You won’t be able to see everything, but you can definitely see the highlights in a Yellowstone 3 day itinerary! Whether you’re adding it in to a longer road trip or dedicating a long weekend to the United States’ first national park, with careful planning, you can fit in all the best sites. And trust me, you won’t want to miss the truly unique natural wonders Yellowstone has to offer, many of which are easily accessible off the main roads. If you’re trying to see all of Yellowstone in 3 days, you won’t have a lot of time for hiking, so this itinerary is pretty light on that, but it does pack in as many geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and other fascinating hydrothermal features as possible.
Considerations when planning your Yellowstone 3-Day Itinerary
Because most of the park’s roads close from October-May, you’ll need to plan your trip during late spring, summer, or early fall. The park also has 5 entrances, so you’ll need to decide where you’re planning to enter and exit the park from and adjust things accordingly. This itinerary requires driving, but there are some companies that offer guided bus tours. I much prefer exploring on my own timeframe so self-driving is always my first choice.
I started this itinerary for 3 days in Yellowstone based on an entrance from the West Yellowstone, Montana side because it’s the most commonly used one. However, as it runs mostly on a loop, you could easily modify it to start from any of the entrances you might arrive at by, for example, starting on day 2, then day 3, then coming back to day 1 at the end. Or you can work the whole thing backwards! Because most of the top sites are on the one main loop through the center of the park, it’s easy to make adjustments.
Day 1: Geysers galore
Once you’ve made it to Yellowstone, start your 3-day itinerary by heading south from Madison Junction. Follow the signs for Old Faithful.
Day One highlights:
- Your first hydrothermal features – Yay! Welcome to Yellowstone!
- The park’s prettiest hot spring
- Old Faithful – no explanation needed
Your first stop will be the Fountain Paint Pots on the left. You’ll find a parking area and a short, half-mile loop trail to some paint pots or mud pots. Watching the mud “jump” is truly fascinating, but it’s only a warm-up for what you’re going to see later in the day. There are also some hot springs and unpredictable geysers to check out while you’re on the trail.
Hop back in the car for a short drive to Midway Geyser Basin, on your right hand side. Though it’s not the biggest geothermal area, it contains one of the most spectacular sites: Grand Prismatic Spring. That’s the beauty in the photo below. If you’re short on time and want to cut some stops on this itinerary, this is not one of them to miss. Not only is the hot spring enormous, it’s spectacularly colored. You’ve almost definitely seen photos of its rainbow hues before. I definitely recommend walking along the short boardwalk trail here to get an up close view of it, but the best viewing is actually a little bit further down the road.
Keep heading down the road and you’ll see a parking area for the Fairy Falls Trail. It will fill up, so be patient and expect to wait a bit for a spot to open, but it is so worth it. A short hike – it is uphill, but I didn’t find it too strenuous – will take you up the hill behind Grand Prismatic Spring for incredible aerial views. If you only have time to see it one way, pick this one. You get a much better appreciation for its beauty from up here. You could continue on the trail to Fairy Falls, but if you only have 3 days in Yellowstone, you probably won’t have time for the hike without cutting other things.
A little further down the road, also on the right as you head south, you’ll find Black Sand Basin. This was the spot on the trip that most exceeded my expectations. I figured we’d just take a quick look around because we had some time to kill that day, but ended up spending way more time there than I thought. Pulling into the small parking lot, the first thig that caught my eye was the adorably named Spouter Geyser churning out short bursts of water. What really captivated me was Cliff Geyser, also nearby, which erupted almost the entire time we were there, thrashing water around with an almost chaotic feel. While most of the boardwalk areas through thermal areas are wheelchair accessible, Black Sand Basin is probably the best spot to see geysers up close with almost no walking.
Now, it’s time for the big event of the day – Old Faithful. This is probably the busiest area of the park, with multiple restaurants to choose from, various lodging options, gift shops, and a massive parking lot. Oh, and the park’s most famous geyser, of course.
Old Faithful is famous for its relatively regular eruption schedule combined with a pretty impressive height. It’s not the tallest one in the park and it also never erupted like clockwork every hour, but the park can generally predict an eruption within 10 minutes or so. That being said, it’s all up to nature’s will so it’s never a guarantee.
