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How to Spend One Day in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is considered by many to be the best in the US. Millions of people visit the park each year to explore the more than 3000 square miles, marvel at the unique geological features and catch a glimpse of the iconic wildlife.

You could spend days exploring the park, but what if you just have one day? Is it worth it to spend just one day in Yellowstone National Park?

Absolutely! But, you’ll have to prioritize what you want to see. Here are four routes to consider for one day in Yellowstone National Park from the North Entrance.

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Why use Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance?

When planning your visit, it’s important to understand that Yellowstone National Park is massive so it’s not possible to see everything in one day. But, it’s certainly still worthwhile to visit if one day is all you have.

To illustrate just how large the park is, the “grand loop” is 142 miles and encompasses the north and south driving loops. While that may seem very doable at first, expect traffic to be extremely slow during peak periods plus the park is gorgeous and you will want to get out and enjoy the views a lot.

The North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park is ideal if you plan to stay in Gardiner, the Paradise Valley, Livingston or Bozeman. This also provides easy access to the Lamar Valley, which is known for wildlife viewing.

Elk seen near Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park
An elk is seen casually grazing along the boardwalk near Mammoth Hot Springs.

When is the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park?

This really depends on what is most important to you. The park experiences the most visitors and crowds from June through August. Shoulder seasons in April to May and September to early October will be less crowded, have more mild weather and will have limited or no road closures. In winter, most of the park roads are closed but the wildlife viewing and winter landscape are stunning.

Pro Tip: Keep in mind that in some areas of the park there can be snow well in May. Bring layers and gear in case of icy conditions in the shoulder seasons, especially if you plan to hike.

Best Places to Stay Near Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance

Gardiner is a small town located just outside of the North Entrance and along the Yellowstone River. The town has cute shops, restaurants and places to stay. This is the closest place to stay that is outside of the park. While you’re there, consider stopping at Yellowstone Hot Springs to rest and relax after a day of exploring.

If you continue past Gardiner, you will drive through the appropriately named Paradise Valley. The valley has a number of lodging options, many of which will give you the Montana ranch experience. Be sure to plan a stop at Chico Hot Springs!

Pro Tip: If you are driving through Paradise Valley and want a great place to stop, Sage Lodge has a beautiful outdoor patio, restaurant and bar area. 

View of Paradise Valley from the patio at Sage Lodge
Sage Lodge has beautiful views of Paradise Valley from their outdoor patio and restaurant.

Livingston is a 1-hour drive from Gardiner through Paradise Valley. Here you’ll find lots of restaurants, short-term rentals and other things to do.

Finally, Bozeman is about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Gardiner, just a short drive from Livingston. Bozeman is a college town with lots of bars, restaurants, lodging options and things to do as well as an airport.

Pro Tip: Looking for a fun place to stay in Bozeman? Check out Bozeman Baseglamp

Route Options for One Day in Yellowstone National Park from the North Entrance

To help orient you to these route options, use this map provided by the National Park Service.

Getting to the North Entrance

Yellowstone River flowing through Paradise Valley
The Yellowstone River flows through Paradise Valley on the way to the North Entrance of the park.

When planning your day trip to Yellowstone National Park, include time to get from wherever you are staying to the North Entrance. Of the options I recommended, Bozeman is the furthest and takes just over an hour. However, over half of that is through the beautiful Paradise Valley with views of the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges and the Yellowstone River.

If needed grab coffee or use the restroom in the town of Gardiner before entering the park. There are about 5 miles of winding road from the North Entrance to the first point of interest and restroom.

Roosevelt Arch located outside the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park
The Roosevelt Arch is a historic landmark near Yellowstone National Park’s North Entrance.

Pro Tip: The Roosevelt Arch is a historic landmark located just outside the North Entrance. It was built in 1903 and makes a great photo op!

