Yellowstone National Park Weekend Itinerary
Yellowstone National Park is a unique national park that protects an area where large volcanic eruptions happened over 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 has all the information you need to plan your weekend in Yellowstone National Park.
Table of Contents
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 several of the other roads close in 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 in the spring is Memorial Day Weekend, since this is when the roads usually open. 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, visiting the park around the busy months of July and August.
How to Get to Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is a huge national park spanning almost 3,500 square miles with 5 entrances. There are several airports that you can fly into including 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. Start planning your trip by searching for flights on Skyscanner to find the best deals.
To explore the park you would need to either rent a car or do an organized tour. Book your rental car for your weekend in Yellowstone on Discover Cars which checks rental car rates across companies to help you find the best price.
To learn more about the park as you are driving around, consider downloading this self-guided driving audio tour.
Yellowstone National Park Tours
If you prefer to do an organized tour over driving through the park, there are a few tour options to consider. This Private Boutique Tour of Yellowstone’s Lower Loop from West Yellowstone allows you to enjoy the park with a customized tour.
If you are a solo traveler, this Lower Loop Van Tour from West Yellowstone is a great option since it is a small-group tour and you will get to meet fellow travelers. You will get picked up from your hotel at Yellowstone so you can avoid the stress of driving around the park and won’t need to spend money on renting a car to see Yellowstone.
If you are staying in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and want to visit Yellowstone for a day, this full-day Yellowstone National Park and wildlife tour from Jackson Hole would be perfect for you.
Yellowstone Entrance Fees
The fee for visiting Yellowstone National Park is $35 per private vehicle for a 7-day pass.
If you plan on visiting 3 or more national parks in the next year, I recommend buying the America the Beautiful Annual Pass which allows access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites including national parks, national monuments, and national forests. At $80 you would have paid this out when visiting over 3 national parks since most national parks cost about $30.
Where to Stay for a Weekend at Yellowstone
The best area to stay when visiting Yellowstone National Park is in West Yellowstone, Montana. This town is close to the top sights in the park and has affordable accommodations.
We stayed in The Evergreen which is located only 5 minutes from the west entrance and walking distance to a few restaurants. This motel is a good price for the area and the rooms were nice and clean. More hotel options in West Yellowstone are: Elkhorn Cabins and Inn, Kelly Inn, Moose Creek Inn, Explorer Cabins, and Yellowstone West Gate Hotel.
Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park in a Weekend
- Make sure to factor in additional driving time for your weekend in Yellowstone as people often stop or slow down to look at animals which can cause traffic.
- Pack layers as the temperature can change drastically throughout the park. A lightweight down jacket is always a great option since it is light and keeps you warm.
- It could rain during your weekend in Yellowstone and you don’t want that to ruin your trip. Be prepared with a rain coat and umbrella so you can stay dry and explore the park.
- Bring a comfortable hiking bag with you to carry your extra laters, water, and snacks. This daypack is one of my favorite hiking bags.
- Don’t forget 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.
Tips for Spotting Animals
- The best time to spot animals is 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.
- Don’t forget to bring binoculars. We saw Grizzly Bears and wouldn’t have been able to see more than a brown speck if we didn’t have them.
Yellowstone National Park Weekend Itinerary: Day 1
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 some 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 beautiful 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.
Yellowstone National Park Weekend Itinerary: Day 2
On your second day at Yellowstone start at the West Entrance and complete the bottom loop of the figure 8. Top destinations that you shouldn’t miss on this day are: 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 is one of the highlights of this Yellowstone weekend itinerary since you get to see the famous Grand Prismatic Spring here. Grand Prismatic Spring has yellow, orange and brown colors due to thermophiles which are 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.
Walk along the half mile boardwalk loop to get a close view of Grand Prismatic Spring, Opal Pool, and Turquoise Pool. You will also pass by the worlds tallest active geyser called Excelsior. This area gets very crowded, but you can usually find parking along the road.
How are hot springs formed? 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.
Fairy Falls Trail
This 1.2 mile trail leads to an off-the-beaten-path 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.
Read More: Weekend in Rocky Mountain National Park
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 in Yellowstone. 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. The estimated time is usually plus or minus 10 minutes, so make sure to get there early so you don’t miss it and have to wait another hour.
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 unique and colorful and you get to see a large number geothermal features in one small area. Visiting Morning Glory Pool one of the best things to do in Yellowstone National Park and a must during your weekend in Yellowstone.
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 located 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.
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