Yellowstone is undoubtedly one of the most famous National Parks in the United States. 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?” First off, if you’re wondering if it’s worth it… the answer is absolutely 100% yes. Second, if you’re wondering how in the world you’re going to plan this trip, I got your back. Check out this perfect four day 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 four day Yellowstone itinerary.
So, what should you do with a four day Yellowstone itinerary? Let’s jump in. But first…
Table of Contents
Should you use a travel advisor for Yellowstone National Park?
Obviously, I am a little biased seeing as I am a travel advisor but… the answer is a resounding YES. Planning a trip to a national park, especially one this large, can be a daunting task. The travel components are tricky, lodging is really hard to find, and there’s often weather and other events that can affect travel.
Using a travel advisor that has connections to suppliers and an idea of the park can be a gamechanger when it comes to planning your Yellowstone vacation. Whether you just need a little guidance, or want it planned from start to finish, I got your back.
Where to stay in Yellowstone
When you look for lodging near Yellowstone National Park, you’ll find your options slightly… limited. There are no 5 star hotels or luxury boutique hotels here! Rustic lodges, home rentals, and campgrounds are the primary accommodations in Yellowstone. West Yellowstone and Gardiner are the two main towns to base yourself. West Yellowstone is closer to Yellowstone Lake and some of the upper basin geysers, whereas Gardiner is closer to Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley. It’s definitely doable to stay in one place–we did–but if you want to spend less time in the car, split your time between West Yellowstone and Gardiner.
Old Faithful Inn
Old Faithful Inn is located in the center of the park near the Old Faithful Geyser. To book, you’ll want to plan around when availability is released (about one year in advance) because rooms get booked fast. This is lodging within the park, so you’ll book through the National Park Service.
Canyon Lodge is also a part of the National Park Service, so you’ll want to prepare to book far in advance. This lodge is pretty centrally located in the park which makes it a hot commodity!
A rustic lodge located in West Yellowstone, this hotel is perfect for small families. There’s a pool, decent sized rooms, and it’s only a few miles from the park entrance!
Under Canvas Yellowstone is probably my favorite accommodation on this list! This brand is known for “glamping” and it truly is luxury brought to the woods. You won’t be without any modern conveniences but still get sleep right under the stars every night.
The Ridgeline Hotel
Located in Gardiner, The Ridgeline is a contemporary style hotel that offers amazing views of the mountains and nearby river.
There are a myriad of home rentals for any group size from couples to a multi-generational family. No matter your price point, we can find the perfect rental for you. Be sure to reach out to me to find your perfect fit!
Yellowstone day one
Madison Junction to Lamar Valley
On your first day, you’ll want to wake up early to get into the park ASAP. If you’re in West Yellowstone, you’ll enter at the West Entrance. 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. The 14 miles on the West Entrance road to the intersection at Madison Junction can take upwards of an hour.
From there, head 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 the first (of many) trail walks along a geyser basin, you see 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! 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.
One little pre-trip tidbit for ya: 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, continue 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. On trips like this, I always recommend packing PB&Js so you can maximize park time (and save some money… trips to national parks can be sneaky expensive!).
From here, you’ll go down the next road near the North Entrance toward Tower Falls and Dunraven pass. This area was closed when we visited, 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.
Okay…. back to your regularly scheduled content! 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 is perfect for sleeping in, because it is a shorter day. At Madison Junction, this time you’ll take a right and headed to the South Entrance of the park towards West Thumb Basin.
Drive allllll the way to the end of the park towards West Thumb Basin. This hot spot is right along Yellowstone Lake. Here, there are tons of geysers and hot springs, but seeing the springs at the edge of the lake shore is just insanely cool!
There are about a billion 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. Mystic Falls fits the bill of being doable in just a couple hours and escaping a few of the crowds. 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.
Side note: did you know that of the 2 million visitors Yellowstone receives per year, more than 80% never leave the boardwalk areas?
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!
The trail we did was Mary Mountain-Nez Pearce trail and is 20.2 miles long.
Yellowstone day three: Hayden Valley to the East Entrance
I hope you enjoyed sleeping in yesterday because day 3 requires a very early wake up call (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.)
Aside from our interest in bears, this was an awesome, easy and flat trail. You can see bison from a distance in many parts of the trail and enjoy the beautiful landscape!
bear searching hiking, we head 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 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
Today is all about the major tourist items you 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, which would be helpful to plan your day around.
Fairy Falls trails is a short, slightly crowded hike that will take you to this overlook. It doesn’t take long and helps you to see the spring so much better. 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, head 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.
Plan your trip with this easy map!
Final thoughts/recommendations on a Four Day Yellowstone Itinerary
This four day Yellowstone itinerary is perfect to see not only the top rated tourist spots in Yellowstone, but take you a little off the beaten path too. Yellowstone is truly a once in a lifetime experience (well, you can certainly go more than once but the initial impact is much greater the first time). This is a trip that is very worth the effort to make it here! Book your stay at Canyon Lodge far in advance, book your rental car, and get excited for the trip of a lifetime.
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.
Plan your trip
Don’t forget, working with a travel advisor can save you valuable time and money… and in many cases, unlock free perks like breakfast, room upgrades, and resort credits.