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How to Spend One Day in Yellowstone National Park

Can you visit Yellowstone in a day? While you could, and we recommend, spend weeks in the park, the short answer is yes. Even if you only have one day in Yellowstone, it’s worth visiting.”

7 things to do in Yellowstone National Park if you only have one day.

Yellowstone National Park encompasses an area of nearly 3,500 square miles. While much of the park is in Wyoming, you’ll find it spreads into Montana and Idaho as well. Dedicated in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, Yellowstone is America’s first national park and offers a diverse landscape. From lush forests to hydrothermal areas, to canyons and mountains, rivers, and valleys, Yellowstone is a playground for photographers and nature lovers.

There is no shortage of things to do in Yellowstone. Ideally, one would take several days or a week to explore the vast landscape. During a recent trip with my husband, time was not a luxury afforded us. Yellowstone was not our final destination, just a quick stop between Point A and Point B so we covered as much ground as we could in a short period of time.

How To Spend One Day in Yellowstone

This is tough. There’s so much to see and do in Yellowstone that you really don’t want to miss a thing. But if you’re really pressed for time, these recommendations may help.

Things to do in Yellowstone- Watch the Old Faithful Geyser erupt.

Yellowstone Geysers

Yellowstone National Park has the world’s largest collection of geysers. A visit to the park without taking the time to watch the Old Faithful eruption would be an injustice. Seating is available near the geyser, but my husband and I chose seats just outside the Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria, which provided the perfect vantage point. Shaded during mid-morning in July, we were able to relax while we waited for the geyser to erupt – which happens every 35-120 minutes. According to the couple who joined us on our bench, our seats provided the best view of the erupting geyser.

Things to do in Yellowstone- walk along the boardwalk trail of Artist's Paintpot.

Stroll through Artist’s Paintpot

The Artist’s Paintpot trail is an easy hike from the parking lot to a boardwalk through a hydrothermal area.  You’ll see colorful hot springs, mud pots, a fumarole, and geysers. The trail leads up some stairs to provide a great view of the area below.

Things to do in Yellowstone- Take an early morning drive through Lamar Valley to spot wildlife like these bison.

Lamar Valley at Dawn or Dusk

We were told that a drive through Lamar Valley in the early morning or evening would provide views of the wildlife and we weren’t disappointed. Our morning drive provided views of both bison and pronghorn. Wolves are often spotted here as well. 

Things to do in Yellowstone- walk along the Black Sand Basin to the Rainbow Pool and Emerald Pool.

Walk the Black Sand Basin

While several of the hydrothermal basins seemed to be hemorrhaging people, the Black Sand Basin parking lot was nearly deserted. We stopped to check it out and I’m so glad we did as this area became one of my favorite stops. The easy ½ mile boardwalk trail provides views of the Emerald Pool, Rainbow Pool, hot springs, and features several erupting geysers.

Things to do in Yellowstone- Spot Moose along the shore of Yellowstone Lake.

Catch a Glimpse of Yellowstone Lake

With over 140 feet of shoreline and depth of 400 feet, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high-elevation lake in North America. A partial drive along the lake provided a moose sighting though I wasn’t armed with my camera at the moment to get a good shot. You’ll also find picnic areas along the lake and though it was windy on our visit, the view was incredible.

Things to do in Yellowstone- Photograph the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

Photograph the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

I didn’t think anything could be more magnificent than the Grand Canyon and though I stand by that, I will say that the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is pretty amazing in its own right- even if we missed the most iconic view at Artist’s Point. You’ll find overlooks along the road near Tower Junction that offer spectacular views of the Yellowstone River roaring through the canyon.

The Roughrider Cabins at Yellowstone National Park offer a comfortable night's sleep and step up from camping.

Sleep in Cabins in Yellowstone Park

My husband and I were fortunate to find a last-minute opening of a Roughrider Cabin at the Roosevelt Lodge, a favorite area of President Theodore Roosevelt. The historic, rustic cabins offer a bed, desk, and wood-burning stove. The bathhouse is a short walk away. Operated by Xanterra, the park concessioner, the clean restroom facilities provide hot water and toiletries.

