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Yellowstone is undoubtedly one of the most famous National Parks in the US. (maybe the world? Idk, I’d have to look that one up.) We were SO excited to finally get a chance to see this park after talking about it for over 2 years. It definitely lived up to the hype and some common phrases were “are we even on earth anymore?” “how is this real?” and “can you believe we’re here?” Check out this Yellowstone itinerary to help plan your trip.
We spent a wonderful 4 days in Yellowstone, and here I’m mapping out how we saw pretty much the whole park in 4 days. I’ll try to denote must do items as well if you are there for less time. However, I think 4 days is a good amount of time to see all the park has to offer.
If you are heading this way for a trip, I also highly recommend tacking on a few extra days to see Grand Teton National Park! We did it in 2 days and we do plan to go back for more hiking, but you can definitely catch the highlights in 2 days. Keep reading for the Yellowstone itinerary.
So, what did we do on our 4 days in Yellowstone National Park?
Yellowstone day one
Madison Junction to Lamar Valley
On our first day, we woke up around 7 am to get into the park ASAP. We stayed in West Yellowstone, Montana at a VRBO and drove into the West Entrance of the park. Be warned: there is a LOT of wildlife through this area of the park and you will most likely hit some sort of traffic while people watch bison, elk, and if you’re really lucky, bears. It took us about an hour to travel the 14 miles on the West Entrance road to the intersection at Madison Junction.
From there, we headed North to the Norris Geyser Basin. Along this route, you can stop and see the Gibbon Falls. This was beautiful, but I was itching to see some hot springs so I drug Michael back to the car to get to the Norris Geyser Basin.
Along our first (of many) trail walks along a geyser basin, we saw gorgeous blue hot springs, a few mud pots, and some geysers. The Steamboat Geyser is along this trail. It’s eruptions are very sporadic, but when it does erupt, it’s among the biggest in the park! We didn’t get to see it this time, but even it’s “pre-eruptions” (??? surely that is not a scientific term, but I am going with it) were tall! There are a lot of informational signs along the trails, so if you are like us and have no prior geologic knowledge you can learn a little something.
The color of the water actually reflects the temperature. Blue springs are the hottest, while orange is still hot but not quite as hot. It’s orange because certain thermophils can withstand that temperature, so they grow well in the edges of springs.
From the first geyser basin, we went up to Mammoth Hot Springs. Mammoth Hot Springs is so unique because the way the hot water falls over the landscape, it has created “travertines” of limestone. Limestone is softer than a lot of other rock, so the hot springs has formed these really neat formations.
Mammoth Hot Springs has a pretty hoppin’ little town area, so if you’re hungry or need gas, this a good place to stop! It does get really crowded though, so be prepared to wait. We packed lunch so we just grabbed gas and went on our way.
From here, you’ll go down the next road near the North Entrance toward Tower Falls and Dunraven pass. This area was closed, so we drove out towards the Lamar Valley. If it is open when you visit, I hear Dunraven pass is an excellent 6 mile hike (you can also drive up to the top). Another Yellowstone itinerary listed this, and it seems like a must do if you have the time!
Please note unless you are staying on the north side of the park entrance, Lamar Valley is FAR from everything. It took us almost 2 hours to get out here and it was about a 2 hour drive back.
On our way out to Lamar Valley, we stopped to see some Bison out in a field by the road. We *accidentally* got a little too close for comfort. The park recommends staying 25 yards from any wildlife (100 yards from bears and wolves). We were definitely farther than that and it still felt too close. There was a group of about 6 of us viewing some bison and one lone ranger was alone behind us. I think we startled him because he started walking towards us and snorting and stomping. We stayed a safe distance and were most likely not in any danger but still… This is their home and we wanted to be respectful. Also these boys are gigantic and we didn’t need to be chased by a bison today, haha.
After our exciting bison viewing adventure, we went onward to Lamar Valley. Lamar Valley is one of the best places in the world to view wildlife. I recommend going at dawn or dusk, when the animals are most active. Near dusk, you’ll see hundreds of cars just choosing spots to stake out and see wildlife. I also recommend having binoculars. We didn’t – and I think maybe our eyes would hurt a little less if we did?
Yellowstone day two: Madison Junction to West Thumb Basin
This day was perfect for sleeping in, because it is a shorter day. At Madison Junction, this time we took a right and headed to the South Entrance of the park towards West Thumb Basin.
We drove alllllll the way to the end of the park towards West Thumb Basin. This hot spot is right along Yellowstone Lake. It was pretty early in the morning still, so it was a little foggy. Again, we saw tons of geysers and hot springs, but seeing the springs at the edge of the lake shore was just insanely cool!
There are about 1928475 different hikes you can do in Yellowstone. With limited time, we chose ones that got us off the beaten path but didn’t take all day. This day, we chose to do Mystic Falls. It’s pretty well populated but also surprisingly strenuous. We were not expecting the steep climb up a rocky hill! There is an option to do a much easier, shorter (read: flatter) portion as well, but where’s the fun in that? We had beautiful views of the whole park and then hiked down to the falls.
