Planning a Trip to Yellowstone National Park – Practical Guide Essential Info

Planning my road trip to Yellowstone National Park, the very first national park in the USA and one of the most visited national parks in the USA, for Memorial Day long weekend in May was daunting.

Yellowstone is HUGE and there are several entrances, and it’s expensive to visit in the summer. High season is June through August so it’s best to plan your Yellowstone vacation trip in advance. Use this guide as the beginning planning stage for your trip. I’ll publish suggested itineraries soon. And if you plan to visit both Yellowstone and Glacier check out my guide to visiting Glacier National Park.

Check out my 5 BIG reasons to visit Yellowstone park!

This post contains compensated links. See my disclosure about affiliate links here

Grand Prismatic Spring is a sensational sight at Yellowstone National Park

Grand Prismatic Spring is a sensational sight at Yellowstone National Park

 

Luckily, I enjoy traveling with no definite itinerary. Although I made a list of attractions and places I would like to see, I didn’t have a set itinerary for the 4 days I would be visiting. I knew I wanted to see Grand Prismatic Spring, geysers, waterfalls, and wildlife but I did not prepare a day to day itinerary.

For the people that like to plan ahead and have an itinerary in place, this post should help you work out some of the details for your adventure. This article serves as a starting point to plan a trip to the park.

Following are some of the most frequently asked questions about visiting Yellowstone to help you plan your vacation.

 

Yellowstone Road Opening Dates 2019

Roads in Yellowstone have different opening and closing dates each year. The National Park Service Yellowstone website has a page devoted to roadways in the park. There are webcams on the NPS site for the North and West entrances so you can check traffic conditions anytime.

You can call 307-344-2117 for recorded info on roadway status and which roads are already open to bicyclists in Yellowstone.

Per the NPS website the Spring and Fall 2019 scheduled opening and closing dates for roads in Yellowstone are as follows:

April 19 open and Nov 4 close

  • West Entrance to Madison Junction
  • Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful
  • Norris to Canyon Village

May 3 open and Nov 4 close

  • East Entrance to Lake Village (Sylvan Pass)
  • Canyon Village to Lake Village

May 10 open and Nov 4 close

  • South Entrance to West Thumb
  • Lake Village to West Thumb
  • West Thumb to Old Faithful (Craig Pass)
  • Tower Junction to Tower Fall

May 24 open and October 15 close

  • Tower Fall to Canyon Village (Dunraven Pass)
  • Beartooth Highway

 

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Tips for visiting Yellowstone National Park - plan your visit #yellowstone #nationalparks #traveltips #roadtrip #usa

 

Where is Yellowstone National Park?

Primarily in northwestern Wyoming. There is a small portion of the park in southern Montana as well as eastern Idaho.

Did you know that Yellowstone was the very first National Park in the United States?
Established in 1872 by the US Congress and officially signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872.

 

What towns and cities are close?

Towns within 10 miles

  • West Yellowstone, Montana
  • East Yellowstone, Wyoming
  • Gardiner, Montana (north)
  • Cook City / Silver Gate, Montana (northeast)

 

Map of Yellowstone National Park by Google

Map of Yellowstone National Park by Google

 

Towns within 50 miles

NORTH

  • Big Sky, Montana
  • Livingston, Montana
  • Gardiner, Montana
  • Red Lodge, Montana

SOUTH

  • Dubois, Wyoming
  • Jackson, also referred to as Jackson Hole, Wyoming

EAST

  • Wapiti, Wyoming
  • Cody, Wyoming

WEST

  • Island Park, Idaho

 

Antler arch in Jackson Hole Wyoming. Made from elk antlers, there are 4 arches at the town square in Jackson

Antler arch at the town square in Jackson Hole Wyoming

 

What is the closest airport?

Jackson Hole is the closest airport and the airport code is JAC.

 

How big is Yellowstone National Park?

Almost 3,500 square miles. That’s about the size of Puerto Rico!

 

Upper Falls at Yellowstone National Park

Upper Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

 

Where is the entrance to Yellowstone?

There are 5 entrances to Yellowstone National Park:

  • North entrance is near Gardiner Montana (the only entrance open year-round)
  • Northeast entrance is near Silver Gate Montana
  • East entrance is 53 miles from Cody Wyoming
  • West entrance is accessed through the town of West Yellowstone Montana
  • South entrance is located in Wyoming, just north of Grand Teton National Park, 64 miles north of Jackson Hole Wyoming

Click here for NPS.gov map of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

 

How much does it cost for the entrance fee?

