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.
With so much to see up there, planning a trip for just 5 days including travel seemed a bit overwhelming and far-fetched. But after our recent visit, I can assure that 3 full days in the park offers a perfect introduction and covers all the major attractions, if planned as we did. 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 the 8. We divided our days to cover each east and west of the two loops. This way we were able to see the entire park at a good pace without rushing.
Tips for visiting Yellowstone National 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 crowds. Huge traffic starts flowing in from 10 AM.
- The best time to see wildlife is during 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 the wildlife and it can be dangerous. Simply stop and take in the moment.
Day 1 – Fly to Saly Lake City and pick your rental car
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 much 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. The town had quite a few restaurants and shops.
Day 2 – Mammoth Hot Spring, Norris Geyser Basin
We started early to drive to Yellowstone National Park via the West entrance. On our first day in the park, we covered the west of upper loop which has two major highlights: Mammoth Hot Spring and Norris Geyser Basin. Within a few minutes of driving in the park, we had our first animal 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.
At 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 has some of the most unique features, mainly known for its terraces. The cascading hot springs are a natural sculpture of multi-hued intricately cascaded formations. Our favorites were the Minerva Spring and Canary Spring.
Next, we headed to Norris Geyser Basin. This basin encompasses 2 easy boardwalk loops – the Porcelain Basin and the Back Basin trails. We walked the entire Porcelain Basin trail which is a beautiful milky-blue pool and then a short walk in the Back Basin trail to see the Steamboat geyser. The Steamboat geyser a MUST SEE erupts irregularly and being the tallest active geyser in the world.
It was amazing to see different colors that made river-like impressions. I call them the Green river, the Yellow river and the river of Gold. See below and you will believe me.
One of the best moments of the trip was when on the 1st day we were lucky enough to see a grizzly bear from close proximity, which is usually a rare instance. That grizzly was humongous!! Alas, couldn’t capture this moment.
In the night we ate at the Madison Lounge. This is an excellent place for food and drinks and is open until 10 PM. We had one of the best dinners here.
Day 3 – Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley
We kick started our 2nd day with the lower loop anti-clockwise. During the 1st half of the day, we explored the Lower and Midway Geyser Basin, including the famous Old Faithful geyser. However, if I had to single out one wow moment from the trip for me it was the stunning rainbow colored Grand Prismatic Spring. In the most vivid hues of blue, green, orange, and gold, this pool is a MUST SEE and a photographer’s delight.
We had a long hearty lunch at the cafe in the Old Faithful Inn. They have an extensive menu and a buffet spread as well for $15. We spent some time admiring the historic building’s rustic decor. TIP: Go up to the 2nd floor of the Inn, sit on the outdoor patio, grab a beer and take in the view of the Old Faithful erupt from the distance.
During the latter half of the day, we drove further to cover the east of lower loop, making quick stops at the Yellowstone Lake and the Fishing Bridge. Two popular attractions around the area not to be missed here are the Mud Volcano and the steam-belching Dragon’s Mouth.
We planned our day such that we are in Hayden Valley during sunset as this time of the day has the highest chances of wildlife sighting as the animals return home. The drive through Hayden Valley is breathtaking and surreal as the glistening sunset floods the valley.
The highlight of the day was when on our way back home we saw a mamma grizzly bear strolling leisurely with its 2 playful cubs behind. So humbled and truly in awe of nature. Here we had another friendly visitor, a coyote during the golden hour.
Day 4 – Grand Canyon, Lamar Valley
On the 3rd day, we headed straight to the Grand Canyon. This is another most popular touristy spot in the park. We first saw the Artist Point vista of the Yellowstone Falls. The Yellowstone River tumbling down the 24-mile deep canyon is a sight to behold.
Personally, if I had to pick 1 spot as a MUST in Yellowstone it would undoubtedly be the Uncle Tom’s trail. You have to do this trail to believe me!! The trail starts near the restroom at the parking lot of Artist point. Starting with a few switchbacks before the steep descent down a metal staircase reveals a superb view of the falls. I am scared of height, but the view that lay in front of me with the rainbow spreading like an aura over the waterfall took my breath away. We all gasped at the sheer beauty of this place, I felt an instant feeling of gratitude for simply being at this place. The climb back up was pretty challenging. I would recommend everyone to have it on their bucket list.
The hike made us all hungry, so we headed straight to Grand Canyon Village for lunch. We had a leisurely lunch and explored the souvenir shops and visitor center at the village. I recommend checking out the visitor center as they have some great exhibits and 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 rich landscape diversity as we drove through snow-capped winding roads and canyons.
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 here. 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.
The 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“. So on our last day, we spent all morning exploring the beautiful grounds of the 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.