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Yellowstone Itinerary That Hits The Highlights In 3 Days

After writing about some of our favorite easy trails at Yellowstone National Park, I had several people ask about our itinerary. If you’ve never been to the park, it’s intimidating to plan that first trip. At least, I felt it was. So, I’m happy to share Yellowstone itinerary and how we had three fun-filled days with our kids there.

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Want to stay in the park? Do this first

First and foremost, if staying inside Yellowstone National Park is a priority, reserve your cabin or book your room far, far in advance. Think, Disney-level planning.

We stayed at a cabin in Canyon Lodge & Cabins for two nights in June 2020, and I reserved that cabin the day 2020 accommodations became available. So, I booked it more than a year in advance.

While you don’t need to have a full itinerary figured out at the point, it would be wise to have a general idea of things you want to see. I opted for Canyon Lodge because of its location. It’s fairly central in the park, not too far north or two far south, and very near the Grand Canyon.

Your priorities may be different. Maybe you want to stay closer to a particular animal viewing area. Maybe you want to stay in one of the historic lodges. Maybe you want to stay at the least expensive place in the park.

For Yellowstone, summer reservations open May 1 for the following year. So, you can start booking 2023 trips on May 1, 2021.

Not into planning more than a year in advance? You’ve got options. One of the cities closest to the park’s West Entrance with plenty of hotel and cabin choices is West Yellowstone, Mon. Near the North Entrance is the Montana town of Gardiner, with few options but still a good variety.

Three-Day Itinerary Overview

I’ll state the obvious: Yellowstone National Park is huge. It’s nearly 3,500 square miles and spans two states. And with five entrances, it’s understandably a little overwhelming to plan to visit the park.

Reiner family at the Grand Prismatic Spring located at the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone

Here’s a quick look at the three days:

Day 1: South Loop Drive (Old Faithful, Midway Geyser Basin/Grand Prismatic Spring, Lower Geyser Basin/Fountain Paint Pot, Canyon Village, Yellowstone Lake, Mud Volcano)

Day 2: The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone South Rim hike and North Rim scenic overlook

Day 3: North Loop Drive (Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley)

We spent the majority of our time in the South Loop. This is partly due to road closure between Canyon Village and Tower-Roosevelt. You’ll want to keep an eye on construction to make sure your plans are impacted.

Take it easy, though. It’s a visit to a park, so enjoy yourself and enjoy the planning.

Yellowstone Day 1 – South Loop

Stops: Old Faithful, Midway Geyser Basin (Grand Prismatic Spring), Lower Geyser Basin (Fountain Paint Pot), Canyon Village, Yellowstone Lake, Mud Volcano

We started our day fairly early, like at 8 a.m., and entered the park from the South Entrance. Our first destination was Old Faithful, driving the South Loop clockwise, but we made a few stops along the way.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for waterfalls.

Lewis Falls at Yellowstone National Park

Our impromptu stops included:

  • Lewis Falls – A very brief hike can get you closer to the 30-foot-tall falls. The trail is a little uneven, and there are steps, but overall, it’s quite manageable for kids.
  • Kepler Cascades – This was another brief stop. It’s a bigger waterfall than Lewis Falls, but otherwise, not too memorable.

We made it to the Old Faithful area right before 10 a.m. and had no trouble parking.

Side note: We visited in June 2020, when many accommodations were closed and tour groups were not operating. Your experience in a summer month will likely be vastly different. June is a popular time to visit the park and especially Old Faithful, so expect a crowd and expect longer drive times.

Old Faithful geyser eruption at Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful is a pretty well-monitored geyser, so you can check predicted eruption times on the Yellowstone app. We had about an hour to kill before it was expected to erupt, so we walked around the boardwalk and marveled at the otherworldly terrain.

It’s tempting to nab a bench near the Old Faithful and just wait, but it’s well worth wandering around to see what is nearby!

Exploring other geological features located near Old Faithful

In regular times, there are ranger talks and visitor centers and other interesting stuff to enhance your visit. During our visit, many things were closed. We did catch a ranger on the board walk to ask some questions, and of course, the gift shop was open.

And speaking of the gift shop, also known as Old Faithful General store, you’ll find an ice cream shop in back. Word is that the huckleberry ice cream is good, but I went old school with chocolate.

And yes, we had ice cream before noon. It was vacation.

Our next stop was the Midway Geyser Basin, specifically to see Grand Prismatic Spring. It was already an exciting stop before we left the parking lot – there was a buffalo roaming fairly nearby.

A view of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone

This was definitely an impressive stop in the park. The loop around the Grand Prismatic was one-way when we were here, and easy to stay socially distant even on the boardwalk.

There’s a whole lot more pools to gawk at while you’re there, but for sure, the Grand Prismatic steals the show.

Our next stop was Lower Geyser Basin. By this point, it was the afternoon and the crowds were present so parking was more of a patience game and it was slow moving on the boardwalks. Still, this was yet another other-worldly spot in the park.

Walking along the boardwalk at Midway Geyser Basin

Highlights there included the Fountain Paint Pot and Spasm Geyser (and nearby Clepsydra Geyser).

