If you asked the average person to list off the first US national parks that came to their mind, they’d probably mention Yellowstone. This national park is in a league all its own! Yellowstone National Park is unmatched in its unique geothermal features, and the park is full of them! While I’m sure many people are only spending 3 or 4 days in Yellowstone National Park, you truly could fill an entire week here!
Where to Stay in Yellowstone
When visiting Yellowstone I’d give you the same advice I’d give about Disney World: 1. Get started early in the morning. 2. Stay in the park. If you stay inside the park and get up and out quickly every morning, you can give yourself a 1-3 hour advantage over everyone who is staying outside the park or who wants to enjoy a leisurely breakfast before starting their sightseeing.
Yellowstone National Park is massive, so I’d always recommend staying inside the park if possible. If you’re camping, there are several campgrounds and RV parks with varying amenities. And if you prefer a hotel room, you’ll find multiple lodges and inns inside the park as well. But the best place to stay in Yellowstone is the one available to you, so if it’s too late to book something inside the park, you’ll find plenty of options in West Yellowstone or to the north in Gardiner. Directly to the south of the park is Grand Teton National Park, so there are only a few choices in that direction, but some people like staying in between the parks and splitting their time between them. If you do choose to stay outside of Yellowstone National Park, it will be to your advantage to drive into the park early in the morning. The West Yellowstone entrance particularly backs up, especially from 9 to 11 am as many guests are heading in at the same time.
If you are only spending one day in Yellowstone National Park, I’d book a room at Old Faithful Inn or Old Faithful Lodge or a site at Madison campground. Those are the most central locations to the main areas of the park. If you’re spending at least 3 or 4 days in the park, I would book 2 nights in this main area (the western side of the park) and the remaining day or two on the east side in Canyon Village, Bridge Bay, or Fishing Bridge. With 5 or more days, I would spend 1 or 2 days in Mammoth to the north of the park.
Yellowstone in an RV
Yellowstone has many campgrounds to choose from. Most Yellowstone campgrounds do not have hookups, but Fishing Bridge RV Park is full hookup. Some campgrounds can be booked on Recreation.gov and others are booked on the Yellowstone National Park Lodges website. Either way, you’ll want to book these well in advance.
If you have multiple days in Yellowstone, I recommend splitting your trip between different campgrounds around the park. We’ll focus our itinerary recommendations on three sections of the park: North, West, and East, so if you can, book 2 nights in each of those areas. We found good RV parking at West Thumb Geyser Basin, Norris Geyser Basin, and Old Faithful, so I’d recommend parking at one of those early by 9:30 AM of your ‘switch campground day’. Spend a few hours exploring that area, and then head to your next campground after 11 or 12.
Staying in Yellowstone Lodges
Booking a hotel in Yellowstone National Park will be one of the best decisions you can make for your Yellowstone vacation. Can you imagine the difference in your sightseeing day if you wake up just a few dozen feet from Old Faithful compared to staying overnight in the town of West Yellowstone, a full 50 minute drive from Old Faithful. And that’s not adding in the time you’ll wait at the park entrance. (The west entrance is so busy in the morning, the park service posts a web cam for it!)
If you have to stay outside the park at some point during your trip, you’re better off making it the north end, staying in Gardiner, Montana while visiting Mammoth Hot Springs and other features of the north side of the park.
The park has over 2,000 rooms split between 9 lodges, and like the campgrounds, you’ll want to make these reservations well in advance of your trip. It’s also worth noting that the Old Faithful area was the only spot in the park where I had cell signal, so that puts Old Faithful Lodge and Old Faithful Inn at the top of my Yellowstone hotel recommendations. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins and Canyon Lodge & Cabins would also top my recommendations list for their proximity to popular areas of the park. But staying at one of the lodges on Lake Yellowstone would still give you a huge time advantage to anyone staying outside the park.
Where to Eat in Yellowstone
My #1 recommendation for food in Yellowstone is to bring as much of your own as possible. Obviously, this works a lot better for campers than for hotel guests, but Yellowstone is not a park where you can easily access dining no matter where you are. If you don’t time your day well, you might find yourself an hour away from a restaurant at mealtime. If possible, I recommend bringing your own breakfast items and packing a picnic dinner every day. (The park map has all the picnic areas marked.) Stopping for a leisurely hot meal at lunch time is a great option while basin and trailhead parking lots are crowded in the middle of the day. Book reservations in advance for the area of the park you plan to be in each day.
