PLANNING A TRIP TO YELLOWSTONE: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need

Post Summary: Everything you need to know for planning a trip to Yellowstone. Advice on where to stay, when to go, and the best tips for an epic Yellowstone vacation.

Planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park can feel like a monumental undertaking. The sheer size of the park alone is enough to make any seasoned planner run for the hills. Before we took our big trip to Yellowstone, I spent a lot of time scouring through different books and sites to craft the perfect Yellowstone itinerary. To save you hours of reading through different Yellowstone travel guides, I created this Yellowstone trip planner so you can go to one place to find everything you need.

This guide on how to plan a trip to Yellowstone will cover:

-When to go to Yellowstone
-Where to stay in Yellowstone
-How to plan a Yellowstone trip itinerary
-What to pack for Yellowstone
-Getting to Yellowstone
-Useful resources
-Tips for visiting Yellowstone

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Planning A Trip To Yellowstone

While it’s possible to wing a trip to Yellowstone, it’s not advised. The popularity of the park (over a million people visit a year) and it’s colossal size mean pre-planning a Yellowstone trip and itinerary is essential to maximizing your time there. The first thing you need to figure out when planning a trip to Yellowstone:

1. NEED TO KNOW
When do you want to visit the park?
How many days do you have to visit?

Best time to go to Yellowstone

In general, the best time to go to Yellowstone National Park is in the summer months of July and August. This is also the most crowded time of the year. The reason it’s often touted as the best time of year to visit Yellowstone is that the weather is nicer and, barring unforeseen closings, the entire park is accessible. July and August weather averages in the mid 70’s Fahrenheit and drops down to the low 40’s at night. That being said, the weather in Yellowstone can fluctuate quickly, so there’s always the chance of rain and thunder. We visited in August, and while it was crowded at the park’s main hot spots, we never found it hard to find secluded, quiet spots. If you want to get away from crowds, it’s absolutely possible in the busy months. The summer months are also when large Bison herds congregate in the valley.

While July and August provide the best overall experience, let’s dive deeper into the best time to travel to Yellowstone since it will be different for everyone.

Visiting Yellowstone in the early Spring (March, April) This is one of the roughest times to visit because snowy, wet weather will cause muddy hiking trails, icy conditions, and multiple closures in the park. Due to Yellowstone’s high elevation, it will still feel like winter, and snow will be present. Most facilities like hotels, visitor centers, and campgrounds are closed. The upside is the park will be crowd-free, it’s a great time to spot wildlife (babies in particular), and the waterfalls will be gushing from ice melt.

Visiting Yellowstone in the late Spring (May, June) If you’re set on visiting Yellowstone in the spring, the best time is May to June when more parts of the park will be accessible. A small number of concessions will start to open, wildflowers will begin to bloom, and wildlife sightings (bear cubs in particular) will be in full effect. Largely considered one of the best times to visit for its lack of crowds and the extraordinary opportunity for wildlife sightings.

Visiting Yellowstone in Fall (September-October) Early fall is a magical time in the park when the fall colors start to appear, and the Elk are in rut. Crowds will have diminished, and some hotels and visitor centers will still be open. Most amenities will close by the end of October. With cooler weather ranging from the ’50-’70s, you won’t have to battle harsh winter conditions – although an early snowstorm is always a possibility in Yellowstone. It’s also a good time to spot bears since they come down to lower elevations to fatten up before hibernation.

Visiting Yellowstone in Winter (November – March) Visiting Yellowstone in winter can be a truly magical experience, but the effort it takes makes it best suited for adventurous types. Most roads will be closed by early November, with the exception of the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the NE Entrance. Entering the park through the other entrances is only permitted via snowmobile, snowcoach, snowshoe, and cross-country ski. You will need to find a snowmobile tour or get a special permit to enter the park. The only lodges open during the winter season are Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.

Where To Stay in Yellowstone

driving time map of yellowstone national park
Image courtesy of NPS. The driving times are estimates considering traffic, road closures, and wildlife traffic jams.

Once you’ve decided when to go to Yellowstone, you can start to figure out where to stay in Yellowstone. Here’s where knowing more about what kind of Yellowstone itinerary you want will help you decide where to stay.

The reason? Yellowstone is gigantic. The main road of the park has the shape of the number 8. This road is called the GRAND LOOP. From the Grand Loop, there are five roads that offshoot to the five entrances of the park.

To give you a perspective, the time it would take you to drive the Grand Loop is estimated at 4-7 hours. That’s without any stops to see sights. The reason there’s a huge berth of time in the estimate is that wildlife traffic jams (from visitors stopping to look and from bison standing in the middle of the road), tourists looking for parking spots, and road closures often create hold-ups.

