By Cami Sauder, Lisa Whitlaw and John Chavez
With Yellowstone National Park beginning its phased re-opening on May 18, it may be an option for summer travel.
Yellowstone National Park, mother of all National Parks at more than 3,000 square miles, is HUGE! It’s also the first established National Park, dating to 1872.
The park even has its own pledge:
“I pledge to protect Yellowstone National Park. I will act responsibly and safely, set a good example for others, and share my love of the park and all the things that make it special.”
The scenery is otherworldly with geysers and hot pots, but also breathtaking with mountains and waterfalls. You could spend a month there and never see everything that the park has to offer. You never know what you might find around the next bend, so sit back and enjoy the ride!
How to Get to Yellowstone National Park
There are many ways to get to Yellowstone National Park and multiple entrances to access the park.
You can catch a flight into several different cities each of which have an airport, which include:
- Bozeman, Montana
- Cody, Wyoming
- West Yellowstone, Montana
- Jackson Hole, Wyoming
- Salt Lake City
Jackson Hole in the state of Wyoming is by far the most scenic, as you are landing in the Tetons. Keep in mind that Southwest does not fly into Wyoming OR Montana (come on, Southwest, add these states, please ;-)!), but they do fly to Denver and Salt Lake City, though these are going to be longer drives.
You will need to rent a car if you fly, and you will be in it often, so make sure to choose something that comfortably fits your family, luggage and gear.
Driving and Parking
Did someone say ROAD TRIP?! If you have the luxury of time on your side, you can probably hit up a few different parks on your journey, including Grand Teton National Park, Glacier National Park and maybe even Rocky Mountain National Park, if you choose to make the drive in your own vehicle.
Just know that with a size of 2.2 million acres, it’s the second largest national park in the contiguous U.S. There are only six gas stations in the park, so take time to fill up your tank before you hit the entrance and then highlight the gas stations on your map! You never know when a little detour could turn into an all-day adventure, so keep your gas tank as full as you can!
The Grand Loop Road, an amazing journey in the heart of Yellowstone, is set up like a figure-eight, allowing drivers to take in at least half the attractions the park has to offer. Pick a side — any side — of the loop, take three to four hours to drive and stop by lakes, canyons, waterfalls and hot springs.
While driving, be on the look out for bison, bear, antelope, moose, eagles and wolves, ambling across the road, especially around blind curves. These collisions can be catastrophic for man and animal alike.
According to a recent study, “Within Yellowstone’s most heavily-traveled corridors, parking lots are overflowing, traffic jams abound and roadway safety incidents are on the rise.”
The busiest corridors are the roads that connect with Yellowstone’s West Entrance and with visitor attractions throughout the western and central parts of the park. This includes attractions like:
- Old Faithful
- Other geyser basins
- Canyon Area
- Hayden Valley
- Fishing Bridge
- Lake Village
Be prepared for crowds and bumper-to-bumper traffic if you choose to visit one of those areas. Yellowstone has yet to institute shuttle buses like some of the other national parks :(.
So, more than any other park, we suggest getting up and out the door as early as possible to experience the park.
Yellowstone National Park Map
The Yellowstone National Park entrance fee is $35 per car for a seven-day pass or $70 for an annual pass. You can also purchase a seven-day motorcycle pass for $30.
Senior citizens can purchase a lifetime senior pass for ALL national parks for only $80 or instead choose a $20 annual pass. Everyone in your car gets in for the price of the pass!
The National Parks also honor any active duty military members and dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, as well as Reserve and National Guard members with a free annual pass.
And, don’t forget, if you have a fourth grader, your whole family gets into National Parks free during their school year and the following summer as part of the Every Kid in a Park Program.
These three special passes alone are honored at more than 45 Federal Recreation sites throughout the United States!
You can also access Yellowstone National Park FREE in 2020 on the below days, but keep in mind these days will be even MORE BUSY than usual:
|January 20||Martin Luther King, Jr. Day|
|April 18||First day of National Park Week / National Junior Ranger Day|
|August 25||National Park Service Anniversary|
|September 26||National Public Lands Day|
|November 11||Veterans Day|
Yellowstone National Park Lodging
Lodging Inside the Park
Hotels, Lodges, Inns and Cabins
There are various levels of accommodations managed by Xanterra, nine in total, throughout the park located near every major attraction.
Lisa and her family chose to stay at Canyon Lodge and Cabins, which is centrally located in the middle of the park and has the most accommodations. It also has multiple restaurants, a grocery store, gas station and gift shops.