Crowd Tips for Yellowstone
Parking lots are crowded between 10 and 4, so the earlier you can get to the park, the better. We planned to hit either a very popular spot or something with a small parking area first thing in the morning, with a nearby second area to park before 9 or 9:30. I’d recommend spending as long in this second spot as possible. After that, I’d recommend heading to lunch or to a picnic area or very large area, like Old Faithful, where you’re much more likely to find parking. You could also take one of the park’s scenic drives during these peak hours, but know that you might have trouble stopping at pull-offs if the roads are crowded.
Since we came in our RV and we are also working on this trip, we chose to do a few things in the morning and head back to the RV between 10 and 11 to get some work and homeschool done. We’d head out again with a picnic dinner around 4 pm. Obviously, this does not work for everyone, and you’d need dish internet for connectivity.
Many people start heading out of the park between 4 and 6 PM, so if you’re lodging in the park or willing to stay late, you’ll have a few hours of low crowds each evening. Don’t forget that sunset is close to 9 pm for most of the summer.
In addition to the crowds of people causing traffic in the parks, you might also find some animal-caused traffic jams. These ‘bison jams’ are sometimes caused by animals walking down the road and blocking the lane, but they are also caused by guests who slow down to take a photo of animals near the road. Be a considerate visitor and look for pulloffs to photograph animals from.
Another tip for dealing with Yellowstone crowds is to avoid visiting top attractions like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic on the weekends. We spent Sunday and Memorial Day Monday on the east side of the park, which felt much less crowded than Tuesday and Wednesday of that week did on the west side. And of course, visiting early or late in the season will give you the advantage of fewer crowds as well.
Additionally, the farther you get from the parking lot, the lower the crowds will be. Many people’s summer Yellowstone trip looks like driving around, parking, hopping out to see a thing, driving some more, parking, walking around a boardwalk, driving, pulling over to see a bison, etc. But there are also several opportunities to get off the beaten path (safely!) and get deeper into nature. A couple of those hikes include:
Hiking to Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook and then continuing to Fairy Falls.
Walking Biscuit Basin and then continuing to Mystic Falls.
Hiking Observation Point trailhead to the Old Faithful viewing area.
Walking through the Upper Geyser Basin boardwalks.
Taking the longest loop at Norris Geyser Basin past Steamboat Geyser.
At the time of our visit, Upper Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs was pedestrian-only instead of a driving loop. Many visitors will skip this in favor of shorter boardwalk areas where they don’t have to walk a mile or two around.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has several hiking trails, including Brink of Lower Falls, Red Rocks Lookout, and both North and South Rim Trails.
Hike Natural Bridge Trail from Bridge Bay Campground or from the nearby trailhead.
And that’s just the relatively short hikes. Serious backpackers will have numerous other options as well. Remember that this is bear country, so venturing away from the crowds will also increase your likelihood of a bear encounter. Always carry bear spray and make sure everyone in your group understands how to respond in various bear encounter situations.
Top Ten Things To Do in Yellowstone National Park:
- Old Faithful
- Grand Prismatic Spring
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Wildlife viewing, particularly bison
- Walk a boardwalk to see a variety of hot springs and steam vents
- Mammoth Hot Springs’ terraced hot springs
- At least one geyser that’s not Old Faithful
- Visit a waterfall – Gibbon Falls, Tower Falls, or Undine Falls
- Visitor Center educational exhibits
- Mud pots – not because they’re particularly beautiful, but to complete the 4 geothermal features
Bonus: Eat huckleberry ice cream!
What To Do in Yellowstone National Park
West Yellowstone: Old Faithful
Museum of the National Park Ranger – One of the original army stations built in 1908 and now preserved as a museum.
Norris Geyser Basin – This is a very popular stop and has a large parking lot, but I honestly didn’t find it as compelling as some of the other basins. You’ll find 3 different loops of boardwalks here, and the shorter two are down a very steep incline. The longest loop (which I did not walk) includes Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world, which unfortunately doesn’t erupt very often or on a predictable pattern, so most guests will miss out on this 300 foot eruption.
Artist Paintpots – A 1 mile loop trail to a group over hot springs, fumaroles, geysers, and mud pots.
Gibbon Falls – Follow the stone wall to the overlook of this 84 foot waterfall.
