Yellowstone National Park is sprawling with landmarks that people venture from all over the world to see. Abundant in beauty, the park easily has enough to fill out a four-day trip.
We’ve managed to include the most unmissable sights on our Yellowstone 4 Day Itinerary, which also allows for some flexibility.
Yellowstone National Park 4 Day Itinerary -What To See
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 attractions will eventually open again. Please check with the official website as to whether each road and destination is open to the public.
You are spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodation options in Yellowstone National Park. The official park lodges tend to fill up quickly and can be pricey, so for a cheaper alternative, you could also base yourself in the gateway villages surrounding the park, including West Yellowstone.
For the purposes of this itinerary, we recommend staying within the park, near the Canyon Village area, which is the most central location. The destinations on the itinerary are located right across the park, so staying somewhere central, such as the Canyon Lodge and Cabins, will reduce your travel times.
You could also move accommodation during your trip, staying on the western side of the park for the first day and then moving to a more central location. If you’d like to stay on the western side of the park, we recommend Old Faithful Lodge & Cabins and Old Faithful Inn.
Morning: Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, and Old Faithful Inn
The Upper Geyser Basin on the western side of Yellowstone is the best place to start your four-day itinerary. Hosting the majority of the world’s geysers, the basin is one of the most significant geothermal areas in the park. It also happens to be the location of Old Faithful, which is arguably the most famous Yellowstone attraction.
Old Faithful is a predictable geyser that erupts every 60 to 110 minutes, with the average waiting time between eruptions at 79 minutes.
It’s advisable to get to Old Faithful as early as possible, as this also tends to be one of the most crowded locations in the park. The most popular place to view the eruptions is the boardwalk nearby the geyser, so head here and find a seat as soon as you arrive.
You can also view the amazing sight of Old Faithful erupting from the observation point, which is a short hike away. While only adding around half an hour to 45 minutes to your time in the basin, hiking to the observation point can be strenuous, particularly in warmer weather.
Secure your viewing position as soon as possible, as the best viewing points fill up quickly. Sometimes, this might mean staying in your designated spot for up to two hours as you wait for the next eruption. If you’re lucky and catch an eruption shortly after arriving, you’ll be free to explore the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin.
One of the best destinations in the basin is the Old Faithful Inn. The region’s premier accommodation option, the Old Faithful Inn also happens to be a great place to view the geyser’s eruption from.
The historic building is the world’s largest log structure which boasts a grand fireplace and hand-crafted wood clock in the lobby. As this itinerary allows you extra time in the Upper Geyser Basin, it’s definitely worth visiting the inn.
In addition to the inn and the basin’s most famous geyser, there are several other landmarks to view. Overall, there are 150 geothermal features in the basin, five of those (including Old Faithful) being prominent geysers with predictable eruption times. Be sure to check out Grand Geyser, which has the highest jet in the basin, Castle Geyser, Riverside Geyser, and Daisy Geyser.
You’ll also find smaller geysers in the area, including Anemone Geyser and Plume Geyser. Some of these also have predictable eruption times, so you can visit the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center to find out when each eruption will be and what you can realistically see while you’re in the basin.
All in all, it might take over a few hours to fully explore the Upper Geyser Basin, not including travel times from your accommodation or to the next destination on your itinerary. If you choose to stay in accommodation closer to the Upper Geyser Basin, you can allow even more time to explore the area.
In general, aim to set off for the next stop on your itinerary at about midday.
Afternoon: Grand Prismatic Spring and Midway Geyser Basin
Located in the Midway Geyser Basin, between the Lower and Upper Geyser Basins on the west side of Yellowstone, Grand Prismatic Spring is the next stop on your itinerary. Another popular location, expect to face large crowds at the iconic hot spring, which is globally famous for its rainbow colors.
While you can avoid crowds by visiting Grand Prismatic Spring earlier in the day, the spring is often covered with mist in the morning. This can completely ruin the experience as it conceals the vibrant colors that the spring is renowned for.
In this rare case, it’s better to view this famous landmark later in the day, even if you have to contend with larger crowds.
Once you enter the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot, you can make your way to the boardwalk, which will take you past the spring.
When walking on the boardwalk, it’s crucial to stay in the designated area at all times and never tread anywhere that’s prohibited. Several people have lost their lives in geothermal areas of the park, and it’s easy to accidentally fall into a hot spring or other dangerous areas.
Along with the boardwalk, you can also view the Grand Prismatic Spring by hiking to the viewing platform. This is accessed from the Fairy Falls parking lot, around five minutes to the south of the basin. Most people can complete the entire trail in half an hour, but you will want to spend extra time on the viewing platform taking in the mesmerizing spring.
