There are many amazing places in the world, places that we all hope to visit. But then there are the elite echelon of destinations that are truly must-see. Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, belongs on that pedestal.
When it was first discovered the written reports were scarcely believed and while we can show you amazing photographs, Yellowstone’s spectacular nature has to be seen with your own eyes.
Yellowstone is home to one of the biggest volcanic systems on the planet. These very volcanoes have erupted three times, creating the Yellowstone Caldera, home to more geysers and colorful hot springs than anywhere else on earth.
All up there are 2 million acres of incredible wilderness, epic soaring geysers and mesmerizing hydrothermals to explore. Thankfully, the park features a balance of easily accessible attractions and dramatic trails that will take you deep into the park’s striking landscape.
But not only are you sharing this space with powerful geothermic activity, you will also find yourself alongside Mother Nature’s finest. Rush hour traffic in Yellowstone National Park doesn’t mean a traffic jam in the middle of a major intersection. Instead, rush hour is bumper to bumper traffic as you wait for a herd of bison to cross the road.
Bison herds won’t be the only wildlife sighting on your trip. Different sections of the park from the Lamar and Hayden Valleys to the Thorofare come with varied beasts like bears, wolves and moose that add a sense of awe and atmosphere to an already inspiring place. Overall, Yellowstone features the strongest concentration of mammals in the contiguous United States.
Three days is a solid amount of time to see the best sights in Yellowstone, yet inevitably, at some point you will wish you had more time. To make the most of your 72-hour journey through Yellowstone National Park, we have compiled a thorough itinerary that will take you to the best sights and along the most epic trails so you can have a true Yellowstone experience.
How to get to Yellowstone
Flying into Montana is becoming increasingly easy thanks in part to Yellowstone’s popularity. The easiest and largest airport to fly into is Bozeman Yellowstone (BZN) which is the so called ‘gateway’ to the national park. The drive between the airport and the park is 2 hours long and will give you direct access to the Yellowstone’s north entrance where you will find highlights such as Mammoth Hot Springs and the Yellowstone River.
Other popular, yet more expensive options include flying into Jackson Hole Airport which is only a 45 mile (72km) trek from the southern entrance. Another being a flight into Cody, Wyoming a beautiful country town named after Buffalo Bill Cody. Extra points will be rewarded, if you visit their rodeo that runs annually for 90 nights straight.
Where to Stay
Depending on the goals of your trip and the access you have to camping gear or a RV, camping is one of the best options for staying within the borders of Yellowstone. Not only is it by far the cheapest option, you will also have unbeatable scenery all around.
These campgrounds are placed throughout the park and can be reserved in advance on the National Parks website. Keep in mind that some campgrounds are first come first serve. Thankfully, the website updates the times each site filled up the previous day, so you know how early you need to arrive.
We recommend Madison Campground which can be reserved in advance and with its central location is the perfect launchpad for your adventures.
There are nine lodges within Yellowstone National Park and they vary from rustic cabins to full-blown villages. The most well-known is the Old Faithful, one of just a few log hotels left in the US. From the windows of your room at the Old Faithful, you can watch the famous geyser erupt.
Keep in mind that rooms in lodges and hotels are competitive, especially in the summer months and can book out as much as a year in advance. If you are planning that far ahead then reserve as soon as you can, or can keep up to date with cancellations on the Yellowstone website.
Outside of Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park is so large that staying within the park’s borders will help minimize time spent behind the wheel and maximize time on the trail. However accommodation in the park can fill quickly and staying on the outside will give you the bonus of local restaurants and supermarkets.
West Yellowstone and Gardiner are two great towns that are still close to the national park that day trips won’t become an enormous deal. Both are within 1.5 hours of most of Yellowstone’s major highlights, with Gardiner being a simple 20-minute trip to Mammoth Hot Springs and West Yellowstone being 45 minutes from Grand Prismatic.
Like a lot of national parks, eating out can be a sure-fire way to blow up your budget and a lot of the ‘cheap’ options within the park aren’t worth writing home about. Depending on where you choose to base yourself on the trip, it’s advisable to load up prior to your adventure or complete grocery runs when you can. Seeing as you only have a few days to explore, load up that refrigerator or stick to dehydrated camping meals so you don’t miss a minute.
When to Go
There is never a bad time to visit Yellowstone National Park. The park is home to a gorgeous summer and quickly turns into a winter wonderland so each season has its pros and cons.
During the peak summer months up to 3 million people flock (non-Covid era) to Yellowstone National Park. This may seem off-putting and yes the sheer crowd that gathers daily around Old Faithful is overwhelming, but the immense size of the park allows adventurers to spread their wings. Not to mention, in such an unpredictable landscape, having pleasant weather on your side will allow you to complete some of the more daunting treks successfully.
