As a professional guide, I’m frequently asked, “How can I see all of Yellowstone in a day?” Or something along those lines. Long story short, you can’t. Yellowstone National Park is over 2,000,000 acres, leaving plenty to be seen and discovered even for long-time locals. However, if you only have a day and you want to get the best of it, then here’s my opinion on the best way to do it, particularly if you’re entering via the West, East, or South Entrance stations.
The main road through Yellowstone makes a rough figure-8. The bulk of what everyone thinks of when they think of Yellowstone National Park is along the lower loop of the ‘8’. Even so, there’s still so much to see just along that lower loop that you can easily find yourself watching the sun set without even getting through half of it. So how do you know what to stop for and what to reluctantly skip? Below is my professional recommendation for how to best get to the key points, see the most impressive features, and be back in town at a decent hour for dinner.
Main Attractions on the Lower Loop
As mentioned, most of what makes Yellowstone National Park so well known can be found along the lower loop. However travel time to and from the loop can impact your day as well. Entering at different entrances will yield access to different features in a different order, as well as timing. For example, if you’re leaving from West Yellowstone, there’s a much shorter travel time to access the loop than if you’re leaving from Cody or Jackson. For the sake of simplicity, this write-up will only cover reaching and traveling the loop from the vantage point of entering from the South Entrance, likely leaving from Jackson, though it can be easily adapted for other entry points using a printable Yellowstone National Park map, provided by the park.
Regardless of where you enter from, you’ll want to get an early start on the day. Getting to any entrance station by 8am or earlier will not only allow you to beat the crowds, but it will also give you the freedom to have a more relaxed pace while getting to see more features. Getting there after 10am will dramatically alter the pace and will force you to skip more than you’d expect or want.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
The West Thumb Geyser Basin is a beautiful collection of hot springs and geysers that are bubbling along the shores of Yellowstone Lake. The area includes over a mile of boardwalk trail to see all the features set against the largest high-altitude lake in North America, with two other short and easy hiking trails spurring from the parking area.
This geyser basin is found at the junction of the Lower Loop and the South Entrance road. As enticing as it is, continue straight to begin the loop in a clockwise direction. Depending on how you map out the rest of the day, this makes for a great stop before leaving if time permits. Another reason for skipping it right away is that with it being your first taste of thermal features, it can be easy to eat up more time than you would if this weren’t your first exposure to Yellowstone’s thermal activity.
After about 20-30 minutes of driving through the forested hills, you’ll see Kepler Cascades on your left. If you’re itching for a stretch break, this makes for a great place to stop. A quick hop out of the car gives you a dramatic view of one of the hundreds of waterfalls that are home to Yellowstone. It only takes a few minutes, and so stopping to admire them for a bit won’t affect the long-term outcome of the day. The only real risk is that you’re only minutes away from Old Faithful.
Know ahead of time the prediction for Old Faithful by using one of the apps or by checking with the park. Your last signal would have been while passing by Grant Village, just south of West Thumb, which would allow you to get the most up-to-date prediction. It’s roughly 30 minutes from Grant Village and West Thumb to Old Faithful, so let that be the judge to decide if you have a few minutes to spare or not.
Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin
It’s hard to argue a more well-known feature of Yellowstone than Old Faithful. The iconic geyser is the one wonder of the park that everyone knows simply from its place in the zeitgeist.
Entering from the South Entrance, this will be one of the first major stops along the loop if you catch it going clockwise, ie, on the western side of the loop.
Though it erupts roughly every ninety minutes, the time spent waiting (if necessary) will fly by quicker than you think. The Visitor Center has some great educational distractions to keep you engaged on learning more about the park, while the historic Old Faithful Inn is also nearby, allowing you to tour the largest log cabin structure in the world. It’s the kind of place you’ll be glad you set aside a few minutes for.
Once Old Faithful is nearing its eruption time, you’ll want to head out about fifteen minutes early to make sure you get a decent spot among the crowds that inevitably build up, and also because the eruption could possibly be a few minutes early.
Tip: Catch Old Faithful before 10am or after 4pm to experience it with reduced crowd numbers.
The Upper Geyser Basin
Looking out into the landscape from Old Faithful, you’ll see a lot of steam rising not too far away. That’s because the Upper Geyser Basin, of which Old Faithful is a part of, packs in an unusually high concentration of geysers. Many of these can be accessed by easy one or two mile hikes along well maintained trails.
If you’re eager to get back on the road but want to see a few more of Old Faithful’s friends, a quick and easy loop can be made by following the boardwalk to the east side of Old Faithful (away from the Old Faithful Inn and toward the Lodge) and following the trail down and across the Firehole River. Pick up the short loop just across the river where you might get to see Lion Geyser erupt, as well as the massive Beehive Geyser, the latter shooting nearly 100 feet higher than Old Faithful!