Naturally, we had to try to get as close to the falls as possible.
On a whim (and because we were desperate to see some bears), we decided to do another short hike at the end of the day. I downloaded the Yellowstone app on my phone (highly recommend) and it tells you about all the hiking trails and difficulty. I noted that one said “CAUTION: Grizzly bears frequent this area.” Okay count us in! Seem crazy? In hindsight, yes. But at the time we had not seen ANY grizzly bears yet, so off we go. We pulled over and found a flat area of rocky trail that went through a lot of land perfect for bison.
And what do ya know, we had our second close Bison encounter. Here we are just minding our own business and through some trees comes a bison walking straight down the trail. We backed up as he came towards us. He backed us all the way off the trail back to our car and then just crossed the road to get to all his friends, ha!
We walked for about an hour and we saw a lotttttttt of bison droppings, a handful of bison, and some birds but no bears. That’s a wrap on day 2.
Yellowstone day three: Hayden Valley to the East Entrance
We got up incredibly early this day (think 4:30 am) to get to Hayden Valley by sunrise. Hayden Valley is another wildlife hot spot. It sits about dead in the middle of the park and has beautiful rolling hills. There are plenty of pull out spots to view wildlife. I recommend doing an initial drive through and then going back to places where you see lots of cars stopped.
Several cars pulled to the shoulder, so we pulled to the shoulder to check it out, too. We had to walk about 300 yards through sage brush (not the easiest thing in the world) but it was SO WORTH IT. We saw 2 wolves (!!!!!!!!!) eating on a carcass. The coolest thing I have ever, ever seen. We sat there for probably close to an hour!
After viewing wildlife, you can hop over to the Mud Volcano, which is a huge mud pot. The coolest part was actually hearing the wolves howl in the woods around us as we walked down the boardwalk, though.
We did another short hike this day through Pelican Valley. Researchers consider Pelican Valley to be the most densely populated area of grizzlies in the lower 48, so this was another desperate attempt to see bears. I’m just gonna go ahead and give you the big spoiler alert: we did not see any bears. Not a single one. Some tracks? Sure. Some bear poop? Yes. ACTUAL BEARS? Nope. To this day, Michael and I are convinced grizzlies don’t actually live in Yellowstone.
(This is a total joke. We know bears are real and need to be protected and viewed from a safe distance. The bears go to higher elevations this time of year to eat bark and berries from different trees, so this is most likely why we didn’t see any.)
After bear searching, we headed back towards the entrance and stopped at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone on the way out. It was beautiful, but crowded. Go early if you want the space to yourself.
This was a shorter day for sure. You can absolutely tack on some things like Yellowstone Lake and the surrounding village. We decided we didn’t value that as much as going back to get a nice lunch and a nap, haha.
We took a middle of the day break at this point to grab some lunch and souvenirs… and then I took a nap. I was up at 4 pm though because we were doing one more sunset drive to see wildlife! We drove up towards the Lamar Valley and picked quite a random spot to try to see bears, bison, or elk.
No such luck. We did have a beautiful picnic in our car though overlooking the valley while the sun set. So not a total loss!
Day four: Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful
This was a shorter day as well. We originally planned to make it a whole day, but decided to go ahead back to Salt Lake City and stay in a hotel before leaving the next day.
Today was all about the major tourist items we hadn’t yet seen: Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring. A Yellowstone itinerary would not be complete if I didn’t add both of these. Both of these are near each other. The app will tell you when Old Faithful is predicted to erupt. That would be helpful to plan your day around that. We didn’t. We went to Grand Prismatic Spring first.
It was. so. foggy. and so. crowded. We walked around the spring and honestly, I could not tell you what anything looked like. It was still pretty early in the morning, so we took the time to do the Fairy Falls hike up to the spring.
The hike splits at one point so you can keep going towards the falls or go to an overlook to see the spring from above. 100% do this!!! It was one of our favorite views from the trip. The colors really are that gorgeous.
Afterwards, we headed to Old Faithful village. There’s a boardwalk that goes around Old Faithful as well as several other geysers. Several people were hanging out waiting for the geyser to erupt again.
It had just gone off, so we actually chose not to see it (I know, I know) but we did see a few smaller geysers erupt! We were happy with our decision, but by all means – check the predictions and plan your trip so you can see this famous geyser in all its glory!
Plan your trip with this easy map!
Woo. There you have it. Four days in Yellowstone. Is anyone still here?! You can obviously rearrange these days to fit your travel plans. Basically, if you follow the main loop you are going to hit all the major landmarks and tourist sites! I love this map to show all the main tourist sites in the park.
Have you been to Yellowstone? It has been one of our favorite trips to date. If you are planning a trip, let me know! I’m happy to help. Make sure you check out my Salt Lake City and Grand Teton guides as well.
Would you find three, two, and one day itineraries useful?
Until next time,