Sometimes when you head to a new part of the country you’d love to spend weeks there to explore but the reality is time is limited. This happened to me recently when I could either fly in first thing in the morning and explore Yellowstone in one day or I could miss visiting the park.
So I booked that flight first thing in the morning, reserved a rental car, and decided to make an adventure of it. While I would have loved to have a few days to explore the park, and even more the rest of the region. Life at home had gotten a little crazy and I couldn’t make it work. But since I was visiting Montana for a work conference I couldn’t skip my change to explore Yellowstone for the first time.
Now, I’d definitely recommend more than a day in the park, but if that’s all you can make time for it’s still worth the trip. The best way I can describe this park is that you’ll feel out of this world. The natural landscape and the hydrothermal features are something entirely different from anything I’d seen before. So don’t miss out on your chance to see the park even if you’re just visiting for a day.
I started my adventure by flying into Bozeman, Montana and picking up a rental car from there. But, if you’re heading to the area from another airport or if the park is a stop on a longer road trip these tips will still help you get the most out of your visit.
Book Your Rental Car Early
If you’re flying into the area you’ll want to plan early, especially if it’s the busy season. For an area of the country that you definitely need a car to explore, there is a limited supply available. I flew into Bozeman, Montana in July and rental cars were going for almost $200 a day. The perk of the one day trip is this was worth the value to see the parks. Also, it was my only real expense for this trip since I had a National Park Pass that year.
Most of the major cities around the park have a selection of rental car companies but if you’re flying in, make sure you book one that is on property at the airport. It saves you a ton of time, and since you only have one day in the park that extra hour makes a difference.
Plan Your Attack
Since you’re only going to have a handful of hours in the park you’ll want to have a plan. Find a map before your trip and do a little research of the top spots you’d like to hit. You can find a helpful map on the National Park Service’s website here. Also, know how long you’ll have before you lose daylight. At least in the summer, driving in the park at night is easy but you won’t be able to enjoy any of the views.
I set a goal to hit my last main attraction by about 30 minutes before sunset. This worked out perfectly since it was a beautiful place to be for the golden hour. Then driving out of the park and back to Bozeman in the dark was a piece of cake.
You’ll also want to look up the daily schedule for Old Faithful. If you don’t see it blow it’s pretty underwhelming, but if you’re only visiting the park for the day and you miss a blow you might not want to wait an hour for the next one. You can look them up online or find out when you enter the park. Then you can make sure to time it right.
Use The Different Entrances
Like many national parks, Yellowstone has multiple entrances. You might not always use them but if you’re only going for one day it allows you to see more of the park without wasting time. Traveling from Bozeman it was about a 50/50 split on time between the West and North Entrances so I used both.
When trying to explore as much of Yellowstone in one day as possible this helped me a lot in accomplishing the next two tips.
Prioritize What You Want To See
There are the big ones like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring but there are so many things to see across the park. The problem with only having the chance to explore Yellowstone in one day is you won’t get to see everything. So make a list of what you want to see and map and rank them.
I suggest planning your trip where your top priorities are the first things you get to. For me, this worked by using the West entrance to start instead of the North. This way, you can be sure to get your top priorities in and depending on how the day goes you had hit more or less places ad the day goes on.
If you plan your attack, use different entrances, and priorities on your visit to Yellowstone in one day you’ll successfully avoid backtracking. With a limited amount of time in the park having to drive back and forth limits what you can see.
Thankfully, the park is designed in a way that has lots of loops and circles to the main attractions so it’s easy to minimize this if you put in a little research and packing.
Bring Snacks and Beverages
You’ll be driving a lot on this adventure. For me, I was in the car for about 10 hours, and for at least 6 of those I was actually driving. And this is rather rural driving. While you pass through a couple downs and there are different shopping and meal areas near and in the park, it’s much simpler to bring some snacks along. It’s also a lot cheaper.
I did end up eating lunch in the park, but honestly, I would have rather spent the time exploring a little more and could have easily snacked in the car. Plus if you’re visiting in the summer it can get pretty toasty so it doesn’t hurt to bring enough beverages along.
Make Sure You’re Charged Up
When you’re in the car for 10 hours you’re going to use a lot of battery. I used the navigation, listened to an audiobook, and played music once I lost radio stations. I did bring a USB cord but what I didn’t bring was a car charger. If you’re using a rental car they can be hit or miss if their chargers work or not. So make sure to bring a portable battery you know you can rely on.
