Yellowstone National Park: How to See Yellowstone in a Weekend
We’ve been living in Montana for nearly two months now, so I thought it was high time I spend a weekend in Yellowstone and see what all the hype is about!
Of course, I had to do a TON of research beforehand. Honestly, I think it’s just as fun as actually traveling. I ended up having the best little weekend trip to Yellowstone! I got to see everything I wanted to, so I thought I’d share how I did it here.
A little bit of history
I think it’s important to know the history of the place your visiting before you go. Yellowstone is home to so many remarkable sites, but how and why are they there?
The answer is likely the supervolcano (also called the Yellowstone Caldera). It sits right inside Yellowstone and has erupted 3 times in the past. The first two eruptions happened over a million years ago and the last one was about 640,000 years ago.
Even though the super volcano hasn’t erupted in quite some time, there is constant geothermal activity underground that causes the geysers, springs, and other sites you’ll see in Yellowstone to act the way they do.
Aside from the supervolcano, Yellowstone was the first national park in the WORLD! Native Americans have lived on this land for at least 11,000 years, but the area was signed into a national park in 1872.
Before you go
Research Park Passes
Or just read this to see the research I’ve done! Each car is charged $35 to get into Yellowstone upon arrival. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one in the car, or if it’s packed with all of your friends. You’re charged by the car.
However, if you’re not going in last minute and you plan on visiting 3 or more parks within the next year (or spending more than a weekend in Yellowstone), I recommend buying the National Park Annual Pass. It’s $80, so as long as you use it three times, it’ll be worth it. The annual pass gets you into Yellowstone as well as many other National Parks in the US.
Usually, you’ll have to show the physical pass to the entrance guard (not just an online version). So, you’ll want to order it at least two weeks before you plan to visit.
However, because of the pandemic and mail delays, they will be accepting confirmation emails and letting you into the park without showing the physical pass (this is what I did) until September 30, 2020.
You might also find that Yellowstone has their own annual pass which is $70. I’d recommend spending the extra $10 to get the annual pass that gets you into SO MANY more parks, especially if you think you might be exploring more than one in the next year.
Download the Yellowstone App
I am genuinely surprised by the amount of people who have traveled to Yellowstone and didn’t have this app. With little to no cell service, this means they relied on signage and/or a paper map which just wasn’t possible for me. Ever tried to read a paper map while driving? I don’t advise it.
This app was SO useful.
I recommend downloading the app before you head into the park AND downloading the contents to your phone (there will be a popup option for that when you first open the app, or you can go to settings). Once you download the contents to your phone, you can use the map without having wifi or data. It’ll even tell you where you’re located in the park!
The app also includes things like geyser prediction times, the ability to save sites on the map you’d like to visit, history, and self-guided walking tours. The geyser prediction times did require data usage, but I mainly used this for Old Faithful and that area has just enough cell service to refresh the prediction times.
One more slightly unrelated tip is to download a playlist to your phone before you go. There’s almost no radio signal in the park and you’ll be doing a LOT of driving.
What to bring with
Since I am not someone who frequents national parks (yet!), I was a little clueless on what to bring. Here’s what I learned for next time:
- Snacks, light meals, and WATER – There are places to get food in the park, but the lines are long and most things are overpriced. Pack a cooler with sandwiches, snacks, water, etc. to get you through the day.
- Bear Spray – If you plan to do any hiking (alone or with others), bring bear spray. It’s expensive (around $35-50), but your life is worth it. If you’re hiking alone, you might also want bells to hang on your backpack to make noise while you walk (to avoid surprising bears). If you’re with someone, just talk!
- Binoculars – A few visitors who were smart enough to bring binoculars got to see black wolves high up in the mountains. I’ll definitely be bringing some next time!
- Layers – The mornings in Montana and Wyoming can be pretty chilly. It was about 40 degrees fahrenheit on the first morning I was in the park and got up to 85 degrees during the day. Bring layers you can take on and off as the weather changes.
