3 Day Itinerary for a Yellowstone National Park Trip (with some tips and tricks)

3 Day Itinerary for a Yellowstone National Park Trip (with some tips and tricks)

Despite living in Utah for 22 years of my life, I had never once visited Yellowstone National Park.  So when all of my bridesmaids (minus one) flew in from China and Japan to be in my Utah wedding, I wanted to treat them to something special post-ceremony: a three day trip to Yellowstone National Park.

I won’t lie.  It was extremely stressful to plan both a wedding and a Yellowstone trip.  A mere day after my wedding, I hauled three Chinese and Japanese girls into an SUV and drove five hours to Wyoming.  It was a whirlwind, but I also knew that having all of my Asia friends in Utah was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.  If we were going to do Yellowstone, it was now or never.  (For more logistical tips and tricks, scroll to the bottom)

Our trip was an absolute success.  Here are the hot spots we visited on our short, but wonderful journey:

Day 1: Mammoth Hot Springs & Lamar Valley

Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone
It’s hotter than it looks
Looks like another planet!

Going to Mammoth Hot Springs felt like stepping into an alien world.  You can physically feel the heat of the bubbling hot springs, hear the roar of the waters and..

“Oh god,” Jean held her nose.  “What’s that smell?”

“Euch,” Z gagged.  “It smells like rotten eggs!”

“Oh my god!” I faced Tohko.  “That sulphuric smell reminds me of an onsen (Japanese hot spring)!  This makes me want to hop in!”

“You’re right!” Tohko jumped toward me and grabbed my hand.  “This smell.. ahhh… it makes me want to dip in a hot spring and eat onsen-tamago” (eggs boiled in an onsen).

Z looked at us, horrified.

“You Japanese people–I’ll never get it.”

Cool rock formations made from the hot springs

Afterwards we went to Lamar Valley, approximately one hour away from Mammoth Hot Spring.  The tourist office said that it was a great spot to see wildlife, but when we got there we just saw more Bison.  If you camp out all day (like some photographers did) you might see some wolves… but yeah.  We were happy photographing the bison and called it a day.

Wildlife refuge in Yellowstone
River near the refuge

Yellowstone Bison
So many bison!
We’re obviously way too excited to see bison

Day 2: Artist’s Point (Grand Canyon of Yellowstone) & Yellowstone Lake

I won’t say much about Artist Point (also aptly named ‘the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone’), because the photos do all the talking.  It was my favorite spot in the whole park and, honestly, it really does feel like you’re in a painting.  We did a few trails that gave us both a high and low vantage point of the falls.

Artist Point Yellowstone, Grand Canyon Yellowstone
Gorgeous or what?
Nothing says “tourist” more than matching t-shirts

Yellowstone Artist Point Observation Deck
Hiking down to the observation deck
Up close and personal with the waterfall

“Look at this view!” Tohko pointed to the waterfall as we stood on the observation deck.  “It’s so beautiful… it makes me want to do Acro yoga!”

“Do what?” I repeated, thinking I misheard.

“Acro yoga!  Feel that fresh air, hear that water, look at the view–come on, we just gotta do it–it will make this even more unforgettable!  Come over here Mary, I’ll lift you.”

“No way!” I jumped back.  “I’m too fat, I’ll fall over on you.”

“I’ll do it!” Jean raised her hand.  “I’ve never done it, and I’m scared shitless, but it will make a great photo!”

“Oh my god,” I put my face into my palms, embarrassed. “I can’t believe we’re doing acro yoga here…”

It was a bit weird and drew quite the crowd, but I must admit that Tohko was right: it made the moment even more unforgettable.

Yellowstone acroyoga
I think Jean’s face says it all here

Later we did a hike nearby Yellowstone Lake, in bear country.  When we realized we were the only ones on the trail (and we heard constant rustling around us), we were spooked.  Nearby signs told us to make noise so the bears would stay away, so Tohko taught us a Japanese song about bears and we chanted it the whole hike.  We laughed nervously while walking out of the park, singing the Japanese bear song, scared shitless that a bear would pop out at any moment.

So yeah, rent some bear spray.  Don’t be stupid like us.

Relaxing at the lake

Singing to stave off the bears

Day 3: Old Faithful, Lower Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Lodge

Old Faithful lodge Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful Lodge

“Old Faithful my ass!” Z whined.  “We’ve been sitting here forever.  Old Faithful is 30 minutes late.  I bet this is a scam.”

“This isn’t China, Z” I rolled my eyes.  “He’s called Old Faithful for a reason.”

Z snickered and tapped her foot impatiently.  I had to admit, even I was wondering if Old Faithful was going to pull through or not.  Maybe all those sputters was the actual geyser eruption?  Maybe Old Faithful’s days were up?

“By the way, how do you say ‘Old Faithful’ in Chinese?” I asked.

“I dunno,” she shrugged.  “老 Lao (old) something-or-other.”

“老靠谱 Lao Kaopu?(old reliable?)” I said, laughing (‘kao pu’ is a very colloquial term to describe someone who you can count on–basically, the opposite of a flake).  Z and Jean doubled over laughing at my horrible translation, until–

“Oh my god! Look!” I pointed up to Old Faithful, erupting.  Old Faithful’s eruption was a geyser blast that shot up over fifty feet high.  “He came though!”

Old Faithful Yellowstone Old Faithful Lodge
He pulled through!

Z jumped up out of her seat with a big grin and cried: “老靠谱!Lao Kaopu!  You really are kaopu!!  I’m sorry I doubted you!”

“That was worth the wait, eh?” I smiled at Z.

Still wide-eyed with a big grin on her face, Z turned back to me with an enthusiastic nod.

