Last updated on August 16th, 2020
I have been fortunate to be able to visit Yellowstone National Park a number of times. Each trip has been different and each time I learned how to do things better the next time. I am sharing my tips for planning a trip to Yellowstone to help you plan your perfect bucket list itinerary.
A visit to Yellowstone National Park (YNP) is at the top of many people’s travel wish list, both in the US and globally. Yellowstone was the first ever National Park and is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and biosphere reserve.
It is never too early to start planning your Yellowstone trip, especially if you want specific accommodations inside the park. I suggest starting the planning process up to a year in advance. The NPS.go.\yell is your best source of information for everything you need to know about visiting the park that started “America’s best idea”.
Planning a trip to Yellowstone
To plan a trip to Yellowstone and the surrounding area I take the following steps:
- Decide when to go to Yellowstone
- Decide how many days the trip will be
- Look for flight options and decide if I will arrive and leave from the same airport or different airports.
- Plan the itinerary
- Plan accommodations and book
- Book flights and rental car
When is the best time to visit Yellowstone
- Yellowstone National Park is not open year round. Roads inside the park begin to open around mid April and are fully open by Memorial Day. Even though the roads may be open in spring, park services are limited until sometime in June. By the end of September, park services become limited again and in October, snow starts to close down the roads again. Read the NPS.gov Operating Hours and Seasons page for the most up to date information.
- July and August are the high season travel months in Yellowstone and will be the most crowded. Summer is also the time that the park district does road construction, which will impact the traffic in the park. Keep in mind that Yellowstone is one of the top five most visited national parks in the US.
- I have visited Yellowstone twice in September (early and late) and really enjoyed my visits at that time of year. The hotels, roads and parking areas were not as congested and the weather was very pleasant. By the end of September, the grasses, aspen trees and cottonwood trees were beginning to turn yellow, which was an added bonus.
- Don’t discount a winter trip to Yellowstone for a completely different experience. From about mid December to the end of February, there are limited services available inside the park. You cannot drive yourself, but the park offers guided snowmobile and snowcoach tours.
How many days in Yellowstone
- Be aware that Yellowstone National park is huge – 2.2 million acres or 3.5 thousand square miles in fact. To give you an idea of how big that is, the drive from the south entrance to the north entrance is about 100 miles one way.
- So how many days do you need in Yellowstone? I prefer a minimum of four days in Yellowstone park itself. I found that this allowed me time to enjoy the majority of the sights at a leisurely pace. Obviously, you can spend less time in the park, but you will need to be more picky about what you stop to see and do. You can read my post about my 4 day Yellowstone itinerary here.
- Grand Teton National Park is adjacent to Yellowstone to the south and has stunning Rocky Mountain scenery. In fact, this is one of my favorite national parks. It would be a shame to go to Yellowstone and not include a couple of days at Grand Teton as well. You can read about my 2 day Grand Teton itinerary here.
- Each of the gateway towns around Yellowstone (Billings, MT; Bozeman, MT; Cooke City, MT; Gardiner, MT; Red Lodge, MT; West Yellowstone, MT; Cody, WY; Jackson, WY; Idaho Fall, ID) also have a lot of history, attractions and interesting sights. If your schedule permits, allow some time to explore some of these typical American West locations as well.
How to get to Yellowstone National Park
- Yellowstone National Park has five different entrances. The majority of travelers choose to fly to get to Yellowstone. There are a number of regional airports that provide easy access to each of the entrances into Yellowstone National Park.
- Airports near Yellowstone:
|Airport||Airport code||YNP Entrance||Distance in miles|
|Billings, MT||BIL||north east||155|
|Jackson Hole, WY||JAC||south||49|
|West Yellowstone, MT||WYS||west||5|
|Idaho Falls, ID||IDA||west||110|
- Flights into regional airports can often be pricey, so also consider flying into a larger city airport. You may find cheaper options if you are willing to spend a little time driving. It is about 340 miles from Salt Lake City to the south entrance of YNP and about 513 miles from Denver to the south entrance of YNP. You can read about my Salt Lake City to Yellowstone road trip here.
- Arriving into and leaving from the same airport may not always be the best option from a logistics and time perspective. For example, if you fly into Jackson Hole airport, drive through Teton National Park into Yellowstone National Park all the way up to the north entrance, you will have an almost 4 hour drive back to the Jackson Hole airport. However, the Bozeman airport is only 1.5 hours from the YNP north entrance. Consider getting one way tickets arriving in one airport and leaving from a different airport. Sometimes, one way tickets are actually more economical.
- If you are planning to fly into and out of different airports, you also need to take into account rental car costs. One way rentals can be more expensive than picking up and dropping off a car at the same location. You’ll want to look for one way rental car offers that do not have a surcharge for mileage. I have had very good success getting reasonably priced one way rental cars through Costco.
Planning a Yellowstone itinerary
- I start my planning by looking at the map of the park and becoming familiar with the major sights. The park can be driven as one large loop or as two smaller loops in a figure eight pattern.
- The itinerary will depend on how many days you have in the park and from which entrance you start your tour.
- I like four days in the park because it gives me one day in each quadrant. This is what I did on my 4 day loop tour: day 1 – tour West thumb, Old Faithful and Upper Geyser Basin; day 2 – tour Midway Geyser Basin and sights up to Mammoth; day 3 -tour Mammoth Hot Spring, Lamar Valley and part of the Beartooth Highway toward Red Lodge; day 4 – tour Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley and Lake Yellowstone.
