I’m going to be honest right off the bat with you: I LOVE Yellowstone. It ranks right up there with Australia. I do believe it is the best National Park I’ve been to and that you must see it in your lifetime. It gets neglected a lot because it’s far, it’s huge, and it’s NOT a “drive thru” park.
It greatly pains me to speak to anyone that has been to Yellowstone and doesn’t love it. The reason for this is quite simple: they did it wrong. Yes, there is a right way and wrong way to do Yellowstone and I’m here to tell you how.
I’ve been to Yellowstone 4 times in my life. Once when I was a baby (I literally took my first steps in this park), once as a pre-teen, once as a college kid, and most recently at 34 with my husband (it was his first time!). I’ve enjoyed it every time. Well, I don’t know about the very first time, but I’d like to think that’s why I (finally) started walking. It was my love of Yellowstone. 🙂
I truly believe Yellowstone is the best National Park, BUT, as I said before, it is NOT a “drive-thru” park. In fact, the scenery isn’t the reason to go. If you just want scenery, I definitely recommend the Grand Tetons instead. We have always done both during the times we’ve been. However, the post is not going to cover the Tetons. That comes later.
I see a lot of posts out there that do both and so you might be wondering why I’m leaving it out. Here’s the deal: I really want to cover Yellowstone, so all my focus is going to be there, and how many days to spend there. I’m also answering a few other questions I’ve gotten since being back. That being said, we have a lot to cover, so let’s dive right in.
The 8 Areas of Yellowstone
Before we actually get to how many days to spend in Yellowstone you need understand how it’s laid out and the 8 main areas, so here we go. I’m starting from the top and going clock-wise around the map. The roads also make a figure eight so it just works.
1. Mammoth Hot Springs
If you’re coming into the park from Montana at Roosevelt Arch then this is probably the first area you’ll come to. It’s definitely a “can’t miss” place in Yellowstone. The whole area takes about 2.5-3 hours to explore, and I can recommend all of it if you’ve never been. My parents didn’t do this whole area with us because they’ve seen it all before but my husband and I did and it’s well worth it. Plus, you go up a hill a bit and get a good view of the town as well. There are driving spots to get out as well but you certainly want to do the walking, it’s worth it.
The Tower-Roosevelt area does not have the geysers and hot springs, but this is the area you want to get to if you want to see wolves. The road from Tower out of the park is where the wolf packs are located. Get there early (before day break) and then again in the late afternoon until it’s dark. There is a petrified tree in this area if that entices you. I saw it as a kid and wasn’t impressed but you might be, if that’s your thing.
3. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Before we get to the Canyon, it’s worth noting that the road from Tower to Canyon is currently closed. This is a nice area as well with a couple of good hikes. When we were there, we couldn’t get to this area (had to go around to get to the wolves), so be sure to check road closures before you go. It is a pretty drive if it’s open and you can hike up Mount Washburn which has a great view on a clear day.
That being said, I’m still going to go in this order for the sake of ease. Now Canyon is a great area. The waterfall is amazing, it’s less crowded, there’s the upper falls and lower falls and plenty of hiking to get to them.
We spent half a day exploring nothing but Canyon and we saw a vast majority of it and what I would tell anyone to see on their first trip. You can either drive both sides of the canyon or hike them.
Obviously, hiking takes longer. We drove it because even without walking either of the rims, it’s a lot of walking to do. Don’t miss these little hikes:
- Brink of Upper Falls
- Upper Falls Viewpoint
- Upper Tom’s Trail (closed during Covid)
- Artist Point
- Brink of Lower Falls
- Red Rock Point
- Lookout Point
- Grand View
- Inspiration Point
If you do each of those small hikes, you will see a vast majority of the canyon, it will take about half a day if you’re quick, and a full day if you meander (have kids or are elderly). There are maps at each location that will have all the lookouts and trail possibilities. Grab one of those everywhere you go for a $1 donation.
