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Yellowstone National Park is the oldest National Park in the US, and one of the most visited parks in the country each year. This is because the park has so much to offer visitors, from wildlife to geothermal pools. This Yellowstone itinerary will cover all of the best things to do during a visit to the park!
Getting to Yellowstone National Park
There are a number of airports relatively close to Yellowstone. The closest airport is Jackson Hole, which is actually located within Grand Teton National Park! From the airport you can reach Yellowstone in under an hour. The next closest airport is Bozeman, which is only 1.5 hours outside of Yellowstone, and has more frequent flights.
Some of the closest areas surrounding Yellowstone include West Yellowstone, Jackson, and Teton Village.
Yellowstone Itinerary: How many days do I need in Yellowstone?
What you want to do while in Yellowstone is obviously going to play a large role in how many days you’ll want to allot for the park. For instance, if you plan on doing any lengthier hikes or camping in the backcountry, you’ll need some more time. However, if you just want to hit the main sites in the park, I recommend 2-3 days for visiting Yellowstone.
Things to Note about Yellowstone:
Yellowstone is home to a ton of wildlife, which is actually what makes it such an incredible place to visit. There are countless bison, bears, wolves, and elk living in the park. However, for the safety of the animals and yourself, please always keep a safe distance from any wild animals. Never leave food unattended, and use designated bear storage for food when camping.
The average elevation of Yellowstone park sits at 8,000 feet. If you are arriving from sea level, it is not uncommon to feel symptoms of altitude sickness. If you are traveling to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton, I recommend visiting the Tetons first to help you adjust to the higher altitude. I Make sure to drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest, and avoid alcohol. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.
Yellowstone Park Fee
There is a fee of $35 to enter Yellowstone. If you plan on adding any other nearby parks to your Yellowstone itinerary, or spending multiple days in the park, then I recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful Pass. The pass costs $80 and gives you unlimited access to any U.S. National Park for an entire year. Once you’re in the park, all of the sites are completely free to visit.
There is extremely limited cell service and WiFi in Yellowstone. I managed to get a few bars of 3G around the following areas: Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and Lamar Valley. The Albright Visitor Center & Museum has WiFi available, however it is closed for the season due to COVID. Make sure to plan ahead and download any information that you need, including offline maps.
What to pack for a trip to Yellowstone?
If you’re working on putting together a Yellowstone itinerary, you’re going to need to figure out what to pack. The weather in Yellowstone can change drastically throughout the day, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re prepared with lots of layers. When we visited Yellowstone in mid-September it went from below freezing at night to 70-80s during the day.
- Comfortable shoes — whether you plan on hiking or not, you can still expect to do a ton of hiking while visiting Yellowstone, so it is super important to wear comfortable shoes. A pair of Nike running sneakers is always a good idea for maximum comfort. I recently purchased a brand new pair of boots from Columbia and absolutely love them. Plus, don’t forget a good pair of hiking socks!
- Warm Layers — I used my Patagonia Nano Puff almost every morning and evening while visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks. On extra cold nights, I could layer my Patagonia Better Sweater underneath for extra warmth.
- Workout Tops — I have a few workout tops from Patagonia that I absolutely love! They are performance tops so they dry super quickly. It can get sweaty walking along the many boardwalks in the park, as there is minimal coverage.
- Sunscreen — Yellowstone is located at over 8,000 ft. Be sure to protect your skin and always wear sunscreen when adventuring in the park. I use BioClarity SunFilter on my face and BioClarity SunShady on my body. This is an amazing vegan skincare brand that I’ve been using for years.
- Water bottle – if you get one thing out of this blog post it is that Vapur water bottle is the absolute best travel water bottle! I purchased my first one in 2015 and have been obsessed ever since. They fold up after use, making them perfect for travel and hiking adventures.