If you’re using the Yellowstone app – definitely worth a download before you get to the park – predicted eruptions are available there (when you have internet service, which is rare), or they’re posted near the geyser based on the previous eruption’s length and height. On average, you can expect a little over an hour in between eruptions.
The Upper Geyser Basin – where Old Faithful is located – is also home to most of the park’s other predictable geysers and use this to plan your route through the basin. For example, Grand Geyser erupts approximately every 6.5 hours to a height taller than Old Faithful, so if you have a chance to see that one in action, I would take it and circle back to Old Faithful. Castle, Daisy, and Riverside – which has a cool location right along the Firehole River as it’s name suggests – are also predictable and should have estimates posted.
Plan to spend a decent amount of time wandering through the basin. It’s full of geysers and hot springs. My favorite of the hot springs also happens to be the furthest from the main area, but it’s well worth the walk over to see Morning Glory Pool. While it’s a lot smaller than Grand Prismatic Spring, the colors are beautiful. And that location way at the end of the path makes it less crowded too.
Don’t miss a chance to stop in the visitor center here to learn a bit about the geothermal features and/or wildlife. It’s also worth taking a look inside the magnificent lobby of the Old Faithful Inn while you’re in the area.
For this 3-day Yellowstone itinerary, I highly recommend staying in the Old Faithful area. We stayed at the Old Faithful Lodge and loved getting to enjoy the area in the evening after the day crowds left. I even went out once more after dark to try to catch photos of the water spout against the night sky. My pictures only had moderate success, but it was amazing to be out there with only a handful of other people watching it by the light of the moon. We also enjoyed a crowd-free eruption the next morning after breakfast but before we hit the road for the day.
Day 2: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Day two overview:
- Massive Lake Yellowstone
- One of the park’s most metal – my fiance’s word, not mine – thermal areas
- A wildlife hotspot
- The most spectacular scenery in the park
Day two of this itinerary for Yellowstone in 3 days will take you across the south end of the park and up the east side to what I consider to be the most scenic part of the park.
Head left (follow the signs for the Grant Village or West Thumb area) out of the Old Faithful lot, and your day will start with a bit of a drive through relatively plain scenery. A couple miles down the road on the right hand side, you’ll see the Kepler Cascades where the Firehole river tumbles down approximately 150 feet. This is near the road so it’s a quick stop.
You’ll also cross over the Continental Divide a couple times along this stretch of road if you’d like to snap a picture of the signs. The Divide zigzags a bit as it runs through the park so you’re not imagining that you hit it more than once.
The first big stop on this route will be the West Thumb Geyser Basin. This is a smaller geothermal area located right on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. Though the area consists mainly of hot springs, the dramatic contrast with the lake is well worth a stop. My favorite spot along the boardwalk here was at the Fishing Cone – a hot spring bubbling right out of the lake’s water where it’s said that fishers used to cook their fresh catches by dunking them in its boiling water though this has been banned for over a century.
The boardwalk trail here doesn’t take too long to explore so you should be able to easily cover it in an hour. Note that a slight backtrack and a turn south will take you to Grant Village, which has a visitor center, food, gas, and lodging if you’re in need of anything. It would be a great idea to grab a picnic lunch here to eat a little further down the road.
A right turn toward the Lake Village area will take you generally northeast along much of the shore of Yellowstone Lake. The views are great here and there are several spots to stop and picnic if you’ve brought food with you. If you haven’t, the upcoming Bridge Bay, Lake Village, and Fishing Bridge areas have plenty of options for food. I quite liked grabbing a meal from the Lake Lodge cafeteria and eating it with a view of the water when I stayed there.
The next stop along the route will be Mud Volcano. This area is skippable if you’re running out of time, but I found it fascinating and my fiance still talks about it. The namesake Mud Volcano used to erupt as a geyser of mud, but is now just a pool of bubbling mud. Right next to it is Dragon’s Mouth Spring, which is a sort of cave spewing steam and splashes of water while seeming to roar inside. It’s definitely well-named.
The other notable feature in this area is Sour Lake. Though it looks serene, its water is very acidic, with a pH similar to that of battery acid. Definitely not a place for a swim.
Just on the other side of the road is Sulphur Caldron, one of the park’s most acidic hot springs. You can get there easily without moving your car from the Mud Volcano lot, but be careful crossing. It’s a quick stop to take a look at, but the “wasteland” created by the acidic waters is pretty impressive.
