How to spend your time in Yellowstone National Park if you only have one day

I decided to write a few blog posts about how to enjoy several different National Parks if you only have one day there. I hope you find my suggestions for Yellowstone helpful.

The first park I wrote about in this series was Arches National Park. You can really see most of Arches in a day. That is definitely not the case for Yellowstone. Yellowstone is a land of vast and impressive landscapes. At 2,219,740 acres Yellowstone is nearly 29 times the size of Arches National Park. That should make it obvious that no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to see too much of Yellowstone in one day. That’s not to say you shouldn’t still go there if you only have one day to enjoy it. You can still see a lot. In fact, I’d argue that any time spent in Yellowstone may be more rewarding than spending that time anywhere else.

I’ve been to Yellowstone three times, so I’m certainly no expert, but I camped there for ten nights, hiked around fifteen trails, and saw many of the parks most spectacular sights. Yellowstone was the first National Park established in the world and it was also the first park I visited. It created the passion (obsession) I have for the National Parks. For that, Yellowstone will always have a spot in my heart.

A coworker of mine recently went to Yellowstone with a friend for a few days. I created a quick guide for her and highlighted the places of interest on a corresponding park map for her. She said it was a huge help, so that helped me decide to try to make this post to try to help others with a limited amount of time in Yellowstone.

You’ll quickly learn that virtually everything in Yellowstone (waterfalls, mountains, even wildlife) is grand and imposing. They grow them big in northwest Wyoming. People often talk about trying to see the “Big 5” in Yellowstone. They are usually referring to bears (grizzly or black), bison, elk, moose, and wolves. If you can somehow see all five of those in one day you would be extremely lucky and probably very happy. I have yet to spot the elusive wolves that inhabit the park. I also don’t think I’ve seen any moose in Yellowstone, but I have seen several in Grand Teton National Park just to the south. I’ve spotted a few grizzlies, quite a few elk, and a few hundred bison.

For my purposes, I recommend trying to see the “Big 7” when you’re in Yellowstone. If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Yellowstone’s “Big 7” it’s because I just made it up. I’m referring to the park’s thermal features, waterfalls, canyon, lake, mountains, valleys, and wildlife. Try to see at least one example of each of those things to get a nice well-rounded experience in the park (albeit a much-too brief one if you’re only there for a day).

Well, that was a much longer introduction to my list than I expected. I guess I should get on with it. If you only have one day in the park try to make it as long of a day as possible and start early. I would usually recommend going to a Visitor Center or two inside the park, but in Yellowstone there is so much to see that I think it would be best to plan ahead and know what you want to see. That way you can save a little bit of time.

1. I might as well start with Old Faithful, since we all know you’re going to see it. Nearly everyone that makes their way to Yellowstone watches Old Faithful erupt at least once while they’re there, so don’t expect to be alone. You can hike the short trail to the overlook to watch the eruption from above. You’ll be around much less people, but make sure you time it right or the geyser will blow before you reach the viewpoint. Also, make a quick stop in the Old Faithful Inn, while you’re in the neighborhood. It was the largest log cabin in the world for a very long time. The expansive lobby and enormous fireplace are worth a visit.

Old Faithful

2. Next up would be the Midway Geyser Basin to see Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser, which are too huge thermal features.

3. I would then recommend you continue clockwise up the western side of the Grand Loop Road for a ways until you reach Mammoth Hot Springs. The terraces there are another unique thermal sight. Mammoth is also home to park headquarters, a hotel, and a lot of services. You can also usually find a lot of elk hanging out there between the buildings and roads.

4. If you want a quick break to relax I recommend continuing north to the Boiling River where you can take a dip in the Gardiner River where it his naturally warmed by a hot spring that spills into the river. It’s just a half-mile walk to reach the spot and it’s normally open from late summer through winter.

5. Next up, depending on your priorities, should be a stop in the Lamar Valley in the northwest corner of the park. If you want prime wildlife viewing in Yellowstone, this is where you go. Elk, bison, bears, and wolves call the valley home.

6. Then you’re going to want to backtrack to the intersection of the Grand Loop Road and head south toward the Canyon area. Before you reach the Canyon I highly recommend hiking up Mount Washburn. It is the best hike in the park. Its six miles round-trip and gains about 1,400 feet so it will take up a few hours of your day. Time is very valuable if you’re only in Yellowstone for a day, but if you’re physically able, I think you should tackle the Mount Washburn Trail.

7. Continue south and admire the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It is a very impressive sight. While you’re there be sure to check out the Lower Falls, which I’d say is the most remarkable sight in the entire park. It is a large and breathtaking waterfall. Artist Point, made famous by a Thomas Moran painting, is the most popular viewpoint of the falls. I think Lookout Point is just as good. If you have time, see the Upper Falls, too.

8. Next continue south through Hayden Valley, where you’ll almost certainly have to stop to let bison cross the road. You’ll likely see hundreds of bison in the expansive valley.  There are also nice views of the Yellowstone River meandering its way through the valley.

9. Continuing the clockwise route south will take you along the shore of Yellowstone Lake. This is the largest high elevation lake in the country. Stop for some photos of the lake with the Absaroka mountains in the background.

western-adventure-2010-203

10. Lastly, stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin to see some fascinating hot springs and pools right at the edge of Yellowstone Lake. You’ll be nearly back to Old Faithful after this.

There’s a list to get you started if you have a small amount of time in Yellowstone. Honestly, I know it is probably better to try all that in two or three days. I tried to give you several options, though. If I had only one day I’d probably cut out most of the upper loop from the itinerary. That would include Mammoth Hot Springs, the Boiling River, and the Lamar Valley. The stops would also largely depend on the entrance and exit you use. If it’s not on the way, I could also see cutting out the West Thumb Geyser Basin and if you’re not much of a hiker or the weather is iffy, you could skip Mount Washburn.

5 thoughts on “How to spend your time in Yellowstone National Park if you only have one day

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  1. That’s a pretty solid day!

    Also, not sure if you’re aware but they just opened a new trail that goes behind Grand Prismatic and climbs up the hillside part way for a view. It’s by far the best way to see the spring, and being up above it rather than right down with it really emphasizes how massive and colorful Grand Prismatic is!

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      1. Oh, yes, it is the Fairy Falls trail. But there’s an official turn off now that climbs up for that view, and then you can climb back down and continue on to the falls.

        Liked by 1 person

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