All prices quoted are as at March 2019

  • 7 day pass (this is the shortest time-frame for passes sold at US national parks)
  • Single non-commercial vehicle $35
  • Motorcycle or snowmobile $30
  • Individual on foot, bicycle, ski, snowshoe, etc $20
  • Annual Yellowstone pass is $70
  • Annual America the Beautiful Parks pass (good for over 2,000 federal recreation sites) $80
  • Seniors over age 62 pay $20 annual or lifetime pass for $80

You can pay the Yellowstone entrance fee with cash, debit card, or credit card at the park gate. Or use the Yellowstone NPS Your Pass Now website unless you want the America the Beautiful, Seniors annual pass, or Seniors Lifetime pass – you can buy those online here.

Check the National Park Service website for all pass options

 

What are the hours?

July and August the park is open 24 hours with all roads, facilities, and services are opened.

All other months there may be closures at some facilities, services, or roadways. Check NPS for the most up to date opening times, road closures, facilities open – every year the dates vary depending on the weather conditions.

 

 

Mud volcano area at Yellowstone National Park is fascinating

Mud volcano thermal area features hot springs, cauldrons, and fumaroles

 

Can I bring my dog?

  • There is limited access. Pets are not allowed on trails, boardwalks, backcountry, or thermal areas.
  • You cannot tie your pet to a fence or tree, or leave your pet unattended at the park.
  • There are no kennels within Yellowstone but there are kennels in nearby towns.
  • Qualified service animals are allowed in the park, but they must be leashed. See NPS site for definition of service animals.

 

Will I see wildlife?

Wildlife watching is one of the key attractions at Yellowstone. Yes, you are likely to see wildlife while visiting the park.

Wild animals are unpredictable and can be dangerous. Always keep a safe distance from wildlife in the park. Use your binoculars or a telephoto lens on your camera to view wildlife from a safe distance and to avoid disturbing the wildlife. Stay at least 100 yards (91 meters) from bears or wolves, and 25 yards (23 meters) from other wildlife while in the park.

 

Bison roam freely at Yellowstone National Park so you will likely see bison grazing when you visit Yellowstone

Bison like this one gazing in a meadow, are the most common wildlife at the park

 

What type of wildlife could I see?

67 kinds of mammals and 285 species of birds, including

  • Bison
  • Bighorn Sheep
  • Black Bears
  • Grizzly Bears
  • Badgers
  • Mule Deer
  • White-tail Deer
  • Elk
  • Moose
  • Mountain Goats
  • Fox
  • Lynx
  • Bobcat
  • Cougar
  • Coyote
  • Otters
  • Marmot
  • Marten
  • Weasel
  • Wolf
  • Wolverine
  • Owls
  • Ducks
  • Geese
  • Bald Eagle
  • Golden Eagle
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Osprey
  • Trumpeter Swan

 

Yellow bellied marmot at Yellowstone National Park

Watch for the yellow bellied marmot around areas with lots of fallen trees and stumps

 

Yellowstone grizzly population is approximately 690. In 1975 the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly bear in the lower 48 states as threatened with extinction. At that time the grizzly population at the park was 136. In 2017 the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed grizzlies around Yellowstone from the protected list.

You may have heard about a plan to allow hunting of grizzly bears in 2018. Just days before the hunting season is to begin, a federal judge has halted the grizzly bear hunt for 14 days. Later, a federal judge ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service erred in removing protections for the grizzlies. Full protection to the grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act have been restored.

 

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Planning guide for a trip to Yellowstone National Park - Grand Prismatic Spring is a popular attraction

 

Do I need to bring bear spray?

It’s your choice but when you are in bear country it is best to be prepared for a bear encounter. That includes having bear spray and knowing how to use it properly.

A grizzly bear attacked a 10 year old boy hiking with his family on Thursday August 23, 2018. The boy survived the attack and National Park Superintendent Pat Kenney stated “This incident could have been more serious. We applaud the family for travelling in a group, carrying bear spray, and knowing how to effectively use it”.

While grizzly bear attacks are rare you have got to be prepared.

Watch the video on NPS website and learn how to use bear spray correctly.

Read more information on bear safety at NPS website

 

 

Mama grizzly bear and cubs at Yellowstone National Park

Mama grizzly bear and cubs feeding in a grassy meadow

 

What is the name of the river in Yellowstone?

Yellowstone River is the largest river in the park. That’s one you can remember for sure.

