USA Travel

Visitor Guide to Yellowstone National Park

By
Tim Gillespie
on
May 31, 2021

In this guide you will find the following:

  • Why visit Yellowstone National Park
  • When is the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park?
  • How to get to Yellowstone National Park
  • Popular things to do in Yellowstone National Park
  • Frequently asked questions about Yellowstone National Park

Why visit Yellowstone National Park?

Yellowstone National Park covers nearly 3,500 square miles of wilderness atop a volcanic hot spot. The park is mostly located in Wyoming, though it spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho too. Yellowstone is home to the world's largest combination of geysers and thermal features, including the iconic Old Faithful. Visitors are likely to see several animals, such as bison, gray wolves, and grizzly bears freely roaming the landscape in their natural habitat. There are more than 900 miles (1,400 kilometers) of hiking trails within the park, from short day hikes along boardwalks to multi-day backpacking trips.

Hiking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, biking, and a variety of winter sports are all activities that can be enjoyed year-round in America’s first national park, which receives roughly 4 million visitors per year.

Discover other national parks on these top hikes in Bryce Canyon, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains

When is the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park?

The shoulder season, from April to May and between September and October, is perhaps the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park. These months offer moderate weather and fewer crowds than the busy peak months of July and August.  

Visiting in Fall

With the changing of the leaves and cooler evening temperatures, autumn is one of the best times to visit Yellowstone National Park. Summer crowds will have dispersed since children are back at school, but the wildlife that calls Yellowstone home is still out roaming the valleys. Campsites will be easier to reserve and lodging will be more reasonably priced. Towards the end of October, some roads and other services will begin to close in preparation for the winter months. Hiking is great this time of year though one can expect snowfall to cover the trails at higher elevations.

September is the peak season for the elk rut, this majestic animal’s breeding season. Herds of elk can typically be found along the Madison River, a great spot to hear the bugle and to photograph these lovely animals.

Visiting in Winter

Heavy snowfall is common during this time of year and temperatures rarely climb above freezing. A majority of the park’s facilities and roads will be closed except for the North Entrance and the Mammoth Hot Springs area. Winter offers a more intimate experience with fascinating snowy landscapes and plumes of steam rising from beneath a thick blanket of snow. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowcoach tours are the main activities during the winter season.

For a truly unique experience, reserve a room at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge which is only accessed by commercially operated snowcoaches or snowmobiles.

Visiting in Spring

Temperatures can vary during the spring as the park awakens from its winter hibernation. Snowfall is still common, especially in the higher elevations. Park roads begin to open up by the third Friday of April, and by Memorial Day almost all facilities are fully operational. Crowds of tourists are not common during this time of year making a visit to Yellowstone National Park more pleasant for those looking to enjoy the wilderness with a sense of solitude.  

Fishing season opens up in May and bear-management closures are lifted allowing access to almost all of the hiking trails.

Visiting in Summer

With warmer temperatures and all the facilities officially open, Yellowstone hits its peak in the months from July and August. Roughly 50% of all visitors come to Yellowstone during those months so it is best to reserve your lodging and campgrounds beforehand. A visit to Yellowstone during the summer provides visitors with the opportunity to explore the park to its fullest, and even though there will be crowds, you will still be enjoying one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Before heading out on your next camping adventure, learn more with these camping tips.

How to get to Yellowstone National Park

The majority of Yellowstone National Park is located in northwest Wyoming, with sections extending into Montana and Idaho. It is approximately 4.5 hours from Salt Lake City, Utah, 1.5 hours from Idaho Falls, Idaho, 1.5 hours from Bozeman, Montana, and 1.5 hours from Jackson, Wyoming. The closest towns to Yellowstone National Park with a decent number of amenities are West Yellowstone, Montana, and Gardiner, Montana.

Yellowstone has five entrance stations, and several are closed to regular vehicles during winter. It takes many hours to drive between these entrances, so be sure to check the status of roads at the entrance you intend to use while planning your trip and before you arrive.

