Julie United States 10 Comments

If you only have one day in Yellowstone National Park, what should you do?

Yellowstone National Park is massive. It’s the largest national park in the United States outside of Alaska. With thousands of acres of land, five entrances, numerous canyons and geyser basins to visit, plus a drive through valleys filled with bison and elk, there’s no way you will get to everything with just one day.

However, with one day in Yellowstone, you have just enough time to see the highlights.

Since Yellowstone is so big, we have several different itineraries to choose from. If you only have one day, most likely you are on a road trip through the USA. Your perfect itinerary will really depend on where you are coming from and where you are going next.

Overview of Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. In 2018, it was 5th on the list of “most visited parks.” In July and August, crowds can be huge, so if you will also be visiting during these months, be prepared for traffic jams, difficulty finding parking spots, and high crowds.

Grand Loop Road is the main road in Yellowstone. It is here that you will find the most of the must-see sights.

Best Things to do with One Day in Yellowstone:
  • Old Faithful
  • Grand Prismatic Spring
  • Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
  • See the wildlife in Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley

These itineraries are for the months of May through October. From early November through mid-April, many of the park roads will be closed due to snowfall. It’s still possible to visit the park in the winter, but you will get around by snowmobile or snow coach, which of course will be a much different experience than the summer months.

Important Update for 2020 and 2021: There are planned road closures on Grand Loop Road between Tower Fall and Chittenden Road. This section of road will be completely closed until April 2022. Get the full details on the national park service website. During this time, you will have to modify the driving route for several of these itineraries.

One Day in Yellowstone

Here are six sample itineraries for how to spend one day in Yellowstone. Pick the one that most closely fits your planned route through the park. If you have any questions about these itineraries, or if you don’t see your option listed, let us know in the comment section below.

Since you only have one day in Yellowstone, it will be a long, busy day. I recommend that you start as early as possible, not only to give yourself as much time as possible, but to also see one or two sights with low crowds. We typically hit the road no later than 7 am.

Grand Teton National Park to Gardiner, Montana

Start: Grand Teton National Park or Jackson, Wyoming
End: Gardiner, Montana or Mammoth Hot Springs

One Day in Yellowstone Map

Grand Teton National Park sits just south of Yellowstone. Combining these two national parks on a road trip through the USA is a brilliant idea. In fact, it’s exactly what we did, starting in Grand Teton, then Yellowstone, and ending at Glacier National Park.

For a full list of things to do in Grand Teton, check out our article Best Things to do in Grand Teton National Park.

From Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming, you will drive north on the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Highway to Yellowstone. The south entrance of Yellowstone is located north of Jackson Lake. To get to this entrance from Jackson, it is a 60 mile drive and takes one hour and fifteen minutes.

Optional: West Thumb Geyser Basin

This is the first sight you will see once you enter Yellowstone. If you got an early start and are doing good on time, you could consider getting out here to stretch your legs. At this small geyser basin you can see brilliant blue hot springs and wonderful views of Yellowstone Lake. A visit here is quick, taking most people 30 to 45 minutes. However, there is a lot to do today, so you could skip this and go directly to Old Faithful.

West Thumb

Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin

Old Faithful is the world’s most famous geyser. It erupts on a very reliable schedule, erupting roughly every hour and a half, give or take ten minutes. Get the next predicted eruption time here.

To watch the eruption, you can either grab a seat on the very crowded boardwalk or hike up to Observation Point for a bird’s eye view (1 mile round trip).

Old Faithful

The view from Observation Point

While you are here, you can also explore the Upper Geyser Basin, which is one of the best places in the park to see hot springs, more geysers, and brilliantly colored thermal pools.

A visit to Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin usually lasts about two hours, with time to watch the eruption and walk the boardwalk trails.

Grand Prismatic Spring

From Old Faithful, it’s just a short drive to the Grand Prismatic Spring.

There are two ways to see the Grand Prismatic Spring and I recommend doing both of them. That also means that you will have to park in two separate parking lots.

As you drive here from Old Faithful, you will first arrive at the parking lot for the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook. Park at the large, gravel parking lot for Fairy Falls (RV’s, buses, and trailers are not allowed in this parking lot). From here, it is a 1.6 mile round trip hike to the overlook and it’s worth it! Here is the view.

