Ultimate Yellowstone 5-Day Itinerary: How to Maximize Your Time without Killing Yourself
April 10, 2021
Originally Posted September 2020; Revised and Migrated April 2021
Travel date July 2020
Planning a visit to Yellowstone National Park can be overwhelming. The park is enormous and I didn’t know where to start. Available online information is confusing without first-hand knowledge of the park or prior experience. This itinerary will help plan your next Yellowstone trip.
All attractions and lodging recommended in this article are based on visiting between April and October. Winter in Yellowstone is very snowy. Most park roads are only accessible by snowmobile or snow coach during this time.
What do you need to know before you go to Yellowstone?
Book accommodations as early as possible. Reservations are required at most campgrounds and sites are available for booking six months in advance. Spending each night at different locations is the most efficient way to experience Yellowstone.
Gasoline and food are available for purchase inside the park but prices can be higher than usual. Fill your fuel tanks and a cooler with food and drinks before your visit.
You’re going to be here awhile. The park is massive and driving takes time. Each of the main park areas is about half an hour apart. Delays are the norm. All of the park’s road construction happens during the summer. And animals regularly stop traffic and create roadblocks.
Yellowstone is huge and there is no cellular coverage in the majority of the park. Prepare by downloading offline maps and travel apps. The free NPS app has several audio guides for specific geyser basins. I also recommend purchasing the Yellowstone Gypsy Guide app.
Bring comfortable shoes because each geyser area requires walking on boardwalks. Most of the walkways are a mile or less but the mileage adds up quickly.
The park is crowded and the busiest times are between 10 am and 4 pm. Arrive early or stay late to reduce time spent fighting for parking. But if you do come across a full parking lot, be patient because someone will be leaving soon.
Yellowstone Fun Facts
Yellowstone was established in 1872 and was the first national park.
The park has over 1,000 miles of hiking trails.
Yellowstone covers 2.2M acres. The park is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Hydrothermal features are classified as geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, and hot springs. Over 10,000 are present in Yellowstone.
More than half the world’s geysers are located in Yellowstone.
Microorganisms called thermophiles give the hydrothermal features their brilliant colors.
Yellowstone has the largest mammal concentration in the lower 48 states.
The world’s largest free-roaming herd of bison lives in Yellowstone.
There are about 290 waterfalls in the park.
Yellowstone experiences thousands of earthquakes each year.
Humans have inhabited the park for over 11,000 years based on an obsidian spear found near the northern park entrance.
Yellowstone lies on top of one of the world’s largest active super volcanos.
How much is admission to Yellowstone?
Admission to Yellowstone is $35 per car and covers 7 days. If you plan to visit other National Parks, the America the Beautiful pass is a bargain at $80 per year for unlimited admission to all NPS sites and many other federal recreation sites.
Yellowstone during COVID
We spent three days (~25 hours) exploring the park from the West Entrance and 2 days from the North Entrance. With 5 days in the park, I felt we did a thorough job of covering the area.
The visitor centers and some of the attractions in the park (swimming areas and indoor attractions) were closed due to COVID but we made the most of the open areas. All of the National Park campgrounds were also closed. Only a handful of private concessioner campgrounds were open during our visit.
Getting Around Yellowstone
If you’ve never been to Yellowstone NP, it’s massive. Prepare to spend a lot of time in your car. Animal roadblocks and summer road construction will add to the already long drive times. There are eight main areas along the Grand Loop, which is also shaped like a figure eight. The park is large and it is difficult to know which attractions are worth a stop. Gypsy Guide provides information to help prioritize your stops.
Entertainment and Education: Gypsy Guide
The Gypsy Guide app is a GPS-based audio guide that works offline. Offline functionality is critical since cell service is non-existent in the majority of the park. We were impressed with the technology of the app. It knew what attractions we were approaching and would interrupt our music to share fun facts or give guidance on what to see/do while there.
The app shared different information and stories based on our direction of travel. The insights made the experience more fulfilling and informative. Gypsy Guides information helped us prioritize our stops.