Otherwise, you might end up like me where I had to drive back into service, quickly handwritten the direction into a notebook back to my hotel, and pray I didn’t get lost. Thankfully it all worked out, but my phone was dead a couple of hours before I made it home.
Plus My Can’t-Miss Sports for Yellowstone in One Day
You can easily spend weeks exploring Yellowstone, especially if you’re making your way into the backcountry. But if you have a chance to only see Yellowstone in one day there are some things you don’t want to miss.
Here are some of my favorite sites I had a chance to visit in just one day. This is also the order in which I visited them heading from the West Entrance and making my way around to exit through the North Entrance.
Midway Geyser Basin & Grand Prismatic Spring
This was my first major stop on my drive and it gives you a good taste of the hot springs. It’s also got some good walking paths so it’s a nice break after driving to the parks. You’ll wander by a few different springs but the Grand Prismatic Spring is the one you’ll recognize from so many photographs of the park. This is a must visit spot for your visit to Yellowstone in one day.
Old Faithful Geyser
This is the spot you’ve heard all about, but it’s also the busiest spot in the park. Getting in and out of this area and finding parking is a bit of a mess. With that in mind, you’ll probably still want to make the stop.
Before you do though, make sure you look up the times for the Old Faithful Geyser to go off that day. If you can’t make it at one of those times, I personally don’t think it’s worth the hassle.
This area also has a variety of stores, attractions, and restaurants. But if you’re only seeing Yellowstone in one day then I’d stick to the natural attractions the park offers.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
One of my favorite spots in the park was the West Thumb area. Here you’ll find a series of winding risen paths where you can walk through a series of hot springs leading up to Yellowstone Lake. They had all the beauty of those at the Midway Basin but were smaller and very unique. This area also had so many fewer people than the first portion of my trip. I loved wandering this area and would plan to spend an hour or so walking if you can.
As you head away from West Thumb you get a beautiful view of the landscape along the lake. It was beautiful and peaceful. I stopped a few times to take it in and get some great photos.
Also, once you reach Yellowstone Lake and slowly make your way to the North Entrance you’ll find so many fewer travelers than along the stretch near the West Entrance. I loved how much quieter it was over this way, how much smoother the drive was, and spending more time in this area made visiting Yellowstone in one day much more enjoyable.
This spot in the park is a combination of fascinating and disgusting. Expect to smell a lot of sulfer in the area but you’ll still want to take a quick stop to see these mudpots. These are hot springs that are so acidic that they’ve melted the rocks around them into this smelly mud-like consistency. They’re gross and weird but in a way that makes them a unique site to see.
With just one day in Yellowstone, you won’t have much of a chance to get lost in the more distant paths in the park. Those can be some of the best moments in a National Park where can see breathtaking open space laying out before you. While you’re still on a main road you do get that effect driving through Hayden Valley. You don’t even need to stop, but at least slow down and enjoy the view.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone – Upper & Lower Falls
Breathtaking canyons are always worth a stop and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is no difference. This is also a great place to get in a few of a few falls when you’re trying to see Yellowstone in one day and don’t have the chance to explore as much.
On top of that, there are some great trails to explore where you can take a short hike to take in the canyon without taking too much of your time.
Sunset / Golden Hour in the Lamar Valley
One of the only places I backtracked along my drive was heading into the Lamar Valley. I had seen a bison or two along my drive to this point, but I really wanted to get a chance to see more and other wildlife. Sunset is a perfect time to see if they’ll come out and the Lamar Valley in Golden Hour is a beautiful site in itself.
It was a perfect place to catch the last bit of daylight on my adventure before heading back to Bozeman.
Is Yellowstone in One Day Worth It? Yes!
When my plans changed and I realized I couldn’t spend an entire week making my way to a work event in Montana I had to stop and think will it be worth it. I’ve never been to this part of the country and don’t know when I’ll be heading back. I’ll be so close to the park. Will I regret it if I don’t go? Or will I feel it was a waste of money and time when I was already stressed out?
As I drove my way back to Bozeman I had no doubt that this long, exhausting, and a splurge for day of a trip to see one of our country’s most famous National Parks was absolutely worth it.
Will I head back again some day to spend more time in the park? Definitely! But, if you ever come across the chance to explore Yellowstone in one day it’s so worth the adventure and chance to explore this one of a kind park.