Want a bit more walking before heading back to the car? Follow the main path along the Old Faithful Inn parking area where it will head deeper into the geyser basin, past Castle Geyser, and ultimately to Morning Glory Pool about a mile later. You can also catch an alternate route back which gives you the opportunity to catch the enormous Grand Geyser, as well as the aforementioned loop.
While Biscuit Basin can be hiked to from the Upper Geyser Basin, or driven to shortly after, you’ll find that it will eat up plenty of time. Though Biscuit Basin does have some great things going for it, if you only have a day in Yellowstone then this one is better left for a future visit.
Midway Geyser Basin
In terms of timing, the Midway Geyser Basin should be experienced in one of two ways: hiking up to the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail, or by walking the main boardwalk through it. The decision is really more of a personal preference, but both will yield different results.
The Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail
One of the newer ways to experience the Midway Geyser Basin is by the Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail. Previously accessed by bushwhacking up a steep hill, the park recognized the desire for such a trail and took steps to mitigate the erosion that the increasingly popular bushwhacking was causing, while building a more accessible trail. This allows the public to get a beautiful vantage point of the famous Grand Prismatic Spring, with Excelsior Geyser Crater steaming in the background. If you prefer getting a little elevation in with a semi-aerial view of a key feature of Yellowstone, you’ll enjoy this.
The Midway Geyser Basin Boardwalk
The primary way to experience the Midway Geyser Basin is along the main boardwalk, found just a bit farther up the road. This brings you across the Firehole River where scalding runoff from the Excelsior Geyser Crater is pouring ferociously into the river. After ascending a small and easy rise, you’ll pass Excelsior Geyser Crater, a geyser so massive and powerful that it blew itself apart over 100 years ago, leaving a large bubbling hot spring in its place. The pure blue color is what attracts people to this one, and for good reason.
Beyond the Excelsior Geyser Crater is Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in North America and third largest in the world. The colors are vibrant and radiant and highly worth seeing one way or another. You won’t get the aerial view like the previous option, but you will get an up close and personal vantage point of it, so choose whichever you feel more gravitated toward. Each will take about the same amount of time.
Firehole Lake Drive
The Firehole Lake Drive is a scenic drive that wanders past a few larger geysers and hot springs. While it is scenic and not terribly long, it can eat up some time, so to get the best in in one day, continue past this one.
Lower Geyser Basin
The Lower Geyser Basin has some beautiful features and is a great walk, especially if you can catch Fountain Geyser erupting. However, if you’ve already done the Midway Geyser Basin and even a quick walk at the Upper Geyser Basin, you’re better off continuing ahead.
Firehole Canyon Drive
The Firehole Canyon Drive is a beautiful and slow-going scenic drive along cascades of the Firehole River. For the purposes of this particular agenda, it’s better left passed up, unless you’re not much of a walker and didn’t do much walking in any of the previous stops.
The Madison Junction is more of a stop-and-stretch stop than a scenic stop, though there is beautiful scenery all around. Situated at the confluence of the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers, the two form the Madison River nearby. It’s also the only stop for a while with flushable restrooms and a place to refill your water bottles.
Small Stops Along the Gibbon River
Over the next stretch there will be several smaller stops that are quick and easy to get out of the car for a moment and enjoy. None are any that are absolute requirements to get a great Yellowstone experience, but if you’re wanting to stop and enjoy one or two, you have a couple of nice options. Gibbon Falls is a beautiful cascading waterfall that doesn’t eat up too much time. Shortly after, Beryl Spring is a small but captivating hot spring coupled with a fumarole right next to it that’s right along the road, making it another easy stop.
Further ahead is Artist Paint Pots, but is also skippable if you’re trying to get through the loop in a day. Conversely, if you haven’t done much walking up to this point this would be a good place to stretch your legs.
Norris Geyser Basin
The Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park, and is even home to the world’s tallest geyser, Steamboat Geyser. The geyser basin is also quite large, allowing you to spend plenty of time here. If you’re wanting to see a bit of it, check out the short walk to Steamboat Geyser, and/or the short loop around the Porcelain Basin for some beautiful features.
The Norris Geyser Basin also marks the last point you’ll see along the western side of the loop. The next stretch will a relatively mellow drive to the east side. If you reach this spot by about noon, feel free to check out some of the features.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is one of the reasons you were saving time from earlier in the day. Often overshadowed by Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, and the wildlife of the park, it leaves a lasting impact on people and is easily one of the favorite roadside features of Yellowstone National Park. Two separate roads will bring you to various viewpoints along both the North and South Rim, both of which will surprise and delight you. Hiking trails are also accessed from each rim, but only one trail on the North Rim will bring you down into the canyon. And while both rims of the canyon have plenty to offer, it’s best if you stick to one to keep from spending too much time at one location.
