Oftentimes, it's hard for most of us to get away for more than a long weekend. So once we get somewhere like Yellowstone National Park, we need to know where to go and what to do to get the most out of our short vacation. With this in mind, we've put together these itinerary suggestions specifically for all you time-strapped adventurers who want to sample the crème de la crème of Yellowstone National Park.
If you're only at Yellowstone National Park for one or two nights, you may want to stay in the Park both nights to enjoy nighttime in this beautiful place and in order to cut down on driving time each day. There are a number of campsites and lodges within the Park, but making a reservation in ahead, especially for weekend trips, is a wise idea. If you'd rather spend the night in one of the gateway towns (West Yellowstone and Gardiner), you'll find plenty of hotels, bed and breakfasts and other lodging options, but again, reservations are always a good idea. Whether you decide to stay in our outside of Yellowstone, browse through the lodging options for more details.
If you only have two or three days in Yellowstone National Park, having a vehicle will definitely help you get the most out of your trip. If you're flying in or arriving without a vehicle, there are a number of rental agencies available.
Full Day Suggestions
Start off Day One with a tour of the 142-mile Grand Loop Road – the main road that makes a loop around the inner Park, passing any number of Yellowstone highlights, including Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake and Mammoth Hot Springs. Combine stops at a few highlights from the Grand Loop with a trip to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area and Hayden Valley (one of the top wildlife viewing areas in Yellowstone National Park) and you'll have a taste of what Yellowstone is all about.
Not quite what you had in mind? Here are some more scenic drive ideas.
Hike through the Park
Yellowstone National Park's hiking trails explore a variety of geothermal features, rivers, mountains, forests and canyons. If you only have a few days in the Park, you should sample at least a few of the shorter hikes in different areas of Yellowstone. Our suggestions? Try the Fountain Paint Pot Trail (tours four different types of geothermal features), the Mystic Falls Trail (just over a mile along a forest creek leads to a waterfall and a view of Upper Geyser Basin), Cascade Lake Trail (lots of wildflowers and wildlife, although it can be a bit buggy during July) and the Mount Washburn Trail (a strenuous hike that rewards with panoramic views of the Park.
Tour the Geothermal Features
While it's a beautiful area, Yellowstone wasn't set aside as our nation's first National Park just because of the scenery – it was, in large part, due to the abundance of impressive geothermal activity. We suggest driving the section of the Grand Loop Road between Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs (about 50 miles); you'll be able to stop and find geysers, mud pots, travertine terraces, hot springs and more.
The abundance of wildlife, both large and small, is one of the main attractions that brings visitors to Yellowstone National Park. While you'll be able to see plenty of wildlife from the side of the Park roads (and sometimes right in the middle of them), Hayden Valley, in the Canyon area of the Park, is one of the prime wildlife viewing spots.
When spending time in what was once the Western Frontier, it's only proper to saddle up and ride through the hills. After a morning hike, or in preparation for an afternoon of floating down a river, exploring Yellowstone National Park with a guided horseback tour is an exciting change of pace.
On the Water
While walking around hot springs and geysers and exploring the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone are must-do activities, don't forget to spend a little quality time relaxing by the water. Yellowstone Lake has boating (including with canoe and kayak rentals), fishing, swimming and hiking trails, along with the historic Yellowstone Hotel and dining room.
The rivers around Yellowstone National Park don't just provide excellent trout fishing, they also give visitors a chance to spend time floating through some of the beautiful lands that make up the Greater Yellowstone Area. Whether you crave the thrills of big waves and rapids or yearn for a relaxing scenic float, you'll be able to find river, outfitters and guides to suit.
Yellowstone National Park's Ranger Programs start throughout the day and run from anywhere between a half-hour and a few hours, depending on the topic, location and length of the hike (not all programs involve hiking). Topics include everything from the geology of Yellowstone to the wildlife to the history of early settlers and trappers in the area. Check in at a Visitor Center for current programs, start times and locations.
It would be like missing Times Square while you're in New York City or going all the way to Paris and forgetting to see the Louvre – if you come home from Yellowstone National Park without seeing Old Faithful, your friends and family won't let you hear the end of it, and rightfully so. It may not be the largest geyser in the Park (the 300-400 foot-tall Steamboat Geyser holds that title), but it's probably the most famous. With faithfully predictable eruptions, it's usually not too hard to witness Old Faithful shoot steam and water 150 feet into the air. Be sure to take some time to learn about geothermal features at the new Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
While you could easily spend the whole weekend exploring the Canyon Area of Yellowstone National Park, with only a short amount of time be sure to visit the Upper and Lower Falls overlooks and Hayden Valley. If you'd like to spend some more time here, the Cascade Lake Trail is a nice 5-mile out-and-back that features meadows, wildflowers and wildlife.
The 130-foot-tall waterfall that pours down from between rock spires is a magnificent example of why Yellowstone National Park was created.
Norris Geyser Basin
One of the most interesting geothermal areas in Yellowstone National Park, Norris Basin is home to the world's tallest geyser, Steamboat Geyser. Also take the quick walk through Porcelain Basin and, if time allows, the Norris-Canyon Blowdown.
Artist Paint Pots
They may not shoot water hundreds of feet into the air, but the Artist Paint Pots area of Yellowstone National Park are a beautiful and fascinating area of the park. The mud pots are just .5 a mile from the car and well worth the short walk. While you're here, stop at the nearby Monument Geyser Basin to see the cones that are the only remainder of ancient geysers.
Travertine Springs at Mammoth
The Mammoth Hot Springs are unique, even for Yellowstone. The limestone-embedded hot springs change rapidly, sometimes even over the course of a day, so you can expect a new experience every time.
Night Out in West Yellowstone
If campfires and ranger talks aren't going to do it for you, treat yourself to a night out in West Yellowstone. With a number of local restaurants to choose from and nightly entertainment that includes the Playmill Theatre, rodeos, live music and more, there's no shortage of fun.
Dining in the Park
Yellowstone National Park has a variety of dining spaces, everything from a place to pick up a quick snack to full-on fine dining experience.
Multiple nights each week, Yellowstone Park Rangers lead a variety of evening programs, telling stories, leading star gazing sessions (telescopes included), and further exploring the natural history of Yellowstone National Park. Check in at one of the Visitor Centers for times (usually beginning between 9 and 9:30 pm), locations and other details.
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