Firehole Canyon Road – A one way (north to south) road along the Firehole River and through Firehole Canyon. A small parking area in the middle allows for photos and views of Firehole Falls. You’ll find a swimming area at the end of this road.
Fountain Flat Drive – A short side road along the Firehole River that goes a few hot springs and ends in a trailhead.
Lower Geyser Basin – Also called Fountain Paint Pot Trail. Clepsydra geyser, which is nearly continuous, is the highlight of this boardwalk for me.
Firehole Lake Drive – A loop road across from Lower Geyser Basin with turnouts for a variety of hot springs and geysers.
Midway Geyser Basin – Possibly the most popular thermal basin, due to the famous Grand Prismatic Spring. We enjoyed walking this boardwalk, but the best views of Grand Prismatic are from above. Expect this parking lot to be full and overflowing most of the day.
Fairy Falls Trailhead & Grand Prismatic Overlook – This trail is a must do for me! The path to the Grand Prismatic overlook is .7 miles with a steep incline at the end. If you’d like, you can continue to Fairy Falls and then even beyond that to two geyers. Parking here has been expanded, but I’d still prioritize this as an early morning activity.
Biscuit Basin – Sapphire Pool is stunning, and don’t miss Jewel Geyser, which erupts every 7 minutes. One of the shorter boardwalks, which makes this a top recommendation for me. At the back of this boardwalk, you’ll find Mystic Falls Trail.
Old Faithful – The most famous feature of Yellowstone National Park and a must do for any visitor. You can check the park app ahead of time if you have service to see the next expected eruption window, or come anytime and check when you arrive. There’s plenty to do here while you wait. The visitor center here is excellent and goes into a lot of detail about the thermal features you’ll find in the park. Rangers will likely be giving talks before and/or after Old Faithful’s eruption, and the famous geyser sits among many other thermal features that you can enjoy. Find a bench seat on the front boardwalk or sit back in the tree line near the Visitor Center and Lodge. Both are great views.
Upper Geyser Basin – A must do geyser basin for multiple reasons. If you find yourself with more than 20 minutes before Old Faithful is expected to erupt, wander one or more of these paths. And since it’s a great add-on to your Old Faithful stop, you won’t have to find a 2nd parking spot to enjoy all these boardwalks. I especially loved walking the entire geyser cycle (fill, erupt, and drain) of Anemone with Old Faithful in the background while I waited for the big eruption. You’ll also find notable geysers like Castle, Grand, Beehive, and Daisy in this area.
Observation Point Trailhead – Hike this short but steep trail to an upper viewing area of Old Faithful.
Paved bike path from Old Faithful Lodge to Morning Glory Spring – We enjoyed biking this path, but you won’t see too much from the path itself and you’ll have to park your bike before walking on the boardwalks. This is best biked in the mornings or evenings when crowds are low.
Yellowstone Tribal Heritage Center – View indigenous artwork with a rotating presentation schedule.
Black Sand Basin – One of the smallest basins, and unfortunately, one I missed out on.
Kepler Cascades – A waterfall on the Firehole River with a wooden overlook area.
Lone Star Geyser – Bike or hike this 3.5 mile trail to Lone Star Geyser, which erupts 40-45 feet in the air every 3 hours. Cyclists will have to park their bikes and walk the final portion of the trail. Ask park rangers for the next estimated eruption time before heading out.
Where to Stay in West Yellowstone
Old Faithful Inn
Old Faithful Lodge
Old Faithful Snow Lodge (in winter)
East Yellowstone: Canyon Village & Yellowstone Lake
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – Exquisitely beautiful canyon with two waterfalls. The north side has several overlooks while the south side has Upper Falls View and Artist Point. Both sides have a rim trail and other hikes here include Brink of Upper Falls, Brink of Lower Falls, and Red Rocks Lookout.
Canyon Visitor Education Center – Contains exhibits on the Yellowstone volcano caldera, glacial rocks, and the geothermal activity here as well as a large 3D map of the park.
Hayden Valley – Keep your eyes out for wildlife as you drive through. And if you visit during the summer, look for lupine. You’ll also find a few picnic spots and other pulloffs here. We drove through 3 or 4 times on our way to other parts of the park.
Mud Volcano – Mud pots are one of the 4 unique geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park, and you’ll find several of them concentrated in the Mud Volcano area. We found the entire loop enjoyable, but many guests only visit Mud Cauldron, Mud Volcano, and Dragon’s Mouth Spring, as well as Sulphur Caldron across the street. You’ll find that classic Yellowstone rotten egg smell here too.
