(UPDATED NOVEMBER 2022) Yellowstone National Park is one of the most visited parks in the country and a place many families plan to vacation at least once in their life. I first went there about ten years ago. Yellowstone is enormous —scattered between Idaho (1%), Montana (3%) , and Wyoming (96%). On my last visit, I learned more about Yellowstone National Park and what there is to see and do in a limited amount of time. Here are my suggestions and tips.
This post was written in collaboration with Hotels.com. Due to COVID travel disruptions, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.
Touring An American Icon
Yellowstone National Park, the oldest park in the United States, may be the best of the parks; at least many of my friends would agree. The abundant nature and unique geological formations at Yellowstone are mind-blowing. They are a sight for sore eyes and make for a memorable vacation. Every color in the rainbow is represented in some fashion at this magnificent park.
Yellowstone is massive—you could spend three to four days here and still not do it all. The National Park Service suggests driving the loop will take seven to eight hours with moderate traffic, which may give you an idea of how to plan your visit.
Visiting Yellowstone National Park
It would be hard for your Yellowstone National Park vacation not to be exceptional. The memorable landscape is stunning, and being surrounded by such magnificent mountains, geological formations, abundant wildlife, and forceful geysers is second-to-none.
Whether you choose to drive through and admire the scenery from the car’s windshield or hike some of the 900 miles of spectacular trails, it’s your adventure, so do it how you see fit. There is no right or wrong way.
Be cautious of animals and do not approach any of them. It is often hard to contain the enthusiasm when seeing a beautiful bison herd or traffic jam of pronghorn. Yellowstone National Park is their home, and it is respectful to admire from a distance and protect their habitat. You’d be surprised at how many people you’ll see jumping out of their cars to get up close and personal with wild animals.
Here are safety tips to consider:
- Stay 25 yards away from animals; stay 100 yards from bears and wolves
- Do not stop on or block the road
- Do not feed or approach any animal
- Keep food and trash in a bear-proof storage container
- Never run from a bear
Yellowstone Gate Info and Admission
Five entrances lead you into Yellowstone National Park: the North, Northeast, South, East, and West entrances. Montana has three entrances, and Wyoming, two. I find the South Gate to be the easiest to get in, which enters through Grand Teton National Park. Keep in mind, gates can close at any time so check and recheck as your travel date nears.
Tip: I had to call the park to get the latest gate closure info as I couldn’t find it online. In the event you need to do the same, here are phone numbers for some of the information (307-344-7381) and West Yellowstone (307-344-2876) or you can listen to 1610 AM on your radio.
The admission to Yellowstone National Park is $35 per car, or you can purchase an American the Beautiful annual pass for $80, which gets you into all of the parks for a year. If you travel to the parks often, this is probably your wisest investment.
Where to Stay Near Yellowstone
Reservations are strongly encouraged if you wish to stay in a hotel in or around Yellowstone, especially with the influx of people traveling to the park this year. Where you stay will depend on what entrance gate you wish to arrive at Yellowstone National Park.
Camping is another lodging option when visiting the national park. Yellowstone has twelve campgrounds to choose from. Some campgrounds may already be fully booked, but many are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you are trying to land a spot the day of your travel, arrive super early at the campground, maybe 7 AM.
Luxury campers can go “glamping” at Under Canvas, the nation’s premier glamping provider, ten minutes from Yellowstone’s West Entrance. How fun is that? It is pricy, but a unique way to enjoy your vacation with daily housekeeping, camp activities, a fire pit, and West Elm furnishings.
I stayed in Rexburg, Idaho, for my one of my visits, and Jenny Lake Lodge at Grand Teton National Park for the other.
If you are looking to enter through the Yellowstone West Gate, a few lodging choices are Best Western Desert Inn, Yellowstone Westgate Hotel, and Kelly Inn West Yellowstone. They will more than suffice for a comfortable night’s sleep after exploring one of the most desirable vacation spots in the world.
To save a few dollars, consider staying in Bozeman, Montana, or Rexburg, Idaho, which are a little less than two hours away.
Staying in Nearby Idaho
My first visit to Yellowstone National Park had road closures due to the Colorado fires. Everything was booked solid, so my friend, Sara, and I had to stay in Idaho the night before for the closest entrance access.
