The Ultimate 5-day Itinerary to Yellowstone National Park

We visited Yellowstone National Park during the end of May. It was on the top of my bucket list as a premier destination for fascinating geothermal wonders, spectacular landscapes, and wildlife. Yellowstone spanning the three states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, sits on a vast volcanic basin with the highest concentration of active geothermal features in the entire world, including geysers, the most colorful and unique hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles. The park sings with new life in the springtime, so min-May/June is the best time to visit Yellowstone.

With so much to see up there, planning a 5-day trip including travel seemed a bit overwhelming and far-fetched. But after our recent visit, I can assure that with some planning 3 complete days offers the perfect introduction to the park while covering all major attractions. In this blog I am sharing our itinerary,  what we covered each day, our favorite spots, some travel tips to help maximize your time in the area and most importantly, to take you on a visual treat and relive our magical week there.

The best way to tour the park is to drive around the Grand Loop which is like the Number 8, with all major attractions distributed in the upper and lower loop of 8. We planned our days to cover east and west of each of the two loops. This way we were able to see the entire park at a good pace without rushing.

Itinerary Highlight

Day 1 – Fly to Salt Lake City and pick our rental car
Day 2 – West of Upper loop – Mammoth Hot Spring & Norris Geyser Basin
Day 3 – Lower Loop Anticlockwise: Lower & Midway Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley
Day 4 – Grand Canyon & Lamar Valley
Day 5 – Drive back to Salt Lake City

Tips for visiting Yellowstone Park

  • Best time to visit is in Spring from May – June. During this time the animals have offsprings, so we got to see a lot of wildlife. The weather is pleasant too at this time of the year. Since it’s the shoulder season, so the perfect time to avoid the summer crowd.
  • Book hotels/campsites way in advance as it gets very busy during Spring to Fall.
  • Start early in the day to avoid the crowd. Huge traffic starts flowing in from 10 AM.
  • The best time to see wildlife is early morning and at sunset, so head to Lamar Valley or Hayden Valley at this time.
  • A car is a must to explore the park.
  • Carry binoculars for wildlife viewing.
  • Carry snacks for the road as it involves a lot of driving.
  • Drive slow within the park as you may encounter some wildlife on the road. When you see a wildlife on the road, stop the car. Don’t try to overtake the animal as it agitates them and it can be dangerous. Simply stop and enjoy the moment.

Day 1 – Fly to SLC

We flew into Salt Lake City Airport (SLC) and arrived late in the evening. There are other airports to fly into such as Bozeman, MT or Jackson Hole, but more expensive. From SLC its is a 5-hour drive to West Yellowstone entrance. We picked our rental car from the airport and headed straight to our hotel booked outside the West Gate entrance. We stayed at the historic Stage Coach Inn, very conveniently located close to the west entrance of YNP and in the center of the quaint town with many shops and restaurants.

Day 2 – Mammoth Hot Spring, Norris Geyser Basin

We started early to cover the west of Upper Loop which has two main attractions: Mammoth Hot Spring and Norris Geyser Basin. Within few minutes of driving into the park, we had our first encounter with this herd of bison. This was the first of many more to come during the rest of our trip. It always kept our excitement high.

s3ErSgFuRVWHHo5lEITUiw_thumb_2bd2At the Mammoth Hot Spring, I recommend parking at the upper terrace parking lot and start the trail from upper terrace, slowly walking down to the lower terrace. This trail is known for its terraces, one of the most unique features. The hot springs are an intricately cascaded natural sculpture of multi-hued formations. Our favorites were the Minerva Spring and Canary Spring.

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6Next, we headed to Norris Geyser Basin. This basin encompasses 2 easy boardwalk loops – Porcelain Basin loop and Back Basin trail. We walked the entire Porcelain Basin loop around the beautiful milky-blue pools. Another MUST SEE is the Steamboat Geyser in the Back Basin trail. This geyser is quite active, erupting irregularly and is the tallest active geyser in the world.

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Porcelain Basin Trail

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I was in awe seeing the varied colored water streams in green, yellow, gold. It’s caused by the minerals and microscopic life in the geothermal acidic water. 10_greenriver

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In the evening we dined at the Madison Lounge, an excellent place for dinner and drinks and open late until 10 PM. It was one of the best dinners of the trip.

