Yellowstone National Park is 2.2 million acres of forests, grassland, and water! There's no cell service or wifi, so unless you plan on paying for a tour or know ahead of time exactly what you want to see, you have to plan and navigate using only the park brochures and maps. It can be quite overwhelming because there’s just SO much to see and literally all of it is magnificent!
In September 2017, I spent two days in Yellowstone and put together this itinerary to enjoy a good balance of hiking while seeing a little bit of everything the park has to offer. With over 1,000 miles of trails, hundreds of animal species, and countless geysers and hot springs, I still ended up wanting more time to explore. So, if you can, definitely spend more than two days in Yellowstone! But if you can’t, it’s ok, this itinerary will make sure you see all the highlights pretty easily in two days.
Day 1: Arrival
I highly recommend arriving in either West Yellowstone, Montana or Cody, Wyoming the day before you enter the park. This will save you some money by staying at cheaper accommodations outside the park on your travel day—or in my case, free accommodations! My partner, Al, and I were traveling with our RV, so we spent a night in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Cody (a popular overnight stop for RVers heading to Yellowstone). This helped us maximize our time in Yellowstone because we got up bright and early and drove into the park, instead of arriving late in the day after a long day of driving.
Where to stay: There are tons of campgrounds and lodges to choose from, so it really comes down to what’s available and personal preference. We wanted to have full-hookups for our RV due to the cold overnight temperatures, so that left us with Fishing Bridge Campground as our only option. It was perfect though because it is right in the heart of Yellowstone! So my main recommendation for lodging is to pick something centrally located. If you stay too far north or south, you will spend a lot of time driving to the main attractions located in the center of the park.
After you get checked in, visit the nearest lodge or visitor center to get additional information on weather, maps, and roads or sights that are closed. It also helps to talk to a ranger because they have all the insider tips.
Drive to South Rim Drive and check out the Upper Falls View, Uncle Tom’s Trail, and Artist Point with views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Uncle Tom’s Trail is a metal staircase built into the cliffside to get an up close and personal look at the Upper Falls, and it looked really cool. I really wanted to explore Uncle Tom’s Trail and the Upper Falls View but both were closed for renovations. Nonetheless, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a truly breathtaking sight!
Continue your tour of the Grand Canyon with a drive down North Rim Drive. I highly recommend stopping at the Brink of Upper Falls and Brink of Lower Falls, both of which are beautiful overlooks. The hike down to the Brink of Lower Falls is a bit challenging if you’re not used to the higher elevation, so just be mindful of your breathing and take it slow. Getting to see the Yellowstone River up close, especially making a 109-foot drop at Upper Falls and 308-foot drop at Lower Falls, is worth the hike.
While you’re in the area, stop by the Canyon Lodge. It has a huge gift shop and retro-themed food court. I found it to be the most well-stocked lodge with the coolest gifts and souvenirs if you plan on buying anything. (My hiking backpack broke, so I found a new one here made out of recycled water bottles!)
By now, it should be close to dinner time and a great time of day to spot wildlife. Drive south through Hayden Valley and keep an eye out for everything from buffalo to bears. The valley is a former lake bed known for being a hotspot for wildlife in the park. We spotted tons of birds, swans, geese, elk, deer, bison, and even a bear! Unfortunately, we didn’t see any wolves during our time there.
**Insider tip: If you see cars pulled over and a crowd of people, it’s highly likely there’s something cool worth stopping to look at.**
About 10 miles into the drive in Hayden Valley stop at the Mud Volcano for your first look at Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features. Here you can find a variety of hydrothermal activity with pretty cool names, including the Dragon’s Mouth Spring (a crowd-pleasing favorite), Mud Volcano, Sour Lake, Black Dragon’s Caldron, Churning Caldron, Mud Geyser, and the Cooking Hillside.
Head to a lodge or back to your campground for dinner. After dinner, I recommend preparing yourself for day two (packing lunch and charging up the camera) and calling it an early night so you can be up bright and early. You will want to be well rested for a full day of adventures! If you don’t have the supplies to pack a lunch, you can buy a packed lunch and snacks at the lodge nearest your campground.
Day 2: The BIG Day!
First and foremost, pack a lunch and plenty of snacks for today! Taking time to drive to a lodge and eat takes precious time away from your exploring. Secondly, get an early start (we hit the road by 7 am).
**Insider tip: Starting early means you get to enjoy the busiest sights before all the daytime tour groups even make it into the park.**
Head over to Old Faithful Geyser — it’s a must see! It is the most consistent and reliable geyser in the park, which is how it got its name. If you get there and just missed it, ask a ranger when it is supposed to go off again. If you have some time, walk the trail up Geyser Hill behind Old Faithful for a great view of all the geysers in the area. Just make sure you keep track of time so you can make it back down in time to grab a seat and catch the show.
