Allowing only 2 days in Yellowstone National Park seemed risky; traffic and weather could quickly turn our fun weekend trip into a time-crunched disappointment.
We got lucky. The mid-September weather was beautiful, traffic was minimal, and Yellowstone in 2 days didn’t feel rushed at all. Of course, there’s plenty that we didn’t see (I…did not think to check out the famous Grand Prismatic Spring) but the trick to a short itinerary is to keep it simple.
My other hot tip: download the NPS Yellowstone app while you have service. It’s a fantastic resource, with geyser times, maps, and information about what to see and do around the park. Most info is available offline, though you’ll need service to get updated geyser eruption times.
2 Days in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is the world’s first national park. It covers 2.2 million acres in the northwest corner of Wyoming, extending over the border into Montana. All of the park’s five entrances connect to the main route, which is shaped like a rough figure eight. (Get your map here).
The least-used is the northeast entrance near Cooke City, MT. I’m guessing that’s because it’s closed in the winter, so for several months it’s off-limits.
It’s definitely not a boring drive.
When entering from the northeast, as we did from Billings, you have the option to take the *very* scenic Beartooth Highway. It’s a little hairy—you’ll follow the switchbacks up the mountains and cross Beartooth pass at nearly 11,000 feet.
We saw our first bison before we crossed into the park, sleeping in someone’s front yard. Like a cat.
“Turn the car around!” I shouted. “For real this time.” (I have a reputation for spotting animals that turn out to be rocks.)
Jared hit the brakes and turned so we could gape at the bison, the closest I’d ever been to one at that point.
Day 1 in Yellowstone: The top loop
Only 2 days in Yellowstone does mean lots of drive time: it took 3 1/2 hours to get from Billings to the northeast entrance, including a stop for breakfast in Red Lodge. We spent the rest of the day going clockwise around the top loop, before landing in Gardiner for the night.
Wildlife in Lamar Valley
When you enter from the northeast, you’ll drive through Lamar Valley on the way to the figure eight. This is legitimately where the buffalo roam; in minutes my bison count went from one to over fifty. It’s a wide open space where visitors see wolves, bears, bison, elk, birds, and pronghorn.
This is a good time to mention the rules of wildlife watching: Yellowstone National Park safety guidelines say to stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and 25 yards away from everything else. These are wild! animals! Not for petting, not for selfies, not for putting your child on. Be safe.
Escaping the car at Artist Point
At TBEX, the superintendent of Yellowstone, Cam Sholly, spoke about what it’s like to run Yellowstone. He told us that 95% of visitors to Yellowstone never get more than half a mile from their car.
We were on the lookout for opportunities to make it into the 5% during our weekend in Yellowstone, and found it in Yellowstone’s grand canyon, specifically at the Point Sublime trailhead near Artist Point. The trail was quiet but pretty, and a nice, easy walk though probably not wheelchair-accessible. The advertised distance was 2.7 miles, but the actual distance was just over 3 miles.
Elks at Roosevelt Arch
Yellowstone accommodation is pricey and fills up fast, so we booked a room a month in advance at Gardiner’s Black Bear Inn, just outside the north entrance—if you’re coming from Bozeman, this is the way you’ll come.
Be mindful of roadworks: we were stopped for 30 minutes between Norris Junction and Mammoth. It was a reminder to build in extra time the next morning, when we’d be partially retracing our steps—to see Yellowstone in 2 days, you’re likely to do some backtracking.
We passed through Mammoth, a town inside the park built around the natural hot springs. This is a great place to see elk lounging in the shade on the tidy green lawns, paying no attention to the tourists.
The Black Bear Inn was basic (be prepared for thin walls) but cozy and right in town. After an easy self check-in we grabbed a huckleberry beer at Red’s Blue Goose Saloon, then stepped out to find dinner.
Instead, we found a male elk chasing a couple of females around town, right in front of Roosevelt Arch. He paused to make a mating call—also called bugling, a low crooning noise that stopped every human in our tracks.
The females were unimpressed.
I thought it couldn’t get better, then we sat down at Wonderland Café. Jared ordered the baked elk chili mac and I had a veggie burger—sounds simple, but both were phenomenal.
Day 2 in Yellowstone: The Bottom Loop
I wanted two things out of 2 days in Yellowstone: wildlife and geysers. Over 50% of the world’s geysers are in Yellowstone, a statistic that may surprise the uninitiated. What about New Zealand? Iceland? Bolivia?
Then we drove through Yellowstone’s geyser country, and it made sense.
Sunrise at Mammoth
We left Gardiner as the sun was coming up, which gave us a brief look at how magical the park is outside of daylight hours. I regret not walking the boardwalk through the hot springs; instead, we drove the short loop across the top of the travertine terraces, which was especially striking at sunrise. The drive is a good option if you’re crunched for time, but I think it would have been worth checking out the bottom.
The air was thick with steam in the Norris Geyser Basin, and that’s when I felt like a fool for ever doubting Yellowstone’s geyser density. The earth steamed around the road, creating the illusion of a fog that wouldn’t lift.
There are many places to stop, but we were conscious of two things. One, the corridor between the west entrance and Old Faithful is the park’s busiest. Two, we had a five o’clock flight to catch out of Billings. To get a taste of the area, we picked one short trail, Artists Paintpots.
This short one-mile loop takes you through bubbling mud ‘paint pots’ and steaming geysers, a fascinating summary of the geothermal activity in this area of the park.
We hit a wildlife jam on the way to Old Faithful—cars gladly came to a stop as two massive bison lumbered down the road.
Not quite Old Faithful, but close enough
Old Faithful got its name for being predictable, which means that visitors can plan their day around seeing it blow. Check the Yellowstone app for eruption times, as they change daily.
We didn’t want to get stuck in eruption traffic, so we didn’t time our stop at Old Faithful. It’s actually one of many geysers in one area; not the biggest or the most impressive, but the most reliable. If you only have 2 days in Yellowstone and you want to see a geyser, Old Faithful is your best bet.
We arrived to see a small spout, bubbling and hissing. After a few minutes—POW. Water came roaring out of the ground, surrounded by mist. It was the geyser next door, Lion, which is frequent but erratic. I was so excited that we got to see an eruption!
Back to Billings
We reluctantly bypassed the turnoff to the south entrance, which would have taken us to Grand Teton National Park, and drove along Yellowstone Lake to the east entrance.
Yellowstone Lake is massive: almost 20 miles long and 14 miles wide. According to our park map, it’s a good place to see moose. I had a few false alarms thanks to some very moose-like rocks, but no genuine sightings.
By using Billings as a base for 2 days in Yellowstone, you can enter and exit through different entrances. The drive from Yellowstone’s east entrance to Billings takes you past the Buffalo Bill reservoir and through the wild west town of Cody—a good place to stop for lunch. From there, enjoy the spectacular Chief Joseph scenic byway back to Montana.
Going to Yellowstone? Here’s what you need to know about fees and passes.
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