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Yellowstone 3 Day Itinerary

If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone, you’ll know that you can never spend too much time in the magnificent park. But it’s still possible to see the greatest attractions in just three days.

We’ve created the following flexible Yellowstone 3 day itinerary which allows you to see the best of what’s on offer.

Yellowstone 3 Day Itinerary – Everything You Will Want to Do

yellowstone national park

Note: 2022 has brought unprecedented flooding to Yellowstone National Park, and as a result, some roads and attractions are closed until further notice. This itinerary works on the basis that all landmarks will eventually open again. Please check with the official website as to whether each road and destination is open to the public.

Accommodation

We recommend staying in the central Canyon Village area of Yellowstone National Park when following this itinerary.

As the schedule includes attractions that are spread out across the park, staying in central lodging will mean that you’re not traveling extreme distances to visit destinations.

One of the best accommodation options in the area is Canyon Lodge and Cabins.

Day 1

The first day of your three-day itinerary will be based on the western side of the park, which you can easily access from your central accommodation.

You can also decide to base yourself on the western perimeters of Yellowstone, either in the park itself or in the gateway communities, however, this will mean you have to travel further to visit landmarks in other areas of the park later in your itinerary.

If you would like to stay on the western side of the park, we recommend the gateway community of West Yellowstone, or Old Faithful Lodge & Cabins and Old Faithful Inn which are located inside the park.

Morning: Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, and Old Faithful Inn

old faithful, upper geyser basin

The active geyser known as Old Faithful is one of the most popular sights in Yellowstone National Park. The geyser is located in the Upper Geyser Basin in the park’s west and is a great place to start your three-day itinerary.

How long you stay at Old Faithful will depend on when the last eruption was. The geyser typically erupts every 60 to 110 minutes, so if you arrive just before an eruption, you won’t have to stick around as long. Otherwise, you can be waiting for up to two hours to see the famous eruption—and it’s well worth waiting for.

There are a few places you can view the phenomenal sight, the most famous being the boardwalk in front of the geyser.

As the boardwalk is the most popular option, it gets extremely crowded, especially during the summer months. Find a seat or standing space as soon as you arrive at the geyser, regardless of how long you have to wait for the next eruption.

The earlier you arrive at Old Faithful, the better your chance of getting a seat on the boardwalk. There tend to be fewer crowds before 10 a.m., so if you aren’t too tired, it’s worth it to get an early start. Remember to factor in your driving time from your accommodation to the Upper Geyser Basin.

Additionally, you can view the eruption from the designated observation point, which you will need to hike to. The hike is only short and should take no longer than 45 minutes, but it can be quite strenuous because of the elevation gained. However, the observation point provides sweeping and clearer views of the eruption.

Another eruption viewing point is the Old Faithful Inn, which provides an observation deck. Even if you aren’t staying at the inn or don’t want to watch the eruption from here, take some time to check out the famous lodge.

A historic landmark dating back more than a century, the inn is an architectural marvel and the largest log structure in the world. In the lobby, you will find a colossal fireplace and a breathtaking handcrafted clock.

Once you’ve seen Old Faithful erupt and have explored the grounds of the inn, you can view some of the other 150 geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin. On a shorter two-day itinerary, there wouldn’t be much time to discover the rest of the basin. But with the extra day, you can afford to be more leisurely with your exploration.

In the basin, there are four more large geysers with predictable eruption times: Grand Geyser, Castle Geyser, Riverside Geyser, and Daisy Geyser. Visit the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center to find out when to expect the next eruptions.

There are also smaller geysers in the basin with predictable eruption times, including Anemone Geyser and Plume Geyser. Overall, it may take around two hours to fully explore the area, not accounting for waiting times for each eruption.

Depending on which geysers you’d like to see erupt, aim to leave the area around midday and head to the next destination.

Early Afternoon: Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin

grand prismatic spring

Along with Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring is another of the most unmissable attractions in Yellowstone. The hot spring, which is famous for its rainbow of colors, is located in what’s known as the Midway Geyser Basin, between the Upper Geyser Basin and the Lower Geyser Basin.

Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest hot spring in the world, and thanks to its kaleidoscope of colors, is a once-in-a-lifetime attraction. The spring features a range of boiling temperatures, which means different bacteria can survive in different areas of the spring. This leads to the variation in colors.

From the parking lot, where you may be waiting up to 30 minutes for a parking space during the summer, the boardwalk that will give you access to the spring is just a few minutes away.

Alternatively, you can hike to the Grand Prismatic Viewing Platform, the trail which extends from the Fairy Falls parking lot to the south of the basin. It generally takes half an hour to loop the entire trail, not including the time spent viewing the spring from the summit.

As the Grand Prismatic Spring is a geothermal area, it’s crucial to obey the park’s safety rules while visiting this landmark.