Next up is what I was most excited for, and it did not disappoint… Visit the Grand Prismatic Spring! It is Yellowstone’s largest hot spring and by far the most colorful, as the rings of thermophiles surrounding the pool create a magnificent rainbow effect.
**Insider tip: If there is a line of cars out the parking lot, turn around and drive back toward Old Faithful. There is a pullout just around the bend in the road where you can find a parking spot much easier. Then you just cross the street and take the walking path along the water that accesses the Grand Prismatic Spring and saves you the wait for parking.**
If you’re like me and you didn’t get enough of the Grand Prismatic Spring yet, drive back toward Old Faithful and you’ll see a sign for the Fairy Falls Trail. Find a parking spot and get to walking because there is an amazing view waiting for you! It’s a relatively short, easy trail that takes you up a hill to an overlook point where you can view the Grand Prismatic Spring from above. At only 1.2 miles round trip, you can make it in and out just in time to work up an appetite for that packed lunch.
You can either hang out by the Fairy Falls Trail to eat your lunch or begin the drive to the next destination and make a pit stop at the picnic spot just past Old Faithful.
**Optional, but really cool: stop at the Continental Divide on the way back. Make sure you read the sign there because it shares some fascinating information.**
Next up, visit the Grant Village Visitor Center. When you only have two days in the park, I don’t recommend spending a lot of time in the visitor centers; however, this one is worth a visit. It has a very interesting exhibit on the 1988 Yellowstone fires—considered the greatest ecological event in the history of National Parks! It’s an amazing story showing the power and wisdom of everything in nature, especially considering that 793,880 acres of the park were affected by the fires.
When you’re done at the visitor center, walk out the back to a little beachfront spot on Yellowstone Lake. It is the largest high elevation lake in North America, and it is a sight to see! The shoreline is 141 miles long, but when you’re sitting on the edge of the lake it just looks like it goes on forever.
Continue the drive just up the road a bit to stop at West Thumb Geyser Basin. There’s a boardwalk that forms a small loop through a bunch of brightly colored, steaming, and very cool hydrothermal features. At this point in my visit, I felt like I had been transported to another planet and was some kind of intergalactic tourist! I And, no matter how many hydrothermal geysers and hot springs I looked at, they never got old because each one is a bit different.
Begin the drive back to your lodge or campground, but follow the sign for any pullout or picnic spot along the way. Yellowstone is a highly visited national park, and a full day of sightseeing will have you ready for a break from the crowds of people. We saw a sign for a picnic spot and turned in to an empty parking lot back in the trees. We took off on foot along the small trail away from the parking lot, which led us to a serene picnic spot on a cliff right on Yellowstone Lake. Nobody else was around, so it was incredibly peaceful to take in the magnificent view.
Dinner back at your campground or lodge. It has been a long, fun-filled day, so you’ll certainly be ready for a rest and a nice dinner. But, don’t get too comfortable because you have one more outing before you can call it a night.
Go on a stargazing adventure. I highly recommend taking a short drive away from your lodge or campground (basically away from any lights) to a nearby pullout, or in our case, we went to Fishing Bridge.
- Make sure there are no animals around (we stayed in bear country, so this was a key step).
- Get out and check out the stars!
We were in Yellowstone for the full moon, so it was pretty spectacular. The moonlight and the stars reflecting off Yellowstone River as we stood in the middle of Fishing Bridge… 😍 <<actual picture of our faces that night.
Despite our best efforts to be mindful of wildlife, we did have an animal encounter on our way back to the truck. A wolf, fox, coyote, or something was lurking around and got startled when Al remote started our truck. It was dark so he didn’t see it until our headlights came on, but the creature bolted pretty fast so what exactly it was is a still a mystery.
Day 3: Farewell
It is time to head home. Traveling with the RV meant we started our drive out of the park early, but depending on your situation you could spend some of day three exploring. Our early morning allowed us to catch a beautiful red sunrise over the steamy water features.
**Insider tip: Yellowstone is extra special early in the morning because the air and water have a greater temperature difference and it makes for a steamy scene, and really cool photos.**
Even the drive to leave the park was amazing, as we passed through Hayden Valley again and spotted more wildlife. We also got to drive through Norris Geyser Basin, which is an area we didn’t get to at all in our two-day adventure.
I trust that you will have a wonderful time connecting with nature and taking in the sights of Yellowstone. If you have any questions or just want to tell me how your trip went, let me know in the comments!