Why Visit Yellowstone National Park?
Yellowstone National Park is a huge 3,500 square miles, mostly in Wyoming the park spilling into Idaho and Montana on the edges as well. Yellowstone site on top of a volcanic hot spot which provide the famous geysers, hot springs, and other geothermal features. The park is full of wildlife including bison, elk, wolves, and bears. The geography of the park includes mountains, valleys, canyons and forests. It is truly a unique and wonderful place unlike any other.
The weather here is a huge factor to consider Yellowstone has long and snowy winters. December to mid-April you will find a lot of snowstorms and frigid nights. From mid-April to June the days are mild and the nights cool. In July and August the days are warm but nights are still cool. From September to November, there is occasional snow with sunny days and cold nights.
The crown jewel in the U.S. National Parks system Yellowstone is a very popular tourist destination especially in the summer. Winter visits are much more difficult and much of the park is closed. A visit from late spring through to early fall visit will allow you to see the whole park. Keep in mind the late June – August are the busiest months. We were there in July and were never unable to do anything due to crowds but it did make parking more difficult to find and there were crowds. We got up early to avoid crowds as much as we could.
I visited Yellowstone as a part of a larger Western U.S. road trip. Starting in Salt Lake City, Utah through Idaho, to Grande Teton and Yellowstone in Wyoming. We went on to travel across Montana then visit Medora, North Dakota and Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. We ended our trip with a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and flew home from Denver. If you are interested in blogs about other locations on this trip see the links below.
Grand Teton National Park – https://4ears4eyesforthemagic.travel.blog/2020/11/17/a-visit-to-grand-teton-national-park/
Mount Rushmore National Park – https://4ears4eyesforthemagic.travel.blog/2020/11/19/guide-to-visiting-mount-rushmore/
If you are visiting Yellowstone and you have the time I strongly suggest combining your visit with time in Grand Teton National Park. Especially in the summer, in the winter the weather can greatly your travel between the two.
How to Get To Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is located on the northwestern corner of Wyoming and extends into Montana and Idaho as well.
If you are planning a visit to Yellowstone National Park you need a car. This means you would either drive from your home or fly to a nearby airport and then rent a car.
The closest airports are:
- West Yellowstone Airport – West Yellowstone, Idaho (WYS) – Right Outside Park – Serviced from early May to mid-October from Salt Lake City, UT
- Yellowstone Regional Airport – Cody, Wyoming (COD) – 1 Hour to Park
- Jackson Hole Airport – Jackson, Wyoming (JAC) – 1 Hour to Park
- Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport – Bozeman, Montana (BZN) – 2 Hours to Park
- Billings Logan International Airport – Billings, Montana (BIL) – 3 Hours to Park
- Idaho Falls Regional Airport, Idaho Falls, Idaho (IDA) – 3 Hours to Park
- Salt Lake City International Airport, Salt Lake City, Utah (SLC) – 7 Hours to Park
Salt Lake City International Airport is the largest of these and you are likely to find the most flights, direct flights, and the best budget flights. But you will save time and the hassle of driving if you grab a connection to West Yellowstone, Yellowstone Regional or Jackson Hole Airport.
Yellowstone is also a great addition to any larger road trip of the West or the U.S. That is the context in which we visited.
We flew into the Salt Lake City, UT airport, rented a car and spent a day in the Salt Lake area. The next morning we drove from Salt Lake to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where we spent the night. The next day we were about a 15 minute drive to the entrance of Grand Teton National Park where we spent the first half of the day and then continued on to Yellowstone.
Where To Stay
There are several options for where to stay when visiting Yellowstone. You can either stay in the park or in one of the surrounding towns. A choice to stay in the park limits the options of your accommodations and is likely a pit more expensive but you are right in the middle of the action, availability can also be a challenge. A choice to stay out of the park expands your accommodation options and will likely cost less, you will also find these rooms easier to book closer to your visit.
You can also choose to split the difference and stay in a few different locations are you travel though the park. This is the option that I chose during my visit. We visited Yellowstone over three days. The night before we entered the park we stayed in Jackson Hole. The next night we stayed at the Yellowstone Lodge inside the park. Then the night at the end of our time in Yellowstone we stayed in Gardiner.
