Yellowstone National Park is over 3,000 square miles large, encompassing a variety of ecosystems, endless wildlife viewing opportunities, and a wide range of geothermal activity. Most visitors set aside at least a few days to explore all corners of the park. It's just not realistic, or fun, to try to see the entire park in less than 2 days. Believe me; you'll be cursing the bison traffic jams if you try to rush through the park.
Starting and ending in West Yellowstone, I had the pleasure of exploring one small section of the park the other day. I would recommend this shortened day-long itinerary for anyone who plans to be in West Yellowstone with just a little time to see the park.
Camping & Lodging
West Yellowstone can be a zoo in the summer months. If you plan to stay in one of the nearby hotels or motels, make sure to call or book your reservation well in advance. Campers can either reserve ahead of time or show up early to a few nearby national forest campgrounds that are first-come first-serve.
There are a number of dining options in West Yellowstone and very few in the section of the park we plan to explore in this itinerary. Plan to eat breakfast and dinner in West Yellowstone. Stop by the grocery store and grab something for lunch that you can take with you into the park. Another lunch option is at Old Faithful Inn.
The Madison River Valley
After you enter the park at West Yellowstone ($25 per vehicle – good for 7 days), you'll drive along the Madison River for roughly 15 miles. If you are a fly fishing enthusiast, there are multiple turnouts along this road. Bring a picnic blanket or camp chairs for the rest of the family while you fish these lovely waters. Early morning or evening is best.
Firehole Canyon Drive
Turn right at the Madison Junction (signs will point to Old Faithful). If you have kids, make sure to swing into the Junior Ranger Station at Madison and pick up a Junior Ranger booklet, which will provide entertainment for little ones for the whole day. Just a mile or so south of the Ranger Station, turn right onto Firehole Canyon Drive. This is a one lane road and offers idyllic stopping points to view the waterfalls and swimming holes of the Firehole River. It will be obvious where to pull over and go swimming as there is a wooden staircase leading down to the water's edge. This area can get very busy but is great for kids and families. If you are trying to avoid the crowds but still want to go for a refreshing dip, head further upriver and jump in anywhere along the Firehole River.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Head south on the loop road to the Grand Prismatic Spring (sign will say Midway Geyser Basin). This is one of the busiest turnouts and features of the park but well worth the short stroll along the boardwalk. Walk over the magnificent colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring and stand in the steam of the stunning blue and boiling Excelsior Geyser.
Hiking Option 1: Fairy Falls
Just 1 mile south of Midway Geyser Basin, start hiking at the Steel Bridge Parking Area to view the 200 ft tall Fairy Falls.
5 miles RT
Pull into Biscuit Basin to enjoy a boardwalk along a series of steam vents, geysers, and fumaroles like the Sapphire Pool and Shell Geyser.
Hiking Option 2: Mystic Falls
At the back of the Biscuit Basin boardwalk, you'll see a sign for the Mystic Falls trail to a 70 ft waterfall.
2.4 miles RT
What you've all been waiting for … the Old Faithful Geyser. As you enter the park in the morning, ask a ranger for the expected eruption times of the day. This may determine what you see first as you don't want to miss this puppy blow. There is a huge historic inn at Old Faithful, well worth exploring, as well as an ice cream stand, restaurant, and shop.
Hiking Option 3: Geyser Hill
See a variety of geysers and pools on this short hike near Old Faithful. This is a great option if you have some time to kill before or after you watch the Old Faithful Geyser. The trail starts on the boardwalk in front of Old Faithful.
1.3 mile Loop
Firehole Lake Drive
As you return north to the Madison Junction, swing a right onto the Firehole Lake Drive. A handful of less visited features line the road that are well worth viewing including the Firehole Spring, the Great Fountain Geyser (although a little harder to predict, ask the park ranger about eruption times for this one as well), and the White Dome Geyser.
Yellowstone Imax Theater
Finish your day by heading to the Yellowstone Imax Theater and then to dinner at one of the many restaurants in West Yellowstone.