There are also other attractions to witness in the Midway Geyser Basin, including Excelsior Geyser Crater, the Opal Pool, and the Turquoise Pool, all of which you can see on the way to or from Grand Prismatic Spring.
You can spend a few hours in the Midway Geyser Basin before moving on to the Lower Geyser Basin. Aim to head off by mid to late afternoon to allow time to see the sights of the Lower Geyser Basin.
Late Afternoon: Lower Geyser Basin
Technically, the Midway Geyser Basin is part of the Lower Geyser Basin, so there’s not a lot of traveling time between the two. The Lower Geyser Basin is the largest of its kind in the park and features a variety of captivating thermal areas.
You can view the majority of the geyser’s attractions along the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, which takes around half an hour to walk (not accounting for stops to take photos and enjoy the views). Along the trail, you’ll witness the famous Fountain Paint Pots, Silex Spring, Celestine Pool, Leather Pool, Red Spouter, Jet Geyser, Clepsydra Geyser, and more.
One of the most renowned sights on the Fountain Paint Pot Trail is Great Fountain Geyser, which you can drive up to and view from your car.
Check the eruption times at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. Great Fountain’s jet usually reaches 100 feet, though it’s been known to hit 200 feet in the past.
Overall, the Lower Geyser Basin is 11 square miles in size, so spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the area before returning to your accommodation, ready to rest up for tomorrow!
Morning: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
No visit to Yellowstone National Park is complete without a trip to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the park’s most famous attractions. The canyon is located near the middle of the park, so it won’t take you long to drive to it if you are staying centrally.
It’s a good idea to leave early in the morning to beat the crowds and absorb the stunning vista of the canyon in the morning.
The canyon, which is around 20 miles long, is usually categorized into the North Rim and the South Rim, and you could easily spend an entire day hiking all the trails on both rims.
It generally takes two to four hours to explore both the North and South Rims sufficiently, so we’ve allowed the entire morning at the canyon. You can explore both by car and foot, though some sections can only be hiked.
The best viewpoints along the South Rim include Artist Point—the most famous view of the canyon—Point Sublime Hike, Uncle Tom’s Point Trail, and the Upper Falls Viewpoint.
Meanwhile, the best stops along the North Rim are the Brinks of the Upper and Lower Falls, Lookout Point, Grand View, Inspiration Point, and Silver Cord Cascade Overlook.
It’s recommended to visit the South Rim first, as this contains the ultra-busy Artist Point which may be crowded later in the day, and is also generally better viewed in the morning light.
Keep in mind that there’s a decent hike planned for the afternoon in this itinerary, so if you want to conserve your energy, you can opt to visit just a few points along the canyon, or only those you can drive to.
There are also some great picnic spots around the canyon where you can stop for lunch before continuing on to Dunraven Pass.
Afternoon: Mt. Washburn Hike
Yellowstone has no shortage of hiking trails, but one of the most famous (with some of the most exceptional views!) is Mt. Washburn, which leaves from Dunraven Pass. You can access the trail from the Dunraven Pass parking lot, just under five miles north of Canyon Junction.
The trail that ascends Mt. Washburn is a six-mile loop that takes most people between three and six hours to complete. Along the way, you can expect to see bighorn sheep and pockets of wildflowers, and sweeping views of the park await at the summit.
There are elevation gains on this trail of more than 1300 feet, which some hikers may find challenging. It can help to take lots of breaks on the way up and make sure you rest at the summit before making your descent. There’s nothing else on your itinerary for today, so take the time you need to make it to the top in one piece!
The National Park Service recommends omitting the trail during fall, as grizzly bears tend to be present in the area as they search for whitebark pine nuts. Also, keep in mind that you won’t have access to water along the trail, so it’s important to bring one or two drink bottles with you, particularly in the summer.
Alternatively, you can begin your day with a hike to Mt. Washburn and then visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the afternoon.
Both attractions get extremely busy in the afternoon, particularly in summer, so if you would prefer to start with one over the other, feel free to do so.
Morning: Hayden Valley
If your goal at Yellowstone National Park is to see wildlife, then the Hayden Valley is a must. The best time to visit the valley is the early morning or late afternoon, as this is when the animals are the most active.
The valley is conveniently located close to Canyon Village, so it shouldn’t take you too long to drive there along the Grand Loop Road.