Staying Outside the Park – Yellowstone is large and you could spend several hours a day in the car, depending on your plans, if you choose to stay in one of the surrounding towns and commute into the park each day. But there are more varied accommodations, including home and cabin rentals as well as well known hotel chains.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – 1 Hour Drive – Check out my post about Grand Teton to read all about Jackson Hole
West Yellowstone, Montana – Right On The Edge Of The Park – This the closest of the out of the park locations to the Old Faithful Area. About an hour drive depending on park traffic. You have a lot of accommodation options here, cabins, lodges, independent hotels and some chain hotels such as Best Western and Holiday Inn. The dining options here are mostly American bar and grill food, there is also a grocery store which is great for grabbing food to bring with you for the day. There are also some additional attraction here including the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, The Playmill Theatre, the Museum of the Yellowstone, plus tons of outdoor activities.
Gardiner, Montana – Right On The Edge Of The Park – Located right at the Northern Entrance closest to the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park, about . The accommodations here are varied from cabins, lodges, independent hotels and some chain hotels such as Comfort Inn and Super 8 or you go a littler further out there are some more upscale resorts and ranches as well. Dining here is also mostly American bar and grill food, there is also a grocery store which is great for grabbing food to bring with you for the day. There are many outdoor activities available and lots of small shops to explore.
Cody, Wyoming – 1 Hour Drive – A bit larger than West Yellowstone and Gardiner but Cody is also further from the most popular parts of the park about 2 and a half hours from the Old Faithful area. I would not recommend Cody as a base but as a location for a night to stay on your way in or out of the park depending on your itinerary. Visit the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a reconstructed historic old west street, Plains Indians Museum, or the Draper National History Museum. There are also lots of outdoor activities. The accommodations here are varied from cabins, lodges, independent hotels and some chain hotels such as Best Western, plus some ranch experiences. Dining here is also mostly American bar and grill food, but there are more varied options here than West Yellowstone and Gardiner.
Staying In The Park – There are nine different options for National Park owned and run lodges and cabins that are actually inside of the park. They are located in various locations throughout the park. They offer stunning views and the best locations for easy access to the park. They offer dining options as well. Most rooms in any National Park lodge are not particularly fancy or luxurious but they have everything you need and are clean and comfortable.
- Be sure to take note of if you have a restroom in your room as some of the older historic lodges have rooms with a shared hallways restroom.
- Some of the lodges are only open seasonally as well.
- Some of the lodges offer cabin options as well.
What To Do In Yellowstone
There is a lot to do in Yellowstone. If you are just spending the day, passing through, or devoting a whole vacation there is a lot to fill your time.
Safety First the park recommends you carry bear spray and/or wear bear bells. Make sure you do your bear safety reading before visiting. Also note that you will not be able to take bear spray with you if you are flying but there are plenty of places that sell it in and around the parks.
I also advise that if you plant to hike you make sure you are in hiking shape before your visit. Practice with walks around your neighborhood or local hikes. Pick a trail that is equal to your skill level. No one wants to be soar and miserable during their vacation, be prepared and don’t over do it.
Explore Thermal Basins – The highlight of Yellowstone are its geysers and other thermal activity. There are several areas with raised wooden boardwalks that you can walk on to explore the areas. Many of which are a very easy walk from a parking lot of paved path onto a boardwalk.
Hiking – There are tons of hiking options in Yellowstone. If you want to hike make sure you have a plan on where. Check out the National Parks website, and consider picking up a travel guide, I like Foders brand. Plan what hikes you want to do. Another resource is alltrails.com .
Scenic Drives – For those looking to enjoy the park with mobility concerns or with a travel party that is not up to a hike just a drive through the park is very scenic. Most roads in the park feature pull off and scenic overlooks where you can park quickly and hop out for a photo and the enjoy the view.
Ranger Programs – The National Park Rangers host programs free to the public. They are talks or walks throughout the park. These are a great way to learn and ask questions about the park and the nature in it.
Be sure to check out the parks schedule –
The wildlife in the park is a huge highlight. Many of the Ranger programs focus on the wildlife. For some locations to best spot specific animals see the Parks recommendations.
