Yellowstone is America’s first national park and is one of the best. It offers geothermal hot springs and geysers, hiking opportunities, and amazing wildlife. Whether you want to go hiking for miles or just a few steps from your car, this park has something to offer everyone.
How much time do you need?
I have been to Yellowstone three times now and still feel like I have not seen everything. That being said, even if you only have a day or two, you can hit the main highlights. I recommend at least 3 days here to see the sights, more if you want a more in-depth view of the park.
When should you go?
Due to it’s location in the mountains of Wyoming, Yellowstone is covered with snow for most of the year. All of the roads are typically open from mid-May to late September/early October but be sure to check online before booking your trip. Most tourists go from Mid June to August so if you can go in the border months you will find it less packed, but don’t be surprised if the main sights are still packed with people. Also don’t be surprised if you have snowstorm in June, it happened while I was there.
If you are going to see certain animals, research when the best time to see them before you go. Bears are more commonly seen in May-June as in the late summer months they go high in the mountains. Baby Bison are born in May and they only maintain their rusted color until late June-early July. The bison rut starts in August and you will see hundreds of bison in the Hayden Valley. The elk rut is in September. In September, most of the bears have moved up into the mountains so you are less likely to see them.
Where Should You Stay?
Yellowstone offers many different opportunities for lodging. If you feel adventurous, you can camp inside or outside the park. There are hotels located within the park, which gives you the benefit of being able to get to things faster, but they are more expensive. If you are planning to stay inside the park, plan to book at least a year in advance as they do fill fast. If you don’t mind going through the entrance gates every day and want to save some money and enjoy more dining options, staying outside the park is a good option.
Outside the park, most people stay in either Gardiner, Montana or West Yellowstone, Montana. You can also stay in Cody, Wyoming but it is a long drive to the main area of the park. If you only have a few days here and plan to mainly spend your time exploring the geothermal hot springs, I recommend staying at West Yellowstone as you will be closer to everything. If you want the best chance of seeing animals, plan to spend the mornings in the Lamar Valley or Hayden Valley. Gardiner is much closer to these areas and is a better option.
If you want to splurge and stay inside the park, there are lots of different options and you can’t go wrong. Think of what you plan to do during your time here and stay in the lodge closest to that area.
If you are staying here for several days, consider switching hotels half way through. You will learn that Yellowstone is a lot of driving and this will help cut down on that.
What to pack?
While we were in Yellowstone, one day it was 80 degrees and we were in tshirts and shorts, the next day it was snowing; and that was in June. The weather is highly variable. I recommend dressing so that you are in layers. Make sure to bring warm clothes as the mornings can be very chilly. A rain jacket is a must as it can go from sunny to pouring down rain in just a few hours.
Don’t worry about bringing nice clothes, the dress code in restaurants is casual as most people go in after a day of hiking.
Bring a water bottle as well as they have places to fill your water in the visitor center.
If you are going in the summer, bring bug spray. When we went in late September and early June, there were no bugs and it was so nice. The next time we went in July, there were bugs everywhere.
Sunscreen is another must. You are high up in elevation and more likely to get sunburnt.
Where is there to eat?
If you venture outside the park, the eating opportunities improve greatly in Gardiner and West Yellowstone. I highly recommend The Cowboy’s Grille in Gardiner. That being said, there are lots of different dining options available inside the park as well. All of the visitor centers have a restaurant that is located near them. It may be something fancy or feel like a lunch cafeteria. The food is decent, but not amazing. All of the visitors centers also have a general store in them with essential supplies if you are camping or you want to do a picnic lunch as well.
Make sure to try the ice cream within any of the visitor center’s general store. It’s the Wilcoxson’s brand and has so many good flavors. Make sure to try to peach and the huckleberry flavors.
How much does it cost?
You can get a 7 day pass for Yellowstone for $35 at any of the entrance gates. However if you plan on going to Grand Teton National Park (which you should as it’s right next to Yellowstone) that is a different pass that is also $35 for 7 days. I recommend purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass which allows you access to both of these amazing parks as well as most other national parks and monuments. It costs $80/year and can be purchased at the entrance gate. If you happen to be over 62yo, you can get an annual pass for $20 or a lifetime pass for $80.
Download the App
My biggest recommendation is to download the GyPSy guide. They have audio guides that go off of your GPS and talk about upcoming sights and history of the park as you drive around the Grand Loop. There is one for Yellowstone or combination for Yellowstone and Grand Teton. The park is huge and there is a lot of driving around, why not learn more about the park during that time.
Make sure to also check out the Top 10 Must See Sights in Yellowstone that you do not want to miss. If you are going to Grand Teton National Park, make sure to check out the top 7 sights you cannot miss while there.