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, but 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.
Things to do in Yellowstone if you only have One Day
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.
Don’t Miss the Geysers
Yellowstone National Park has the world’s largest collection of geysers. A visit to the park without taking the time to watch Old Faithful erupt would be an injustice. Seating is available near the geyser, but my husband and I found the seats just outside the Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria 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.
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, mudpots, a fumarole and geysers. The trail leads up some stairs to provide a great view of the area below.
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.
Walk through 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.
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.
Stop to 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.
Stay Overnight in Yellowstone
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.
One Day in Yellowstone: a Sample Itinerary
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 so 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 I would do in Yellowstone if I had more Time
- Hit the Trails.
If I had more time, I would have loved to have spent more time hiking and less time driving.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 star gazing but the tour was sold out. You can see the tours that are offered here.
Tips when in Yellowstone National Park
- Prepare to drive slowly.
Though the speed limit is often 55 mph, 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.
- 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 one would think I would follow my own advice. After nearly peeing myself because the lines at the restrooms where so long through the geyser areas, I’ll probably take heed and pay more attention to when I need to go in the future.
- Make reservations in advance for everything.
This didn’t work for us because we really didn’t know what day we would arrive in Yellowstone, but 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.
- Pack sunscreen or a large brim hat.
Many of the hydrothermal areas offer no or little shade from the sun and the sun seemed so much hotter than in our home state of Ohio. I got some color to my fair skin in a very short period of time.
- Layer your clothes.
It can be cool in some areas of the park and quite a bit warmer in others. Wear clothes that can be layered to stay comfortable.
- Comfortable walking shoes are a must.
- Avoid as many crowds as possible and get 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.
You can find more things to do in Yellowstone and begin planning your trip at the Yellowstone National Park website.
Have you visited Yellowstone National Park? What tips or comments would you add?
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