Staying at a hotel in the park

Since the park is huge, we highly suggest staying in the park to reduce driving time. That being said, if you choose to stay in Grant Village in the south and visit Mammoth Hot Springs in the North, it could mean five hours of driving that day! That’s why having a vague idea of your Yellowstone itinerary is important. Many people opt to stay in two different areas of the park during their visit to reduce driving time.

The most central location is to stay in the Canyon Area at Canyon Lodge & Cabins. A good option is to stay at Canyon Lodge and Old Faithful Inn, both of which are close to the park’s main highlights. Old Faithful Inn is a crowded spot, so if you’re looking for something a little more restorative and peaceful, I would also check out Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins.

Lodging for all 9 Yellowstone Hotels can book out a year in advance, so you must book early. If you cannot secure lodging in the park, you’ll need to find somewhere else or wait till it’s closer to your desired dates and check every day for last-minute cancellations. You can look here for all other Yellowstone lodging options available in the park.

Camping in the park

Hotels in the park are expensive. There’s no way around it. To make it worse, the price doesn’t mean it’s an upscale experience. If paying $400 a night for an average to below-average hotel room is out of the question for you, another option is to camp in the park.

We camped at Madison and Bridge Bay Campground to split up our time and loved it there. There are 12 front country campsites in the park, and most are first come-first served, except for Bridge Bay, Madison, Canyon, Fishing Bridge, and Grant Village. You can learn more about the campgrounds HERE.

Staying outside of the park

If neither of those options works for you, then your next option is to stay in an Airbnb or hotel near one of the entrances to the park. If you choose that option, remember that the drive from the park entrance to the park’s main road can be up to an hour-long, depending on which entrance you use. Staying outside of the park will mean a lot of driving time.

If you’re interested in staying in an Airbnb, you can check our post on the best vacation rentals in Yellowstone for every budget.

Entrances to Yellowstone

Planning a trip to Yellowstone means figuring out which entrance is best for you.

Here’s a breakdown of the five different entrances to Yellowstone. We’ll look at which Yellowstone entrance is the best and the cities you could find lodging in for each entrance.

West Yellowstone Entrance
Driving Distance and Time from Entrance to Grand Loop: 14 miles, 45 minutes
This is the most popular entrance and the best choice if staying outside of the park with plenty of restaurants, grocery stores, and gas stations to choose from in West Yellowstone, MT. Check HERE if you want an Airbnb near the entrance to the park. Or for a more conventional hotel stay, The Kelly Inn, is an affordable choice with free breakfast, comfortable beds and is within one mile of the entrance. If you’re willing to drive more, the Airbnbs in Island Park, Idaho, are about 25 minutes away from the entrance but tend to be nicer. We like this affordable and chic Big Springs Bungalow, located 25 minutes from the park entrance.

North Entrance
Driving Distance and Time from Entrance to Grand Loop: 5 miles, 15 minutes
Gardiner, MT, is the closest town just outside of the entrance and is a good location for visiting the Lamar Valley, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the Boiling River. It’s further from areas like Old Faithful and West Thumb Geyser Basin, but doable if you don’t mind a long drive. Gardiner is a cute, small town with grocery stores, a small selection of restaurants, and gas stations. The Arch View Studio is a nice, simple guest house for two people that offers all the same amenities as a hotel, but bigger and cheaper. If traveling with a family, the Gardiner Home is a beautiful rental with a deck overlooking the Yellowstone River. If you prefer a hotel over a house rental, the Park Hotel Yellowstone is a renovated rustic hotel with kitchens in every room.

Northeast Entrance
Driving Distance and Time from Entrance to Grand Loop: 29 miles, 1 hour
The closest city to this entrance is the tiny city of Cooke City, MT. With a population of just over 100 people, it offers a grocery store, restaurants, and a gas station. It’s a great entrance for access to the Lamar Valley; however, it is far from everything else in the park. The distance compounded with the road from Tower Roosevelt to Canyon Village being closed till 2022 makes staying at this entrance a less than ideal choice. I would suggest staying nearing this entrance only if you are passionate about animal watching and want to be as close as possible to the Lamar Valley so you can get there before sunrise. The Mountain Lux Guest House is a beautiful home with a hot tub and sauna to enjoy after visiting the park.

East Entrance
Driving Distance and Time from Entrance to Grand Loop: 27 miles, 1 hour
The closest city to the entrance is Cody, Wyoming. We don’t suggest staying here simply because it’s 53 miles from the entrance to the park. That means it will take you around two hours to get to the Grand Loop of Yellowstone. While Cody, Wyoming is a cute town with some interesting sights, it’s distance makes it tough for anyone looking to go in and out of the park every day.

