Are you planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park? If so you have come to the right place. Here we share our ideal Yellowstone itinerary for one to four days. From visiting bubbling mud pots to spewing geysers and wildlife galore you will find everything you need to plan your perfect trip.
For most families time is limited, but given how much there is to do and see in Yellowstone, I highly recommend staying for as long as you can to really get off the beaten path a bit to experience more than the top tourist spots. Since we know people are limited in their time, we have given our guide for a 1 to 4 day trip with tips on how to expand it or even cut it shorter if needed.
Background of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park was the very first national park in the United States and is located in 3 US states – Montana, Wyoming and a sliver of Idaho. Yellowstone covers a lot of ground with over 2 million acres of land filled with lakes, canyons, rivers and mountain ranges. The park is also home to the Yellowstone Caldera which is reportedly over 600,000 years old and is the source of the more than 10,000 hydrothermal features found within the park.
Apart from these stunning geologic features, one of the biggest draws to the park is the amazing array of wildlife found here from grizzly bears, wolves, black bears, bison, bald eagles, elk, bighorn sheep, moose and more.
Most visitors find their way to the park during the summer months, however parts of Yellowstone are open year round, even offering adventurous winter activities. That said, the ideal time to visit is during the spring to fall seasons when the temperatures are moderate and most of the facilities are open.
Check out my Instagram Highlight on Yellowstone with more videos and photos from our most recent visit to the park.
Important Information for Planning Your Trip to Yellowstone National Park
Apart from reading our tips on what to AVOID when planning a trip to Yellowstone, the most important factor to consider when planning your trip is where you are going to stay. As I mention in my other post, the ideal visit would allow you to stay in several different parts of the park to minimize driving from one side to another, but as that is not often possible in Yellowstone due to accomodation selling out months and months in advance, our best recommendation is get whatever you can! See below for more information on where to stay in or outside of Yellowstone.
Don’t Underestimate the Distances (and Traffic)
Driving around Yellowstone National Park can take a LOT longer than you think during peak summer months or even during the shoulder seasons as it is always busy. The roads are all two lanes which can backup quickly, not to mention they often also have wildlife sharing the road which can make travel even slower.
If you come across a herd of bison crossing the roadway you can be delayed for hours, literally! Between visitors taking photos of these majestic animals and drivers worried about encroaching on their space, you might be stuck for a while waiting for park rangers to clear the herds off the road. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time if you are trying to get somewhere by a specific time.
Apart from the traffic tie ups, you can also anticipate that many of the parking lots will be full upon your arrival. This can mean waiting for parking or circling over and over. Be prepared for this in summer especially and even during the fall.
How To Avoid Crowds
One of the best ways to avoid crowds is to have an early start and visit the most popular sites early in the day. We found that visiting the geyser area first thing in the morning was the best option as there were fewer people there at that time and the tour buses from outside the park had not yet arrived. By 11 a.m. however it was packed and much less enjoyable.
During the height of the crowds, explore the less often used trails or plan on doing your driving tours at other areas of the park. If you are physically able, go for a hike. I read that 80% of visitors don’t hike any while at the park. Getting out on the trails offers opportunities to see wildlife (we saw beavers and deer quietly eating!), see the park through a new lense and find solitude.
How Much Time Do You Need in Yellowstone National Park?
One of the most overwhelming things about planning a Yellowstone itinerary is how many days you should dedicate to spend inside the park. Ideally the longest amount of time you can. Yellowstone is a massive park which requires a lot of driving. If you can snag a few campsites at different spots in the park, that would be ideal. But honestly, go for as little or long as you can. Whatever you can see and do at the park will be well worth it.
If you only have 1 or 2 days as part of your Montana road trip to spend inside the park, you can see the main tourist hot spots relatively quickly if you stay close to where you want to visit.
During our visit we spent 4 full days exploring the park which gave us plenty of time to see all the hot spots, visit during early morning hours for animal sightings and time to hike around.
Best Time of Year To Visit Yellowstone with Kids
Honestly anytime is a great time to visit Yellowstone, but ideally the shoulder seasons of late spring and early fall when the crowds have not yet arrived or already left and the weather is moderate. If you must make a summer visit, plan on June as July and August are quite busy. That said, post COVID we have found that park is quite busy even well into October when many of the sights in neighboring areas are closing down.
