Post Summary: The best way to see Yellowstone in 4 days including additional Yellowstone itinerary options for shorter and longer stays.
Trying to create a Yellowstone itinerary and wondering where to begin? There are so many things to consider when visiting Yellowstone that it can quickly become overwhelming when trying to plan your trip.
To save you some frustration and time, we’ve come up with a detailed guide on how to spend 4 days in Yellowstone. Largely based upon our own adventures and mishaps after spending a week in the park, we want to help you navigate the pitfalls and give you our tried and true tips for the best way to see Yellowstone in 4 days.
We’ve also included Yellowstone itinerary suggestions for 1-5 days in the park for anyone who will be staying for shorter or longer stays in the park.
Everything You Need To Pack For A Yellowstone Vacation
10 Things To Do In Yellowstone With Kids
The Best Airbnbs Near Yellowstone For Every Budget
Yellowstone Travel Guide: Everything You Need To Know BEFORE You Leave
Yellowstone Off The Beaten Path Gems To Explore
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Yellowstone National Park Itinerary Guide
Before we jump into the 4 days in Yellowstone itinerary, let’s take a moment to talk about all the necessities to planning a Yellowstone vacation. Questions like…when’s the best time to go to Yellowstone, where’s the best place to stay in Yellowstone, what’s the best entrance to the park, and how do I get there?
I’m going to briefly answer some of those questions, but I highly suggest you check out our in-depth post on planning a trip to Yellowstone. It includes detailed answers to all those questions and more, plus tips on how to avoid the infamous crowds. Yellowstone is colossal, and understanding the park before you go will make a big difference in how much you can enjoy the park. Preparation is everything!
Best Time To Go To Yellowstone?
Our Yellowstone itinerary is best suited for the months of May to October when the park is the most accessible. We visited in late August, when the crowds are at their highest, but we never had a problem finding a quiet spot for ourselves. The shoulder months of June and September are considered wonderful times for their pleasant weather and reduced crowds.
How Many Days To Spend In Yellowstone?
Can you do Yellowstone in 2 days? Yes, but it wouldn’t be our first choice. We’ve created a Yellowstone 4 day itinerary because that’s enough time to get in all the park’s main highlights with room for breath and a little bit of spontaneity. If you have more time and are a nature lover, spend as much time as your schedule and budget can allow. Yellowstone is overflowing with things to do and places to discover. We traveled to Yellowstone with a toddler, so we spent seven days in the park to allow us time to move as slowly as we needed.
Where to stay in Yellowstone?
Because of its enormous size, it’s best to stay within the park. A good idea is to stay in two different park sections to cut down on driving time and allow you to sleep in a little bit.
A good way to situate yourself is to lodge at Old Faithful Lodge or Inn and Mammoth Springs Hotel. Located on opposite ends of the park, it allows you to cover Yellowstone’s upper and lower loops. If you don’t want to stay in two different places, the best option is to stay at Canyon Lodge, the most central hotel and the most updated hotel. You can find rates and availability for all the hotels located in the park here.
Camping in the park is also a great way to have an adventure and save money. We did car camping with a toddler and loved it! You can learn more about campgrounds in the park here. We stayed at Madison and Bridge Bay campground and had a great time.
PRO TIP: Lodging inside the park is VERY popular. Reservations open up a year in advance, and all the good spots are reserved quickly. If you know you’re traveling to Yellowstone, book your hotel right away.
If you waited too long and can’t snag a room or if lodging in the park is too expensive (it’s pretty pricey, you guys), then finding an Airbnb rental or hotel outside of the North or West entrance is your best bet. You can check out our post on the best Yellowstone Airbnbs for every budget to see what we recommend.
How to Get to Yellowstone?
If you are flying into Yellowstone, the closest airport is in Jackson, Wyoming at the Jackson Hole Airport. The airport is expensive so most people choose to fly in to Salt Lake City due to cheaper flight options and easier flights. The drive from Salt Lake City is about five hours to the West Yellowstone entrance.
Okay, we’re going to dive into the itinerary now. If you have more questions about how to plan a trip to Yellowstone and want more in depth answers to the questions above, be sure to check out our Yellowstone trip planning post.
Yellowstone National Park Itinerary: 4 Days of Adventure
I’ve structured the Yellowstone trip itinerary so that each day focuses on one area of the park. The above map shows you that Yellowstone has one main road shaped like a squiggly number 8 called The Grand Loop. The map also shows you estimated driving times for different sections of the road.