What is the closest airport to Yellowstone National Park?

The West Yellowstone Airport (Montana) is the closest airport to Yellowstone. It is located within a short drive from Yellowstone’s West Entrance. Please note that the airport is only serviced from early May to mid-October with flights coming in from Salt Lake International Airport.  

Other Regional Airports near Yellowstone National Park

Jackson Hole Airport

The Jackson Hole Airport is located within Grand Teton National Park. If you plan to visit both national parks, then this may be the best option. This airport is about 1.5 hours south of Yellowstone’s West Thumb Geyser Basin.   

Idaho Falls Regional Airport

Located about 1.5 hours from West Yellowstone, this airport is a great alternative to flying directly into the West Yellowstone Airport. Travelers may find cheaper flight options into this airport with connecting flights from Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Denver.  

Yellowstone Region Airport (Cody, Wyoming)

This airport is perfect if you would like to explore the town of Cody, an Old Western town that celebrates its rich history through daily summer rodeos and incredible museums. From Cody, you are 2 hours from the Fishing Bridge area of Yellowstone Lake. Visitors would access the park through the East Entrance.

Author’s Note:  I personally suggest flying into Bozeman, Montana, and then out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This allows you to see the whole park and finish the trip by visiting Grand Teton National Park.

What are the largest airports near Yellowstone National Park?

It is common to find cheaper flight prices when selecting major airport hubs rather than small regional airports. Luckily, there are a few bigger airports located within a reasonable distance from Yellowstone. The drive to the park might be longer, but remember, you will be driving through some incredible scenery of the Rocky Mountains.  

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport

Montana’s busiest airport, you will find many flight options and cheaper prices than most of the other regional airports in the area. From this airport, you are approximately 2 hours from Yellowstone’s West Entrance or North Entrance.  

Salt Lake City International Airport

This is another great option for travelers who are planning to visit both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The major airport is approximately 4.5 hours to West Yellowstone and just over 4 hours from Grand Teton. Additionally, for those looking to check off multiple national parks, Salt Lake City is within close proximity to Zion and Arches National Park.

Which entrance to Yellowstone National Park should I take?

Yellowstone National Park has five entrances - North Entrance, Northeast Entrance, South Entrance, East Entrance, and West Entrance. Each entrance brings travelers to different highlights of the park. When planning your trip, it’s best to know what you want to see and which entrance will get you there the easiest.

Later in the article, you’ll find an example itinerary that details a 4-day route when entering from the South Entrance and departing the East Entrance.

North Entrance

The North Entrance is the only entrance that remains open year-round. It serves as the gateway to the popular Mammoth Hot Springs, a surreal landscape of rainbow-like colors created by thermopiles and various algae. From here, visitors can access the Lamar Valley, an expansive wilderness area home to an extraordinary diversity of mammals including wolves, bears, and elk. Gardiner, Montana is the closest town to the North Entrance.

Cool attraction:  The Roosevelt Arch, with the inscription that reads “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”, is located at the North Entrance.

Northeast Entrance

This entrance is one of the more remote entry points. Travelers coming from the northeast side of Montana are first taken along the incredible Beartooth Highway before dropping into the remote outpost town of Cooke City. Closed in the winter, this entrance gives visitors access to the Lamar Valley where grizzlies, black bears, bison, and wolves roam. Allow yourself plenty of time to observe the wildlife from one of the many roadside pullouts along this section of the park’s road.

East Entrance

For those entering through the East Entrance, you will be brought to the heart of the park and Yellowstone Lake, the largest mountain lake sitting at an elevation of 7,733 feet (2,357 meters). Yellowstone Lake, dotted with geothermal features along its shoreline, stretches for 20 miles (32 kilometers) long and 14 miles (22 kilometers) across. Visitors can charter their own boat on the lake or bike the service road out to Natural Bridge. Cody, Wyoming is the nearest town to the East Entrance.

