Yellowstone National Park is an icon of America. There are many different species of wildlife you can view in their natural habitat. It also has amazing scenery along with an abundant amount of hot springs, geysers and other geological phenomenon. There are many must do activities in Yellowstone!
If you’re planning a visit to Yellowstone, you’ll want to see everything you possibly can. This beautiful area of God’s creation was set aside as the first National Park in the United States back in 1872. The park is insanely huge, covering over 2 million acres in three different states.
My Family’s Visit
My family recently spent 4 days traveling all of the areas around Yellowstone. There were a few places we didn’t get to, but we were still able to see a ton of the highlights during our trip. (To learn the importance of family vacations, please click here.) If you’re looking to plan a trip to Yellowstone, and you don’t know where to start, I wrote this post to share with you my four-day itinerary of must do activities in Yellowstone.
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Yellowstone spans 63 miles from north to south, and 57 miles from east to west, and that’s by air! Driving will take you up to 8 hours to circle the Grand Loop (with traffic), and that’s without stopping for any of the amazing sites you’ll see. There is also a middle section of road, which turns the Grand Loop into a figure 8. It’s virtually impossible to do Yellowstone in a day, so choosing a side of the park per day is recommended. That way you can take time to enjoy each part of the park and the beauty it holds.
I would suggest planning your Yellowstone trip based on the gate where you enter the park. There are five entrances to Yellowstone, and each one offers unique terrain as you drive toward the grand loop.
About Each Gate
There’s the North East Entrance, near Cooke City Montana. When you enter the park this way, you’ll pass by Lamar Valley and then hit the Grand Loop at the Tower-Roosevelt area. This is also where the Roosevelt Lodge is located.
Next is the East Entrance, which is about 53 miles from Cody, Wyoming. Entering this way will give you early views of Yellowstone Lake and Fishing Bridge. The Lake Lodge, Lake Hotel, and marina are all around this area of Yellowstone Lake.
The South Entrance is about 64 miles from Jackson Wyoming. To enter this way, you’ll drive north through Grand Teton National Park. This entrance is closest to Grant Village and the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. It also houses the West Thumb Geyser Basin.Book Your Hotel Now
After that is the West Entrance at the little town of West Yellowstone, Montana. This entrance is closest to most of the geysers and hot springs, including the main attraction; Old Faithful. West Yellowstone is also a prime location for taking snow mobile tours of Yellowstone during the winter!
The last one is the North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana. This little mountain town is right beside the Roosevelt Arch, which is the original entrance to Yellowstone. You can still drive through the arch, but there is also a new road that takes you directly into Gardiner. The North Entrance is also closest to Mammoth Hot Springs, a very popular area of the park.
Now that you have the 5 park entrances, I’ll walk you through what my family did to make the most of our visit to Yellowstone.
Day One- Cody, Wyoming
The night before we entered Yellowstone we stayed in Cody. This is a fairly small town in Wyoming, but it does have some very cool features. First off, it’s the last town where we saw a Walmart (Walmart=Civilization for the Kinney crew), a Dairy Queen, and an Auto Zone. It’s also the home of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. There are 5 museums included in the price of admission. If we’d had more time in Cody, we would have visited.
There’s also a nightly rodeo in Cody from June to August. We had planned to check out the rodeo, but it rained that night, and we were exhausted, so we decided to enjoy the comforts of our Airbnb.
Airbnb is the Bomb!!!
If you haven’t tried Airbnb yet, you’re really missing out!! There are some lovely rooms, cabins, and homes for rent all over the world through Airbnb. You can read reviews, check ratings, and see pricing before you book a stay.
The rates are comparable for a hotel room in a given area, and the hospitality and homey touches make Airbnb a great option for finding accommodations for a family or large group. Having three kids, it’s often difficult to find a hotel room that will accommodate all five of us. Airbnb is a great way for our family to find a place to stay in popular destination areas.
