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.