If you’re looking for a 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone, we’ve got you covered!
Yellowstone National Park was on our bucket list for years. It was one of the national parks that neither Allan nor I had visited. I had seen pictures of the incredible scenery and wildlife but wanted to see it for myself. Of course, even if the pictures are filtered, this is one of those places that is even better in person!
I wasn’t sure how much time we needed there, so I used the wonderful tool of social media to get input from my friends who had already visited Yellowstone. A variety of answers came in, but two to five days was the general recommendation. I settled on three days and three nights. We did one half-day, followed by two full days, then another half-day.
WHEN TO VISIT YELLOWSTONE
The best time to visit, of course, depends on multiple factors, all of which vary from family to family. We needed to go when the kids were out of school and it was warm enough to tent camp. That didn’t leave a lot of options. Really, just one: summer. I researched weather patterns (it CAN snow in June and September), mosquitos, and crowds.
Consider the Weather
During our 3-day itinerary to Yellowstone, we wanted to hike, and we were tent camping, so we decided to go in July when it was warm. I had thought June might work if we went right after the kids got out of school. I imagined crowds would be a little lower in June. And they may have been, but we’re glad we ended up going in July since it ended up snowing in Yellowstone the third week of June!
Plan for Mosquitos
I had heard that you can get eaten alive by mosquitoes at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in the summer. Here’s the bad news: you can. But there’s also good news: they only come out at dawn and dusk. Timing your trip to avoid the mosquitos is nearly impossible since their appearance depends on a variety of factors like the amount and timing of snowfall/snowmelt, rainfall, and temperature. My best advice? Bring repellent, long pants, and long shirts. Even though we weren’t cold, covering up before the mosquitos blessed us with their presence definitely helped.
Expect Some Crowds at Some Locations
More than four million people visit Yellowstone every year, making it one of the most visited national parks in the United States. I was pleasantly surprised by the crowd volume or lack thereof. I was expecting the crowd levels to be more similar to Yosemite National Park. However, because Yellowstone is so spread out, it helps disperse the crowds.
Unfortunately, there is no public transportation system in this national park. Biking isn’t really feasible considering the abundance of wildlife, narrow roads, and sprawling nature of Yellowstone. Everywhere you go, you will need to drive your vehicle. I expected chaos and congestion, but, in reality, it was easy to find parking spots with the exception of the Grand Prismatic Spring trailhead.
I planned our 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone so that we would arrive on a Sunday and leave on a Wednesday, avoiding the extra weekend traffic.
Walking the boardwalk at West Thumb Hot Springs
MAKING RESERVATIONS AT YELLOWSTONE
After extensive research, I decided to stay at Canyon Campground. It was the most centrally located, so we could stay in the same spot all three nights and keep everything within relatively easy driving distance. I suggest reserving your spot as far in advance as you can. It’s not as difficult to secure a spot in Yellowstone as it is in Yosemite, which was nice.
Campsites can be reserved through the Yellowstone National Park Lodges website. Just click on the BOOK button to see your options.
YELLOWSTONE ITINERARY: DAY 1 (HALF DAY)
On the first day of our 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone, we entered the park through the west entrance in the afternoon, using our FREE 4th grader national park pass from the Every Kid Outdoors program. We loved seeing the beautiful, small section of Montana right before we entered the park. Allan is now dreaming of owning a ranch home in that area.
To be honest, after the gorgeous mountains, trees, tall green grass, and wildflowers entering Yellowstone from the west was a bit of a letdown. There were stunted trees and the vegetation was a little sparse. I’m not sure what I was expecting, considering it’s a geothermal area. Haha! Gradually, the scenery did change, ushering in more trees and greenery.
Gibbon Falls was our first stop! We parked the vehicle and made a short, easy walk down the path to view 84 feet of cascading falls.
Gibbon Falls on the west side of Yellowstone National Park
From there, we hopped back in the car, passed some mud pots, and drove on until we got to our home base for the next few days: the Canyon Campground. We set up camp and then headed down to Canyon Village. The Village is an area that has a couple of dining areas, a gift shop, a grocery store, and a visitor center.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park
Canyon Visitor Center
After walking around The Village, we made our way to the Visitor Center. We talked to rangers, looked at maps, and walked around looking at all the different displays. A love for learning runs deep in our family, so visitor centers are always a hit. Don’t forget to pick up a free Junior Ranger booklet if you have younger kids! My kids love this program!
At dusk, we grabbed our binoculars and cameras and drove down to Hayden Valley. It’s an eight-mile drive from the campground that can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on animal traffic. Bison and wildlife traffic jams are a very real thing in Yellowstone, and you just learn to live with it and enjoy it! Hayden Valley is a great place to see bison, elk, river otters, deer, and more! There are plenty of places to pull off the road and park.
It was the perfect way to end our first night in Yellowstone.
