Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world and still is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Trying to “see” the park in three days is like trying to catch the ocean in a bottle, but sometimes that is all the time visitors may have. So here is one attempt at a three-day itinerary for the park.
The geysers area is a great first stop on Day 1. Yellowstone has the world’s largest concentration of geysers and thermal features, and they are the most unique aspect of the park. Spending the first night at either the Old Faithful Inn or Old Faithful Lodge (or for campers, the Madison Campground) is recommended. Walking the Upper Geyser Basin (and, of course, seeing Old Faithful erupt) will take all morning, especially if the short hike up to Observation Point is included. Other areas to visit (listed from south to north) include the Biscuit Basin (including the nice hike to Mystic Falls that starts there), Midway Geyser Basin and the marvelous Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Firehole Lake Scenic Drive. Continue north on the Grand Loop Road and if time permits, stop at Gibbon Falls and the Norris Geyser Basin. The goal for the night is to get to either the historic Roosevelt Lodge or Tower Fall Campground for a good night’s sleep, because tomorrow will be an early one!
Day 2 will feature the wildlife of the park (though wildlife is frequently seen at any time). Yellowstone is one of the largest intact ecosystems in the continental United States. All of the major mammal species present in the area 200 years ago are still present today, and the best place to see them is the Lamar Valley in the northeast section of the park. Wildlife is most active in the early morning, so rising before the sun and getting an early start is crucial. The 30-mile section of road between Tower Junction and the northeast park entrance is home to thousands of bison, herds of pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzly and black bears and the occasional moose. The wolf is the most elusive of these, and the best spot to see them is on the short road to the Slough Creek Campground. The parking areas on the left side of this road will likely be filled with vehicles and wolf spotters who will gladly share a look through their spotting scopes. By noon the animals will mostly be out of sight, so head back to the Roosevelt Lodge for lunch and an afternoon hike on the Lost Lake Loop right out the back door of the Roosevelt Lodge. Nearby Tower Fall is worth a look too.
You can sleep in a little on Day 3, which does not have to start as early, but the goal is to make the 20-mile drive down to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to arrive by 9 a.m. for one of nature’s truly amazing sights. Head to the Artist Point overlook and admire the beautiful view of the falls. Around 9:30 or 9:45, watch for the rainbow that slowly appears in the spray--only a fraction of Yellowstone’s visitors ever see this sight! The hike from Artist Point up the trail toward Ribbon Lake provides some marvelous views of the canyon. After exploring the canyon, head south to Yellowstone Lake through the Hayden Valley (another nice place to see wildlife) and plan to spend the night at the Lake Lodge or Lake Hotel for a nice dinner and marvelous views. A side trip to the West Thumb Geyser Basin and the short hike up the Lake Overlook Trail is worth it if time permits.
Note: pre-planning for this trip is essential, because all the park lodging and camping options are very popular and book up well in advance. Make reservations a year to six months in advance if possible. Otherwise lodging options will be limited to locations outside the park, requiring significantly increased driving times.