While a person could spend a lifetime exploring Yellowstone National Park and still not see it all sometimes you only have a day to spend adventuring. If this is the situation you find yourself in and this is your first visit, we suggest the following itinerary based out of Gardiner, Montana, to see as many iconic Yellowstone locations as possible while saving other stops for what will undoubtedly be a future visit.
The following stops are along the main interior roadway of Yellowstone called the Grand Loop Road, which is open to passenger vehicles until snow closures take place at the end of October. Remember, the Northern Range of Yellowstone from Gardiner to Cooke City is the only roadway open year-round after the Grand Loop Road closes to passenger vehicles during winter, and you can click here to learn more about visiting during our favorite off season. But for now, buckle those seatbelts, get your camera ready, and prepare for a memorable day taking in the sights and sounds of the world’s first national park:
Stop 1: Norris Geyser Basin
Named for the park’s second superintendent, Philetus Norris, Norris Geyser Basin is an otherworldly landscape packed with erratically behaving hot springs, geysers, and steam vents called fumaroles. The basin is an approximately 45-minute drive south of Gardiner past Mammoth Hot Springs toward Madison Junction and Old Faithful Geyser Basin. Find a parking space and make use of the restrooms before or after exploring the basin. Norris has two main “loops” you can walk and a map is displayed at the Norris Museum (a National Historic Landmark) if you are unable to secure a paper copy at the basin’s trailhead. The basin is vast. We recommend walking only the Porcelain Basin Loop and making a quick trip on the way back to view Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world. Don’t get your hopes set on seeing Steamboat erupt, though, as it is a lively yet unpredictable feature. Who can say? Perhaps you’ll be among the lucky visitors to see it erupt. Allow yourself approximately an hour for this stop.
Stop 2: Old Faithful Village and Geyser Basin
On the other end of the predictability spectrum is Old Faithful Geyser, accurately named as it erupts approximately every 60 to 90 minutes. Estimated eruption times are displayed at the historic Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Snowlodge, and Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. Drive south from Norris past Madison Junction to Old Faithful and find a parking space before learning what time the geyser is scheduled to erupt. If an eruption is imminent, grab your camera and find a good location to watch along the boardwalk filled with wooden benches. If Old Faithful recently erupted we recommend you walk either Geyser Hill (maps can be found at the visitor center) or out toward Morning Glory Pool admiring various hydrothermal features along the way. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to get back to Old Faithful Geyser without missing the following eruption. For small children, exploring the hands-on exhibits inside the visitor center may be more engaging than viewing lots of hot springs. Remember eruption predictions have an approximately 10-minute window on either side so err on the side of caution timewise. Allow yourself up to two hours for this stop.
- Pro Tip: Do not join the “geyser rush” at the Old Faithful eateries post eruption unless you want to spend a bunch of time. Consider purchasing lunch before the eruption or pack sandwiches and snacks for a picnic instead.
Stop 3: Yellowstone Lake Village and the Lake Hotel
After driving east over Craig Pass from Old Faithful toward West Thumb Geyser Basin follow the scenic northbound shoreline of Yellowstone Lake. Near the northern edge of this massive body of water turn right at the sign for Lake Village. Here you will find parking behind the oldest (and, in our opinion, grandest) operating hotel in the national park system dubbed the “grande damme.” Lake Hotel was built in 1891 and remodeled by famed architect Robert Reamer, the designer of Old Faithful Inn, in 1903. The hotel was later designated a National Historic Landmark in 2015. Admire the hotel lobby, which has a sunroom that provides sweeping views of the lake out front, and take advantage of indoor restrooms. You can step out front and admire lakeside views of the Absaroka Mountains in the distance and look back at the face of the hotel, which often has colorful historic tour vehicles parked out front. Yellowstone Lake claims the title of being the largest, high-elevation lake above 7,000 feet in North America with nearly 141 miles of shoreline. Allow a half hour for your stop at the Lake Hotel.
Stop 4: Canyon Village and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
After proceeding northbound through the wildlife-rich hills and grasslands of Hayden Valley turn right at Canyon Village to find ample parking for the Canyon Visitor Education Center. In addition to restrooms the visitor center offers insightful, hands-on exhibits to help you understand the Yellowstone Volcano responsible for influencing everything you see around you — from the rolling landscape to hot springs to wildlife. After learning about Yellowstone’s geology speak with a naturalist ranger in the main lobby and look at a map of the overlooks for the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, as there are a number to choose from on both the north and south rims of the colorful canyon. Carved through hydrothermally altered rhyolite stained red and yellow and green from seeping hot springs, the canyon features two waterfalls and it's worth making time to see them both. The Upper Falls blasts 109 feet downward at the head of the canyon and the Lower Falls tumbles a graceful 308 feet a bit farther downstream. Snacks and beverages can be found on a limited basis at Canyon Village near the visitor center, which also has a water bottle filling station. Allow one to two hours to explore the Canyon area.
- Pro Tip: You cannot travel from Canyon Village to Tower Fall and Roosevelt Junction this year as Dunraven Pass is closed for construction. You’ll need to drive back through Norris Junction when you are returning to Mammoth Hot Springs and Gardiner.
Stop 5: Mammoth Hot Springs and Fort Yellowstone
As you drive back to Mammoth from Canyon look for elk, bison, and coyotes along Obsidian Creek and in the mountain-rimmed wetlands of Swan Lake Flat. Pullouts along this section offer opportunities for pictures of the sun setting behind the Gallatin Mountains. Once you get to Mammoth, a couple short stops and walks provide an opportunity to view the area’s famous travertine terraces without the crowds that tend to congregate earlier in the day. Park at the Upper Terrace Loop Drive parking lot for a 15-minute walk on a boardwalk to view the picturesque Canary Spring. Then, upon returning to your vehicle, drive the one-way, 1.5-mile Upper Terrace Loop Drive to see an eagle-eye overview of the Fort Yellowstone Historic District, home to the U.S. Army in the park’s early days, and for a brief stop at Orange Spring Mound. A short stop at Palette Spring at the base of the terraces will wrap up your day before you head down to Gardiner to rest and relax after a day full of exploring. Allow a half hour to 45 minutes for these stops.
We hope this post helps you to map out a fun-filled day in Yellowstone and don’t forget food, fun, and lodging can be secured in advance in Gardiner, “Nature’s Favorite Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.” For updated information on mask and vaccine requirements in federal buildings in Yellowstone, road construction, and to purchase an online pass in advance please visit the Yellowstone National Park website by clicking here.
Chelsea DeWeese writes from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.