Most people will tell you it takes at least a week to see Yellowstone National Park. If you like to relax and take your time when traveling, that is probably true. This itinerary for seeing Yellowstone National Park in just three days is not for the faint of heart. It is, however, for those people with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), the ability to enjoy life on very little sleep, and/or time constraints with a love for travel. We were able to see all the highlights and even a little more. We did this itinerary for Yellowstone with four adults and four kiddos ranging in age from 4 – 13 years old. It was exhausting but also fulfilling!
This itinerary starts through the South Entrance, coming from Grand Teton National Park, and is based off of lodging near West Yellowstone. It can easily be shuffled based on where you are coming from and where you are lodging.
Before you go, download theGeyser Watch app and the Yellowstone app. It gives up-to-date estimates on when major eruptions are going to happen, where road construction is, and which sites are closed throughout the park. This can help you adjust your day.
I would also suggest doing this itinerary during the weekday. Weekdays will still be crowded but the crowds will be lessened just enough to make parking easier, which will keep you moving.
Follow this link to the map if you would like to follow along and visualize each location.
Day One: South Yellowstone
Start today early. Drive into the South Entrance and head for Old Faithful. The Visitor’s Center at Old Faithful opens at 8 and, for parking purposes, it is best to get there before the visitor’s center opens. You can also check the Geyser Watch App to see what time Old Faithful will erupt and plan to be there before that eruption. We arrived at Old Faithful one hour before an eruption and it was super easy to get a parking spot. This gave us plenty of time to check out the cool museums and gift shops while still getting a good seat to watch Old Faithful. By the time we were 20 minutes out from the eruption the parking lot was packed!
After Old Faithful, drive north towards Midway Geyser Basin. This is where Grand Prismatic Spring is and will be the next long stop. There are plenty of roadside stops along the way, though. Feel free to add in whichever ones look interesting, you have plenty of time.
Just before Midway Geyser Basin, there is a pullout on the west side of the road for Fairy Falls. We have it on good authority that this is the best way to see Grand Prismatic Spring. The friends we met up with at Yellowstone took their kids on this hike and they said all of them loved it! They had it recommended to them by a park ranger. This overlook gets you above Grand Prismatic Spring AND above the crowd. It is much more enjoyable than trying to fight the crowd in the Midway Geyser Basin. (Side Note – Kenon and I skipped Fairy Falls because we did this loop too early in the morning. When the air outside is too cold, the Grand Prismatic is so steamy that the colors are barely visible.)
After Fairy Falls, continue on towards Madison Junction. Based on the time of day, you can decide how much time to spend at each attraction between Midway Geyser Basin and Madison Junction. Madison Junction is the last stop for today.
My favorite stop on this stretch was the Firehole Canyon Drive. It is absolutely gorgeous!
Once you have seen your fill of Yellowstone for the day, head west at Madison Junction, toward West Yellowstone. West Yellowstone is a super fun tourist town at the edge of the park. It is a great way to end this day! It has plenty of shopping, restaurants, candy, and ice cream!
I highly recommend the Eagle’s Store Soda Fountain for getting ice cream. They make their chocolate sauce homemade and the service makes the experience so fun.
Then head back to wherever you are staying and call it a night! Again – this itinerary is built around lodging near West Yellowstone. There is a ton of campgrounds, RV parks, hotels, cabins, and AirBnBs in West Yellowstone and south toward Island Park, Idaho.
Day Two: Norris Basin and Canyon Village
We asked ourselves a lot on this day, “Is it worth it?” As in – is that boardwalk loop worth it, is getting out of the car worth it, is walking all those stairs worth it? Over and over, every time, we decided “Yes.” Get ready to have your mind blown with unique geology on this day!
Start this day early, too, because parking is limited on this side! You will thank yourself for getting ahead of the crowd, at least for part of the day. We were on the road by 7.
Drive into the park from the West Entrance, toward Madison Junction. There are some cool sights on the way, like Beryl Spring. At Madison Junction, turn north toward Norris Geyser Basin. Between Madison Junction and Norris Geyser the main stop is the Artist Paintpots. The Artist Paintpots are so cool because of all the bubbling, thick, noisy mud pots. Our group was mesmerized.
Norris Geyser Basin is another one of those “get there early” places, otherwise you will waste a lot of time sitting in a long line of cars, waiting for parking. It was also my favorite place in the park. It is steamy, noisy, alive, and colorful! It bares absolutely no comparison to any other place I have been.
We walked the Porcelain Basin and part of the Back Basin. We took the shorter loop in the Back Basin because, while the geysers were amazing, we wanted to make sure we got to see other things, too.
Next, head toward Canyon Village. This is the gateway to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the golden-hued canyon that gave Yellowstone its name. There is a museum, a gift shop, a general store, cafes, and more. And plenty of parking! We stopped at the general store and loaded up on ALL the huckleberry treats before heading out to lunch. The kids loved getting all things huckleberry. Okay, us adults did too, because, well, huckleberry and it made a great memory.