The next point of interest along this route is Hayden Valley. This is a wide, open plain where the Yellowstone River winds through grasses. It’s known as one of the top wildlife spotting areas in the entire park, so have someone with a sharp eye keep a lookout while you drive through. There are pullouts where you can stop for a better view if you see something. We did not get lucky on our visit, which is why I have no photos of this area, and a ranger we talked to later on said that a buffalo herd had just moved out of that area a few days before we arrived.
The last major stop of the day is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. And let me tell you – I saved the best for last today. Roads run along both sides of it, offering different viewpoints, as well as access to a variety of trails.
Artist Point, on the south side of the canyon, is the one spot to hit if you’re short on time. It’s the famous viewpoint you’ve almost definitely seen photos of Lower Yellowstone Falls taken from here and it absolutely lives up to the hype.
Even though we only had three days in Yellowstone, we also made time to hike the trail to the brink of the Lower Falls. This tracks down from the north side of the canyon and gets you breathtakingly close to the thundering water. Heading back up its many switchbacks is definitely a chore though. You can also get close to the action on the South Rim by taking Uncle Tom’s Trail – “Trail” is a generous name as it’s mostly stairs – about 500 feet down into the canyon near the base of the Lower Falls.
Canyon Village is located nearby, with food, lodging, gas, and a visitor center. It was also home to what turned out to be my favorite gift shop out of all the ones we visited, though I didn’t realize that until it was too late. This is a great spot to spend the night, or you can continue north to the Tower-Roosevelt area if you choose. The stretch of road between here has a few scenic overlooks and it’s a pretty drive, but the only major thing is the Mt. Washburn trail, which there just isn’t time for if you only have 3 days in Yellowstone.
Day 3: Mammoth and Norris
The two big stops on today’s section of this 3-day Yellowstone itinerary are Mammoth Springs and the Norris Geyser Basin, home to Steamboat Geyser. Even though they don’t have the same fame as Old Faithful, I think they’re two of the coolest hydrothermal spots in the park.
Day 3 overview:
- A tree made of stone
- Mammoth’s white terraces
- The world’s tallest geyser (if you’re lucky)
If you’ve spent the night at Canyon, head north on the road to Tower-Roosevelt. You’ll pass Mt. Washburn and some scenic overlooks, but there aren’t many places you’ll need to stop. As you approach the Tower junction, Tower Fall is worth a quick stop.
At the junction, turn left to head west along the park’s northern route. Shortly afterward, on the left, there will be a turnout for the Petrified Tree. This is – as the name suggests – a tree that was petrified while still standing due to volcanic activity. It’s surrounded by a metal cage to protect it from scavengers, but it’s still really cool to see. This stop won’t take too long and is skippable if you don’t have time.
Keep heading west along the road and you’ll come across two different waterfalls close together. On the left will be Wraith Falls, which can be accessed via a short, half-mile trail. Just a little further down the road on the right is Undine Falls. This one can be viewed right from its parking area, so there’s no hiking involved.
The next stop is the chaotic Mammoth Springs area. It’s home to the park headquarters, lodging, restaurants, gas, a visitor center, and some of the most picturesque geothermal formations in the park. The Mammoth springs have left stunning white deposits making natural terraces over the years and they’re truly remarkable.
There are two ways to see the Mammoth terraces here, and I recommend checking out both. The Lower Terraces trail is part boardwalk and part stairs and will take you up close to the beautiful white springs. Some are actively bubbling and creating new formations, while others are dormant and being broken down by erosion.
Just past the Lower Terraces area, is the entrance to the Upper Terrace Drive. This short, one-way loop takes you through additional rock formations and treats you to a view of the terraces from above. It can get crowded so it may take longer due to traffic, but it shouldn’t take a terrible amount of time.
I’d recommend having lunch in the Mammoth area before heading back south toward the Norris Geyser Basin. It’s a pleasant drive, with long stretches of the road running near a river so keep your eye out for wildlife.
A fascinating but quick stop along the way is Roaring Mountain. This will be on the left as you head south and has a small parking area. This mountain has numerous fumaroles and vents that spew steam and you can hear the audible roar that gives the mountain its name. It’s a pretty interesting sight even though you can only view it from a distance.