Fall is rated as the best time to visit Yellowstone, the crowds are thinning out; the temperatures are mild but not too cold and all the access roads remain open. The price of accommodation drops off during this season, although it is not as cheap as the winter. One issue will fall is that you never know when it’s going to end. September is safe but in October the flip will switch.
Winter in Yellowstone is an adventurer’s paradise, but only if you enjoy snow activities and harsh temperatures. Roads are less accessible and accommodation options dwindle. However, it is a great time to spot wildlife, who come down from the mountains for ‘warmer’ temperatures along with providing epic snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Spring is a shoulder season that varies year to year. With the snow melt there is a lot of mud on the hiking trails and the reopening of roads has just begun. However, if you are willing to brave the unpredictability, you will can explore with low crowds and find beautiful snow-capped peaks.
Day 1 Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake
Stop 1: Old Faithful
Driving into Yellowstone you will be feeling a mix of nerves and excitement. The size of the national park is remarkable and your options are endless. But we begin your first day at Yellowstone visiting arguably the most iconic attraction in the park.
Ticking off Old Faithful early is a great way to start, and it opens up more time to visit the sights that are harder to get to.
The Old Faithful Lodge has up-to-date eruption times, making it relatively easy to time your visit. This of course helps attract even more of a crowd. You can avoid this by hiking the short but step Observation Point Loop Trail.
Have your hiking shoes ready to go as this moderate hike will definitely raise a sweat. Begin at the Firehole River Footbridge behind the geyser. The 1.1 mile (1.8km) loop will take you up above Old Faithful so you can watch the famous geyser erupt from 160ft above.
Stop 2: Midway Geyser Basin & Grand Prismatic
Once you have gotten down from the high of your first Yellowstone experience, it is time to visit what I think is the most amazing part of the park. Grand Prismatic is the third largest hot spring in the world, but the vivid orange, blue and yellow pigments make it a unique attraction.
From there, we recommend you begin the hike down to Fairy Falls. This is a simple 5 mile (8km) hike to a picturesque waterfall. If you are short on time, however, the trail leads you to a dramatic overlook of Grand Prismatic. One that is sure to put your camera to work.
Stop 3: Yellowstone Lake and West Thumb Geyser Basin
As you come to the end of your first day in Yellowstone National Park, this is the perfect opportunity to unwind with the stunning Yellowstone Lake in view.
First stop at West Thumb, which features a unique boardwalk different to other hot springs in the park. The boardwalk weaves through the basin, granting visitors with unique views.
Later jump back in your car for a rewarding drive around the edges of Yellowstone Lake. There are many picnic tables around the lake, perfect for sitting back and reflecting. If you are still up for an adventure, you can sign up for boat tours on the lake or rent your own!
When the sun falls, don’t go anywhere as the lake and West Thumb are perfect spots to watch the sunset.
Moderate Hike – Lone Star Geyser Trail
Rather than following the crowd, do something a little different and enjoy a geyser all to yourself. Lone Star is rated as one of the best in the park, and although it is less predictable than Old Faithful its eruption, roughly every 3 hours, is worth the wait.
The simple 5 mile (8km) round is on an old service road that follows the Firehole River. This trail is a great option for winter visitors as it is accessible on cross-country skis.
Moderate/Difficult Hike – Mystic Falls Loop
The trek to Mystic Falls begins on a boardwalk for the first 1 mile (1.6km) before the trail turns steeply upwards towards the Madison Plateau. The quick 500 feet (152m) of elevation may be a bit much for some but the views at the top are stunning.
The 3.5 mile (5.6km) loop trail takes you well above the Upper Geyser Basin to a breathtaking overlook. Over 150 active geysers are laid out below you including Old Faithful. Consider this hike as an alternate to the Observation Loop Trail.
Day 2: Lamar Valley and Mammoth Hot Springs
Stop 1: Lamar Valley
Begin the second day of your Yellowstone adventure with a drive through Lamar Valley. The Valley is one of the best spots in the park to see wildlife, so pack breakfast and get an early start.
The wide open landscape is picturesque and has drawn comparison to the Serengeti. Come here to spot wolves, bison herds, grizzly bears and frolicking deer. If you want to experience Yellowstone’s ‘rush hour’ traffic, Lamar Valley is the place to go.
On arrival, chuck on your hiking pack and get ready for a trek to the Lamar River. Starting from Soda Butte trailhead, This moderate 5 mile (8km) trail takes you through the famous meadows, with epic mountain scenery and blooming wildflowers before guiding you towards the river. Get out your picnic and envision life in the old West.