Day 3 – Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley

We kick started our day 3 with Lower Loop, anti-clockwise. During the 1st half of the day, we explored Lower and Midway Geyser Basin. However, the most beautiful thing of nature that I saw on this trip was the stunning rainbow hued Grand Prismatic Spring. In the most vivid shades of the rainbow, this pool is a MUST SEE and photographer’s delight.

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Then came the much awaited Old Faithful Geyser. The geyser shooting water as high as 130 feet, at intervals of approx. 90 minutes, is a nature’s wonder. I highly recommend stopping by the Old Faithful Inn to admire the interior and grandeur of this historic building. TIP: Go up to the 2nd floor of the Inn, grab a beer and sit back on the outdoor patio, taking in the view of the erupting Old Faithful from distance. We had lunch at the inn’s cafe. They have an extensive menu and a buffet spread for $15.

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View from the patio of Old Faithful Inn 

During the latter half of day, we drove further to cover the east of Lower Loop, with quick stops at Yellowstone Lake and Fishing Bridge. Two popular attractions around the area not to miss are Mud Volcano and the steam-belching Dragon’s Mouth.

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Mud Volcano

steaming geyser

Dragon’s Mouth

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We planned our day such that we are in Hayden Valley by sunset. At this time of day is the highest possibility of wildlife sighting as the animals return home. The drive through Hayden Valley is breathtaking and surreal as the glistening sunset floods the valley.

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On our way back home we saw a mamma grizzly bear strolling leisurely with its 2 playful cubs behind. This was definitely the highlight of our trip! So humbled and truly in awe of nature. Here we had another friendly visitor, a coyote during the golden hour.

Coyote

Day 4 –  Grand Canyon, Lamar Valley

On the 3rd day, we headed straight to Grand Canyon. This is another most popular touristy spot in the park. We first went to see the Artist Point vista of the Yellowstone Falls. The Yellowstone river tumbling down the 24-mile deep canyon is a sight to behold.

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Personally, if I had to pick 1 thing as a MUST in Yellowstone, it would undoubtedly be Uncle Tom’s Trail. This trail starts near the Artist point’s parking lot. Starting with a few switchbacks before the steep descent down a metal staircase reveals a view of the canyon and the falls like no other. I am scared of height and the climb back up was pretty challenging. However, it was all worth the effort when our jaws dropped at the view that unfolded before us. Across the deep majestic canyon, the rainbow spreads its colorful wings like an aura over the misty waterfall. Our spirits soared as we greedily feasted our eyes on the glorious spectacle.  I felt a pang of instant gratification at the sheer beauty and for simply being present. You have to do this trail to believe me! Highly recommend.

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The hike made us all hungry, so we headed straight to Grand Canyon Village for lunch. After lunch, we explored the souvenir shops and visitor center at the village. I recommend checking out the visitor center as they have some great exhibits and also plays movies about the park at regular interval.

Post lunch we headed to Lamar Valley to see more wildlife during sunset, the golden hour. The drive to the valley was beautiful with a diverse landscape as we drove through snow-capped winding roads and canyons.

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The Lamar Valley is teeming with wildlife, so drive slow and bring binoculars. We saw coyotes, elks, marmots, pronghorn antelopes. It’s a vast bison’s world out there. Thousands of bison herds with newborn calves dotted the valley, grazing on the rolling green meadows. TIP: look out for cars pulled over, maybe someone has spotted some animal. Some folks showed us through their spotting scopes, a pronghorn fondling its just 2-hour old baby fawn still attached by the umbilical cord! It’s magical to see nature so untouched, in its simplest and purest.

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lamar2The best dinner of our entire trip was on the last day at Bullwinkle’s! The food was exceptional and we drank to glory until midnight. I highly recommend this restaurant. Pigs Ass, a local beer was quite a favorite in our group.

Day 5 – Relax and back to Salt Lake City

Our friends stayed at this glamping lodge “Yellowstone under Canvas“. Our last day, we decided to take it slow since we had a long drive back. We spent our morning exploring the beautiful grounds of this property, before heading back to Salt Lake City to catch our flight back home. I highly recommend anyone who visits Yellowstone to spend at least one night in their beautiful one-of-a-kind luxury tents in a very special place.

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Yellowstone will remain one hell of a memorable trip of 2017!!

 

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