Fishing Bridge Visitor Center – This visitor center contains bird exhibits and opens later in the season than others. It was closed during our visit.
Natural Bridge Trail – Sometimes closed for bear activity, this trail is about a mile in length and ends at the 51 foot natural rock bridge.
West Thumb Geyser Basin – Boardwalk along the edge of Lake Yellowstone with hot springs and geysers. My favorites here were Black Pool, Fishing Cone, and Collapsing Spring. There’s also a fun mud pot in the parking lot.
Yellowstone Lake – The largest high elevation lake and a prominent feature of the east side of Yellowstone. I had no idea we’d have such pretty views of lakes and snow-capped mountains even after leaving Grand Teton National Park!
Grant Visitor Center – Smaller than some of the other Visitor Centers, but this one had an excellent exhibit room about park wildfires.
Lewis Falls – A small 30-foot cascade that can be best seen heading south on the road.
Where to Stay in East Yellowstone
Canyon Lodge & CabinsCanyon Campground
Fishing Bridge RV Park – The only full hookups available inside the park.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Lake Lodge Cabins
Bridge Bay Campground
Grant Village Lodge & Campground
Lewis Lake Campground
North Yellowstone: Mammoth Hot Springs
Lower Mammoth Terraces – The terraced hot springs here have a completely different look than what you’ll find elsewhere around Yellowstone. Some key stops to include while walking this area are: Juniper Terrace, Liberty Cap, Minerva Terraces, and Palette Hot Spring. Like the rest of the geothermal features in Yellowstone, these terraces are always changing. And the colors here can vary wildly from yellows and oranges to grays and whites. For example, during our visit, Palette Hot Spring had very little color and didn’t look anything like most of the photos I saw online.
Upper Mammoth Terraces – At the time of our visit, the Upper Terrace drive was closed to vehicles and only option to pedestrians, which made this area too large to fully explore in the time we had allowed. That said, Canary Spring is located off to the right and worth the zig-zag of boardwalks. A few other spots you might enjoy in this loop are: Grassy Spring, Angel Terrace, Orange Spring Mound, and White Elephant Back Terrace.
Albright Visitor Center – Stop by this two story museum in historic Fort Yellowstone to see animal exhibits and learn about the army’s history in Yellowstone.
Roosevelt Arch – Located just outside the park gates in Gardiner, Montana, this stone landmark was built in 1903. It’s a beautiful spot for a photo with the park in the background.
Driving Grand Loop Road from West Yellowstone to Mammoth Hot Springs – Check out Roaring Mountain, Rustic Falls, and Silver Gate on the way.
Undine Falls – Roadside waterfall turnoff while driving between Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley.
Lamar Valley – Drive through early in the morning or close to sunset for the best wildlife viewing. We found several bison herds and their babies here in the spring. If you’re hoping to see wolves, I’d recommend asking the rangers for more specific location information or other tips.
Tower Fall – Take a short walk to the waterfall overlook or continue down to the bank of the Yellowstone River.
Where to Stay in North Yellowstone
Mammoth Springs Hotel & Cabins
Indian Creek Campground
Mammoth Campground – closed because of the 2022 flood.
Roosevelt Lodge Cabins
Tower Fall Campground
What to do with Limited Time in Yellowstone:
With so many unique geothermal features, varying topography, and amazing wildlife, how do you narrow down what to do in Yellowstone? I’ve paired up several popular Yellowstone attractions, so you can see what I’d choose if I was short on time:
Grand Prismatic Spring via Midway Geyser Basin or the overlook on Fairy Falls Trail – If you are able to do the trail to the overlook, it’s by far the better view of Grand Prismatic.
Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley – I want to say both, because Lamar Valley is where we found the bison herds and the babies in the spring. But if you’re short on time, you’ll be driving right through Hayden Valley on Grand Loop Road, so that makes it the obvious choice.
Tower Falls or Gibbon Falls – I liked Gibbon Falls better.
Upper or Lower Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs – Lower Terrace has more to enjoy with less walking.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Overlooks – If you can only choose 4 overlooks to stop at, I’d choose Artist Point, Upper Falls View, Grand View, and Lookout Point. But if you have the time, I’d recommend Red Rocks Lookout and also starting down Brink of Lower Falls trail to see the view of Upper Falls.