4. Lake Village + Fishing Bridge
There’s not loads to do at Lake Village or Fishing Bridge but both are worth at least a visit. There’s a couple of good gift shops if you’re so inclined and the Lake is beautiful. I do recommend walking around the lake in the early morning or evening.
5. West Thumb
West Thumb is another area that’s a favorite of mine and why it’s on my itineraries below. It buts up to the Lake which makes for some pretty epic photos. We did this area right at golden area and it was amazing. The colors are beautiful and it’s not a huge area, but certainly worth it. I recommend spending about 2 hours in this area for sure.
6. Old Faithful
Well, yes, Old Faithful I’m sure you’ve heard of. You’ll definitely want to see but, but keep in mind, there’s a lot of other geysers, hot springs, and other things to see in this area. On your way to Old Faithful or on your way out depending on which direction you want to go, you’ll also see the Grand Prismatic Springs. As well as other geyser basins that are worth a visit.
In the Old Faithful area, I definitely recommend doing the walk over to Morning Glory Pool. This is 2.8 miles round trip from Old Faithful. It will also take you by other geysers, pools, hot springs, and more.
My husband and I also hiked the Fairy Falls Trail which is an easy hike to a lovely waterfall and if you have the time, I definitely recommend it. You go right by the hike to get the full view of the Grand Prismatic Hot Spring.
After leaving Old Faithful and on your way to Madison (if you’re following the clockwise direction I’m going) then you’ll come upon the Grand Prismatic Springs area. You don’t want to miss this one either. Be sure to take the hike up to get the view of the entire area.
There’s not really anything to see in the Madison area. However, if you drive the road out of the park from Madison, there tends to be a lot of Elk. Of course, they move, so this might now always be the case. It’s good to check this road though if you have the time.
Norris is probably one of my least favorite areas of Yellowstone, it’s why you can skip it if you are short on time. I do recommend it if you’ve never been to Yellowstone. It has a lot of geysers and springs. It’s certainly worth a visit if you have the time, it’s just not the best area.
How Many Days to Spend in Yellowstone?
I’m sure you can find plenty of posts about what to do in a day, or a weekend, or what have you on Yellowstone but what I tend to find is that no one is brutally honest about the amount of time you really need to love Yellowstone. That’s what I want you to get out of this.
Therefore, now that we’ve covered the major sections of the park, let’s talk about why you’re really here.
Can You do Yellowstone in a Day?
Now, you’ve probably guessed that my answer to the question “can you do Yellowstone in a day” is going to be no. However, it might surprise you to know that my parents have in fact done it in a day and you can do it with one major hitch. You need to do it right. That means, you have to go during the right time, get up early, stay up ’till night fall, plan it out, and be prepared for a lot of walking. And, you do need to spend one night in the park.
Now, see, I always hate it when I have a day to spend somewhere and people just tell me “don’t go”. That’s the absolute worst. Therefore, I’m not going to tell you that. Instead, I’m going to give you guidelines that you’ll need to follow. Because here’s the thing, Yellowstone is a geo-thermal marvel. It has a lot of weird stuff, most of which you can’t see anywhere else in the world. It’s not a “hey-look-at-that-pretty-mountain-isn’t-this-scenery-amazing-park”. It’s a place to learn, explore, and wait. You’ll see why.
Before we get to all that, here’s the 6 guidelines you’ll need to follow if you only have a day and want to get the most out of it:
1. Choose the right time of year to go to Yellowstone.
You cannot, I repeat, cannot, do this during the summer. The park is too crowded. Next, research any road closures. If there are closures, you’ll be out of luck on some things. Yellowstone is large, so if you can’t get to a certain area one way, it can take a really long time to get there another way. Just no way around it. Literally. The best time to go to Yellowstone is late September. Early October can work but you do risk closures because of weather.
2. Get Up Early.
Plan to arrive in the park by day break. Yup, I said it. Drive in the dark and get moving.
3. Stay Until Nightfall
There’s a lot of wildlife in Yellowstone. Grizzlies, wolves, and more. If you want to see the best of it, you need to be both lucky, and willing to get out there before daybreak and stay until nightfall. More on that later.