One Day in Yellowstone

To walk the boardwalk trails and get up close to the Grand Prismatic Spring (called the Midway Geyser Basin), hop back in your car and drive a mile and a half up the road to the Grand Prismatic Spring parking lot. This lot is tiny for the number of visitors this place gets so most likely you will have to park along the road. Walk the 0.8 mile boardwalk trail past Grand Prismatic Spring and several other hot springs.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Hayden Valley

To get to Hayden Valley, you will have to do some backtracking. Drive past Old Faithful and the West Thumb Geyser Basin to Hayden Valley.

Hayden Valley is one of the best places in Yellowstone to see bison. If you are lucky, there will be a large herd on the roadside so you can get up close with these animals.

Hayden Valley

Bison in Yellowstone

Traffic jams in Hayden Valley are common. The bison tend to stop smack in the middle of the road, blocking traffic in both directions.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

For thousands of years the Yellowstone River has been carving out this canyon. You can visit both rims of the canyon, either driving or hiking to the overlooks. If you have the time, it’s worth it to see both sides of the canyon.

On the north rim, our favorite experiences were hiking down the the Brink of the Lower Falls and taking in the view from Lookout Point.

Brink of the Lower Falls

Brink of the Lower Falls

 

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Lookout Point

On the south rim, walk Uncle Tom’s Trail and visit Artist Point. Artist Point is the iconic view of the waterfall and one of the most popular sights in Yellowstone (it is also the cover photo for this article).

If you visit both rims of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a visit here can take between 2 and 4 hours, depending on traffic and how much you choose to do.

Optional: Mammoth Hot Springs

From Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, drive north towards Gardiner. You can either drive past Norris Geyser Basin and up Route 89 (this route is shorter and faster) or drive up Grand Loop Road, over Dunraven Pass, to Tower and then to Mammoth (this route is longer but more scenic).

If you still have time and energy left, you can visit Mammoth Hot Springs. It takes an hour to walk all the trails here, but with 15 minutes, you can park and see the Liberty Cap, one of the prettiest of the hot springs at Mammoth.

Mammoth Hot Springs

End your day in Mammoth or Gardiner, Montana.


Mammoth Hot Springs to Grand Teton National Park

Start: Mammoth Hot Springs or Gardiner, Montana
End: Grand Teton National Park or Jackson, Wyoming

Important Update for 2020 and 2021: There are planned road closures on Grand Loop Road between Tower Fall and Chittenden Road. This section of road will be completely closed until April 2022. Get the full details on the national park service website. During this time, skip this itinerary (do the first itinerary that I have listed above instead). 

One Day in Yellowstone Map

This is the above itinerary, just in the opposite order. However, I have a recommended detour.

You have the option to make a quick visit to Mammoth Hot Springs.

To get to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, drive towards Tower. Before arriving at Tower, there will be a turn-off for Blacktail Plateau Drive. This is a one-way dirt road that runs parallel to Grand Loop Road. It’s a scenic drive and along the way you have the chance to spot bear, elk, deer, and other wildlife. It adds a small amount of time on to the drive but it’s worth it if you are looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience in Yellowstone.

Blacktail Plateau Drive

Then, visit Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, keep your fingers crossed that you’ll see bison in Hayden Valley, and visit the Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful before driving south to Grand Teton National Park.


Grand Teton National Park to the Northeast Entrance

Start: Grand Teton National Park or Jackson, Wyoming
End: Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone

One Day in Yellowstone Map

From Grand Teton National Park and Jackson, Wyoming, you will drive north on the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Highway to Yellowstone. The south entrance of Yellowstone is located north of Jackson Lake. To get to this entrance from Jackson, it is a 60 mile drive and takes one hour and fifteen minutes.

You have the option to visit the West Thumb Geyser Basin once you enter Yellowstone National Park.

Watch the eruption at Old Faithful, walk the boardwalk trails around the Upper Geyser Basin, and then visit both the Grand Prismatic Spring overlook and the boardwalk trails of the Midway Geyser Basin.

From here drive north towards the Norris Geyser Basin (but don’t stop here) and continue east to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Visit both the north and south rims if you have time.

From the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, drive north over Dunraven Pass. Once you are in Tower, turn right onto Route 212 and head into Lamar Valley. Lamar Valley is the best place in Yellowstone to see wildlife. Elk, bison, deer, bear, coyotes, and wolves can all make appearances here.