Yellowstone Tours

With 2.2 million acres to explore, why not maximize your time in the park with a trained professional? Enjoy a private Yellowstone National Park tour to truly see as much of the park as possible in one day.  

One Day in Yellowstone: a Sample Itinerary  

Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park

We entered the park through the North Entrance and made our way to the Roosevelt Lodge past the Mammoth Hot Springs, Roaring Mountain, and Dunraven Pass. We were able to see quite a bit of scenery along the nearly two-hour drive. We arrived fairly late and after a full day of driving, by the time we checked in to our cabin and unloaded our gear, we were ready for bed.

We awoke early the next morning, showered and checked out of our cabin by 7:00 a.m. Our day began with an early morning drive through Lamar Valley, where we saw herds of bison and pronghorn, before backtracking and making our way towards the West Entrance to exit the park. From Lamar Valley, we drove past the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, stopping frequently at overlooks and walking short distances before arriving at Artist’s Paintpot. The parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived but by the time we’d completed our short hike (about 45 minutes to an hour later), the parking lot had filled up and a car waited for us to back out of our spot so they could snag it.

We drove on to the Lower Geyser Basin. It was just after nine o’clock in the morning and the parking lot at the Fountain Paint Pot was already filled to capacity and visitors began to park along the street. We continued on to the Black Sand Basin which didn’t seem to be as popular but was one of my favorite areas. From there we drove to see Old Faithful. We only waited about 15-20 minutes for the geyser to erupt, which was pretty cool but wasn’t my favorite thing at Yellowstone.

By this time we were hungry since we’d skipped breakfast and made our way towards Yellowstone Lake so we could find a spot to cook our lunch. We found a parking area with picnic tables and pulled over. The view was spectacular so we lingered a bit before jumping back in the car and backtracking to the West Entrance. We stopped a couple more times and finally exited the park around 1:30. It wasn’t ideal, but we were on a mission to see as much as we could in a short amount of time. Though I would love to return to explore Yellowstone National Park in the future, I don’t feel disappointed that we didn’t have more time. We saw many of the park highlights.

What To Do With More Than One Day in Yellowstone

Things to do in Yellowstone National Park if you only have a day.

  1. Hit the Trails.

If I had more time, I would have loved to have spent more time hiking and less time driving.

  1. Explore the Museums and the Visitor Centers.

I would have enjoyed touring The Museum of the National Park Ranger and learning more about the unique features of the park in the visitor centers that are located throughout the park.

  1. Spend another night.

I loved the rustic charm of the Roughrider Cabin and would have spent another night or several in the park. At $80 plus tax, the cabin is an affordable option and step up from camping.

  1. Tour the Historic Hotel Properties.

Several of the hotel properties offer guided walking tours for guests. Since I enjoy touring historic homes, this is an activity that I think I’d really enjoy.

  1. Go on a Stagecoach Adventure or enjoy an Old West Dinner Cookout.

We actually did try to grab seats for the Old West Dinner Cookout which includes a wagon ride, music, storytelling, and stargazing but the tour was sold out. You can see the tours that are offered here.

Things to do in Yellowstone National Park- go for a scenic drive.

Yellowstone National Park Tips 

  1. Prepare to drive slowly.

Though the speed limit is 45 mph throughout quite a bit of the park, it was rare that we were able to drive that fast which really frustrated my husband. Many drivers want to take their time and enjoy the scenery and don’t take advantage of the many pull-offs and overlooks available. I get that. Really, I do. But if the speed limit is 45 and you’re driving 20- you really should be courteous to the line behind you and pull over and enjoy the view.

  1. Don’t wait until the last minute to find a restroom.

Okay, ask me why this is a tip. I don’t know how many times I told my children this when they were growing up but, one would think I could follow my own advice. I nearly peed myself because I WAITED TOO LONG and the lines at the restrooms where horrendous throughout the entire geyser area. I think I learned my lesson and next time I’ll seek out a restroom sooner when I need to “go”.

