Traveling to Yellowstone and not sure what to do at the famous national park? You’re certainly in the right place then because this is a detailed guide to all the top sights in Yellowstone National Park!
I made itineraries for everyone, whether you’re visiting the park for a day or a week. You’ll get the scoop on all the best sights, hiking trails, and tips on stuff you should take care of before you even leave for the NP. So, read on to see how many days you should spend in Yellowstone, and what you should plan to do while you’re visiting the national park!
There are a few things you should do before you travel to Yellowstone, whether you’re staying for a day or a week. So, let’s get those out of the way first, and then we’ll talk about how much time you should set apart for this awesome national park!
Yellowstone is one of the most popular national parks in North America and it gets a lot of visitors. If you’re planning on camping at the national park, you will need to reserve a campsite a few weeks in advance.
The crowds are the worst during the summer, which is the peak season for the park. Campsites and hotel rooms get booked rather quickly and unless you’ve reserved something, you won’t have a place to spend the night within the national park.
It’s worth noting that camping in Yellowstone is only allowed at designated campgrounds. You can’t set up camp at a picnic site or anywhere outside the designated areas, so if you don’t reserve a campsite, you could end up driving for hours just to find an available hotel room.
The ideal time to visit Yellowstone is between May and October when the temperatures are high and the snow has melted. The colder months usually bring a lot of snowfall with them and lots of park roads are closed during these months. The experience of exploring Yellowstone is entirely different when there is snow on the ground since you can’t just drive around the park as you normally would.
You’ll need a snowmobile to reach certain areas of the park, and some roads are not passable at all because of snowfall. That being said, winter and early spring are a good time to visit the park if you’ve already experienced it in the summer and you would like to avoid the crowds.
Yellowstone is best experienced in the summer and everyone knows that. The crowds during July and August are huge, and it’s impossible to find a campsite unless you reserved it weeks in advance.
I would recommend May and September as the ideal months to visit since the weather is still nice but the crowds are much smaller. Most of the park is open and easily accessible and you get to see the park in either spring bloom or autumnal colors.
Ideally, you should plan to spend at least five days in Yellowstone National Park if you really want to see the entire place. It’s a big national park with a lot of famous attractions – it’s possible to see the highlights in a day or two, but it’s going to be an entirely different experience if you spend most of your time in Yellowstone behind the wheel.
Five days gives you plenty of time to gradually explore the park, instead of driving for hours every day. It’s also enough time to explore the various Yellowstone hiking trails, most of which take you to some amazing hidden gems.
If you’re interested in some of Yellowstone’s long-distance hiking trails, you should plan to spend a week at the park. The best backpacking trips in Yellowstone are 3-4 days long, so a week gives you plenty of time to do one, maybe even two of these, and still see most of the NP’s highlights.
If you only have a day in Yellowstone, you won’t get to see much of the park but you can see some of the most popular tourist attractions. The most iconic Yellowstone sight is Old Faithful Geyser and it’s going to be the main highlight of the visit.
The Old Faithful Geyser is best known for its consistency – the hot water erupts on a schedule (20 times per day), so it’s guaranteed that you’ll get to see a geyser eruption while you’re there. There’s a nice viewing platform a little above the geyser, and it’s the best place to observe the hot water shoot up into the sky.
During your one day in Yellowstone, you should also explore the other geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin. There are so many of them and each features a unique shape. There’s even a heart-shaped geyser, which is certainly a good enough reason to go on a short walk and explore the area.
From Old Faithful Geyser, follow the Firehole River north and drive to the Grand Prismatic Spring. The 300-ft wide hot spring is another iconic Yellowstone sight, and the pedestrian boardwalk allows you to get a great look at its rainbow-colored edges. There’s a viewing platform close to the spring and you should definitely go there if you want to get a good look at the whole thing.
After the geysers, it’s time to head to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – an impressive ravine carved out by the Yellowstone River. There are countless lookout points above the ravine, but the Artist Point remains the favorite of those who are looking for picturesque views. It’s possible to hike to all the lookout points and the trails are short, easy, and in good condition.
From Canyon Valley, you’ll want to drive south towards Hayden Valley. The ultimate destination is actually Yellowstone Lake, but Hayden Valley is a great stop along the way, especially if you enjoy watching wild animals. You can see moose, bison, birds, and many other animals just roaming around in the wilderness, which is pretty cool.
Yellowstone Lake is just a little south of Hayden Valley, and it’s easily one of the top sights at the park. It’s also the final stop on this one-day itinerary for Yellowstone National Park, so be sure to make most of your time while you’re in the area! A short lakeside stroll or a picnic is always a good way to end the day – in case you have more time left, read on to see what else there is to do in the park!
If you have two days at Yellowstone, you should do everything I listed for day one, and then ideally camp near Yellowstone Lake. There are a lot of campgrounds in the area, but it is one of the most popular places with campers, so just make sure to book a campsite several weeks earlier.
There are many different hiking trails in the area, and you always have the option of just spending the day hiking. This should be good enough for people who don’t want to spend a lot of their time driving around the park and would rather spend their remaining time in the NP surrounded by untouched nature. You can see Yellowstone’s most popular hiking trails in the five-day itinerary below.
But, if you want to see even more Yellowstone highlights and you don’t mind spending a good chunk of the day behind the wheel, then get in the car and head towards Mammoth Hot Springs.
The terrace-like cascade of hot springs is another iconic Yellowstone sight, and it’s an absolute must-see. There are short hiking trails in both the upper and lower terraces, and exploring these is a great way to see all the wonderful hot springs in the area.
