Yellowstone National Park Weekend Itinerary
Yellowstone National Park is a unique national park that protects an area where large volcanic eruptions happened with the latest an estimated 631,000 years ago. The park has diverse wildlife including bison, wolves, bighorn, elk, grizzly bears, black bears, and moose. Within the park you can find over 10,000 geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents.
As you can see in the map below, most of the park forms a figure 8. This itinerary will walk you through the best things to see in Yellowstone in a weekend, splitting the figure 8 up into two loops. The first day in Yellowstone you should complete the top part of the figure 8 along with Lamar Valley, and the second day you should complete the bottom loop. This Yellowstone National Park Weekend Itinerary includes the best time to go to Yellowstone, how to get to Yellowstone, the best things to do in Yellowstone, and more. Continue reading to start planning your weekend at Yellowstone National Park.
Best Time to Go to Yellowstone
Since Yellowstone gets a lot of snow, many of the roads in the park close in the winter between October and Memorial Day Weekend. The road to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone closes in the middle of October, and many of the other roads close early November. You can check the status of the roads on the Yellowstone National Park Website. Once roads open for the summer the park is open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. The earliest I recommend going to Yellowstone is Memorial Day Weekend, since the roads plan to open by this time. This is the weekend that we went, and although it was a long weekend it wasn’t that crowded because the peak season is in July and August. The most ideal time to visit Yellowstone is when the roads are open but it is less crowded, which would be Memorial Day Weekend through middle of June or in September through early October.
How to Get to Yellowstone
Yellowstone is a huge national park spanning almost 3,500 square miles with 5 entrances. There are several airports that you can fly into: Bozeman (BZN), Billings (BIL), Cody (COD), and Jackson Hole (JAC). The cheapest airports to fly into are typically Bozeman and Billings. I recommend flying into Bozeman airport since it is only 1.5 hours from the north entrance of Yellowstone. If you are arriving at night, you can save money by staying near the airport and then driving down to Yellowstone in the morning. Make sure to book a rental car ahead of time so it is ready for you to pickup at the airport.
Yellowstone Entrance Fees
$35 per Vehicle for 7 day pass
OR $80 for America the Beautiful Annual Pass which is accepted at national parks, national monuments, and national forests. If you are planning to visit more national parks within the year this is a great option.
Where to Stay Near Yellowstone
I recommend staying in West Yellowstone which is very close to the top sights in the park. We stayed in The Evergreen which is located only 5 minutes from the west entrance and close to many restaurants. This motel is a good price for the area and the rooms were nice and clean. Other options in West Yellowstone include: Elkhorn Cabins and Inn, Kelly Inn, Moose Creek Inn, Explorer Cabins, and Yellowstone West Gate Hotel.
Tips for Visiting Yellowstone
- Add additional time for driving during your weekend in Yellowstone as people often stop or slow down to look at animals and Bison often cross the road.
- Pack layers as the temperature can change drastically throughout the park. A lightweight down jacket is always a great option since it doesn’t take up much space in your suitcase.
- Bring rain gear since it often rains and you don’t want it to ruin your trip. If you prefer you could also bring an umbrella to stay extra dry.
- Carry a comfortable hiking bag with all your layers and camera gear. This daypack is one of my favorite hiking bags.
- Bring binoculars to help you see animals from far away.
- Please respect the park. Never feed animals. Do not touch the geysers or hot springs or throw anything in them. Keep your distance from the large animals especially bison, moose, and bears.
Tips for Spotting Animals
- Look for animals at dawn and dusk as this is when animals are most active.
- Stop where you see a lot of cars stopped and try to search for what they are seeing. Sometimes it is just Bison which you see a lot of throughout the park, but it could be also be a grizzly or black bear. We stopped where there were a lot of cars and got to see Grizzly Bears and Bighorn.
- Use good binoculars. We saw Grizzly Bears and I would not have been able to see more than a brown spot without the binoculars. They are worth the investment!
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces are formed when the water interacts with limestone, creating white travertine. Rapid travertine build up causes the features to change quickly. When you arrive, park as close as possible to save time as there is plenty of parking if you keep driving closer. Follow the boardwalks up and around the hot springs which will take you by the Main Terrace, Cleopatra Terrace, Minerva Terrace, Liberty Cap, and Hymen Terrace. This loop will take about 45 minutes to an hour depending on how long you want to spend looking at the hot springs and taking photos.
Driving through Lamar Valley is by far one of the best things to do in Yellowstone National Park. Drive east through Lamar Valley until you reach Pebble Creek. On this drive stop at different points and look for animals with your binoculars. In Lamar Valley you can find bison, elk, wolf, black bear, and grizzly bear. We got to see bison, elk, wolf, black bear, and bighorn. When you see a lot of cars stopped it usually means there are animals, so stop and try to find what they spotted.
This is a quick stop where you can take a short walk up stairs to an overlook of the Yellowstone River and hot springs.
