Yellowstone National Park is one of the most famous national parks in the United States. Each year, millions of people come here to explore its vast area and spot the dozens of wildlife that roam around there. When planning your vacation, it may get slightly overwhelming trying to figure out how much time you should spend there and what to do. This guide will help you with the important things to know before visiting Yellowstone National Park.
I visited Yellowstone several years ago as part of a cross-country road trip and spent hours trying to figure out everything I needed to know for how to plan a trip to Yellowstone. While I planned my Yellowstone itinerary in advance, some parts I figured out as I went when I was there.
I put together this guide based on all the questions I had and the answers I discovered so your trip will be easier. Read on to find out what to know before going to Yellowstone National Park.
1. Learn the History of Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park was the first established national park in the United States in 1872. It’s also rumored that this was the first national park in the world. The U.S. Army helped manage the park for the next 30 years until the National Park Service was created in 1916.
However, getting to such a massive park wasn’t so easy back in the late 1800s. There weren’t half the roads available that there are now, and they were much bumpier.
The Northern Pacific Railroad built a station in Livingston, Montana to help visitors access the northern entrance easier. This service was extended to include a stagecoach transfer so people could come from farther away and get into the park.
Eventually horse-drawn carriages began coming to the park and then automobiles. Over the years, the roads have greatly expanded, and Yellowstone now sees an average of four million visitors each year.
One of the main reasons this park has become so popular over the years is the unique geothermal features it has. Yellowstone Lake is over the Yellowstone Caldera, which is the largest supervolcano in the world. Half of the geysers in the world are also in the park.
2. Look at a Map When Planning Your Trip
When researching how to plan a trip to Yellowstone, the first fact to know is that Yellowstone National Park is in three different states – Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. However, 96 percent of the park is in Wyoming, with three percent in Montana and one percent in Idaho.
To get to Yellowstone National Park, you can fly in and rent a car. The closest airport is Yellowstone Airport, just 2 miles north of the west entrance. The caveat is that only Delta Airlines services it and it connects only to Salt Lake City. Also, it’s open only from May through September.
Other nearby airports are Jackson Hole Airport, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Billings Logan Airport, and Yellowstone Regional Airport.
Flying to Salt Lake City and then driving from there is a much more budget-friendly option. There are several entrances to the park, and choosing one depends on your Yellowstone itinerary.
However, many people decide to do a road trip to Yellowstone to find multiple stops to explore along the way. On my Yellowstone to Seattle road trip, I wished I had more time to see every part of the park.
There are five entrances to the park, so you can enter from three different states and directions. Yellowstone is also just north of Grand Teton, so you can easily visit before spending one day in Grand Teton National Park.
2. Spring and Fall are the Best Times to Visit
The best time to visit Yellowstone National Park is from April to May and September to November. That’s when the park has the fewest visitors and the weather is still mild. You’ll still be able to see plenty of wildlife during this time.
The summer months will have the warmest weather (in the 70s), but the weather also tends to fluctuate the most then. During the day, the weather can get hot, while nights tend to be cool and even chilly.
Summer also brings large crowds, and you can expect to be stuck in traffic multiple times during the day. While this shouldn’t deter you from visiting, it is one of the most important things to know before visiting Yellowstone that can help you plan your trip.
Many people don’t realize you can still visit Yellowstone in the winter, and I recommend it for a completely different scene with snow on the landscape. You’ll have virtually no crowds to compete with, but you should know that some of the roads will be closed. Make sure to double-check your road trip packing list if you’re driving here.
3. Decide How Many Days to Visit Yellowstone in Advance
One of the most important things to know before going to Yellowstone is how long to be there. How many days to spend in Yellowstone depends on what all you want to see. Some people just want a few days to drive through the park and see the main areas. Others might want to spend a week camping and hiking through the area.
In my opinion, the ideal amount of time to spend in Yellowstone is three to five days. This lets you explore the park without rushing through it.
If you only have one day at Yellowstone, you’ll likely want to see Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Yellowstone Lake.
5. Know the Entrance Fees
When figuring out how much it costs to visit Yellowstone, you’ll have to account for several different factors. For example, everyone must pay an entrance fee when they get into the park. However, once you pay the Yellowstone entrance fee, you’ll have 7 days to see the park (so make sure to keep your pass and receipt!).
The Yellowstone National Park entrance fees are as follows:
- $35 for a private vehicle
- $30 for a motorcycle or snowmobile
- $20/person on foot, bicycle, or ski
There is also America the Beautiful pass for $80, which is valid for all National Parks for the entire year. I personally buy this every year because it pays for itself if you plan on visiting even a few National Parks during the year. This is one of the things to know before going to Yellowstone that can save you money.
You should figure out where to stay in Yellowstone ahead of time. If you don’t have a reservation, you may end up paying hundreds of dollars for an expensive hotel. I recommend booking accommodations for a summer trip at least four months in advance. Camping is a more affordable option, and it’s on a first-come-first-serve basis.
6. Have a Car for Your Trip
There are is no public transport inside Yellowstone but its roads are paved and comfortable to drive. Going there by car is the most efficient way, as Yellowstone is enormous. You can rent a car near the park if needed from companies such as Avis or Budget.
A normal sedan should have no problems at all, but make sure that it’s a car that can handle the occasional bump, as you’ll probably want to take some dirt roads every now and then.