Winter is also a fun time to visit even though only a small section of the park is operating. For the winter months, we highly recommend booking a tour to get the most out of your visit.
Yellowstone Entrance Fees
At writing, entrance fees for Yellowstone National Park is $35 for one private vehicle for a 7 day visit. If you plan to visit any other national parks on your trip, we highly recommend getting the annual America the Beautiful Pass for $80. It is well worth the money! During our last visit we were in Yellowstone for 4 days before driving to Grand Tetons. On our way back to Montana, we had time to stop into Yellowstone again. Had we not had our pass, we would have had to pay another $35! And let’s be honest, you are supporting the National Parks, so why not just upgrade to the year pass!
Accommodation In & Around Yellowstone
For those planning well in advance (or lucky) there are 9 places to stay inside Yellowstone. These lodges sell out almost immediately when they open 6 months in advance. You can also try your luck calling as it gets closer for any cancellations. Below are the lodges within the park to consider:
Canyon Lodge and Cabins: 400+ guest rooms in 5 hotel-style lodges, with an additional 100+ rustic cabins
Grant Village Lodge: 300 guest rooms spread across 6 two-story, hotel-style lodges.
Lake Hotel and Cabins: Large lodge that has hotel rooms and cabins
Old Faithful Inn: Rustic lodge with hotel room-style accommodations right in the middle of the action.
Lake Lodge Cabins: 186 cabins
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins: Large lodge that has hotel rooms and cabin accommodations in the northern area of the park
Old Faithful Lodge: Cabins
Old Faithful Snow Lodge: Large lodge that has hotel rooms and cabins
Roosevelt Lodge: Cabin
If you prefer camping, Yellowstone National Park has 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 established campsites inside the park. Much like the hotels, campsites sell out insanely fast, so you will need to book at least 6 months in advance or be lucky enough to snag a cancellation.
As it is insanely difficult to grab a room inside the park, many visitors stay outside of the park. We have always stayed outside of the park and while it does make for longer days and more driving, it is also has the added benefit of more meal options, cooking at home and other activities to do outside of the park.
Accomodation Outside of Yellowstone
If you could not snag a place to stay within the park, don’t fret as many visitors stay outside of the park. One of the most popular areas to stay is in West Yellowstone which is probably the closest to the majority of the popular tourist attractions. However we have stayed in the town of Red Lodge which was a great spot to explore the Lamar Valley from.
Another great spot to consider staying in is near the north entrance in Gardiner. This was a great spot for a family visit in that we could visit the hot springs in the evening as well as have easy access to all the areas in the northern parts of Yellowstone. Some people even consider staying as far as Bozeman as there is ample things to do and places to eat, but I don’t recommend that unless you have to!
TIP: Use the map below to find the best deals for your stay. Enter your dates and which area of the park you would like to stay – you can see both the Western and Northern entrances as well as Cody, WY on the other side of the park.
The Best Yellowstone Itinerary with Kids
Planning a trip to Yellowstone with kids can be daunting. The park is massive and there are so many things to do and see that its difficult to fit it all in. If you aren’t quite ready for the details of your Yellowstone itinerary planning, head over to our post on things you must AVOID when planning a Yellowstone trip. Otherwise, if you are ready for the nitty gritty of itinerary planning, read on.
This Yellowstone itinerary is intended to give you an overview of some of the most majestic sites of Yellowstone, taking in the major sites like hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles with a few lesser visited sites thrown in too. While it includes many sites for the first few days, you can easily spread these out over your visit, adding in more hikes and off the beaten path places to catch your breath.
Note: This itinerary assumes you are staying near the North entrance of Yellowstone. Adjust the days and contents of each day based on where you are staying. No matter how you cut it, you will backtrack and traverse these roads many times!
Day 1 on Your Yellowstone Itinerary
For your first day in Yellowstone, we recommend driving one part of the main scenic 8 loop hitting some of the most scenic attractions. Exactly where you begin your itinerary planning will depend on where you are staying. Feel free to adjust the specifics of each day to fit into your accommodation location and schedule.
For those staying in the North of Yellowstone like we did, your first stop will probably be to the Mammoth Hot Springs area. If you can resist, wait until later in the day on your way back as the colors are more vibrant in the later part of the day and it’s typically never that difficult to find parking unlike in other areas of the park.
