Looking to plan a trip to Yellowstone National Park but finding it overwhelming to plan your Yellowstone itinerary? I got you!
Yellowstone National Park is amazing and unique. From colorful geothermal pools, powerful waterfalls, and green valleys filled with wildlife, the park has so much to offer.
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Yellowstone National Park is HUGE and there is so much to see and do. It’s best to have at least 4 days in Yellowstone, but if you are short on time (like I was) you can still see a lot of the highlights in 2-3 days. Keep reading to plan your trip with my 3-day Yellowstone itinerary!
Yellowstone Trip Overview
- PTO/Vacation Days Needed: 1-2
- Nights: 2
- Cost: $
Before we get to my Yellowstone itinerary, here’s some important info about the park:
Best Time to Visit Yellowstone National Park
The best time to visit Yellowstone is in the summer, when all the roads are open and the weather is warm. (A lot of the roads close in the winter when it snows). July and August are the most popular months to visit, but these are also the most crowded months. I recommend going in June or September for the shoulder season.
How to Get to Yellowstone National Park
Unless you’re lucky enough to live driving distance to the park, flying to an airport near Yellowstone and then renting a car is your best bet. There are a few options:
- Yellowstone Airport (WYS) – the closest airport to the park, just 3 miles from the West Entrance. Flights to this airport can be expensive since it is so small, and normally connect through SLC.
- Yellowstone Regional Airport (COD) – the second closest airport in Cody, Wyoming that is 55 miles from the East Entrance. Also will likely be expensive since it’s a smaller airport.
- Bozeman Airport (BZN) in Montana – this is the airport we flew in to (and it’s colored red on my map above). There are direct flights from LAX. It’s only about an 1.5 drive to the North Entrance, or 1 hour and 45 minutes to the West Entrance
- Jackson Hole (JAC) in Wyoming – This airport is located about 1 hour from the South Entrance
- Billings Airport (BIL) in Montana – located about 1.5 hours from the Northeast Entrance
If you’re looking to do a trip to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, I recommend flying to/from different airports and getting a rental car for one-way drop-off. For instance, we flew into Bozeman and drove through Yellowstone for a few days, heading south into Grand Teton National Park, and then flew back from Jackson Hole Airport.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone National Park
You can either book a campground or lodging inside the park, or stay in one of the towns right outside of Yellowstone! Check out the options:
Best Lodging Inside Yellowstone National Park
If you’re looking for lodging inside Yellowstone National Park, note that you’ll often need to book about a year in advance (they book up quickly!) However if you are on top of it and planning your trip that far out, here are some of the best lodging options:
- Old Faithful Inn – the most famous lodge in the park, built in 1904 out of local stone and logs!
- Old Faithful Lodge Cabins – if you aren’t able to get a spot at OF Inn but still want to be in that area, this is another good option
- Canyon Lodge – one of the newer lodges in the park, located near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
You can check out all the Yellowstone National Park lodges at the Yellowstone website.
Best Lodging Near Yellowstone National Park
If you are planning your trip to Yellowstone more last minute and there is no availability to stay inside the park, there are still some great options in the towns just outside the park!
Best Place to Stay in West Yellowstone
West Yellowstone is your best bet for looking for a place to stay near the park, as this town is only 3 miles from the West entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The Explorer Cabins have rave reviews, and would be a great option if you have multiple people on your trip and need more room to spread out.
If you want to try glamping, check out Under Canvas Yellowstone to sleep under the stars, but with the comforts of home! I stayed at their Moab location when I spent 2 days at Arches National Park and it was awesome.
Best Place to Stay in Gardiner
Gardiner, MT is another great option for a town to stay in that is super close to Yellowstone National Park – only 1 mile from the North park entrance! I highly recommend staying at the Yellowstone Riverside Cottages. They cottages are super cute, have a beautiful view of the river, and are conveniently located!
Camping at Yellowstone National Park
There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park, and 5 of them take reservations. I always recommend ones that you can reserve, so you don’t have to stress about finding a spot once you arrive.
Madison Campground is the most centrally-located campground you can reserve at Yellowstone National Park. It is a crowded campground, but if you get a site on the edge of the loop you have more space. The campground is also close to a river that is great for fly-fishing!
