Yellowstone, America’s wonderland. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to see it, but never had the time. Until now, you just happen to be driving cross-country and have an extra day to kill.
In the first section, I’ll go over my personal must-see stops, and then in the second section, I’ll give you a rough itinerary starting from each entrance gate.
I spent a summer season working in the park, so I had plenty of time to thoroughly explore everything. Still, if you’re OK with hitting the tourist hotspots, you can see quite a bit in one day.
Let’s jump into it!
Notes & Tips
Expect Crowds & Traffic
Although you might expect solitude and silence in a National Park, you won’t find that in the tourist hotspots. Old Faithful, during peak times, is shoulder-to-shoulder and traffic often moves incredibly slow through certain parts of the park.
For this reason, I’d suggest getting up as early as you can. Before sunrise, if possible, as this will allow you to knock out some of the busier areas without having to fight through a crowd of people. Expect to drive a lot as the park is MASSIVE.
Off-Season Is Better
If you have any sort of flexibility, the off-season is better. By that, I mean late May, early June, late September, and early October. During these times, crowds will be less intense and lodging prices/availability will often be more favorable. I go over this more in my main previously mentioned Yellowstone master guide.
Still, if you end up going in peak season, just take my advice and get up as early as you possibly can.
My last tip is to bring plenty of snacks and water. Yellowstone has a decent amount of restaurants and general stores, but they’re often overpriced and poor quality.
Traffic to get into some of the “rest areas” can be intense, so bringing snacks can save you both time and money.
Must-See Stops in Yellowstone
Geysers & Hot Springs
Old Faithful – everyone knows this famous geyser, shooting water up to 184 feet at a (somewhat) faithful interval. Explore the rest of the surrounding Upper Geyser Basin for more cool thermal features.
Grand Prismatic Spring – another iconic thermal feature, located in the Midway Geyser Basin. This 370-foot wide hot spring features vivid hues of orange, blue, and green. My personal favorite attraction in the park.
West Thumb Basin – a small basin (group of thermal features) right on Yellowstone Lake. Colorful hot springs clash with the beautiful blue waves of the lake.
Mammoth Hot Springs – dozens of small springs dot the mountainside, where burning hot waters melt limestone, forming stunning white travertine terraces (steps, essentially).
Firehole Canyon – a beautiful one-way drive that starts in a small, tight canyon and ends in a pleasant woodland. Features a gorgeous river.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – a gigantic canyon carved by the Yellowstone River. The upper waterfall plummets 109 feet while the lower falls drop a staggering 308 feet. Two easily accessible overlooks are situated on either side of the canyon. One of my favorite stops.
Tower Falls – another huge waterfall framed by large volcanic “towers”. A half-mile trail leads you down to the base.
Yellowstone Lake – the stark, cold lake that dominates a large part of the park. Very beautiful and serene.
Hayden Valley – a valley rife with bison. A good spot to hit early in the morning as more animals will be out, and there will be less traffic.
Lamar Valley – another valley situated in the isolated northeastern section of the park. Plenty of bison, but Yellowstone’s local wolf packs will occasionally make an appearance.
Architecture & History
Old Faithful Inn – a stunning lodge situated right by the iconic geyser itself. Tall ceilings, elaborate wood framing, and historical significance make this a must-visit.
Lake Hotel – in that same category lies the Lake Hotel. Built in 1893 and then added on in future years, the bright yellow stately hotel stands right on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. My personal favorite hotel in the park (at least for aesthetics).
Museum of the Park Ranger – a very small museum dedicated to park rangers. May or may not be open depending on the time of year. Locating at Norris Geyser Basin.
Where to Stay?
This is where things get a little complicated. Normally, I’d suggest staying in the park itself, but there’s two issues with that. The first is that in-park lodging (and camping) is incredibly expensive.
The bigger issue, however, is that everything is usually booked far in advance. It’s nearly impossible to get any sort of lodging/camping in the park without booking months prior.
You’ll likely need to book something in the gateway towns. I would suggest staying in either West Yellowstone (west entrance) or Gardiner (north entrance).
Definitely check out my main Yellowstone article for more info on lodging and camping.
Note: I have more detailed guides for each specific Yellowstone entrance covering places to stay, where to eat, activities, etc. linked in the above article.
Below are a list all my itineraries with a map for each included. Modify these routes as you see fit!
Remember that these can all be done backwards if coming in from the opposite entrance, hence why I didn’t make special sections for the other entrances.
From the West Entrance
West Entrance to North Entrance
The west entrance is the ideal starting point as it allows the quickest access to the most touristy hotspots. West Yellowstone is about 1.5 hours from the nearest interstate (I-15) and the ending point of Gardiner, MT is about an hour away from I-90. You’ll be driving the park’s south and north loops.