- Sunscreen – I assume you’re visiting Yellowstone in the summer. Don’t be fooled by the cool mornings. The afternoons can get pretty hot and you’ll be spending a lot of time outside.
Spending time in Montana and want to see more of it? Here’s a post on how to spend an awesome weekend in Butte, Montana.
Alright, on to the star of the show – the itinerary! In order to see Yellowstone in a weekend, I recommend starting your trip with the Southern Loop. The southern part of the park had more of the sites I was excited about. So, I wanted to make sure I saw all of them. Keep in mind that I was coming in through the northern entrance, so I also liked the idea of getting the further destination crossed off on the first day.
That said, there is a LOT to see in the southern loop. If you don’t make it to everything on the first day, then just visit those sites on day 2.
One more thing – I intentionally added each site to each day in no particular order. The order you choose should depend on the entrance you come in and your interest in that specific site.
Day 1: South Loop
Ah, Old Faithful. The main attraction for many guests. Old Faithful is easily the most popular geyser in the entire park. However, it’s not because it’s the tallest (Steamboat is the tallest). Old Faithful happens to be the most frequent of the big geysers and easiest to predict. This makes it very easy to arrive at the site, wait a bit, see the geyser erupt, and be on your way.
You might be surprised at the Old Faithful area – it’s huge! You’ll find a very large parking lot with plenty of spaces (you’ll learn to appreciate this after a day in the park). You’ll also find a viewing space set up in a half-circle around the geyser. This is where you can sit and wait for the show.
Like I mentioned above, you can check the Yellowstone app for Old Faithful’s eruption times. If you have an hour or so to waste, you can check out Old Faithful Inn, grab a coffee or snack inside, or explore Upper Geyser Basin.
Upper Geyser Basin
Upper Geyser Basin is located right next to Old Faithful. This is the perfect place to explore if you’ve got about an hour until her next eruption.
You’ll find smaller geysers in this area along with other geothermal features like pools and hot springs. There are a ton of things to see in this area, so don’t stress about seeing them all, but one that you might want to walk to is the popular Morning Glory pool.
From this area, you can also take a short hike to an overlook if you’d like to see Old Faithful erupt from above.
Midway Geyser Basin
This was the first place I went to during my weekend in Yellowstone. I arrived at 6am my first day and couldn’t see ANYTHING! Watch the video embedded above if you don’t know what I’m talking about. It was the one mistake I made that you can easily avoid.
Midway Geyser Basin is where the Grand Prismatic Spring is located. This is a MUST SEE in my book. The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the entire park and it is stunning.
You’ll notice the rainbow rings around the edges which are actually caused by different bacteria and thermophiles who thrive in that specific water temperature. This means that every ring is a different temperature. These thermophiles are so tiny that you can’t see one or two of them with the naked eye, but they clump together to show us these colors. Who knew bacteria could be so pretty?!
While the Grand Prismatic Spring is definitely the star of the show at this Basin, there are some others that are worth stopping to take a look at.
Fairy Falls Trail
After you see the Grand Prismatic Spring from the ground, it’s time to see it from above. The Fairy Falls Trailhead is just south of the Midway Geyser Basin. You’ll hike about 0.6 miles to the overlook that’ll give you this view:
Be warned that most of the hike is fairly steep, but if you’re willing and able to do it, the view is worth every step.
The Midway Geyser Basin was definitely my favorite of Yellowstone’s Basins. However, there are a few more that are worth checking out – Biscuit Basin being one of them.
This Basin is home to the Sapphire Pool which erupted for the first time in 1959 following an earthquake. During the eruption, biscuit-like deposits were blown into the air surrounding the pool (which is where it got its name!). Other notable features in this Basin are Mustard Spring and Jewel Geyser.
Black Sand Basin
Black Sand Basin is just south of Biscuit Basin and has some very pretty hydrothermal features including Emerald Pool, Rainbow Pool, Sunset Lake, and Cliff Geyser.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb Geyser Basin is situated right next to Yellowstone Lake, so as you walk along the 0.6mi boardwalk, you’ll be able to stop and take in the views of this peaceful lake. Some of the geysers are actually right on the edge of the lake!
