Yellowstone, America’s most beloved National Park, is a true masterpiece. It is hands down the MOST unique place I’ve visited. But I was forewarned before I went to Yellowstone…of stories of crowded board walks, frustrating tourists, jammed parking lots and traffic backups. Knowing that I only had one short day to dedicate to a MASSIVE park, I was bound and determined to avoid the crowds, escape the crazy… and have a fabulous time in Yellowstone while seeing as much as I could in the span of less than 24 hours.
Possible? Most would say… heck no.
I scoured article after blog after website to gather tips to help put together a reasonable but efficient plan. Some of the best advice I found while researching, was to ACTUALLY visit the popular tourist spots and explore the trails at each site because they are all so unique and awesome. This was counter intuitive for me because most often I aim to escape the “tourist traps” and get off the beaten path. But this advice ended up being an efficient way to make the most of my time in the park. I certainly wished I would have had time to explore the backcountry and the upper section of the park, but I was pretty happy with the quick snapshot I got in one day. Best of all, for the most part — I evaded the horror stories – the crowds and the delays and I had a fabulous day.
So How did I do it? Lets explore !
After pulling in super late to Yellowstone following a day of travel from Michigan, I stayed at the Grant Village Campground. I had made a reservation a few months prior. The reservable campgrounds inside the parks fill up FAST so BOOK MONTHS EARLY. There are some campgrounds that are first come first serve but are in high demand during the high season. If you are arriving late at night like I was, chances are you won’t be able to get one without a reservation. Grant Village (your typical crowded front country camping) was the perfect jump off point for a MEGA early morning (remember, the early bird can see the park without the crowds)!
1. Start Early: Get up before sunrise (research what time the sun is due to rise and leave 45 mins before that time) and head to West Thumb Basin (less than 10 minute drive from the campground). Head off on the boardwalk trails towards the lake. As the sun is peaking up, prepare for a show. When the sun rises, it casts a trail of light over the lake and the steaming hot pools of West Thumb Geyser area; the colors are spectacular. The sun peaks over the mountains on the opposite side of Yellowstone lake in about 30 mins. Hike around the board walks and appreciate the warmth of the sun on your face; even in August the mornings were frigid. The best part of this spot at sunrise was that at had it ALL to myself… amazing.
2. Head directly to Old Faithful: I recommend that if you can get some cell service in the park, that you download the NPS Yellowstone Geyser app. This will give you an idea of when to expect the next eruption of Old Faithful. I had no cell service so I just winged it. Leave West Thumb and book it straight for Old Faithful. On my schedule, I arrived around 7 am and caught a show about 30 mins later. A few morning stragglers were roaming out from the lodge with their coffee; otherwise the area was quiet. This early in the morning, I had a front row seat to the eruption in peace without bumping elbows with iPads and ice-cream cones. This will not be the case in the afternoons! As soon as Old Faithful gave a great show, I hit the trails around the area and power hiked the many loops in the area. From Geyser Basin along Geyser Hill, take the board walks to Morning Glory pool. This is a nice easy walk that takes in a ton of sights. At this time of the morning, the trails were basically empty aside from a few early risers. If you are super ambitious, take the trail to Observation point (from Geyser Hill) to watch over Old Faithful from above (there are bear warning signs on this rugged trail so hike with friends and practice bear safety in grizzly country).
3. Make a quick stop at Midway Geyser Basin: By 10 in the morning, the roads were still clear but the parking lot at Midway Geyser Basin was quite busy. I chose to park at pull-off on the side of the road just before the Geyser. Consequently, this was my least favorite spot though it was my most anticipated. Unfortunately the trail I wanted to take to overlook the geyser here was closed for repairs so I didn’t get the full effect of Grand Prismatic Spring. Regardless, it was still impressive. I spent less than 30 mins here before heading out for the next destination.
4. Escape the Crowds on a hike at Norris Geyser Basin: I wasn’t sure I even wanted to include this in my itinerary, but I’m so glad I did, as it was spectacular. Arriving here around 1130, I packed a snack and hit the trails. There are two loops you can complete with PLENTY to see along the way. Back Basin and Porcelain Basin can be done in a figure 8 and is about 3 miles total. The geysers were in full force; spewing and gurgling the entire hike. There is also a really great museum worth checking out if you are good on time. Most of the people who came here walked about 5 mins in either direction from the museum so if you venture far along the trails, chances are you won’t be bumping elbows with anyone. Plan on dedicating a couple of hours to explore and hike the loops.
5. Don’t forget Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone: No trip would be complete without a trip to this iconic location. This was another site where if you are able to venture 5 mins down any trail, the crowds peter out. I thought given the prime time of the day, that this place would be super busy, but it was surprisingly chill, especially on the trails that involved a bit of work. I stuck to the North Rim Trail and took in the multiple overlooks of the falls. If you can handle a climb up and down stairs and switchbacks, I recommend making your way down to the brink of the falls to get a feel for the magnitude of the water flowing here. You could easily spend an hour and a half exploring the different trails and viewpoints.
6. Sunset at Hayden Valley: I had spent a good part of the trip ticking a lot off my bucket list, but I wanted to see some classic Wyoming landscapes and some wildlife. What better place than the infamous Hayden River Valley? It’s smack dab between Yellowstone Canyon and Yellowstone Lake. By this time of the afternoon, the crowds had died off and traffic en route out of the park was non-existent. I stopped at a pull off on the side of the road for some wildlife viewing and look in the fantastic landscapes. This is exactly what I had envisioned when I thought about Wyoming. If you wanted an epic finale to the day, plan to hang out here as dusk approaches for the opportunity to see more animals venture out into the valley. Don’t forget your binoculars.
7. Finish the day at Yellowstone Lake: En route out of the park, the drive around Yellowstone lake is incredible. I found myself pulling over multiple times to capture view after view. If you packed a dinner or had a campstove, a park along the lake would be a great spot to have some food and watch the stars come out. If you want to make your way back to Grant village for a second night, you are heading in the right direction. There are also reservable campsites on the northern part of the lake as well (Bay Bridge Campground).
I was pretty beat after a long and exciting day in Yellowstone (but a fulfilling one). I was heading back to Grand Teton National Park for the evening, but in less than 24 hours I took in several spectacular sights, completed over half the park, hiked multiple trails, caught sunrise over the mountains and took more photos than I could ever share. Yellowstone is such a unique place. I’m not saying I recommend that you TRY to squeeze any trip here into 24 hours.. or even 72 hours for that matter since there is so much to see. But sometimes our itinerary’s don’t have much wiggle room or we are only granted one day to make the most of. The key to success is to start EARLY to beat the crowds and have an action plan. Avoid Old Faithful anytime after 8 am or you are bound to get bogged down. Seize the day and you will for sure have a fantastic experience in the park.
Note: Check out the text links throughout the article. This will take you to trail maps and info of each area that are beyond helpful for your planning.