Many would argue 4 days is not nearly enough time to see Yellowstone National Park. It is an absolutely massive park, with hundreds of miles of road and millions of acres of wilderness. However, I would argue that 4 days in Yellowstone is infinitely better than no days in Yellowstone. You can have a baller, once-in-a-lifetime Yellowstone trip in that timeframe!
Fair warning, there’s going to be a lot of driving involved. For this reason, I do encourage staying inside the park if at all possible. There are nine lodges in the park (their official website can be found here), which fill up quickly so make reservations early. Camping is my absolute favorite way to sleep in Yellowstone, and I’ve written up a detailed post on where to pitch a tent here!
Day 1: Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris Geyser Basin
This drive can start at the park’s North entrance, near Gardiner, MT. This is a cool spot to enter or exit the park at least once, because you will see the famous Roosevelt Arch.
Just beyond the North entrance lies Mammoth Hot Springs and the Mammoth visitor center. I recommend spending an hour or two here, taking your time to walk around the crazy cool hot springs and seeing the historic visitor center. There are no more food options beyond the Mammoth area, so stock up if you haven’t already got your picnic lunch in order.
If you’re super into waterfalls, take a slight detour East to check out Undine Falls and Wraith Falls. If you’re too strapped for time, don’t worry about it; there will be more waterfalls down the road!
Head South down the park road until you reach the Museum of the Park Ranger. Without stopping this will take about an hour, so definitely break up the drive with little stops here and there, e.g. Obsidian Cliff or Roaring Mountain (the latter is a must-see… and must-hear)! There are several picnic areas on this stretch—this is a perfect time for some food.
You’ll end the day checking out the Museum of the Park Ranger (a small but fascinating museum) and then finally, the Norris Geyser Basin. There’s another small museum here and boardwalks winding around the massive, incredibly interesting Norris Geyser Basin! I’d allow a minimum of an hour just to explore. It’s really mind-blowing (and terrifying, but I have a deep, powerful, refuse-to-say-irrational fear of hot springs).
If you’re some kind of superhuman and have extra time, pop a little to the East and check out Virginia Cascade. If you only have time for one waterfall-related detour today, this should be it. On the other hand, if you find yourself short on time, I am an advocate of cutting out most of your visitor center time in favor of more time out in the park (I can say that ’cause I was a Park Ranger… but don’t tell the others).
Here are some options for Yellowstone day hikes to add into the Day 1 itinerary:
- Bunsen Peak Trail: 4.0 miles round trip, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs, amazing views of Gallatin Range!
- Lava Creek Trail: 8.0 miles round trip, near Mammoth Campground, a challenging hike with some elevation change along a creek and through a canyon.
Day 2: Norris to Old Faithful
Get an early start today; it’s gonna be a long one. But, I promise it will end with you drinking craft beer in a cozy historic lodge!
In the interest of continuity, you’ll be starting more or less where you left off yesterday! Specifically, the first sight of the day will actually be the Artist Paint Pots just south of Norris Geyser Basin. These are more cool/interesting thermal features. You’re probably going to be super D.O.N.E. with thermal features by the end of your Yellowstone trip, but that’s kind of the point. You’ll miss them again before you know it.
Pop into the Madison information station if you want, or have any questions for the Rangers, otherwise head on to Firehole Canyon Drive. It is a 2 mile one-way road down to a waterfall and swimming area! Absolutely go for a swim here if it’s an option! In the winter and spring it’s closed, but the Rangers can tell you if not! There are even changing rooms, so really, no excuse not to jump in. Warning: don’t let the name fool you. It’s freakin’ cold.
Keep heading South towards the Midway Geyser Basin (home of the world-famous Grand Prismatic Spring). If you’re kookoo for hot springs and geysers, there are several different stops you can add into this part of the drive. First, the Fountain Paint Pot is an eerily still, iridescent blue (read: very photogenic) hot spring. It’s a quick detour and I highly recommend stopping. Second, the Firehole Lake Drive is a slightly longer detour (3 mile one-way road) but incredibly cool. It’s like, the Louvre of smaller hot springs and geysers. I think you could and should do both!