From Canyon Village we drove toward the Yellowstone River and ate at the picnic area at the start of South Rim Drive. Next, we drove the South Rim and visited Artist Point. We then doubled back to get on the North Rim Drive. The North Rim Drive has 5 main lookout points: Brink of Upper Falls, Lower Falls, Lookout Point, Grand View, and Inspiration Point. We skipped Brink of Upper and Inspiration because they were closed. You can park anywhere between Lower Falls and Grand View; they are all so close together you can walk from one to the other without having to fight for parking every time.
Lower Falls is 600 feet of rugged switchbacks but this was the favorite of the 9-year-old boy in our group. You get to stand right at the top of the falls. Lookout Point has two lookouts: Lookout Point and Red Rocks. The first is very easy. Red Rocks is a lot of stairs but, in my opinion, the best view out of the options. Grand View is also easy but does not give a view of the waterfall, only the canyon.
We REALLY wanted to do Uncle Tom’s Staircase instead of all the overlooks. But it was closed. This will add more time to this stop, but not too much as it means you can skip the other overlooks, especially Artist Point. Uncle Tom’s Staircase is supposed to have an incredible view!
We spent the rest of the afternoon driving toward Fisherman’s Bridge. The drive winds through a sunny valley where bison, geese, and trumpet swans can be spotted. The Mud Pots along this route are where the famed Dragon’s Breath can be found – a favorite for kiddos!
We ended at Fisherman’s Bridge, the outlet for Yellowstone Lake. Looking out from the bridge, you can spot fish in the clear water.
Then we started the long drive back to West Yellowstone. It’s about two hours from Fisherman’s Bridge back to West Yellowstone, but so worth the time!
Day Three: North Loop
We did not bother getting an early start this day. We stopped at Ernie’s Bakery and Deli for donuts and coffee (HIGHLY recommend!!) and took it slow. It would have been to our benefit to start early, though, because the day ended up being longer than originally planned.
We entered through the West Entrance, passed Madison Junction, and continued north towards the Mammoth Hot Springs area. We stopped at a couple of lookouts along the way but our main goal was Mammoth Hot Springs.
We parked at the Lower Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs and walked around a lot of those fountains. One thing I love about Yellowstone is that it is in a constant state of change. Lower Terraces is a prime example. It is difficult for me to tell you which parts of the Lower Terraces are worth seeing because different parts dry out and other parts wake up as days and years go by. Something that was vibrant and colorful when I was there might be white and dry when you are. My best advice is to simply look around and see what looks interesting.
We finished this off with the Upper Terrace drive but most of it was white and dry so we did not stop at all.
After that, we drove to the Boiling River to take a swim. Amazing swimming hole! Hot springs join an alpine river to make a bathing experience perfect for a whole family. You can pick your temperature. The closer you get to the hot springs, the hotter you are. The deeper you get into the river, the colder you are. So cool! It is a very popular spot to hang out. If you are looking for something relaxing it is probably not the spot for you. If you are looking for something unique, exciting, and family-oriented it is perfect!
Pro-tip: Wear water shoes, Chacos, or something similar. The bottom of the river is very rocky and difficult to navigate barefoot. To find out how to get to the Boiling River follow this link. It’s pretty easy, though, because you will see all the swimmers.
Next, we headed to the North Entrance to snag our iconic picture. This is the first entrance to the park and the one that has the historical arch celebrating the first ever National Park. There is also a really fun old-west-looking town outside the entrance.
Next stop was Lamar Valley. It is best to hit this later in the day, toward evening, because this is when the animals come out. Lamar Valley is filled with bison! Seriously bison lovers, they are everywhere. Just make sure you have time – we got stuck in a bison traffic jam which was very cool but would have been a bummer had we been in a hurry. Grizzly bears also frequent Lamar Valley. We saw signs of grizzly habitation but not an actual grizzly bear.
And that was it! It’s a long drive back but super fun and pretty because the road goes through the mountain pass. Gorgeous views for days!
If you do the North Loop on your last day, you could exit through the Northeast Entrance and spend the night in Cooke City. That way you do not have that long drive back and you get to stay in a really fun place!
1. There is a spot to camp FOR FREE outside of Yellowstone. At the Targhee Creek Trailhead there are 6 dispersed camping spots, plus space for about 3 more groups in the actual trailhead parking lot. This is about 20 minutes south of West Yellowstone and it is BEAUTIFUL and quiet. Check it out here.
2. The parking situation: If you have the patience to wait in the long line, there will almost always be a spot waiting for you. People are constantly leaving.
3. If you are planning on hiking in Yellowstone, you need to bring with Bear Spray. You can purchase it online, purchase it in many stores around the park, or rent bear spray at Canyon Village.
4. Talk to Park Rangers. The park rangers at Yellowstone love to give the insider scoop on what to see, the best way to see it, and what to avoid.