New Route for 2020 and 2021 due to the road closure: After visiting the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, backtrack to the Norris Geyser Basin, take route 89 north to Mammoth, and then take Grand Loop Road east to Lamar Valley.

Lamar Valley

Bison

Exit the park at the northeast entrance.

Optional: It is possible to do this itinerary and end in Gardiner or Mammoth. Just be aware that it is a long drive from Lamar Valley to Mammoth (33 miles, 1 hour) but it’s worth it if animal sightings are at the top of your list.


West Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park

Start: West Yellowstone
End: Grand Teton National Park or Jackson, Wyoming

One Day in Yellowstone Map

West Yellowstone is located in Montana, just outside of the park. This is a great place to stay, with lots of hotel options and restaurants to choose from. We spent one night here at the Kelly Inn. If you are looking for good spot for dinner and like Spanish food and tapas, try Cafe Madriz.

From West Yellowstone, drive directly to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This is a great place to visit in the morning, since the roads and parking lots will still be relatively empty. It will be easy to drive from overlook to overlook on the North Rim this time of day. Visit the North Rim first and end on the South Rim.

Drive through Hayden Valley, see Old Faithful and walk through the Upper Geyser Basin, and then visit the overlook and the boardwalk trails at the Grand Prismatic Spring.

End your day in Grand Teton National Park or Jackson, Wyoming.


East Entrance to Grand Teton National Park

Start: East Entrance (Cody, Wyoming)
End: Grand Teton National Park or Jackson, Wyoming

The closest town to the east entrance is Cody, Wyoming. To get into Yellowstone, it is a 53 mile drive through a rugged, mountainous landscape.

Once inside the park, drive north through Hayden Valley, visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and then Old Faithful. Before exiting the park, you also have the option to add on the West Thumb Geyser Basin.

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake


East Entrance to Mammoth

Start: East Entrance (Cody, Wyoming)
End: Mammoth or Gardiner, Montana

If you want to see wildlife, I recommend either visiting Hayden Valley right after you enter Yellowstone or saving Lamar Valley for the end of the day (although doing this will make your day very long).

Once inside the park, drive right to Hayden Valley, if you chose this option. Then, visit Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Drive north over the Dunraven Pass on Grand Loop Road. Then, drive to Mammoth or turn right and go to Lamar Valley, if you prefer to see the wildlife here.

New Route for 2020 and 2021 due to the road closure: Most likely you will have to skip Lamar Valley. After visiting the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, take route 89 north to Mammoth. If you still have a lot of daylight, you can drive out to Lamar Valley, but it will be a very long day. 

Grand Loop Road


More Itinerary Ideas

I know that I did not include every possible route through the park. The above itineraries are for the most common routes through Yellowstone. If you don’t see your route listed and have questions, let us know in the comment section below.

With More Time in Yellowstone

If you have more than one day in Yellowstone, don’t miss our article Yellowstone Itinerary: How to Spend 1 to 5 days in Yellowstone. 

Tips to Have the Best Experience

Get an early start. This will give you more time for sightseeing and let you visit at least one sight with low crowds.

Consider visiting Yellowstone in May or at the end of September into October if you want to have lower crowds and a more pleasant experience.

In July and August, be prepared for large crowds, traffic jams, and difficulty finding a parking space at most sights.

Visit the Grand Prismatic Spring midday. Yes, this is the most crowded time to be here but it’s also the best time to see the spring. Midday, the mist has burned off and the colors are vibrant, especially on a sunny day. Early in the morning, the spring is covered with mist and it can be a disappointing experience. For more information on how to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring, and add on the hike to Fairy Falls, read this.

Take a look at our Yellowstone article for more ideas of things to do. There is a lot more information about each sight in this article, plus, you might see something else on this list that really interests you.

More Information for Your Trip to Yellowstone:


If you are planning to spend one day in Yellowstone and have any questions, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information for Your Trip to the USA:

Read all of our articles about the USA in our United States Destination Guide.

Yellowstone One Day Itinerary

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. When you make a purchase using one of these affiliate links, we get paid a small commission at no extra cost to you.

All rights reserved © Earth Trekkers. Republishing this article and/or any of its contents (text, photography, etc.), in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.