4. Plan it out.
You cannot wing this one. Not if you want to make the most of it. I wouldn’t not want someone to go to Yellowstone without seeing the following: Mammoth, Canyon, West Thumb, & Old Faithful. I would start at one end and end at the other without having to back track. Otherwise, I’m not sure you could do it all. Lucky for you, I’ve got a breakdown of how you can tackle this:
- Morning: For simplicity sake I’m starting at the top again, where you’ll explore Mammoth (2-3 hours), then drive over to Canyon (1 hour driving)
- Afternoon: Do one look-out of Canyon (1 hour), then drive to West Thumb (1 hour)
- Evening: View West Thumb from the Top (1 hour). Then, head to Old Faithful and spend the night (1 hour).
- Early the Following Morning: Awake early and explore all there is in the Old Faithful area (about 2-3 hours)
- With this plan, you can head to the same park exit at Mammoth or exit at the bottom of the park. If you’re able to go back out the park at Mammoth, you’ll be able to go right by Grand Prismatic and I’d stop and see that as well.
- You’ll notice there are more hours listed than there are in a day, if you do this, be prepared for night driving.
5. Be prepared for a lot of walking.
If you can’t do much walking, you really won’t see much. There’s just not that much to see from the road. Yes, you can see Old Faithful, some geo-thermal activity, etc. However, the best bits of Yellowstone, take walking.
6. Spend one night in the park.
Yellowstone is massive, so you will want to spend the night in the park. Unless you’re okay with a LOT of night driving. There are no hotels right outside the park. You have to drive awhile.
What If I Have a Weekend to Spend in Yellowstone?
Now, you’re getting a little closer. A weekend would give you more time, not quite enough in my opinion, but you’re getting there. In a weekend, you could hit my favorite spots. Be sure you spend at least two nights in the park, for my itinerary, I’m giving you 3 nights in the park. Here’s a brief break-down of the top spots and how to hit them in a weekend.
- Friday Evening: Arrive in the park and stay in the Canyon area
- Saturday Morning: Spend the morning in the Canyon area (2-3 hours), then drive to West Thumb (1 hour)
- Afternoon: Explore West Thumb (2 hours)
- Evening: Head back to Canyon
- Sunday Morning: Get up early and head over to Mammoth (1 hour drive, 3 hours there)
- Afternoon: Head over to Old Faithful (1.5 hour drive, 3 hours there). Stop at the Grand Prismatic on your way to Old Faithful.
- Evening: Drive back to Canyon via Hayden Valley and hope for wildlife. (1.5 hours)
You’ve Convinced Me, I’ve got 5 Days, What Do I Do?
Okay, now you’ve arrived. You’re going to spend 5 days in Yellowstone. Now, let’s be clear, this is 5 days in the park. Not going to the Tetons, unless you want to rush a bit. 5 days in the park will give you time to breathe, maybe take in a few hikes, etc. The best part? You’ll be more likely to see some pretty awesome wildlife. This means beyond the buffalo and the elk (which I do love too!). The longer you stay, the more likely you are to see epic wildlife like grizzlies and wolves.
You’ll definitely get to see everything if you stay 5 days in the park. Here’s how I’d do it. This is based on no road closures, but those do happen, so check before you go. If roads are closed, I recommend moving hotels so that you can go early to look for wildlife.
- Day 1: Arrive in the park and drive to Canyon. This is about 1-2.5 hours drive from the entrance depending on which direction you choose to come from. Canyon is my favorite place to stay as it’s central and not as crowded.
- Day 2: Start the day by waking early and exploring all Canyon has to offer. Usually takes about half a day. Then drive over to Norris and spend the afternoon there. This takes about an hour. Head back to Canyon and explore the Visitor Center before closure.