TIP: Reservations open May 1 for the FOLLOWING year’s season! Some people set alarms and book a year to the day before their trip :).
Yellowstone National Park Camping
Love roughing it? You’ll be able to reserve a campsite at one of five locations in the park or take your chances at one of the other seven first-come, first-serve campgrounds, which usually fill up by mid-morning. One nice thing that this link shows is a map with availability and if the campground was full the night before.
An RV rental through a company like RV Share, the world’s largest RV rental company, is another option if you want to “camp” but stay the night inside a nice vehicle instead of a tent ;-). An RV gives you both a “car” and an “accommodation” and is a popular way many people explore America’s National Parks!
Lodging Outside the Park
When visiting Yellowstone, you can also stay in one of the nearby towns outside the park. You’ll be a little further away, but the savings could be worth the extra drive.
These towns include:
- EAST: Cody, Wyoming, traveling west along 14 toward the park
- WEST: West Yellowstone, Montana
- NORTH: Gardiner, Montana
Yellowstone National Park Hotels
Here are some hotel options in towns outside of Yellowstone:
- Three Bear Lodge (West Yellowstone)
- Yellowstone Park Hotel (West Yellowstone)
- Holiday Inn West Yellowstone (West Yellowstone)
- Best Western Premier Ivy Inn & Suites (Cody, WY)
- Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel & Restaurant (Cody)
- AmericInn by Wyndham (Cody)
- Best Western by Mammoth Hot Springs (Gardiner)
- The Roosevelt Hotel Yellowstone (Gardiner)
- Yellowstone Village Inn (Gardiner)
Yellowstone National Park Vacation Rentals
A vacation rental is another great option when visiting a busy National Park like Yellowstone. Vacation rentals allow you to spread out with separate bedrooms, cook meals in the full kitchen, wash clothes in the washer and dryer and even enjoy fantastic views.
Just remember to factor in driving time to get into the park from your Yellowstone vacation rental.
Near Yellowstone, you’ll find everything from cabins and log homes to apartments and lodges.
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Yellowstone National Park Weather
Unpredictability lies at the heart of Yellowstone’s ever-changing weather, since most of it sits at 6,000 feet above sea level.
Prepare by layering your clothing and bringing a jacket and rain poncho. Huge temperature swings can occur from sunrise to sunset, and rain or snow is possible during every month of the year.
From living in the mountains, Cami says she learned that temperatures may drop below freezing at night and rise to 80 degrees in a matter of hours with an occasional afternoon thunderstorm thrown in there just for fun.
Putting on and peeling off various layers of clothing becomes a daily ritual in the mountains, and whatever you do, please don’t leave windows open during the day while you’re gone. Otherwise your car seats and the inside of your lodgings could be soaked upon your return! No fun!
When to Visit
Since July and August are the only months when all roads, facilities and services are open, it’s no wonder that the park sees more than 1.7 million visitors in those two months alone.
If you find yourself in the park at this time, try to venture more than 15 or 20 minutes from your car and the main sites. You just might find something off the beaten path that the regular tourist will never see!
Or how about pulling into the park at dawn or on a moonlit night to switch things up a bit and avoid the rush of the crowds?
Whenever you choose to arrive and visit, allow yourself a good three to five days to see all that the park has to offer. You won’t be sorry!
Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park
Speaking of all the park has to offer, you’ll find the list of things to do in Yellowstone National Park is lengthy and varied.
You can choose from Ranger programs, hiking, photography, bicycling, boating, wildlife viewing, horseback riding and even llama packing! Llama packing? Who knew?!
Then throw in all of the basins and geysers and waterfalls … well, you get the idea. You’re going to be really, really busy on your relaxing National Park vacation :).
If you have a fisherman in the family, book a guide to fish on Lake Yellowstone. Cutthroat trout are native to the lake, and if caught, have to be released. Due to the introduction of non-native fish, the population of Cutthroat trout has greatly diminished.
The non-native fish, such as rainbow trout, are free for the taking. In fact, the park wants them out of the lake to help preserve the native Cutthroat trout.
The best part of catching a rainbow trout is having your guide clean and prep it for cooking (be sure to tip for this service!). Take your catch to Lake Lodge where they will prepare it three ways with plenty of sides available for you to purchase to compliment your amazing lunch.
Yellowstone National Park Hikes
Remember to either pick up a hiking map at one of the visitor’s centers for the complete list of hikes or purchase the Falcon guide, Hiking Yellowstone National Park, to plan your hikes ahead of time.
Follow the rules, especially around geysers and mud pots. It’s shocking to see people violate clearly-marked signs warning people about the dangers of getting too close to scalding water or trampling sensitive ecosystems.