Instead, you will venture further afield out to the Lamar Valley for wildlife viewing.
Early Morning in Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley is the place to go if you hope to spot wildlife. This is the place to try your luck at seeing the parks infamous wolves which were reintroduced to the park in 1995, as well as the myriad of other animals that call this area home. One of the best places to do this is at Slough Creek Campground. You will not be alone out here even arriving before the sun rises! For the best chances to see the wolves, befriend people with strong scopes set out or consider taking a wildlife spotting tour.
Driving through the Lamar Valley you will have the opportunity to see an abundance of wildlife like badgers, grizzly bears, pronghorns, bighorn sheep and coyotes. Keep your eyes peeled.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to Canyon Village Visitor Center
After your early morning in Lamar Valley, you will need to backtrack a bit to the turn off towards the Canyon Village Visitor Center. At this point you can turn off towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and begin stopping off at the various viewpoints. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the park. Artist Point is one of the most popular spots to see the river running through the deep canyon below.
I have to say that even visiting this area twice, I still enjoy seeing the various angles and views from each stop point. It does get annoying hopping in/out of the car, so at some points it’s worth it to park and walk to a few viewpoints and then head back to the car to continue on further.
Depending which way you go or end up, make sure to take time in the Canyon Village Visitor Center and consider grabbing lunch, ice cream or a snack here.
Norris Geyser Basin & Museum
As you work your way back to the main road that can lead to the North entrance or the west entrance, make time for a visit to the Norris Geyser Basin area. This area was one of our favorites as it had a great deal of information about the various hydrothermal features of the park that helped inform our visit for the rest of the time. Take time to explore the Norris Geyser Basin Museum as you enter the area.
Top sights to see here include the Porcelain Basin and the Back Basin. You can easily access these through a mile boardwalk that connects the main areas. There are many areas here that do not have handrails where small children could easily fall in, so do take extreme care here.
Follow the boardwalk to the Back Basin where you will find your way to Steamboat Geyser which is the tallest geyser in the world at 300-400 feet. This is a nice area to really stretch your legs and see quite a bit at the same time.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Depending on where you are staying, you could either head back to your hotel now or continue up to Mammoth Hot Springs if you are staying in that area. Since we last stayed in the Gardiner area, we always ended each day with a visit to Mammoth Hot Springs.
This area is filled with beautiful shades of cream and white travertine terraces that are stunning. Boardwalks with plenty of stairs, wind through the terraces providing various viewpoints of the different terraces. There tend to be quite a few elk hanging around this area as well, which is a delight for visitors. You can split the area up between the Upper Terraces parking area one day and the Lower Terraces on another day.
Looking to Get Out of your Car?
If you are looking for ways to get out of your car and get out to see the scenery up close, consider the Beaver Ponds Trail. This trail is a loop starting and ending around the Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center area. Download the map on AllTrails before you start so you can find the trailhead. We absolutely loved this trail. It was so beautiful, had very few people on it and we saw beavers!
TOP TIP: If you are staying in this area or are looking for something different, head up to the Yellowstone Hot Springs which is a great way to end the day soaking in amazing hot pools with a splash of cold water too!
Day 2 on Your Yellowstone Itinerary
Day two of your itinerary will take you to some of the most iconic spots in Yellowstone. In order to avoid crowds and get the most out of your day, you will want to head to Old Faithful as early as possible as it gets crowded! Once you are there, you can easily spend half a day wandering around the Upper Geyser Basin to see Old Faithful from different viewpoints. We particularly enjoyed seeing it from the hill behind the geyser.
If you day has gone on much longer than you planned, grab some food here at the Old Faithful Inn or grab a bench to eat your packed lunch before heading on to your next destination.
For those with limited time in the park, we recommend heading to the Grand Prismatic Spring area. We prefer seeing the spring from the overhead on the Fairy Falls Hike trail rather than just viewing from the boardwalk, but either (or both!) will be amazing to see in person.
Old Faithful & Upper Geyser Basin
The first stop on your Yellowstone Itinerary, start off by visiting Old Faithful first thing in the morning as the viewing area gets crowded. Old Faithful is the most iconic and popular spot in all of Yellowstone National Park. Visitors from all over the world flock to Yellowstone just to witness the eruptions. This geyser is one of only 6 that scientists predict eruptions for. Old Faithful erupts approximately every hour. You can check out this page for the geyser’s predicted eruption schedule.
