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Yellowstone National Park was part of my most memorable vacation as a child: a camping road trip from California to Wyoming, weaving through Nevada, Arizona, and Utah in between. Besides the bison and Old Faithful though, I don’t remember much about that Yellowstone itinerary.
So when it came time to revisit the United States’ oldest national park about two decades later, I did a lot of research on the best things to do in Yellowstone to maximize our time in the park. Here’s our 2-day Yellowstone itinerary to help you experience the park’s beauty and grandeur.
Table of Contents
When to visit Yellowstone
When you visit Yellowstone plays a big role in a lot of things, from what’s accessible and what to do to what to pack and where to stay.
Highs range from the low 20s in winter to high 70s in summer, while lows can dip down to freezing.
For most people, visiting Yellowstone is a summertime pastime. The weather is temperate — though you should always pack layers for the evening hours when it can dip into the high 30s — and all the roads are open.
Of course, that means summer can also be very crowded. Shoulder seasons in spring and fall can be better times to visit, as long as you don’t mind bundling up a bit.
For this Yellowstone trip, we visited at the end of May, a time when the weather can be volatile and unpredictable. In fact, we experienced multiple episodes of freezing sleet and hail during our time inside the park.
Late spring proved to be a fruitful time for wildlife viewing though. We saw elk, deer, and bears, in addition to the iconic bison of Yellowstone.
If you’re really adventurous, there’s always winter. Most roads are closed during the winter, so visiting by car isn’t an option. You’ll have to opt for a snowmobile or snowcoach to take you to the park’s greatest hits, or gear up with skis or snowshoes to get there yourself.
I personally don’t have a lot of interest in visiting during the frigid winters, but this wonderful piece on one of the park’s winterkeepers paints such a raw yet serene picture, I could almost be convinced!
Where to stay in Yellowstone
At nearly 3,500 square miles, Yellowstone National Park is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware, the nation’s two smallest states. Even if you choose to only spend one day exploring Yellowstone, you’ll need a place to stay either in the park or nearby.
Camping in Yellowstone
When I first visited Yellowstone, we camped. It was summer after all, and the weather was more hospitable.
Should you want to pitch a tent, there are more than 2,000 Yellowstone camping spots spread across 12 different campgrounds. Some are reservation-based, while others are first-come, first-serve.
One of the things I adore about Yellowstone camping is this handy map that keeps you updated on which campgrounds still have spots. As someone who’s had to find some last-minute campsites, I wish every park had one of these!
For those of y’all who don’t plan far enough in advance to snatch an in-park reservation but also want a guaranteed place to rest your head at night, there are also outside campgrounds, like the KOA in West Yellowstone (6 miles from the park).
Hotels in Yellowstone
Knowing that the weather would be less hospitable during this visit, we chose to rent a cabin in Yellowstone. It’s one of the more than 2,000 rooms available inside the park.
Lodges and cabins range from rustic fancy to basic. We stayed at one of the Old Faithful Lodge Cabins. More on the basic side, but adequate, affordable, and within a 5-minute walk of the famous geyser of the same name. Can’t beat that.
Lodging inside Yellowstone can be extremely pricey though, hence our choice of the more economical cabins. If you don’t mind driving out of the park to sleep, there are also quite a few hotels along the border of the park.
Yellowstone itinerary: day 1
An exhaustive list of things to do in Yellowstone National Park would take hours to read and be more likely to add complexity than help you plan your trip. After all, you could spend months in Yellowstone and still not cover every inch of it.
Instead, here are the major buckets of things to do in Yellowstone:
- Exploring the thermal springs and basins
- Wildlife spotting
- Horseback riding
- Snowsports like skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and riding in a snowcoach
- Watersports such as boating, kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding
Knowing we only had two days in Yellowstone, we focused on the aspects that made Yellowstone an iconic national park: its thermal basins and variety of wildlife.
The Mud Volcano collective
We entered through the East Entrance having passed Cody, Wyoming on our way in. Yellowstone Lake is the first major site you see upon entering.
Knowing we would have more time at the lake later, we drove north to our first Yellowstone geyser basin: the Mud Volcano area.
Park your car and get on the Mud Volcano Trail, a 0.6-mile boardwalk loop that allows you to explore — from a distance — multiple fascinating and descriptively-named occurrences, including Dragon’s Mouth Spring, Mud Volcano, Sour Lake, Black Dragon’s Caldron, Churning Caldron, Sizzling Basin, Mud Geyser, and Mud Caldron.