****

Old Faithful Lodge

Luckily I was able to book The Old Faithful Lodge, which is the most historical, American hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  Honestly, the place has changed little since the early 1900s–and it shows.  Although there is absolutely no insulation (hallway noise is fully audible from the room) and the property sorely lacks in modern amenities (no in-room showers/toilets, everything is dorm style), it was immensely charming.

The lodge encourages human interaction.  All of the floors are completely open and activities happen in the main foyers.  The rooms are for sleeping only.  Z described it best when she commented that the lodge felt like “she was staying at Hogwarts.”  It has an atmosphere that’s hard to replicate.

Inside of Old Faithful Lodge Room
The old-school rooms in Old Faithful Lodge… with an exhausted Chinese girl

Old Faithful Lodge is also surrounded by miles and miles of hot springs.  Just minutes outside the entrance are trails of hot springs in every direction–not to mention a bird’s eye view of Old Faithful.

Z and Jean decided to stay and watch Old Faithful erupt from the comfort of the Old Faithful Lodge deck, while Tohko and I decided to take a stroll of the nearby hot springs and watch the sunset.

It was a walk I’ll never forget.

Old Faithful Lodge Hot Geyser
Sunset walk around Old Faithful Lodge
Soooo many geysers!
Sunset at Old Faithful Lodge
The whole area is alive with geysers (see the smoke in the distance?)

“Thanks for bringing me to your wedding and giving us this beautiful memory,” Tohko smiled at me and then looked at the pink sunset in the distance.  “I’ll never forget it.”

“Me too,” I smiled back.  “Let’s vow to meet up to travel again soon… maybe at your wedding?” I winked.  Tohko did, after all, catch my bouquet.

Tohko laughed and stared out to the sunset, “I gotta find a man to make that happen, first!”

****

Earlier in the day we did a whirlwind hike of Lower Geyser Basin, which is a MUST. Truly stunning hot springs and natural geysers in all colors, with trails that provide both lower and higher vantage point views.  Just don’t fall in and boil, like this poor sod.

Norris Geyser

Look at those colors!

Tips & Tricks

Take the Scenic Route Return via Grand Teton

The drive to Yellowstone from Salt Lake City takes about 4-5 hours (and Salt Lake City is the closest airport to the park).  Although it would have been quicker to take that same route back to Salt Lake City on our return drive, we decided to take a massive 3 hour detour that allowed us to pass pass through Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.  If you’re tight on time but still want to see Grand Teton, this is a great way to get a quick glimpse of this amazing National Park.

BOOK YOUR HOTEL OR CAMPSITE IN YELLOWSTONE AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE

Honestly, this is the most important part of planning a trip to Yellowstone.  Being able to stay IN the park allowed us to see so much more and cut down on driving time.

And let’s face it: no matter how early you look, the hotels within Yellowstone National Park are always booked.  Always.  Even the campsites.  I bet if you look for summer 2019 it’s already full.  I dare you.

But don’t be discouraged–only one month before my trip, I was able to book three nights within the park.  Two weeks prior to the trip, last-minute cancellations allowed me to switch to a better/cheaper hotel within the park.  It is not impossible to get a room in Yellowstone 2-3 weeks prior to a trip, but you need persistence.

Check the official hotel website daily.  It’s annoying, but you’ll have to refresh for every single hotel in the park and snag an opening as soon as you get it.  Cancellations are free for up to one week in advance, so it pays to book one just in case and cancel later if you need.  Keep in mind that Yellowstone is gigantic and the hotels are spread all over the place, so plan accordingly.  I booked hotels first and then planned our itinerary around where I was able to snag accommodations.

If you can’t get get a hotel in the park, then staying at the West Yellowstone Entrance is a slightly inconvenient (it’s a one hour drive to the park, one-way), but very doable option.

And Finally, Don’t Plan Too Much: Just Go and Have Fun

Like the Grand Canyon, the National Park Service does a stellar job at making Yellowstone accessible for all.  To be honest, I drove into Yellowstone with absolutely no plan at all–on day one, we went to the tourist desk and asked for their opinion.  I told them where we were staying in the park and for how long, and they were able to make an itinerary for us right on the spot.  I was really impressed.

Yellowstone is also exciting because it’s so goddamn huge.  Driving from one end of the park to the other would take an entire day, if not longer.  Exploring different areas of the park and randomly stopping at viewpoints on the road is honestly the best part of going to the park.  Aside from the mind-blowing natural hot springs and geysers, the real beauty of Yellowstone is the fact the you’re secluded in a little pocket of wilderness that’s sealed off just for you.  Hell, there isn’t even cell-phone signal in the park; whether you want to disconnect or not, Yellowstone forces you to unplug and truly relish in nature’s wonders.

Taking my best friends to a place so uniquely American and beautiful was a memory I’ll never forget.  Yellowstone is a place where friends, families and lovers can come together to share in something meaningful.  Whether you can go for two or five days, it’s a total bucket list destination.

Visit the Official Yellowstone Park page for the best tips on how to enjoy Yellowstone.

5 thoughts on “3 Day Itinerary for a Yellowstone National Park Trip (with some tips and tricks)

  1. What an awesome post! I have never been to Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons, but I’m sold on everything but the acro-yoga. Though I’m tempted to go in winter when you can see the wolves and be cold. Really cold.

    1. Thanks Autumn!!! You should totally go to Yellowstone since it’s not that far from where you are. You’ll love it 🙂

      Seems like a random post, but I’ve actually been meaning to write up Yellowstone for the last year. Ugh, I’m so bad, I need to be a more diligent writer like you!

      1. Well, you’ve been a little busy, you know, getting married and moving and living! Thank you for saying I am a diligent writer, I often feel that I’m not even close. There are bloggers who put out a post every other day, and I can barely get 3-4 a month.

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