- Day 3: On Day three I would head up to Mammoth. If the road between Canyon and Tower is not closed then I would get up early and go see the wolves. By early I mean day break. Then head over to Mammoth and spend the morning there. From Mammoth, be sure to make the short drive to see the Roosevelt Arch. After getting up early for the wolves and walking Mammoth, you’ll probably be tired. I head back to Canyon for an early evening. If you’re up for it, drive around Hayden Valley during the early evening to look for animals.
- Day 4: For the fourth day, it’s time to explore the bottom half of Yellowstone. Head to Old Faithful first through Madison. You’ll go by the Artist Pots, Monument Geyser Basin, and Gibbon Falls. Then, you’ll reach Lower Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin (which includes the Grand Prismatic), Upper Geyser Basin, and finally Old Faithful. Take your time getting there, explore each of the Basins and hike up to see the Grand Prismatic from the top of the hill. Once you get to Old Faithful there’s plenty to keep you busy during the afternoon. Don’t forget to visit the Morning Glory Pool at Old Faithful. Walking there will take you by loads of other Geysers. Usually, they have ranger talks that are also worth doing (when there’s not COVID) so hang around Old Faithful for dinner and ranger talks.
- Day 5: On your last day get up early (yes, do this daily) and drive down to West Thumb. Take your time looking for wildlife in Hayden Valley. Check out the lake and fishing bridge (won’t take long) then spend the morning at West Thumb. For your final afternoon, you could go back to any of the places you felt you needed more time, or head to the Grand Tetons.
What is the Perfect Amount of Days in Yellowstone?
I truly believe the perfect amount of time is 7 days. See, there’s 8 main areas to Yellowstone and while they don’t each need a full day, this will give you time to see things, walk the boardwalks, rest, see wildlife and more.
It’s not some revolutionary number, it’s just what works for me. In this time, you can also do the Tetons (and this is the only place I’m adding that in). I still recommend early rising (beat the crowds!) and staying IN the park. Always. If I was going to give you the perfect itinerary, here’s what I’d give you.
- Days 1-5: Same as the itinerary above.
- Day 6: If you have more days, I recommend spending a day driving down to the Grand Tetons.
- Day 7: On your last day, I’d make it a wildlife day. Get up early to see the wolves, then spend some time in Hayden valley as well. You can also take in a hike, such as Mount Washburn (again, if there are no closures) or Fairy Falls. Catch another ranger talk and explore the Visitor Center if you haven’t already.
The Biggest Reason You Need This Much Time: Wildlife
I can honestly sum up why you need time in one word: wildlife. You have to be a bit patient to see the really amazing wildlife and you’ve got to get up early. Not 10 am early, 5 am early. Get out there before day break. There’s two major areas for wildlife spotting in Yellowstone.
1. Hayden Valley
This area goes right through the middle of the park and you will likely drive it several times. You’ll see people out there every day with binoculars, scopes, and impressive cameras. There are those who do nothing but wait for the wildlife. They know where they live, what pack they’re in, and what they had for breakfast. Okay, maybe not the breakfast, but close. On our last day in Yellowstone we saw a grizzly bear with a bull elk it had just killed across the river in this area. We just happened to stumble upon it driving through the valley. You can’t miss this kind of thing, there will be people there as well as a ranger controlling the situation. Needless to say, it’s the coolest wildlife experience I’ve seen to date.
2. Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley is where the wolves are located. I definitely recommend getting out there early at least one day and seeing what you can find. Now, there are plenty of wildlife tours that will take you to these places. Some will tell you that you must do them, as they have the right equipment to show you the wolves, they know where they are, etc. While this can be good advice, I’m against it personally.
See, you will not find a day out there when there aren’t people looking for wolves. People who track them, know where they are, and have the equipment. Also, they want to share this. I was standing on the hill looking around and a man motioned me to come look with his scope (no, don’t make it dirty). He showed me a giant grizzly and some wolves. People are kind and they want you to see things. I’m not huge on tours so I’ll need to really be convinced on them and this just isn’t something I find you need.