Wildlife gaze in Hayden Valley
Just north of the Mud Volcano area, winding along the Yellowstone River, lies Hayden Valley. Its vast meadows are a favorite of wildlife enthusiasts and photographers — you’ll often find many camped out there, gear ready to go.
If you’re looking to see a herd of bison reminiscent of what much of the American West used to have, this is the place. Other residents of central Yellowstone, including wolves, coyotes, and bears, can be found here as well.
For the best chances at sightings, head out at dawn or dusk when the animals are the most active.
Canyons and waterfalls of Yellowstone
Then, it was northward again for the main reason we wanted to go toward Canyon Village even though we were staying near Old Faithful that night: the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and the waterfalls along it.
The canyon is a result of volcanic explosions, collapsing magma chambers, rock erosions, and other natural phenomenons over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.
Today, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is more than 1,000 feet deep and more than 20 miles long. Key sites include the Upper Falls, Lower Falls, Artist Point, and Inspiration Point.
There are multiple hiking options, from short ones like Lower Lookout Point to full-day endeavors like the Mount Washburn Spur Trail. You could spend an entire week just hiking in the area.
Lakes and geysers
After a quick refuel at Canyon Village, it was back toward Yellowstone Lake. Specifically, to West Thumb.
This area is special because it not only offers a chance to enjoy the massive lake, it’s also home to the West Thumb Geyser Basin.
A stroll on the West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail will take you to geysers, pools, and springs on the lake shore as well as under the lake. These colorful pools remind me of everything from the piercing blue waters of the Caribbean to the acrylic pourings that a friend does.
Fun fact: The West Thumb is approximately the same size as another famous volcanic caldera: Crater Lake in Oregon.
Our last stop of day 1 in our Yellowstone itinerary: the iconic Old Faithful.
We checked into our cabin at the Old Faithful Lodge Cabins and walked over for one of its evening shows. Thanks to its location, Yellowstone still has plenty of light well past 8 p.m. in the summers.
Per its name, Old Faithful erupts roughly every 1-2 hours for an average of around 20 times a day. Yellowstone scientists have gotten really good at predicting when it’ll blow, so keep an eye on their Twitter feed to make sure you arrive at the most optimal time. (Info also available at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center and Old Faithful area lodges.)
If you happen to arrive in between two eruptions, you can always relax with a drink or grab food at the Old Faithful Inn. Their Western buffet has long been a staple, but TBD on post-COVID changes.
Yellowstone itinerary: day 2
On day 2, we got up, grabbed a coffee and some pastries from the Bear Paw deli at the inn, and hit the road just before 10 a.m. Like the first day, we focused on the park’s hydrothermal features and wildlife.
Explore along the Firehole River
While Old Faithful may be the most famous feature, the Upper Geyser Basin that it belongs to is home to many other fun sights. All of them are off the banks of the aptly-named Firehole River.
The first one that caught my eye was Black Sand Basin, which is covered in obsidian sand and filled with springs and geysers of a rainbow of colors, including one known as the Rainbow Pool.
Then, it was off to Biscuit Basin, whose Sapphire Pool is truly a jewel. Just don’t try to jump in any of these — most have temperatures of around 200 degrees Fahrenheit!
Further up the river, we explored White Dome Geyser and Fountain Paint Pots.
Most of these basin areas have short, under-a-mile boardwalks so you can see multiple pools and geysers at a time.
Okay, one last geyser! The name was too enticing to miss.
Unlike other geyser areas where you mostly view the hydrothermal pools from a boardwalk next to it, you get to climb up and see Blood Geyser from above.
Choose your own adventure
Depending on which way you’re headed out of the park, there are a couple of options for the last stop in your Yellowstone itinerary.
If you’re headed up north toward Gardiner, Montana, make sure to check out Mammoth Hot Springs. If to the northeast via the Cooke City exit, there’s Lamar Valley, another wildlife hotspot.
Going west out to West Yellowstone? Hike the Purple Mountain Trail. South toward Jackson, Wyoming? Don’t miss the chance to also explore Grand Teton National Park.
And of course, if you go back out the east entrance toward Cody, Wyoming, you can spend more time exploring Yellowstone Lake.
We were headed to Red Lodge, Montana, so we went over to Lamar Valley after the Blood Geyser area. And we were well-rewarded.
We encountered a young grizzly bear and then a mama black bear and her three cubs, as well as deer and bison. Only wish we had a better camera with us!
The bonus of heading out of Yellowstone via the Cooke City gate? A chance to drive through the incomparable Beartooth Pass — walls and walls of snow, even in the middle of summer.
Hope this helps you customize your Yellowstone itinerary. Pin it to share it!