Stop 2: Tower Fall
In the Tower-Roosevelt section of Yellowstone, Tower Fall dives from 132 feet (40m) above into into Tower Creek. After a great morning hike, you may be happy to know that the falls are easily accessible. Just a short walk from the carpark is where you will find the viewpoint.
Stop 3: Mammoth Hot Springs
Now in the north-west section of the park, Mammoth Hot Springs is immensely popular but worthwhile. Mammoth Hot Springs differ from the ones witnessed on the first day, owing to the unique travertine formations made from soft limestone. The beautiful formations have been described as an ‘inside-out cave’.
There are two boardwalks that take you to the upper and lower terraces, but if you have time, complete both and find all 50 individual springs in the area.
Moderate/Difficult – Seven Mile Hole
Being your only full day in Yellowstone, it may be worth skipping a major attraction for the chance to do one of the best hikes in the park. Seven Mile Hole is an adventurous day hike that takes you below the rim of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. Later you will be guided through lodgepole pine forests, beautiful open meadows with views towards the Silver Cord Cascade.
This 10 mile (16km) hike is a pure-leg burner with a quick 1000ft (304m) descent to finish. But it will take you away from the crowds, to enjoy views all by yourself.
Difficult – Mt Washburn
If you have the urge to summit one of Yellowstone’s towering 10,000ft (3040m) peaks, the Mt Washburn is a great option. The 6.4 mile (10.3km) round-trip hike, beginning at the Dunraven Pass Trailhead, will take 4-6 hours to complete but comes with an unforgettable summit view from the comfort of the fire tower.
The switchbacks both ways help take away some of the pain, and anyone up for an adventure can complete this impressive trek.
Update 2021: Dunraven Pass is experiencing a closure. Click here to stay up to date.
Day 3: Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon
Stop 1: Hayden Valley
Begin your last day in the stunning open meadows of Yellowstone. Similar to the Lamar Valley, Hayden Valley is a magnificent spot to see wildlife. It also straddles the rushing Yellowstone River making it the perfect grazing location for bison.
Grab a spot on the grass, chow on your breakfast and the enjoy the wildlife show.
Stop 2: The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is known internationally as the incredible split of land in Arizona. But we think Yellowstone’s version is just as memorable and there’s no better place to enjoy your last day than right here.
Formed by a serious of ancient lava flows, the 20-mile canyon is believed to be over 140,000 years old. Start your canyon experience at Upper Falls point where you can witness the towering waterfall ferociously tumble into the valley.
The popular Uncle Tom’s trail is a short but strenuous hike down to the Lower Falls that features 328 steps. That said, there’s no reason not to do this hike thanks to the beautiful rainbows that are almost permanently placed in the landscape.
To get a longer range view of the Grand Canyon you will have to complete the easy Artist Point Hike. The amazing overlook at the end of the hike is just 0.1 mile (160m) away from South Rim Drive.
However, it is well worth continuing onto Point Sublime, a trek that lives up to its name. The 3-mile round trip has casual elevation gain and offers ‘sublime’ views of the canyon that is carved by the Yellowstone River.
Stop 3: Norris Geyser
End your trip to Yellowstone with your final geyser experience. Norris Geyser is home to the largest active geyser in the world and comes complete with a slew of magnificent geothermal features.
There is a simple 2-mile trail beginning at the North Geyser Basin that will lead you through Porcelain and the Back Basin. The trail will take you took an overlook that brings the Black Growler Steam Vent and Congress Pool into view.
Moderate – Mary Mountain Trail
If you have fallen in love with Yellowstone wildlife, you may wish to skip out on your last day of attractions and simply walk through endless bison-filled meadows.
Although this hike is 20 miles (32km) end to end, it is rated as moderate and features limited elevation gain. Begin at the East Trailhead, near Canyon Campground and soon take in the famous bends along Alum Creek. As you hike through the striking valley, the sense of peace stands out as much as the endless views.
Difficult – Avalanche Peak
Trade open meadows and casual hiking for an epic, rugged hike up to Avalanche Peak. Rated as one of the best hikes in the park, Avalanch Peak is as tough as it is memorable.
You will have 360-degree views of the park’s finest scenery with the backdrop of monstrous mountains. The 2.3 (3.7km) hike to the summit comes with a huge 2000 feet (610m) of elevation gain.
But once on the summit, it will be all worth it. From what feels like the top of the world you will see much of the park, include Yellowstone Lake laid out below like an elegant rug.
Yellowstone is a world-class national park. Because of its sheer size it is easy to ditch the crowds and find your own slice of mountain scenery.
Depending on what you enjoy doing, you can focus on the major attractions and enjoy the stunning views as you drive around. On the other hand, it is easy to switch up your itinerary and focus on exploring the park along the many amazing hiking trails.
Either way, Yellowstone National Park is a place that is easy to remember even as the years float on by.