These are general estimates, and you may be able to cut some time off the driving times estimated in the picture. However, Yellowstone is unpredictable, and road closures and animal traffic jams will often cause backups. We visited the park and dealt with road closures due to a fire, road work, and an overturned fuel truck accident. Believe it or not, events like these are NOT uncommon. When it comes to Yellowstone, hope for the best…but try not to get too pissed off when it doesn’t work out the way you wanted!
IMPORTANT: The road from Canyon to Tower-Roosevelt is closed for roadwork until 2022.
I’ve also included the best hotels and areas to situate yourself out of. These are suggestions only and won’t be right for everyone’s unique travel situation. This Yellowstone itinerary can easily be reversed and jumbled around to suit your needs.
Day 1: Yellowstone Itinerary
Geysers and hot springs and fumaroles, oh my!
Yellowstone National Park is famous for being on top of a super volcano, making it one of the most fascinating geothermal sights in the world. Today…you’ll geek out on all that science. If you need an education on what the heck a fumarole is, you can download the official Yellowstone National Park App to get easy to digest answers and background to what you’ll be visiting.
PRO TIP: The best way to avoid crowds is to start your days early. I would aim to be in your car and driving by 7:30 AM. I KNOW! That seems so early. These beautiful sights can quickly become not so beautiful when you’re sharing space on a tiny boardwalk with hundreds of people. You will not regret seeing Yellowstone at 7:00 AM when it’s chilly outside, and the steam rising off the hot springs is even more pronounced. It’s magical.
MORNING: Get up early to beat the crowds and head to the Old Faithful area to see the park’s most famous geyser. While most geysers are somewhat hard to predict, Old Faithful reliably goes off every 92 minutes or so. Afterward, take the Upper Geyser Basin Loop located behind the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center to see a great assortment of hot springs, additional geysers, and fumaroles. This easy 3-mile loop is a great introduction to the geothermal features of Yellowstone. Be sure to look at the geyser prediction times on the Yellowstone App or the visitors center so you can time your walk around potentially seeing geyser eruptions. (2 to 4 hours)
Optional: Another fun way to see Old Faithful erupt is to watch from above. An easy 1.5-mile hike to Observation Point gives you a great view of Old Faithful. While not completely off the beaten path, this viewpoint usually has less people than down below.
MIDDAY: Head over to Grand Prismatic Spring to see the 3rd largest hot spring in the world. Located at Midway Geyser Basin, you can either view Grand Prismatic from above or at its level. I think viewing it from above is better, but it requires a hike uphill, so viewing from below is a great option for anyone with less mobility. It’s worth noting that the boardwalks at Grand Prismatic have no guardrails, so I wasn’t getting NEAR them with my accident-prone toddler. If you have a young one, bring a toddler carrier or stroller for peace of mind. If you want to view from the boardwalks, you’ll park at the Midway Geyser Basin.
If you want to view from above, you’ll drive 1 mile south of the Midway Geyser Basin to park at the Fairy Falls Trail Parking Lot. You’ll take a moderate 1.2-mile uphill hike to the viewing platform. We suggest continuing from the viewing platform and doing the full hike to Fairy Falls, a beautiful 200-foot waterfall. From the trailhead, the hike is 5 miles out and back. (1-3 hours)
Optional: If you want an even longer hike that offers more solitude, add 1.6 miles to your hike with an easy walk to Imperial Geyser. We like to use the All Trails app for trail maps. Download it before you leave, and you can use that for directions.
GOOD TO KNOW: Grand Prismatic is popular and will be crowded if you’re visiting in the summer months. While we suggest arriving early to other popular spots, Grand Prismatic is best seen under the full light of the midday sun. If you visit in the early hours of the morning, you might not be able to see much of the hot spring due to the cold Yellowstone mornings producing more steam.
AFTERNOON: For the afternoon, I’m going to give you three different options to choose that you can pick based on location and what you would like to explore.
Option 1: Take the one-way southbound scenic drive on Firehole Canyon Drive. Along the drive, stop at the Firehole Swim Area to take a dip in the waters or simply sit back and hang out at this lush swimming hole. This is by no means a secret spot, so if it’s summer, it will be crowded. There is no parking lot, so you’ll have to find a spot along the road. With boulders to climb and water to splash around in, it’s well worth the parking issues! In the height of summer, the water temp ranges from 70-80 degrees. Be sure to check before you go to see if the swim area is open. It often closes due to unsafe swimming conditions. There are no lifeguards, and as with everything in the park, you do it at your own risk. (1-3 hours)
Option 2: Head North from Midway Geyser Basin to visit the Norris Geyser Basin to take in more geysers, hissing fumaroles, and hot springs. Norris Geyser Basin is made up of Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. If you get lucky, you’ll be able to see a few geysers go off. (1.5 – 2 hours)
Option 3: Head South to West Thumb Geyser Basin. This beautiful basin stands out for its stunning location beside Yellowstone Lake. We enjoyed visiting this basin and taking in the beauty of the lake. While not as grand as the other basins, it was interesting to see geysers bubbling in the lake. (1 hour)
Day 2: Yellowstone Itinerary
Canyons and Waterfalls and Lakes, Oh My!
