As America’s oldest and perhaps most famous national park, Yellowstone delivers…with geothermal hot springs, sparkling rivers, lush valleys, dramatic canyons, and wildlife galore. Hikers could happily spend several weeks exploring here. If you have just a few days, however, use this Yellowstone 3 day itinerary to see the most noteworthy sights while still getting out into the wilderness on a super scenic hike each day. Have fewer days? Use Day 1 as a 1-day itinerary and add Day 2 for a 2-day itinerary.
- Day 1—Geysers and Hot Springs
- Day 2—The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Day 3—Lakes and Valleys
Where to Stay in Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park is huge! Nearly 3,500 square miles, in fact. So be strategic when selecting the base for your stay to reduce drive time on a shorter visit.
Looking for lodging near the west entrance to the park? My readers’ favorite vacation rental is Faithful Street Inn. These vacation rentals are close to both great fishing and skiing and 2300 feet from the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. You can check prices and availability here.
Another popular option also located conveniently at the west entrance is Kelly Inn West Yellowstone. This is a great option if you’d prefer a hotel with a pool and continental breakfast. Great for families. Check prices and availability here.
We combined our Yellowstone trip with a visit to Grand Teton National Park so we spent the second half of our visit at Headwaters Lodge for lodging near Yellowstone’s south entrance.
Headwaters is a great choice for couples or families and makes a convenient base for both parks. Beds are super comfortable and the furnishings are modern. You can check prices and availability here.
Canyon Lodge and Cabins in Canyon Village is perhaps the most centrally located within Yellowstone, for easy ranging north to popular spots like Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley as well as points west and south. However, you can choose from nine lodgings inside the park based on your budget and interests.
If you’re camping Yellowstone, be sure to understand the ins and outs of the reservation process.
A Map of Yellowstone National Park: 3 Day Itinerary
Here’s your Yellowstone itinerary for 3 days. Expand the map below to see points of interest for day 1 (in blue), day 2 (in red), and day 3 (in green).
Day 1—Geysers and Hot Springs
The best way to see Yellowstone in 3 days? Begin with geysers and hot springs. The first day (blue points on the map) works best in the order below if coming from Canyon Village or points north or west. If arriving from the south entrance of the park, do it in the opposite order.
1. Norris Geyser Basin
Old Faithful may be the most famous geyser at Yellowstone, but don’t miss the easy two-mile trail at North Geyser Basin to sample a variety of impressive geothermal features, including the largest active geyser in the world.
North Geyser Basin consists of two loops: the shorter Porcelain Basin and the longer trail to the Back Basin. If time is short (so much to see, so little time!), stick with the Porcelain Basin. In just a short walk, you’ll take in an impressive overlook, the Black Growler Steam Vent, Congress Pool, and so much more.
2. Grand Prismatic Spring
Just up the road from Norris Geyser Basin in the Midway Geyser Basin is the aptly named Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States and third largest in the world. Like other hot springs, the center of this one is a vivid blue. What’s more unusual are the orange, green, and yellow pigments around the edges. (Any Yellowstone 3 day itinerary must include it!)
The kaleidoscope of colors is caused by pigmented bacteria that thrive on the minerals here. The colors made me think back to the bright lime green Devil’s Bath that we saw at Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland Park near Rotorua, New Zealand.
Grand Prismatic is one of the most visited destinations in the park so get an early start if you want to find parking. To get this bird’s-eye view of the spring, you’ll need to venture beyond the boardwalks though…What a perfect break for a hike!
3. Fairy Falls
If you’re a fan of a hike with a big pay-off, put Fairy Falls on your list of what to see at Yellowstone in 3 days. Park in the Fairy Falls parking lot for this five-mile easy round-trip hike to the falls. You’ll begin on a wide gravel trail that takes you to the overlook above stunning Grand Prismatic Spring.
Keep walking through a wildflower-carpeted forest until you emerge at Fairy Falls, which plunges 197 feet! Plan about two hours round-trip.
4. Old Faithful Geyser
Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 120 minutes for approximately 1 1/2 to five minutes. While it’s not Yellowstone’s largest or most predictable geyser, it’s still a fan favorite!
