How to Spend Three Perfect Days in Yellowstone National Park

Ian D. Keating/Flickr

The United States is home to more than 50 national parks, and Yellowstone National Park is a favorite for many. Established in 1872 as the world’s first national park (44 years before the National Park Service was created), Yellowstone shelters hundreds of wildlife species, including bison, moose, elk, wolves, and bears. The park also boasts some of the most stunning geothermal features, due to its location on top of a giant, active supervolcano. Below, we put together a guide on how to make the most of a long weekend in Yellowstone National Park.

Day 1: Northern Loop

Yellowstone National Park; Jim Peaco/Flickr

On your first day, drive through the northern part of the park. Once you reach the entrance (we recommend arriving before 8:30 a.m. to avoid the crowds), there’s a 14-mile straightaway before coming to a fork in the road. The Madison River runs along the road and offers some stunning views on your journey into the park. When you get to the fork, take the north road towards Norris. 

You’ll pass Gibbon Falls on the way -- a pretty pit stop, if you’re looking to stretch your legs -- but the first main stopping point should be the Artists Paintpots. Park the car and walk down a pathway where you’ll see steam shooting out of the ground in random spots. Get used to it, as this will be a common sight for the next few days. This area has multiple holes of bubbling clay and steaming hot springs that are extra misty in the morning dew. Next, make a right at the fork at Norris and head towards Canyon Village. This 12-mile stretch is surrounded by a forest of trees. When you arrive at Canyon Village, take a left at the intersection to go towards the Tower-Roosevelt Area.

Courtesy of Michele Tymann

Along this windy segment of the drive, there are multiple panoramic views, as well as some spots where it’s possible to view wildlife. About two miles before you hit Roosevelt, there will be a parking lot with a General Store at Tower Fall. While this waterfall is considered a must-see, the true highlight at this stop can be found at the bottom of the trail, directly across from the falls overlook. A relatively short switchback hike, along with about 30 feet of unmaintained trail, brings you to the shore of the Yellowstone River. Here, you can observe the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the gorgeous river that flows through it. Shortly past the falls is an overlook for Calcite Springs, which is definitely worth a stop and short stroll along the cliffs. This overlook provides stunning views of the Yellowstone River, steam vents along the edge of the river, and volcanic pillars left behind from the canyon’s past.

Yellowstone National Park; Jacob W. Frank; NPS/Flickr

Make a left when you get to the Tower-Roosevelt intersection and head towards Mammoth Hot Springs. You’ll drive through Blacktail Plateau, which offers potential deer sightings, and eventually come across the impressive Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. The only major thermal section outside of the caldera area, these terraces are continuously changing. There are two boardwalk areas that take visitors around the hot springs, offering views of the otherworldly site. 

Once you’ve passed through the hot springs, make your way back towards the entrance. This time, when you get to Norris junction, head into the Norris parking lot to see the geyser basin. Boardwalks take you around the geothermal area in two portions -- the Back Basin and the Porcelain Basin. The Back Basin is home to Steamboat Geyser -- the world’s tallest active geyser. While the major eruptions of 300 feet are few and far between, smaller bursts occur more often and last for one to four minutes. 

Day 2: Main Loop

Yellowstone National Park; Neal Herbert/Flickr

Start your morning with a delicious breakfast sandwich from Ernie’s Bakery & Deli in West Yellowstone before making your way into the park. Take the same roads you did yesterday until you land in Canyon Village. Turn right at the intersection, then take the second left into the parking lot. Walk a short distance to get a great view of the Upper Falls on the Yellowstone River. When you’re leaving, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, including bison. Once you’re back on the main road, take the next left to get to the southern rim of the river and view the Lower Falls. Uncle Tom’s Trail is currently under construction, but head to Artist Point for a great view of the falls and stunning colors in the rock -- hence the name. From here, you can take the hiking trail towards Point Sublime for even more spectacular views of the canyon and river. 

Chris Collins/Flickr

Get back on the main road, and head south towards the Hayden Valley. You’ll come across sprawling grasslands that very well may be the current locale for a herd of bison, so be on the lookout. The main herd will likely be a few hundred yards from the road, but there could be a few strays near your car. Keep your distance -- the park recommends staying 25 yards away from bison, as they can charge when provoked. Then, continue on towards the lake. The mud volcano makes for an interesting and unique stop along the way, and there will likely be fly-fishers in the river. While fishing is strictly catch-and-release in the park, fly-fishers enjoy the sport, and watching them can be soothing.

manufrakass/Flickr

The lake is expansive and beautiful, but the West Thumb Geyser Basin is definitely worth a stop. One of the first Yellowstone features to be written about in a publication, the basin is home to geysers, hot springs, and clay pools. There’s a boardwalk, so that visitors can view all the thermal features while staying off the steaming ground. The stunningly blue Abyss Pool is a sight to behold. The Fishing Cone is a geyser in the lake that contains boiling water. Fun fact: Fisherman used to catch fresh fish from the lake and cook them in the piping hot geyser.

dconvertini/Flickr

Next, it’s time to head to what is undoubtedly the most famous (and most crowded) attraction within the park -- Old Faithful. On the way, you’ll pass over the Continental Divide twice -- the first of which is marked by Isa Lake covered in lily pads. As you make your way towards Old Faithful, you’ll join thousands of other visitors waiting to view the iconic geyser that erupts approximately every 90 minutes. Tip: Check the times before you make your way over, as you could end up spending quite some time waiting to catch the next show. However, if this does happen, there are plenty of other geysers and hot springs to see in the Upper Geyser Basin. Once you leave the Old Faithful area, head north towards the exit, but make sure you take Firehole Lake Drive, which juts off the main road, to see some stunning geysers and springs without the crowds. Once you’re out of the park, head to Last Chance Bar & Grill in Island Park, Idaho, for some delicious food and beautiful sunset views.

Day 3: Midway Geyser Basin and the Grand Tetons

dconvertini/Flickr

Today, when you head into the park, you’re going to take a right at the Madison fork instead of a left. Right after the fork, be on the lookout for the turn into Firehole Canyon Drive -- it comes out of nowhere. If you arrive early enough, there’s a chance you’ll see moose grazing on the grass along the side of the road. A little farther up, you’ll spot Firehole Falls before reconnecting with the main road. Next, head towards the Midway Geyser Basin. Here, you’ll be able to see Excelsior, which was once the largest geyser in the world, and the famous Grand Prismatic Spring. Keep in mind that if you get here too early, the geyser and spring may be hidden by steam, but you’ll get unique views without the crowds that typically flock to the site in the afternoon. 

Scott Taylor/Flickr

Continue along the main road until you hit West Thumb Geyser Basin, then make a right. This will bring you to the 22-mile stretch of road leading to the south entrance. Here, you can see the Lewis River and stop for a break at Lewis Lake. You can also check out Lewis Falls before making your way out of the park. Since you’ve already paid for the daily park pass, you can drive right through the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway to the Grand Teton National Park. The Grand Tetons are spectacular, seemingly rising out of nowhere beyond the plains. There are pull-offs at Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake, both of which feature pristine blue water and views of snow-capped mountains in the distance. Stop for a picnic, hike the paths, or rent a boat to explore the lake. Continue south through the park towards Jackson, Wyoming, which is a great place to grab lunch and walk around. Arches made of antlers mark each corner of the town square and cute shops line the streets. Whether or not you choose to spend the night, it’s the perfect place to cap off your trip.

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