Starting to plan a trip to Yellowstone National Park? This guide is your one stop shop for lodging, itinerary planning, packing, and planning hikes.
I am so so excited about this new series I am launching on the blog! Michael and I have been lucky enough to travel to several national parks and we have a goal to go to all 63 national parks in our lifetime. I know national parks can be a little hard to plan for, because let’s be real… The NPS website isn’t super helpful. There are tons of itineraries out there, but what about a guide?
In this series, I’ll be sharing allllll about how to get to the parks, what to pack, where to stay, and what to do. I will have the best hikes and hidden gems as well! I hope this can be a one stop shop resource for travelers as you make your national park travel plans! First up, one of our favorite parks (so far), Yellowstone National Park! Read along to plan a trip to Yellowstone.
We traveled to Yellowstone in September 2020 and we couldn’t have asked for better weather! It was warm in the day and cool in the night. The only downside I can think of is that grizzly bears are moving to higher elevations to prepare for hibernation, so there were none in sight. However, we did see wolves so I’ll call it a win. Be prepared for lots of walking, hiking, and obviously being outside. Read on to get fully prepared and plan for your trip to Yellowstone National Park!
Table of Contents
What to Know before You Go
Yellowstone is America’s first national park, so there is a lot of rich history within the park. You can choose to go on guided tours once you get there, but if you’re like me you like learning as you go. Here are a few interesting facts and tips about the park:
- Yellowstone was established in 1872. The government decided to declare it a national park to preserve the geologic structures and wildlife as it was rapidly deteriorating from human abuse.
- Bears used to be a tourist attraction in Yellowstone! Once people figured out grizzly bears would dig through dumpsters, the park placed bleachers around them to allow people to watch bears chow down. This is one of the reasons grizzly bears began to attack humans… Once they associate humans with food, they can become aggressive quickly. Pack your food carefully and leave no trace!
- Yellowstone is over 2 million acres of land and is in 3 states: Montana, Idaho, and the majority in Wyoming.
- Yellowstone was formed by a super volcano eruption years and years (and years) ago. The bowl that formed all the unique geothermal features is called the Yellowstone Caldera.
- The weather can be severe during certain parts of the year, so the park is closed for much of the winter. Make sure you check out the website for operating hours and plan your trip accordingly.
- Don’t hike without bear spray! In the past 10 years, there have been 9 bear attacks. Of these, 6 were deterred with bear spray and smart practices. The other 3 were fatal and caused by unpreparedness.
How to Get to Yellowstone
Yellowstone is located in basically the middle of nowhere. But it’s pretty easy to get here, thanks to it being a major national park and all. I would recommend renting a car if you fly in, because that’s going to basically be your only way to navigate the park. If you’re looking to fly, you have a couple options:
Bozeman airport (95 miles from Yellowstone)
Jackson Hole airport (90 miles from Yellowstone)
Salt Lake City airport (271 miles from Yellowstone)
We decided to fly into Salt Lake City and road trip to Yellowstone. This way, we got to explore a bit of Utah, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone! The drive is about 6 hours. From Jackson Hole, it’s about 2 hours 15 minutes depending on which entrance you want to go through and from Montana it’s about 2 hours.
What to Pack for Yellowstone National Park
I recommend packing lots and lots of clothes to be outside and get dirty. Even though we weren’t rock climbing or rolling around in mud, we somehow seemed to be coated in a layer of dirt and dust at the end of the day. For women, think yoga/crop leggings, shorts, hiking pants, tank tops and short sleeve shirts.
I wore my favorite Athleta Salutation Stash II leggings and crops most days and occasionally shorts. I would recommend packing a rain jacket, hoodie/sweatshirt, and coat if you’re going in the spring or fall because weather can be a bit unpredictable. You may need a sweatshirt or jacket at night in the summer.
Be sure to pack your hiking boots! Many of the places have boardwalks, but you never know when the urge to go on a hike will strike. We just kept our hiking boots in our rental car to throw on when we found a good trail we wanted to explore. Otherwise, tennis shoes will suffice. I also had my trusty Birkenstocks for lunch/dinner and easy walks.