Other rivers in the park include:

  • Bechler
  • Falls
  • Firehole
  • Gallatin
  • Gardiner
  • Gibbon
  • Heart
  • Lamar
  • Lewis
  • Little Firehole
  • Little Lamar
  • Madison
  • Snake

 

 

Lower Falls at Yellowstone National Park

Lower Falls at Yellowstone National Park

 

What are the most beautiful waterfalls in the park?

Here’s my list of gorgeous waterfalls at Yellowstone. The most beautiful waterfall is the one you are watching when you are there, enjoy!

  • Firehole Falls
  • Gibbon Falls
  • Kepler Falls
  • Lewis Falls
  • Lower Falls, at over 300 feet (33 meters) the tallest in Yellowstone
  • Mammoth Falls
  • Mystic Falls
  • Tower Falls
  • Undine Falls
  • Upper Falls

 

How many days to see the attractions?

Depends how many bison traffic jams you experience. Seriously, there are traffic jams due to the free-roaming bison herd on the roadways.

To see the most popular attractions you need about 3 days in the park. Long weekends are very popular times for visiting the park so expect lots of traffic.

For my trip I arrived on Saturday afternoon and left on the following Wednesday so 3 full days plus an afternoon/evening. You can do Yellowstone in 3 or 4 days without feeling rushed.

Keep in mind that weather and crowds/traffic could hamper your plans, so try to plan an extra day or two to accommodate conditions that are beyond anyone’s control.

Also consider the location where you are staying and how much time you will spend driving to and from the park. For instance,  I stayed at the Mountain Modern Motel in Jackson which is 64 miles from the south entrance.

Driving time depends on other traffic, bison or other wildlife on the roadway, weather conditions, and how many times you stop to snap pictures along the way. Plan accordingly.

 

Gibbon Falls at Yellowstone National Park

Gibbon Falls are one of many waterfalls at the park

 

How much do campsites cost?

Campsite fees range from $15 to $30 (except for Fishing Bridge RV park – see below) and there are over 2,000 campsites.

Check out campground details here.

Reservations are allowed at 5 of the 12 campgrounds, while all others are filled on a first-come first-served basis.

There are also backcountry campsites for a fee of $3 per person per night but it maxes out at $15/night so groups of more than 5 still only pay $15 per night. Fees apply to persons age 9 or older. Fees are only charged between Memorial Day and September 10th. If your trip begins before Memorial Day or after September 10th there is no fee charged. If you plan to do a lot of backcountry camping buy the annual pass for $25.

Click here for Backcountry Permit Reservation form. Only some of the backcountry campsites are available by reservation.

 

Can I park my RV in Yellowstone?

Fishing Bridge RV park is the only campsite with full services for RVs: water, sewer, electrical (50 amp) and no tents or tent trailers are allowed at the campground.

Fee at Fishing Bridge RV park is $47.75 (tax and utility pass-through fee is extra)

(All other campsite details see link in previous question on campsite prices)

 

Artist Point Overlook at Yellowstone National Park is beautiful

The popular Artist Point Overlook has panoramic views of the canyon

 

Are there hotels in the park?

There are 9 hotels in the park. In winter only 2 are open, but spring through fall all 9 lodges are open.

Winter Lodges

  • Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins – open December 16, 2018 through March 3, 2019
  • Mammoth Hot Springs and Cabins – open until October 14, 2018 then closed for renovations through winter 2019

Is there food available in Yellowstone?

No worries, you will not starve even if you did not pack a picnic lunch. There are several restaurants, stores, and visitor centers with food available for purchase in Yellowstone.

 

What is the weather like?

Weather is unpredictable, especially near the Rocky Mountains. During high season and summer months, the weather is usually pleasant but be prepared for a variety of weather. In late fall, winter, and early spring the weather will be more erratic. Winter turns the park into a wonderland of snow with few visitors.

 

What are the best hiking trails?

It depends what you are looking for and and how much time your have. Here’s a list of hikes to get you started.

8 Easy hikes

  • Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Observation Point Loop
  • Artist Paintpots Trail
  • Midway Gesyser Basin Trail
  • West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail
  • Norris Geyser Basin Complete Loop Trail
  • Beaver Ponds Loop Trail
  • Mud Volcano Trail
  • Fairy Creek Trail to Imperial Geyser

5 Moderate hikes

  • Canyon Rim North Trail to Inspiration Point
  • Mystic Falls Trail and Fairy Creek – Little Firehole Loop
  • Uncle Tom’s Trail
  • Upper Falls, Lower Falls, and Crystal Falls Trail
  • Old Faithful Geyser Loop Trail

3 Strenuous hikes

  • Dunraven Pass to Mt. Washburn Trail
  • Avalanche Peak Trail
  • Bunsen Peak

Buy a book about the hiking trails

 

 

Firehole Lake Drive at Yellowstone is a highly recommended attraction

Firehole Lake Drive is a highly recommended attraction

 

What types of activities are available?