If it’s not possible for you to use a car, then there are plenty of tours that will take you to most of the park’s attractions. This is a good option if you’d rather someone else drive and show you the main parts of the park.
7. Plan Extra Time to Drive Through the Park
The main road of Yellowstone, the Grand Loop Road, is shaped like a figure eight. That means that no matter which side you take, you’ll see about half of the popular attractions.
Doing that should take at least three to four hours, although a safer bet would be around six hours. That’s only the time it takes to drive through and glimpse the attractions, not actually spend time exploring each one.
Planning a day with plenty of extra time in it to account for traffic is one of my recommended things to know before visiting Yellowstone National Park.
This guide will help with making an itinerary with which you’ll be able to see a lot more than just the standard attractions during your Yellowstone trip. When planning your Yellowstone vacation, always check the National Park’s website to see any current closures.
8. Wildlife Has the Right of Way
When researching how to plan a trip to Yellowstone, you’ll want to remember to keep plenty of space between yourself and the animals. If you’re thinking about getting close to that adorable buffalo, think twice.
Yellowstone is the animal’s home, so be respectful and give them plenty of room. There are dozens of different animals that live in the park, including elk, bighorn sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears.
Animals always have the right of way when you’re driving. That means you’ll have to wait however long it takes for that moose to cross the road. You should also drive through the park with caution in case an animal darts out in front of you.
The picture above is from walking around one of the “towns” in the park and turning a corner after getting ice cream. While the animals are clearly comfortable around people, that doesn’t mean you should get close. This particular area had signs telling visitors to stay back.
Another one of the essential things to know before visiting Yellowstone is there are bears in the park. That means you’ll need bear spray if you go off on any hikes. Summer is peak time for bears to be out looking for berries or other food while you’re enjoying your walk. While there have been a minimal amount of attacks every year, mama bears will attack if you accidentally get between them and their cubs.
Lastly, don’t get too close just to take a picture. That means don’t pull over to the side of the road where you might be so close you’ll hit the animal. You also should never leave your car if there’s a sudden wildlife jam around you and once again need to wait until it passes.
9. Plan Your Yellowstone Lodging in Advance
You have a variety of places to stay in Yellowstone depending on what you’re looking for and what location you want to be at during your trip. You can also stay in one place for the first few days and move on to another Yellowstone accommodation for the last part of your trip to see more of the park on your Yellowstone vacation.
Where to Stay in the Park
Here are some options for where to stay in Yellowstone National Park:
- Canyon Lodge – This is pretty new when it comes to accommodations in Yellowstone. It has 5 gorgeous lodges that could house hundreds of people. It can easily house large families in the suites. They’re also modern and fully equipped, which is perfect if it’ll be your base for several days. Book your room here.
- Old Faithful Inn – This is perfect for those that don’t exactly know where to stay in Yellowstone but want to fully experience the park’s vibes. This building is over a hundred years old, and its rooms have an old-timey feel about them. You’ll be staying at one of the most famous accommodations in Yellowstone National Park, so expect to pay a little bit more. This is more than worth it, though. Book your room here.
Camping in Yellowstone
Here are a few campsites in Yellowstone to check out.
- Madison Campground – This is one of the most popular campgrounds in the park. It’s ideal for those that don’t really care about where to stay in Yellowstone, as long as they’re immersed in the park. This campground has a great location, offers great fishing, and has plenty of amenities.
- Bridge Bay Campground – A scenic and relaxing campground, this is an ideal spot for those that seek a little solitude in Yellowstone. It doesn’t offer a lot of amenities, but that’s offset by having a lot of freedom and a good location.
Where to Stay Near Yellowstone
One of the most important things to know before visiting Yellowstone is that staying outside of Yellowstone is cheaper and generally has more availability. Here are a few options.
- Yellowstone Lodge – This hotel is in West Yellowstone and close to the entrance, and also has an indoor pool to enjoy when it’s hot outside. (rates start at $210 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
- Holiday Inn West Yellowstone – This hotel is only a 15-minute walk from Yellowstone if you’d prefer to hike in, and it has a fitness center. (rates start at $280 per night; book your room on Booking.com or Hotels.com)
10. Plan for Crowds and Traffic
I’ll be honest – while I loved visiting Yellowstone, the crowds were horrific when I went in July. When researching what to know before going to Yellowstone, I read about not being able to pull over due to too much traffic. When I left the park on the first night, it took 45 minutes to leave due to everyone going at a crawl over seeing two deer on the side of the road.
However, that shouldn’t stop you from going but rather encourage you to prepare yourself. Here are som tips I have.
- Start your day early – I can’t stress this enough. Get into the park as early as possible and go to the main attractions first. By lunchtime, I can guarantee hundreds of people will be at Old Faithful (one mistake I made as evidenced by my picture above).
- Leave the park late – I left the park around dinnertime when I got stuck in traffic, as did half the park it seemed. I recommend staying late by having dinner in the park and then heading out.
- Make hotel reservations in advance – If you’re planning a summer trip to Yellowstone, I would suggest booking your hotel in January. Everyone wants to visit Yellowstone in the summer, so go during the off-season or plan months in advance.
- Skip the main attractions – While this isn’t possible for everyone, you don’t have to see places like Old Faithful. If you’re short on time, I recommend visiting lesser-known places in the park.
These things to know before visiting Yellowstone should help make your trip smoother! This is a beautiful park to explore but also huge, so the more prepared you can be, the better.