Don’t step off the marked boardwalk, as accidentally coming into contact with geothermal features can lead to long-term serious injuries or even death. Even if you don’t injure yourself by wandering into forbidden territory in the geyser basins, you face steep fines and jail time for breaking park rules.

While in the Midway Geyser basin, you can also check out another hot spring called Excelsior Geyser Crater, which you can view when you’re going to or from Grand Prismatic Spring. Other attractions to see in the area include the Opal Pool and the Turquoise Pool.

Though you could technically start your day in the Lower Geyser Basin, move on to Grand Prismatic Spring, and then visit the Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful in the afternoon, we’ve listed Grand Prismatic Spring as an afternoon destination because it’s one of the few Yellowstone locations that you don’t want to visit in the morning.

While you’ll encounter fewer crowds when you visit Grand Prismatic Spring early, there is also usually a mist that covers the spring each morning that doesn’t clear up for a few hours. If you do visit Grand Prismatic Spring first, you risk having the amazing rainbow of colors ruined by a layer of mist.

After viewing the best of the Midway Geyser Basin, you can make your way to the Lower Geyser Basin by mid to late afternoon for your final stop for the day.

Late Afternoon: Lower Geyser Basin

lower geyser basin

The Lower Geyser Basin is located on the western side of the park, a short distance from Midway Geyser Basin, so it’s a logical next stop on your itinerary. The area spans over 11 square miles and crosses the Firehole River (via Yellowstone).

There are several thermal areas to explore in the area, each containing erupting geysers, hot springs, and mud pools.

The most famous area in the Lower Geyser Basin is the Fountain Group. Here, you’ll find the bubbling Fountain Paint Pots, the colorful pool of Silex Spring, Celestine Pool, and Leather Pool, all of which are located along the Fountain Paint Pot Trail.

The trail takes approximately half an hour to walk, though you might want to allocate more time to take in the phenomenal views of the geothermal features. Along the trail, you’ll also see the Clepsydra Geyser, Sizzler, Spasm Geyser, Red Spouter, Morning Geyser, Jet Geyser, and multiple fumaroles.

The Fountain Paint Pots Trail is also home to the Great Fountain Geyser, which has predictable erupting times. You can find out when the next eruption is due at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, so remember to check that out before you leave the Upper Geyser Basin.

Great Fountain has been known to spurt to over 200 feet, but most regularly reaches 100 feet. It also serves as the only geyser in the park that you can actually drive up to and conveniently watch from the comfort of your car.

Take your time exploring the area before heading back to your accommodation for the night.

Day 2

Your second day in the park will mostly be spent in the central and southern areas. If you did stay in accommodation on the western side of the park for the first night, it might be worth moving to a more central location to reduce your traveling time for the last two days.

Morning: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

grand canyon of the yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is another of the park’s most famous sights. The landmark lies near the heart of the park and boasts a network of trails surrounding the canyon.

There are three sections to the canyon: the North Rim, the South Rim, and the Brink of the Upper Falls. You could easily spend a whole day exploring each of the rims and their various trails in depth. But for the purposes of this itinerary, which includes two other stops today, it’s better to pick a few key locations at the canyon that you’d like to see.

The area is well signed and likely to be busy, but it’s still a good idea to bring a map from home to help you navigate your way to the trails you’d like to hike.

On average, it takes approximately two to four hours to visit the North and South Rims properly. Depending on how early you get started, you might have time to explore both.

If you only have time for one, many travelers prefer the South Rim because it’s home to Artist Point, the most famous viewing area in the canyon.

The great thing about visiting the canyon in the morning is that there tend to be fewer crowds. If you’re visiting during the popular and busy summer months, this can make a huge difference to your overall experience of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Afternoon: Yellowstone Lake

yellowstone lake

On your way to Yellowstone Lake from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you’ll pass the Hayden Valley along the Grand Loop Road. Though it seems to make more sense to stop and take in the views of the valley now, animals tend to be the most active at dawn and dusk.

If there is lots of wildlife activity as you pass the valley, feel free to stop and take as much time as you’d like for animal watching. You can easily visit Yellowstone Lake later in the afternoon.

However, if there’s a limited animal activity in the valley, we recommend continuing on to Yellowstone Lake and then returning to the Hayden Valley on your way back at dusk, when there’s likely to be more activity.

Yellowstone Lake, located in the West Thumb area, is the largest in the park, and the highest-elevated lake on the continent. There are guided boat tours available of the lake, or you can rent your own boat to explore the shores.

Due to cold temperatures, even in the summer, you can’t swim in the lake. However, you can fish the lake, which is home to the largest population of wild cutthroat trout in the country.

There are also several hiking trails around the lake that boast exquisite views of the water. The views make this a great stop for a scenic picnic lunch.