South Entrance

This is the ideal entrance for those looking to explore both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. If you are staying in Jackson, Wyoming, then the South Entrance is where you will enter the park. Jackson is a great town to explore with lots of options for dining and lodging, and not to mention a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts as it is surrounded by epic peaks, alpine lakes, and unlimited hiking trails.

City highlight: The South Entrance serves as a great option for those looking to explore more of the vibrant and trendy town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

West Entrance

As you drive or fly into West Yellowstone, you will immediately recognize that this entry point serves the park’s busiest. West Yellowstone is a bustling little town with a wide variety of dining, lodging, and activity options for visitors. The West Entrance is perfect for those looking to take in Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features. Lower Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and Upper Geyser Basin are all accessed from the West Entrance.

Insider's tip:  The West Entrance is the most popular entrance due to its proximity to the highest concentration of hydrothermal features.

Popular Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is packed with highlights and attractions. There are iconic geysers such as Old Faithful, herds of wild bison roaming the Hayden Valley, miles of backcountry hiking trails, and some of the best fly fishing streams in the United States.  

Hiking - With over 900 miles (1,400 kilometers) of hiking trails, from short day hikes to multi-day backpacking trips, visitors will find plenty of options to explore the park on foot. Some popular hikes include Storm Point Trail, Bunsen Peak, and Mount Washburn. Be sure to check trail conditions before hiking as some trails lead through wildlife management areas.

We suggest using Alltrails.com to research your hikes.

Further Reading:  Top Hikes in Yellowstone National Park

Observe hydrothermal features - Yellowstone National Park is the largest active geyser field in the world. Famous geysers include Old Faithful, Castle, and Steamboat. Check with park offices for timetables to view the eruptions. Hot springs, the most common hydrothermal feature in the park, are most accessible at Mammoth Hot Springs where a network of boardwalks allows visitors to view these features. Grand Prismatic Hot Spring is one of the most photographed features in the park.

Be sure to soak in the Boiling River where a natural hot tub is created from hot springs waters entering the river.  

Wildlife viewing - Visitors can expect to see a variety of wildlife freely roaming the landscape in their natural habitat. Here are a few of the best spots to observe wildlife.

  • Lamar Valley - Often called the “Serengeti of America”, these grasslands are home to bears, bison, elk, and moose. Wolves were also reintroduced to this area in 1995 and have since seen a great recovery.
  • The Tower-Roosevelt Area - This section of the park is known for its rockier terrain and vertical cliffs, thus creating a natural habitat for pronghorn, antelope, and bighorn sheep.
  • Hayden Valley - This is a prime area to see wildlife for the Yellowstone River cuts through these grasslands on its way to Yellowstone Lake. Bison, elk, and bears are common sightings.

Visit the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone - The dramatic, 1,000-foot-deep (300 meters) Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone rewards visitors with dazzling views of multi-hued rock walls and majestic waterfalls. Several miles of trails allow visitors to experience the canyon from multiple viewpoints, including Artist’s Point and Inspiration Point.

Camping - Yellowstone National Park has 10 campgrounds with over 2,000 campsites, making it a great way to experience an overnight trip. A list of campgrounds can be found here. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance. Reservations are recommended if visiting during the peak season. Beyond the developed campgrounds, Yellowstone maintains 293 designated backcountry campsites. Permits are required for all overnight stays in the backcountry.  

Fishing - Whether you’re an experienced angler or new to fishing, you’ll find fun and exciting fishing opportunities in Yellowstone. Seven varieties of game fish live in the park: brook, brown, cutthroat, lake, and rainbow trout, along with grayling and whitefish. Yellowstone Lake is a prime fishing area. For those who are looking for some of the best fly-fishing waters in the park, cast your line in Gardner or Madison Rivers.

Remember to review the Yellowstone fishing season dates and regulations.

