Yellowstone National Park Itinerary 5 Days
Yellowstone National Park is the first designated national park in the world and happens to be the first national park I ever heard about as a child.
I remember seeing beautiful photos of magnificent wildlife and pools of water that were so fluorescent they looked magical.
I couldn’t believe this place really existed. And if so, I promised myself I would someday make my way to it.
Turning those dreams into a reality is just one reason I am obsessed with travel. The other is that in my experience, the real deal usually lives up to the hype.
It’s not a fantasy world made up by others, it exists and it is there for us to explore.
Yellowstone is one of those places that you hope after all the planning and organizing, it will be as special as you anticipated it would be. I’m here to tell you it is as marvelous as you ever imagined!
You just have to be prepared and have a plan so you can experience the very best of the park and that’s where we come in.
Here’s a 5-day itinerary with tips and a list of can’t-miss places for your visit. Enjoy the perfect trip to Yellowstone.
How Many Days Should I Spend in Yellowstone National Park?
Yellowstone is nearly 3,500 square miles of dense forests and bucolic pastures dotted with geysers, hot springs, and mud pools.
Whether you are planning to stop in Wyoming on a cross-country road trip like we did or it is the main destination, you should plan for at least three to five days to see all the wonderful things Yellowstone has to offer.
This five-day, adventure-filled Yellowstone itinerary will get you to all the places you’ll want to experience inside the park.
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How to Get to the Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Small sections spill over Montana (3%) and Idaho’s (1%) border.
Flying is the quickest form of transportation to the area with flights between 2 – 5 hours from many major U.S. cities.
Jackson Hole Airport is the closest airport to the south entrance and houses American Airlines, American Eagle, Delta Air Lines, Delta Connection, Frontier, United Airlines, and United Express.
Yellowstone Airport is the closest airport to the western entrance and only has flights on Delta Air Lines with daily connections to and from Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana is roughly 90 miles from both the north and west entrances. It serves many major airlines such as Delta, United, Alaska Airlines, Frontier, and Allegiant Air.
A vehicle is necessary to visit the park. Rental cars are then available at all airports to get you around on your trip.
In my opinion, the BEST way to get to Yellowstone is to drive. If you are from the U.S. and you have time, visiting Yellowstone is the perfect opportunity for a road trip. RELATED: BEST FREE ROAD TRIP APPS
It allows you to bring your own tent or trailer which opens up so many options inside the park. Since it is a popular destination and so large being able to camp is helpful for planning purposes.
We drove the 1,400-miles or so from Chicago on a mega road starting with Badlands National Park. It was a trip we will never forget. You can read our Badlands itinerary here if you are planning a similar vacation.
If you are interested in renting an RV from your home state, check out RVShare, one of the largest RV rental marketplaces.
Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park
- Plan ahead. Yellowstone is a popular destination with limited facilities. Reservations open up May 1 the prior year for summer, and March 15 the prior year for winter.
- Pack a sturdy pair of women’s hiking shoes or men’s hiking shoes, whichever applies. I prefer trail runners or hiking shoes that don’t cover my ankles since it tends to rub, but if you prefer hiking boots, make sure to pick a durable and breathable pair like the one I link to.
- Bring a good day pack to carry lunch, snacks, and water for your daily hikes.
- Get up early! Be up and out by 8 am and you will not have a problem with parking or crowds.
- Respect the animals and their space. Do not approach them. And absolutely never turn your back on an animal to snap a selfie and always be alert.
- Everyone should be cautious but if traveling with children, be especially careful around the hydrothermal areas. It is NOT a playground.
- You will have no cell service so download a Yellowstone map, itinerary, and any other necessary information beforehand.
- Download National Parks by Chimani. It is a free app that has detailed guides, including GPS-enabled maps that can be used offline.
- Always wear layers. The weather can and does change often especially when hiking in high elevations.
- Always add extra time for driving. Yellowstone is HUGE and very busy in the summer season.
- You must stay 100 yards or more away from bears or any wild animals in Yellowstone.
- Try not to hike alone and always make noise when walking especially when turning a corner. You can play music, wear a bear bell, clap your hands, and/or yell out every once in a while.
- Purchase bear spray before arriving to give you peace of mind. *Note: you cannot fly with bear spray so purchase only after arriving if coming by plane.*
- Ask rangers about bear activity in areas before hiking.
- Be aware that bears, like most animals, are more active at dusk and dawn.
Food should always be stored in vehicles or in bear-proof canisters or lockers.
Yellowstone National Park Lodging
Take your pick of lodging choices in the area, anywhere from romantic inns to basic tent sites. There are options for any type of traveler but the key is to book early.
Yellowstone has twelve campgrounds and only five take reservations. The rest are first-come, first-served.
Lodges book up fast but have cancellations often so periodically check the website for openings.
I would recommend splitting your time between two places since Yellowstone is so large.
