The Ideal 3-Day Yellowstone Itinerary for an Epic National Park Trip

Cathy Bennett Kopf Avatar
Photo credit: Cortney Fries

Trying to plan your Yellowstone itinerary? It’s not easy, considering the massive size of America’s first National Park. You’d need a few lifetimes to explore all 2.2 million acres. While it’s possible to take a one-day guided tour that will allow you to say “I’ve been to Yellowstone,” you really need to spend a few days if you want to see the popular sights like Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs and still have time to wander off the beaten path. Use this three-day Yellowstone itinerary as a jumping off point for planning your bucket list Yellowstone road trip, one of the best vacations in the USA.

Yellowstone Itinerary: Three Days for Geysers, Bison and More

By spending two nights and three days in Yellowstone National Park, you’ll be able to see Old Faithful erupt at least once. Because you’re sleeping over, you have a chance to get up very early in the morning, the best time for wildlife sightings. And three days give you time to linger at waterfalls or take your hikes at a leisurely pace.

If you’ve got extra time, extend this three-day Yellowstone itinerary to fit your vacation. Stay longer in Yellowstone to add a fishing or rafting excursion. Or, if you’re on an extended road trip, include Yellowstone as one leg on a National Parks trip that includes Glacier National Park, the Grand Tetons or both! Depending on your plans, you can stay in one of these hotels near Yellowstone.

This suggested Yellowstone itinerary is just that…a suggestion. Adjust as needed to fit your wants and needs. Let’s get started by talking about Yellowstone’s entry points.

Read More: The Complete Guide to Visiting Yellowstone National Park

Things to do in Yellowstone National Park - stop for a photo of the entrance sign.
Stop for a photo at the Yellowstone National park entrance sign. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Choose Your Yellowstone Entrance

Yellowstone National Park is in three states (Wyoming, Montana and Idaho) and has five entrances: West, South, East, North and Northeast. And, generally, the only one that’s open year round is the Northeast entrance on the Montana border. So, if you’re planning a winter visit to Yellowstone, you’ll need to plan your trip accordingly.

The SheBuysTravel three-day Yellowstone itinerary is designed as a one-way road trip itinerary through the park, beginning at the East entrance near Cody, Wyoming, traveling west and spending two nights’ lodging in the park. Staying in the park gives you full days for touring.

Read More: When’s the Best Time to Visit Yellowstone

the boardwalk at Grand Prismatic at Yellowstone National Park
The boardwalk is an easy way to see Grand Prismatic Spring. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Drive the Grand Loop Road

Unlike other US National Parks like the Grand Canyon and Acadia in Maine that operate public shuttle buses, you’ll need your own car to drive through Yellowstone.

The 140-mile figure-8-shaped Grand Loop Road is your key to touring Yellowstone National Park. Your driving time will vary, depending on how many stops you make and how long you explore. You can access the highlights of the park using the SheBuysTravel three-day travel guide including:

  • Old Faithful Geyser
  • Grand Prismatic Spring
  • Mammoth Hot Springs
  • Norris Geyser Basin
  • Artist Point
  • Fairy Falls

Lodging Inside Yellowstone

Xanterra is the official concessionaire for Yellowstone National Park’s lodging with an online reservation system. There are a variety of options at different price points available, including Canyon Lodge and Canyon Village, Grant Village and the historic Old Faithful Inn. Because the park is such a popular summer vacation destination, the hotels sell out. As soon as you know your travel dates, book your lodging. You can cancel with no penalty up to 30 days prior to your reservation date.

Prefer to camp? Yellowstone has more than 2,000 campsites and reservations are required for all but the Mammoth Campground, which is available on a first come, first served basis.

The SheBuysTravel three-day Yellowstone itinerary is based on spending two nights inside the park in the Old Faithful historic area.

Read More: Because Bear Spray is a Thing. Check Out The Complete Packing List (with Printable) for Yellowstone

Buffalo Bill look alike Ron Pearce greets visitors at the Buffalo Bill Lodge at Pahaska Teepee, Cody's first
Buffalo Bill look alike Ron Pearce shows off the soda machine from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, now on display at the Pahaska Teepee Lodge. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Launch Your Yellowstone Trip in Cody

We designed this Yellowstone itinerary using the East entrance to the park as the beginning…or ending if you’re traveling west to east and need to reverse course. Cody, Wyoming is the closest town and is worth spending a day and night to add some Wild West experiences to the natural beauty you’ll find in Yellowstone.

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, named for Cody’s founder, has five must-see museums. Catch the campy Wild West Show outside the doors of the Irma Hotel. And the 100+-year-old Cody rodeo has nightly shows all summer long. Want to know more? We’ve compiled the top 18 things to do during your stay in Cody.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Safety first when visiting Yellowstone. Stick to boardwalk paths in the geyser areas to avoid injury.

Day One – Yellowstone National Park

Start your first day early. This is possibly the No. 1 tip to remember when visiting Yellowstone or any national park. Because they’re popular, the crowds can definitely impact your visit. The earlier you arrive, the less likely you are to encounter parking issues, traffic tie-ups, bathroom lines, etc.

Plus, an early arrivals means you’re much more likely to experience wildlife spottings. The park’s animals – big horn sheep, grizzly bears, wolves, bison and more – dislike crowds too. They’re most active in the early morning and at dusk when the park crowds are thin. Top spots for wildlife include the Lamar and Hayden Valleys.

Yellowstone is open 24 hours a day, so, even if you arrive before there’s someone in the entrance booth, you can drive right in. So there’s no excuse not to get an early start on your day.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Buy an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) to get into all of the US National Park properties for a full year. Or if you’re just visiting Yellowstone, choose the 7-day pass for $35 per vehicle. Buy a digital pass in case you arrive at the park before the entrance booths are open.