Drive the Yellowstone Grand Loop Road - If you are attempting to visit all the major attractions inside the park, then most likely you will complete the Grand Loop. This route is one of the most scenic drives in the United States. The road covers 142 miles (230 kilometers) and creates a figure-8 throughout the whole park. Technically, you could drive it in one day but it’s best to take 3-4 days, allowing time to take in all the attractions within Yellowstone.

Frequently Asked Questions About Yellowstone National Park

How many days do you need in Yellowstone National Park?

Some say a 3-day trip to Yellowstone is suitable, but to make the most of your trip, we suggest 4 full days. This can be broken down as the following:

Day 1: Enter from the South Entrance. Hike to Riddle Lake before arriving at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. Then explore the Upper Geyser Basin Loop Trail and view Old Faithful. Hike to Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook near the Midway Geyser Basin. Pitch a tent at Madison Campground.

Day 2: Drive the Firehole Canyon Drive to the viewing area of Firehole Falls and take a swim to start your day. Then head up to Norris Geyser Basin, stopping off for a quick visit to Gibbon Falls, and then to view Steamboat Geyser in the Norris area. After Norris Geyser Basin, continue driving to Mammoth Hot Springs. Here you can explore more hydrothermal features or choose from multiple hikes such as Bunsen Peak or Beaver Ponds Trail. Relax after your hikes by soaking in the Boiling River Hot Spring. Pitch a tent at Mammoth Campground.

Day 3: Rise early and drive to Lamar Valley. Dawn is a great time to see wildlife in this part of the park. Choose from multiple hikes in Lamar Valley such as Trout Lake or the Lamar River Trail. After spending most of the day in the Lamar Valley area, drive to Canyon Village to sleep for the night.

Day 4: If you didn’t arrive in time yesterday to view the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone then do so this morning. Take a quick trip to the Brink of the Lower Falls or take in the view from Artist’s Point. After viewing the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, drive through Hayden Valley. Along this section of the road, you will see plenty of wildlife, especially herds of bison. Your last stop before leaving the park will be Yellowstone Lake. Either hike out to Storm Point or take a boat tour on the lake. From Yellowstone Lake, you can drive south to return from where you started or drive east and exit the park making your way to Cody, Wyoming.

What are the park entrance fees?

$35 USD for a 7-day pass good from the date of purchase.

$70 USD for a Yellowstone National Park Annual Pass valid from the month of purchase.

Is Yellowstone National Park open year-round?

The park is open all year, but not all of the roads are open to motorized vehicles during the winter. Be sure to check the park’s operating hours and seasons when planning your trip.

What are some nearby attractions to Yellowstone National Park?

Yellowstone National Park is surrounded by other beautiful wilderness areas. Visitors to the area can explore Guster Gallatin National Forest, Bridger Teton National Forest, and Grand Teton National Park. Idaho’s Harriman State Park and Wildlife Refuge, roughly 40 minutes from West Yellowstone, is known to have some of the best fly fishing waters in the country.

Cody, Wyoming is home to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Jackson Hole< Wyoming is a trendy place to hang out and enjoy the Wyoming lifestyle and vibe. Virginia City, Montana is a remarkably well-preserved old west Victorian gold mining town west of Yellowstone National Park. About 2.5 hours from Yellowstone National Park, Thermopolis, Wyoming, is home to the world's largest mineral hot springs and the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

Further reading: 27 Must See Parks in the Western United States

Can I get food, gas, and supplies inside the park?

Gas pumps are available at Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Grant Village, Mammoth, Old Faithful, and Tower Junction. Restaurants and snacks are available inside the park though there is not a full-service grocery store.

Do you offer guided trips in the park?

Yes. You can find out about all of our USA hiking and camping trips on our website.

Other article relating to national parks:

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Tim Gillespie
Tim is U30X's Thailand Manager & Community Builder, and has been living, traveling and accumulating experiences in SE Asia since 2009. He loves being in the outdoors, immersing himself in local cultures, and tasting exotic foods.

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