- Bear Spray — Yellowsone is located in bear country so it is so important to be bear aware. This includes carrying, and understanding how to use, bear spray. Bear spray is not allowed on most aircrafts, even in checked baggage, so you’ll need to pick it up when you arrive. You can find it at most gift shops, visitor centers, or rest stops in the Grand Teton/Yellowstone area.
- Reusable Cup – I brought a Stojo collapsible cup with me and it was perfect for morning tea (or coffee). It is super compact and it is a great way to reduce waste.
- Camera – an iPhone camera just can’t do justice to the park’s beauty, or capture the incredible wildlife in the park. All of my photos in this blog post were taken on a Nikon D7000 (an older model at this point). If you’re looking for an entry level camera, I also recommend the Sony A6000.
Best Things to Do in Yellowstone
Grand Prismatic Spring
A visit to Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most popular things to do on any Yellowstone itinerary. In fact, it is actually the most photographed geothermal pool in the entire park, and for obvious reasons!
From the West Entrance of Yellowstone, drive approximately 25 miles on the West Entrance Road and Grand Loop Road in order to get to the Midway Geyser Basin parking area.
It can be tricky to figure out the best time to visit Grand Prismatic Spring. It is going to be the least crowded in the early morning, but that is actually the worst time to photograph it. In the mornings the area is quite misty, so it can be difficult to take a good photo. The early afternoon is best for photos, but expect crowds!
Once you’ve walked along the boardwalk and seen Grand Prismatic up close, make sure to hike up for a great view from above. The parking for this trailhead is located just a few minutes south on the right hand side. Start at the Fairy Falls Head trailhead to reach the overlook. This is just a short climb up, but you can also continue to do the entire Fairy Falls Head hike if you have the time.
Norris Geyser Basin
We actually visited Norris Geyser Basin twice during our time in Yellowstone, so it was only fair that I included it on this Yellowstone itinerary.
Norris Geyser basin actually consists of two distinct areas: the Porcelain Basin and the Back Basin. Porcelain Basin has a shorter boardwalk, only 3/4-mile around the geysers. The Back Basin, however, is a 1.5-mile loop trail of boardwalks.
Despite seeing so many geysers throughout our time in Yellowstone, each one felt so different. I loved all of the different colors, and the way that the background totally changes the mood of the place. According to the Yellowstone official page, this is the “hottest, oldest, and most dynamic” geyser basin in the park.
The Norris Geyser Basin is located just 20 minutes west of the Canyon area, so the two areas can easily be combined.
Old Faithful Geyser
I’m just going to say it, I don’t get the hype. We attempted to visit Old Faithful Geyser twice during our visit to Yellowstone. The first time was at midday at the already massive parking lot was filled with hundreds of cars. It was impossible to find a parking spot. However, even if I could have found a spot, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable staying and hanging around the large crowd during the current pandemic.
We came back the next morning around sunrise, as we were passing Old Faithful on our way back to Grand Teton. Unfortunately, the geyser decided to erupt 15 minutes early, so we only caught a glimpse of it from the car as we were pulling up. The 1 mile loop around the geyser offers some interesting sights as well, but make sure to visit early to avoid the crowds.
Tip: the geyser only erupts once every hour and a half. Make sure to check the schedule ahead of time and arrive early!
Hayden Valley is another prime wildlife spotting area that should be on your Yellowstone itinerary. This picturesque valley is located super centrally, so it is easy to combine a visit with other attractions. You are almost guaranteed to see some type of wildlife here, but you may need to wait a bit. We saw a pack of wolves eating the corpse of an elk around the riverbank.. so we didn’t stick around for too long.
If you want to avoid the crowds, come in the morning. The afternoon and early evenings at Hayden Valley tend to be super crowded.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
The West Thumb Geyser Basin is situated overlooking Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in North America that sits above 8,000 feet. The geyser basin has a boardwalk with an outer loop and an inner loop, both of which can be reached easily from the parking lot. The outer loop is half a mile long, while the inner loop is only a quarter mile long. I recommend doing a loop around each.
