Yellowstone National Park is an area I used to beg my parents not to take me to when I was a kid. I would have rather stayed curled up in my room with a good book, imagining I was in Europe or New York or someplace rather than Montana. It took almost ten years before I realized how special of a place it was and to learn how to appreciate it. Last summer, Daniel and I went to visit—it was his first time. From there, we were able to come up with an itinerary that allowed us to see almost everything. Not bad when there’s so much to see in the US National Parks!
Here are some of the basics of traveling to Yellowstone, as well as a 3-day way to see all the major sights.
How to get there
When you are visiting Yellowstone, it’s likely that you are going to need a car in order to get around. The best place to fly in is the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN). Flight prices balloon in the summer, so it might be worth it to look into prices a few months before your trip.
Of course, Yellowstone is a popular road trip destination, as well. If you plan on taking a RV or trailer, make sure to book a spot to stay at a campground a few months in advance, as well. The ones around the park fill up fast!
When to go
Summer is always the busiest time in Yellowstone. While the weather is often the best during this time, that also means that you can face bumper-to-bumper traffic, packed attractions, and crowded hiking trails. If you can, early June and all of September are better months to have the park to yourself. You’ll also have a higher chance of getting a camping permit or booking a room at one of the lodges.
How to get around
The best way to get around the park is by taking a car. There are a few tour services that can be helpful if you aren’t comfortable navigating the park on your own, but the best way to see a lot and on your terms is by having a car. You can rent one at the Bozeman airport, or in Jackson Hole if you are coming from that direction. Prices can be high mid-summer—I found options for around $175 not including gas and insurance.
Some of the hotels in the area might also offer tour options.
Where to stay
There are plenty of lodges, RV parks, and hotels surrounding the park. However, these are often booked up to a year in advance, so getting on accommodations as soon as possible is highly recommended. Here are a few I think offer great value, close proximity, and capture the spirit of the area:
890 Buttermilk Creek Road, West Yellowstone, MT 59758
+1 888 496 1148
With several different locations, Under Canvas offers a great glamping experience for a reasonable price. Only about ten minutes away from the West Entrance, it offers beautiful scenery and a nice spot to come back to at the end of the day. It also has some great Instagram photo opportunities.
1545 Targhee Pass Hwy, West Yellowstone, MT 59758
+1 406 646 7662
This spot offers several camping locations and spots for RVs and trailers. With an included restaurant and store, you don’t have to worry about missing any amenities or journeying from your campsite to find food. Public bathrooms are clean and staff is helpful and informative on what is going on in the park.
100 Grassy Lake Rd, Moran, WY 83013
+1 307 543 2861
Near the East Entrance, this hotel provides access to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. It has affordable rates and options for both camping and actual rooms. A restaurant and breakfast is also available to help you start your day out on the right foot.
It is also possible to stay within the park, but you will want to look into finding permits months in advance. You can see what is available on the Yellowstone National Park website.
Yellowstone National Park itinerary
This itinerary is built on the premise that you are staying on the West Entrance of the park. It can be completed in reverse if you are staying on the east side.
Day 1—Paint Pots and Geysers
Today is all about seeing the geological wonders of the park! First, you’ll drive south to the famous (and smelly) paint pots. Take a walk along the boardwalk, but be careful not to step in them. These “paint pots” are formed from openings in the earth’s crust and the hot air that is released to the surface.
After exploring some of the muckier areas, you’ll want to take a stop at the Grand Prismatic Spring. It’s one of the highlights of the west side of the park, and it also offers a number of trails nearby you can explore if you have the extra time. Parking can be a little tricky, so you might want to find a spot a little bit away and walk to the area where the paths are located. Again, remember to stay solely on the boardwalks so you don’t end up burning yourself!
Old Faithful provides some natural fireworks at the end of the day. There is an interval of about an hour and a half between each eruption, so you’ll want to take a look at the schedule so you can get there early enough to grab a seat.
Day 2—Yellowstone Lake and Canyon
Yellowstone Lake sits at the center of the park. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a picnic lunch or to do some animal spotting. Elk, deer, and the occasional bear wander down here for a drink, while osprey and eagles circle ahead looking for fish. For a short, easy hike, check out the Yellowstone Lake Overlook Trail.
Arrive at Yellowstone Canyon later in the evening to see the sun set on this particularly beautiful view. If you choose to stop by in the morning or afternoon, you might also want to attempt the newly reopened Uncle Tom’s Trail. You have 300 steps down and up for a gorgeous view of the canyon’s most famous waterfall.
On the way back to your campsite, journey through Hayden Valley. This is most likely the area where you will be able to spot some bison, elk, and other animals. It also offers a panoramic worth stopping for.
Day 3—Hiking and Mammoth Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs is located at the very north of the park. You might want to rise and shine early in order to enjoy a morning hike and to relax in the hot springs after. Start out at the Albright Visitor Center in order to get a map of some of the trails. All routes in this area offer interesting views of the terraces.
Be warned that access is limited to vehicles larger than a compact car, so you’ll want to park farther down at the visitor center before making the hike up.
A note on wildlife
Wildlife spotting is one of the best reasons to visit the park, but it’s important to keep in mind that you should follow certain rules if you happen to encounter it. Do not leave your car, approach any types of animals, or feed them.
Make sure to bring bear spray while hiking, since both black and grizzly bears are a common sight in the park. You might also want to read up on which methods you should take when encountering a bear.
Have you been to Yellowstone? Would you include any hikes for this itinerary?