When we decided to visit Yellowstone National Park, it was part of a longer road trip and one of the biggest questions we had was how many days to spend in Yellowstone out of the two-week trip. We had four days in total and I wondered how to see Yellowstone in 3 days in case jet lag hit us. We put together a must-see list for our time in the park and worked from there. In this post I’m going to share with you our Yellowstone 3-day itinerary to show you what is possible and how to spend 3 days in Yellowstone yourself.
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Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the world, is an amazing national park to visit with kids. Nowhere else on Earth can you combine the raw power of nature in geysers and springs with wildlife roaming plains and natural beauty as far as the eye can see.
Yellowstone is on many people’s bucket lists and we are just some of the few who have managed to visit it. But when people are planning their visit, one of the many questions they often ask is “how many days in Yellowstone is enough?”. Heck, even we asked that question. Another question on our minds was can you see the best of Yellowstone in one day? Can you even see all there is to see in Yellowstone National Park in 2 days?
We decided to spend 5 nights and 4 days near Yellowstone. We didn’t stay in the park as accommodation was working out quite expensive. Instead we booked an AirBnB in an area called Island Park, approximately 30 minutes’ drive south from the gate in West Yellowstone. Although this added time onto our daily drives, it worked out well for our family.
Although we had 4 days, we only visited the park for three and a half days. Jet lag got the better of us on our first day and we only spent a short amount of time in the National Park in the afternoon.
We learned a lot about surviving jet lag with kids. Read our tips for jet lag with kids HERE.
We had put together a Yellowstone Bucket List of things we wanted to do during our visit before we embarked on our trip, and we managed to tick most of the things off our Yellowstone itinerary in 3 days. Although it doesn’t sound like a lot of time, we were still feeling the effects of jet lag and so were in the park by 8am most days and not leaving until late evening. In hindsight, jet lag worked in our favour.
While there are some Yellowstone holidays, and in particular, Yellowstone day tours which promise to be the best way to see Yellowstone (in one day), I truly believe that embarking on your own trip is the ultimate way to experience Yellowstone National Park.
If you are starting to plan your visit to Yellowstone, read our Ultimate Guide to Visiting Yellowstone with Kids here to help you plan your own trip. Even if you aren’t visiting with kids it’s a useful resource for your planning.
Driving through Yellowstone in a day will be extremely gruelling and tiring if you are trying to see and do it all, and on a coach. By taking your time, in your own car, you can have fun and adventure while enjoying all that Yellowstone has to offer.
Pro Tip: Do not underestimate the amount of driving that is involved when visiting Yellowstone. It is a huge area and although places look close together on the map, the distances between them are more than they seem. Allow extra time for navigating traffic and finding parking at busy times.
I am going to share our Yellowstone 3-day itinerary to give you some ideas to help you plan your visit. You can swap days around to suit your own needs. If you have less time in the park you can use my 3-day Yellowstone itinerary as a guide to help you plan your days.
I will also give you ideas to see the best of Yellowstone if you have one day in Yellowstone Park or 2 days in Yellowstone. And if you have longer, I’ll give you itinerary ideas for the best way to see Yellowstone in 4 days.
If you are staying within the park, at accommodation such as the Old Faithful Inn or Lodge Cabins, or even Lake Yellowstone Hotel, you won’t have the extra drive to consider. You can still use these itinerary ideas for Yellowstone by adjusting your starting and ending point, just remember that our starting point was the West Yellowstone Gate.
If you are looking for accommodation ideas near Yellowstone, check out this post from Wandermust Family.
Our Yellowstone Itinerary – 3 Days
As mentioned, we initially had four days to explore Yellowstone, but jet lag got the better of us on our first day. We had driven over 800 miles in the previous two days, so it’s not surprising. We took the morning easy and drove to West Yellowstone, with no intention of going into the park. We visited the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Centre in West Yellowstone before deciding on the spur of the moment to drive into the park. I will discuss this afternoon and our first full day in the Day One in Yellowstone section below.
Day One in Yellowstone
We drove from the West Yellowstone Gate to Madison and turned right heading for the Lower Geyser Basin on our first afternoon in the park. We stopped to explore the Lower Geyser Basin and got a chance to see the Fountain Paint Pot and the Clepsydra Geyser, which is at an almost constant eruption. We had just missed the Fountain Geyser’s eruption.