With so many free apps available, I’ve never purchased a phone app before Gypsy Guides, and looking back the Yellowstone/Teton app is worth the $9.99 price.
Planning a Yellowstone Vacation
Don’t do what we did when planning a Yellowstone vacation. We drove for hours to see the park and then turned around and backtracked each evening to get back to our campsite.
We explored a large section of the park over three long days while staying at a free campsite 25 miles outside the west park entrance. Needless to say, we were sick of driving by the end of our three days exploring from West Yellowstone.
What to Eat in Yellowstone
I recommend packing a cooler with food for your Yellowstone trip. The park has several general stores and cafes selling food. However, they are spread out and may not be convenient when hungry. Also, we saw long lines of people waiting to order food, and time spent waiting for food means less exploration time. If you want a treat, every park store we visited offered pre-packaged ice cream bars for $2.
I tried a chocolate-dipped huckleberry popsicle at one of the many Yellowstone General Stores. Huckleberry is a popular local thing so I had to try it. It was nothing special and tasted like any mixed berry-flavored ice cream. I decided to give huckleberry a fair chance I would need to find a plain huckleberry scoop outside of the park. To read more about huckleberry and exploring the town of West Yellowstone, check out this blog.
Top Tip for Visiting Yellowstone
Go early or late. Crowds are busiest from 10 am to 4 pm. Approximately 4 million people visit the park each year with the majority visiting during the summer. To avoid crowds visit the park early in the morning or later in the day. Plus animals are more active at dawn and dusk so these are the best times to spot wildlife. If you relocate each day as recommended, you can spend midday setting up camp and then continue exploration in late afternoon.
Where to Stay While Visiting Yellowstone
Spending each night at different locations is the most efficient way to experience Yellowstone. Recommended overnight locations are represented with a green tent in the map below. The goal in selecting these locations is to reduce driving time by packing up each morning and exploring the attractions on your way to the next overnight stop. By packing light and moving daily, you will save a lot of time backtracking to your campsite each evening. Plus you will spend each night immersed in the park’s beauty.
Yellowstone campgrounds and lodges are fully booked most summer nights so book as far in advance as possible. If you want to stay in one location for your whole trip, Canyon Village is the most centrally located area of the park. But plan for substantially more driving time.
Free Camping near Yellowstone
If you have a fuel-efficient vehicle and more time to spend driving, there is free camping available outside the park. We use Campendium to find free campsites.
Free Camping near West Yellowstone Park Entrance
All campgrounds within Yellowstone National Park were full during our visit and a campsite at the private parks in the town of West Yellowstone ranged from $70 to over $100 per night. I was not willing to pay those prices for a week to save a few minutes of driving. So we decided on free camping with a 25-minute commute to the park.
We arrived at Bill Frome County Park in Island Park, Idaho near West Yellowstone, MT on a Sunday afternoon. The park is on the lake and has a boat ramp and fishing docks. Thankfully friends saved us a spot because there were only three open sites. During our week here, we noticed the free county campground attracted both local fishermen and tourists. Some stayed a week or more and others only one night.
The best way to describe the campground is grassy spots along both sides of the driveway down to the boat ramp. The sites were fairly close and we were thankfully parked next to friends otherwise we’d likely have felt too close to our neighbors.
Nothing fancy but it was a free basecamp to explore the western section of Yellowstone National Park. The drive to and from the park was inconvenient but I’d likely stay at Bill Frome County Park again. Since Pippi, our 37′ diesel motorhome guzzles diesel, we prefer to park it once and explore in our fuel-efficient hybrid sedan.
Free Camping near North Yellowstone Park Entrance
At North Yellowstone, we decided to stay closer to the park than we did at West Yellowstone. We found a free camping spot on public lands about 10 miles north of Gardiner, Montana, and the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Gardiner was much smaller than West Yellowstone but also clearly survived on the park tourists. Our camp site was fairly busy but we found a nice spot along the Yellowstone River. This was a great free site for exploring the northern sections of Yellowstone.