To make sure you don’t miss it, plan ahead. Cell reception is particularly poor within the park unless you pay for Wifi where it’s available at several lodges. Your best bet for timing your visit is to check with a visitor’s center or ask a ranger at one of the park entrances. The good news: If you arrive early, you can bide your time at a beautiful and historic spot. (Read on.)
5. Old Faithful Inn
Just a six-minute walk from its namesake geyser, historic Old Faithful Inn has been welcoming visitors since 1903. It’s a fabulous place to have a meal (make a reservation in advance to avoid disappointment) or enjoy a huckleberry latte on the outdoor deck as we did.
With 327 rooms, the Inn welcomes visitors from May to October annually. Room rates fluctuate with demand. You can make reservations here.
Day 2—The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Three Days in Yellowstone Day 2! Start your second day in the park with early morning wildlife viewing and wrap it up by gaping at the stunning Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for an impressive finale. (See red points on the map.)
6. Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley is America’s Serengeti…it’s easy to spot wolf packs and herds of bison—not to mention grizzly bears, bald eagles, osprey, deer, and coyote—across the wide-open vistas in this beautiful valley. But you’ll need to arrive early or late for prime wildlife spotting. Animals are most active at dawn and dusk.
7. Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces
Loved the hot springs yesterday? Add Mammoth Hot Springs to your plan for your 3 day Yellowstone itinerary. These travertine formations—made out of soft limestone—are not like anything else in the park. Some have described them as a “cave turned inside out.”
Located up at the very top of the park on the border of Montana, they’re a one hour drive from Lamar Valley. You can choose from two boardwalks here on both the upper and lower terraces. Or do them both…and see 50 hot springs (!) in the area.
8. Hike Mount Washburn Trail
As you head back towards Canyon Village, stop at the trailhead for the Mount Washburn Trail on Dunraven Pass for this moderate 6.4 mile hike for scenic views…one of Yellowstone’s best for dramatic vistas.
If time is short or you’re looking for a shorter hike with a big pay-off, head directly to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone below.
9. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Scientists think this magnificent canyon—about 20 miles long— is anywhere between 160,000 and 140,000 years old! It was formed by a series of lava flows over thousands of years after an initial volcanic eruption 600,000 years ago. Glacial activity eventually gave way to the Yellowstone River, which deepened and widened the canyon. Stop at Upper Falls Point to see the view (below) of Upper Falls and again at Artist Point for a dramatic view of the lower falls.
If you passed on the Mount Washburn hike earlier, now’s your chance for a short but impressive hike on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim at Uncle Tom’s trail. It’s not easy though…there are 328 steps that descend part way down the canyon near the bottom of Lower Falls!
Day 3—Lakes and Valleys
It’s time to explore the south end of the park during your 3 day Yellowstone tour! (See green points on the map above.)
10. Hayden Valley
Head south from Canyon Village towards beautiful Hayden Valley for more bison spotting. Just be aware that wildlife comes first in Yellowstone so you may need to wait if bison are crossing the road.
When we were there during rutting season in August, we arrived to a monster traffic jam likely caused by bison lollygagging there. A ranger explained that she and her father were once stranded in Lamar Valley for three hours (!) waiting for buffalo to cross. So bring food and make a restroom stop first!
11. Yellowstone Lake
Continue south towards Fishing Bridge Visitor’s Center for views of Yellowstone Lake. The lake is the largest one in the park, covering 136 square miles. Of note: This lake has the largest population of cutthroat trout in North America!
Picnic tables lakeside make the perfect spot for a solitary lunch…
12. Hike Storm Point
Storm Point offers and easy, flat 2.1 mile loop hike. You’ll find the trailhead 2.5 miles past the Fishing Bridget Visitor’s Center as you head east towards Cody, Wyoming.
In summer, you’ll walk first through a meadow of wildflowers until you come to a lakeside trail with big vistas. Walk all the way to the point and take a breather on the beach before heading back through a peaceful forest of lodgepole pines. Breathe in the sound of silence.
If You Go
For more information on eating, sleeping, directions, and things to see and do in Yellowstone, visit the National Park website.
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