- Start your day off early at the Midway Basin to see Grand Prismatic, the iconic rainbow-colored hot spring.
- Next, drive a few minutes south to Old Faithful. Check out the iconic geyser, the inn, and walk around the Upper Geyser Basin.
- After that, head on down to the West Thumb Basin. The boardwalk is short but stunning.
- Next up, go east along the shore and take a quick pit stop at the beautiful Lake Hotel.
- After that, you’ll drive north through Hayden Valley. You’ll likely get stuck in traffic and get to see some bison.
- Shortly after exiting the valley, you’ll be at Canyon Village.
- Drive up to both sides of the canyon for incredible views (Artists Point & Inspiration Point).
- After taking in the glorious canyon, go up to Tower Falls. Admire the waterfall and, if you’re able, hike down to the base of it.
- Going west from Tower Falls, head to Mammoth. Check out the thermal features and explore the town.
- After that, go through Gardiner, and you can likely pick up a place to stay an hour north near I-90.
West Entrance to Grand Teton
Grand Teton, the neighboring park, is a stunning locale. You’ll start in West Yellowstone (again, 1.5 hours from I-15) and end in the Tetons which, unfortunately, is a little far away from any major highway.
- Start your day early and head east towards Norris Geyser Basin.
- Stop by the Museum of the Park ranger and also check out the thermal features.
- Spend some time admiring the geysers, and then continue east until you get to Canyon Village.
- Check out each side of the canyon (Inspiration & Artist Points).
- Continuing south, you’ll pass through Hayden Valley, a hotspot for bison.
- Next. you’ll stop by Lake Hotel and take in the grand old architecture. Maybe have lunch by the lake.
- After that, continue south until you get to West Thumb Basin. Check out the cool thermal features.
- Next, drive west towards Old Faithful. Explore the inn, check out the iconic geyser, explore the basin.
- Next, drive north a bit and stop at the wonderful Grand Prismatic Spring, the iconic rainbow pool (at Midway Basin).
- Finally, we’re going to do a bit of backtracking and head southeast again. At the West Thumb intersection, go south.
- Stop at Lewis Lake and Lewis Falls along the way, then continue driving south to the Tetons.
- The Tetons are a whole different place. While I’d recommend staying an extra day if possible, you can take in a lot of their beauty by just driving “Inner Park Rd” at the base of the mountains.
West Entrance to Northeast Entrance
This one is a bit more unconventional. Starting from West Yellowstone, you’ll do a tour through the park and then exit out the isolated northeast side. After that, you’ll drive over the beautiful Beartooth Highway into Montana (I-90). This is a very long day, so it’s important to start very early. You don’t want to drive the Beartooth Highway at night.
If I was driving east via I-15 or I-90 and only had a day to detour, this route would be my pick.
- Start at Grand Prismatic (Midway Geyser Basin) nice and early.
- Hit Old Faithful to check out the geyser and the inn. After that, keep moving.
- To the south, stop at West Thumb Basin and do a quick jaunt around the boardwalk.
- Next up, go east and stop in at the Lake Hotel for a little while.
- From there, head north through Hayden Valley (check out the bison) and then stop in Canyon Village.
- In Canyon Village, drive up both sides of the canyon to Inspiration Point and Artist Point. Grab some lunch before leaving.
- From Canyon, go north until you reach Tower Falls. Check out the falls for a bit, bonus points if you hike down to the base.
- From there, drive east through Lamar Valley. Bring binoculars, because this is a feeding ground for wolves!
- Keep driving east and pass through Cooke City. Continue towards highway 212.
- Follow Hwy 212 over the Beartooth Pass. Stop for plenty of pictures!
- On the other side of the range, you’ll stop in at Red Lodge, MT. Lots of cute shops and good food.
- Continue past Red Lodge and up towards I-90.
West Entrance to East Entrance
Ending at the east entrance is a bit unconventional as it’s about 2.5+ hours away from any sort of interstate highway. Regardless, the route is nice and makes for a fun day in the park. The town of Cody, WY (45 minutes outside the east gate) makes for a nice stopping point for the night.
- Start at Grand Prismatic (Midway Geyser Basin), try to beat the crowds.
- Hit up Old Faithful, take some time to wander around the entire geyser basin.
- To the south, stop at West Thumb Basin and admire the thermal features.
- From there, drive east and chill at the Lake Hotel for a bit.
- Next, drive north through Hayden Valley and look for bison.
- Continue onto Canyon Village. Check out both sides of the canyon (Inspiration/Artist Points).
- Backtrack down south again until you get to Fishing Bridge. From there, keep driving east.
- Enjoy the views of Yellowstone Lake, and stop at Sylvan Lake near the top of the mountain pass.
- Continue on to Cody, WY. Stay there or continue to drive north to I-90 or east to I-90/I-25.