  1. Make reservations in advance for everything.

This didn’t work for us because we didn’t know what day we would arrive in Yellowstone. When planning to stay in any of the national parks during high season, it’s a good idea to make reservations as far in advance as possible.

4. Check out our Yellowstone Packing List to ensure a comfortable stay.

    • Sun hat and sunscreen
    • Clothing that layers easily for quickly changing weather
    • Comfortable hiking shoes

 

5. Avoid crowds with an early start.

My husband and I were able to cover a lot of ground between the hours of 7-9 am. My advice: visit the geothermal areas in the early hours. Stop at the Lower Geyser Basin first, then the Upper Geyser Basin, watch the Old Faithful Geyser erupt, and then visit other areas of the park that aren’t as crowded.

Photos from Yellowstone National Park.

You can find more things to do in Yellowstone and begin planning your trip at the Yellowstone National Park website.

Recommended Resources for a Yellowstone Getaway

Have you visited Yellowstone National Park? What tips or comments would you add?

Pin this: 

With so many things to do in Yellowstone, planning to visit for one day is not ideal. This post offers a sample itinerary and some tips on where to begin.

Yellowstone in a day

If you enjoyed this post, don’t miss these:

Roughing it in Yellowstone National Park- our stay at the Roughrider Cabins

Lodging Options at Yellowstone National Park: Roughrider Cabins

Things to do in Yellowstone Old Faithful Geyser Eruption

Things to do in Yellowstone: Old Faithful Geyser Eruption

 

 

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josh

Monday 7th of September 2015

We visited last summer and stayed for 2 nights in the park. If you are camping, the sites are very reasonably priced, but if you are in a tent make sure you stay away from the east side campground because of the bears! I would definitely recommend a trip through the south entrance of the park into the Grand Tetons and Lake Jenny. The Teyons are amazing mountains with no foothills, do you are right up to their bases. Amazing views!

Francesca (@WorkMomTravels)

Tuesday 18th of August 2015

Ahhh... Yellowstone is my most favorite place in the world!! I was lucky enough to live and work in the park for a couple of years in the 1990s. I plan on returning next year with my family and staying for more than one day :-) You've got some wonderful tips here; very comprehensive!

Mel @ Adventures of Mel

Monday 17th of August 2015

Our boys are really wanting to go here. They want to see buffalo, moose, and wolves. This is a great list of things to do. It brings back memories from a childhood trip with my parents. Beautiful place! Thank you for sharing at Inspire Me Wednesday. Featuring you in this week's issue.

Michele {Malaysian Meanders}

Saturday 15th of August 2015

Lucky you getting to spot a moose. I never saw one even though we'd been quoting that "If You Give a Moose a Muffin" book as we drove around. You really managed to get most of the highlights in, a little bit of everything. Impressive. To be frank, my kids would have probably enjoyed it more if we had cut back on the hiking and skipped some of the "repetivite" things during our 2.5 days at Yellowstone. (Another hot spring, Mom?) Great tips, too. I remember being surprised that Old Faithful Lodge is booked full a year in advance for the summer. Definitely book early if you want to stay there. Excellent tip about layering clothes. When we were there, the temperature varied by more than 50 degrees.

Tonya

Saturday 15th of August 2015

I was so excited to see the moose and then instantly disappointed that I hadn't been able to get a photo. I had to remind myself that I DID see it, even if I didn't have proof. It would have been a great photo though as he had stepped out of a wooded area into a clearing along the lake and you could see the mountains in the background. *sigh*

Yes, I was surprised by how much temperatures varied- and also depending on where you were in the park.

Glad to hear you enjoyed yourself during your visit.

Rachel Heller

Saturday 15th of August 2015

I loved Yellowstone! Another tip would be to go there slightly off-season, like in May or September. It's much less crowded then.

Tonya

Saturday 15th of August 2015

I agree. Off-season would have been my preference as July is the busiest time of the year in the park.

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