After you see the beauty of West Thumb Basin, if you drive just a bit more north, there are a few picnic areas along the Lake which make for a pretty scenic lunch spot.
Norris Geyser Basin
Norris Geyser Basin is right on the edge where the northern and southern loop meet, but it’s technically on the southern loop which is why it’s in this section! I ended up seeing this Basin on my second day in the park, though, which is perfectly acceptable if you don’t get to it on day 1.
This area is actually composed of three different Basins – Porcelain Basin, Back Basin, and Norris Geyser Basin. This is the exact spot where I started to feel like I was on a different planet. That’s because as you’re walking through these Basins, you’re so far away from the parking lot and the noise of the hydrothermal features drowns out any car or human noises.
So, you’re in utter silence with white ground surrounding you along with geysers and hot springs. Something about it doesn’t feel like Earth – at least not the Earth that we’re used to.
This area also has a museum that teaches all about the hydrothermal features in Yellowstone. However, it was closed when I was there due to the pandemic.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was the best surprise! I didn’t even know this existed, but it ended up being my favorite part of the entire weekend in Yellowstone.
Scientists’ theory about how this canyon was formed: after the last eruption of the supervolcano, lava started to flow and volcanic tuffs were buried in the area. The hydrothermal gases and hot water weakened the rock and then eventually, the Yellowstone River eroded the rock, carving out the canyon.
There are two different roads to see the canyon and I recommend driving down both. The North Rim Drive gives you access to Grand Viewpoint, Lookout Point, North Rim Trail, and Inspiration Point – all different areas to view the canyon and the Lower Falls.
The second road is South Rim Drive. From here, you’ll see Uncle Tom’s viewpoint and Artist’s Point to view the canyon from the opposite side.
I recommend hiking at least one of these trails if you can – especially down to the Grand Viewpoint. The hike was scary at times (steep and narrow), but the view was so worth it.
Along the way, you might come across a sign that explains this, but I thought it was a really cool story.
Back when the canyon was first discovered by colonists, an artist named Thomas Moran went to Yellowstone with the mission of reporting back to congress what he found. Well, he found this beautiful canyon, painted it, and brought it back to show them. No one believed that it was real – it was THAT stunning.
Artist’s Paintpots is another one of the areas that I pushed back to day 2. The area is aptly named since there are so many colors in the ground that it looks like an artist’s palette.
If you follow the entire trail, you’ll take stairs up to the mud pits. These are pretty neat and you’re warned to watch out for flying mud!
Gibbon Falls is a pretty quick visit for which you just pull over off the side of the main road (to a small parking lot) and walk to the edge of the viewing point. Waterfalls are always pretty to look at, but this particular waterfall is flowing over the Caldera Rim – the rim of the supervolcano!
This is another area to simply pull over and enjoy the view. The Sulphur Caldron gets its name from the large amounts of Sulphur in the water. It’s one of the most acidic hot springs in Yellowstone. The pH is similar to that of a car battery or stomach acid!
Mud Volcano is very close to Sulphur Caldron, so the two can be done back-to-back. If you watched the video embedded above, you’ll already know this, but at one point all of the mud pits in Mud Volcano were covered in grass and trees.
One day in the distant past, mud exploded from the Earth, ripping up trees from their roots and sending them flying. You’ll still see the trees near each of the pits. For a while after that, the pits erupted regularly like geysers, but they lay dormant for now. They simply look like boiling mud. However, since everything in Yellowstone is constantly changing, they could start erupting again in the future.
Hayden Valley is an area to drive through and then pull over if you see some wildlife you’d like to view. This area is one of the best spots to see Bison (THE best spot coming in day 2).