The Hayden Valley is home to a variety of animal species, including bears, bison, wolves, and elk. You can pull out at multiple locations along the Grand Loop Road to view wildlife and take pictures.
You can also hike through the valley along the Mary Mountain Trail, but as there are often bears in the valley, it’s important to practice the animal safety guidelines outlined by the National Park Service.
When walking through the valley, be sure to make lots of noise and travel in large groups to ward off bears. Also, bring bear spray and know how to use it.
In general, you should never approach or feed a wild animal in Yellowstone, and always keep at least 25 yards away from all animals, even those that are smaller than you. In the case of bears and wolves, keep a minimum of 100 yards away.
Depending on what animals you spot in the valley and how quickly you see them, you may want to spend the entire morning here or move on before lunch.
Afternoon: Yellowstone Lake
Yellowstone Lake is the type of destination where you can spend an hour or a day. If you’re lucky enough to get some great animal views early and want to wrap up your time in the Hayden Valley quickly, you can head to the lake as early as you want to.
The lake is a picturesque location for a picnic lunch, and there is a rowboat rental service from the Bridge Bay Marina. The marina also offers guided boat trips, so if the weather is nice, you might want to spend the rest of your day relaxing on and by the lake.
Unfortunately, swimming in Yellowstone Lake is not permitted as the water is too cold, even in summer. However, you can fish in the lake, which is home to a healthy population of trout.
There are also hiking trails available around the lake which boast pristine views of the area.
Late Afternoon: West Thumb Geyser Basin
To the western side of Yellowstone lake, you will find the West Thumb Geyser Basin. The area doesn’t boast famous geysers like its counterparts on the western side of the park, but you can view its fascinating thermal features without the presence of large crowds that you’d typically find around Old Faithful or Grand Prismatic Spring.
You can walk through the basin area in half an hour, witnessing the geysers that straddle the shores of the lake. The boardwalk is child and wheelchair-friendly and will take you past a variety of otherworldly thermal attractions.
Finishing your day here also means that you get to watch the sunset over the lake and the geysers—a truly mesmerizing view.
Morning: Lamar Valley
Along with the Hayden Valley, the Lamar Valley is the best place in Yellowstone to view wildlife. Some travelers are hesitant to visit the valley because of its remote location in the northeast of the park, but it’s worth the drive out.
You can access the Lamar Valley from the Northeast Entrance Road, which turns off from the Grand Loop Road. There are several pull-outs along the road where you can stop for pictures and viewing opportunities, but don’t stop on the road itself unless you have no choice (in the event of an animal traffic jam).
As with the Hayden Valley, we recommend visiting first thing in the morning for your chance of fewer traffic jams and more animal activity.
Bison are particularly common in the area, and they sometimes venture onto the road, which can seriously delay traffic. If you’re lucky, you’ll also spot bears, bighorn sheep, elk, wolves, and deer.
A drive through the Lamar Valley may well take you all morning, even if you get started at sunrise, due to frequent stops. By midday, you should be ready to keep going with your itinerary.
Afternoon: Mammoth Hot Springs and the Albright Visitor Center
At the springs, you’ll find the Upper and Lower Terraces. Both areas have parking lots, and though the Lower Terraces have five parking lots in total, these tend to fill up quickly.
The Lower Terraces feature some of the more famous attractions, including Canary Spring, Palette Spring, and Minerva Terrace. You can walk this area via the boardwalk, which should take no longer than an hour, including photo stops.
The Upper Terraces are worth visiting too, home to Angel Terrace, Orange Spring Mound, and New Highland Terrace. You can access these via Upper Terrace Drive, which runs for 1.5 miles and allows you to explore the area with your vehicle.
Overall, it generally takes around two hours to visit the hot springs. Swimming in the hot springs is completely prohibited, as is leaving the boardwalk and walking through unmarked areas.
The Boiling River, located a short distance from the hot springs, is one of the best places for swimming in the area. A hot spring that enters the Gardner River, the Boiling River can be accessed by walking half a mile along the Gardner River from a parking lot between Mammoth Hot Springs and the North Entrance of the Park.
Please note that swimming has been prohibited in the river since the beginning of 2022, due to the ongoing flood crisis.
In addition to exploring the terraces, be sure to visit the Albright Visitor Center, especially if you’re traveling with kids. The center boasts several displays that give insight into the area’s rich history. You’ll also find stuffed life-size animals, which may satiate the need to see animals up close without risking a real encounter.
Four days in Yellowstone National Park is ample time to see the most famous attractions. Though this itinerary doesn’t cover everything, this is a great way to experience the park for your first visit.