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A Yellowstone Itinerary: Four Days to See It All and Avoid the Crowds

view over the grand canyon of yellowstone

If you want a great Yellowstone Itinerary, four days is the perfect amount of time.  While you could easily see the highlights of Yellowstone National Park in two days, I wouldn’t suggest it.  To truly enjoy the park three to four days is best.  You will get to see the must-dos, but also enjoy the sights that most visitors miss in their frantic rush to check off a list.  

At almost 3,500 square miles (over 2 million acres) of land, Yellowstone is massive.  While there is a fully developed tourism infrastructure, the vast majority of Yellowstone’s land is completely unseen by most visitors.  This four day itinerary will take you to all the highlights you want to see, but allow you some time for hikes and picnics to take in the untouched beauty the park provides. 

PS- for planning tips and answers to some of the common Yellowstone questions, check out this post.

About this Itinerary

Time and flexibility are the perks of this Yellowstone itinerary; four days will take you through the park without being rushed. With this much time you have the option to pass right on by when an attraction is super crowded or when the weather isn’t great, saving it for later in the day.  

We chose to visit during September, which is a little slower than the busy summer months. While this is often a great time weather wise, you never really can be sure at these elevations.  

The week before our trip the days had been warm and sunny, up into the 80s.  However, before our arrival a front pushed through bringing lots of rain, overcast skies, and cooler temps.  

Not to be deterred, we carried on as planned.  Luckily, we were able to adjust our daily plans with the weather changes.

Traveling with the family? Be sure to check out our post on eight fun things to do in Yellowstone with kids.

Where to Stay in Yellowstone

We opted to stay at the Canyon Lodge for most of our time in Yellowstone due to its central location.  The rooms here are also fairly new, but you do pay for that, along with the convenience.  We stayed at Old Faithful Inn for one night to cap off trip.  For more information and booking visit this site.

Day 1:  Canyon Area

With four days to explore Yellowstone, you can fully explore each area. Start off your trip close to your accommodations in the Canyon area.

You have all day to explore the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.  This area is beautiful with waterfalls and the river surrounded by the yellow colored cliffs of the canyon.  The main sights here are the Upper Falls, Lower Falls, Artist Point, Inspiration Point, and Point Sublime.  

While everything in this area is pretty compact, you’ll want the extra time to explore.  This is the second most visited area in the park due to several factors.  That means you will want to hit the hiking trails to get away from the crowds, even if just for a short walk.  

view of the Lower Falls in the canyon area of Yellowstone
Lower Falls

Start your morning on the South Rim at Uncle Tom’s Trail if it is open.  This iconic trail takes you down more than 300 steps to the base of canyon, where you will be very near the base of the Lower Falls.  Unfortunately, the stairs had been closed during our visit for restoration purposes.  

If Uncle Tom’s Trail is closed, or if you want to skip the stairs altogether, make your way to the South Rim Trail and Clear Lake Loop. Feel free to explore any other areas before making your way over to the North Rim.  

Once you’re back on the north side of the canyon, you can spend some time checking out the Brink of the Upper Falls (closed during our visit) and the Brink of the Lower Falls.  

From the parking area at the Lower Falls you can walk down the the Lower Falls overlook.  Just remember, once you get down there you have to walk back up.  It only took us about 12 minutes to get back to the top.  So, if you’re in pretty good shape, this is about a 30-45 minute stop.  If you’re not, plan on a bit longer. 

The other stops on the North Rim are quick ones- Lookout Point, Grand View, and Inspiration Point.  You can park, get out, snap a few pics and be done if you want.  Several of the stops have short walks you can do if you choose.  

hiking at Clear Lake

Since we were staying at Canyon Lodge, we went back to our room for a late lunch after the busy morning.  However, you could easily take a lunch break anywhere in Canyon Village.  Another option would be to have a picnic lunch at Wapiti Lake Trailhead nearby.  

For an easy afternoon away from the crowds, make your way toward the Norris area and stop at Ice Lake.  The easy half-mile walk will lead you from the car park to the quiet, peaceful lake.  A few back country campsites are located here, but you’ll most likely have the place to yourself.  

slowly making our way to Ice Lake

We spent about an hour or so at Ice Lake while the kids played.  This would’ve been a great spot for a picnic lunch and a low key afternoon.  
After playing and getting back to your car, make your way back to Canyon Village for dinner.  

