This travel guide includes all the information you will need to plan your first vacation to Yellowstone National Park: best time to visit, lodging options, camping information, tips on traveling with kids and a day by day itinerary on things to do.
Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 and was the first national park created in the world.
With over 2 million acres, it is ranked 8th in size of all the National Parks in the US. The park crosses over 3 states (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) and its sheer size makes it impossible for one to see the entire park in one trip. For that reason, many people return to Yellowstone National Park to explore different places and trails.
Besides being vast in size, Yellowstone also has diverse landscapes with a variety of wildlife that can occupy an entire vacation. Every season brings different appeal and as nature intended, different phases of life.
But if you are planning to visit Yellowstone National Park on a tight schedule, it is possible to see a lot in 3 days, thanks to accessible overlooks and boardwalks which make seeing points of interest extremely easy.
Best Time to Visit
Yellowstone National Park hosts 4 million visitors each year and most visit it during the summer months. Because of that, the park is often crowded during this period and the traffic can be brutal. If you want a little more room to breathe, late Spring or September are the best times to visit. You may miss the wildflowers or the bison rut, but will also miss the majority of visitors the park sees every year.
We visited Yellowstone in the first week of September. Temperatures were still warm (70s) during the day and colder at night (40s), making it a pleasant time to be outdoors. Around main attraction sites, it was crowded but less so around lesser known geyser basins. We saw no major traffic and found parking in most of the attractions (except for Grand Prismatic Hot Springs).
Another week or two and we would have been able to see the fall colors of autumn and even get some snow.
Lodging in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park has several lodges and campgrounds at each direction of the park and the main road of the park is like a big 8. If you have the time and are flexible, the best option is to stay at multiple lodges during your stay so that you are not driving back and forth everyday as that can become quite cumbersome. If you are not flexible (if RVing for example) or if you are unable to book different lodges, the best option is to stay somewhere in the middle. We stayed in Bay Bridge Campground and enjoyed it very much, however, next time we may try booking Canyon Village which sits in a perfect location right in between the 8 loop.
No matter what type of accommodation you choose, make sure you stay inside the park. There are cities close to the East, West and North entrances, but the drive into the park would add significant miles and time to your already long day.
We booked super last minute (1-month in advance) and were fortunate to get a RV spot in Bridge Bay Campground. It was just big enough for our trailer and car to be parked next to each other, but it was a great place to camp.
One of the things that really impressed me about Yellowstone National Park is the amount of amenities in the campgrounds and lodges. There are stores for groceries and other camping necessities, flush toilets, showers ($4 per adult – kids under 5 are free) and laundry ($3.75 for washer and dryer). There are restaurants, water, dump and gas stations inside the park in several locations which makes staying and driving around Yellowstone really convenient.
Camping Tips for Yellowstone National Park
- When booking a campsite in Yellowstone National Park, you will be asked for your total length, which includes your tow vehicle. It’s a good idea to add a few feet when making a reservation. Our travel trailer is on the small side (22ft with the hitch) and we booked a 40ft site and were barely able to fit our trailer on the pad. We later found out it was a 20ft pad in which we could fit our trailer (barely) and our tow vehicle side by side.
- Book early, especially if you plan on staying for more than a week or plan to visit during the peak times. The campgrounds were full the entire time we were there.
- There is no need to purchase food for your entire stay outside the park. The offerings at the stores were better than expected (vegetables, fruits, meats, packaged dry foods, deli, etc…) and at similar prices than outside the park.
Tips for Traveling with Kids
- Keep them safe. Yellowstone is a dangerous place and I equate walking outside boardwalks as walking in a natural landmine. If you have small children, keep them contained in either a child carrier or a stroller.
- Take an umbrella stroller. I was really impressed by how accessible Yellowstone is for small kids and people with disabilities. The boardwalks are wide and some basins like the Old Faithful Basin are wide enough to accommodate a full stroller. Of course, during the busy times (summer), I wouldn’t advise having a stroller as it will impact the flow of pedestrians, but if you are visiting in a less busy time of the year, take advantage of that.
- Teach kids to respect wildlife, its boundaries and what to do when you encounter animals. Besides the natural dangers of Yellowstone, the park is home to several large size animals. We had a resident bison in our campground that just roamed around the tents and bears were seen less than 10 miles up the road on 3 consecutive days. For that reason, we were more careful to keep R close by even when around our RV. Always ask a ranger if bears have been spotted on a trail you plan to hike and take precautions to protect yourself and your family (carry and learn how to use bear spray).
- Because the long hours driving, make sure you have enough snacks, water and entertainment for kids while on the road.
- Don’t forget binoculars, most of the wildlife will be far away to see with the naked eye.
How to plan your day
How you plan your day at Yellowstone depends on what type of traveler you are, what you want to see and what restrictions you have.
When we travel, we like to see an abundance of sights and diverse environments, so we don’t mind spending the whole day driving and stopping in different places. We don’t try to see everything and will shy away from places that are overcrowded. Now that we have a toddler in tow, we try to balance the driving with plenty of stops to get R out of the carseat and take care of his needs.