When to visit Yellowstone
When you plan a trip to Yellowstone, weather is a very important factor. The shoulder seasons are the best times to visit Yellowstone–late April to early June and then September to mid October. The summers are hot and have large crowds at Yellowstone, but if you have to go then because of school breaks or other reasons–have no fear! There are plenty of ways to get away from the crowds if you’re willing to do a bit of research.
Winters are probably amazing, but you need a permit or be with a tour group as the roads are closed and everything is covered in snow. But it’s on our bucket list to go in the winter so we can snowmobile in the park, so maybe that’s your plan too!
A 4 day stay was perfect for us. You could see the highlights in 3 days, maaaaybe 2, but 4-5 days would be best to not feel too rushed.
Yellowstone National Park Lodging
There is plenty of lodging within the hotel and surrounding the park. If you plan to stay in the park, plan at least a year in advance because the hotels inside the park book up FAST.
Here are your options within the park:
- Canyon Lodge and Cabins
- Grant Village Lodge
- Old Faithful Snow Lodge
- Lake Hotel and Cabins
- Lake Lodge Cabins
- Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins
- Old Faithful Inn
- Old Faithful Lodge
- Roosevelt Lodge
If you’re there for more than 2 days, I would choose a stay on one side of the park for a couple nights and a stay on the other side of the park for the other couple nights.
You can also stay outside of the park. We chose to stay at a VRBO in West Yellowstone. We absolutely loved our simple condo, but if we could go again I think we would camp or stay in two different locations. Because we only stayed in one condo, we spent a looooot of time in the car. It didn’t take away from our trip, however, I think it’s important to note you could be really far from where you want to be if you stay in one location the whole time.
If you don’t want to stay in the park, I’d recommend staying in West Yellowstone. It’s the most developed town that is closest to the park.
Of course, there’s also the option of camping. If I were to plan a trip to Yellowstone again, this is the route we would take. There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park. Five campgrounds take reservations through the park’s lodges and the other seven are through recreation.gov. These sites are released on a certain date each year for the entire camping season. Make sure you do some research and set an alarm for that day and time to get a spot. Otherwise, you may not be able to find a camping site inside the park. If you can dry camp, there are a few forests outside Yellowstone if you happen to miss out on reservations!
Navigating the Park
There’s something you should know when you plan a trip to Yellowstone: be prepared to drive, and drive a lot. There’s an entrance at each direction (north, south, east, west). There is also a northeast entrance, but there’s no major landmarks around this area so for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to drop it for now.
To give you an idea, we probably drove close to 60 miles at day because the entrances are each about 20-30 miles from one another. You’re also in the mountains surrounded by wildlife and tourists, so it’s going to take you a long time to get where you’re going. If you plan to be at Lamar Valley for the sunrise, leave your lodging 2 hours before sunrise. Yes, really.
Driving and hiking are going to be your only ways around the park. (Unless you hop in a helicopter and take an aerial tour, I suppose?).
If you don’t feel like driving, make sure you bringing a driving buddy (thanks, Michael!) or use one of these tour guides so you can just hop in and out of the bus and not worry about driving:
Plan a Trip to Yellowstone: what to do + itinerary
I’m going to break this section up by the four sections of Yellowstone, as I think this is the easiest way to plan a trip to Yellowstone. This is going to be a general list of what to do in each area, but if you’re looking for a more in detail itinerary we followed during our trip check out this post.
West Thumb Geyser Basin: Some of the most beautiful springs were in this basin, in my opinion. Some of them were on the shore of the lake which I think is just absolutely breathtaking.
Grant Village: Grab some gas and a snack!
Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful: Does this even need a description?! Just in case- it’s one of the most famous geysers in the world. It’s faithful because it erupts about every 70 minutes, sending hot water about 100+ feet in the sky! Get there early (an hour before expected eruption) or you may not have a good view.
Midway Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic Spring: Take the first part of the Fairy Falls trail to get a birds eye view of Grand Prismatic. You won’t regret it!
Pelican Valley: You won’t find this in many other guides! This area is not for the faint of heart… it’s known as having the densest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48! The trail is closed until July 4th, only open from 9 am to 7 pm and it’s recommended that you hike in groups of 4+. We did a short hike through here just for the experience and we were terrified the whole time, honestly. However the scenery was beautiful and we didn’t see any grizzlies!
Mud Volcano: A unique, weird, kinda gross structure of mud bubbling up just outside of the Hayden Valley.