Thermal Basins – Visiting thermal basins to see hot springs and geysers is a key piece of a Yellowstone vacation. If you have limited time, I rank these 6 basins as must dos: Upper Geyser Basin, Biscuit Basin, Lower Geyser Basin, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Mud Volcano, and Lower Mammoth Terrace. If you have time to complete all the basins, add in: Norris Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin (see hike option above), Upper Mammoth Terrace, Artist Paintpots, and Black Sand Basin.
I’ve listed my favorite stops at each basin above, when I describe what attractions you can find throughout the north, west, and east sections of the park.
How to See Geysers in Yellowstone:
Most of Yellowstone’s 500+ geysers are not predictable, so how can you plan to see any other than Old Faithful? Most people do not want to spend multiple hours of their Yellowstone vacation waiting to see a single geyser eruption, so here are some places you can find erupting geysers around the park.
The Yellowstone section of the NPS app will show estimated eruption times for a few of the parks’ predictable geysers. Castle and Daisy are two of the geysers that NPS provides predictions for in their app, which Daisy erupting roughly every 2 hours and 45 minutes and Castle erupting about every 13 hours.
But there are also some continually erupting or frequently erupting geysers to put on your list:
Clepsydra Geyser at Lower Geyser Basin is continually erupting.
Jewel Geyser at Biscuit Basin erupts every 7-8 minutes.
Anemone Geyser at Upper Geyser Basin fills, erupts, and drains every 10-15 minutes.
Comet Geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin is another almost constantly erupting geyser, but it is not as large as some of the others.
One thing to note with these geysers: the height and force of geyser eruptions is related to how much pressure builds up underground, so you won’t see the height or power of Old Faithful in these smaller, more frequent eruptions. But you can stand pretty close to most of them, so you’ll have a front row seat to the action.
During our 5-day visit, we were happy to see 7 different geysers erupt: Old Faithful, Beehive, Spasmodic, Sawmill, Anemone, Jewel, and Clepsydra. Castle and Daisy are two that we were hoping to see during our visit, but the timing didn’t work out.
Learning About Yellowstone:
Yellowstone Visitor Centers each have a different theme for their educational displays and exhibits, and these visitor centers are some of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the country. Grant Visitor Center has displays about park fires, how they fight them, and also how the area benefits from fires. Canyon Village Visitor Center has extensive displays about the volcanic activity in the park, the earthquakes, the thermal activity, and the animals. Naturally, the Old Faithful Visitor Center is a must-see, with a large exhibit room about many of the park’s geothermal features as well as an additional kid-focused exhibit room.
Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs has animal displays upstairs and historical displays about Fort Yellowstone downstairs. Fishing Bridge Visitor Center contains exhibits about local birds. Norris Geyser Basin has two small display rooms about the geysers.
The Museum of the National Park Ranger is not in a highly trafficked area of the park and we were sorry to miss it. The museum has information about the calvary and first park rangers as well as a historic furnished backcountry cabin where you can see how the first park rangers lived in the early days of the park.
In addition to amazing museum-quality Visitor Center displays, you can learn a lot from the Yellowstone section of the NPS app. You’ll find extensive audio tours of different areas of the park. Make sure you download these ahead of time.
If you have limited time in Yellowstone, I recommend focusing your Yellowstone education on two things:
1. The 4 geothermal features of Yellowstone: hot springs, geysers, mud pots, and steam vents (also called fumaroles.)
2. How geysers work – The Old Faithful Visitor Center displays and the rangers talks before or after the eruption will be particularly insightful.
What to Bring to Yellowstone National Park:
Food supplies – If you’re camping, I’d recommend bringing everything you expect to need. If you’re staying at a hotel, I’d bring supplies for breakfast on the go and a picnic lunch and try not to eat more than 1 meal each day in a restaurant or café service counter. Park store products are limited and grocery prices in West Yellowstone were very high. (Gardiner prices seemed a bit better, but I’d still rather not load up on groceries here.)
Snacks – In addition to bringing food into the park with you, be sure to carry snacks with you as you drive around the park. As mentioned, you might find yourself in some very congested traffic situations, so you’ll want to come well prepared with food and water in your vehicle.
Water bottles – While many parking lots have a vault toilet, most of them do not have a water fountain, so you’ll want to pack plenty of water, especially if you’ll be heading out on any hikes.