From the Lower Geyser Basin, we passed by the Midway Geyser Basin as there was no parking and stopped at the Upper Geyser Basin to witness Old Faithful, one of our Yellowstone bucket list items. We just missed an eruption as we parked so waited for the next one. Thankfully, Old Faithful Geyser didn’t get its name for nothing and within 90 minutes we saw what we had come for.
The next morning, we headed straight for the Midway Geyser Basin so we could view the Grand Prismatic Spring. There had been no parking available the day before but at 8am, there was plenty of parking. As well as Grand Prismatic Spring we viewed the Opal Pool and the Excelsior Geyser Crater.
From the Midway Geyser Basin, we headed to the West Thumb Geyser Basin before continuing our drive along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. We stopped at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel before heading to the Fishing Bridge to stretch our legs and throw some stones in the Yellowstone River.
From there we headed north along the Hayden Valley and stopped at the Mud Volcano Area where we saw the Mud Volcano, Black Dragon’s Cauldron and Sour Lake. We took the steeper anti-clockwise direction but were fine once we’d passed the Grizzly Fumarole.
This area was fully accessible via a boardwalk and was a lovely place to stroll with a three-year-old in tow. And the views from the top across the Mud Geyser were stunning.
Continuing along the Yellowstone River in the Hayden Valley, we came across some traffic. As expected, it indicated wildlife nearby and we got our first glimpses of bison. Leaving the Hayden Valley, we turned into Canyon Village to view the Upper Falls from their brink. Due to improvement works, we couldn’t view the falls from Uncle Tom’s Trail side but enjoyed them from Canyon Drive.
By this stage a certain little boy was getting tired, so we left Canyon Village and started to head back to West Yellowstone, which still took an hour to do from there.
Day Two in Yellowstone
Having passed it on our way to the West Gate the night before, we headed firstly to Gibbon Falls, on the route towards Norris Geyser Basin (so turning left at Madison). We were only a handful of people at these falls at 8am and the sun was just starting to rise above them.
From Gibbon Falls, we drove back to Canyon Village to hike down to the lower viewing platform for the Lower Falls. Arriving at 8.30am meant we had our pick of the parking spaces, something that was as rare as chickens the afternoon before.
We’d caught a glimpse of the Lower Falls the day before, but this was our chance to see them properly. As our son was asleep when we arrived, my husband and I tag-teamed the hike to the lookout point. Going down was easy, it was getting back up was the hard part.
We move onto the viewing point for the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone before driving an hour north to Roosevelt Lodge where we stopped for refreshments. The road between Canyon and Tower-Roosevelt brings you up into the mountains along the Dunraven Pass, which has amazing views across the park.
We had a snack before driving onto Historic Fort Yellowstone where we had a lovely picnic. We visited the Albright Visitors Centre afterwards, learning about how the park was discovered and the decimation of the bison population in the late 1800’s. Leaving the Mammoth Hot Springs area, we drove south towards Norris and then Madison before exiting the park. We hit roadworks on the way south which added to our journey to West Yellowstone.
Day Three in Yellowstone
We were later into the park but drove the Lower Loop as my hubby wanted to get a picture at the Continental Divide posts along the Lower Loop. We stopped along the Hayden Valley to view bison before driving to Roosevelt Lodge again for snacks. With stops along the way it took us just under four hours to do that drive. See, don’t underestimate the driving times in the park.
From there we took a drive out along Lamar Valley to witness some bison, well, a lot of bison. And once we’d returned to Roosevelt Lodge, we joined a group of people for dinner, the Old West Dinner Cookout. After our dining experience with the cowboys of Yellowstone, we drove south towards Norris and Madison before exiting the park for the last time to a stunning sunset over the Madison River. We’d completed the Grand Loop Drive in one day as well. Our time in Yellowstone was done and what an incredible time it was.
Yellowstone Itinerary Ideas
In this section I will detail some itineraries for visiting Yellowstone, whether you have 1 day in Yellowstone or are like us and want to know what to see in Yellowstone in 3 days. I’ll also give you a few extra ideas in case you have more time to spend in this amazing US National Park.
Yellowstone in One Day
If you are short on time and can only visit Yellowstone in a day, then I recommend you start with the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins. If you are starting your day early enough, I would head to the Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin first as parking comes at an absolute premium later in the day.
Top tip: Visit the Midway Geyser Basin first as parking becomes a premium as the day goes on. If you can get there around or before 9am, you should be able to get parking inside the small, dedicated car park, instead of having to park on the roadside.
Then double back to the Lower Geyser Basin to see the Fountain Paint Pots, Clepsydra Geyser and any others that might be erupting while you are walking the board walks.