For my trip, I booked two nights at Madison Campground because it is centrally-located to most of the sights in the park, and then booked Grant Village campground for the third night as it was on the southern end of Yellowstone National Park and we were driving to Grand Teton National Park from there.
If you aren’t able to book a campsite in the park, download the Dyrt Pro app for a map of all the free campsite options available in the surrounding area!
3-Day Yellowstone Itinerary
Note that in 2020, the road highlighted in pink in the map above is closed for construction. My itinerary below accounts for that.
Yellowstone Itinerary: Day 1
- Lamar Valley
- Undine Falls
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Boiling River
- Norris Geyser Basin
Any trip to Yellowstone National Park will require a lot of driving – the park is HUGE and most of the best sites to see do not require hiking more than a mile to get there. The first day of your Yellowstone itinerary is no exception – be prepared for a lot of driving on this day! The good news is that the drive is SUPER scenic, though.
Also, be prepared for random traffic jams caused by Bison crossing the street! You’ll always know if there is some sort of wildlife ahead if you see a bunch of cars stopped.
Stop 1: Lamar Valley
Kick off your trip by heading to Lamar Valley – one of the furthest spots in the park, but worth the journey! t will take you a little under 2 hours to reach Lamar Valley from the Madison Campground/West Yellowstone area. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see wildlife in Lamar Valley, which is what most people come to this spot for.
Once you reach Lamar Valley, keep an eye out for Bison, Elk, Pronghorn Antelope (the fastest land animal in the world!) and Bears! We saw all of these amazing animals during our afternoon spent in Lamar Valley.
I recommend packing a lunch with you, and finding a nice spot in Lamar Valley to get out and have a picnic (with a view!). Just make sure to keep a safe distance from wildlife.
Stop 2: Undine Falls
On your way back from Lamar Valley, make sure to stop by Undine Falls for a quick look! It’s beautiful!
*Note – I had planned to also stop at Calcite Springs and Tower Falls on the road from Lamar Valley to Mammoth Hot Springs, however both were closed with the maintenance of the road that completes that loop. If it’s open when you go, I’ve heard those are both good stops as well!
Stop 3: Mammoth Hot Springs
Next up – stop at Mammoth Hot Springs to check out the unique limestone travertine formations. It sort of looks like the inside of a cave! Note – these are NOT the kind of hot springs you can swim in. This spot can get pretty crowded, as it’s one of the most popular sites in the park. Try to avoid peak times if possible!
Stop 4: Boiling River
Contrary to Mammoth Hot Springs, Boiling River IS a spot where you are able to get in the water! It’s also a bit lesser-known of a spot, so hopefully you’ll be able to avoid some of the crowds here. It’s just a 5 minute drive away from Mammoth Hot Springs.
Unfortunately, the access to Boiling River was closed when we were visiting, but I’ve heard that soaking in the river is an amazing experience!
Stop 5: Norris Geyser Basin
Fun fact – 60% of the world’s geysers are located in Yellowstone National Park. There’s over 10,000 hydrothermal features located in the park, such as geysers, mudpots, hot springs, fumaroles and travertine terraces (lots of oozing, weird-smelling, colorful, bubbling good-ness!) On your way back to your lodging in the West Yellowstone area, make sure to check out the Norris Geyser Basin, one of several geyser basins in the park.
At Norris Geyser Basin there are two different areas: Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. We walked through Porcelain Basin – an open area with a boardwalk running through it for a 3/4 mile loop around many colorful, bubbling thermal features. Back Basin is a 1.5 mile walk through a more wooded area scattered with geo thermal features.
Yellowstone Itinerary: Day 2
- Old Faithful
- Upper Geyser Basin
- Grand Prismatic Spring
- Firehole River
First Stop: Old Faithful
Old Faithful is probably the most famous landmark of Yellowstone National Park. Named for its frequent and predictable eruption, this geyser erupts every about every 75 minutes. Each eruption lasts about 1-5 minutes and shoots about 140 feet in the air!
Download the Yellowstone National Park app to track the geyser eruption times, and plan to arrive about 15-20 min early to get a good spot to watch. There are benches out front of the geyser so you can sit and wait. I recommend arriving before 10am to beat the crowds (although you can expect this site to always be more crowded than others in the park!)
Stop 2: Upper Geyser Basin
After (or before, if you get there early enough!) seeing Old Faithful erupt, walk around the boardwalks in the area to check out the other geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin area.