Hats and sunscreen – There’s not much shade in the Yellowstone basins and some are quite windy, so a hat that fits well is highly recommended. Don’t be the person who loses their hat along a boardwalk and can’t leave the path to retrieve it.
Layers – We visited Yellowstone at the end of May, and early in the morning, I wanted my puffy jacket and a winter hat. But often by midday, we were all in short sleeves.
Good walking shoes – You’ll be doing a lot of walking. The basins are mostly boardwalks but you’ll also find some gravel paths and less maintained areas. I liked wearing hiking boots so I didn’t get gravel and dirt kicked into my shoes.
Bear spray – If you’re flying in, you can purchase or even rent bear spray from the park. If you’re driving, you might want to prepurchase it, to save time tracking it down. Know how to use it and carry it with you everywhere.
Your camera – You’ll find that Yellowstone is a truly unique place. It’s many amazing natural features earned it the nickname Wonderland for a reason, and you’ll want to capture it. Keep in mind that the better zoom capabilities you have, the better many of your photos will be. It’s important to stay away from wildlife, and a cell phone won’t be able to capture the animals well at a safe distance. A good zoom will also be handy for some of the geothermal features that you can’t get close to on the boardwalks.
Binoculars – For animal safety, binoculars will give you a close up view of any wildlife you spot.
Assume that you won’t have cell signal in the park. The only place we could even use the NPS app was in the Old Faithful area. Download what you need ahead of time.
Best Time to Visit Yellowstone:
There is truly never a bad time to visit this incredible national park, except of course in the extremely unlikely event that the Yellowstone volcano were to become active again. If you want to avoid the crowds, plan your Yellowstone vacation in the winter, spring, or fall (avoiding spring break and holiday weekends).
Naturally, most guests visit in the summer with the busiest months being July and August. You’ll have access to the entire park (barring construction and renovation projects) and all services and amenities will be up and running. But you’ll also have higher temperatures during the day (although you should still pack a jacket), you’ll need to book things farther in advance, and you’ll experience the park with much higher crowds.
Visiting Yellowstone in the spring or fall can give you many of the experiences of a summer trip with fewer crowds. Park roads and amenities open throughout April and May with the week before Memorial Day being the sweet spot before the crowds arrive. Similarly, September and October can be a great time to visit, but weather conditions will cause temporary closures and winter preparations will begin shutting things down throughout the park.
If you visit in the off season, here are a couple things to note:
Even if you visit the park when all the roadways have been opened for the season, you’ll find that various buildings and amenities have staggered opening times. We visited the last week of May and still noticed a couple of closures we hadn’t expected.
There will be limited ranger talks scheduled in the printed park newspaper. (This was a required element of the Junior Ranger booklets.) Rangers did talks before and after Old Faithful’s eruptions, and these were posted inside the Old Faithful Visitor Center.
Snow sticks around longer than you think it will in some areas of the park.
Visiting Yellowstone in winter will be a very different experience than the rest of the year. Most park roads will be closed to vehicles and the only lodging available inside the park will be Old Faithful Snow Lodge. The Mammoth Hot Springs area remains the most open during the winter, while the interior park roads open to oversnow travel in mid-December. Those roads will close again in March to begin plowing. The park service recommends booking a private tour if you visit in the winter. How incredible would it be to experience Yellowstone via ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile?
Yellowstone National Park with Kids:
Read About Yellowstone Before Your Trip
We homeschool, so we did a whole unit on Yellowstone National Park, the geology, and the types of animals we’d see there. Here are some of our favorite books:
Yellowstone National Park by Penelope S. Nelson
Welcome to Yellowstone National Park by Teri Temple
Bringing Back the Wolves by Jude Isabella
Earth Rocks: Geysers by Sara Gilbert
Yellowstone for Kids by Yellowstone Forever (purchased in the parks)
Buddy Bison’s Yellowstone Adventure by Ilona E. Holland for National Geographic
Goodnight Yellowstone by Adam Gamble
National Parks of the U.S.A. by Kate Siber
Who Pooped in the Park? Yellowstone National Park by Gary D. Robson
We also read books about Theodore Roosevelt, Ferdinand Hayden, Thomas Moran and others who helped preserve the national parks.
Discuss the Rules Ahead of Time
Obviously any parent’s worst nightmare about visiting Yellowstone with kids is having them get hurt by wildlife or endanger themselves in a hot springs area. Go over the rules well ahead of the trip and repeat them often.
