Trying to plan a three day trip to Yellowstone may seem just about impossible. The park map covers 3,468 square miles with over 250 miles of drivable roads, making it very easy to spend a week or even a month exploring this expansive park. If you tried to hike every step of the over 1,100 miles of hiking trails it could even take you a lifetime. However, it is possible to see just about all of the highlights in just three days flat.
The park is typically broken into two major parts, the Upper Loop and the Lower Loop. The parks road system is comprised of circular roads that meet in the middle to form the shape of an ‘8’. The Upper Loop is the northern 142 mile/229 km long circular track and it’s all about waterfalls, hot springs, and great viewpoints.
The Lower Loop is slightly shorter at 96 miles/155 km and is home to the National Park system’s most famous attraction, Old Faithful. The Lower loop does have more than just Old Faithful; packed with geysers on the west and the massive Yellowstone Lake fills in the east.
Both of these loops are a great way to explore Yellowstone, but are each a little too long to see everything on them in just one day. The best way to tackle Yellowstone in three days is to do the majority of one loop each of the first two days and leave day three to fill in what you missed.
Day 1: Upper Loop – Noris to Canyon Village
The Upper Loop is the longer of the two and the highlights are more spread out and focused on the ‘corners’of the loop. The biggest attraction in the upper loop of the park are the Mammoth Hot Springs. Over thousands of years, the hot mineral rich water has bubbled up and formed layered pools and waterfalls. A good part of your morning could be spent walking the trails around the upper and lower terraces and driving the loop road around them. After the hot springs take time to pull off the road for some amazing landscapes during the long drive.
The second major highlight of the upper loop is Tower Falls. The falls can only be seen from just outside the car park, but there’s a nice hike leading down to the river if you have time. Be prepared to stop for a ‘natural traffic jam’ where the roads fill with bison or elk adding to the drive time.
There are plenty of other pull offs along the upper loop and some are more interesting than others. If you’re short on time, skip the petrified tree– it sounds a lot cooler than it actually is. Instead opt for Sheepeaters Cliff for a less visited natural oddity. Make sure to plan in some time to catch the sunset before ending your day in the park.
Day 2 : Lower Loop – From Old Faithful to Grand View
This part of the lower loop is best done on a day when you can get into the park early to watch Old Faithful erupt first thing, before everyone else is awake. Yellowstone is the 4th most popular park in the country with more than 3.5 million visitors per year, and they all want to see Old Faithful. Get there early in the morning and you can have it almost all to yourself.
The eruption predictions are less accurate in the morning because the rangers don’t watch it over night. As a sign of the times, Old Faithful is also on twitter @GeyserNPS and you can get the eruption predictions via tweet. However, reception in the park is almost non-existent except for a handful of the park villages, and even there it’s inconsistent.
After watching Old Faithful do it’s thing, it’s time to get back on the road because this is probably the biggest day of the three days in Yellowstone. Heading east toward Yellowstone Lake brings you on a road that winds along the shores of the lake with plenty of good stopping points. If you’ve made it around the lake by lunch then take the short drive down the east entrance road leading to Lake Butte for some beautiful views over looking the lake.
After the lake, the next major highlight is Grandview and the lower and upper falls. The name Grandview accurately describes one of, if not the best lookouts in the entire park. Grandview stares out over the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone which might be smaller than the real Grand Canyon, but is still very impressive. Plan to hike around the trails for a few hours and just take in the views. Grandview is also a nice place to watch the sun go down and the softer light makes for some great photos of the canyon.
Day 3: Lower Loop – Norris to Old Faithful & Things you missed
The western leg of the Lower Loop is jam packed with geothermal delights. From Norris heading south, the first natural wonder that you’ll run into is the Artist Paintpots. Their name comes from the vibrant colored pools of water that look like an artist swirled his water colors in the ponds. A short hike from the pull off leads you to the small basin filled with colorful little pools.
After the paintpots and the Madison Junction there’s a small one way road along Fire Hole Canyon that shouldn’t be missed. A narrow one-way road leads you along a steep canyon with a river swiftly flowing below. Toward the end of the drive sits a beautiful and secluded waterfall. The adventurous can hike down the rocky path to get some amazing pictures right in front of the falls.
Continuing down the road toward Old Faithful and the south entrance lies the highest concentration of geysers in the park. Get your fill of geothermal eruptions by stopping at midway geyser basin, lone star geyser and a number of others in this stretch of the park. Of course, if time allows, you may want to see Old Faithful one last time! This route also works well if you’re continuing onto Grand Tetons National Park, just 7 miles south of Yellowstone.
Where to stay
Staying inside the park gives you the easiest access to all of the highlights of the park, but comes with a price. You can either camp in one of the many campsites, or stay at one of the upscale lodges inside the park. Camping is a great way to experience the park, but space fills up fast so book early or have a backup plan. The lodges are great, but are approaching $250 per night an are nearly all booked a year in advance. Alternatively, accommodation in West Yellowstone is more affordable and close to the park and Old Faithful.
About the Authors: Author & Photographer at GettingStamped.com, Adam kicked his corporate job to the curb and said good-bye to the “American Dream” in June 2013 and has been traveling the world ever since with his wife Hannah! They have traveled to 6 continents, stamped in 54 countries, slept in 200+ beds, and made countless memories. Follow Adam & Hannah on Facebook,Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat @GettingStamped for a live sneak peak of their travels.