Fun fact: the colors that you see in the pools are actually created by heat loving microorganisms! So when you see green and brown colors, you can assume that various organisms are living in the water. When the water is bright blue, however, it often means that it is too hot to sustain many living organisms. In this case the blue color is a reflection.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Spring is located in the northwest corner of the park, close to the North Entrance of the park. The boardwalks at Mammoth Hot Springs get quite busy so I recommend visiting in the morning if possible. The entire boardwalk is about 1.75 miles.
Want to get a better idea of what the hot springs look like right now? Check out the livestream webcams of the hot springs?
Just north of the Mammoth Hot Springs you’ll find the Albright Visitor Center. Here you can find more information about the park and WiFi connection. Note, the center is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
You’ll also find a small market, a gas station, and a cafe in the village of Mammoth.
Lamar Valley (a must-do on any Yellowstone itinerary)
Lamar Valley is an absolute must on any Yellowstone itinerary if you’re trying to see some wildlife! It is a bit difficult to get to at the moment, as the road from Canyon Junction to Tower Junction is closed, but I promise that it is worth the drive!
We arrived around 6:30am, so we had time to make a cup of tea in our van before the sun came up. I recommend getting there early as parking at the good lookout spots tends to fill up.
Although we didn’t get the best view of the pack of wolves that were way out in the distance, due to a lack of binoculars or crazy fancy camera zoom lens, we got quite the bison show! We were parked at a standstill in the road for about 25 minutes as approximately 150 bison passed and circled the traffic. It was such a surreal experience, watching these massive animals from so close.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
A visit to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is definitely one of the best things to do in Yellowstone National Park. The area is broken into the North Rim and the South Rim.
The North Rim Drive begins 1.2 miles south of Canyon Junction. On this road you can find 4 different distinct viewpoints: Brink of Lower Falls, Lookout, Inspiration Point, and Grand View. I recommend the short hike at Brink of Lower Falls, that will descend quickly with a number of switchbacks on the short 0.4 mile trail. The trail leads right to the top of the Lower Falls, for a magnificent view!
One way to see all of the viewpoints is to hike the 8 miles along the North Rim trail, however it is also possible to see them all driving.
The South Rim Drive begins 2.3 miles south of Canyon Junction and offers views of both the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. Make sure to check out Artist Point and Uncle Tom’s Point. Uncle Tom’s Point is actually closed at the moment, but you can still head right from the trailhead for about 1 mile for some great views!
I highly recommend the quick 2.5 mile Point Sublime trail. It is easily one of the best, quick hikes in Yellowstone. While the point itself only offers mediocre views, the trail itself is along the ridge, with sweeping views of the canyon below. If you only do one hike in Yellowstone, make sure it is this one!
Camping in Yellowstone
Unlike Grand Teton National Park, there are a number of campsites in Yellowstone that you can reserve ahead of time. However, sites book up super early to make sure to reserve a few months in advance. We got lucky with a cancellation and were able to snag a spot at Canyon Campground for our first night in the park. If you are able to get multiple nights here, it can easily be your base for the entire trip to Yellowstone, as it is super central. Here is a first of campgrounds that you can reserve ahead of time:
- Bridge Bay
- Grant Village
There are also a number of campsites that are first-come, first-serve, but you’ll want to arrive super early. We arrived at Indian Creek Campground by 5am to grab a site for two nights. It felt a bit ridiculous when we were the first to arrive, especially since the campground office doesn’t open until 8am, but by 5:30/6am there was a line of about 30 cars/RVs. Indian Creek is not as central, as it is located about 20 minutes south of Mammoth Hot Springs, however it was a great site and only costs $15/night. Plus, with the road from Canyon Village to Tower-Roosevelt closed for the season, this campground is closer to Lamar Valley, one of the best sunrise spots. Of course, if you want to be the closest to Lamar Valley, you should check out Slough Creek or Pebble Creek Campground.
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