South Entrance
Driving Distance and Time from Entrance to Grand Loop: 22 miles, 45 minutes
The south entrance is the gateway to Grand Teton National Park. While 10 miles is all that separates the two parks, there is only one lodging choice, the Headwaters Lodge and Cabins. Otherwise, you would need to drive 55 miles through Grand Teton National Park to lodge in the cute city of Jackson, Wyoming. Because of traffic and length, staying outside the South entrance is generally not recommended for anyone looking to visit the park every day.

Making a Yellowstone Trip Itinerary

When planning a trip to Yellowstone, your itinerary is vital to helping you create an amazing trip. Here are some key things to think about when planning a Yellowstone itinerary.

2. NEED TO KNOW
What parts of the park do you want to see?
How many days do you want to visit?

How many days do you need to visit Yellowstone National Park?

Figuring out how many days you need to visit Yellowstone is dependent on how deep you want to explore the park.

Three days at Yellowstone is enough to allow you to see all the park’s main highlights.

Four days at Yellowstone allows you to see all the main highlights with an additional day to go hiking or exploring more features of the park.

(RECOMMENDED) Five to Seven days at Yellowstone is for anyone who is looking to explore all the main highlights with extra time for hiking, fishing, or relaxing in the beauty of the park.

Not everyone has 5-7 days at their disposal, so if you want to get the main highlights, we suggest doing four days in the park. If you notice, we don’t suggest one or two days in Yellowstone. With traffic, parking, and crowds, it would make for a stressful and rushed time at the park. Do people do it? Of course. If you only have one day in the park, focus on doing two or three main highlights to enjoy your time there fully.

In general, it’s best to visit one section of the park each day to maximize your time there.

Best things to do in Yellowstone

Now that you have an idea of how many days you want to spend in Yellowstone, it’s time to plan out an itinerary. The best way to start planning a trip to Yellowstone is to familiarize yourself with the must see spots and their location in the park. From there, you can out an itinerary from there.

Here are the main highlights in Yellowstone that are considered must-dos when visiting the park.

1. Old Faithful Geyser
2. Mammoth Hot Springs
3. Grand Prismatic Spring + Midway Geyser Basin
4. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
5. Wildlife Viewing in Lamar Valley and/or Hayden Valley

Here are secondary highlights for those who have time and want to dive deeper into the park’s geothermal features.

1. Upper Geyser Basin and Morning Glory Pool
2. West Thumb Geyser Basin
3. Norris Geyser Basin
4. Yellowstone Lake

And then, of course, there are hiking trails, fishing, and lesser-known off the beaten path spots in Yellowstone. Rather than make this post 10,000 words long, I’m writing a second in-depth post with a detailed day by day Yellowstone itinerary on how to spend 1 -5 days in the park. I should have that finished in another week!

What to pack for Yellowstone

A Yellowstone packing list is dependent on what time of year you will be visiting. This shortlist is intended for June to September travel. While the weather will be nice (especially in July and August), you’ll want to be prepared for sudden shifts in weather. Also, due to the high elevation, nights can and will be cold. We visited in late August and experienced beautiful warm weather and bursts of torrential rain and thunder, with nighttime and early morning temps in the upper 20s Fahrenheit. A week after we left, a snowstorm came through, and the park was coated in snow. Anything is possible in Yellowstone! Pack clothing you can layer up.

For an in-depth look at what to pack for Yellowstone and why, check out our Yellowstone packing list post.

1. Bear Spray
2. Water shoes
3. Rain jacket
4. Comfortable walking shoes
5. Hiking boots
6. Binoculars
7. Sunhat
8. Sunblock
9. Bug repellant
10. Backpack
11. Trash bags
12. Reusable water bottle
13. Quick dry towel
14. Picnic blanket
15. Flashlights or headlamp
16. Clothing layers
17. Camera + Go Pro

Getting to Yellowstone

There are quite a few airports to choose from, but most are small airports with higher prices. The closest airports are Jackson Hole Airport located in Jackson, WY and Yellowstone Regional Airport located in Cody, WY.

You can also look into the following cities to see if they offer cheaper options:
-Billings Logan Internation Airport in Billings, MT
-Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Bozeman, MT
-Idaho Falls Regional Airport in Idaho Falls, ID

If all those choices are too pricy, many people opt to fly into Salt Lake City International airport due to cheaper flight options and easier flights.

No matter where you fly into, you will have to rent a car since there is no shuttle service within the park.

Entrance Fees to Yellowstone

Entrance fees are per vehicle and are $35. The pass is good for seven days from the date of purchase. You can save some time by purchasing your vehicle pass before you arrive.

If you plan to visit Grand Teton National Park during your Yellowstone trip and any other National Parks or federal lands in the same year you visit Yellowstone park, you might want to consider buying the America the Beautiful Pass. Good for one year, the pass gives you entrance to every National Park and more than 2000 federal recreation sites. A fantastic choice that can save a lot of money if you have additional National Park travel plans. You can learn more and buy the annual pass HERE.

