Yellowstone National Park is famous and admired for a reason. It is one of the rare places on earth where you will find mountains, valleys, canyons, lakes, waterfalls, wildlife, geysers and basins – everything beautiful on Earth all in one place. It’s certainly a place to pack the bags and go visit once in a lifetime, and was honestly one of my most memorable trips in recent years.
When is the best time to visit Yellowstone?
The best season to visit Yellowstone National Park is in the summer months, ideally in July or August. As the temperature fluctuates a lot from morning to night, travelers definitely should pack and be prepared for the weather.
When I visited in the last week of August, night time was already unbearably cold (it even hailed in the early morning!) So keep that in mind when planning your trip. For more travel tips on what to pack before getting to Yellowstone, check out the Overall Tips and the Packing List sections below.
How many days should be spent in Yellowstone?
While some travelers only stop in Yellowstone for a day and some stay around for months to take in the full scenery, for normal travelers who want to visit most of the park, 3 to 5 days is enough to see most of the sites.
Here is my 5 day trip guide to Yellowstone that makes a loop within the park, with some tips and suggestions along the way. This trip begins in Bozeman, MT and includes 2 nights of camping within the park, and 2 nights of stay in West Yellowstone but is totally doable with alternative lodging – this itinerary can definitely be tailored to meet each traveler’s needs.
If you choose to camp and want to rent camping gear, Arrive Outdoors is a great rental service to use. They can ship the gear to your hotel in advance for you to pick up, and you can drop it off at any Fedex location before you return.
Before We Begin
To quickly summarize the itinerary, all the attractions in the park are roughly located along a giant loop. In this guide we will start from the north and go in a clockwise direction, as shown on the map below:
- Day 1: Getting to Yellowstone from Bozeman & Gardiner
- Day 2: Wildlife Tour, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin
- Day 3: Yellowstone Canyon, Hayden Valley, Mud Volcano, West Thumb Basin
- Day 4: Lone Star, Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, West Yellowstone
- Day 5: Fountain Paint Pots, Grand Prismatic Spring, Gibbon Falls, Biscuit Basin/Black Sand Basin
- Bozeman Airport – Security Checkpoint
- Main Street
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Bridge Bay Campground
- Canyon Village
- Mud Volcano
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Inspiration Point
- Brink Of Upper Falls
- Old Faithful Inn
- Upper Geyser Basin
- Grand Prismatic Spring
- West Yellowstone
- Gibbon Falls
- Black Sand Basin
Overall Tips & Things to Know:
- Yellowstone costs $35 for a 7 day park pass, which can be purchased online in advance to avoid the crazy traffic at the entrance
- If you plan on camping within the park or staying at the Old Faithful Inn, consider booking the spot months in advance. The Old Faithful Inn tends to run out of rooms very fast, and that’s why we ended up choosing a campground instead. You can reserve a campground here for around $35 per night
- There is no phone service anywhere in the park. Before going in, definitely consider downloading an offline Google Maps of the area to help you navigate
- There’re very limited food options in the park, so pack some sandwiches/lunch before heading into the park each day. There are lots of nice picnic areas to stop at to enjoy the view and eat lunch. If you are coffee addicts like me and go with the camping route, I also recommend packing some instant coffee and a thermos for hot water for emergency situations where you can’t get coffee
- Bathrooms are frequently available throughout the park. Vault toilets are at almost every attraction and picnic area. The “best” bathroom however is in the Old Faithful Inn, so be sure to check that one out
- Most of the attractions are right next to the parking lot so there’s not a ton of hiking needed to see the geysers (except for the Lone Star Geyser and the Grand Prismatic Spring, if you choose to hike). Parking can seem daunting when the park is busy but people come and go fast so it’s not terrible to find a spot – just be patient with it
- Bisons will frequently just be walking across the road. They are also often what’s causing traffic jams. If you see a bison, a bear, or any wildlife, keep a distance to respect their space and wait for them to clear the road
- As mentioned before, bring a thick jacket and consider layering to prepare against the extreme changes in temperature from day to night
Day 1: Getting to Yellowstone from Bozeman & Gardiner
There are several ways to arrive at Yellowstone National Park. If you are flying in, definitely evaluate all of your flight options. For my trip, I found it easy to start the trip by flying into Bozeman, MT.
Stock up on Supplies in Bozeman
Bozeman is a both a charming place to explore and a perfect stop to pick up supplies and groceries before beginning the journey. The Bozeman airport is super close to the city and there are lots of cute shops, restaurants and stores on Main St.
Head over to the Walmart Super Center to stock up on food and items for the trip ahead – this is super important! Beyond this point, groceries and supplies will become very expensive. I suggest coming up with a packing and shopping list beforehand, and here are several items I found useful to include:
- General items: sunscreen, sunglasses, buy spray, hiking shoes, water bottle
- For eating: snacks, water, utensils, paper towels, trash bags, ziplock bags, wet wipes, hand sanitizer
- If you are camping: flashlights, headlamps, fire starter, propane gas, firewood, your own pillow
If you have some extra time, definitely spend some time exploring the city. Check out Schnee’s, a local hiking shoe and clothing store where I got a sturdy pair of hiking shoes; Zocalo Coffee, one of the many amazing coffee shops where you can get a delicious, large (and with refills) drip coffee for $2.50; Back Country Burger, a popular burger place; Pig & Whistle, a Korean fusion restaurant serving tasty bibimbap. There are also lots of other cute bookstores, antique and souvenir shops along the street.