The Norris Geyser Basin will be on your right as you reach the Norris Junction. It has a decent sized parking area, but it will still fill up during busy seasons. The most famous sight here is towering Steamboat Geyser – the world’s tallest active geyser. Its tallest eruptions can top 300 feet. Beginning in 2018, this geyser roared back to life, erupting at a much greater frequency than before and has averaged 40 per year since then. Unfortunately, it’s not a predictable geyser so you’ll only get to see it in action through sheer luck. It actually erupted while we were in the park, but we were way on the east side near the Lake Village at the time so we had no idea.
Steamboat is located in the Back Basin area, which has a trail that’s just a little under 2 miles taking you past several smaller springs in addition to the geyser.
Once you finish the Back Basin loop, head over to Porcelain Basin. The walkway here starts with a slight descent from a hill, and I think the view of the steaming pools, geysers, and fumaroles is one of the most dramatic sights in the park. If you’re looking for that “what planet am I on?” feeling, this is it.
As you follow the path, it seems like there are large and small thermal features every few feet so there’s never a shortage of things to look at. You’re also treated to lots of pretty colors from the microorganisms that miraculously exist in the hot, frequently acidic waters here.
After Norris, as you head back out toward West Yellowstone, you’ll come across one last waterfall of note – Gibbon Falls. This is a pretty impressive 84-foot cascade on the left coming from Norris and definitely worth a quick stop.
From here, you can easily head out the west entrance back into West Yellowstone, MT or continue south past Old Faithful to head toward Grand Teton National Park.
Tips for your Yellowstone 3 Day Itinerary
- Always, always, always stay on the marked paths and boardwalks in thermal areas. The crust can be fragile here and you could break through causing injury to yourself and damage to these precious hydrothermal features.
- Resist the temptation to touch any of the hydrothermal features. We actually saw a guy stick his hand in a hot spring at the Fairy Falls parking lot and let’s just say he pulled it back out really quickly. You can get burned and you can die.
- Never throw anything in hot springs or geysers. There are documented cases of human activity altering geyser eruptions because items were thrown into the openings.
- Dispose of all of your trash properly or pack it out with you. We encountered a National Park crew fishing trash out of a hot spring one morning and it was sad to watch.
- Beware of your gas gauge. There is gas available in the park, but you have to go long stretches between stations and you may find yourself using more than normal driving up hills. When in doubt, top off your tank.
- Likewise, pack some snacks to fuel your body. Food is also available in limited areas, so it’s good to have some nuts, granola bars, or drinks in the car with you if you need something to hold you over until lunch.
- Be prepared for some mountain driving. The Grand Loop Road isn’t too difficult, but make sure you know how to use your car’s gears and how to safely navigate downhill stretches before you get to the mountains. Especially if you’re driving an unfamiliar rental you’ll want to spend a couple minutes acclimating yourself to the controls.
- Make whatever changes you need to this itinerary – it’s just a guideline and what you do is totally up to you. If you want to skip Mammoth to hike Mt. Washburn you should totally do it!
- Practice bear safety whenever you’re in the park. You shouldn’t leave food or other scented items (like toothpaste and deodorant) in your car overnight and bear spray is recommended for hiking.
- Check for current road closures before you go and before you head out each day. Things are constantly changing – in the days before our visit there was a water main break that closed the road from Norris to Mammoth and an overturned tanker that closed a stretch between Lake Village and Canyon Village – and it’s a long detour if you get stuck somewhere. You can text ‘82190’ to 888-777 to subscribe to text updates, though cell service is limited in the park. You can also call 307-344-2117 for updated conditions or visit the park roads page, though all of that depends on having service.
- On that note, expect to not have cell service most of the time you’re in the park so come prepared with an idea of what you want to do ahead of time.
- There is a Yellowstone app you can download with some offline content and information about some of the notable spots along some of the boardwalks. It will also show predicted geyser times if you have a data connection at the time.
- There’s a decent chance your GPS won’t work in the park, but it’s pretty easy to navigate. There are very few crossroads and the main loop makes a sort of figure 8. The junctions are well-signed and clearly tell you what you’re heading toward so navigating with one of the park’s paper maps shouldn’t be a problem.