It is incredibly hard to plan a trip to Yellowstone, as the park is overwhelmingly huge and the quantity of attractions is limitless. Unfortunately what is limited is our time and we need to make smart decisions in order to experience as much of the park as possible. In this post I will offer you a suggested plan for a 3 day trip through Yellowstone National Park, which I think is the absolute minimum. I will also highlight the places which are mandatory to visit, should you have fewer than 3 days for sightseeing.
Yellowstone National Park is the first and the oldest national park in the world. It was created in 1872 in hope to preserve this unique area, as developers, the mining industry as well as local hunters and lumberjacks were highly interested in exploiting these lands. The local communities which took advantage of the resources offered by the area of the today’s park were highly opposed to the establishment of the national park and demanded at least the protected area to be limited. Meanwhile they kept harvesting wood and hunting animals. The situation got so tense, that US Army was deployed. A cavalry unit was sent to protect the national park from poachers and all sorts of vandals. They built a fort in Mommoth Springs, which serves today as the headquarters of the park.
The park remained under military jurisdiction until 1918. In 1916 the National Park Service (NPS) had been established, and it was entrusted with the administration of Yellowstone. The NPS adopted many customs from the military, not only the iconic ranger hats, but also ways of administration (patrols, resource protection, educational programmes).
Yellowstone is a land of geysers, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and all sorts of wildlife. It’s almost guaranteed to spot a bizon, a deer or a bear. With a bit of luck you can spot a moose, and the luckiest will be able to see a wolf. We ourselves didn’t spot wolves, but we did see deer, moose, buffalos and bears. You will quickly be fed up with bizons, as they are very common and have a tendency of blocking roads when you are in a hurry to the next attraction.
Yellowstone has also been called a super volcano for some time now. This name is very adequate. The southern part of the park lays atop of 3 calderas created as a result of 3 volcano eruptions 2.100.000, 1.300.000 and 640.000 years ago. The last of those eruptions was the strongest. Over 1000 km3 of rocks and dust had been thrown into the air. As a result the largest caldera was created. The magma chamber under Yellowstone is huge, being 49 miles long and 12 miles wide. If it exploded today, it would cover everything within 500 miles radius in dust.
The best time of year for visiting the park
The best time of the year to visit Yellowstone is definitely summer. During summer the temperatures reach around 80℉ (25oC), sometimes 90℉ (30 oC), which we experienced personally. July is the warmest month. Temperature is crucial for our sightseeing, but not because of our comfort, but because of what you can see in those temperatures. Low temperatures cause the hot springs to intensely evaporate and steam sometimes completely obstructs our view. We faced such a situation in June. It was cold and the Grand Prismatic Spring was almost invisible leaving us very disappointed. During the night you can experience freezing temperatures, even in the summer, so keep that in mind when planning a night in a tent.
Fall is also a very good time, but only very early fall. The trees start to turn gold, the kids are back to school, the park is not crowded and it is easy to find a parking spot. Unfortunately the weather is totally unpredictable. It can be both 70℉ (20 oC) and 32℉ (0 oC) during the day and it can either be sunny or you can experience snowfalls. During the night it is bound to be freezing and in late fall temperatures can reach below 0℉ (-20 oC).
Spring is not the best, April is still very cold, snowfalls are very common. There can be days with temperature around 32℉ (0 oC), nights will most probably be freezing. It does not get warmer until late May. During our visit in June it constantly rained.
Winter is totally out of the question. Most of the park roads are closed, and you can traverse the park only by a snow scooter or on skis. It is also impossible to witness the amazing colors of Yellowstone, as everything is covered in deep snow. The only access road to the park in the winter is route 89 from Montana through Gardiner, the so called “northern entrance”. Other roads remain closed until April.
We have been to Yellowstone many times and we always had the best weather in August.
How to get there?
There are 5 entrances to Yellowstone. The mentioned northern entrance through route 89 from the side of Gardiner is open all year round.
From the north-east we can enter the bark via route 212 through Silver Gate. This is the famous Beartooth Highway which in some places leads next to mountain slopes and steep abysses. This road is usually opened at the end of May or at the beginning of June, and it is closed in November.
From the east we can enter through route 14 from the side of Cody. The road is open from the first days of May until the beginning of November.
From the south we can enter the park via route 191 from the side of Jackson. It is also open from beginning of May until November.
The western entrance through route 20 is opened the earliest – on the 20th of April and remain open until the beginning of November.