Yellowstone Lake: There’s a village around here and of course the lake itself is perfect for taking a kayak tour.
Hayden Valley: A prime area for watching wildlife. We saw wolves here in the early fall. Grizzlies frequent this area in the late spring and early summer, and you can often see other wildlife year-round here.
- Gibbon Falls: A quick stop off on your way to Norris Geyser basin, hop out of the car to get a glimpse and a pic of these gentle falls
- Norris Geyser Basin: The oldest and hottest of the thermal areas in Yellowstone, walk along the boardwalk to view springs, mud pots, and geysers.
- Obsidian Cliff: Another good photo spot. Pull your car over (where it’s safe!) to view this cliff.
- Boiling River: Up north towards Gardner, MT, the boiling river is one of the only places in the park you can swim. Hours and seasons are very limited so make sure you look at their website before you go.
- Mammoth Hot Springs: These springs are otherworldly with tons are limestone covering the unique terraces in this area. There’s also a little “town” nearby where you can grab a meal, get gas, and see tons of elk nomming on the grass.
Lamar Valley: This is a bit of a drive from everything else, but trust me it’s worth it. Head out here at dawn or dusk for wildlife viewing. The Lamar Valley is one of the best places to view wolves in the world.
Tower Junction: Check out Tower Fall and see petrified trees on your way through to Lamar Valley
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone: This is exactly what it sounds like and it is pretty amazing. Make sure to stop at Inspiration + Artist’s Point for photo ops.
Canyon Village: A couple lodges, Uncle Tom’s cabin, and a visitors center. A great place to take a break and learn some Yellowstone history.
My advance would be to do the South entrance area on your last day. A couple reasons: it’s a little more low key and the board walks are a bit smaller. So, even if you’re tired you can still make it around everything. The other reason is Grand Prismatic Spring is seriously THAT amazing, if you see it on day one all the other springs you see the rest of the trip may pale in comparison.
Hiking in Yellowstone National Park
You can’t plan a trip to Yellowstone without doing some hiking! There are approximately 23729837 million hiking trails in Yellowstone, but here are some we recommend. I would download the NPS Yellowstone app. It gives you an interactive map and you can search hikes by area, difficulty, length, etc.
Nez Pearce Trail: This trail is 20-something miles long and goes right through the center of the park. You would need more than one day to do the whole trail, but we did a couple miles. Immediately, we felt like we were the only ones in the whole area. It was a cool experience for sure!
Mystic Falls: A somewhat challenging 2.4 mile hike to a waterfall around the upper and lower geyser basin.
Fairy Falls: If you continue on past the Grand Prismatic Spring lookout, you’ll be on this trail. You can hike to a 20 foot waterfall and also see some off the trail geysers! It’s not open in the spring as it’s a bear management area.
Mount Washburn via the Dunraven pass: 6 miles will take you up to the top of Mount Washburn for some beautiful views and potential wildlife spotting! It was closed when we went, and is often closed for safety so check before you go.
Avalanche Peak: 4.2 miles and very strenuous, this hike takes you above the treeline to see some of the parks impressive peaks and views. Aim for July or early August–before that there’s too much snow, and after that the grizzlies are looking for bark before winter.
What to do around Yellowstone
Go ahead and add a couple extra days when you plan a trip to Yellowstone! (You deserve it.) There is so much to see and do around the park. Here’s a couple things to do outside of Yellowstone National Park.
- Grand Teton National Park: If you leave from the south entrance of Yellowstone, you can take a 40 mile drive through some beautiful back country and run right into Grand Teton. I recommend 2-3 days here to explore and hike.
- Jackson, WY: Drive about a couple hours south and you’ll hit this famous ski town. If you are here in the summer or fall, it’s just as lovely in warm weather too! Stroll around town and have a beer at Snake River Brewery.
- Bozeman, MT: Fly fishing, hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking, this town is an outdoor lover’s paradise.
- Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Center: Located in West Yellowstone, MT, you can see Yellowstone’s most famous animals in captivity. Have no fears, the animals here are rescued!
Woooooooooow, that was a lot! I hope you feel prepared for your trip to Yellowstone National Park with this ultimate guide. If you have any further advice, please leave it in the comments so we can make others trip the best it can be! Also, I’d love for you to tell me… did this guide help you plan a trip to Yellowstone?!