The best places to view the eruption is from the main boardwalk viewing area, within the Old Faithful Inn or our favorite, hike up to the Observation Point (.6 miles uphill).
If you have hiked up to the Observation area, you can take the trail down the way you came up or you can continue further afield to see other geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin. This area consists of a network of paths and boardwalks taking you to some of the coolest and most interesting hydrothermal features in the park.
One of our favorites was the one below.
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You could easily spend half of the day wandering around this area as there are a ton of really cool, unique hydrothermal features to be seen. For those with the time, consider walking out further on the boardwalks to some of the less visited geysers that erupt at longer intervals. It’s quite exciting to wait a while for one and then to see if finally start erupting.
Grand Prismatic Spring & Fairy Falls Hike
Next up on your day 2 itinerary is a visit to the second most iconic spot in the park – Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. This colorful spring can be seen either via the boardwalk that sits level with the pool or via the Overlook trail that allows you to view it from above.
The hike to the Observation Point is around .6 miles one way and fairy easy. Many visitors combine this excursion with a hike on the 5.4 mile Fairy Falls Trail that goes along the same path but takes you through trees to the impressive falls. The entire hike takes about 3 hours.
If you’re not up for the full hike, just do the 1.2 mile round trip part of the trail to the Grand Prismatic Overlook. Otherwise you can also visit the spring from the boardwalk a bit further up the road. Be prepared for a wait at the parking area as its often quite full.
For those that are interested in testing the water temperatures, consider purchasing this temperature gun before your visit. My son LOVED having this to find out the various temperatures of the different pools of water.
If you still have time on your day and want to see more geothermal features, head to Biscuit Basin. This short loop on a boardwalk passes stunning springs that are particularly beautiful. We loved learning about the tiny heat loving organisms called thermophiles that live in the waters and create the various colors.
If you are looking for a break or a spot to eat some food, head to the Firehole River where there are several picnic areas to rest and observe wildlife. Here we saw several bald eagles fishing in the river while we looked on.
Fountain Paint Pot
As you are finishing up your day, if you still have some energy left and aren’t overdosing on hydrothermal features, head to the Fountain Paint Pot area. Here you can see an overview of the geothermal features of the park as all the types are contained in this small area.
VISITORS WITH ONLY 1 DAY IN YELLOWSTONE
If you are limited on time, we recommend hitting the top spots like Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin. Once you have had your fill of this area, head to the Grand Prismatic Spring. If all you see in Yellowstone are these 3 areas, you will have seen some of the most recognizable sites. While in the Upper Geyser Basin, explore all along the various walkways to really take in the various types of geysers and fumaroles here.
Day 3 of Your Yellowstone Itinerary
If you have managed to actually fit in all the suggestions on days 1 and 2 of the itinerary, days 3 and 4 can be a bit more relaxed, taking in spots you missed or want to spend more time at. If you know that you have 4 days, try to mix up the days with a hike or two so that you are not overwhelmed with hydrothermal features or feel like you are just hopping in/out of the car all day.
Early Morning at Hayden Valley
If you would like more opportunities for wildlife viewing, you can take another early morning adventure, but this time out to Hayden Valley. My son dreams of being a wildlife photographer, so we couldn’t miss this opportunity.
Just like in the Lamar Valley for the best views you will need to arrive well before sunrise to set up your spot. Ask around at the ranger stations on your previous day to find out what animals have been seen in this area lately and where exactly you should aim to be.
After finishing up in the Hayden Valley, head over to the Mud Volcano area for some cool explorations. This boardwalk is just over half a mile long, however the features presented here are quite interesting! Look for the Churning Cauldron and Black Dragon’s Cauldron as you wander through the various mud pots and hot springs.
Fishing Bridge & Yellowstone Lake
Continuing on down the road, your next stop will be at Fishing Bridge and Yellowstone Lake. We love this area as it allows you to get out of the car for a hike and time to check out the beautiful lake. Pelican Valley Trail is a great one to explore if you haven’t seen grizzly bears yet and want to chance your luck at sseeing one! This trail can take 3-4 hours. Note this trail can be closed at times if the bear activity is too heavy.