Late Afternoon/Dusk: Hayden Valley

hayden valley

If you didn’t stop at the Hayden Valley on the way to Yellowstone Lake, make sure to visit on the way back. Dusk, along with early morning, tends to be the best time to go to the valley if you want to see active animals.

Spreading over nearly 8,000 feet, the Hayden Valley is home to grizzly and black bears, bison, wolves, elk, and other creatures. This is one of the best places for wildlife viewing in the park, and there are multiple places along the Grand Loop Road where you can stop to watch the wildlife, including the pullouts at the north end of the valley.

You can hike through the valley via the Mary Mountain Trail, but this is likely to result in animal encounters. It’s crucial to practice animal safety while in the park, and the Hayden Valley is one of the locations where you’ll most probably have to put safety guidelines into practice.

At all times, avoid feeding animals in the park, no matter how hungry or friendly they seem. Keep at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and 25 yards from bison and elk. If you do walk through the valley, travel in groups of more than four people and make lots of noise to reduce your chances of meeting a bear.

Day 3

The third and final day of your Yellowstone itinerary includes locations that are located in the northern and eastern areas of the park. Our schedule begins in the Lamar Valley and then travels on to Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyser Basin, however you can also complete the itinerary in reverse.

Morning: Lamar Valley

lamar valley

The Lamar Valley is best to visit early in the morning or around sunset, so you can either start or end your day here.

Keep in mind that the valley is one of the more remote destinations in the park, nestled in the northeast section, so allow plenty of travel time from your accommodation.

Sometimes called America’s Serengeti, the Lamar Valley is another ideal place to spot wildlife. You’ll find moose, deer, bison, wolves, bears, elk, bighorn sheep, and other animals in the valley.

From the Grand Loop Road, turn onto the Northeast Entrance Road, which travels into the valley. Drive slowly through the valley and look out for wildlife, as often animals will venture onto the roads. Animal traffic jams, particularly on account of bison, are common in the valley and can add hours to your journey.

Unless there’s an animal traffic jam, refrain from stopping on the road. If you do see wildlife that you’d like to stop and take in, you can pull over in the many pullouts along the road.

Afternoon: Mammoth Hot Springs

mammoth hot springs

From the Lamar Valley, you can make your way back towards the Grand Loop Road and then on to Mammoth Hot Springs—a large network of hot springs set on an otherworldly travertine hill, located in the park’s northwest.

The springs contain the Upper Terraces and the Lower Terraces, which both offer several fascinating sights.

As part of the Upper Terraces, where there are two small parking lots, you’ll find Angel Terrace, New Highland Terrace, and Orange Spring Mound, while the Lower Terraces are home to Canary Spring, Palette Spring, and Minerva Terrace. There are also five parking lots at the Lower Terraces.

You should have time to explore both terraces with this itinerary. But if you find you’re running out of time, possibly due to animal traffic jams in the Lamar Valley, it’s fine to just visit one.

In general, the Lower Terraces tend to be more popular. You can walk the wooden boardwalk along this area in around half an hour, not accounting for any picture stops.

If visiting during the summer, remember to bring sun protection and water, as the walk across the Lower Terrace area is known to get extremely hot. And remember that swimming in Mammoth Spring is not allowed.

Never venture off the boardwalk and walk into prohibited areas, in Mammoth Hot Springs and everywhere else in the park.

Late Afternoon: Norris Geyser Basin

norris geyser basin

After visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, you can head towards the Norris Geyser Basin. Follow the Grand Loop Road west, which will lead you to the hydrothermal area, before taking the road back to your accommodation for your last night in the park.

Many travelers forget to visit the Norris Geyser Basin, as its attractions aren’t as famous as Old Faithful or Grand Prismatic Spring.

However, there’s plenty to see in this fascinating area, which is the hottest and oldest of the park’s thermal regions. Depending on how much time you have left after your earlier stops, you could spend half an hour to a few hours here.

There are two basins in the Norris Geyser Basin: Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. The Porcelain Basin tends to be more popular as it offers more eye-catching attractions, many of which you can see on the one-mile Porcelain Trail loop. It takes most people between half an hour and a full hour to complete the trail.

The Back Trail loop is a little longer at 1.7 miles and will allow you to view the famous Steamboat Geyser.

Steamboat is currently the largest active geyser in the world, but it tends to be less visited than Old Faithful because its eruptions aren’t predictable.

You can find out more information about the Steamboat Geyser and other attractions in the area at the visitor center, which is located between the Porcelain and Back basins.

Conclusion

Though you’re only in Yellowstone for three days, you can easily see the park’s major landmarks with this flexible itinerary. This is an ideal way to get a taste of the best of Yellowstone when you have limited time.

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