Yellowstone Trip Planning Simplified
I recommend tackling the park in segments and have created a color-coded system for simplicity. Each has a separate itinerary section below including our lessons learned and personal experiences from our Yellowstone visit. I intentionally didn’t provide a step-by-step itinerary to allow customization based on where you want to enter and exit the park.
The eight main areas of Yellowstone National Park can be simplified into five separate itinerary.
Above I split the Yellowstone into five color coded sections for simplicity. These sections each represent a day of exploring and with this itinerary you can see the whole park in five days. Spending each night at different locations is the most efficient way to experience Yellowstone. By packing light and moving daily, you will save a lot of driving time backtracking to your campsite each evening. Plus you will spend each night immersed in the park’s beauty.
Below I outline the key attractions and lessons learned by color coded sections. I also share our personal experiences for each. Again, if you only have one day, focus your attention on the Yellow Old Faithful area.
YellowstonePurple Area Itinerary: Norris and Canyon Village
Can’t miss itinerary stops from the Yellowstone area from Madison ->Norris Geyser Basin -> Canyon Village are:
Artists Paint Pots
Norris Geyser Basin
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – North and South Rim
Uncle Tom’s Trail
Brink of Upper Falls
Lessons Learned in Yellowstone Purple Area: Norris and Canyon Village
Norris Geyser Basin is busy. Arrive early to avoid crowds.
Parking is limited so slow down to watch for people leaving.
Don’t skip Artist Point. The views from this point are epic.
Our Experience in Yellowstone Purple Area: Norris and Canyon Village
On our first day, we decided to head north from the West entrance to the Norris Geyer basin and hoped to make it to Canyon Village by the end of the day. We had read this area was best to visit early in the morning to avoid crowds but we didn’t arrive at the park until 9:30 am.
We had been up later than planned the night before repairing our heater in preparation for the predicted 38-degree lows and slept in a bit later than usual. As expected Norris Geyser Basin was crowded around 11 am when we arrived. Thankfully about half of the people were wearing masks when closer than six feet from others. We found a Norris Geyser trail guide pamphlet at the trailhead and explored the thermal features along the boardwalk.
While in the Canyon Village area, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, we drove to many Yellowstone River overlooks including the North and South Rim Drive. Parking lots reminded me of the shopping mall at Christmas and we drove slowly to find someone leaving just to get a space in most lots. Unfortunately, a few attractions were closed including Uncle Tom’s Trail (which was on my wish list) and Brink of Upper Falls. However, the view from Artist Point was fairly epic. Artist paintings from this viewpoint were used in marketing campaigns to attract early visitors to the park.
Yellowstone Yellow Area Itinerary: Old Faithful
Can’t miss itinerary stops from the Yellowstone Old Faithful area are:
Lessons Learned in Yellowstone Yellow Area: Old Faithful
Old Faithful is very popular. Plan to spend an extra day in this area if possible. Photos of Old Faithful nighttime eruptions are gorgeous.
Be patient. Estimates of eruption times are posted in front of many features so prepare to wait.
Get off the beaten path. Take the overlook trail to watch Old Faithful erupt from above. Walk the full Upper Geyser Basin path to get away from the crowds and see the colorful Morning Glory Pool.
The Fairy Falls hike is a nice 5-mile trail with a waterfall payoff.
Grand Prismatic Overlook offers a birdseye view of the feature. Do this in addition to the boardwalk.
Don’t skip the Grand Geyser. It’s impressive.
Our Experience in Yellowstone Yellow Area: Old Faithful
We left home just after 7 am with intentions of beating the crowds to Old Faithful. As stated previously, driving around Yellowstone takes a lot of time and it took us two hours to get to Old Faithful. If you only have time for one day in Yellowstone, the Old Faithful area has the most hydrothermal features and would be a good quick Yellowstone trip.