Okay, keep heading South til you hit the Midway Geyser basin, last stop before Old Faithful! The Midway Geyser basin is a huge attraction because of the Grand Prismatic Spring, so there will be traffic, people. That’s okay. Deep breaths. Spend as much time here as you want; the only time constraint now is getting to Old Faithful before dark and before their awesome visitor center closes (I allowed some time at the start of Day 3 if you don’t make it to the visitor center in time). Besides the Grand Prismatic Spring, you can wander around the Midway Geyser basin to check out three other rad, pretty large, alien-colored pools.
Next, it’s the one, the only… Old Faithful Geyser! Though this is the last stop of the day, there’s a LOT of stuff to see and do here. First of all, find your parking spot (a trick in and of itself), then head either straight to the geyser or the visitor center. I think Old Faithful’s visitor center is the coolest in the park, so take your time if you can! There’s also more to see in the Upper Geyser basin than just Old Faithful, so if you feel like exploring the area, go for it. I also think you could just get away with seeing Old Faithful, the visitor center, and the Inn, though.
Today ends at the beautiful, historic, cozy Old Faithful Inn. We loved dinner and drinks here at the end of a long day. The food is BONKERS delicious and they have a lot of local beers available. The staff are also cool people, most of them 20-somethings traveling around the country.
Some possible Yellowstone day hikes to add into you Day 2 itinerary:
- Fairy Falls Trail: 5.0 mile round-trip, located north of Old Faithful. This easy trail has awesome views of the Grand Prismatic Spring!
- Mystic Falls Trail: 2.5 mile loop, trailhead located at Biscuit Basin (north of Old Faithful). Highlights include Mystic Falls themselves and Biscuit Basin Overlook.
- Observation Point Trail: 1.1 miles round trip, easy hike to the Observation Point overlook for views of the whole Old Faithful area.
Day 3: Old Faithful to Hayden Valley via Yellowstone Lake
This is a shorter, more leisurely paced day. In case there was something from Day 2 you didn’t do justice, such as wanting more time to explore the massive Old Faithful visitor center or the Upper Geyser Basin besides Old Faithful, you can add it into the start of Day 3.
Heading East from Old Faithful towards Yellowstone Lake, you’ll soon come upon Kepler Cascades (just off to the left on the map). It’s a neat waterfall, worth a quick stop, but if you’re starting farther East don’t feel bad about missing it.
Craig Pass, another 15 minutes East of Old Faithful, has the oh-so-exciting “Continental Divide” sign you can take a picture with. Otherwise, again, if you’re starting farther East it’s missable.
The real meat of Day 3 begins at Grant Village and the West Thumb Geyser Basin! You guys. The West Thumb Geyser Basin is SO. FREAKING. COOL. Mostly, this is because of the bright blue springs and steaming geysers, not that different from what you’ve already seen, except they’re ON A LAKE. Trust me, it’s all very exciting.
Much of this drive is dotted with beautiful lakeside picnic areas, so as soon as you’re hungry, pull off and enjoy the view.
Today is a lake day! Specifically, a Yellowstone Lake day. There are a variety of guided and rental activities offered here, so you don’t need your own kayak to get out on the lake. Apparently the scenic cruise leaving from Bridge Bay Marina is educational and gorgeous. There are also boat rentals and guided fishing tours. Just walking around the pretty picnic areas and perhaps doing the Elephant Back Loop Trail (see Day 3 day hikes) would also give you a fine taste of Yellowstone Lake, though!
Next, head to the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center. It’s small and rustic and absolutely adorable. You’re now leaving the lake area.
If you’re doing well on time, pop by LeHardys Rapids and/or the Mud Volcano on your way to wildlife viewing at Hayden Valley. I’d only bother with the former in the spring or if there’s been a lot of rain, when the rapids are most intense. The Mud Volcano area is awesome, with a short trail (2/3 mile) around the bubbling mud pit itself, and some of the most acidic springs in Yellowstone. Just prepare yourself for some serious sulphur smell!
Finally, you will reach Hayden Valley. It’s a perfect place to linger, especially at dawn and dusk when wildlife is most likely to be out and about. Be patient! Keep on the lookout for people with spotting scopes on either side of the road, as this often means they see a cool critter. They’re usually also happy to share! We brought our own high quality binoculars for the trip, and I was glad; at Hayden Valley we saw more elk than we could count and a Grizzly from far away. Either eat in one of the picnic areas or head back to your campsite/room for dinner when you’ve had your fill of wildlife-spotting.