- On my 10 day Salt Lake to Yellowstone to Billings trip, I used the following Itinerary: Day 1 – Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin and Firehole Lake Drive; day 2 – West Thumb, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley and Lake Yellowstone; day 3 – Midway Geyser Basin and sights up to Mammoth Hot Springs; day 4 – Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley and all of the Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge.
- You can obviously spend less time in YNP but you will have to be more selective about what you see and how much time you spend at each sight.
- Keep in mind that higher traffic and full parking lots in the prime summer months will add time in the car. If you are not staying at accommodations inside the park, then driving to get in and out of the park will also add more time in the car.
Where to stay in Yellowstone
- For the days that I am touring the park, my first choice has always been to stay at accommodations inside Yellowstone NP if I can get them. This maximizes the amount of time I spend driving and looking at sights, rather than driving to get into and out of the park.
- There are a variety of places to stay in Yellowstone. The park has nine lodges with over 2000 rooms available in many price ranges and 12 campgrounds. While this sounds like a lot, this is a very popular destination and rooms book quickly, especially the less expensive ones. (I have not camped there so cannot speak to that experience).
- Book your accommodations inside the park as early as possible-up to a year even. For a fee, you can cancel up to seven days before your stay and receive a refund on your deposit.
- If you can be flexible with your itinerary, you may be able to find accommodations in the park at the last minute. I planned a trip in September one month in advance and about a week before my trip I found an inexpensive room at the Old Faithful Inn and at the Old Faithful Lodge – but I kept checking the website every day and sometimes twice a day.
- If you cannot get the accommodations you want inside the park, there are many options for places to stay in the surrounding gateway communities. The towns of West Yellowstone, MT, Gardiner, MT, Cooke, MT and Cody, WY all offer many lodging option. Again, book as early as possible to get the best prices in the best locations.
Things to do in Yellowstone
- Yellowstone National Park protects over half of the world’s geothermal features. You’ll want to see the geysers, hot springs, pools and mud pots. Each one is different and unique.
- Old Faithful, as the name implies, shoots off on a fairly predictable schedule (about every 90 minutes +/- 15 minutes). Besides Old Faithful, the rangers provide eruption predictions for five other geysers. Stop at the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center to see the current predicted eruption schedule, and if you have the time, try to plan your day’s activities so that you can catch one or two other geyser eruptions. This will involve some waiting since the predicted times can vary as much as +/- 45 minutes.
- Keep a look out for wildlife. Yellowstone is one of the best places in the US to easily see an abundance of wildlife. If there is a huge traffic jam of cars, it’s most likely because there is an animal sighting close to the road. The best places to see the animals are in Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley. When driving through these valleys, take the time to pull over into one of the pull offs or parking areas and just sit, wait and look. A good pair of binoculars helps.
- Programs offered by the park rangers are always interesting and informative. Refer to the NPS.gov-things-to-do website to see the wide range of activities in the park.
- The Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Yellowstone Hotel are historic buildings and offer tours. The Old Faithful Inn is a very unique building, and even if you are not staying there, be sure to stop and check out the amazing lobby with it’s huge stone fireplace and log construction.
- Besides the park service activities, Yellowstone National Park Lodges also offer a variety of fun activities from the various lodges.
Safety in Yellowstone
- Follow all park safety rules – you can find them at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/safety.htm
- Stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards from other large mammals like bison, elk, pronghorn, etc.
- Do not feed the animals.
- Don’t stop your car in the middle of the road when you see an animal, unless of course a bison is trying to cross the road, and then, stay in the car.
- The hydrothermal features are very, very hot. The water coming out of the ground is superheated which means it is actually hotter than boiling water. Stay on the designated boardwalks and paths so you do not become one of the statistics of people that get hurt each year.
- Do not throw anything into the pools, geysers, hot springs or mud pots – not even a penny for good luck.
- Hike in groups and carry bear spray.
- Yellowstone has very strict rules about pets in the park – you can find those at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/pets.htm
Other tips for a memorable Yellowstone visit
- While I am not normally a morning person, when I am in Yellowstone National Park I get up at sunrise. Not only does this provide beautiful photos, it also lets me enjoy the scenery without the crowds. Seeing the sunrise over Lake Yellowstone and the West Thumb Geyser Basin was especially scenic.
- While staying at the Old Faithful Inn, I stayed up late at night and watched Old Faithful erupt under moonlight. I had the viewing area practically to myself and seeing the geyser eruption under a sky full of stars was a memorable experience.
- There are many benches in the Old Faithful viewing area but they can get very crowded. You can see this eruption just as well from other parts of the boardwalk around the Upper Geyser Basin with far fewer people. Or consider the Observation Point Trail for more of a bird’s eye perspective of the Upper Geyser Basin area.
- To get the best views of the colorful rings of the Grand Prismatic Spring, hike the short Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail which starts at the Fairy Falls parking area.
- Early morning is also the best time to see and photograph the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It is less crowded and the early morning sun lights up the falls and the canyon which faces east.
- To see the wildlife, bring good binoculars. To photograph the wildlife, bring a strong telephoto lens.
- All the lodges in the park also have restaurants and other food options. For the maximum sightseeing flexibly, I stop at a store before entering the park to pick up picnic supplies that do not require much refrigeration: salami or jerky, hard cheese, crackers, fruit, nuts, chips, cookies, granola bars.
- One of my favorite spots for watching the sun set is at the Great Fountain Geyser on Firehole Lake Drive.
Yellowstone National Park is an amazing place to visit. The park is huge and there is a lot to see and do. Good planning will go far in making this an enjoyable journey. I hope this Yellowstone trip planner based on my personal travel experiences to this incredible park will help you put together your trip of a lifetime.
Thanks for visiting.