on these 3 activities. Get out early to avoid crowds and plan to be out of Hayden Valley by dusk, for safety.
Lamar Valley, which lies along the Lamar River in the northeast corner of the park, is known as America’s Serengeti due to its easy-to-spot populations of large animals.
With any luck, you’ll be able to see the Junction Butte and Lamar Canyon wolf packs, herds of bison, grizzly bears, bald eagles, and deer, among others. As this is the prime place to spot animals, there are many pullouts along the road, so keep your eyes peeled and pull over if you see any active wildlife.
You should plan to visit Lamar Valley as early as possible to get the best view of wildlife with fewer crowds. During the day it can get packed with people and it’s harder to see the animals that way.
Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces
Mammoth Hot Springs, located near the park’s North Entrance, is a giant terrace hot spring that spans miles. Winding paths of boardwalks and bridges will take you through this wondrous and colorful landscape.
The Mammoth Hot Springs is actually made of a hydrothermal feature called a travertine terrace. This is created when hot water filters up through limestone carrying travertine, then when it reaches the surface carbon dioxide leaves the mixture and the substance cools into a layer of rock. The colorful strips that can be found on the terraces of these hot springs are thermophiles or heat-loving organisms.
Hayden Valley is known as bison central. There are often large herds of them milling about. It’s also a good place to spot coyotes, waterfowl, grizzly bears, and wolves.
Hike the Mary Mountain Trail (it’s 21 miles from the Hayden Valley to the Madison area) for a chance to see animals in the wilderness. Or, take the scenic drive that traverses Grand Loop Road south between Canyon Village and Yellowstone Lake.
» Try this tour: Yellowstone Lake Twilight Tour
Day 3: The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Explore the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a large canyon that follows the Yellowstone River downstream from Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. This canyon is about 24 miles long and up to 1,200 feet deep. While it’s not as impressive as the Grand Canyon National Park in Nevada, it’s got some really stunning features to see. The Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River are two of those magnificent features.
» Try this tour: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Rim and Loop Hike with Lunch
North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive
If you don’t want to walk it, you can drive along the North Rim and South Rim Drives. There are plenty of different points along the rim drive to park and look out across the huge ravine. All of them will give you a view of the magnificent valley.
Hike from Artist Point to Point Sublime
You can also experience the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone by hiking some of it’s trails. A popular one is a hike from Artist Point to Point Sublime. Artist Point itself is one of the most popular viewpoints for the canyon and is worth visiting even if you don’t take the hike. But if you’re up for it, from there you can take a 3-mile roundtrip hike to Point Sublime which is another favorite viewpoint in the park.
Hike the Uncle Tom Point Trail
Along the rims and partway down into the canyon are a number of trails and walks. One of these is called Uncle Tom’s Point Trail, which you can take to see some stunning natural and hydrothermal features. From this trail you’ll travel down to the Lower Falls of Yellowstone, which is a 308 feet tall waterfall that is a wonder to watch.
Tips For Visiting Yellowstone
- The best time to visit is late spring- April to May- or early fall – September to October. In these times the weather is mild. It’s also best to avoid visiting in summer because that’s when there will be bigger crowds, as families with kids will be flocking to the park.
- When you plan your trip to Old Faithful, make sure to arrive 15 minutes before the scheduled eruption so you can get a good view. It tends to get crowded quickly and you may end up with a bad view if you don’t plan ahead.
- Lots of the roads get congested with animals and with other vehicles, so make sure to plan some wiggle room into your schedule for congested roads.
- If you do encounter wildlife on the road, do not leave your car. You should always remain in your vehicle and only take pictures out of closed windows- regardless of what other people around you might be doing.
- While hiking in Yellowstone, make sure that you’re wearing proper hiking shoes. Carry bear spray with you just in case. It is not safe to hike without bear spray. If you encounter any wildlife in the area, slowly backtrack down the trail.
- The many hydrothermal wonders inside the park look beautiful, and some are tempted to take a soak, leave the trails/boardwalks or touch the waters. There are several reasons this is not a good idea. First, it’s illegal. Also, plenty of the hydrothermal pools are so hot that you would get debilitating burns from even touching them once.
Final Thoughts on This 3-Day Yellowstone Itinerary
Yellowstone National Park is a great place to vacation, especially if you love animals and the outdoors. You’ll never forget your visit, and we hope this itinerary helped you plan your outing in the park!
Be Prepared For Travel
Planning is the most important part of any successful trip. Do it the easy way:
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited over 75 countries.