Along the way, pop into the Canyon Village Visitor Center if you need a restroom, and/or want to learn more about the volcanic past of the park. Likewise, visit one of the general stores or restaurants for snacks or a meal. If you’re wanting to stay on a decent schedule, you’ll want to be reaching this area in the early afternoon.
Tip: If you’re leaving from Jackson, grab a sandwich and lunch from Creekside Market on your way out and take advantage of one the many picnic areas along the road.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone North Rim
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone features a few more access points for overlooks, with more than one heading down into the canyon. The short one-way road will also bring you back to Canyon Village, so if you wanted to head there anyway, this makes for a great combo.
The first stop along the North Rim Drive is a short but steep hike to the Bring of the Lower Falls. This trail brings you down into the canyon to the top of Lower Falls, a massive 308-foot waterfall at the back of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – a surreal and colorful display that simply needs to be seen to be believed.
If you’d prefer something with easier access, Lookout Point is the next stop along the road, and is a short walk out to a sweeping vantage point from within the canyon. If you’d also like to get in a quick hike, another short but steep trail will drop you down to Red Rock Point, where a more intimate view of the falls can be experienced.
Grand View is the next overlook, which is also an overlook situated a short distance from the parking area, making it accessible to anyone who wants to see it.
Inspiration Point is the final spur along the road, which many would argue is the best one. A panoramic view awaits visitors, with extended and breathtaking views both up and down the canyon.
Tip: Always respect the boundaries along the canyon trails and overlooks that the park has put in place. The rock is easily erodible and people have died numerous times being where they shouldn’t.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone South Rim
The first parking area will be for an overlook for the Upper Falls. While the view is beautiful and easy to appreciate, the spectacle is really the Lower Falls, so it’s recommended you really only stop here if you’re doing good on time.
The road will dead-end into a large parking area for the Artist’s Point Lookout. Like Inspiration Point on the opposite rim, this overlook features stunning panoramic views both up and down the canyon.
If you’re making good time and want to get in a bit of hiking while you’re there, the trail to Point Sublime starts at the back of the Artist’s Point Lookout, and is about 1.5 miles in length one way. While there are a few short inclines here and there, the trail for the most part is pretty easy going.
The Hayden Valley
Once you head south from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you’ll wind along the Yellowstone River before the landscape opens up into the expansive Hayden Valley. Once a part of Yellowstone Lake at the end of the last ice age, this massive valley is considered one of the wildlife hotspots of Yellowstone National Park.
If you manage to get there either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, your odds of seeing something a little more rare, such as wolves or bears, increase. The catch though is that if you’re heading back to Jackson, you’ve got about a three hour drive ahead of you, not including any other stops. It’s still over an hour if you’re heading back to Cody, so plan accordingly depending on when you’d like to be back.
The Mud Volcano area is just south of the Hayden Valley and though it does contain a mile-long loop, there’s also the option to do a much shorter loop which conveniently passes by the two most interesting features. It’s worth a quick ten minutes or so to get out and check out both the namesake Mud Volcano as well as the Dragon’s Mouth, each of which are along the shorter loop.
Yellowstone Lake and West Thumb
Heading south from Mud Volcano, the road will cruise along the shore of Yellowstone Lake for about thirty minutes, allowing for a reflective and scenic drive as you begin to make your way along the end of the loop.
You’ll once again reach the West Thumb Geyser Basin, where you still have at least two hours back to Jackson, assuming best conditions for traffic and minimal stops, so take that into account if you’re wanting to check out the mile or so walk through the geyser basin. Otherwise, head left at the junction to begin heading back to Jackson.
Obviously these are all just recommendations, and not a strict guideline. However, in my experience, following these tips will get you the most rewarding day you can if you only have a day to see Yellowstone National Park. Of course my next advice would be to try to add an extra day if there’s any way, or if not, plan on a return trip, because Yellowstone has so much more to offer than just the highlighted features from this post. Look those recommendations in another post!
Likewise, the advice here will put you back into town by a decent hour for dinner, however you could also simply grab dinner at one of the restaurants or grills in the park and stay out a little later to catch a little more. The opportunities are endless, but the most important part is that you have fun, learn a little, and be safe on the roads if you’re out after dark.
Want to experience the park in a day or more, but geared toward photography? Check out my private photography workshop options and let me do all the work while you get all the photos you want!