Our Airbnb for Cody was called the Red Door Retreat. It was our first Airbnb experience, and it DID NOT disappoint! The owners were very friendly and helpful. A few minutes after booking our stay, we had a phone call from them offering assistance in any way. The house was super-clean and homey, and was a great resting place after two long days of travel.
Going in Through the East Gate
We left for Yellowstone early the next morning, driving through the Buffalo Bill State Park on our way. It’s a beautiful drive into Yellowstone, cutting through amazing mountain canyons on the way to the park. At the park entrance, they viewed our annual National Park Pass (you can pick yours up here) along with the ID of the driver. They also gave us maps and tons of information about the park, along with info about our next stay in Gardiner. (Side note- The employees of Yellowstone are top-notch, friendly, and full of information and willing to help visitors.)
After entering the park we stopped at Yellowstone Lake to take pictures and enjoy the scenery. It was a beautiful and refreshing stop. After a few miles, we stopped again at the Mud Volcano on the north part of the Grand Loop. There we saw steaming geysers and a friendly bison relaxing between the wooden walkways. The smell was atrocious (think rotten eggs) but the views were totally worth it, making it a must do activity in Yellowstone!
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
After the Mud Volcano, we drove on to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. This was a spectacular canyon of yellowish rock. Its vastness was nowhere near the actual Grand Canyon, but it was definitely awesome to see! We went to Artist Point and a hike of the Lower Falls. The hike could be difficult for some (I have asthma so I totally get it) but the views are so worth it.
After leaving the Grand Canyon area, we drove north to Mammoth Hot Springs, and on to Gardiner, Montana. I must tell you that the traffic in Yellowstone during the summer can be a total pain! Too many people, plus the scheduled road work (which think about it, is off limits 7 months of the year) can make you have to go slow throughout the park. Traveling early in the morning, or late in the day, you have the best opportunities to see more of the park in a shorter amount of time.
Near Gardiner, Montana, there’s a sign for the 45 north parallel. As a Social Studies teacher, I had to take a picture of the halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole.
Gardiner is Gorgeous!
Gardiner is a beautiful mountain town right beside the north entrance to Yellowstone. One of the unique features is the elk roam freely throughout the town! We spent two nights at an Airbnb in Gardiner. It was a small cabin with a full bath, plenty of room for 5 people. Our host was wonderful, we could message her at any time with questions or needs both before and during our stay. Plus, the location was amazing! We viewed elk behind our cabin on our final night, we were less than 3 minutes from the local shopping and dining scene, and only 5 minutes from entering Yellowstone.
After checking in, we went to dinner and also walked down the strip of shops in Gardiner. There were tons of options for shopping north of Yellowstone.
Day Two- Gardiner, Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and Lower Falls
Our first venture into the park was visiting Mammoth Hot Springs. This is the park headquarters, and hosts an inn, post office, and chapel. When you visit Mammoth Hot Springs, you can decide to take either the lower or upper level. We drove to the upper level, and then walked around the contained boardwalk to view all of the geologic wonders.
It’s very important to note that you MUST stay on the boardwalk or park trails, especially in highly active geological areas. The earth’s crust is very thin in many areas of Yellowstone, and leaving the designated paths, when advised, can be extremely dangerous. If you visit Yellowstone, be sure to observe and follow all marked signs and trails as posted within the park.
After leaving Mammoth Springs, we headed south to the Norris Geyser Basin and then onto the Old Faithful Geyser Basin. Both of these areas house amazing geological wonders and beautiful hot springs that are a must visit when you come to Yellowstone. The Steamboat Geyser is a large geyser in the Norris Basin. It erupted early that morning and was still blowing steam into the air when we arrived several hours later. The force and heat continuing to erupt from the ground was unbelievable!
Visiting Old Faithful
We left Norris Basin and traveled on to the Old Faithful Lodge area of the park. Along with Old Faithful, which is the number 1 must see for Yellowstone, there are several other geysers in the two mile hike around the basin. They are totally worth your time, including the Castle Geyser and the Morning Glory hot springs. These two sites made the long trek worth it! We then stopped at the Old Faithful General Store for ice cream and a bit of a rest. It was the perfect stop after our long hike around the geyser basin.