Every year the park announces the current dates of road openings. You can check them here:
Where to spend the night?
This is the question! The park is huge and the best option would be to spend the night within the park borders. Although this solution has many pros, it also has cons. Let us focus on the advantages first. Staying in the park will save you a lot of time, as you will not have to drive much to get to your desired attractions and you will have all of the natural wonders right next to you. In the evening the chances to spot wildlife increase and during the night you will be able to observe and perhaps photograph the breathtaking milky way in the sky.
There are also downsides you should take into consideration. In case of the hotels the prices are tremendously high. A room in any of the 9 hotels located in the park will cost you an arm and a leg. What is more you will have to make a reservation almost a year ahead to your visit. You will not find any luxuries there either and there is no wifi either, what totally disqualifies those hotels for my children. 😉
Spending the night on a camping is another option, but you have to bear in mind , that even in the summer the temperature can be freezing during the night. You will also have to be stay alert for bears and place your food in special containers, as of not to attract them. Those who are not afraid of the cold and the bears, will find amazing places to camp in Yellowstone.
Living in the park you will have to prepare yourself not to buy any food and not to dine here, if you do not want to go bankrupt. In Yellowstone I bought my kid the most expensive bun in the world, which I think should be an exhibit in some Museum of Rip-offs, as it was inedible anyway.
Bridge Bay Campground is located right next to Yellowstone Lake and Bridge Bay Marina. Amazing views of the lake are a nice bonus here.
Canyon Campground lays in a pine forest next to the Canyon Village, right next to the Grand Yellowstone Canyon.
Fishing Bridge RV Park is fantastically located at the estuary of the Yellowstone River to the Yellowstone Lake. This campground is for RVs only. Tents are prohibited, as this is a very popular spot among bears.
Grant Campground is located close to West Thumb Basin at the Yellowstone Lake. Camping sites are among trees and there are big spaces between them.
Madison Campground is the most popular in Yellowstone, located just behind the western park entrance. From this campground you can reach all of the attractions, as it is located relatively in the center of the park.
Information regarding location and the available facilities at the campgrounds can be found here:
You can book both hotels and campgrounds here:
There are 9 hotels in Yellowstone: Yellowstone’s Canyon Lodge & Cabins, Grant Village, Lake Lodge Cabins, Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Lodge Cabins, Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins i Roosevelt Lodge & Cabins.
Standard of those hotels and motels varies, but they have one thing in common. Rooms and cabins are not equipped with TVs, telephones, air conditioning or the mentioned WiFi. There are some areas with WiFi, for example in the lobbies. From my own experience I can tell that those networks tend not to work, and the tourists desperately running around the lobby in hope to get a connection stable enough to load a website look very depressed. It is said that the lack of internet connection helps to relax, but in reality it often generates a lot of stress. 😉
We have never stayed in the Park. We stopped in the north in Gardiner, but the number of hotels here is quite limited, and the standards rather low. We once had a room with a hole in the floor, which was neatly covered with a carpet and if you were not careful enough you could fall into it. We also lived in the east in Cody. There were no problems with accommodation here, but it was a long drive to the park entrance. In the south we stayed in Jackson Hole, but from there we only did hikes in the southern part of the park, which is far away from the most famous attractions. What is more, everything is expensive here. Our best experience was with staying the west in West Yellowstone and I highly recommend this option. From here you can reach the park entrance in 5 minutes. It is not cheap either, but at least it is close.
SIGHTSEEING IN YELLOWSTONE
Today we will go through half of the southern loop. We will visit the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, go to the Yellowstone Lake and make a stop at the West Thump Geyser Basin. Our starting point will be West Yellowstone. From here sightseeing is very comfortable, but if you planned a different point of entry, you can proceed with those attractions in a different order.
Driving to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
We set off to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River taking the Grand Loop Road. On your way you will notice the Gibbon Falls. It is not the most spectacular waterfall ever, but it is worth seeing, as round trip is only 0.5 miles (0,8 km) long. I suggest visiting it on the way back, because it should be lit better in the afternoon, but if you run out of time, there will be no harm done.
Going further we pass Monument Geyser Basin. You can definitely skip it, as there is nothing exciting here, the trail is 2 miles long (3,2 km) and it is steep, with 220 meters elevation change. The only extraordinary thing about the Monument Geyser Basin are the high, narrow geysers looking like columns. If you have a lot of spare time, go and see it, if not, I think it isn’t worth it.