Useful Resources and Tips for Planning a Trip to Yellowstone

bear claw marking in a tree at Yellowstone
Bear markings on a tree. Planning a trip to Yellowstone includes learning about bear safety.

Is Yellowstone a good park to visit with kids or toddlers?
Yes! We visited the park with our three-year-old, and he loved it. Yellowstone is a fabulous place for kids. If you want help with your Yellowstone family vacation planning, you can read our entire post on visiting Yellowstone with kids and the best things to do with them.

How is the internet and cell service?
Barely existent. While there may be spots that you can get a patch of service, it’s not something to rely on. I have T-Mobile, and my husband has AT&T, and neither one of us were able to connect. The park claims to have hot spots you can jump onto, but those were pretty unreliable. Be happy if you do get it, but don’t expect it.

If there’s no cell service, how do I figure out directions? I’m so reliant on GPS!
I know. Me too. First off, the park is very easy to drive in, and everything is clearly marked. That being said, we can’t recommend enough downloading the Yellowstone National Park app that has offline directions and maps to all of the sights in the park. We found it really helpful when looking for trailheads and picnic areas. It also has a wealth of other amazing information that is good to have. It offers an education into what all the geothermal features are and fun facts about the park. Download it BEFORE you get there. You can also get a Yellowstone map from the visitors center

What’s the food situation in Yellowstone?
Cafeterias, restaurants, ice cream stands, and grocery stores are available in all the park’s main sections. All are located close to the hotel lodges or inside the hotel. You can see a full list of dining options here. As is to be expected, food prices are higher than what you would pay outside of the park.

If you’re looking to save, you can bring your own food in and picnic in various areas around the park. Just remember to dispose of all food in a bear-proof trash can or take it with you to dispose of later, if none are available.

Are there gas stations in Yellowstone?
Yes, gas stations can be found in Canyon Village, Fishing Bridge, Grant Village, Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and Tower Junction.

I’m overwhelmed. Can I just go on a tour and have someone be my personal Yellowstone vacation planner?
Yes! We have never personally done a tour, so we can’t recommend any to choose from. But, what you can do is look through the tour service Viator to see if they have any that appeal to you. Viator is owned by TripAdvisor and has the same system where they collect reviews. It’s a great way to see what’s out there and if it’s highly rated.

Is a bear going to eat me?
Ahh, those cute but enormous bears. While the likelihood of you getting attacked by a bear is very unlikely, practicing bear safety and following all rules set by the National Park Service is vital to keeping not only you safe but the bears safe as well. To further my point of how unlikely it is, since the park’s establishment in 1872, eight people have been killed by bears in the park. You can read more about your likelihood of getting attacked by a bear HERE.

The best way to keep yourself and the animals safe is to hike in groups of three or more, to make noise while you hike, and to keep your senses aware (no listening to headphones). Also, have bear spray with you and know how to use it. We use this bear spray brand and so far have never had to use it!

Lastly, never touch, approach, or feed any animals in the park and stay at least 100 yards away from wolves and bears and at least 25 yards away from all other animals, including elk and bison. Most animal-related injuries are from visitors not following these simple guidelines.

You can read more about safety in the park HERE.

Should I visit Grand Teton National Park while I’m at Yellowstone? Any other spots to visit?
Yes! If you have time, a day or two at Grand Teton NP and exploring Jenny Lake is a great way to see a completely different park. If you really want to collect some national park passport stamps, make a long road trip out of it and head North to Glacier National Park. If you want a break from the National Parks, you can also spend a few days in the fun and hip city of Jackson, Wyoming.

Okay, I’m getting excited. Anything else I should know?
Yes, that old saying about the early bird catching the worm? It applies to Yellowstone! Get yourself up before sunrise and start your day early. Seeing Yellowstone uncrowded with the hot springs letting off a cloud of steam is pure magic. Get up early and beat the crowds. You won’t regret it.

Also, give yourself a lot of time for everything. Traffic and road closures are very commonplace. We dealt with a fire, an overturned fuel truck, traffic jams from drivers looking at bison, and routine road maintenance. It’s part of the package that comes with Yellowstone. Give yourself a buffer and go with it.


Here’s a recap and checklist for planning a trip to Yellowstone.

1. Decide when you want to visit the park
2. How many days do you want to stay in the park
3. What sights are on your must do list
4. Sketch out a simple itinerary for hotel planning
5. Book lodging
6. Buy necessary items for your trip
7. Download Yellowstone App
8. Count the days till you’re in Yellowstone!

You’re ready to start planning a trip to Yellowstone! Let me know if I missed anything and if you have any questions in the comments below.

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Pinterest graphic for planning a trip to Yellowstone

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