We camped in Grant Village for the entire time and in hindsight, we would have rather spent a few days in the southern and northern region separately.
Lodging Options near North Entrance Outside the Park
- Creekside Lodge ($$$)
- Historic Wapiti Lodge ($$$)
- Trail Shop Inn ($$)
- Green Creek Inn and RV Park ($$)
Lodging Options near North Entrance Inside the Park
- Roosevelt Lodge ($$$)
- Mammoth Hotel and Cabins ($$$)
- Pebble Creek Campground ($)
- Slough Creek Campground ($)
- Indian Creek Campground ($)
- Mammoth Campground ($)
Lodging Options Inside the Park Centrally Located
- Lake Hotel ($$$)
- Lake Lodge ($$$)
- Canyon Lodge ($$$)
- Canyon Campground ($)
- Norris Campground ($)
Lodging Options near South Entrance Inside the Park
- Grant Village Lodge ($$$)
- Lewis Lake Campground ($)
- Grant Village Campground ($)
Lodging Options near West Entrance Outside the Park
- Bar N Ranch ($$$$)
- 1872 Inn – Adults Exclusive ($$$$)
- Brandin’ Iron Inn ($$$)
- Best Western Desert Inn ($$)
- ClubHouse Inn ($$)
Lodging Options near West Entrance Inside the Park
- Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Inn ($$$)
- Madison Campground ($)
Rent an entire cabin on Airbnb. Get a $65 credit when you book your trip!
10 Best Places in Yellowstone National Park – DO NOT MISS
See below for a Yellowstone map that you can download for your trip.
- Old Faithful Geyser
- Old Faithful Inn
- Riverside Geyser
- Morning Glory Pool
- Grotto Geyser
- Grand Prismatic Spring
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- Bison in Hayden Valley
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Mammoth Hot Springs
HOW TO USE: To view the layers and see the names of the places on the above map, click the tab in the top left corner. You can select the check marks to show or hide certain layers. If you select the icons on the map, you will get more information about the point of interest.
HOW TO SAVE: If you select the star icon, you can save the above map to your Google Maps account. To view it, open Google Maps in desktop or on your phone, select the menu button, go to “Your Places,” scroll to the right to Maps, and you will see this map.
The most searched Yellowstone itineraries range from 3 to 5 days so if you are looking for only a Yellowstone 3 Day Itinerary, ignore the hiking day 3 section and combine days 4 & 5 (skipping the Beartooth Highway scenic drive) since you only have time for the highlights.
Yellowstone Itinerary Day 1 – Southwest Section
Begin the day exploring the largest active volcano system in the world. What, you didn’t know the creepy fact that the entire park virtually sits on top of a supervolcano?
It’s time to find out what a supervolcano can do!
Spend your day in the southwest side of the park, read here about our day near Old Faithful. Arrive as early as possible, Old Faithful is a must-see for any visitor so it is usually filled with tourists.
Except when you arrive early! Get there by 7:30 am, and your experience will be a pleasant one.
First, stop in at the Visitor Center to find out the next eruption time and plan accordingly. It blows every 80 – 90 minutes so if you have time beforehand, watch the short film in the theater as an introduction to the park.
Don’t expect much as far as graphics, the NPS needs to update their films but it is informative.
Then either before or after the explosion –depending on time -walk the Upper Geyser Basin.
The area is home to the largest numbers of active geysers in the park and in the world. Stay on the boardwalk and walk past luminous hot springs and bubbling geysers, some just inches away from your feet.
Afterward, when you are done with the Upper Geyser Basin walk, head over to the Old Faithful Inn.
Built in the early 1900s, it is considered the largest log structure in the world. There’s that “in the world” phrase again. Noticing a trend yet?
Once inside see if you can spot the massive stone fireplace, railings made of pine, and iron clock.
The architecture is rustic yet elegant. It’s like an adult designed the coolest tree house a kid could imagine.
Here’s where you want to eat lunch.
The Inn has a deck on the second floor with a perfect view of Old Faithful. Not only can you get a great view with a seat, but you can also bring in your own snack or lunch. They also have a bar around the corner on the inside if you want to order a drink.
It’s time to get back in the car and head just a few minutes north to Black Sand Basin. The trail is only ¼ of a mile long with overlooks at the Cliff Geyser, Emerald Pool, Sunset Lake, and Rainbow Pool.
Next is Biscuit Basin, three miles north. It’s another short walk with a few springs and geysers: Sapphire Pool, Jewel Geyser, Shell Geyser, Avoca Spring, and Mustard Spring.
If you are ready for a little hike, continue at the end of the boardwalk to Mystic Falls. The 2.5-mile round-trip is moderate with a slightly steep climb to the falls. It’s a nice short walk with a rewarding waterfall.
*REMINDER: It’s your first real hike in Yellowstone, don’t forget to bring bear spray on the Mystic Falls hike.*
Next up, is one of my do-not-miss places, the Midway Geyser Basin. Here, you’ll find the Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States and the third-largest in the world.