Arrive to Yellowstone National Park from Gardiner
After stocking up on the necessities in Bozeman, start making your way to the park by driving ~2.5 hours to Gardiner, MT. Gardiner is a festive small town right by the northern entrance of Yellowstone. It is full of lodging and restaurants and on the touristy side, certainly busy with travelers in the summer months.
In Gardiner, grab dinner at Wonderland Cafe, The Corral, or Iron Horse as those are the three most popular restaurants in town (and be prepared to wait for a table!) Also check out Arches Park right by the Yellowstone entrance. There’s not much to do there but it’s right next to a school and a cool pack of elks would often be chilling on the track and field area in front of the school. Visit Gardiner Market, the local grocery store for any final needs before entering the park. We bought ice from here since we needed them for our cooler.
Spend the night at one of the many lodges in Gardiner. I stayed at Yellowstone Village Inn & Suites, a lovely lodge with an antique feel. We also had our Arrive camping gear shipped to this lodge for pickup.
Day 2: Wildlife Tour, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin
Wildlife Tour: Yellowstone Wolf Tracker
Start the day early by doing a wild life tour. I highly recommend the Yellowstone Wolf Tracking Tour. Even if you are not super interested in wildlife, an immersive tour like this is eye opening and really encourages a newfound appreciation for the wildlife that exists in Yellowstone.
This tour runs from before sunrise and through noon, during which you will see a beautiful sunrise, travel across the park through Lamar Valley, and have scopes set up to spot wolves, bears, moose and bison. Quietly observing the wildlife while learning about their history in Yellowstone is absolutely a fascinating experience that I cannot recommend enough. Despite the steeper price, every dollar is worth the experience.
After the tour, stop for lunch at Follow Your Nose, a food truck on the outer edge of Gardiner and a great place to grab some delicious barbecue, sit outside and eat while enjoying a spectacular view of the mountains.
Mammoth Hot Springs
After lunch, begin the official journey to Yellowstone by making the first stop at Palette Springs and Devil’s Thumb. View the rock formations where water flows in crisscrossing patterns down a cascade, creating a changing palette of hues of orange and brown. There’s a ramp that goes up and around the Mammoth Hot Springs area to look at all these formations. Some of parts of the terrace look otherworldly.
The site is quite different from the other attractions in Yellowstone, so definitely worth checking out!
Norris Geyser Basin
Visit the Norris Geyser Basin next, which is a fantastic introduction to geysers. There’s a boardwalk that loops around the entire area and takes about 2 hours to circle around and see everything. There are many famous sights here, such as the Steamboat Geyser and the Emerald Pool, to name a few. The walk around Norris Porcelain Basin especially was my favorite.
Bridge Bay Campground
As the sun begins to set, get to the campground before it gets dark. For this trip we chose Bridge Bay Campground, which is the campground right by Yellowstone Lake. There are also several campgrounds around, namely Canyon Campground and Grant Village Campground, in additional to all the other ones offered by National Park Lodges.
If you are a new to camping like me, don’t be worried. This campground has almost 500 spots but is very organized. As you check in at the entrance, they provide some very helpful instructions. You can also purchase firewood at check in, and there are plenty of other campers around if you ever need someone to help. Bathrooms are located in each arm and are very well maintained, clean and warm. Note that showers are not available at this campground, so be sure to plan for a short stay or find shower at another place.
Each camping spot has a fire pit, a bear proof locker, and a picnic table. You can set up your camp site here, make some food, take a short walk around, and it’s always interesting to see how people have crazy advanced setups! The evenings and mornings are very cold, so be sure to to cook and get ready for bed before the sun sets, and wake up early to beat the crowd in visiting the attractions.
Day 3: Yellowstone Canyon, Hayden Valley, Mud Volcano, West Thumb Basin
Start the day by driving over to Canyon Village. This is the starting place for the entire Yellowstone Canyon area. There’s a general store here if you need to stock up on any necessities, grab some sandwiches, or shop for souvenirs.
From Canyon Village, start at the Grand Viewing Point, then do the Red Rock Climb, a steep descent next to the Grand Viewing Point that gets you closer to the waterfall. It’s easy to go down but takes much effort to go back up, so this is certainly optional if you want to preserve some energy.
Journey to the other spots on the map for the Yellowstone canyon, including Inspiration Point, Artist Point, Brink of Lower Falls, and Brink of Upper Falls. These are all spots that present the canyon from different viewpoints. Brink of Upper Falls was my favorite, because you get to see, at a close range, the giant waterfall splashing into the valley below, a magnificently stunning view.