Top Tip: Although the boardwalks are flat and easy to navigate, parts of them have no barriers. Keep a hold of children’s hands, especially younger ones, or use child reins as we did with our son.
From the Lower Geyser Basin, drive south to the Upper Geyser Basin where you can catch an eruption from Old Faithful. Just missed one? Don’t worry. Head into the Visitor Centre where they will have an approximate time for the next eruption on a board.
Once you’ve witnessed Old Faithful, drive along the Lower Loop which gives you a chance to see Yellowstone Lake, the Hayden Valley and Yellowstone River. Stop at Canyon Village to see the Upper and Lower Falls from their viewing points and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
These are the best things to see in Yellowstone in one day and are doable, even with kids.
If you don’t want to do all the driving yourself, you could take a one-day tour of Yellowstone. There is a 12-hour guided tour of Yellowstone which leaves from Teton or Jackson. Find prices, full details and book your tour HERE.
Two Days in Yellowstone
Looking for a 2-day Yellowstone itinerary? Two days in Yellowstone will mean you can cover a bit more of the park than just one day. You won’t have to rush as much as one day, but you’ll still need to be in the park early to make the most of it. With this itinerary I tell you how to see Yellowstone in 2 days to ensure you cover the most important bits.
Day One – Drive the Lower Loop of Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road
Start your day exactly like the previous itinerary, visiting the Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins. If you are finished by about lunchtime, stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin on your way to the Hayden Valley, past Yellowstone Lake.
There make sure to stop at the Mud Volcano area and enjoy a walk along the boardwalk to the Black Dragon’s Cauldron.
From there, continue along the Hayden Valley to Canyon Village where you can view the Upper and Lower Falls of Yellowstone National Park and also see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Top Tip: If you see cars ahead of you suddenly pulling over along the Hayden Valley, it is probably to view wildlife such as bison. Approach with care and give warning to drivers behind you if you plan to pull over to stop.
After Canyon Village, drive west to the Norris Geyser Basin to see the Porcelain Basin and Back Basin, before exiting the park. (Note, we did not visit the Norris Geyser Basin during our time in Yellowstone, although I wish we had.)
Day Two – Drive the Upper Loop of Yellowstone’s Grand Scenic Loop
Instead of turning right at Madison and heading along the Lower Loop, turn left at Madison and head for the Norris Junction. Stop at Gibbon Falls along the way. At the Norris junction, head east towards Canyon Village. If you didn’t get to enjoy the Upper or Lower Falls the previous day, detour into Canyon Village and tick them off.
The head north towards Tower-Roosevelt. This route will take you along the Dunraven Pass. From Roosevelt, you can take a drive along the Lamar Valley, watching for wildlife as you do.
Return to Roosevelt and head west to Mammoth Hot Springs. Visit the Springs, have a picnic in front of Fort Yellowstone and make sure to visit the Albright Visitor’s Centre to learn about the history of the park.
Once you have finished at Mammoth Hot Springs, head south past Norris before exiting the park.
If you are wondering how to tour Yellowstone in 2 days but don’t want to drive yourself, there is a 1-night/2-day tour leaving from Jackson which covers the best things to see in Yellowstone in two days.
Check here for latest prices and availability for the 1-night-2-day Yellowstone tour.
Best Way to see Yellowstone in 3 days
Based on our own itinerary, here is my suggestions on how you spend three days in Yellowstone.
Day One – Geyser Basins
Start at the Midway Geyser Basin to view Grand Prismatic Spring. Then drive to West Thumb Geyser Basin before returning to the Upper Geyser Basin to view Old Faithful.
If you are waiting for its eruption, why not walk around the Old Faithful Inn, visit the Visitor Centre or go and see the Castle Geyser, another geyser that has a predictable eruption pattern.
Once you have finished at Old Faithful, drive north to the Lower Geyser Basin. From there continue past Madison, if you have time, to the Norris Geyser Basin.
Day Two – Drive the Lower Loop for the Grand Canyon
Starting at Madison, turn right and enjoy the drive past the geyser basins until you pass the Continental Divide signs. Continue along the edge of Yellowstone Lake until you come to the Fishing Bridge. Take time to stretch your legs and enjoy the riverside.
From there, drive north along Yellowstone River, stopping at the Mud Volcano area before continuing along the Hayden Valley to Canyon Village. Remember to keep an eye out for wildlife.
