In July 2021, we did an epic road trip loop, from Illinois to California and back. Yellowstone National Park was high up on the list of places I wanted to visit on that trip! We planned for 2 days in Yellowstone, but saw everything on our bucket list for Yellowstone in one day!
Overview of Yellowstone
Let’s start with a brief overview of Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone is the world’s very first National Park. It became a National Park in 1872. The park is mostly in Wyoming, but extends into Idaho and Montana as well.
People come from all over the world to see the amazing geothermal areas and unique geologic features of Yellowstone.
If you’re planning a visit, you need to check out the National Park’s website for updates and closures in the park.
So what were the top places on our Yellowstone bucket list?
- Old Faithful
- Grand Prismatic
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Lamar Valley
Stop 1: Visitor’s Center and Old Faithful
We came into Yellowstone through the South Entrance. We got into the entry line at around 9:00am. There was already a line formed at this time, but it wasn’t too crazy.
Finding a parking spot took a little bit of time- we had to drive around a few times waiting for someone to leave.
We walked immediately to the Visitor’s Center, where there was another line to get in. They were only letting in a set amount of people at a time. We waited maybe 20 minutes to get inside.
Once inside, we got our Junior Ranger information and looked around a little bit. At the visitor’s center, you can also find out the next approximate time that Old Faithful will erupt.
On average, the Old Faithful geyser will erupt every 90 minutes, but can vary between 50 minutes to 127 minutes.
Old Faithful is what most people think of when they think of Yellowstone, so no trip, not even one day at Yellowstone can be complete without seeing it!
From the Visitor’s Center, we walked over to the Old Faithful seating area, which was already packed full with people. All the benches were already taken, which was fine for us because you can get a great view regardless. However, if you need a seat, make sure you show up quite a bit before the predicted eruption time!
The eruption lasts anywhere from 1.5 to 5 minutes, and can reach up to 180 feet high. It’s a pretty amazing sight!
As soon as the eruption ended, we walked around the boardwalk area, looking at all the other geothermic areas there.
We brought our stroller, which worked out great because Ella fell asleep as we walked around this area.
By the time we circled around the boardwalk, it was lunchtime. We went into the lodge to grab lunch, but the line for food was over an hour long. Instead, we headed to the ice cream line, which only had a handful of people in it.
When you’re trying to do Yellowstone in a limited amount of time, you have to adjust plans accordingly, and we weren’t willing to waste that much time on eating!
Looking back, if we could have done it over again, we definitely would have had food packed in a cooler at our vehicle!
Stop 2: Midway Geyser Basin / Grand Prismatic Spring
Our next stop worked out nicely because the best time of day to see Grand Prismatic is in the middle of the day. This is when they say the colors will be at their most vibrant. It did not disappoint!
If you have only one day in Yellowstone, do not miss the Grand Prismatic Spring! In my opinion, this is the most amazing and beautiful feature of Yellowstone!
If you’re wondering what makes the Grand Prismatic Spring so colorful, basically, it’s the bacteria that love the hot temperatures of the water. This article from the Smithsonian describes the phenomenon really well!
Aside from the Grand Prismatic, there are some other really cool springs to see along the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk.
The Excelsior Geyser is another big, really beautiful feature! This is the first thing you’ll see on your walk down the Midway Geyser boardwalk.
The Opal Pool and the Turquoise Pool are also smaller features right along this boardwalk.
In our research before our trip, we read that viewing the Grand Prismatic from above was the best way to view it, but the upper viewing area was closed while we were visiting. However, I didn’t feel the least bit disappointed with the view we did have! It was incredible!
Stop 3: Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is on the northern side of Yellowstone National Park. It takes a little less than an hour and a half to drive from the Midway Geyser Basin to Mammoth Hot Springs area. The views driving anywhere in Yellowstone are just beautiful, so it goes by in a flash!
The Mammoth Hot Springs area is another really unique geologic feature. It’s so much different from all the other sites here, so it was a must-do for us during our one day in Yellowstone National Park!
It’s been described as looking at an inside-out cave, or viewing the center of the earth! This article describes how this feature came to be.
We walked the terraces with our stroller. That’s one thing we loved about Yellowstone- how stroller-friendly it is in a lot of areas!
After we walked around and saw the sites here, it was dinner time. We headed to the Mammoth Terrace Grill to get a quick service dinner.
Dinner actually ended up being a highlight of the trip, because of the elk that just lounge around the Mammoth Springs Hotel.
We sat outside to eat our food, just to watch all the elk. The kids, (ok, ALL of us!) thought it was so cool that they were just all over the lawn, with people everywhere!
Even though these elk don’t seem bothered by people, keep in mind that it’s not ok to get within really close distances to the wildlife! If they come toward you, you need to back away and give them space!
Stop 4: Lamar Valley
Yellowstone National Park has 2 different valleys that are great for wildlife spotting – Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley.
Both Lamar and Hayden Valley are about an hour’s distance from Mammoth Hot Springs.
Lamar Valley is sometimes called “America’s Serengeti” and that’s honestly what drew me to this valley over Hayden Valley.
Lamar Road stretches 29 miles and takes around 40 minutes if you drive straight through. Be prepared to drive slowly and stop for bison crowding the roads! Other wildlife that call this valley home are elk, antelope, bears (black and grizzly!), wolves, coyotes, and eagles.
The majority of what we saw were bison. And just look at the baby!! Definitely a highlight! We also saw a black bear (which I had to explain to the kids- black bears are sometimes NOT black!)
It’s easy to know where you might spot a bear because there will always be a traffic jam! People were stopped and parking all along the road to get out and get photos!
You can exit Yellowstone through the Northeast entrance on Lamar Road, but since that wasn’t the exit we were leaving through, we turned around and drove back down the road again.
The valleys aren’t the only place to spot wildlife in Yellowstone- it’s just where it’s the most plentiful. We saw bison all over the park, as well as a mama bear with her cub from a distance.
I hope that this gave you an idea of how you can see Yellowstone in one day, without a lot of rushing around and stressing out. It was probably one of the most amazing days of our entire 3 1/2-week road trip.
Although it would be amazing to spend a whole week in Yellowstone National Park, if you’re passing by, and wondering if it really is worth a short visit, I would say definitely!
Let us know- Is there anything different you would add to your One Day in Yellowstone itinerary?
Next, check out one of these related articles!
- Ultimate Guide to National Parks for Families
- Grand Teton’s Hidden Falls Hike with Kids
- Ultimate Sequoia and King’s Canyon 2-Day Itinerary
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