Depending how many days you have, you might just do a highlights tour and if you have more time (2 weeks), you can take time to explore each area more in depth. The Yellowstone National Park website was really helpful for planning our trip. They have several videos that are worth watching. Also I downloaded their app which lets you bookmark places you want to see and the AllTrails app which allows you to research trails based on your hiking needs.
New to hiking? Check out my hiking gear essentials:
We spent 3 days in Yellowstone and most of it was spent inside the car. Next time we go back to Yellowstone, I plan to allocate at least 10 days to the park. That would give us time to actually go on some hikes and get to see parts of the park that are not super well known. However, if you are like us, bound by vacation time, then here is how to get the most of your 3 day visit to Yellowstone National Park.
Things to do in Yellowstone National Park
On our first day in the park, we drove the lower loop and visited the two geyser basins closest to our campground: West Thumb and Old Faithful Upper Basin.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb was probably my favorite of the geyser basins. It sits next to Yellowstone Lake and can be visited by taking a short boardwalk loop. You can get gorgeous shots of geysers with the lake as a background.
Probably the most well know geyser in Yellowstone National Park, this geyser performs like clockwork (hence its name) every 90 mins or so. There are boards showing its last and expected eruption times in all of the visitor centers. There is always a crowd to watch Old Faithful, but the boardwalk is so large, that unless you are trying to sit on the front row to watch it, there is really no need to arrive early and grab a spot. If you encounter higher volumes of visitors, you can always hike around Old Faithful to see it from the opposite side of the bleachers.
Old Faithful Inn
This place is truly a work of art. Built in xxxx and designed by a young architect, it is truly iconic. The Old Faithful Inn restaurant is also iconic, however the food is sub par at best, so take a picture, but avoid the restaurant.
The Upper Basin Geyser Loop
This loop takes you to Morning Glory and passes by several other geysers on the way. Each geyser has a sign in front of it with the last and future expected eruption times posted. These geysers tend to erupt later in the afternoon, so if you want to see more eruptions, go to this loop after 4pm. We didn’t know that on this trip and were there mid-day so we just walked to Morning Glory and on the way back were pleasantly surprised to see Mastiff erupt.
Mastiff had not erupted for several years, staying dormant until 2 weeks before our visit, but fortunate for us, decided to erupt again on the day of our visit. It was exhilarating and we felt blessed to be in the right place at the right time, because it was as the name suggests Massive! It also erupted for much longer than Old Faithful (over 30 minutes), much to the delight of the geyser lovers who had been waiting a couple weeks to see it erupt again.
On the second day we drove North towards Mammoth Hot Springs. The landscape changes so much from valley to alpine mountain environment back to thermal hot springs. It was a long day, but we were able to see a lot. One thing we would have done differently is to return to the campground via the same way we drove to Mammoth, taking the East side of the loop, as we didn’t really see anything of interest on the West Side and would have been able to see Lamar Valley if we took that route.
Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are your best bets to see herds of bison and elk in the park, however, individual or small groups can be see throughout the park. We didn’t get to visit Lamar Valley, but passed by Hayden a few times. Definitely try to make it during dawn and dusk for better chances to see animals grazing. The area just before Hayden Valley was were we saw bears for 3 consecutive days feeding on a Bison Carcass. It was too far to take a good picture of them, but you could see the bears with the naked eye and they were huge.
Upper and Lower Falls (Artist Point) of The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
One of my favorites sites in the park was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and its waterfall. You can see it from both a higher and lower view, the last requiring a moderate hike down to an overlook.
One of many waterfalls in the park which you can pull over and see it from an overlook, they are less known, but not less impressive.
Mammoth Hot Springs
On the edge of the North Entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs are another example of the diverse landscape of Yellowstone.
Because of the soft nature of the mineral composition that form these travertine formations, the Canary Springs change almost daily. It is interesting to see what water that is pushed out containing minerals can do to the landscape and vegetation over time.
Picnic gibbon falls
There are many areas to picnic in the park and one of our favorite was by Gibbon Falls. Secluded and set by the rushing water, it’s the perfect place to have lunch or snack and take a break from driving.
Our last day in Yellowstone was short since we were tired of driving around and wanted to spend some time relaxing around our campground before heading to Grand Teton National Park the next day.
Grand Prismatic Spring
We started our day driving North and then West to try to see Grand Prismatic Spring, however we could not find parking and didn’t feel like dealing with the crowds. In hindsight we probably should have since Grand Prismatic Spring is an iconic place in Yellowstone. But since we plan to visit it again, we will have a chance to see it in the future.
Biscuit geyser basin
A lesser known geyser basin situated on the west side of the lower loop, it was much easier to navigate without the crowds. It’s probably better known as the gateway to an easy hike to Mystic Falls.
Mystic falls hike
We did this hike impromptu while visiting Biscuit Geyser Basin. It’s a short hike, perfect for beginners that runs along a river and ends in a waterfall. If you are looking for a hike to do with kids, this is ideal as it is also shaded most of the way.
If you liked this post on things to do in Yellowstone National Park, then you might also enjoy these other posts:
- Travel Guide for Grand Teton National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Arches National Park
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Olympic National Park
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