PRO TIP: If visiting in the summer, you’re practically guaranteed to have crowds at the popular spots. An easy way to find some peace is to go on a hike. Most visitors to Yellowstone never venture beyond the lookout points. We visited in August and NEVER had a problem finding a quiet spot for ourselves.
MORNING: Wake up early again to see the amazing Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Start at the South Rim, an out and back drive that offers some of the best views of the waterfalls. Start by taking Uncle Tom’s Trail down to the base of the Upper Falls. In truth, it’s not so much a “trail” as it is 328 steps down a metal staircase. The reward is great at the bottom, but don’t forget you will have to walk back up! If you’re there at the right time, you can often see rainbows in the falls.
Afterward, drive up to Artist Point to get one of the Lower Falls’ best vantage points. A five-minute walk from the parking lot, it’s a great choice for anyone who isn’t looking for a long hike or is short on time. You can walk over, take in the view, snap some great photos, and head to the next destination. If you like hiking, we suggest staying at Artist Point and taking the Point Sublime Trail. It’s an out and back 2.7-mile hike that takes you to a lookout point. To be honest, the best parts of the hike are in the beginning when you walk along the rim of the canyon and get stellar views. If you’re not up for the entire hike, just do the beginning and turn around when you’re done. With steep drop-offs and no guard rails, we don’t recommend this hike for young kids (toddler to kindergarten) unless you’re wearing or holding them.
Next, you’ll drive North to access the North Rim Drive. The North Rim Drive is a one-way drive that offers different views and hikes of the canyon. The best part of the North Rim is the short but arduous descent to the Brink of the Lower Falls. While only .7 miles long, it’s a steep descent of switchbacks that lead you right to the mouth of the waterfall. Going down isn’t the problem; it was the trek up that had us feeling it in our legs! It’s well worth the burn though. Being that close to the waterfalls is phenomenal. We highly suggest it!
From there, you can drive the rest of the one-way road and stop off at Lookout Point, Grand View, and, lastly, Inspiration Point. They’re all lookout points that offer different views of the canyon and waterfalls. If you’re ready to move on at this point, it’s fine to give it a pass and continue with your day. If you still can’t get enough, then stop at each one to continue to marvel at nature’s artwork. Generally, Lookout Point is considered the best of the three.
The North Rim Drive will lead you right to Canyon Village where you can get gas, pick up some lunch, or a small snack before you head out for the rest of your day.
The morning at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone should take roughly 3-4 hours, depending on how many hikes and lookouts you do. If you don’t do any of the walks and just do the lookouts, it can probably be done in 1-2 hours. If you’re able to do a walk, we highly recommend it!
MIDDAY: After exploring the Canyon, you’ll move South to drive through the Hayden Valley. The valley is a popular spot for Bison to congregate, and you’ll often spot big herds of them on the roadside. Even if you don’t, it’s a gorgeous drive and worth doing to take in the spectacular scenery. On the other hand, there might be a lot, which means you’ll run into bison traffic (from cars stopping to look at the bison or bison standing in the middle of the road).
If you do spot bison and you want to view them, make sure to pull over to a safe spot on the side of the road (don’t be the person who causes traffic!) and keep your distance from the bison. Always adhere to Yellowstone’s rules to stay 25 yards away from all animals and 100 yards from wolves and bears.
Continue South down the Grand Loop road and stop off at Mud Volcano for a quick jaunt. Many are hit or miss about this site. However, if you’re still geeking out on all the science fun at Yellowstone, you’ll probably enjoy a stop at Mud Volcano to see different features like Sizzling Basin, Churning Caldron, Black Dragon’s Caldron, and Dragon’s Mouth Spring. Where some will be unimpressed by boiling mud, others will be delighted.
Mud Volcano is most popular for sights like Dragon’s Mouth Spring, which hisses steam and makes loud belching sounds. It’s a quick stop and can be done in 30 minutes.
AFTERNOON: For your second afternoon in Yellowstone, I’ll give you a few options to consider.