Best Way to See Old Faithful
After arriving at Old Faithful around 9:15 am, we learned the next eruption was expected at 10:14 am. We decided to explore a portion of the nearby Upper Geyser Basin using an NPS trail guide pamphlet while we waited for Old Faithful. Towards the end of the hour, we hiked up to an overlook to see Old Faithful erupt. The overlook is the best way to see Old Faithful. But don’t skip the view from the boardwalk. They are both worth the wait.
Along the overlook trail we also witnessed Solitary Geyser erupt with no one else around – it was pretty exciting.
Like clockwork, Old Faithful erupted within one minute of the prediction and the eruption lasted nearly nine minutes. I was impressed and thankful for our birds-eye view from the overlook.
Later in the day, we watched Old Faithful erupt (again right on time) from the boardwalk where most visitors experience it. Both eruptions were pretty impressive. After seeing professional photographs of Old Faithful erupting at night, I regret not visiting after dark.
Upper Geyser Basin: Walk to Morning Glory Pool
After Old Faithful, we continued along the Upper Geyser Basin walk towards Morning Glory Pool. We just missed the Castle Geyser erupting but did get to see the steam following the eruption.
Grand Geyser is the largest geyser in Yellowstone and should be prioritized. The next eruption was predicted in half an hour so we found a seat and waited. It was a few minutes behind the prediction but the show was impressive.
The Upper Geyser Basin boardwalk was fairly busy but not terribly crowded especially towards the end at Morning Glory Pool. The 2.5-mile walk is definitely worth it to see the bright colors of Morning Glory Pool.
Midway Geyser Basin and the Firehole River
Midway Geyser Basin was very crowded with people swimming in the nearby thermal spring runoff into the Firehole River. The two main attractions here were Excelsior Geyser Crater and the Grand Prismatic Spring. The Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk was very crowded and tested our patience after a full day.
Fairy Falls Trail & Grand Prismatic Overlook
On a separate day, we hiked the Fairy Falls trail. It was a 5.4 mile out and back trail including an overlook to the Grand Prismatic. The parking area was almost full at 8:30 am when we arrived. The trailhead is popular for a good reason. The overlook of Grand Prismatic and Fairy Falls are both beautiful.
Bear Safety in Yellowstone
A hiker on Fairy Falls had recently sustained minor injuries when encountering a mother bear and cub along the trail. The trail was closed for the first few days after the event and when we visited there were warning signs of bears in the area.
When hiking in bear country we carry bear spray and a noisemaker bell which provides wildlife a warning that people are approaching so they can retreat. Bear spray is a larger and more concentrated version of pepper spray that will deter most approaching bears. I attached the bell to my camelback and let it ring whenever we were not around other hikers. The constant noise gets annoying quickly but I decided it was less trouble than a bear encounter.
When hiking or camping if you encounter a bear, avoid them if possible and retreat quietly. If they have noticed you, make yourself known by speaking which will likely scare the bear away. If the bear doesn’t retreat, slowly back away from the area without turning your back to the animal. Bear spray should only be used if the bear is approaching aggressively or charging.
If you want to guarantee a bear sighting and learn more bear safety, visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Check out this blog to learn about our visit.
Fountain Paint Pots
Fountain Paint Pots contains all four types of thermal features in Yellowstone: geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. Red Spouter was a nice example of a fumarole or steam vent. Clepsydra Geyser, Greek for water clock, erupts constantly and was a nice surprise after a tiring day.
Gypsy Guide recommended a stop at Firehole Falls. The canyon was already shaded a few hours before sunset but the 40-foot waterfalls were still pretty. During non-COVID times, there is a swimming area nearby.
Yellowstone Red Area Itinerary: Mammoth Springs
Can’t miss itinerary stops from the Yellowstone Mammoth Springs area are:
Lessons Learned in Yellowstone Red Area: Mammoth Springs
Mammoth Springs area is grassy with a lot of shade. It is a great place to watch elk grazing.
The Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace is large and comprised of both boardwalks and a paved road, Mammoth Terrace Drive. Bikes are welcome on the Mammoth Terrace Drive and it was closed to cars during our visit.