Since you’re already in the area, you can go check out Fort Yellowstone. It’s not that popular with tourists, so the crowds shouldn’t be huge. The fort was originally established in 1891 and 35 of the original structures remain to this day. Nowadays it serves as a visitor center and a museum.
From Mammoth, you’ll want to head north next. Follow the road north until you reach Boiling River, where hot spring water flows into the cold river water. It’s popular for seasonal bathing thanks to the unique hydrothermal feature, and it’s one of the best-known attractions in Yellowstone.
Boiling River is less than 10 minutes away (by car) from Yellowstone’s North Entrance – if you’re already out of time, you just continue driving north until you leave the park. I would recommend you stop by the Roosevelt Arch first. The stone arch at the entrance is monumental, and it’s certainly one of the most popular sights in Montana’s part of the park.
Additionally, if you decide to drive from Boiling River to Roosevelt Arch, you’ll eventually pass the 45th Parallel of Latitude marker. Stand near the marker and you’ll officially be standing halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. It’s not exactly a thrilling sight, but there is something exciting about it, kind of like straddling the border between two states to be in two places at the same time.
Five days is just the right amount of time to spend in Yellowstone if you’re not interested in the backpacking trips. There are some awesome long-distance hikes in the national park, but they take about 3-4 days. You might be able to cover the top sights from the first three days and do a quick backpacking trip in the remaining time, but only if you have plenty of experience with long-distance hikes.
One of the most popular trails in the park is the Mud Volcano Trail. It’s north of Yellowstone Lake, and the trailhead is right at the parking lot. The loop trail can be done in under an hour and it’s the perfect hike to whet your appetite for Yellowstone sights.
It’s an easy boardwalk trail featuring several geysers, including the Mud Volcano – a cauldron full of boiling mud. That’s a fascinating sight, but keep in mind that this is one of the smelliest areas of the park.
Mystic Falls is another beautiful spot that can only be accessed via hiking trails. The trailhead is at Biscuit Basin, northwest of Old Faithful. The out and back hike to Mystic Falls is easy and only takes about an hour. The trail is scenic and shaded, featuring beautiful nature, lots of wildlife, and a spectacular waterfall at the end.
Check out the Avalanche Peak trail if you’re in the mood to climb a mountain but don’t have enough time to go on a proper multi-day expedition. The trailhead is east of Yellowstone Lake, at a parking lot near Eleanor Lake.
This is a 7-kilometer trail that takes about 3-4 hours, depending on the trail and weather conditions. It’s one of the hardest hikes in Yellowstone National Park, with an elevation gain of more than 630 meters in just under 2 hours. The trail is steep, rocky, demanding, and features some of the best views you can experience in the park.
Hike to Bunsen Peak if you want to experience spectacular views but you’re not a very experienced hiker. This is a moderate trail that can be done in less than three hours and it’s suitable for hikers that don’t have that much experience.
The out and back trail features switchbacks with some steep climbs, but that’s to be expected considering the elevation change of nearly 400 meters. There’s no wildlife on the trail but the views are stunning enough to make up for it!
Lamar Valley is a beautiful valley in the northeast section of the park. The trailhead is at a parking lot just off NE Entrance Road, about a 45-minute drive from Mammoth. The out and back trail is moderately difficult and takes about 4 hours, with an elevation change of just some 200 meters.
It’s best to do this trail early in the morning if you want to see bison and deer – it gets quite busy later on in the day and that generally scares off the wildlife. Lamar Valley features hot springs, wildlife, a creek, and even two campsites where you can just relax and take in the views.
If you’re staying in Yellowstone for a week, you will have plenty of time to see all of the NP’s highlights listed earlier, plus you have enough time to do a long-distance hike or two. The backpacking trails take you to parts of the NP that aren’t accessible by car, and they usually feature spectacular nature and such unique sights that the 2-day hike turns out to be more than worth the effort.
It’s worth noting that you’ll need permits for backcountry camping for most of these long-distance hikes, so be sure to secure those on time. Additionally, keep in mind that all these trails are in the best condition during peak season.
Trail conditions in the off-season are a lot rougher and potentially dangerous, which is why we don’t recommend doing the long-distance hikes outside the peak season. The ideal time for these hikes is in July and August, but you can also attempt them in late May, June, and early September.
One of the best backpacking trails in Yellowstone is a four-day loop trail that covers both Heart Lake and Snake River. The hiking area is southwest of Yellowstone Lake – the Hear Lake trailhead is just off the main road, close to Lewis Lake. It’s worth noting that this section is part of the Continental Divide Trail so you might even encounter some really avid backpackers along the way.
The lake is famous for its namesake shape and Snake River is one of the most significant rivers in the West. Hiking along its shores is just an amazing experience – the views are stunning, the wildlife is rich, and there are ample fishing opportunities.
If you’re looking for a real challenge, you can attempt to ascend Electric Peak. It’s not the highest point in the national park – that would be Eagle Peak. However, climbing Eagle Peak is not recommended even for professional alpinists due to the lack of campsites, inaccessible terrain, and abundance of wildlife along the way.
Electric Peak is the next best thing. It’s in the Gallatin Mountain Range and the nature in the area is gorgeous. The hardest part of the hike is the actual ascent on the 10,969-feet tall peak – the trail is rocky and steep, so come prepared. It’s worth noting that there’s not an official trail to the summit, but there is a faint path made by other backpackers that managed to ascend this fantastic mountain.
You could do two long-distance trips in a week, and have enough time to see the famous geysers. Also, keep in mind that I was a bit generous with the time allotted for these backpacking trips – more experienced hikers can easily complete them in a shorter period, as long as they don’t stop just to admire the view too often.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.