Stop 3: Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring is one of those spots that look just as awesome in real life as it does in pictures! The bright rainbow colors of this spring are simply amazing. You can view the Grand Prismatic Spring from above and from ground level. I highly recommend doing both!
Grand Prismatic Spring from Above:
To get an aerial view of the Grand Prismatic Spring, park at the Fairy Falls trailhead and hike about 3/4 mile to the overlook point. The Fairy Falls trail the continues on to a waterfall, for a 5.4 mile rt hike. We just went to the Grand Prismatic Overlook for the sake of time.
Seeing the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring from above is amazing!
Grand Prismatic Spring from Ground Level
After you finish your short hike from the Grand Prismatic Overlook at Fairy Falls, hop back in your car and drive a mile up the road to the Grand Prismatic Spring parking area. The parking lot will likely be full, but you can park on the street instead. Follow the boardwalk around other impressive geothermal features (like the bright blue pool below) before you reach the Grand Prismatic Spring!
It’s awesome being right next to it and feeling the steam come off the spring. The steam itself even looked to be rainbow at some points!
Stop 4: Firehole River
Firehole River (along with Boiling River mentioned earlier in this itinerary) is one of the 2 spots where you can swim at Yellowstone National Park. After your afternoon spent exploring Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring, stop by the Firehole River to take a relaxing dip!
Yellowstone Itinerary: Day 3
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Kayak Lake Yellowstone
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – Artist Point
- Hayden Valley
Stop 1: West Thumb Geyser Basin
Kick off the last day of your Yellowstone itinerary by checking out West Thumb Geyser Basin. It’s a great spot to go to for sunrise if you like to get up early! This geyser basin is unique from the others on this list because they you can see Lake Yellowstone in the background. It looks beautiful!
Stop 2: Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-elevation lake in North America. The water is cold year round (41 degrees F!) so I don’t recommend swimming in it, however there are kayak rentals near the lake if you want to get out on the water!
Stop 3: Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
About an hour north of West Thumb Geyser Basin, you’ll reach Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – one of my favorite spots in Yellowstone National Park! This area is absolutely beautiful.
I recommend first stopping at Artist Point on the South Rim to get a view of the huge Yellowstone Waterfall flowing between the canyon.
Next, head to the North Rim to Lookout Point for an even closer look at the waterfall. (Seriously – the waterfall is so epic that it deserves a look from both the South and North rims!) At Lookout Point, you can either take the walkway to the top, or take a switchback trail down to get an even closer look. I took the switchback trail about half-way down to get this shot:
Stop 4: Hayden Valley
Stop by Hayden Valley from anywhere between 5-7pm for a chance to see wolves! It’s definitely not as common as seeing Bison in Lamar Valley, but if you are looking to see a wolf during your time in Yellowstone, this is the place to see them. We watched for about 30 minutes in that time range and didn’t see any, but you may get lucky!
Yellowstone Packing List
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- REI Joule Sleeping Bag (this is the one that I have and I love it)
- Inflatable Sleeping Pad (this is the one that I use)
- Portable Rocking Chair (This thing is AWESOME! Just got one for my birthday)
- REI Flexlite Chair – low profile camping chair that’s a big space-saver
- The COLDEST Water Bottle (seriously – stays colder than Hydroflask or Yeti!)
- REI Quarterdome Tent (I have this one and love it)
- Hiking Boots (These are my favorite!)
- Travel Towel
- Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket (I bring this on EVERY camping trip. It packs up small and keeps you warm!)
- Sunski Polarized Glasses
- Camping Cooler
- Portable phone charger
- Cliff Bar Energy Chews (love these things for a boost of energy!)
Other Important Notes for your Yellowstone Trip
- You will not have cell service in most of the park. I recommend downloading the app called map.me and pre-downloading the Wyoming map so you can use the map/directions (like you would Google Maps) without having cell service. I use this for most of my trips!
- Bring binoculars! This is the best way to see wildlife
- Stay a safe distance away from wildlife!
- Splurge for a nicer rental car. If there was ever a time to upgrade your rental car for something more spacious/nicer – this is it! You definitely spend a lot of time in the car at Yellowstone
- There are markets located in the main sections throughout the park (Old Faithful, Grant Village, Madison, Canyon) where you can get gas, firewood, ice, and snacks, and other goods