OPTION 1: Drive down to Fishing Bridge to do one of Yellowstone’s best hikes, Storm Point. This 2.3-mile hike is an easy loop but packs a punch. When you get to a fork in the trail, we suggest going right to go deeper into the Lodgepole Pine Forest. After a while, the path opens up into the incredible shoreline of Yellowstone Lake. The hike can be done in under an hour, or you can take your time to sit back and relax as we did. Bring a picnic blanket like this and sit in the powdery white sand or wade in the frigid waters. Keep your eyes peeled for marmot, bald eagles, pelicans, ducks, and bison. Spot obsidian in the sand and bask in the largest high elevation lake in the US. This was one of our favorite things we did in Yellowstone! Great way to get away from the crowds.
OPTION 2: If you’re looking to relax and want to take in Lake Yellowstone without doing a hike, you can either drive to the Fishing Bridge Area and find a spot to park where you can bask in the glory of Lake Yellowstone or the Yellowstone River. A great off the beaten path beach area is Sand Point. A 1/4 mile trail through pine trees will take you to a sandy obsidian beach. Bring a book, camping chairs, a fishing rod, or some snacks, and end the day wading and basking in Lake Yellowstone.
OPTION 3: If you didn’t make your way to West Thumb Geyser Basin yesterday and are curious to see it, you can drive down to check it out.
The end of Day 2 is a good day to move on to a new choice of lodging. You’ll see our recommendations for where to stay for the night of Day 2 in our Day 3 recommendations.
GOOD TO KNOW: Can you swim in Lake Yellowstone or other bodies of water? The short answer is yes; you are allowed to swim in the lake. The national park service on the Yellowstone site states, “if you choose to swim in Yellowstone’s lakes or rivers, you do so at your own risk.” However, the park doesn’t advise swimming in the lake or rivers due to it being VERY cold and potentially dangerous currents. For further clarification, I asked a park ranger, and he told me I could swim anywhere I wanted. He then pointed to a scummy pond and said I could go in there if I wanted to. (ERRR…. no thanks). He said unless it explicitly states that no entrance is allowed, you’re free to wade and romp in the waters. If you’re curious, I did wade and submerge in the shoreline of Lake Yellowstone. It was very cold!
DAY 3: Yellowstone Itinerary
Bison and bears and wolves, oh my!
Today, you’ll explore the other thing Yellowstone is famous for…wildlife. Yellowstone offers the opportunity to spot black bears, grizzly bears, bison, wolves, elk, foxes, coyotes, moose, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep in their natural habitat. Since you’re visiting the animals in their home, you’ll have to work a little harder to find them, but that’s part of the fun!
MORNING: Wake up early and drive to the Lamar Valley, the United States’ premier destination for spotting wolves and bears. If you are serious about spotting wildlife, you’ll need to be there at dawn. If you’re only semi-serious, I still suggest you get there in the morning, but you can aim to get there around 8:00 AM. You can drive the valley and stop at lookouts to see if you can spot wildlife. You can also opt to get out of the car to do some exploring and hiking.
Here are some good hiking options in the Lamar Valley:
Trout Lake: A beautiful 1.2-mile round trip hike that gains 150 feet in elevation, so while it’s short, it’s a moderate hike that will leave you feeling like you worked for it.
Slough Creek Trail: This trail is a historic wagon road that leads you to three different meadows. If you want a moderate hike, you can hike to the first meadow for a 3.4 mile round trip hike. It’s 4.3 miles (one-way) to the 2nd meadow and 5 miles (one-way) to the 3rd meadow.
Specimen Ridge Day Hike: A strenuous 3-mile round trip hike that offers breathtaking views of the Lamar Valley.
If getting out of your car and hiking, it’s ESSENTIAL to have bear spray with you. This is true whenever you are hiking in Yellowstone. Make sure to buy bear spray before you arrive and that you know how to use it. This is the bear spray we use. If you’ll be hiking a lot, get the one with the holster. Trust me; it’s much better than holding it. You can learn more about bear safety here.
For a full list of everything you need to bring to Yellowstone, including the best binoculars for spotting wildlife, check out our post on the essential Yellowstone packing list.
Depending on if you’ll be going on a hike, I would allot 1-3 hours for the Lamar Valley.
MIDDAY: Head west to the Mammoth area to check out Mammoth Hot Springs. Before you get to Mammoth, you can opt to stop at Wraith Falls, an easy .6 mile hike to a 79-foot waterfall. Skip it and move on to Mammoth if you’re short on time. The travertine landscape of Mammoth Hot Springs might be the most unique geothermal sight in Yellowstone. The dynamic colors and land formations make it seem like you’re on another planet. The upper and lower boardwalks take about one hour to explore. The most popular sight is Minerva Spring for its vivid colors and intricate formations. After strolling the boardwalks, you can visit the small village of Mammoth and pick up some ice cream or try to spot elk that often hang out by the visitor center.
