If you’ve decided to accept the challenge and plan a 3 day itinerary to Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, congratulations! You will absolutely love seeing all the animals and nature in this area. This is the big momma of National Parks, the park that you must see before you die. Why? There are so many geysers and otherworldly looking hot springs. I could go on and on about how amazing this place is (especially the wolves!) but since you are planning a trip for the first time, we will stick with basics.
First, Yellowstone is a huge park (3,500 square miles!), so you will have to make decisions on which parts you want to see and which direction to enter the park (yes, that’s a thing!). Because I drove in from Salt Lake, we decided to continue north and enter Yellowstone from the west entrance so we could get to our campground. You might want to head to Jackson, Wyoming for your trip.
After a hefty discussion, the non-negotiables for this trip were Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Your choices may be different, but we scratched off the northeast side of the park in interest of time and activities (we wanted more time on the ground and less in our car).
For the same reason, I also created this itinerary with the understanding that we needed to be very flexible with how we saw our chosen locations. Wildlife will always stand in the road, causing 3-hour traffic jams, and weather can be unpredictable so I knew one day might be a total wash.
We decided to camp in the park but if you’re not into camping, there are hotels and restaurants inside Yellowstone as well (more on that later), plus a town at the West Entrance if it gets too rural for you. We also decided our first full day in Yellowstone National Park would be the do-it-all see-it-all day and the following would be a leisurely sightseeing adventure. Here is your 3 day Yellowstone itinerary for the first-timer (so you don’t miss the good stuff!).
Day 1 – Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring
As soon as we woke up for our first full day (I had to set an alarm so we were on the road before 9 a.m.) we hopped in the car and made our way south to Old Faithful. At this point, we didn’t know what time Old Faithful would erupt but hoped we would make it on time to see the geyser in action. Luckily we did!
The park rangers keep track of when Old Faithful is erupting, so you can go into a visitor center and ask them or, if you have service, check out the geysers forecast on twitter (@GeyserNPS). And thanks to a Bison Traffic Jam, we had hardly anyone around us when the famous geyser erupted.
Then, we perused the visitors center and after checking Old Faithful off our bucket list, we decided to check out Grand Prismatic Spring, which is the super colorful, super dangerous, hot spring you have seen online. Because this spring is so popular, we initially wanted to try the hike that you follow along the boardwalk.
However, when we arrived, the parking lot was full and several cars were parked along the road so we headed off to the Grand Prismatic overlook trail instead (remember, be patient and flexible!). This trail is considered easy, and your older family members could manage, they just might take a bit longer on the incline to the overlook. But once you get to the top, the view is fantastic!
Now, at this point in the day, traffic was really congested, so we cruised around nearby Fire Hole Lake Drive to see more geysers and deadly hot springs. Drives around the park are a perfect way to add more options into your Yellowstone itinerary without totally depleting your energy.
Once we decided to have a late lunch, we stopped at the Nez Perce Picnic Area and dove into our sandwiches. Picnic areas in Yellowstone do not have potable water, so when you are planning your Yellowstone itinerary, make sure to pack enough water in your vehicle.
Soon after a leisurely break for a late lunch and walk around the picnic area, we headed back in our car. At this point the place was packed, just like Disney World! If you live in a city, you are very familiar with bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. It isn’t any different in Yellowstone (patience is key!).
In this case, this is the part of our day where we really had to be flexible. We headed back to our campsite to prepare dinner, only to spill all of our food onto the dirt before we had a chance to eat. Because we made a quinoa salad, it was not salvageable. So we cleaned up all the food (so we wouldn’t attract bears or other wildlife), drove to Canyon Lodge and filled our bellies with a burger and fries. It made our day much longer than anticipated, but we were so thankful for the food our tired bodies needed after an exciting day in the park. So know that you aren’t totally out of luck if you need to stop somewhere and eat.
Day 2 – Norris Geyser Basin and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
After an exciting (and late) day exploring Yellowstone, we decided to head out to the middle of the park and explore Norris Geyser Basin and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. This was where a 3 day Yellowstone itinerary can make you to realize just how large the park is (it takes about 2 hours without wildlife traffic jams to get to Canyon from Old Faithful).
First, we stopped at Norris Geyser Basin to see the record-breaking geyser in action. This geyser was in the news leading up to our trip for the major eruptions of really hot steam shooting up into the air several times a day (just like New York, I hear). If you are able to make time and see this in person, I highly recommend it! Plus when we were there, several scientists from around the world were attendance, which made the viewing even more spectacular with their commentary.
Then we headed east to the Canyon area. This was my favorite section because of how accessible it was. Driving tours can help you cover a lot of ground, and keep the group’s energy level at a good point. After talking to a ranger about options, we decided to drive along both north and south rim drive to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
Again, we were losing steam at this point in the day so we opted for easy walks and scenic drives. When we stopped along our drive to see the falls, it was amazing! You could hear the falls before you saw them. There was this distant roar as soon as we parked the car and stepped out. As we walked closer, the roar got louder and then finally you could see the water below. I’ve always known and understood how erosion works, but seeing this waterfall really put it into perspective. This is a must-see, and because the Canyon area is so accessible, your whole family can see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone in person.
Finally, we ran into several wildlife traffic jams (including a Grizzly! They’re so terrifyingly beautiful) and didn’t get back to the Canyon Village until the late afternoon. So we turned in early and headed back to our campground to make dinner.
Day 3 – Bridge Bay Yellowstone Lake
On our third and final day in Yellowstone, we decided to visit Yellowstone Lake before leaving the park. On our way there, we saw more wildlife, including a beautiful Elk laying in a meadow as tourists snapped photos. Some were a little too close for comfort, but we stayed in our car so we were safe.
Obviously, this is a beautiful place, but Yellowstone is a dangerous place. The animals in this park have killed people who chose to get too close. It’s recommended to stay 25 yards away from most animals, but even further away from bears. There’s no way I could run away from any of those animals without getting hurt. Even though this is a national Park, these are wild animals and no one but yourself is responsible for your safety. Listen to the park rangers, it could save your life!
On this occasion we were getting pretty tired, so we decided on not only easy trails but to view the lake from the shoreline. This area of the park didn’t feel as rural, but more like state park lakes, I’ve been to in the past. But with triple the wildlife. Then we headed to the south, to West Thumb Geyser Basin for our final viewing before heading south to Jackson, Wyoming.
As I have said, visiting Yellowstone will take several trips because it’s such a huge park. But for the first-timer, a 3-day Yellowstone itinerary will get you to the main sights without using all your PTO in one trip. For us, adding more days would elevate the trip to a hotel stay, as multiple nights of sleeping on the ground can take delete your reserves (especially if traveling with older family members). Figure out a couple of must-sees, and be prepared for everything to go haywire as bison cause traffic jams and your cell service goes out. But overall, enjoy the beautiful sights, the wildlife, and take all the pictures.
The Basics – 3 day Yellowstone Itinerary
Best time to visit:
Spring for baby animals, Summer for less rain and cooler weather (70°F ish)
How to get there:
Drive your way into the park. You can fly into SLC (international airport), Billings, Montana (small airport), or Jackson, Wyoming and rent a car.
A vehicle (unless you want to do the tour bus thing)
USD or your credit card
Primarily English, but many guides are in other languages
Stay inside the park for quicker access to the sights
What to eat:
Canyon Lodge Eatery saved my belly after my camping food fell on the ground.
While camping, I made all my food.
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