Best Yellowstone day hikes you can add into Day 3:
- Elephant Back Loop Trail: 2.8 mile round-trip hike, trailhead near Lake Village. This trail is a favorite for sunrise or sunset, as there are great views of the lake from higher elevation!
- Lone Star Geyser Trail: ~5.0 mile round-trip hike to the Lone Star Geyser and back. It’s a super easy trail, suitable for all skill levels. I didn’t do this trail, but most people say watching the Lone Star Geyser erupt (every 3 hours) was more impressive than Old Faithful!
Day 4: Hayden Valley to Lamar Valley via Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
If you want to return to Hayden Valley at dawn for some wildlife viewing, Yellowstone Day 4 starts there. Otherwise, you can go ahead straight to the Canyon Village area! Here you’ll find the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the biggest waterfalls you’ll see on the whole trip.
There’s a lot to do in Canyon Village. There’s the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone itself, which you must see. The Visitor Center here is great, too, especially if you like geology! There is both a North Rim Drive and a South Rim Drive (you should do both, and stop at every lookout. Yes, every effing lookout).
If you’re afraid of heights, you won’t be getting any relief as you drive North from Canyon Village—next stop, Dunraven Pass! It was some of the hairiest, windiest driving we did on the whole trip. It didn’t help that it was snowing at that elevation in June, or that the mist was at times so thick it impaired visibility. Still, when that mist cleared, the views of the surrounding mountainside were amazing. If you want to experience this part of the park on foot, the Mount Washburn Trail is perfect (see Yellowstone day hikes for Day 4 below).
Coming back down the mountain, you’ll approach Tower Fall. It’s a super short path to the waterfall. There’s a cute gift shop here, too. We were camping in the Tower Fall Campground and often stopped for coffee at the gift shop cafe. Also, when we were here in June, there were black bears and foxes all over the Tower Fall area!
If you like historic buildings, you might enjoy the Roosevelt Lodge just North of Tower Fall. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s anything that exciting to see in the Tower-Roosevelt area. You can head a bit West, in the direction of Mammoth, to check out some of Yellowstone’s petrified forest. It’s the 2nd largest in the country!
Head East to one of Yellowstone’s greatest gems, Lamar Valley. Look at the rocks across the river on your right as you head East here; we saw bighorn sheep several times, blending in with the cliffside. Also spotted two wolves chasing around two coyotes!
I could not get enough of Lamar Valley; I think we drove this stretch of road a dozen times. First of all, the views of the Absaroka Range are unendingly stunning. Second of all, many say Lamar Valley is the best place to see wildlife in Yellowstone. You’ll definitely see bison. Again, keep an eye out for folks with spotting scopes. This is where the wolf watchers like to hang out.
I’d also recommend driving the unpaved road up to Slough Creek campground. It’s the smallest and most sought-after campground in Yellowstone. There’s less traffic but as much, if not more, of a chance to see critters. At the campground, which is beautiful, you can hike along the Slough Creek trail. Bring bear spray; we saw a black bear exactly 30 seconds into the trail!
When you’ve sufficiently explored Lamar Valley, you can either have yourself a picnic, or head back to your room/campsite for dinner, or the Roosevelt dining room back at Tower-Roosevelt, or Cooke City just past the park’s Northeast entrance. It’s a cute little mountain town with several restaurants.
Best Yellowstone day hikes for Day 4:
- Uncle Tom’s Trail: super short, but fairly difficult trail to the base of the Lower Falls. It’s paved and packed with tourists. You go all the way down the steep cliffside, then all the way up. I needed to stop to rest more than once!
- Mount Washburn Trail: moderately difficult trail to the Mount Washburn summit lookout. You can leave from Chittenden Road (5.4 miles round trip) or Dunraven Pass Trailhead (6.4 miles round trip)
That’s it for my Yellowstone 4-Day itinerary…
What did you think? If you used this itinerary, or a rough version of it, I’d love to hear how it went. Did I miss something that absolutely belongs in a long weekend in Yellowstone? Sound off below!