Yellowstone National Park Itinerary
One Hour, One Day or One Weekend in Yellowstone National Park.
A dynamic volcanic hotspot that also boasts more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails, nearly 300 waterfalls and the largest concentration of mammalian wildlife in the lower 48 states? That’s what we call a national treasure. Here’s how to cash in on Yellowstone’s riches, no matter how much time you have to spend.
1 Hour: Steam Train
Old Faithful Geyser
If you’re aiming for the Yellowstone speed record, make a beeline for the park’s most famous feature: Old Faithful Geyser. With approximately 20 eruptions every day, this reliable geyser’s frequency can be predicted with 90 percent accuracy, within about 10 minutes. Avoid the crowds with an early morning visit, then tuck in for a hearty breakfast at the Old Faithful Inn, a true icon of pioneer architecture.
1 Day: Hot Water
Geyser Basin or Lone Star Geyser
While you can’t see all of Yellowstone in a single day, it’s relatively easy to prioritize the fascinating geothermal features for which the park is known. Starting at the park’s south entrance, head north to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. Two short boardwalk loops will take you past the steaming Thumb Paint Pots, vibrant Abyss Pool and miniscule Fishing Cone. Before you leave, check in at the nearby ranger station to find out when Old Faithful is likely to erupt next.
Or, if you’re the road-less-traveled type, skip the attraction and make the easy 5-mile hike to Lone Star Geyser, which erupts every three hours for a full 30 minutes. Your journey along the Firehole River will reveal colorful bacteria mats and hissing fumaroles, too.
Midway Geyser Basin
Your next stop is Midway Geyser Basin, also known as Hell’s Half Acre for the vaporous clouds clinging to its banks. The main attraction here is Grand Prismatic Spring — the third-largest hot spring in the world, this colorful pool is bigger than a football field and 10-stories deep. Its enchanting spectrum is caused by the different species of heat-loving bacteria that live in the spring.
Firehole Lake Drive
Next, off the Grand Loop just south of Madison. Take Firehole Lake Drive, a 3-mile scenic jaunt past at least a dozen geothermal features. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch one of Great Fountain Geyser’s breathtaking and highly unpredictable displays. Then, head back to West Thumb for a casual waterfront dinner at the Grant Village Lake House.
1 Weekend: North Score
To experience total immersion during your quick weekend in the park, camping is always a great bet (choose from over 2,000 sites spread across 12 camping areas). Norris Campground — located in the visibly dynamic geyser basin of the same name — is a solid central base for exploring and offers evening campfire programs nightly, June through September.
Mammoth Hot Springs
If you’re coming in through the park’s north entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs will set the tone for your weekend. With a fantastical landscape straight out of Middle Earth, it’s like a limestone cave turned inside out. Two boardwalks give you access to more than 50 geothermal features — including free-standing Liberty Cap, colorful Minerva and Palette springs, and Angel Terrace. History buffs will enjoy a quick side trip to Fort Yellowstone, just a stone’s throw from the springs.
With an early start, you can tour the springs area and still score a site at Norris by 10 a.m. Break to make camp and lunch, then it’s off to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This 20-mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep natural work of art is best explored on foot, with the canyon’s colorful walls rising around you. There are 10 official overlook spots in the canyon, and Artist Point is one of the most popular. After uttering your oohs and aahs at this spectacular view of Lower Falls crashing into the abyss, leave the paved trail and keep hiking along the canyon’s south rim to Point Sublime.
Due east from Norris is the Lamar Valley. Thanks to a reliable water supply, lush vegetation and panoramic vistas, it’s knows as “America’s Serengeti” for its large, easily visible wildlife population. On any given day, you might see herds of bison, pronghorn or deer; bald eagles and osprey in flight; or a badger, coyote or grizzly.
Nature-loving anglers can kill (or rather, catch and release) two birds with one stone, as the tranquil Lamar River offers some of Yellowstone’s best fly-fishing. Surrounded by rolling verdant hills in all directions — and interrupted only by glimpses the valley’s plentiful fauna — visitors can expect to hook both rainbow and native Yellowstone cutthroat trout sized in the upper teens.
This afternoon, you’re headed due south for an up-close-and-personal view of Yellowstone Lake. The largest high-elevation lake in North America and nearly 400-feet deep in places, it’s too cold for swimming but is wonderful to explore by kayak or canoe.
Because of the lake’s many hidden underwater geysers, submerged fumaroles and other geothermal features, we recommend a guided tour with one of the many outfitters in the area. After your paddle, enjoy a rewarding dinner in the charming Lake Yellowstone Hotel Dining Room before bidding farewell to the park — until next time.