  • Backcountry camping
  • Bicycling
  • Boating
  • Wildlife watching
  • Horseback riding and llama packing
  • Guided tours
  • Fishing
  • Stargazing
  • Scenic drives
  • Sunrise and sunset viewing

Winter only activities

  • Skiing
  • Snowshoeing
  • Snowmobile and snowcoach tours – I met a couple that visited the park in winter, Angie and Sam said they loved the snowcoach tour.

Especially for kids

  • Junior Ranger program
  • Young scientist
  • Youth Conservation Corps
  • Expedition Yellowstone

 

 

Where do I find a map of Yellowstone National Park?

Go to any of the 9 visitor centers within the park to get a map. Most hotels in the area also have maps so be sure to ask when you check-in to your hotel.

Link to NPS.gov map of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

 

 

Anemone Geyser at Yellowstone National Park

Big Anemone Geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin erupts every 6 to 10 minutes

 

Is there a volcano at Yellowstone National Park?

Yes, Yellowstone is a dormant super-volcano, and it could erupt again. Scientists believe the last eruption was approximately 640,000 years ago. When will the next super-volcano eruption occur? Could be sooner than you think!

You may have heard that Steamboat Geyser erupted an amazing 8 times in 2018 already 31 times in 2018. Amazing because prior to these eruptions Steamboat geyser’s last great show occurred September 3rd 2014. Steamboat is the world’s tallest active geyser with eruptions shooting water more than 300 feet.

Watch a video of Steamboat Geyser erupting – go to time stamp 5:27 and 7:39 for the most dramatic coverage.

Steamboat Geyser is located at Norris Geyser Basin which is close to Highway 89 and Norris Canyon Road, around 27 miles (43 km) south of Gardiner Montana and the North Entrance.

All this thermal activity has scientists speculating that another super-volcano eruption could be coming soon.

 

 

What is the best time to visit Yellowstone?

April and May and September to November are less crowded and usually have pleasant weather.

July and August are the busy season. When kids are out of school and during long weekends are popular times for vacations to Yellowstone.

Winter is the least crowded time to visit the park. Hotel prices are cheaper. The snow looks beautiful.

 

Turquoise water at hot springs in Yellowstone National Park

Hot springs with turquoise water reflecting the sky and clouds

 

What are the best guide books for Yellowstone National Park?

Here are 10 of the top books to help you plan your trip.

 

Visiting Yellowstone in winter

The north entrance is open to wheeled vehicles year round.

Around mid-December the park opens to the public for motorized snow travel. There is a catch though, this includes commercial snowcoaches and snowmobiles entering the park at West and South entrances.

Most visitors to the park in winter use a guided tour to enter the park. But you can use also apply for a permit to enter the park on non-commercial snowmobiles.

Entering via snowmobile without commercial guide

All non-commercial snowmobile traffic, groups up to 5 snowmobiles, must apply in August for the permit lottery – results announced in early September. Any permits not filled through the lottery will go to Yellowstone visitors on first-come, first-served basis.

For more info on available permits, lottery, and details about visiting Yellowstone in winter on your own visit Recreation.gov

 

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Yellowstone National Park plan your trip to one of the most visited places in the USA. The first national park and over half of the world's thermal features are located at Yellowstone. #yellowstone #vacationYellowstone National Park 25 Trip Planning FAQ

 

I hope this guide helps you to plan a trip to Yellowstone and enjoy all the beauty and wonder at the park. This is one of the most amazing places to visit in the USA.

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About the Author

Susan Moore spent 7 months traveling around Southeast Asia back in the 90's. Returning to Canada she found a job working on rotation in Siberia Russia. She later moved to Austin Texas where she started a bookkeeping business, allowing her to work remotely. Currently Susan is in year 4 of living a nomadic life, roadtripping around the USA and Canada and writing about her experiences. Read all about Susan » You can reach Susan Moore at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram

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  1. Wow. This was a really comprehensive post. Yellowstone has been on my radar for years ever since visiting Moab so I was really interested in knowing more. I was quite impressed with all the information you had. Great work!

    • Thank you Janice! There is so much to do and see at Yellowstone and since it”s such a big park it can be overwhelming planning a trip there. That’s when I decided to put some of the most FAQ together for this post. I hope you make the trip to Yellowstone, it truly is an amazing place, you will love it, almost as much as you love France :)

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