In this article:
- In 1872, Congress declared Yellowstone the nation’s first-ever national park, starting a conservation trend that has led to over 15% of the land on Earth being protected today.
- If you plan on visiting Yellowstone, you could probably spend a full week there and never see the same thing twice. But, if you’ve only got 2 days, then here’s the perfect itinerary for your timeframe.
- The first day, you should pass through Grand Teton National Park, watch Old Faithful erupt, and marvel at Grand Prismatic Spring. The second day, you should start at Mammoth Hot Springs, walk around Norris Geyser Basin, and watch the wildlife at Lamar Valley.
In the year 1872, the United States Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant passed the Act of March 1, which established Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming as the nation’s first-ever national park. This would come to be known as the United States’s “best idea” ever as it would spur on a movement toward the protection of natural lands all around the globe. Today, there are more than 4,000 national parks around the globe. According to a 2015 study from the Internation Union for Conservation in Nature, around 15% of the world’s land and about 3% of the world’s ocean area were protected.
This is a massive victory for conservation efforts worldwide and the trend toward protecting natural lands seems to be continuing. As recently as December 2020, the United States declared New River Gorge in West Virginia the nation’s newest national park. And, while there’s still much work to be done in the effort to prevent the planet Earth from anthropomorphic destruction, declaring new national parks is definitely a step in the right direction. And Yellowstone National Park started it all.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Yellowstone for the first time and the experience was absolutely magical. This park, which comprises nearly 3,500 square miles, feels like an entirely different planet, especially for a place that’s in the very same country where I’ve spent the majority of my life.
This massive area is filled with radiantly colored geysers that look like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. Animals like elk, moose, and bison have retained their provenance over this region and we humans are just passers-through. All the while, giant peaks like those Grand Teton and Francs Peak tower overhead and remind us of our infinitesimally small place in this universe.
However, with so many awe-inspiring aspects of this park to be experienced, it can be hard to feel like you even scratched the surface in just a day or two. But, for some of us, that’s all the time we can allot to this natural American beauty. So, if you’ve got just 48 hours to take on Yellowstone, here is the ideal 2-day itinerary in the park.
If you plan on doing Yellowstone National Park in just 2 days, you probably won’t have time to do a big hike and still see all of the top sites that Yellowstone has to offer. But, even if you can’t hike up any mountains, you can still look at some pretty amazing ones.
Grand Teton National Park
If you drive into Yellowstone via the south entrance, you should be driving right through Grand Teton National Park. The two parks are located only a few miles from one another and offer fairly different attractions. For those who might want to take a hike during their national park excursion, Grand Teton is the place to do it. This park is definitely more activity-based whereas Yellowstone is more for sightseeing.
Grand Teton offers over 250 miles of hiking trails, which will take you around lakes, through valleys, and up to some of Grand Teton’s most impressive peaks. However, if you’re really set on seeing as much of Yellowstone as possible, it’s probably best to just make a quick stop in Grand Teton to soak up the view of this outstanding mountain range before moving on to Yellowstone.
Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin
Of course, you simply can’t visit Yellowstone National Park without seeing Old Faithful erupt. This amazingly predictable geyser is the poster child for the park for good reason. It spits out a huge column of hot mist every 60 to 90 minutes, and people from around the world sit on a semicircular row of benches and patiently wait for its eruptions. If you want to make sure that you get there on time, you can follow the National Park Service’s Twitter page devoted entirely to Old Faithful eruption times (@GeyserNPS).
Unfortunately, most people simply come for Old Faithful’s eruption and then walk straight back to the parking lot, missing out entirely on the Upper Geyser Basin just a short walk away. While none of the geysers in the basin erupt with as much regularity as Old Faithful, some of them are capable of even larger eruptions and each of the many geysers has a character all its own.
Grand Prismatic Spring
The only feature in Yellowstone that can rival Old Faithful for the title of most iconic is Grand Prismatic Spring. Larger than a football field, Grand Prismatic is the third-largest spring in the world and certainly one of the most fascinating to look at. The entire spring is surrounded on all sides by heat-loving bacteria that create a spectrum of colors when adorned with sunlight. The sulfuric mist coming off the spring gives the entire location an aura of enchantment.
Being that Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most popular attractions in the park, you will probably want to go there outside of peak hours. While midday is the best time to see the spring’s full spectrum of colors, you’ll also have to deal with hordes of people. However, if you go early in the morning or later in the afternoon, you should be able to enjoy the spring without having to deal with massive crowds.
There are plenty of places to stay the night around Yellowstone whether you want to camp or stay in a hotel. If you’re in the area around Grand Prismatic Spring when it’s time to turn in for the night, you can stay at Madison Campground, which sits right alongside the Madison River. Or, if you want an indoor experience, the Stage Coach Inn isn’t too far away in the town of West Yellowstone. Then, get up early the next morning for another day of exploration.
Mammoth Hot Springs
If you thought that you’d seen it all at Grand Prismatic, think again. Mammoth Hot Springs, which is right next to the small village of Fort Yellowstone, has an entirely different character and color scheme from the other hot springs in the park. This amazing natural formation is made up of gorgeous terraces that emit steam and pass hot water from one level to the next.
The limestone that’s built up over centuries almost makes it look like Mammoth Hot Springs is covered in snow. There are also collections of algae around the hot springs that give them beautiful tints of brown, yellow, orange, and green. The area around Mammoth Hot Springs is also a great place to spy some elk. Just make sure not to get too close to them.
Norris Geyser Basin
Yet another unique area in Yellowstone National Park that’s entirely worth visiting is Norris Geyser Basin. This area has a quality to it that one might describe as post-apocalyptic. There are running streams of colorful bacteria-and-algae-filled water coming from small geysers and odorous steam rising up all around you. The intense heat has prevented much flora from growing in this area, which makes you feel like you’ve stumbled onto the surface of an asteroid.
The walk around Norris Geyser Basin shouldn’t take much more than an hour and there’s so much to see along the way. Some of the most memorable features were the pools that had taken on a glowing neon-blue color. This may very well be the most otherworldly-feeling part of Yellowstone.
Often referred to as “America’s Serengeti” for its large population of easily viewable animals, Lamar Valley is a place where you’ll definitely want to bring your binoculars. If your primary reason for visiting Yellowstone is spotting wildlife, this is the best place to do so. The valley is home to elk, bison, moose, grizzly bears, bald eagles, badgers, osprey, wolves, coyotes, and much more.
In the area around Lamar Valley, there are plenty of observation points along the sides of the road. So, drive around and have whoever’s in your passenger seat be the spotter. Then, when they inevitably spot some wildlife, pull off the road, sit on the hood of your car, and take in the sights of these incredible animals.
Spend More Time in Yellowstone if You Can
While the 2-day itinerary I just described covers most of the best areas in Yellowstone National Park, there are so many other mind-blowing locations in the park that are definitely worth visiting. Yellowstone is also a fantastic place to get out of the car and go for a long hike.
So, if you don’t have to stick to a strict 2-day schedule, you’ll definitely want to consider spending more time in Yellowstone. Truly, you could spend a week in the park and not even scratch the surface of all that it has to offer.