After Old Faithful, we drove northeast to hike the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Along our drive, we passed by the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. If we had more time, we would have stopped there and viewed the geysers that spew into the lake, but that’s another trip. We stopped at the Lower Falls entrance, and hiked down the 3/8 mile hike for a spectacular view of the falls. The Upper Falls was on our bucket list, but the hiking path was closed, maybe next time.
Our plan was to visit Lamar Valley that evening. Lamar Valley hosts many bears, bison, and wolves in their natural habitat. However, after visiting so many other sites that day, we were exhausted! So, we drove back to our Airbnb in Gardiner and enjoyed a relaxing night.
Day Three- Artist Paintpots and Gibbon Falls
The next day we had reservations at Three Bear Lodge in West Yellowstone. So after checking out of our Airbnb in Gardiner, we headed south back into Yellowstone. Our first stop was the Artist Paintpots near Beryl Springs on the west side of the park. This area of the park is full of hot springs and geysers. Many of these formations bubble up like a thick gravy or stew. There are also beautiful reds, greens, and blues found in several of the hot springs of the area.
Before turning west, we stopped at the Gibbon Falls overlook. This is a beautiful stop where you can view the falls of the Gibbon River. It’s right on the Grand Loop, with plenty of parking for sightseers to view and take pictures of the falls.
On our way out of the park, we were lucky enough to see a herd of bison grazing along the roadway. These amazingly strong, calm creatures continued to eat as several tourists (us included) stopped to get pictures. After this last, brief stop, we headed out of Yellowstone to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana.
Day Four- West Yellowstone
Our last day and a half we spent in the town of West Yellowstone. We stayed at Three Bear Lodge, which is a partner hotel of the National Park system. We were able to get a triple queen room and the hotel offered a free breakfast for the next morning.
Three Bear Lodge has been around since the early 1900’s, but a fire destroyed most of the hotel in 2008. The owners were able to reuse a lot of the wood from the old hotel to make furniture for the newly rebuilt lodge. It’s also the base location for the winter snowmobile tours into Yellowstone. My son loved it so much that he is planning a snowmobile trip back here in the winter!
The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center is a Must Do Activity in Yellowstone!
Before leaving West Yellowstone, we visited the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. This wildlife refuge houses grizzly bears, wolf packs, and birds of prey for people to enjoy in a safe environment. The animals in the park are not able to live on their own in the wild. Some have been injured or orphaned, while others have had too many close encounters with humans. It was breathtaking and humbling to visit these animals and learn why they are in the Discovery Center. The price was affordable ($15) for adults, which makes it a great addition to a Yellowstone trip.
Final Tips and Suggestions
There you have it: my must do activities for a four-day trip to Yellowstone! I hope my family’s itinerary helps you learn about the park and plan your perfect visit to the United States’ first national park.
Before I go, here are some final tips and suggestions for visiting Yellowstone in the summer months.
First- Beware of traffic. Yellowstone is a super busy vacation spot in the summer, so there will be traffic if you visit during these peak times. A great time to visit is in the spring or fall. The snow is finally melting, or just starting to fall, so the crowds are much thinner at that time. If you must travel in the summer, be prepared to deal with the traffic.
Second- Many lodge/tourist areas are very busy in the summer. When you visit Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs in the summer, you should expect some crowds. The hot spots (no pun intended) of Yellowstone are always likely to draw a crowd, even in off-peak seasons.
Third- The lodges and campgrounds fill up fast. When we called to make reservations last winter, many Yellowstone Lodges were already full. They are also pretty expensive during peak tourist seasons, and it’s very difficult to book a room that will hold a larger family, so I would suggest booking as far in advance as you are able. If you want to save money or plan your visit a little closer to your travel date, there are Airbnb’s and hotels in the surrounding towns..
You still need time to think…
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Thanks for reading,