Yellowstone Itinerary Day 2 – South and Central Section
By now, you may be tired of seeing geysers – or maybe not – but don’t let that deter you from visiting West Thumb Geyser Basin. The boardwalk runs right along the lake with spouts bubbling underneath in the lake. The water is gorgeous, crystal clear with a rainbow of colors showing off sporadically.
Take the 1-mile drive up to the Lake Butte Overlook where you’ll see sweeping views of Lake Yellowstone. Be careful though, this is where we saw our first grizzly bear!
You will then be exploring the central section of the park today, you read more details here on our visit to the Grand Canyon region of Yellowstone River.
The 1,200-foot deep canyon cut deep in the soaring rocks will cut deep into your heart as well. It is picture-perfect.
Then take the 24-mile drive along the river stopping off at a few – or all – of the seven overlooks to view the spectacular Upper and Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Most of the scenic viewpoints are short walks but are steep. If you decide to take in the sights at each one, it is about seven miles total of walking.
For lunch, there are many picnic areas to choose from along the route or stop in Canyon Village’s cafeteria or dining room.
Plug your nose and take a detour to the smelliest part of Yellowstone at Mud Volcano. You’ll find the air reeking of sulfur while you take the short trek to Dragon’s Mouth Spring.
Hayden Valley, between the upper and lower falls, is considered one of Yellowstone’s best areas to see wildlife and is next on your Yellowstone itinerary. You may find yourself snapping photos of a herd of bison, packs of wolves or a lone grizzly bear.
*Tip: Don’t forget to bring your binoculars!*
Yellowstone Itinerary Day 3 – Hiking
Today, get out of the car and explore on foot one of the best hikes in Yellowstone:
- Mount Washburn Trail: 6.4-mile strenuous round-trip with incredible panoramic views at the lookout.
- Fairy Falls Trail: 5-mile easy trek to a cascading waterfall.
- Purple Mountain Trail: 6-mile moderate round-trip with wonderful views of the valley below.
- Avalanche Peak Trail: 5-mile round-trip strenuous steep hike along a ridgeline.
Another option is to head over to another national park, check out this Grand Teton National Park Itinerary, as a side trip if you are tight on time or combining the two while you stay in Yellowstone.
TIP: If you are looking for a Yellowstone 3 day itinerary, skip this day of hiking.
Yellowstone Itinerary Day 4 – Northeast Section
If you want a good chance of spotting some of Yellowstone’s most elusive wildlife like grizzlies and wolves, Lamar Valley is a prime location.
Start your day early and bring your binoculars because there’s also a possibility you’ll see badgers, pronghorn, bald eagles, deer, bison, or coyotes.
Afterward, include a drive to Tower Fall on your Yellowstone upper loop itinerary, the most popular waterfall in Yellowstone behind the falls at the Grand Canyon. You can either take in the views from an overlook or head to the base of the fall on a short but steep half-mile hike.
Then, stop at the Roosevelt Lodge Historic District which includes 130 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Have lunch at the family-style restaurant at the lodge or find a scenic picnic spot.
After lunch, take a detour outside the park, I promise you will not be disappointed. Beartooth Highway, considered one of the most scenic drives in the United States, is right outside the northeast gate.
Follow U.S. Route 212 between the gate and Red Lodge. The National Scenic Byways All-American Road is 68 miles of hairpin turns and breathtaking landscapes. Some have claimed it to be”the most beautiful drive in America.” It has definitely earned a spot on our top 10 list.
TIP: If you only have 3 days in Yellowstone, skip the scenic drive and combine days 4 & 5.
Yellowstone Itinerary Day 5 – Northwest Section
The first thing on the agenda this morning is Mammoth Hot Springs. This part of Yellowstone is extremely congested so again, make sure to get up and out early.
The drive out to Mammoth Springs is different than what you’ve been seeing so far on the trip. Big boulders on each side of the road will guide you into the area.
If you want to see wildlife, you are almost guaranteed a sighting of elk near Mammoth Springs. The grass was full of them grazing away and we even saw a few walking along the street.
Here, you can take the boardwalk to the Terraces, uniquely layered calcium deposits left over from the hot springs.
Then explore the Historic Fort and Lodge all while keeping an eye out for those roaming elk.
If you are interested in hiking near Mammoth Springs:
- Bunsen Peak: 4.6-mile moderate round-trip with a 1,300-foot climb.
- Wraith falls – 1-mile easy short hike.
Norris Geyser Basin is where you’ll find the world’s tallest active geyser, Steamboat Geyser. Its eruptions are far and few between but you’ll spot some gurgling.
The valley is home to some of the oldest and hottest pools in the park with temperatures above 200 degrees.
*Tip: For a fun adventure head over to Boiling River near Mammoth. It is one hot spring you are allowed to swim in.*
Other National Park Itineraries
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