Junior Rangers – For the kiddos the National Parks Service has the Junior Rangers program. Stop into any of the visitors centers or visit the website before you go to get started. They have booklets full of activities for kids to do while you travel through the park.
Climbers, backpackers, campers, fisherman, bicyclers, and horseback riders all have the opportunity to enjoy those activities in Yellowstone. There are also private boating opportunities, permits required. There are even a select few areas where you can get in the water and swim. https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/swimming-soaking.htm
In the winter while much of the park is closed down there are some unique opportunities such as skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.
Private Tours – There are a lot of tour options from many private companies offered if you want something more guided.
What We Did During Our Visit
We spent three days in the Yellowstone area. The first night we spent in Jackson and we then spent time in Grand Teton, read my Grand Teton blog for details on that. After a morning spent in Grand Teton we made the drive to Yellowstone which took about an hour before we were at the South Entrance.
We drove straight to the Old Faithful area where our nights accommodations were. We stayed at the Old Faithful Lodge in a cabin. It was fine for a night but I can not recommend them. It was loosely defined as a “cabin”, quite small, pricey, and not terribly comfortable. I knew this going in but it was all that was available in that area of the park with a private restroom which was a must for us. Booking a year ahead really does make a difference if you are visiting in the summer. I was booking 10 months ahead and thus left with limited options.
Once we were all checked in we headed straight to Old Faithful which signage told us that an eruption was due in about 20 minutes. There is lots of seating and additional standing room available here from which to view the geyser. The eruption was pretty cool to see and definitely something different. After Old Faithful we walked over to the boardwalk for the Upper Geyser Basin, an easy walkway built through this thermal basin. The scenery here was unbelievable with all sorts of thermal activity to see. I highly recommend seeing both during your trip.
We had dinner at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room in the Old Faithful Inn, the food was mediocre but food options inside the park are limited, even more so for a table service meal. The Inn itself was built in 1903 and is a must see.
The next morning we checked out of our cabin and headed off for an early morning hike. Starting with the Biscuit Basin boardwalk which was another boardwalk over smaller thermal pools. A great option for a less crowded boardwalk. Off the boardwalk is the Mystic Falls Trail, we hiked the 1 mile to the base of the falls and back. This was classified as a moderate hike and it was a lovely stroll through the woods.
Next we were off to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone which was stunning and I highly recommend adding it to your visit. We hike the canyon rim trail for a short while and took a ton of photos before we were off to our next destination the Mammoth Hot Springs. The scenic drive between the two was breathtaking. We made a few stops along the way.
Once we got to Mammoth Hot Springs this was another hub of activity as the Old Faithful area had been. We saw a bunch of elk lying around on the lawn between some buildings. We explored the Upper and Lower Mammoth Hot Springs Terrace areas. Note that though the terraces have boardwalk style walkways there are a lot of stairs. The rock formations here were beautiful.
After Mammoth we headed out of the park, past the Roosevelt arch and the North Entrance to the town of Gardiner, MT where we stayed for the night. We stayed at a Best Western that appears to no longer be in business. The town had several cute shops that we explored and we grabbed dinner from a grocery store before calling it a night after a long day. The next morning we were off across Montana to continue our trip.
*** We packed lunches and snacks that we picked up from a grocery store where we started our trip using cold packs, hotel mini-fridges and ice to keep anything perishable cold. There is food available at all of the lodges throughout the park but you could be driving for a while before you get two one. ***
Who Should Visit
I think as part of a larger road trip a visit to Yellowstone would be a hit with everyone. As discussed above there are things to see and do at all activity levels from skiing to a scenic drive. I would devote at least two days to Yellowstone on your longer road trip adventure.
I would suggest a trip just to visit Yellowstone to those who are active. Friends, couples, our adult only families who are active can enjoy some time hiking, rafting or another physical activity and then spend their evening at a lodge or in the town you are staying in.
For families with little ones I would recommend this for those with children elementary aged and up. You can tailor your activities to your kids and your family. I think for those with teenagers this would be a great opportunity for the family to unplug and have some quality time together in a place that it likely very different from your home town.
This is also a fun choice for a multi-generational family trip. Everyone can enjoy a walk on the boardwalks or a scenic drive, plus family time at a lodge or cabin. With a central home base or a lodge or cabin different family members can participate in different activities.
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