The Super 8 by Wyndham Rexburg offered affordable accommodations and was walkable to Red Rabbit Grill, where we chose to have dinner. Being in Idaho where potatoes are, the Potato Sampler seemed a logical choice. Yum, was it delicious!
Our hotel had free parking, wifi, and breakfast.
Yellowstone is open year-round. During the summer months, crowds are thick and abundant. To avoid the huge crowds, consider visiting the park between late September and early May.
You will need appropriate clothing and gear for possible cold weather, often even in the summer months. Pack a coat or jacket regardless of the season.
Keep in mind, Yellowstone National Park is not a foodie destination, so come prepared. My friend and I took a loaf of bread, peanut butter, and jelly to pull over for an impromptu snack when needed. It is also a good idea to take a small cooler with drinks in case you get stuck in traffic (or a bison jam). Cell service is extremely limited in the park.
Pro Tip: Don’t ever pass up a restroom. You’ll find some of the bathrooms have huge lines and some are still closed due to COVID. There is no guarantee you will find a bathroom when you need it, so be proactive and stop when you see the signs.
Souvenirs from National Parks
If you wish to purchase Yellowstone National Park souvenirs, the gift shop is allowing a small number of patrons in at a time. I waited for about ten minutes to get inside and then realized I didn’t bring my purse with me. The gift shop attendant reminded me I could pay using Apple Pay, so he saved the day. I walked away with a t-shirt and postcards. Don’t forget to have your national parks passport book stamped!
You will find Grant Village offers a great visitor center with a few educational displays, too. There are two places to eat at Grant Village, a gas station, general store, post office, public restrooms, and recycling bins.
Yellowstone’s Incredible Scenery
The Norris Geyser Basin is one of my favorite Yellowstone spots, one of many active hydrothermal areas. Follow boardwalks and easy-to-see trails to see fumaroles (an opening in the Earth’s crust emitting steam and gases), mudpots (acidic hot spring), geysers, and hot springs.
Vivid colors and almost magical-looking vapors make these appealing for the novice park-goer, and being able to be so close to them intrigues everyone. Steamboat Geyser is the coolest.
Excelsior Geyser is another park favorite at the Midway Geyser Basin, and Grand Prismatic Pool is the ultimate through and through. Yellowstone literature suggests that if you only have one day to enjoy the park, see Upper Geyser Basin and of course, Old Faithful.
Mammoth Hot Springs, a geothermal zone shaped by water and the ground’s slope, has stunning travertine terraces.
Enjoy Yellowstone Lake views (286 miles of them) at this high-elevation lake (the largest in North America), though it may be iced over from December through early summer.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is a wonderful place to get amazing pictures, and the best are from Inspiration Point.
From here, you’ll see the water from between the North and South Rim, heading toward Lower Falls, a 308 foot drop.
Yellowstone’s fauna is impressive, from black bears and bison to wolves, elk, moose, and coyotes. I have only seen bison in the park and around the outskirts, but the chance of seeing a grizzly or black bear is still fun to anticipate. Also, look up, as bald eagles are here, too.
One of your best chances to see bison herds is at Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley’s bison refuge. It is breathtaking to see them lying in the sun on the mountainous terrain. Maybe even more exciting when they leap over the guardrails as you snake your way up Eagle Peak.
Keep your eyes peeled during your entire drive and maintain the posted speed limits, as you never know when animals will just run out in front of you.
Fun Fact: Yellowstone is the only place in the country where bison (the National Mammal of the US) have lived continuously since the prehistoric times.
Old Faithful Cone Geyser
The most recognizable feature at Yellowstone National Park is Old Faithful. This predictable geyser erupts every 54-114 minutes, and with scientific precision. It has average intervals of 94 minutes (give or take 10) between eruptions. You’ll find Old Faithful in the Upper Geyser Basin, with several signs directing you to this natural wonder. Visitors walk down to the geyser where seats are marked off to sit, or many prefer to stand. Have your cameras ready as the water and steam show is quite spectacular.
There is also an Old Faithful Visitor Education Center to enjoy and learn from, several inns and lodges, a soda fountain, gas station and repair shop, a general store, post office, gift shops, restrooms, and a handful of restaurants in the area.
Enjoy Your Park Experience
Here’s wishing you and your family an excellent Yellowstone National Park vacation. Safe travels and be prepared.
Read more about this part of the country in these posts:
Adventurous North Idaho Road Trip