AFTERNOON: To end the day, I’ll give you a couple options to expore:
OPTION 1: End your day with a warm soak at the Boiling River. This is the only hot spring in Yellowstone you are allowed to enter. Located near the North Entrance to the park, this heavenly respite is a perfect way to cap your evening. Parking is sparse, so you might have to park on the side of the road. Don’t forget to bring a pair of swim shoes!
OPTION 2: If you weren’t able to make it to Norris Geyser Basin on the first day, you can opt to drive down and check out the geyser basin.
DAY 4: Yellowstone Itinerary
Hiking and exploring and chilling, oh my!
BEST PLACE TO STAY: Same as Day 3
For your last day in Yellowstone, I’m going to give you a few options to consider. You’ve now done all the main highlights of Yellowstone, so you have the choice now to relax on your last day or go on an epic hike. This last day is also a great day to revisit anything you weren’t able to get to from Day 1-3 due to time constraints. Here are some fantastic choices:
Hike Mount Washburn: This famous hike is a strenuous 6 miles round trip hike. It offers 360-degree views at an elevation of 10,243 feet. It’s a great place to spot bighorn sheep and…grizzly bears. Bring your bear spray.
Hike Bunsen Peak: This 4.6 miles round trip hike is a moderately strenuous hike that offers panoramic views. You’ll be able to see Mammoth Hot Springs, the Yellowstone River, and more on this outstanding day hike. The last stretch is difficult, but the reward is worth the work.
Boating on Lake Yellowstone: Rent a boat at Bridge Bay Marina and spend a day out on the water.
Horseback Riding: Saddle up and experience Yellowstone on a horse. Horseback tours are typically two hours long.
Surprise Yourself: This might be my favorite option. Now that you’ve done the highlights and have a general understanding of the park’s layout – get in your car and explore! Go down a scenic road and see where it takes you. Try out a scenic road like Firehole Lake Drive and see if it excites you. Pull over when you see a stunning landscape and drink it in. Set out some camping chairs in front of the Madison River and watch the bison or the fly fishers.
There are countless off the beaten path gems in Yellowstone to discover. So many times, we would drive down a random road and be stunned at the scenery around us. On our last day, we found a beautiful spot and sat by the river, wading and eating tasty snacks for hours. It remains one of my favorite memories of Yellowstone.
That’s our complete 4 day Yellowstone itinerary! Read on for our suggestions for what to do with 1-5 days in Yellowstone.
Yellowstone Itineraries 1-5 Days
1 Day Yellowstone Itinerary
Many people hit up the park on a National Park itinerary that includes Glacier National Park and Grand Teton National Park. A day trip to Yellowstone will be jam packed so it’s best to hit up a few highlights and revisit the park when you can.
If you only have one day in Yellowstone, here is our suggestion for what to see. The order can and should be reworked to suit where you are starting from.
Old Faithful + Upper Geyser Basin (2 hours)
Grand Prismatic from Overlook (1.5 hours)
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – drive both roads and check out Artists Point and either Uncle Tom’s Trail or the Brink of the Lower Falls (1.5 to 2 hours)
Drive through Hayden Valley (1 hour)
*If your Yellowstone road trip itinerary has you heading to Glacier NP next, consider skipping the Grand Canyon and the drive through Hayden Valley and instead head North, visiting Norris Hot Springs and Mammoth Hot Springs to exit out the North Entrance of the park.
Yellowstone 2 Day Itinerary
If you have 2 days in Yellowstone, I would put breathing room in-between Old Faithful Geyser/ Grand Prismatic and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Old Faithful + Upper Geyser Basin
Grand Prismatic Overlook and Fairy Falls Hike
Norris Geyser Basin
Mammoth Hot Springs
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Storm Point Hike
West Thumb Geyser Basin
Yellowstone 3 Day Itinerary + Additional Days
If you have 3 days in Yellowstone, I would follow our original Yellowstone 4 day itinerary above and drop the fourth day. If you have even more time and will be in Yellowstone for 5 days or longer, I would consider adding some time at Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming. Grand Teton National Park may be a stone’s throw from Yellowstone, but it’s a completely different National Park. Well worth a visit. One to two days at Teton NP is more than enough time.
Enjoy America’s first National park! We hope you have a sublime 4 days in Yellowstone National Park. If you have any other questions about how to plan your Yellowstone itinerary, let us know in the comments below.
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