It definitely takes several hours to hit all the spots so expect to spend all of the morning within the area.
Past Hayden Valley is the Sulphur Caldron, where you can stop along the road for a quick view. Then visit the Mud Volcano area, which is one of the the coolest spots in Yellowstone. Definitely check out the Dragon Mouth Spring there, as it looks like a scene straight out of a movie. The site takes about an hour if you want to stop and look at every geyser.
West Thumb Basin
Next, get a breathtaking view of the Yellowstone lake and geysers by visiting the West Thumb Basin. This is a relaxing boardwalk along the Yellowstone Lake and numerous, beautifully colored pools. The Black Pool (and contrary to its name, is actually blue) is by far my favorite spot. It also takes about one hour to circle around the boardwalk.
As the sun is about to set again at this hour, make your way back to the campground to prepare dinner. For my trip, this is the second and final night at the campground. In my opinion, two days is the perfect duration for new campers like me to get a taste of camping while not tire ourselves out too much. It also made sense as we won’t return to the same area based on our mapped plan.
Day 4: Lone Star, Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, West Yellowstone
Lone Star Geyser
The Lone Star Geyser is absolutely a hidden gem. To get to it, park at the Lone Star Trailhead, and begin a long flat walk (around 45 minutes each way) to the Lone Star Geyser. If you have bikes, this is the perfect opportunity to use them.
At the entrance of the trail there’s a paper which documents the latest eruption times. The Lone Star erupts every 3-4 hours or so. It’s really a matter of luck how long you have to wait to see the eruption. We got so lucky that the Lone Star started erupting 10 minutes after we arrived. A couple there said they waited 2 hours. Another biker showed up unfortunately right after the eruption finished and missed the show. So plan to test your luck! The eruption is 100% worth the walk and the wait. It is way grander than the Old Faithful, lasts for a solid 20-30 minutes, and can be enjoyed with way less crowds.
Old Faithful Inn
Upper Geyser Basin
The Upper Geyser Basin is a massive basin right near the Old Faithful. The Old Faithful itself erupts every 90 minutes and draws a big crowd. It’s a little bit overrated in my opinion, but around the area and along the boardwalk, there are numerous beautiful geysers and springs that make the destination worth it. Some of my favorites include the Blue Star Spring, the Sponge Seyser, the Sawmill Geyser, and the Castle Geyser. If you visit in the late afternoon, around sunset, the whole landscape looks like it’s on a foreign planet and is absolutely mesmerizing. The boardwalk also leads to the Grand Geyser, which erupts only once a day. Definitely be prepared to walk a lot to make it all the way around and see everything.
West Yellowstone is a small town by the West entrance, about a 55 minute drive from Old Faithful and the west side attractions in Yellowstone. After camping for 2 nights, it’s nice to stay in an actual Airbnb in West Yellowstone. The town is quite small, but check out Ernie’s, a family owned sandwich shop where you can pick up breakfast and lunch before heading into the park for the next two days. Their breakfast bagel and Italian Sandwich are delicious.
Day 5: Fountain Paint Pots, Grand Prismatic Spring, Other
Fountain Paint Pots
Warm up to the day by visiting Fountain Paint Pots, which is near the next stop, the Grand Prismatic Spring. It is a quick loop but amazing with several active geysers that are frequently erupting. The Fountain Geyser here is definitely a great highlight.
Grand Prismatic Spring
This is the one place place that cannot be missed in Yellowstone. Our original plan was to avoid the crowds by going early in the morning. However, it’s cold in the morning and all we could see was steam and fog and therefore couldn’t get a good view at all. Plan on coming here later in the day, which we did at around noon. If you want the best view, take the Fairy Falls Trailhead and hike ~20 minutes up to the overlook. This is the perfect spot to get a full view of all the colors of the spring.
Artists Paint Pots
After the Grand Prismatic Spring, pay a visit to Artists Paint Pots. It comes with a short hike up the hill where you get to see some fascinating mud pots. These mud pots are like soup in the spring but become like stew in the summer. Watching the bubbles pop in the “stew” is a weirdly satisfying scene.
If you have extra time and want to see something other than geysers and basins at this point, make a quick stop at the Gibbon Falls. There is an overlook which shows the waterfall nicely.
Biscuit Basin/Black Sand Basin
If you actually want to see more basins and geysers, Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin are both near the Old Faithful area. You can technically walk here along the boardwalk from Old Faithful, but it is a quite far so driving over is more realistic. These are both quick spots to stop by and get a final dose of basins and geyser before wrapping up the journey.
Be sure to check out the Sapphire Pool there as well. It’s absolutely stunning!
A Final Note
If you like to spend more time in Yellowstone, there are plenty of other trails, activities and sights to see. Five days, however, is a great duration, and be sure to consider heading to the adjacent Grand Teton National Park next.
I hope this guide is helpful for planning your trip! It is merely a guide so change it up however you like to fit your schedule, interests and needs. Either way, if you visit Yellowstone, I hope you have a wonderful experience and encounter with nature.