At Canyon Village, enjoy viewing both the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. I highly recommend you take time to go to the lower viewpoint for the Lower Falls. It is worth the effort getting back up the hill.
While in Canyon Village make sure to view the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, it’s quite spectacular.
Day Three – Drive the Upper Loop for Roosevelt, Lamar Valley and Mammoth Hot Springs
Starting at Madison, turn left towards Norris, stopping at Gibbon Falls along the way. If you didn’t get parking for the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River on Day Two, continue to Canyon Village to do this.
From Canyon drive north towards Tower-Roosevelt through Dunraven Pass, stopping to view Tower Falls before you come to Roosevelt Lodge. At the lodge head out the Lamar Valley, where you are highly likely to see some bison. This is where we saw the highest concentration of bison during our 3 days in Yellowstone.
Once you have returned to Roosevelt, continue west to Mammoth Hot Springs to visit the springs, Albright Visitor’s Centre and Fort Yellowstone.
If time allows, why not stop at the Boiling River for a swim. Just remember to bring your swimming costumes and towels.
Spending more time in Yellowstone
If you have more time for your trip and can spend 4 days in Yellowstone, then you can take things a little more relaxed. You can use my 3-day Yellowstone itinerary as a guide but perhaps space things out a little more. There are many hiking trails within Yellowstone National Park, so if you (and your family) enjoy hiking, why not add a trail or two into your days, adjusting the areas I’ve suggested in the 3-day itinerary to cover 4 days.
My suggested itinerary for what to see in Yellowstone in 4 days is as follows:
Day One – Midway Geyser Basin (including a hike to the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail from the Fairy Falls Trailhead, allow 1-2 hours for this), Lower Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin for Old Faithful (including the Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin), Lone Star Geyser and Firehole River (for swimming).
Day Two – Drive the Lower Loop. Stopping points will include Yellowstone Lake, West Thumb Geyser Basin (hike the Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail, allow 1-3 hours), Mud Volcano area, Hayden Valley, Canyon Village (taking the trail for the Lower Falls viewpoint, less than an hour depending on your fitness level and time spent at the viewpoint). If time allows you could hike the Ribbon Lake Trail which takes approximately 3 to 4 hours or Storm Point at Yellowstone Lake which takes 1 to 2 hours.
Day Three – Drive the Upper Loop, anti-clockwise. Stopping points include Gibbon Falls, Dunraven Pass (there is a hike to Mount Washburn which takes 6-8 hours along the pass), Tower Falls, Roosevelt, Mammoth Hot Springs (for the Springs, Albright Visitor Centre and Fort Yellowstone), Norris Geyser Basin.
Day Four – Drive the Upper Loop, clockwise. Mammoth Hot Springs, Boiling River (for swimming), Roosevelt, Lamar Valley, Tower (hike the Yellowstone River Picnic Area Trail, allow 2-3 hours), Dunraven Pass.
NOTE: the times denoted for each hike are those suggested by the National Parks Service. We did not do any hiking or trails, other than the gentle ones around Grand Prismatic Spring (ground level) and the Mud Volcano as we were visiting with a three-year-old.
Top Tip: If you are planning to go hiking and do some trails, make sure to be aware of bear safety. Yellowstone is bear country and you need to be prepared. Visit this part of the National Parks Service website for safety tips.
If you are planning on hiking some of the trails, you will need to be in the park very early to cover the full days itinerary or plan to move some points of interest around. To cover all the suggested trails AND the other points of interest you ideally want 5 days in Yellowstone, especially if you are visiting Yellowstone with kids.
Looking to take a tour with a Yellowstone National Park 4-day itinerary? Check out this full tour and get the latest prices and availability, which also takes in some of Grand Teton National Park.
Alternatively, if you could combine two parks, you could see Yellowstone and Grand Teton in 5 days with either 3 days in Yellowstone/2 days in Grand Teton, or 4 days in Yellowstone/1 day in Grand Teton.
To find out more about what to do in Grand Teton National Park, check out this post from Lets Travel Family.
I hope my 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone helps you plan your time in the park and doesn’t leaving you still wondering how to visit Yellowstone in 3 days. I hope I’ve shown you that it is possible to see the best of Yellowstone in just 3 days.
Ideally, four days in Yellowstone will mean you can take things at a relaxed pace but even a 2-day visit to the park will allow you to cover the most important parts of the park. Whether you decide to take an organised tour or do it yourself, I’m sure you will enjoy one of the most diverse and stunning natural beauties of the world.