Day 2:  Tower-Roosevelt Area

Get up early and drive to the Tower-Roosevelt area.  This is a good 45 minute or so drive from Canyon Lodge, so don’t forget to set your alarm.

You’ll want to be there early for the best chances to see wildlife.  Plus, as you go over the ridge you may catch a few amazing sunrise views!

bear spotting through the trees in Lamar Valley
bears in Lamar Valley

If you have anyone prone to carsickness, make sure to take precautions for the drive.  The road winds back and forth quite a bit.  

Start your day in the Lamar Valley where you’ll most likely see the large herd of bison that roam the area.  We were stunned when we were caught right in the middle of a bison traffic jam!  We also saw some pronghorns, a bear, and even a wolf from a distance while in the Lamar Valley.  Take your time driving through, making sure to stop and watch for animals.  

After a bit of animal spotting, stop at the trailhead for Trout Lake.  This is a short hike to a beautiful lake surrounded by pines and wide open meadows. You can spend as much or as little time here as you want.  We spent just shy of two hours playing and skipping rocks.  

sibling hugs at Trout Lake
sibling love | Trout Lake

After a long morning, you can opt to picnic at Trout Lake or drive to the nearest town outside of the park for a late breakfast/early lunch.  Silver Gate, Montana, is home to The Log Cabin Cafe, a cute little spot for a good meal.  David and the kids had typical breakfasts while I chose the trout breakfast- a perfect mountain vacation meal.  

After your meal, we suggest doing an afternoon hike.  Two good options here are the Slough Creek Trail for those of you that like a challenge.  If you want an easier option, I’d opt for the Lamar River Trail.

bison crossing the road in yellowstone
bison crossing | Lamar Valley

Once you’re ready to say goodbye to the Lamar Valley, drive back toward Tower Falls.  A quick stop at the overlook will get you up close to one of the most famous waterfalls in Yellowstone. The parking lot is small, so you may have to pass by or circle around a time or two to find a spot.  

From here, you can go back into Canyon Village for dinner. 

Headed to Grand Tetons National Park while you’re in the area? We’ve got several articles to help you out there as well. Check out this post on fun things to do in the Tetons with kids. And make sure you don’t overpack! All that moving around gets old with a multitude of bags. Read along here for our tips on packing.

Day 3:  Mammoth Springs and Lake Yellowstone Areas

There’s no need to be in a hurry today.  This will give you a chance to catch up on your sleep after yesterday.  The drive from Canyon Lodge takes about 35 minutes.  Once you arrive, have breakfast or brunch at the Mammoth Spring Hotel Dining Room. Just know you may have a bit of a wait.

rock formations at Mammoth Springs covered in white and brown mineral deposits
Mammoth Springs

After breakfast, stop in at the visitors center, where the kids will love checking out the animals exhibit.  They’ll also enjoy seeing the elk on the grounds around the visitors center.  

Spend a half hour or so walking around the Mammoth Springs Overlook. The walkway has lots of options for unique viewpoints to the springs. There is also a drive nearby, but after doing the boardwalk, it seemed like more of the same.  

For an easy hike, drive to Wriath Falls, located just about ten minutes outside of Mammoth going toward Roosevelt.  The easy walk takes you through a meadow and to the beautiful falls.  

hiking to Wraith Falls
headed toward Wraith Falls

When you’re ready for lunch, stop at Lava Creek, just down the road, for a picnic.  This spot is about as picturesque as it gets for a lunch spot- a creek and picnic tables surrounded by pine trees. 

On the way back toward Canyon Village in the afternoon, you can make a few notable stops, some of which are Sheepeater Cliff, the hoodoos, and Obsidian Cliff.  

Lava Creek
beautiful scenery around every bend

You can also try to stop by the Norris Geyser Basin.  When we drove by it was mid afternoon and insanely crowded, so we decided to save it for the next morning.  

Between the Norris Junction and Canyon Village you will see a small side road for Virginia Cascades.  Make sure to take this short detour, which was part of the original road through the park when stagecoaches were the main mode of transport.  The 2.5 mile stretch takes you past the falls then follows the creek and past a few meadows, where there are some picnic tables.

swan spotting | Hayden Valley

If you decide to skip the Norris area until the morning, plan to spend your afternoon in the Yellowstone Lake area.  The timing worked out perfectly for the kids to take a quick car nap on the drive.  Take some time checking out Fishing Bridge Area and Lake Yellowstone which are extremely close to one another.  