Further down the way you will come across the Artists Paintpots. This place is worth a visit. You will find a number of tiny colorful lakes and little geysers here. The whole walk around the wooden footbridge is around 1.8 miles (3 km) long.
Next to Norris Geyser Basin we take a right onto Norris Geyser Road. The Norris Basin itself we will leave for tomorrow. This road will take you to the Canyon Village and the Yellowstone Falls and Canyon. If you feel like taking a ride through a beautiful road next to a steep slope, you can take the Virginia Cascade Drive. This road is parallel to the Norris Geyser Road, and because it is very narrow it is a one way road. For 2.5 miles more than one car will not fit. Halfway you will see the Vriginia Cascade Falls. There are several pull-outs along the way, from which you can admire the waterfall.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
We reach Canyon Junction and here we turn right onto Grand Loop Rd., which will take us to the canyon. We pass the first left turn, which leads to the Notrth Rim Drive. We will go there later. We continue towards the South Rim Drive and take the next left which will take us to the Brink of Upper Falls viewing point. This viewing point offers a beautiful view on the Yellowstone River gorge, one of the most breathtaking in the park.
Further we go through the Chittenden Bridge and enter South Rim Drive heading towards Uncle Tom’s Trail. The trail will take you to the Yellowstone Falls, which you will be able to admire from a very small distance. The walk is only 0.6 miles (1km) long, but you will have to beat more than 300 steps and 500 feet (150m) up. First you have to go down-, and then unfortunately uphill. At the bottom a viewing platform awaits. From there you will be able to gaze at the beautiful Yellowstone Falls.
Next we head to the Artist Point. You can reach it by car, or from a parking lot next to the Uncle Tom’s trail, which means taking a 0.6 mile (1km) walk along the rim, which will take you about 20 minutes one way. From the car park at the Artist Point there is only 500 feet (150 m) distance to beat. This is one of the most famous viewing points in the entire Yellowstone and it is a mandatory stop for all tourists, so be prepared for a huge crowd, which will often block you access to the best spots for taking pictures. But the view here is amazing. You can see the entire yellow canyon and the waterfall at its end. It is best to visit this spot at noon, as the best lighting is bound to be at this time of day.
From the Artist Point we return to the Grand Loop Rd., and from there we turn onto the already mentioned North Rim Drive. From here we head towards the Brink of Lower Falls point. You will have to walk 0.4 miles (0,6km) and descend 250 feet (75m) to get to a viewing platform. Just like at the Brink of Upper Falls you will stand right next to the top of the waterfall.
Now we take a short ride to the Lookout Point. It is especially worth to visit the Lower Lookout Point, often called the Red Rock Point. You have to go 250 feet down (75m) on wooden stairs in order to get to it. From there the view is similar to the one at the Artist Point, but it you stand much closer to the waterfall.
Next stop is the well known Grand View, with a great overlook of the colorful canyon walls. Here you will be able to spot a plethora of colors, ranging from yellow, through cinnabar, orange, pink up to green. The canyon walls were exposed to severe erosion, which created stone turrets at the sides of the ravine. The view of the emerald river down below, accompanied by colored walls is truly bewildering.
At the end of the North Rim Drive, the Inspiration Point is located. This point lays on a stone headland growing out of the canyon walls. This location allows us to admire the canyon and the river from both sides, and in the distance the Yellowstone Falls are visible. There is a viewing platform here.
If you are running short on time you can limit yourself only to the Brink of Upper Falls, Artist Point and Lookout Point, but it would be a shame to miss out on the rest.
The sightseeing of the Grand Canyon together with the driving will take you approximately 4 hours.
There are many road works currently underway in the area of the Grand Canyon and most of them are scheduled to end by July of 2018. Be sure to check the current status of the roads on the park website.
We head towards the Yellowstone Lake going further down the Grand Loop Rd. LeHardys Rapids are our first stop. If you are visiting Yellowstone at the turn of June and July, this is an obligatory stop. You will be able to see salmon jumping out of the water above the cascades in hope to reach the Fishing Bridge for spawning. In this period you will also have big chances of spotting a grizzly bear hunting for these fish. But even if your visit is in different months, this place is still worth seeing, as after a short walk on a wooden bridge you will be able to see an amazing view of the Yellowstone River, which you have seen from down below just a few moment ago. From here you can hike down to the river and rest your feet in cold water while sitting on rocks. But stay alert for wildlife, as animals often come here to drink water – bears included. We ourselves didn’t meet a bear, but many tourists had reported such an encounter in this place before.