Junior Ranger Program
The Junior Ranger Program is always a favorite with our kids, and the Yellowstone booklet is top notch. You’ll also need to plan to attend a ranger program, many of which are listed in the park newspaper, but the rangers also gave talks right before and after Old Faithful’s frequent eruptions, so this will be an easy requirement to fill. And while many parks allow you to mail in your ranger book after your visit to receive your badges, at the time of this writing, Yellowstone does not offer this option.
Yellowstone Activities Kids Will Love
Plan to see the most often erupting geysers. Make time to walk through each of the Visitor’s Centers. Choose your basin walks and hikes based on your kids’ interests and abilities. If your kids like to bike, the wide paved path from Old Faithful Lodge to Morning Glory Spring to save a little walking and still hit a few of the highlights in this basin area. If your kids like to climb rocks, they’ll enjoy the Gibbon Falls overlook area as well as the Silver Gates.
Make time to drive out into Lamar Valley. We enjoyed seeing bison and elk in Hayden Valley, but Lamar Valley is where we found the herds of bison (and the babies since it was spring). Watching a larger group of bison meant that we saw more animal interactions. They rolled in the dirt, the bison born last spring romped and played together, the babies nursed. My kids were even amused by watching the bison pee!
If you want to level up your Yellowstone trip just a bit more, get these bear jackets for your kids. The park rangers and the other guests loved them! The bear jackets have been a HUGE hit in National Parks, especially the ones in bear country.
How to Plan Your Yellowstone Vacation
Before we get to my specific itinerary suggestions, I wanted to explain how to get the most out of your trip to Yellowstone. This is one of the country’s most visited parks and it can get very crowded in the middle of the day. Particularly from 10 am to 4 pm or even later, you’ll have trouble finding parking at many locations around the park. Here’s how I would recommend planning your day.
Start with a popular, high priority item. This could be the insanely popular Midway Geyser Basin or hitting the series of small overlooks on the north side of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. If it’s still early, your second stop could be a nearby area with limited parking. (I used Google maps to check out satellite images of parking lots.) Between 9 and 10, you’ll need to head to an area you can spend a few hours in. This could be the trailhead of a hike, a larger basin like Norris Geyser or West Thumb Basin, or a combo like Biscuit Basin and the Mystic Falls trail. Old Faithful is also an obvious choice as there is lots to do in this area, but I’d actually save that for after lunch. For lunch, prebook reservations at one of the park’s restaurants or pack a picnic and head to a nearby picnic area. After lunch, you’ll still have a few hours of peak crowds, so this is a great time to drive through the park looking for bison, look for parking in a large basin area, or spend an hour or 2 driving to another area of the park to explore as people start to wrap up for the day. If you’re camping, you might also consider heading back to your campsite for a mid-day hot dog and smore roast.
Yellowstone 1 Day Itinerary
Seeing Yellowstone National Park in one day is a tall order. It’s three times the size of Rhode Island, after all. But if all you have is one day, I’d plan to hit the three most famous attractions: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. And of course, you’ll also want to see the park’s most popular animal: the bison.
Start your morning on the Fairy Falls trail to the Grand Prismatic Overlook. If you also want to see Grand Prismatic from the Midway Geiser basin, you’ll need to park there first, because that was the most crowded parking lot we saw in our entire loop around the park, but the views are a hundred times better if you can hike to the overlook. Hopefully you’ll have a sunny morning, so the colors are their most brilliant.
Then head south to Old Faithful. If you like to plan in advance, you can use the Yellowstone section of the NPS app to see Old Faithful’s next eruption time, but even if you pull in the parking lot as it’s erupting, you only have 90 minutes to wait for it to erupt again. So feel free to just stop in the visitor center and see the posted eruption prediction. If you have some time to kill, the visitor center exhibits are excellent. You’ll also find the Yellowstone Tribal Heritage Center, a large general store, and several food options in this area. But I’d actually recommend heading out to the Upper Geyser basin while you wait. If you have lots of time, head to the left and explore that side. If you have less time, take the boardwalk to the right, walking behind Old Faithful instead. You can use the NPS app to listen to an audio tour of this area if you’d like. (You’ll want to download the Yellowstone portion of the app if you want to listen anywhere else in the park, because this is the only area you’ll likely have service.) I really enjoyed seeing Anemone Geyser. Watch the entire geyser cycle as it fills, has a short eruption, and drains of water every 15 minutes. And you’ll have Old Faithful in your view from here too, so you can wait for both geysers at the same time. Maybe you’ll even have a simultaneous eruption like we had.
