The Ultimate Travel Guide to Yellowstone
Yellowstone is the first national park I visited back when I started traveling almost 3 years ago. It was definitely love at first sight! I remember hearing about Yellowstone through my Microbiology professor who couldn’t stop raving about her week-long vacation there. To think I even had a horrified look on my face when she gushed about a colorful hot spring formed by heat-loving bacteria. Little did I know that the hot spring that I used to call gross is now one of my favorite sights, the Grand Prismatic Spring. There’s a reason why millions of visitors, including myself, flock to Yellowstone National Park every year. Aside from having the largest concentration of geysers and hot springs, it is also home to one of the best and diverse wildlife in the world. So how does one exactly plan a trip to Yellowstone? Let me help you out.
Facts about Yellowstone
- Yellowstone is the world’s first national park.
- The park is enormous! It covers over 3,000 miles and it’s larger than two US states (Rhode Island and Delaware) combined!
- Yellowstone is older than the three states (Wyoming, Idaho & Montana) it occupies.
- It is home to 67 species of mammals, 285 species of birds, 16 species of fish, 5 species of amphibians, 6 species of reptiles & 2 threatened species: Canada lynx and Grizzly bears.
- There are over 3,000 employees that work during summer peak. That’s a lot of friendly faces to help you around the park!
Things to know before you visit
There are 5 entrances to the park:
- West Entrance: Located in the border of Idaho and Wyoming, this is the most popular entrance to the park. This is the entrance we usually go through from Las Vegas -> Salt Lake City. This is adjacent to the town of West Yellowstone where you will find most of the restaurants and lodging.
- South Entrance: If you decide to explore Grand Teton beforehand, this is the entrance that leads to Yellowstone. The drive from Grand Teton to Yellowstone using this entrance is scenic! We loved driving through here during our recent combined trip to Grand Teton/Yellowstone.
- North Entrance:This is the only entrance open all year. During the colder months, the other 4 entrances are usually closed off due to road conditions.
- Northeast Entrance: This entrance is your gateway to the picturesque Lamar Valley, home to the largest and diverse wildlife in the US.
- East Entrance: This entrance takes you to the largest mountain lake, Yellowstone Lake.
Map from YellowstonePark.com
|Entrance Pass for…||Yellowstone National Park||Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks|
|Private, non-commercial vehicle||$30||$50|
|Motorcycle or Snowmobile*||$25||$40|
|Individuals by foot, bicycle, ski, etc.||$15 per person 16 and older||$20 per person 16 and older|
|Non-commercial bus or vehicle with capacity of 16 people or more**||$15 per person 16 and older||$20 per person 16 and olderInsider Tip: The best way to save is to purchase the National Parks annual pass for only $80.|
*Insider Tip: The best way to save is to purchase the national parks annual pass for $80.
Best time to visit
Yellowstone has a lot to offer so it doesn’t really matter what time of year you choose to visit but for me, the best time to visit Yellowstone (or anywhere, really) is during Fall season (September – November). I’ve only been twice, during Summer and Fall and wow, what a difference a few months makes! It’s nice to visit during Summer because it’s a nice getaway from the Las Vegas heat we encounter every year.
But of course, nothing beats traveling during Fall because with students back in school, it’s less crowded and the weather is just oh-so-perfect for hiking! As for the weather, Yellowstone is nice and cool almost all year round except for December to March, which gets really cold. Temperatures are usually 0-25 degrees and snowfall during these months sometimes reaches 150 inches!
How to get here
- By car: This is the most popular method of travel to get to Yellowstone and also the best way to get around the park. If you have several days to spare, then you must road trip to Yellowstone!
- By plane: There are several airports surrounding the park including: Yellowstone airport (solely via Delta), Jackson Hole Airport, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport and Bert Mooney Airport.
- By bus: The only bus service available all year round is available from Bozeman, MT to West Yellowstone, MT via Highway 191. Bus from Idaho to West Yellowstone is limited to the summer months only.
Where to Stay
During peak season, lodging/accommodations are crazy expensive in and around Yellowstone. When we visited last July, most of the accommodations were already booked and the hotels outside the park were around $150 per night. We ended up sleeping at one of the hotel parking lots in West Yellowstone. It wasn’t ideal given that it was freezing, uncomfortable and we only had a few hours of sleep but it did save us a lot of money and we had the park all to ourselves at 5 am!
- Hotels and Cabins: Canyon Lodge, Grant Village, Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Lodge, Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins, Lake Lodge, Mammoth Hotel and Roosevelt Lodge.
- Camping and RV: Bridge Bay Campground, Canyon Campground, Fishing Bridge RV park, Grant Campground and Madison Campground.
Check out Yellowstone National Park Lodges for more reservations.
Make sure you book in advance if you’re planning to stay inside the park. June to September lodging: book 6-9 months in advance. Spring and Fall lodging: 3-6 months in advance.
