We weren’t entirely sure whether we’d like to spend one or two days at Yellowstone, but we finally decided that due to the driving distance we would have to cover from our hotel to the park, as well as the presence of the dog, we’d stick around the Jackson and Grand Tetons area for an extra day instead. Because of all the awesome things we saw in this short period, I’ll share with you a 5-step guide to seeing as much of Yellowstone as possible in a day. No, it is not possible to see the whole thing (or even 1/2 or 1/3) in one day, but you can prioritize what you want to see and plan from there.
Step 1: Visit in the shoulder season.
Specifically, try to schedule your visit for when there won’t be traffic in the area: before school lets out and after school is back in session. This minimizes the vehicles of families and school groups exploring the area, even though it means there may be a lower density of wildlife near the most-trafficked areas.
We made our trip the day the roads opened after the winter road closures. This meant that we had to play our reservations and driving plans by ear due to the chance that a late snowstorm could close the roads and prevent our visit before it even happened. Luckily, however, the roads opened on time this year after a mild winter.
Step 2: Arrive at dawn.
We got up before dawn so that we could arrive at the gates just after sunrise around 7am. This meant that much of the large wildlife was still bedded down or was just getting up and shaking off the springtime chill. It also meant that we had the chance to see some things that also liked to get up early in the morning.
There is nothing which so diminishes the ego as the primordial fear that the call of a wolf inspires. Though recordings can give some semblance of an idea of the awe-inspiring power of a wild wolf’s howl, nothing quite prepares you for hearing it for the first time. When we reached the gates and stepped out of the car for a photo, an eerie, echoing howl filled the air. We froze on our way to the entrance sign as the cries bounced between the surrounding trees, so diffuse and insistent in gathering our attention that we couldn’t identify which direction they came from. My sympathetic innervation activated, my heart beat faster. I could hear my pulse pounding out the seconds between calls. It was otherworldly and amazing. It’s that same feeling I get whenever I find something new or see a new place–the fear of the unknown and the willpower to conquer it, the excitement of discovery and exploration, that can only be achieved with an early start to the day.
But to be fair, I’m a morning person.
Step 3: Drive in one direction to minimize driving time.
We prioritized our visit based on what we wanted to see: Lamar Valley and its wildlife, Mammoth Hot Springs and the surrounding thermal vents, and Old Faithful during an eruption. From there, it was a simple matter of finding the shortest driving time between those points. Because wildlife are most active just after sunrise and just before sunset, we drove north and explored the area at our leisure before returning to the Old Faithful area to see it erupt.
Due to the presence of the dog, we were unable to visit most of the trails, but because of the sheer breadth of the area we covered, I don’t feel like in the time that we had, we missed out on anything. With more time in the area, I would have loved to visit the trails and explore more of the eastern side of the park.
Step 4: Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Did we see a bear on our trip? No. Did we get to see the wolves we had heard howling in the morning? No.
Was I just as excited to see two yellow-bellied marmots in a territorial display, or a coyote diving into a gopher hole? Yes!
We got stuck in two very large bison jams while they were walking up the cliffs. We had some guy that kept following us around trying to see what we were looking at in our binoculars. Did we care? No.
On a trip to an area as beautiful as this, take your time, enjoy what you do get to see and don’t fear that you’re missing out on something. It’s as true here as it is anywhere else: Don’t sweat the small things that don’t go perfectly; after all, some of our best adventures happen when things seem to be going terribly wrong. When all is said and done, there’s always another time, another day, another trail to explore, and another chance to find something new.
Step 5: Leave before dark.
As much as we had researched this trip and talked to friends about it, I still thought ‘Oh, they’re overreacting because they haven’t driven at night much’ or ‘Oh, it can’t be worse than driving at home. There are deer everywhere out there!’ Really, though, don’t plan on driving at night. There’s not much that will shorten your life by a few minutes as seeing an elk running across the road right in front of you as you’re going 45mph and having to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting it. Disclaimer: this did not happen to us.
This also goes for travel throughout Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. When travelling on the state highways at night, you will notice that (a) there is a reason the speed limit drops precipitously after dark, (b) no one else is on the road with you, and (c) every curve you take will have a deer behind it. Disclaimer: this did happen, multiple times. In one instance, we were entering a small town just before sunrise and came around the corner to find two deer broadside in the road. Because of equal parts of my quick reflexes, a beautifully functioning ABS brake system, and my sailor’s tongue, we were able to stop just in time to slap one of them across the face with my mirror. In return, she broke my mirror, and we spent a day ordering parts and fixing it.
Yellowstone National Park is dripping with wild beauty which is accessible no matter where you are in the park.Don’t miss the amazing sights the area can provide just because you only have a single day to visit. Instead, let it whet your appetite for more adventures and discovery in the nation’s first national park.