TIP: If you can afford it, I highly recommend you have several pairs of binoculars!
A bison cow and her calf
YELLOWSTONE ITINERARY: DAY 2 (FULL DAY)
We devoted Day 2, the first full day of our 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone, to exploring the northern loop of the park. Yellowstone National Park consists of two main driving loops, a northern loop, and a southern loop.
We ate a quick breakfast and headed north, straight toward Lamar Valley, knowing that the wildlife would be most active in the morning.
The drive to the valley was a beautiful one, up and over the summit with wildflowers all along the road. As we turned at Tower Junction and headed east toward Lamar Valley, we saw bald eagles, pronghorn antelope, and bison. We had hoped we would see wolves, but we didn’t get that lucky. In the morning, this area was devoid of park visitors, making the experience more magical.
A Pronghorn antelope in Hayden Valley
After a couple of hours in Lamar Valley, we headed northwest toward the Petrified Tree. This was a quick stop that we found a bit underwhelming. Would we stop here again? Probably not, but it’s a good site to stop by once, especially if your kids have never seen petrified wood.
The Town of Mammoth
Our next stop was the little town of Mammoth, located at the north end of the park. Fort Yellowstone was located in this area and many of the buildings are still in use today.
Usually, the town is inundated with elk. They lounge on the grass like they own the place. However, the day we were there, they were strangely absent and nobody seemed to know why.
Lunch in Mammoth
We had lunch at the “fancy” restaurant in town, the Mammoth Dining Room. My turkey salad looked (and tasted) like something you would get from a cafeteria. Edible, but not remarkable. Everyone agreed that the huckleberry lemonade, and ambiance, was their favorite part.
Lunch at the Mammoth Dining Room in Yellowstone
The Mammoth Visitor Center
We especially enjoyed the Albright Visitor Center in this quaint little town! It was small, and a little busy, but the displays, particularly the ones about the wildlife, were fascinating.
Next, we walked across the town square to Mammoth Springs. If you’re doubtful that you’re headed in the right direction, you can be assured you are going the right way if your nose tells you there’s a rotten egg factory nearby. Haha!
What you’re smelling is the easily identifiable smell of sulfur, which can be found in the geothermal areas throughout the park. If the hot mist blows toward you, it can get in your eyes and irritate them. It’s not dangerous, per se, but I wouldn’t call it incredibly enjoyable.
Some people rate Mammoth Springs high on their list of park favorites, but anything that smelled strongly of sulfur resulted in short visit times for our family. Is it interesting and unique? Absolutely. Would we go back? Yes! Ten to twenty minutes was enough time though, for our family to view the springs.
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park
We doubled back towards the campground after visiting Mammoth. Ordinarily, you could complete the whole loop. I really wanted to swim in Boiling River Hot Springs and catch a glimpse of bighorn sheep, but that portion of the road was closed due to construction.
As we passed Roosevelt Lodge (located right by Tower Junction), we saw a couple of cars pull over on the side of the road. Suddenly, more cars pulled over. Then we spotted it. There was a black bear, sitting in the meadow eating grass! We found a parking spot on the side of the road and watched. It was undoubtedly the highlight of our day!
Black bear sighting near Tower Junction in Yellowstone National Park
Next, we stopped by Tower Fall. There’s a short, accessible hike to a 132-foot waterfall. After the hike, we snagged an ice cream cone from the Tower General Store located at the trailhead, in the parking lot. It’s the little things!
Tower Fall in Yellowstone
Enjoying ice cream from Tower Fall General Store
After eating a bowl of chili for dinner back at the campground, we headed out again to Hayden Valley to watch the wildlife. Watching the sunset across the grassy fields where bison, elk, and antelope grazed is a peaceful way to end every day.
Elk munching on grass
One of many bison herds
YELLOWSTONE ITINERARY: DAY 3 (FULL DAY)
For the second full day of our 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone, we explored the southern loop of the park. This loop was busier than the northern loop as it’s closer to Grand Teton National Park and hosts some of the more well-known features of the park, like Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring.
Hot Springs at West Thumb and Yellowstone Lake
For our first stop, we toured the West Thumb geothermal area. It’s located right near Yellowstone Lake and is uniquely beautiful. We hiked the boardwalk that connects the different springs, listened to a ranger talk, and had a picnic lunch.
West Thumb Hot Springs near Yellowstone Lake
Old Faithful Geyser
From West Thumb, we headed west toward our next destination, Old Faithful. The crowds were definitely a little heavier here.
Old Faithful is one of six geysers in the park that erupts on a fairly consistent basis (hence the name, Old Faithful). The Old Faithful Visitor Education Center regularly posts the next predicted eruption time, plus or minus 10 minutes, allowing guests the opportunity to explore some of the nearby attractions via a boardwalk, meander through the gift shop, watch an educational video in the visitor center, or grab a bite to eat.