When (dangerous) wildlife is near the main highways, you won’t be first to stumble upon it, believe me. There will be at least one ranger and probably 50 or so photographers. With social media and the ability to share where things are happening, it’s unlikely you’ll struggle. That’s not say you can’t stumble upon things, but if there’s a big highlight such as a grizzly eating an elk near the road (yup, we saw that), there will be others.
Yes, we did stumble upon a fox with his fish when we were walking out to the wilderness and that can happen. Just rest assured, if you spend enough time in the park, you will most likely see something epic. No, I won’t guarantee it, and really, tours can’t either. No matter what they claim.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone
I said several times that you need to stay in the park. I whole-heartedly believe this. The places to stay are expensive, not that nice, and without a lot of options. Nevertheless, it’s imperative to stay so it is what it is. You also need to book early. It fills up. Here are your options below. Basically each of the 8 areas has places to stay. BUT, keep in mind, the are varying degrees of “rustic” and certain ones are only open during certain times. You must always check road, hotel, and campsite closures. And Yellowstone is whole other world in the winter. In fact, the next time I go, I plan to go in the winter as it’s a completely different beast and therefore experience.
- Mammoth Hot Springs: Mammoth is a good place to stay but it gets crowded and it’s not centrally located. However, it’s a good starting or ending point.
- Tower-Roosevelt: Roosevelt Lodge is not always open but does have lodging.
- Canyon Village: Canyon is my favorite place to stay. Remember that epic waterfall from above? That’s this area. But that’s not why I recommend it. It’s less crowded than Old Faithful or Mammoth. Since we went during the pandemic of 2020, this was a big plus. Really, it would be nice anyway though. You’re probably headed out to Yellowstone to be away from crowds and while that’s not going to happen completely, this will help. It’s also centrally located so easy to get around to different parts of the park. With a park as big as Yellowstone, you definitely need that.
- Fishing Bridge + Lake Village: There is an RV park at Fishing Bridge and Lake Village does have accommodations.
- Grant Village + West Thumb: There is accommodation here as well but it closes early in the fall.
- Old Faithful: I’m sure you’ve heard of Old Faithful Lodge. Obviously, there is accommodation here but it’s not as glamorous as you might think, but it’s an option.
- Madison: Madison has campsites you can book.
- Norris: Norris also has campsites.
What Makes Yellowstone So Special?
Alright, I’ve raved about Yellowstone for the last 4,000 words, but what is it that makes it so special? That, my friend, is the thermal activity. You see, Yellowstone is actually a super volcano. Yes, they expect it to erupt any day now. However, they’ve been saying that my whole life. Huge eruptions occurred here, the latest about 600,000 years ago. What is now the park was the center and it collapsed, forming a 30 by 45 mile caldera or basin. The heat that powered those eruptions is what still fuels the park’s geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mudpots. When I say hot springs, I do not mean ones you can sit in like in Colorado. These are not safe for that. Please stay on the boardwalks and trails.
This isn’t the only place that has this, but it’s one of very few. Iceland, New Zeland and Japan are the only others that have this sort of hydrothermal activity. And Yellowstone, is the largest group of hydrothermal features in the world.
One More Recommendation
Now, for some of you, this last recommendation might seem a little morbid, but I’m adding it anyway. I truly believe you should read this book about Deaths in Yellowstone before going. You may be thinking “Wait, what?! You’re sick!” but really, trust me. See, there was a time when people didn’t know what this park was about, before we even had roads, and as you can imagine, that caused a lot of drama. No railings or walkways and one mis-step and you landed in a 150 degree geyser and fried within minutes. I’m not exaggerating.
Yellowstone is a dangerous place. People used to feed bears, put their children on bison for a photo, and more. What’s worse, these things still happen. I know it’s tempting to reach over the boardwalk to see what the water feels like. And while it’s not usually that hot right near the boardwalk, it could be. I’m usually a hop off the trail, climb over railings sort of person (within reason), but in Yellowstone, I will not do it. The entire thing is a volcano. However, I do get the urge to do things like this, which is why I read the book, and you should to.
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Also, I’m curious, have you been to Yellowstone? How long did you spend? Let me know in the comments!