Prepare for walking. Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace requires a lot of walking including stairs.
Our Experience in Yellowstone Red Area: Mammoth Springs
The Mammoth Hot Springs area is located very close to the northern park entrance at Gardiner MT. It was very convenient to visit.
The hotels and historic buildings in the Mammoth Springs area were also surrounded by elk grazing in the manicured green grass. They were very comfortable around the crowds but park rangers were stationed nearby to ensure visitors maintained a safe distance. Self-guided tours of Fort Yellowstone are available in this area but we skipped it.
Mammoth Hot Spring Terrace
The thermal activity in this area of Yellowstone was different than what we had seen in the south and west areas of the park. The northern area had fewer geysers and a lot more white limestone and travertine. It seemed like a different park to me.
Bike along the Yellowstone River
Old Gardiner Road offers scenic biking and drives from the park along the Yellowstone River. While camping nearby, we biked approximately 14 miles on the Old Yellowstone Road. The trail ran near along the Yellowstone River and was the original wagon path used to access the park from the north. It was a very scenic and not too strenuous ride along dirt roads and wide paths.
Yellowstone Orange Area Itinerary: Lamar Valley
Can’t miss itinerary stops from the Yellowstone Tower Roosevelt and Lamar Valley area are:
Wildlife spotting in Lamar Valley
Lessons Learned in the Yellowstone Orange Area: Lamar Valley
Drive from Tower Roosevelt to the northeast entrance and look for animals.
Slow down. We saw several cars zoom right past a brown bear.
Go early or stay late. The best odds of animal sightings are at dawn and dusk.
Our Experience in the Yellowstone Orange Area: Lamar Valley
The northeast section of Yellowstone is the best location for wildlife spotting.
During our three days in West Yellowstone, we saw lots of chipmunk, birds of prey, bison, and elk plus one fox and one coyote. We drove slowly on every park visit looking for bear or wolf but didn’t have any luck in the southern sections of the park.
While staying near north Yellowstone, we woke up early and drove east towards Lamar Valley for wildlife viewing. During our six hours in the park, we saw a grizzly bear, a black bear, moose, deer, many elk and bison. We heard other visitors mention wolves nearby but we didn’t see them. We found Northeast Yellowstone to be much better wildlife viewing than the more popular areas of Yellowstone.
Yellowstone Blue Area Itinerary: Grant Village and Fishing Bridge
Can’t miss itinerary stops from the Yellowstone Grant Village and Fishing Bridge area are:
West Thumb Geyser Basin
Isa Lake’s lily pads and the Continental Divide
Lessons Learned in Yellowstone Blue Area: Grant Village and Fishing Bridge
West Thumb Geyser Basin is large so allow at least an hour to walk the boardwalk.
Take your camera. Yellowstone Lake is a great backdrop for the features at West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Our Experience in Yellowstone Blue Area: Grant Village and Fishing Bridge
We spent an afternoon exploring the West Thumb geyser basin which sits on the banks of Yellowstone Lake. Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America and the average summer water temperature is 45°F. The thermal features in this area were enhanced by the beautiful blue lake backdrop.
Some of the hot springs were actually in the lake, like Fishing Cone, which Gypsy Guide called Hook and Cook. Fishermen used to catch fish in the lake, leave them on the hook and cook them in the Fishing Cone hot spring. Lake levels were high and Fishing Cone was underwater during our visit but when water levels are low the cone can be surrounded by dry shoreline. The NPS trail guide had a picture of a tourist posing with an apron and chef hat at Fishing Cone. As you can imagine these photos shoots were dangerous, people got burned and damaged the ground around the cone, so the area was closed to fishing and photo ops.
Yellowstone Wrap Up
Planning a Yellowstone vacation can be overwhelming but by breaking the park into small segments it becomes more manageable. By following our Ultimate 5 day Yellowstone itinerary you can visit the whole park in the most efficient manner. Hopefully, our Yellowstone itinerary and tips will save you some time and energy. And most importantly I hope you will not need a vacation from your vacation.