Stay on the boardwalks and avoid the temptation to take a soak in what looks like an inviting hot tub. It’s not. People have died going off designated trails.
Lisa recommends these hikes:
- Storm Point which is a good starter hike (look for bison)
- Uncle Tom’s Trail
- North Rim Trail
- Trout Lake Trail – a favorite hike!
- Lost Creek Falls and Lost Lake (trails start behind Roosevelt Lodge)
There are so many beautiful spots inside of Yellowstone that there’s no way to name them all, but here are a few top spots from the Go to Travel Gal team:
- Firehole Canyon Drive, Firehole Falls
- Gibbon Falls Overlook
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Roosevelt Arch
- Moose Falls (a son’s favorite)
- South Rim Drive to Artist’s Point
Thermal Basin Exploring
Yellowstone is full of hydrothermal features, including hot springs, mudpots, fumaroles and geysers. In fact, more than half of the world’s active geysers are found in the park.
Please practice the following safety rules, especially around geysers and mud pots:
- STAY on boardwalks and trails, keeping children close at hand
- DON’T touch any features or runoff, as it can cause severe or even fatal burns
- DON’T swim or soak in hot springs
- DON’T throw objects into any features
Lastly, note that toxic gases can and do cause illness, so if you begin to get sick, leave the area immediately.
Keeping that in mind, here are some thermal features we recommend seeing:
- West Thumb Geyser Basin and Fishing Hole Geyser
- Mud Volcano – Must-see Dragon’s Mouth (lots of bison)
- Grand Prismatic – Make sure to find the walk-up to the overlook and park in Fairy Falls lot to find this trail. It’s the best way to see this very impressive spring.
- Midway Geyser Basin
- Old Faithful – Beehive Geyser and boardwalk – This has many active geysers that were almost as impressive as Old Faithful
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Lower Geyser Basin – Fountain Paint Pots
Wildlife abounds in Yellowstone, and it’s one of the best reasons to go! Though a mother grizzly and her cubs or a herd of shuffling bison, may look “cute,” please resist the urge to leave the confines and get up close. It could prove to be fatal.
Last year, footage of a man taunting bison in Yellowstone went viral. Luckily, he escaped injury, so while it may seem obvious to most, it does bear (no pun intended) repeating to keep a healthy distance from these large land mammals.
What place will give you the best chance of spotting wildlife? Try these:
- Lamar Valley wildlife viewing area (be sure to start early!)
- Hayden Valley overlook (a Go to Travel Gal team member saw a pack of wolves through a spotter scope)
Where to Eat at Yellowstone National Park
You’ll be happy to know that you won’t go hungry while at Yellowstone! There are 19 locations in the park where you will be able to get some type of food. This selection ranges from marina stores to cafeterias to dining rooms.
In the mood for a picnic? Yellowstone has more than 50 picnic areas within the park. One of these is sure to be the perfect spot for a delightful lunch!
We all scream for ice cream! You know it’s going to be hot, and you’re going to be burning SO MANY CALORIES with all of the hiking you’ll be doing that you can splurge once or twice on ice cream, right? 🙂
There are not only stores which carry ice cream but several parlors all over the park. Team members recommend Mammoth Terrace Grill with its separate line to the left just for ice cream or Old Faithful Inn Bear Paw Deli to get your fix.
What to Bring
In addition to the normal hiking, camping and packing gear, you may want to make room for these things:
Camera & Binoculars
Don’t forget your camera’s zoom lenses and a pair of binoculars. Yellowstone’s vastness contributes to its great beauty, but it’s also a hindrance when amazing wildlife abounds, but wa-a-a-y in the distance!
Pull out these essentials to safely and successfully view extraordinary wildlife and the amazing scenery.
Take time and get off the beaten path, but bring your bear spray. Purchase ahead or rent a can for one week for $28 from the kiosk at the Canyon Village Visitor Center.
Wow, that’s a huge heap of information for Yellowstone National Park, and we’ve barely scratched the surface which is probably exactly how you will feel after your visit!
The good thing about National Parks is that they are preserved for us to be able to return time and time again. When’s your next visit?
Want more National Park tips? Check out our post on 7 Top Tips for Visiting Our National Parks.
- Ultimate Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
- Ultimate Guide to Grand Teton National Park
- The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park
- Your Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
- What to Do With One Day at the Grand Canyon South Rim
- Our Top Things to Do in Pigeon Forge if you’re headed to Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Plus, here is more information hiking in Glacier National Park from 10Adventures.com.