Fishing Bridge Vistor’s Center

It’s about 65 miles from Cody to the Fishing Bridge Visitor’s Center, which opens at 8 am in season (it’s closed from October 9 – June 15).

It’s located on Yellowstone Lake and marks the beginning of your trip through Yellowstone on the Grand Loop Road. The building style is classic “parkitecture,” featuring the stone walls and log building construction popularized throughout the National Park System.

Rangers are available to answer questions and provide kids with Junior Ranger booklets. The Visitor Center museum focuses on the park’s bird species. You’ll find a gift shop with maps, books and souvenirs. And bathrooms.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure to ask about any road closures that might impact your route or travel time. The NPS website is also a great resource for the most up-to-date information.

Lake Village Hiking

Head south on the Grand Loop Road after leaving the visitor’s center. Your first stop will be at Lake Village. And, if you need a stretch after your morning in the car, you can access the Elephant Back Trailhead here.

It’s a 3.5-mile hike. The loop takes you through dense forest. The payoff? Sweeping views of Yellowstone Lake. If you’re hungry after your hike, there are plenty of options in Lake Village including a deli, dining room and cafeteria.

Old Faithful erupting
Old Faithful received its name because it predictably erupts. Photo credit: Cortney Fries

Next Stop? The Old Faithful Area of the Park

The anticipation’s been building since you left Cody. It’s time to see Old Faithful erupt! Why is this Yellowstone’s most famous geyser? Because it erupts more frequently than others in the park. Want the tallest? Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin hits 300 feet!

Check-in time for your reservation at the Old Faithful Inn, Lodge or cabins is 4 pm, so you’ll have time to explore the sights of the historic Upper Geyser Basin, home to 60% of the world’s geysers! Also here is Morning Glory Pool, one of the park’s most famous hot springs that “blooms” in different colors, depending on the day’s bacterial count.

Day Two – Take Time to Explore Yellowstone

You determine your pace today; you’ll be returning to your first night’s lodging at the end of today’s round trip, so take a lot of time or mosey around taking side park roads to explore off the beaten path. This segment of the Grand Loop Road is about 30 miles. Pack a cooler with snacks, drinks and a picnic lunch before leaving the Old Faithful historic district. Alternatively, head out of the park and grab a bite to eat in West Yellowstone.

Midway Geyser Basin

This is the first region you’ll hit, heading north from Old Faithful. Following are the highlights including many of the popular hydro geothermal features of Yellowstone and scenic drives:

  • Grand Prismatic Spring
  • Fountain Paint Pot
  • Firehole Lake Drive
  • Fairy Falls Trail

Lower Geyser Basin

Head here if you’re really in it for the geysers, fumaroles, mud pots and springs. The underground Yellowstone volcano is responsible for heating up the park’s water, forcing it up and out in a variety of different ways. The Lower Geyser Basin is the most active part of the park’s 2.2 million acres.

When you’ve finished your day of touring, return for the night to your lodging near Old Faithful.

Yellowstone guide
The photogenic Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Day Three – Final Sights

You’ll be sad to leave Yellowstone on your last day but there’s plenty more to see before you go. Head back through Midway and Lower Geyser Basins to your first stop, the Instagrammable Artist Paint Pots. These brightly colored mudpots and small geysers are accessed via a short hike along a one-mile trail.

Next up…the Norris Geyser Basin. Here you’ll find Steamboat, the tallest of the park’s geysers, and Porcelain Basin Geyser with another short, but satisfying, loop trail.

Detour south to Canyon Village if you’re hungry. Or continue the day’s touring by heading to Dunraven Pass. You’ll find the trailhead here if you’re interested in hiking Mount Washburn.

Head east for a stop at the Upper Falls and Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Interested in heading into the 1,000-foot canyon, cut by the Yellowstone River, to explore? Uncle Tom’s Trail on the South Rim will get you there.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Most visitors to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone see only Artist Point. This highly Instagrammable spot is the most photographed place in Yellowstone. But there are even more lovely vistas across the 4000-foot divide of the canyon. A short walk along the path delivers equally breathtaking views, without standing elbow-to-elbow with others.

Didn’t feed the beast in Canyon Village? Plan a pit stop in the Tower-Roosevelt area, particularly if you’re interested in spending some time looking for wildlife along the Blacktail Plateau Drive in the Lamar Valley.

SheBuysTravel Tip: If you run into an unanticipated traffic jam and the Grand Loop Road turns into a parking lot, assume there’s been a wildlife spotting and everyone’s slowed or stopped to take a peek.

Last but not least is Mammoth Hot Springs. Scale the travertine terraces to access different viewpoints. There are a number of historic structures in this part of the park, including Fort Yellowstone and the Roosevelt Arch.

Say Goodbye to Yellowstone

The next leg of your western USA road trip itinerary will determine where you exit the park. Heading to Bozeman, Montana? You’ll leave through the North Entrance at Gardiner. If Glacier National Park’s next on your to-go list, circle back and leave through the West Entrance. Going to Grand Teton National Park? Plot a route to the South Entrance. If you’ve got the time, you can explore West Thumb Geyser Basin and the southern end of Lake Yellowstone.

Cathy Bennett Kopf serves as the Daily Editor of SheBuysTravel, reporting to Editor-in-Chief Cindy Richards. She began travel writing after serving as the unofficial (and unpaid) vacation coordinator for hundreds of family and friend trips. She launched her blog, The Open Suitcase, in 2012 and joined the SBT (formerly TravelingMom) team in 2016. A lifelong resident of New York, Cathy currently resides in the scenic Hudson River Valley. She’s a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, the International Travel Writers Alliance and TravMedia.
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