There are often traffic jams due to bison walking onto the road, but they weren’t too bad. I’ve heard that Yellowstone traffic can get bad, but the weekend I was there, it wasn’t terrible. Traffic jams are a little more tolerable when you get to watch the largest North American land mammal walk across the road.
Day 2: North Loop
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is the first site you’ll come to if you come in through the Northern entrance. This is where I started my second day of the weekend in Yellowstone.
This area is filled with hot springs that you can see by following the lengthy, winding boardwalk. The water that you’ll see flowing on some of them comes from rain and snow on surrounding mountains. The water is heated underground and then it flows down Mammoth Hot Springs.
You’ll quickly notice that some of the hot springs are flowing and some aren’t. It’s said that when the area was first discovered, some of the dormant springs were flowing, and vice versa.
Yellowstone is ever changing. In the future, some of the dormant springs could start to flow again. If they don’t, soil will take over the ground and grass and trees will start to grow again.
Roaring Mountain is a site to pull over and see. The small parking lot gives you a perfect view of a mountainside with several fumaroles which are pockets of steam that escape from the ground.
These are caused by all of the thermal activity going on below ground. The steam has to escape somewhere, and this is how it’s done.
Golden Gate is another pullover site that’s worth seeing in the Northern Loop. Many bridges have had to be replaced since the opening of Yellowstone and supposedly, this one was the most difficult to reconstruct. An engineer by the name of Hiram Chittenden took on this project and this was the result. This one’s for all my civil engineers out there!
This was one of the areas I didn’t get to see at all because the road was closed, but this trail will lead you to an overlook of Tower Falls.
This is the SINGLE BEST place I recommend to see wildlife in the park. I saw more bison than anywhere else the entire weekend in Yellowstone. The pictures really don’t do it justice – watch the video above to get a good idea of what it was like.
Like Hayden Valley, this is an area that you’ll drive through and pull over if you want to stop and watch. This is also a great area to pull out your binoculars (if you have them) because you may spot a black wolf up in the mountains.
Anything you missed yesterday
Like I mentioned earlier, if you missed anything from the southern loop on day 1 (which you probably did because that was a LOT), go back and see that on day 2! The southern loop has a lot more to see than the northern loop which is another reason why I recommend starting with the southern loop on day 1.
The two loops of Yellowstone can be seen in a weekend if you plan your time wisely and don’t take too long at any one site. However, if you’ve got a third day, you may want to take your time at some of the sites. Maybe you want to see Old Faithful erupt twice or go on any of the longer hikes at the trails mentioned above. Taking your time and spreading these activities out is the perfect way to add a day to your Yellowstone itinerary.
However, if you see everything you want to see in a weekend in Yellowstone, here are some ideas of things to do on your third, fourth, or tenth day in the area.
What better way to take in the scenic mountain landscapes than on horseback? There is a place you can go right inside Yellowstone along the northern loop. You can also check out Yellowstone raft company that offers rafting tours, horseback riding tours, and more. They also do Cowboy Cookouts where you’ll get to eat like a Montana Cowboy before or after your ride!
I just mentioned Yellowstone raft company above and that’s exactly who I’m going to recommend you check out for river rafting! They have half day and full day options and a couple different runs you can choose from.
Full Day Hike
There is more of Yellowstone to be explored than what’s just off the main road! There are a number of full-day hikes you can embark on.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is just south of Yellowstone and visitors often see both parks in one trip. You’ll probably need more than just a weekend in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons.
I haven’t visited Grand Teton yet, but it looks to be more naturey, meaning you’ll be doing more hiking, canoeing, and enjoying nature. There aren’t as many sites to see as in Yellowstone, but it looks like an incredibly beautiful place. My plan is to visit sometime in the next year.
If you do decide to go to Grand Teton, it’s included in the National Park annual pass. So, if you bought that, you’re good to go!
Make Yellowstone Part of a Roadtrip
Why see one national park when you can see more!? My friend over at Voyages with Val wrote a stellar post about how to plan a National Park Road Trip that you should definitely check out if you’re interested in a longer trip.