Now it is time to visit the Yellowstone Lake. This is a true water giant, having more than 350 km2 of area and 111 miles (180km) of shoreline. There is an interesting geothermal area located on the southern bank. It is going to be our next stop
The drive along the lake alone is an amazing aesthetic experience. You will surely stop every couple minutes to take pictures. Right behind the Bay Bridge you should turn left onto Gull Point Drive. This road is 2 miles long and will take you closer to the lake and later back to the Grand Loop Rd. The pavement runs right next to the lake banks and in some parts through the lake on a causeway. The road will lead you to the Gull Point, a scenic peninsula with a stony shore and a spit covered with trees. This is an excellent spot to eat your lunch with an amazing view of the lake, taking advantage of picnic tables located there. You will have to take a short walk to get to the picnic area from the parking.
From this same fork, from which we turned left onto Gull Point Drive, you can turn right towards the trail to the Natural Bridge. The trail is around 2.3 miles (3,5km) long both ways. It will take you to a large stone arch, but in my opinion it is not worth our time, it is really nothing exceptional.
Now we will be reaching the western bank of the lake, and the West Thumb Geyser Basin. This geothermal area is exceptionally interesting, because it is located right next to the lake, and some of the geysers even peak out from below the water surface. You will see some interesting small lakes, first of them being the Abyss, which is said to be the deepest geothermal lake in Yellowstone – it is 16 meters deep.
Black Pool is located next to the Abyss and it is not really black, but rather sapphire-blue. But there was a time when it was dark brown as the bacteria living in it dyed it to this color. A sudden eruption in 1991 killed off all of the bacteria leaving the lake blue.
You should also visit the Fishing Cone, a geyser right at the lake shore, and sometimes when the water level rises, inside the lake. Fishing Cone looks like a flying saucer floating on the water. The oldest trappers already acknowledged its amazing features, as they claimed that it is a perfect place to catch fish and boil them right away in the geyser, as its temperature exceeds boiling.
At the end of West Thumb my favorite little lakes are located – Seismograph and Bluebell – one blue, the other as colorful as a rainbow.
Naturally you will find many other interesting lakes and geysers here, but the ones listed above are mandatory in your sightseeing schedule. A walk through West Thumb is about 1 mile (1,6 km) and will take you around 40 minutes.
Map of West Thumb:
10 miles behind the West Thumb the Isa Lake is located. This is where the American Continental divide runs. On one side of the divide, the water flows into the Gulf of Mexico, and on the other towards the Pacific Ocean. It is believed that Isa Lake is the only lake with water flowing into both sides of the Divide. Water from the eastern side flows first into the Lewis River, and later into the Pacific, while water from the western side flows into the Firehole River only to reach the Atlantic Ocean later.
Lone Star Geyser
We are now beginning our way back to West Yellowstone. An interesting option for an exciting end of the day is the Lone Star Geyser. This is a geyser with one of the most beautiful eruptions in the entire park. What is more, you can enjoy it in relative solitude, as it rarely gets visitors. It is an interesting experience, different from the Old Faithful. The trail to the Lone Star is 2.8 miles (4 km) one way, but you will beat it very fast, as the entire trail is paved and we managed to reach it in under an hour. You should leave your car in a pull out next to Kepler Cascade.
There is one problem with this geyser – it erupts every 3 hours and you need to plan your time carefully if you really dn’t want to miss it. The park recommends to visit the Old Faithful Visitor Center to acquire estimated eruption times, but anyone, who has ever tried to get some information in a visitor center should know, that it is no that easy. Being naive we decided to give the visitor center a try, but as usual, nobody knew anything. We turned back disappointed, but luckily some gentleman ran up to us and gave us an estimated time that he had overheard. Recently a nice new tradition had been born. Some of those who witnessed the last eruption write the time in sand at the parking lot. But if you do not find such information written in sand you will have to go to the Visitor Center.
The eruption of the Lone Star is really spectacular, the water shoots 45 feet (14 m) up. What is important to note is that the geyser has two eruptions, one “decoy” eruption, and the “true” eruption. The decoy one is a lot smaller, but those unaware can already start going back after it had ended, thinking that that was it. But after a couple minutes the real show begins.
After such a successful day it is time to go and rest, tomorrow we have more sightseeing ahead of us and I will share a plan for it in the next post. 😊
You can find the second and third day here: