With its nearly 3,500 square miles of wild landscape, Yellowstone can seem a bit overwhelming if you’re on a time crunch. We’re talking wildlife, geothermal features to blow your mind, and a whole lot of miles to cover. People spend years exploring here and still have more to see. But it is possible to do a lot with even a little time in your schedule. If you only have a day to spend in the nation’s first national park, here’s how to make the most of your time.
Yellowstone can claim the top place in the world in categories like wildlife, geothermal activity, and wildflowers—not to mention scenic views, backcountry trail miles, and fishing fun. You could spend a day in Yellowstone in any number of ways: the specifics are up to you.
If you want to get away from people and into the wild, try for a longer day hike. If you want to see as many of the park’s top-billed attractions as possible, you’ll probably benefit most from a driving loop starting at Mammoth Hot Springs, going through Norris Geyser Basin, to Old Faithful, and back up by Yellowstone Lake and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. And if wildlife watching calls your name, you can’t go wrong with a drive through the Lamar Valley with your binoculars. Be sure to stop where you see folks set up with spotting scopes, and ask them what they see.
If you have a lot on your list of must-sees (especially when it comes to geysers and paint pots), plan to spend some time in the car. The good news is that this will give you a front-row seat on the changing landscape.
Road closures can throw off your planned route if you’re not careful, especially if you’re traveling in the spring or fall when unexpected winter weather is the norm. Check the website’s Park Roads page to see any road closures before you head out. If you have your heart set on a particular day hike, it’s also a good idea to check in with the visitor center or ranger station the day before to see if there are any wildlife closures you should know about. It’s not out of the ordinary for an area to be closed because of bear activity.
If your days are limited, maximize your hours and get up before the sun if you can. Getting to the park early has some bonus benefits too: you’ll see fewer crowds early, getting you great parking spots at some of the more popular stops. Plus, dawn and dusk are primetime for wildlife, so getting up early increases your chances of spotting some of the park’s more elusive species, like bears and big cats.
Even if you’ve done your due diligence planning and checking closures, it’s still a good idea to prepare for delays. If you can avoid it, don’t plan a departing flight at the end of your Yellowstone day. Traffic jams are common here—fortunately mostly because of wildlife you’ll want to see anyway.
An overnight stay in a gateway community like Gardiner or Livingston right outside the park can give you extra hours when you wake up to help you maximize a short amount of time. And if you plan to follow up your day in Yellowstone with an early-morning flight, a Bozeman hotel with quick access to the airport might be the best choice. Check into a Highline Adventures property, and explore all that the park has to offer.