If you aren’t keen on stumbling over a bear while hiking, head to the Pelican Creek Nature Trail that runs alongside Yellowstone Lake and offers great opportunities to spot birds and see the diverse ecosystems here.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
Moving on from the Lake, you will head down to the West Thumb Geyser Basin area which is much less frequented than many of the other geothermal areas. Again you will find yourself on a boardwalk that takes you to stunning blue hot springs. Once you have pottered around here, you can start your long drive back to your accommodation.
Lone Star Geyser & Trail
If you still have energy and there is daylight left, consider the hike to Lone Star Geyser. This is a partially paved trail that utilizes an old service road next to the Firehole River. This 4.8 mile in/out trail takes you to the Lone Star Geyser that erupts approximately every 3 hours. You can check at the trailhead to see if someone has noted down the last time it erupted to know if you will make it or not! This geyser can go up to 45 feet in the air which is a sight to see. The trailhead is located at the Kepler Cascades Parking lot.
Day 4 of Your Yellowstone Itinerary
Today is reserved for all the things you didn’t have time to do on the other days of your trip or to spread the other sights out more. One of the things we recommend the most today is to take time to stop at all the spots between Mammoth Hot Springs and Norris Geyser Basin area. There are some great spots to check out along the way that you would have passed up each day!
Scenic Drive Between Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris Geyser Basin
Driving to Mammoth Hot Springs from the Norris Geyser Basin area there are plenty of stops you can make along the way. I would save this for day 4 in case you are pressed for time on your first few days to fit in everything.
Black Sand Basin
This short .5 mile loop boardwalk takes visitors through several active geothermal areas such as the Cliff Geyser, Rainbow Pool and Emerald Pool.
Continuing on from Black Sand Basin is a quick stop at Roaring Mountain. This mountain was named for the numerous fumaroles on the western slope of the peak. This is a quick stop and if you are lucky there might be a tour group here that you can listen on with!
This is a cool area where you can see basalt columns deposited by lava flows 500,000 years ago. These are similar to what we have seen at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Svartifoss in Iceland and at Devils Postpile outside of Mammoth in California. You can see the columns from close to the carpark or hike out a bit to see even more while stretching your legs along the river.
If you aren’t staying in the northern entrance area of the park, it might be worth your time to venture up to this area just to see the Roosevelt Arch. This was constructed by the Army and one of the cornerstones was laid by Theodore Roosevelt himself in 1903. It’s a great photo opp for sure.
Soak in the Boiling River (or hot springs)
After your day exploring, make some time to head over to the Boiling River swimming area. While this area isn’t alway open, if it is, it is a fun way to spend some time. Here you can enter a part of the river where thermal hot springs warm the river. IT can get hot and the current can be fast, so take caution.
Or if you rather, head up north of Gardiner to Yellowstone Hot Springs which is an amazing way to spend a few hours. There are shallow and deep hot spring pools as well as cold water pools to cool off in. All outdoors, this makes a great way to end your trip.
Limited time in Yellowstone?
If you have limited time in Yellowstone with kids, we would suggest the following Yellowstone itinerary options.
One day in Yellowstone:
- Old Faithful & Upper Geyser Basin
- Grand Prismatic Spring hike (1.2 miles) and Boardwalk view
With Two Days in Yellowstone National Park, I would add the following:
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Lamar Valley
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Norris Geyser Basin
If you have two days in Yellowstone available to you, I would focus on the first two days of this itinerary. Alternatively, if you would like to include more sites in those two days, I would add on Mud Volcano and at least one small hike.
Even More Time for Yellowstone?
If you have even more time to spend in Yellowstone with kids, I would take longer each day at the sights we mentioned and spread out the visits to everything here. You could also add in a hike each day. Even though these aren’t mentioned much on itineraries there are some great hikes inside and out of the park!
You could spend weeks exploring Yellowstone. It’s such a stunning and diverse National Park. I hope these suggestions for one day in Yellowstone, two days in Yellowstone, 3 days in Yellowstone, and 4 days in Yellowstone give you some great options for how to structure your visit.
Planning to visit Bozeman? Find out the best things to do in and around Bozeman
Looking for an off the beaten path Montana experience? Head to Philipsburg Montana for an Old West experience.
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