No reservations? Check out hotels outside of the park. Hotels near the West Entrance – West Yellowstone; Lodging near the South Entrance – Jackson Hole, WY; Lodging near the East Entrance – Cody, WY.
What to see
2. Hot Springs
1. Watch the famous Old Faithful erupt.
This is one of my favorite Yellowstone traditions. There are nearly 500 geysers in Yellowstone and although Old Faithful isn’t the tallest geyser in the park, it is the most popular one. Make sure you check out eruption times at the Old Faithful Visitor Center. Intervals range from 60-110 minutes and eruptions usually last 1.5-5 minutes with its maximum height ranging from 90-184 feet!
2. See the 3rd largest spring in the world, the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring.
Grand Prismatic is located in Midway Geyser Basin. It is one of my favorite stops on the way to Old Faithful coming from the West Entrance. There is a 0.8 mile boardwalk loop that provides an up close encounter with the spring. Make sure you stay on the boardwalk! There has been reports lately of several
idiots visitors stomping on the delicate grounds of the Grand Prismatic. Please don’t be that person!
Disclaimer: the almost aerial photo of the Grand Prismatic was taken from the hillside overlooking the spring. Unfortunately, we didn’t know at the time that it was off limits (oops, sorry!) but thank goodness, they already started construction on an official trail that will have an overlook for the Grand Prismatic Spring.
3. Hike Uncle Tom’s trail to see the Lower Falls up close.
There are plenty of places to see the grandiose Lower Falls in Yellowstone but my all time favorite would be the view from Uncle Tom’s trail. Although it’s only a 0.8 mile RT hike, the 300 steel stairway is what makes this trail unique. I admit, the steps makes me queasy especially the descent down the canyon. But the view definitely makes up for it! It’s easier to get down but the hike back up can be strenuous especially if you’re not in great shape. The trailhead is located near Canyon Village.
4. Experience the beautiful Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Duh! Of course Yellowstone has its own Grand Canyon. Just like the Grand Canyon in Arizona, erosion formed this canyon that stretches approximately 20 miles long and half mile wide. Lower Falls can be viewed from several vantage points: Red Rock Point, Artist Point, Inspiration Point and Lookout Point. We went here twice; before sunset and before noon. We enjoyed the stunning canyon views both times but I must say nothing beats photographing the Lower Falls during the Golden Hour.
5. Explore Norris Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin and Lower Geyser Basin.
Norris Geyser Basin is the oldest, hottest and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. The tallest geyser, Steamboat Geyser, can be found here. On our last visit to Yellowstone, we had the whole place to ourselves at 7 am. It was really magical!
Aside from hosting the famous Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin has also the highest concentration of geysers in the world. The picturesque Morning Glory Pool can be found here.
Photo via Flickr
Lower Geyser Basin is the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone covering over 10 miles. Some of my favorite stops can be found here: Celestine Pool, Fountain Paint Pots and Silex Spring.
6. Visit the unique and stunning Mammoth Hot Springs.
There’s a lot of must see attractions in Yellowstone. Among the geysers and waterfalls is Mammoth Hot Springs, a collection of hot springs with travertine terraces made up of limestone. “The formations resemble a cave turned inside out. Colorful stripes are formed by thermophiles or heat-loving organisms.”
Photo via Flickr
Photo via Flickr
7. View Wildlife (from a safe distance) in their Natural Habitat.
You can see wildlife almost everywhere in Yellowstone but the two best places to see them is Hayden and Lamar Valley. Hayden Valley is located centrally and is the easiest place to get to when viewing wildlife. Driving along this valley, you are most likely going to see herds of bison. On two separate occasions, we also saw two grizzly bears frolicking in the meadows. You can stop at one of the pullouts along the road to have a better view of the wildlife.
Lamar Valley is located on the northeast section of Yellowstone. Known as “America’s Serengeti”, Lamar Valley is the prime location for wildlife viewing. It is also considered as the mecca for wolf watching and is a habitat for bears, wolves, elk, bison, pronghorn, eagles and bighorn sheep. Bisons are the most visible wildlife in Lamar Valley and there was no shortage of them when we visited. Don’t forget to bring your zoom lens, scopes or binoculars to have a better view!
The best time to view wildlife is when they’re most active – dawn or dusk.
Although I’ve been to several national parks in the US, Yellowstone will always have a special place in my heart. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of visiting it! Hope you found this guide helpful for your next trip to Yellowstone.
- Never approach or disturb wildlife! There’s been reports of visitors getting too close for comfort just to take selfies. Bison attacks are the most common incident in the park as of late. In other words, Bison selfies are a big no no! Remember, we are visitors in their home. Be respectful!
- Don’t bring your drone. Flying drones in the park or any national parks is prohibited.
- Don’t leave your trash behind. Please pick up after yourselves.
- Don’t stray off the boardwalks. Stay in designated pathways to prevent harm to the very fragile ecological features in the park or to yourself.