After you’ve done everything you want to do in this area, drive around the park to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The three largest parking lots at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are Upper Falls View, Artist Point, and Brink of Lower Falls, but both sides have a rim trail. If you are able to walk a few miles and it’s too crowded to move your car, I’d highly recommend seeing all the overlooks on the north side via the trail.
You’ve likely stopped to photograph bison on the side of the road as you were driving through the park, but if you haven’t seen any bison yet, continue south from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to drive through Hayden Valley. Not only is this a great spot to stop and photograph some bison, but we also saw elk in this area as well.
2 Day Yellowstone Itinerary
With two days in Yellowstone National Park, I would stay on the west side of the park, either in one of the Old Faithful Hotels or in Madison Campground and spend 1 day focused on visiting the basins in the west side and one day driving Grand Loop Road.
Day 1 – I would prioritize Grand Prismatic Spring, stopping at Midway Basin first if you’d like to walk that, and then seeing the overlook from Fairy Falls trail. From there, drive south to Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin. When the parking lots get crowded, head to the Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin area and spend as much time there as you’d like. In the evening, when the crowds wane a bit, visit other basin areas you haven’t seen yet.
Day 2 – Spend your second day making a loop of the park. This would take about 4 hours if you drove straight around, but you’ll be making several stops along the way, so be sure to pack a picnic lunch! Drive north around Grand Loop Road, stopping at Gibbon Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, and West Thumb Geyser Basin.
3 Day Yellowstone Itinerary
With 3 days in Yellowstone, I would recommend spending day 2 exploring Gibbon Falls and Mammoth Hot Springs. Then on the morning of day 3, stop at West Thumb Geyser Basin on your way to your new hotel or campground on the east side of the park. Spend the rest of the day visiting the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, and even Lamar Valley if you’d like.
4 Day Yellowstone Itinerary
If a friend asked me how many days to spend in Yellowstone, I would say 4 is the absolute minimum so that you’re not stressed by the cords. If you’re staying outside of the national park, 4 days in Yellowstone will also give you some important flexibility since it will probably be difficult to get up early every morning or spend the entire day every day in the park. Maybe alternating a couple of early mornings with a couple of late arrival days will be the right balance for your 4 day Yellowstone vacation. I would recommend taking 2 days to explore the west side of the park: Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful, and all the hot spring basins. Drive over to West Thumb Geyser Basin on your 2nd day as well. This might be the perfect spot to head in the late afternoon as crowds are starting to thin out.
For days 3 and 4, relocate to a hotel or campground in either Canyon Village or Mammoth Hot Springs. This will give you more time to explore the east and north sides of the park and really soak in the wildlife. Plan to visit Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone early in the morning or around sunset to enjoy the views with fewer crowds. Driving through Lamar Valley is a great afternoon or evening activity. We had no problem finding space to pull over and found multiple herds of bison and their babies in this area of the park.
5 Day Yellowstone Itinerary
If you have 5 days in Yellowstone, spend two days each in the west and east and one day in the north side of the park. We spent 5 days exploring Yellowstone and it was perfect. We spent the 2 busier weekend days on the east side of the park, which is less crowded, then moved to Madison campground on the west side for 2 days, and finally spent 1 day in Mammoth Hot Springs. We found it hard to stick to some of our original plans because of park crowds, so having more time in each area of the park was really helpful. You’ll also appreciate a longer Yellowstone vacation if you experience any days with poor weather.
6 Day Yellowstone Itinerary
If you have 6 days or even a week in Yellowstone National Park, I’d leave the last day(s) of your trip to fill in what you’ve missed. You’ve likely missed something due to rain, full parking lots, or maybe you’ve just missed a geyser eruption you were really hoping to see. If you seem to have spare time in your schedule, tell a ranger what you’ve enjoyed so far and ask them for a recommendation for how to spend your remaining time in this beautiful park.
Pairing Your Yellowstone Trip with Grand Teton National Park
While there is more than enough to fill your time here in Yellowstone, if you have a day or two to spare, plan a day trip to Grand Teton National Park. (Or if you’re planning ahead, extend your trip to make time for a 2nd national park.) Whether you’re looking for how to spend 1 day in Grand Teton or a full week, you’ll find detailed itineraries in my Grand Teton blog post.