Comments 10

  1. Great right up. As a local, we love day trips and 2 days in the parks.

    A point of clarification for those looking for West Yellowstone in Idaho, it’s actually in Montana. We’d love to claim it and annex it in, but you’re not going to find the quaint shops in Idaho.

    1. Post
      Author
  2. Hi!
    This is impressive. We are planning to do a day trip to Yellowstone from California then from there proceed to Mt Rushmore. Do you have tips/recommendations for us to maximize our visit? We will be traveling with kids between 6-13 yrs old.
    Thank you!

    1. Post
      Author

      The bison in Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are really great to see, especially for kids, I think. Grand Prismatic Spring is amazing. Walk along Upper Geyser Basin after Old Faithful, and hopefully you will get lucky and see a few more geysers go off. If you don’t mind a stair climb, walk the Uncle Tom’s Trail at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I wouldn’t add any other geyser basins, because that might get repetitive. They are great to see but you will get your fill with Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, and Grand Prismatic Spring. Cheers, Julie

  3. Love this!! We are driving from Seattle to Detroit next week. The idea was to leave Seattle and get to Spring Hill Idaho …. then drive around and through the park enroute to Sioux Falls.

    What do you suggest to see as much as we can??

    Thanks!

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Jonah. I’m glad we can help! Do you plan to drive from Spring Hill and through Yellowstone all in one day? It looks like it is a 4.5 hour drive to get to West Yellowstone from Spring Hill. If you plan to see Yellowstone in just one day, I recommend staying as close to the park as you can (near West Yellowstone). With one day, enter from West Yellowstone. Drive the south loop clockwise. Go directly to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and visit both sides of the rim (first thing in the morning crowds will be low and you can drive to many of the viewpoints, which will save a lot of time). Drive south through Hayden Valley, maybe stop at West Thumb, see Old Faithful and walk the boardwalk trails here, then go to Grand Prismatic Spring. It will be crowded but the afternoon is a great time to see it lit up by the sun. Then, if you still have time, you could visit Norris Geyser Basin. You could spend a second night in West Yellowstone, or exit from the east entrance or northeast entrance, so you don’t have to drive through the park again the next day (to continue to Sioux Falls). The reason I wouldn’t recommend driving counterclockwise, starting at GPS, is because in the morning it can be covered with mist and can be disappointing. It’s better midday and in the afternoon. If you have more time, you can see a 2-day itinerary here. Cheers, Julie

  4. Special tips for 2020? Any special tips since we are not sure we can stay overnight anywhere in the park this summer? Starting in Jackson Hole and making our way to Mammoth/Gardiner looks like a one day trip. I like your itinerary. 1) Any changes you would make due to 2020 restrictions? 2) If we make it through the park in one day and end up in Gardiner, would you venture back in the following day? If so, what would you alter for a 2-day or 1 1/2 day trip?

    Thanks!!

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Katy. There is the road closure between Canyon Village and Tower. But if you follow the first itinerary on this list you won’t be impacted by the road closure. Here is the information on the NPS website about coronavirus. It looks as if everything is open, other than the road closure, which was already planned for 2020 and 2021. If you did this itinerary over 2 days, I would recommend GPS first, maybe driving north to the Fountain Paint Pot Trail and Artist Paint Pots, seeing Old Faithful, Hayden Valley, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Norris Geyser Basin (basically, the lower loop). On day 2, visit Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Falls, and then Lamar Valley. It will be a busy two days but you would see all of the highlights of Yellowstone. Have a great trip! Cheers, Julie

  5. Hi, we are taking a road trip with 5 kids – ages 17, 15, 12, 9, and 2 to Denver Colorado From Portland Oregon. We are leaving Portland the afternoon of 3/24 expecting to arrive to Denver 3/26 evening. We had thought about taking a slight detour and going through Yellowstone but realistically only have 5-6 hours of time. Knowing that what would you recommend seeing based on our timeframe?

    1. Post
      Author

      I’m not sure you can visit Yellowstone in March and have it be worth it. Right now, most park roads are closed due to snow. Check conditions before you go on the Yellowstone website. However, if they open in the next few weeks, you could enter through the west entrance, see Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful, drive through Hayden Valley to see the bison, and exit through the east or south entrance. But according to the Yellowstone website, roads are predicted to be closed through mid-April. Good luck! Cheers, Julie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *