A Yellowstone Vacation! Most Americans grow up with a handful of domestic destinations that are sort of a must-see, with perhaps these as the top five: New York City, Disney World (or Disney Land), Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Park.
Yet we are often surprised by how many adults we meet who either have never been to Yellowstone or traveled there as a kid and don’t remember the experience much. Part of that is because planning a Yellowstone vacation is not easy. We are here to help with this guide on How to Plan a Yellowstone Vacation!
When to Travel
The vast majority of Yellowstone visitors arrive during the summer months.
Our Recommendation: We understand many travelers are restricted to summer because of school schedules. If you are not, we highly recommend traveling to Yellowstone in the shoulder seasons of May, early June, the second half of September, or October. Even the second half of August tends to get fewer visitors than earlier in the summer. But also keep in mind:
- In June you will have a lot more daylight hours than you will in September and October.
- There is a risk of snow in May, June, September and October and nights will certainly be cool or cold.
- Winter in Yellowstone is also beautiful – see our Yellowstone Winter Vacation Guide.
Accommodations in and around Yellowstone are limited and can fill up quickly, especially in the summer. Your options include:
- National Park Lodges: The private company Xanterra operates nine lodges in the park with over 2,000 hotel rooms and reservations can be made via their Yellowstone National Park Lodges website. Prices are not inexpensive but it is certainly convenient to stay in the park. The lodges are spread throughout the park, so one option is to pick your lodge based on your planned activities. However, it might simply be a matter of availability for your dates.
- National Park Campgrounds: There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone, five of which are reservable in advance by Yellowstone National Park Lodges and seven of which are first-come, first-served. The National Park Service updates information on availability, which is useful to see when campgrounds are filling up.
- Out-of-Park Lodging: There are “gateway” towns to the west (West Yellowstone), north (Gardiner), northeast (Cooke City and Red Lodge), and east (Cody). In these towns, you’ll have options for camping, private homestays, and hotels. Prices can be lower but the obvious negative is you will need to do a bit more driving.
Our Recommendation: It is worth it to stay in the park, whether you are camping or overnighting in lodges. Book your lodging as far in advance as possible and don’t worry too much about which lodge you are getting. If you are camping and planning on using one of the seven campgrounds that cannot be reserved, get there before noon.
Getting There and Getting Around
You will need a car in Yellowstone. So plan on either driving to the park or flying and renting a car.
If you are flying, the nearby airport with the most flights is the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (airport code BZN), less than 1.5 hours from the north entrance to the park. You might also check flight costs to the Billings Logan International Airport (BIL), which is three hours from the northeast entrance to the park via the cute town of Red Lodge (where our headquarters are located) and the Beartooth Pass. Flying into the Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Wyoming is another option as you can visit Grand Teton National Park on the way up to Yellowstone. Finally, Cody (COD) has an airport but flights are rather limited.
Our Recommendation: If you are flying to the area, check flight prices for an “open jaw” flight that will allow you to fly into (or out of) Bozeman and then out of Billings or Jackson, allowing you to cover more ground without backtracking.
What To See
Oh my goodness. There is so much to see and do in Yellowstone it is hard to know where to start.
- Geologic and Natural Features: The main activity in the park is to drive to the many, many geologic and natural features such as mudpots and geysers, lakes and waterfalls. These are all worth doing but are also the most popular destinations in the park, so quite crowded in the summer.
- Visitor Centers: There are ten visitor and information centers around the park. Some of these are essentially really nice museums – free with your park entrance pass – and are well worth spending time.
- Ranger Programs: Ranger programs can be some of the best learning opportunities in the park. There are free programs offered much of the year in many different locations. Check schedules at the visitor centers and campgrounds.
- Hiking: We at the Travel Montana love being active outdoors and hiking is one of the best ways to experience Yellowstone. There are over 900 miles of hiking trails in the park, yet far too few visitors ever get off the boardwalks.
- Wildlife Viewing: The wildlife is one of the highlights of Yellowstone. You will see bison in the park if you spend a full day there but it is amazing to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear, wolf, or moose as well. The keys to success are a) go out in the early morning or evening when animals are more active, b) visit areas like the Lamar Valley that are popular with animals, and c) be patient and keep your eyes peeled.
Our Recommendation: Don’t just do the normal Yellowstone visit of driving the “Grand Loop” and stopping at all the important sites. Yes, you should visit these but limiting yourself to the park highlights can start to feel more like a To Do List than a vacation. Instead, choose a few areas of the park and spend more time in each, seeing both the famous sights as well as getting off the beaten path.
How Long to Stay in Yellowstone
Far, far too many visitors spend one or two days in Yellowstone and then move on as part of a “western” vacation. This is the best national park in the world so please make sure to spend enough time in Yellowstone when you visit! A visit that is too short will feel rushed and, frankly, can actually ruin the fun – especially for kids who want to spend time skipping rocks and walking on logs.
Our Recommendation: You should spend four to five days in Yellowstone to adequately see the sites.
Avoiding the Yellowstone Crowds
We love Yellowstone. We do not love the Yellowstone crowds.
However, the truth is, those of us who have been to Yellowstone many times over the years are more likely to get frustrated with crowds on roadways, on boardwalks, and in parking lots. In fact, according to a National Park Service survey, most visitors to the park rate their trip very positively and do not express frustration with crowds. Nevertheless, we think you will appreciate the park more and have a better vacation if you take a few steps to avoid the biggest crowds. Some of these we have already discussed above but they are worth repeating.
- Pick a shoulder season date or, if you have to travel during the summer, avoid holidays and weekends.
- Choose out-of-the-way areas to visit in addition to the main sites.
- Get up early and stay out in the evening. Not only are these the best times to see animals, they are often the best times to visit the geologic features without crowds.
- Pick up grocery items for picnics so you won’t have to plan to be somewhere at meal times. When everyone else is congregated at the restaurants to eat, you may find yourself with places all to yourself!
- Get off the boardwalks (but stay on the trails!). It often seems as if 99% of park visitors never leave the pavement or boardwalks around the geologic features. Hiking just a mile down a trail will get you into a different world.
Yellowstone Vacations With Travel Montana
You can certainly visit Yellowstone on your own. So why should you consider traveling to Yellowstone with us? We know the park and know where and when to go. We take you off the beaten path and away from the crowds. And we do all the planning for you, turning your vacation from stressful to relaxing.
You can’t come to us for a bus tour. Instead, consider one of these Yellowstone Vacations:
Main Image Credit: Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development