From the North Entrance
North Entrance to West Entrance
The north entrance lies about an hour south of I-90, making it an easily accessible starting point. This route will take you through most of Yellowstone’s attractions and ends at the west gate (1.5 hours from I-15).
- Start early and walk around Mammoth Hot springs. Check out the town itself as well.
- Head south towards Norris Geyser Basin. Explore, and check out the Museum of the Park Ranger.
- Head east towards Canyon Village. Check out both overlooks (Inspiration/Artist Points).
- Head south through Hayden Valley. Expect some traffic and look out for bison.
- Stop in at Lake Hotel and take in the architecture/history. Lunch by the lake is nice.
- Head west towards West Thumb Basin. Check out the hot springs on the lakeshore.
- Head further west towards Old Faithful. See the iconic geyser and the inn.
- Explore the boardwalk around Old Faithful, there’s plenty of amazing geysers and hot springs.
- Head north towards Grand Prismatic (Midway Geyser Basin). Circle the boardwalk, and then head out again.
- Finally, head north and then west to exit the park’s western gate.
North Entrance to Northeast Entrance
This one is essentially one big detour. You start at the north entrance (near I-90) and then exit through the northeast, which also leads straight back to I-90. This one can also be reversed (northeast to north). Start this one early as the drive over the Beartooth Highway (northeast side) should not be done at night.
- Start early and explore Mammoth Hot springs and the town itself.
- Head south towards Norris Geyser Basin. Explore and check out the museum.
- Head south/southwest towards Grand Prismatic. Walk the boardwalk.
- Head down to Old Faithful. Just check out the geyser and inn, time is precious on this itinerary.
- Go south and stop at West Thumb Basin. Check out the geysers on the lake.
- Go east and admire Lake Hotel’s architecture. Grab lunch and sit by the shore.
- Go north through Hayden Valley. Watch the bison, and then go up to Canyon Village.
- Drive both sides of the canyon and visit Inspiration & Artist Points.
- Go north, stop in at Tower Falls and hike down to the base (if able).
- From there, go east towards the northeast exit (Cooke City).
- Pass through town and then up over Hwy 212.
- Continue on until you hit Red Lodge, MT.
- Stay there or keep driving, eventually you’ll get to I-90.
North Entrance to Grand Teton
For this, you’ll start in Gardiner (north entrance, near I-90) and end in Grand Teton. This route is best if you’re trying to get from I-90 to somewhere south, like Salt Lake City. It’s a nice alternative to taking the interstate south through Idaho and passes through not just Yellowstone, but also the beautiful Teton Range. This route can also be done from the northeast if you exclude Mammoth.
- Start in Mammoth Hot Springs, check out the thermal features and town.
- Drive east to Tower Falls. Bonus points if you hike down to the base.
- From there, drive south to Canyon Village. Make sure to stop at pull-offs for pictures!
- Check out both sides of the canyon, particularly Artist Point and Inspiration Point.
- Drive west to Norris Geyser Basin and wander the boardwalks.
- Drive further southwest from Norris, and then branch south towards Old Faithful.
- Along the way, stop at Grand Prismatic, the rainbow-colored hot spring (in the Midway basin)
- Hit up Old Faithful, check out the inn and the geyser.
- Drive east and stop at the West Thumb Basin. Walk the whole boardwalk!
- From there, drive south towards Grand Teton and take in the glorious mountains.
- Stay in Jackson, WY or continue south or west after you pass through Grand Teton.
North Entrance to East Entrance
Going from north to east is a bit unconventional, as the east entrance is quite isolated (2.5+ hours from an interstate). Still, it’s a nice way to see the entire park and experience a bit of authentic western culture in Cody, WY.
- Check out the thermal features and town at Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Drive east to Tower Falls and (if able) hike down to the base.
- After that, drive south to Canyon Village.
- At Canyon, check out Inspiration Point and Artist Point.
- Drive west to Norris Geyser Basin and wander as much as you like (it’s huge).
- Drive southwest from Norris and then take the intersection towards Old Faithful.
- Along the way, visit the Midway Geyser Basin to see the glorious Grand Prismatic.
- Explore Old Faithful Inn and of course the geyser itself.
- Drive east towards West Thumb Basin. A quick circular boardwalk.
- Drive north/northeast towards Lake Hotel. Good time for lunch.
- From Lake, drive east towards the eastern gate. Enjoy the beautiful mountain pass.
- From the east entrance, drive to Cody, WY. Stay there or continue onto I-25/I-90.
Remember, you can skip or add on any stops you like! Have somewhat of a plan, but also go into the adventure with an open mind. If you see something cool, stop for it!
These routes are pretty basic, and if I included every single potential itinerary, this article would take hours to read. Hopefully this set you up with a basic idea as to where to go and what to see.
Thanks for reading, feel free to sign up for my email list for future travel content! 🙂 – Chance