We had packed a picnic lunch and stopped at a picnic area near Madison to enjoy it. We spent the late afternoon getting settled into our cabin, and then planned our dusk excursion. We grabbed takeout at Canyon Village and took it to Yellowstone Lake for a lakeside dinner.

dad and son having a picnic dinner on the rocky beach of Yellowstone Lake

Hordes of mosquitos? Oh you bet. Unforgettable evening? Absolutely. Did the kids finally learn to skip stones? No.

That was going to be the end of the evening, but a road sign for Mud Volcano piqued our interest on our drive back to the cabin. It was a beautiful stop, though by this point, we were tired of stairs and “short” hikes. The Churning Caldron was pretty interesting, plus we had another buffalo sighting.

The Churning Caldron at Yellowstone National Park

(In the end, we saw A LOT of buffalo, and it was exciting every time)

Yellowstone Day 2 – The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Stops: South Rim of the Grand Canyon (Uncle Tom’s Trail, Artist’s Point, Clear Lake), North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Day 2 involved far less driving and far more time on the trail. The Grand Canyon is has a North Rim and a South Rim. I read that the South Rim was better for families, so that was our destination.

This hike is fairly long for beginners, but easy in terrain. Bring plenty of water because we did not find fountains along the trail.

Boy looking at Lower Falls in Yellowstone Grand Canyon

We started the hike at Uncle Tom’s Trail, which connected to the South Rim Trail. It took us along the canyon, providing a breathtaking view of Lower Falls, on our way to Lookout Point, and on to Artist Point. This hike was about 2 miles to this point.

Artist Point is one of the most photographed spots in the park, because the view of the falls is phenomenal. One sign read “Beyond the reach of human art,” and you’d better believe it.

To make it a loop, we continued on, now walking to the Artist Point Trailhead that led to Ribbon Lake. Along the way, you’ll reach the turn off in the trail for Lily Pad Lake (about 3 miles into the hike). It’s a serene pond, with — you guessed it — lots of lily pads.

Nor much further along, you’ll reach a function for Clear Lake-Ribbon Lake Trail, which you’ll want to take.

The barren terrain found along the trail between Clear Lake and Lily Pad Lake in Yellowstone.

It starts to get interesting, as the trail leads you through a patch of bubbling mud pots. The desolate scene is rather eerie, like walking around another planet.

Which makes arriving at Clear Lake (3.8 miles into the hike), all the more remarkable. The surreal, green water is fed by hot springs, so there’s no dipping into this lake.

Girl running down the trail to Clear Lake in Yellowstone National Park

So our luck ran out at this point and a rainstorm rolled in. We had pastures to run through along the Clear Lake Trail before we made it back to the parking lot of Uncle Tom’s Trail.

On our way back to Canyon Village, we made a quick stop at an outlook from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We were exhausted so its was a very quick stop.

The scenic outlook had a stunning view of the canyon and Lower Falls.

Girl looking at Lower Falls from a scenic outlook at the North Rim of the Yellowstone Grand Canyon.

Related post: Our favorite (easy) trails in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Day 3

For our final day in Yellowstone, we had a few must-sees to check off our list, and they were all in the northern part of the park.

Walking along the boardwalk at Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

Our first stop of the day was Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. The terraced landscape is picturesque and unlike any other spot in the park. Explore the entire boardwalk so you can see sights like the Mound Terrace.

Tip: Parking at Mammoth Hot Springs was packed, but there are more parking lots along the road with nice trails that lead you back to the springs.

Pools of water on the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces in Yellowstone

For lunch we stopped at the Terrace Grill for takeout. There were a good variety of burgers, deli sandwiches and vegetarian options.

We drove along Lamar Valley on our way out of the park (exiting through the Northeast Entrance). Lamar Valley is hard to describe but it’s a stunning landscape and so wide open, it’s hard to grasp. We didn’t stop to hike, as it was departure time for us.

On our way out, herd of bison roamed the valley and, at one point, came upon us in the road. It was a thrill, and intense, to see them up close. We were all safely in our vehicles.

A bison herd crossing the road in Lamar Valley

Have an extra day or two?

Lucky you! If you have four or more days to plan in Yellowstone, you can do some of the things I had to leave for another visit. Some of the things I wanted to do were closed due to the pandemic, so they weren’t even an option for me. If you’re lucky enough, look into the Old West Dinner Cookout with horse ride near Roosevelt. That was on my bucket list.

Of course, you can be pretty active with your spare day. You can find outfitters offering two-hour rafting trips, kayaking tours on Yellowstone Lake, and open air tours. See the Top 10 Yellowstone tours and activities.

Plan a Grand Teton & Yellowstone trip

Our three days in Yellowstone was part of a longer national park road trip that included a few days in Grand Teton National Park. I’ll share our itinerary for Grand Teton soon, but in the mean time, you can check out our favorite hikes there and the cabin we stayed in (it’s perfectly located between Grand Teton and Yellowstone!).

And, if you’re thinking of including one pure touristy day, consider a day trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Happy trails!

Highlights of Yellowstone National Park and how to fit them into three days (or less).
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