We arrived fairly close to the eruption time (view eruption prediction times here), so we didn’t have long to wait.
While it was a unique experience, for us, the animals ranked higher on the list when it comes to planning a 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone. It may have been that that area was so jampacked with people, and I’m a bit of an introvert.
Old Faithful Geyser erupts in Yellowstone
Old Faithful Inn
The Old Faithful Inn is a work of art and a beautiful piece of history. Stepping inside was like stepping back in time.
Of course, we managed to find an ice cream shop inside the lodge. Huckleberry ice cream is my new favorite ice cream. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend you do!
We took our ice cream to the second floor, where there’s a covered balcony that overlooks the Old Faithful geyser. There are dozens of handcrafted wooden tables and chairs for guests to use. The next time we visit Old Faithful, we decided the balcony would be the perfect spot to watch the eruption!
Other Geysers/Upper Basin
There are multiple trails in the Old Faithful/Upper Basin area. It was unusually warm when we were there (over 90°F), and nobody was super anxious to walk near steaming hot water. Also, we still wanted to visit the Lower Basin area. Some of the trails are short with boardwalks, and others are longer and would require the rental of bear spray. We decided to save some of those longer trails for our next visit to Yellowstone.
Grand Prismatic Spring
By the time we reached the Grand Prismatic Spring/Lower Basin parking lot in the mid-afternoon, the traffic was rather congested. The parking lot was full and cars were lined up waiting to get in. I don’t even remember how long it took to find a parking spot. A long time. A very long time. Long enough that I ended up getting out with the girls to take them to the restroom.
The colors at the Lower Basin were stunning and unlike anything we had ever seen before. It was also rather breezy, causing everyone to clutch their hats, lest they be snatched away by the wind. There were quite a few hats lying out of reach of the boardwalk that had escaped their owners’ heads.
Some people were playing in the river right at the trailhead, but I’m definitely a rule follower when it comes to signs like “Stay on the Boardwalk” and “Danger: Thermal Area”. Instead, we skipped wading in the river and headed back to camp for showers and dinner.
The unbelievable colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone
Yellowstone Falls and Yellowstone Canyon
One of the benefits of being so far north is that the sun doesn’t set until after 9 pm in July. So, after dinner, we headed out to explore Yellowstone Falls. It’s here that you’ll discover how Yellowstone got its name. The grandeur of this golden canyon is breathtaking.
Lower Yellowstone Falls
On our way there, we spied a grizzly bear in a meadow between the main road and the falls parking lot! We pulled into the parking lot and saw it saunter off into the woods. Of course, there were people running towards the bear, selfie sticks in hand. I still can hardly believe it.
What in the world would possess someone to chase a grizzly bear into the forest at dusk? Probably the same thing that possesses people to try to pet the bison that is hanging out by the restroom.
After spending a few days at Yellowstone, I’m actually surprised more people don’t get tossed by bison or attacked by bears. The park does an excellent job of reminding people that the animals are wild and to keep at least 25 yards away from bison and elk and 100 yards away from bears. But people will be people, and no doubt I pulled my fair share of stupid stunts, especially when I was a teen.
YELLOWSTONE ITINERARY: DAY 4 (HALF DAY)
Our last half-day was more of a travel day. We packed up in the morning and said goodbye to Canyon Campground. This was the end of our 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone.
We felt like we had time to see all the main attractions, and know that next time we return, we’ll explore more of the off-the-beaten-path!
First, we stopped by the village to visit the gift shop (tradition). Brandon got a national park keychain and the girls chose animals that reminded them of their time in Yellowstone. If your kiddos have completed at least seven pages of the Junior Ranger booklet, this morning is also a great time to drop by the visitor center and claim their Junior Ranger badge!
Just south of Hayden Valley is an area called Mud Volcano. There’s a half-mile loop that takes you on a boardwalk through boiling mud. And, yes, it smells like sulfur! There’s something strangely mesmerizing about watching mud simmer and boil.
We continued to drive south on the main road toward our next stop, Grand Teton National Park, where we spent two days. A beautiful scenic drive was the perfect way to end our time in Yellowstone. We stopped from time to time when we saw wildlife or wanted to take a picture. We saw more bison (surprise!) and ended up seeing some elk that were bedded down right next to the road!
Bison by the road and bison in the road…everywhere
PLAN YOUR YELLOWSTONE VISIT
This 3-day itinerary for Yellowstone allowed us to see all the major attractions in the park at a pace that fit our family! Yellowstone National Park was everything we dreamed it would be and then some. It became the girls’ favorite national park, mostly because of the abundance of wildlife.
Are you ready to plan your trip to Yellowstone National Park? Do you have any questions? I’d love to hear them and help answer them! Additionally, download my FREE printable packing list for Yellowstone before your trip!