How to See Yellowstone National Park in Two Days
Yellowstone is a huge park (2.2 million acres) and there are countless sights to see both off the beaten path and right out your car window. Ideally, to see and genuinely enjoy all of the hot spots (pun intended) you’d want to give yourself a week in the park, and even then you’d only be scratching the surface of what Yellowstone has to offer. Of course, as was the case with our recent visit, it’s not always realistic to dedicate a full week of your busy life to exploring Yellowstone, especially if it’s one stop on a larger road trip. In our case, we had about two days to see Yellowstone and one day to explore the Tetons and we managed to see a ton and have an amazing time while managing to not feel rushed. Luckily we had the advantage of both having visited the park years ago, so we didn’t feel the pressure to attempt to stop for every geyser, waterfall, and bison during our short visit. We’re certainly not saying that two days is the optimal amount of time to dedicate to Yellowstone, but it is definitely possible to have an incredible time in 48 hours without leaving too many stones unturned.
Where to Stay
Admittedly, this trip was a bit spontaneous, so our options for accommodation were limited to say the least. Yellowstone gets about 4.2 million annual visitors, most of which come during the summer, so it would be an understatement to say that there’s a lot of competition for places to stay. We knew we wanted to be on the north side of the park since we were driving in through Montana so we looked into options in the Cooke City – Silver Gate area. We lucked out getting a little cabin run by Silver Gate Lodging. The cabin itself was pretty bare bones but it was more than enough for what we needed and the location was perfect. Silver Gate is a small town about a two minute drive from the northeast entrance to the park. There isn’t much in the town other than a cafe, a general store, and some cabins, but the setting is insanely beautiful. There are towering snow-capped peaks in every direction you look and it’s not uncommon for wildlife to wander through town. Silver Gate is only a few miles down the road from the slightly larger town of Cooke City, which also has some nice places to stay as well as some additional dining options. There are plenty of lodges within the limits of the park, but they are expensive and are often very busy and crowded. Camping, of course, is a cheaper alternative. We found Silver Gate to be very pleasant and quiet, and the location was a perfect home base for exploring the northern section of Yellowstone. It was a fairly long drive (2.5 hours) to get to the geyser basins, but if you really wanted to, you could spend one night in Silver Gate and another night in the park or in West Yellowstone.
Lamar Valley was the highlight of Yellowstone for us and it was conveniently located about 15 minutes away from our cabin in Silver Gate. This is ground zero for wildlife viewing in Yellowstone and if you take a drive through the valley around dawn, the odds of seeing bears or wolves are reasonably high. The odds of seeing bison are 100%, maybe more like 1,000%.
While you’re in Lamar Valley, Trout Lake is a nice short hike that gives you a chance to get out of the car and stretch your legs. There is a small parking area right off the side of the road just before you get into the heart of the valley. When we say it’s a short hike, we mean it. From the parking area to the lake and back is only 1 mile and only gains 200 ft of elevation, so it doesn’t take up much of your time. The lake isn’t big, but nestled in the mountains, the view is beautiful and it’s a great place to spot otters or do some fishing. It’s also frequented by bears so hiking with bear spray is highly recommended.
As you drive west from Lamar Valley and pass through Tower Junction, you’ll see a small dirt road off to the left called Blacktail Plateau Drive. This six-mile, one-way dirt road is a relatively unknown stretch of road in the park and the mountain views are as good as it gets. It’s also an excellent place for wildlife viewing.
One one hand, Mammoth is extremely crowded, but on the other, there hot spring is massive (some would say mammoth), there are elk wandering through town, and if you go at the right time, you can hang out in the boiling river.
That’s an extremely reasonable first day in Yellowstone. We went back for seconds in Lamar Valley that evening and then went out to dinner in Cooke City. We very easily could have seen/done more, but we didn’t want to feel rushed and we wanted to get the most out of everything we did. We saved most of the geysers for day two.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Since we spent the night in Silver Gate, we drove through Lamar Valley again the morning of our second day. We couldn’t get enough. This time, when we got to Tower Junction, we headed south , stopping briefly at Tower Falls before stopping at Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This is one of the most iconic views in the entire park and definitely worth stopping to see.
Guided fly fishing trips in and around Yellowstone are extremely expensive, so prior to our trip, we decided to take free class at the local Orvis store and buy a rod which ended up being a fraction of the price of a guided trip. You can buy a fishing license at several places in the area, including Cooke City and Gardiner. As novice fly fishers, we didn’t expect to catch much (we didn’t) but hanging out by the river and casting was a ton of fun, not to mention a perfect way to escape the summer crowds. We spent a good amount of time, hammocking and fishing in the Gibbon and Firehole, which apparently are two of the best places to fish in the park. The crazy part about fishing in the Gibbon was that we were extremely close to the Norris Geyser Basin, so there were hot pots and steam shooting out of the ground all around us while we fished.
Once we got to the Norris Geyser Basin, it was hard to drive for more than five minutes without seeing a sign for some sort of roadside geothermal attraction. At this point, the weather started to turn against us, so we weren’t able to stop as much as we might have liked, but you can’t always have perfect weather. If you want to see geysers, Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring are the two that you really need to see, and then stop at as many others as possible, weather and time permitting. By the time we got to this point in the trip, the weather was so bad that we only stopped to see a few geysers and some of those that we did see were largely obstructed by fog. Regardless, the geysers are one of the most fascinating aspects of Yellowstone and are what truly set it apart from there other great national parks in the US. A trip to Yellowstone isn’t complete without walking through the geyser basins and watching steam and boiling water shoot out of the ground while having your nostrils assaulted by the ever present smell of rotten eggs.
There is so much to see in Yellowstone that trying to cram it all into two days can seem daunting. Inevitably you’ll miss out on seeing something, but seeing all of the highlights in two days is well within reason. The specifics of the itinerary can vary depending on where you stay and your point of entry/exit, but the fact remains that two-day Yellowstone trip can be an amazing experience.