You have a few options for what to do in the area, depending on the weather.  We chose to do the Storm Point Hike, which lends awesome views out over Lake Yellowstone with a multitude of wildlife sighting possibilities.  

looking out over Lake Yellowstone hiking at Storm Point with our daughter
hiking to Storm Point

After spending your afternoon taking in the lake surroundings, make sure to spend some time at the Lake Yellowstone Lodge, which is much more beautiful in person than the pictures.  

Dinner reservations for the restaurant are hard to come by on the day of, but you can eat in the lounge area.  The bar menu has an array of options like charcuterie and other appetizers, and there is a small deli area down the hall if you need some toddler-approved choices.  

Make sure to keep an eye out for wildlife on your way back to Canyon Village for your last night.  We saw several elk in Hayden Valley during the drive.  

elk in the meadows in Hayden Valley Yellowstone
elk in Hayden Valley at dusk

Day 4:  Norris and Old Faithful Areas

Your last full day in the park will be all about the geothermal activity in Yellowstone.  After packing and getting breakfast, head straight to Norris Geyser Basin to try and beat the crowds.  

PS- Moving around from hotel to hotel can be a burden if you pack too much. Check out our article on our packing process and how to avoid overpacking.

There are two different boardwalks, each with a few unique features.  Both boardwalks are easy for kids to walk and stroller friendly.  Doing both may fatigue little legs though.  

kids checking out the hot springs and geysers of the the Norris Geyser Basin
admiring the geysers and hot springs | Norris Geyser Basin

Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest active geyser, is on the Back Basin Boardwalk.  While its spray can throw debris all the way to cars in the parking lot, you most likely won’t see it go off as it is extremely sporadic and unpredictable.  

After leaving Norris Geyser Basin, continue to the Artists Paintpots.  Again, much of this area is accessible by stroller, but to get the full effect you will need to climb the stairs.  So I would opt for a baby carrier instead.  This is a quick 20 minute stop, assuming you can find a parking spot quickly.  

a hot spring with crystal clear water in Yellowstone
Upper Geyser Basin

It was rainy and overcast on our stop, so I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t super impressed here.  Perhaps on a sunny day, the colors are a bit more vibrant, but at this point it was just another “mud hot spot” to us.

From here, you’ll start driving toward the Old Faithful area.  There is no need to be in a hurry because the Old Faithful area is always crowded!  You will not beat the crowds.  The best way to avoid them is to stay at Old Faithful Inn, which this plan has us doing.  

view of lobby of Old Faithful Inn
lobby view | Old Faithful Inn

On your drive toward Old Faithful, make a side trip on Firehole Falls Drive. This two mile one way loop near Madison runs along a beautiful creek. Geysers near the creek heat the water, so it looks like steam is coming off the water, lending to the name given by early fur trappers in the area. There are a few pullouts along the road then a small parking area at the falls overlook. 

Another side road to consider taking is Firehole Geyser Loop.  This short road passes several geysers and hot spots that are easily accessible, many of which can be seen from the car.  

You will also pass the Midway Geyser Basin.  The main sight here is Grand Prismatic Spring.  The parking are will be crowded.  

view from the overlook at Grand Prismatic Springs
Grand Prismatic Springs

Instead, I would skip this and park at the Fairy Falls Trailhead just down the road.  From here you can hike the mostly flat trail to the Grand Prismatic overlook.  You’ll get a much better view of the massive hot spring from above, allowing you to truly take in the size and colors.  

After checking out any other geothermal sights you want to see, head over to the Old Faithful Inn to get checked into your room.  Once settled, you can check out the visitors center for the most accurate times for the next Old Faithful eruption.  While waiting for the next, make sure spend some time at the exhibits in the visitors center.  The kids will love it!

kids checking out the exhibits at Old Faithful visitors center
Old Faithful Visitors Center

Make a point to walk some or all of the boardwalks near the hotel as well. These were some of our favorite geothermal walks, with a variety of hot springs, geysers, and mud pits.  Also along this path you will see a trail that leads to an overlook where you can get a unique view of the Old Faithful eruption.

Grab dinner at one of the restaurants at the Old Faithful Inn or Ski Lodge before spending your last night exploring the lodge.  

You will absolutely fall in love with Yellowstone National Park! Don’t forget to check out our other posts on hiking in Yellowstone with kids and fun activities to do in the park.

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