Option 1: Upper Loop

Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park

This is the shortest route available (in total miles), which means you will have the most time to get out and explore or can get a later start. The best places to stop on this loop include:

  • Albright Visitor Center for ranger-led programs, educational displays, restrooms, and souvenirs.
  • Mammoth Hot Springs is a geothermal area formed from calcium carbonate deposits from the hot water, this means the formations are constantly changing shape and color. 
  • Tower Fall is a 130 foot tall waterfall near the Tower-Roosevelt lodge and park office.
  • Optional: Short detour at Canyon Village to view Upper and Lower Falls, which are part of what is referred to as the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.”

Along the way you will likely see wildlife, small hot springs, and more. I got a glimpse of a grizzly in the distance at one of the roadside stops.

Distance: 70 miles

Considerations: The road between Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon Village is often closed into May, weather dependent. Check the park website for the most up-to-date information on road closures.

Pro Tip: Always view wildlife from a safe distance. Be sure to carry bear spray and follow these bear safety practices.

Option 2: Upper Loop plus Lamar Valley

Bison resting in the woods near a boardwalk at Yellowstone National Park
A bison rests in the forest near a boardwalk in Yellowstone National Park.

This route is the same as Option 1 with the addition of an out-and-back drive into the iconic Lamar Valley. This area is known for wildlife viewing. Watch for wildlife such as bison, elk, wolves, bears and more!

Distance: 70 miles (option 1) plus 29 miles (one-way), can turn around at any point

Considerations: The road through the Lamar Valley, which spans from the Northeast Entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs, is the only park road typically open year-round. This is weather dependent.

Option 3: Partial Upper Loop with Exit through the West Entrance

View of Upper Falls through the branch of a pine tree.
Upper Falls as seen from the North Rim in Yellowstone National Park

Here you have two routes to choose from, the west or east portion of the upper loop.

The eastern portion of the Upper Loop is 49 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris. This will go past Tower Fall, with options for a short detour to Upper and Lower Falls. 

The western portion of the Upper Loop is 21 miles from Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris and goes past a number of  lakes, small geothermal sites, and beautiful rock formations.

Both routes will take you from the info station at Norris to Madison and then the West Entrance (28 miles). From there you will need to drive to wherever you are staying outside of the park. Recommended stops on the way back to Bozeman and Livingston include Norris Hot Springs and Riverhouse BBQ & Events in Gallatin.

Distance: Varies. East Upper Loop from North Entrance to West Entrance (82 miles). West Upper Loop from North Entrance to West Entrance (54 miles). Does not include distance to and from the park to your lodging.

Considerations: This option enters at the North Entrance and leaves the park at the West Entrance. Plan accordingly to return to your lodging. 

Option 4: Partial Upper Loop with Exit through West Entrance plus Old Faithful

This includes all of option 3 with an extra out-and-back to visit Old Faithful before exiting the park. This adds an additional 32 miles and will go past the Grand Prismatic Spring.

Grand Prismatic Spring is a 160 foot deep hot spring located in the Midway Geyser Basin. For great views, hike the Fairy Falls Trail to an overlook (~1.5 miles round trip). 

Distance: Option 3 plus 32 miles.

Considerations: Old Faithful erupts approximately every 90 minutes, so it is important to time your visit correctly. Check the park website for the predicted eruption times and plan your day around that. 

Other Things to do Near Yellowstone National Park

Looking for things to do near Yellowstone National Park? The area is also known for whitewater rafting, fly fishing, and kayaking. 

Is One Day in Yellowstone Enough?

Ideally, you could spend several days exploring Yellowstone National Park but if that’s not possible it’s still worth visiting for a day trip. It’s one of the most popular and beautiful national parks in the US!

Related content to read next:

How to Plan Your Glacier National Park Camping Trip

Visit the North Dakota Badlands at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

11 Awe-Inspiring Things to Do in Badlands National Park

Check out my National Parks page for even more inspiration and tips!

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View of the Yellowstone River from Lookout Point

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