Take a short 150 yard walk to a viewpoint of Tower Fall. At this stop there is also a shop, food (ice cream, hot dogs), and bathrooms. If you forgot to bring binoculars you can purchase them in the shop here.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River was formed when hydrothermal activity weakened the bedrock, making the stone softer. The canyon was further deepened and widened by the Yellowstone River eroding the rocks. The canyon varies from 800- 1200 feet in depth and 1500 – 4000 feet in width. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is one of the top sights you will see during your weekend in Yellowstone National Park. Drive along North Rim Drive and stop at different viewpoints including Lookout Point, Grand View and Inspiration Point. Next, continue to South Rim Drive for a great view at Artist Point. At the viewpoints you will be able to see Lower Falls which is 308 ft tall and Upper Falls which is 109 ft tall. The elevation at the Grand Canyon rim is 7,918 ft so it is often colder than the lower elevations in the park. Make sure you bring plenty of layers if you plan on hiking around here.
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest geyser basin. Here you can find Steamboat, which is famous for the world’s highest eruptions. This section has two loop trails: Black Basin Trail and Porcelain Basin Trail. Black Basin Trail is about 1.5 miles and will take you through the woods to Steamboat Geyser, Porkchop Geyser, and many more incredible geysers. Porcelain Basin Trail is about a half mile long and will lead you to a panoramic view of the basin, and then small geysers, boiling springs, and thermophiles (microorganisms that live in the geysers). Here you will also find Fumaroles, or steam vents, which are the hottest geothermal features at Yellowstone. These are usually found on hillsides or higher ground and release steam and other gases from underground.
On your second day at Yellowstone start at the West Entrance and complete the bottom loop of the figure 8. You should stop at the following: Midway Geyser Basin, Biscuit Basin, Black Sand Basin, Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, West Thumb Geyser Basin, and Yellowstone Lake.
Midway Geyser Basin
Midway Geyser Basin has the worlds largest geyser, Excelsior, and world’s largest hot spring, Grand Prismatic Spring. Hot springs occur when water from the surface goes underground and is then heated by a source of magma. The water then rises to the surface as superheated water. Grand Prismatic Spring has yellow, orange and brown colors due to thermophiles, microorganisms that love heat. The microbes have colorful pigments which let them make energy from the sunlight. The blue color in the middle of the hot spring is from the sunlight being scattered by particles in the water. Midway Geyser Basin is one of the highlights of this Yellowstone weekend itinerary since you get to see the famous Grand Prismatic Spring. Walk along the half mile boardwalk loop to get a close view of Excelsior Geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring, Opal Pool, and Turquoise Pool. This area gets very crowded, but you can usually find parking along the road.
Fairy Falls Trail
This 1.2 mile trail leads to an amazing viewpoint of the Grand Prismatic Spring. After going up to the viewpoint, walk past the stairs and hike a little longer for more views of the Grand Prismatic Spring. This hike is one of the best things to do in Yellowstone since you get another view of the Grand Prismatic Spring.
Biscuit Basin is a quick stop where you can follow the 1/4 mile loop to see Sapphire Pool and more hot springs and geysers.
Black Sand Basin
At Black Sand Basin walk along the 1/4 mile trail to Emerald Pool, Cliff Geyser, Rainbow Pool and Sunset Lake.
Old Faithful is the tallest geyser that erupts regularly. Seeing Old Faithful erupt is one of the top things to do in Yellowstone National Park. Old Faithful usually erupts every 68-94 minutes for 1.5-5 minutes and it erupts as high as 106-184 ft. You can check the prediction times of the next eruption at the visitor center or on the national park website, although you most likely won’t have cell service in the park. The estimated time is usually plus or minus 10 minutes, so make sure you check the times so you don’t miss it and have to wait another hour or more.
Upper Geyser Basin
This is the area where Old Faithful is and it features incredible geysers and hot springs throughout the 1.4 mile walk to Morning Glory Pool. This was my favorite area in Yellowstone since all the geysers and hot springs were so unique and colorful and you get to see so many of them in one small area. Visiting Morning Glory Pool and the walk there is one of the best things to do in Yellowstone National Park and a must during your Yellowstone weekend.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
This geyser basin is located along Yellowstone Lake. The area has many hot springs and geysers including Abyss Pool, Black Pool, Lakeshore Geyser, Lakeside Spring, Ephedra Spring, and more. There are two loops that take you by these geysers and hot springs, with incredible views of Yellowstone Lake and surrounding mountains. We were lucky to see elk and a calf on this trail, so try to look out for elk in this area.
A weekend in Yellowstone is not complete without seeing Yellowstone Lake. Yellowstone Lake is at 7,000 ft, making it the largest high elevation lake in North America. This lake is 286 square miles, with an average depth of 138 feet. Spend time driving around the lake and exploring the Fishing Bridge area.
If you have extra time
- Drive through Hayden Valley where you might be able to see Bison, Elk, Wolf, Black Bear, and Grizzly Bear.
- Mud Volcano
- Lone Star Geyser
- Fountain Paint Pot
- Artists Paintpots
- Roaring Mountain
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