Since its designation as a national park in 1872, Yellowstone National Park has been a cherished part of the American West’s rich tapestry, and it’s easy to see why. The very definition of “unspoiled,” the park has served for generations as a sort of living museum, its natural splendors giving visitors a glimpse of what the continent was like in the days before recorded history. Yellowstone also boasts the most and the widest array of geothermal features anywhere in the world. Its geysers, hot springs, fumaroles and mud pots are nothing short of fascinating. The park’s legendary wildlife includes grizzly and black bears, gray wolves, buffalo, elk, pronghorn antelope, trumpeter swans, eagles and much more.
Step 1: Book Lodging
Up to 8 months in advance
There are nine wonderful lodging options in the park, ranging from rustic simplicity to historic opulence. However, all are often fully booked months before the summer season, so be sure to make your reservations early. If you’re planning to camp, there are five campgrounds run by Xanterra Parks & Resorts that allow reservations (call 307-344-7311). It’s highly recommended that visitors driving large RVs make reservations. Seven campgrounds, however, are run by the National Park Service on a first-come, first-served basis and often fill up by mid-morning. Most campgrounds operate from mid-June through mid-September, although Mammoth campground is open year-round.
You can also consider staying near the national park in Jackson (60 miles south) or Cody (50 miles east). Your options range from ranches and cabins to vacation rentals and B&Bs, and most offer daily transportation to and from Yellowstone. Browse accommodations here.
Step 2: Coordinate Travel
Up to 4 months in advance
Although much of Yellowstone’s appeal is its unspoiled seclusion, it’s easily accessible for travelers. If you’re planning on flying, the Yellowstone Regional Airport is about two miles outside of Cody, near the park’s East Entrance, and it offers service from Salt Lake City and Denver. Jackson Hole Airport is about 50 miles south of the park’s South Entrance and offers service from at least Salt Lake City, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, Atlanta and Denver. Other flights become available throughout the season. Car rentals and shuttle services to the lodges inside park, nearby towns and hotels are available at all of the airports.
Step 3: Choose your adventures
Up to 3 months in advance
Because Yellowstone is so large and there are so many things to see and do, it's a good idea to plan your adventures well in advance.
Whether you choose to embark on a day hike or on a backcountry excursion, venturing away from the paved roads in Yellowstone is a wonderful way to experience its peaceful grandeur. Information, safety tips and maps for day hikes are available here. Camping in the backcountry requires a permit, and campsites can be reserved in advance. Find a backcountry trip planner here.
Non-motorized transportation can also be a great way to see the park. One- and two-hour guided horseback rides are offered at Mammoth, Tower-Roosevelt and Canyon. At Roosevelt Corral, visitors can take a horseback or wagon ride to a cookout site for a steak dinner or a half-hour stagecoach ride that’s especially popular with children.
There are numerous ways to enjoy boating in the park. Bay Bridge Marina on Yellowstone Lake rents rowboats and motorboats on a first-come, first-served basis, and scenic cruises leave from there regularly in the summer. If you have your own boat, motorized or not, you must have a permit.
For more than a century, the prospect of world-class fishing — especially for prized native cutthroat trout — has attracted visitors to Yellowstone. Fly fishing in the park’s rivers and streams is popular, and you can also take a guided tour on a cabin cruiser or rent an outboard or rowboat. The fishing season begins the Saturday before Memorial Day weekend and lasts until the first Sunday in November. However, some areas might be closed at certain times. All anglers over the age of 15 must have a permit, although a state fishing license is not required.
A few more things to keep in mind:
Weather: Temperatures in Yellowstone vary due to elevation. Be prepared for anything from warm summer temperatures to snow as late as June.
Entrance passes are good for seven days for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and cost $25 for private, noncommercial vehicles; $12 for single-entry (foot, bike, etc.); and $20 for motorcycles. Go to www.nps.gov/yell and click on “Fees & Reservations.”
When driving in Yellowstone, it’s hard to predict how long it will take to get from one place to another. Partly, it depends on traffic and weather, but it also depends on how often you want to stop to look at scenery and wildlife. You’ll receive a map when you enter the park, and popular sights along the roads are clearly marked. When you see a line of cars pulled onto the shoulder of the road, it usually means there’s an animal within viewing distance — and the more cars, the better the sighting. Safely view and photograph animals from the road and do not approach or disturb them.
Remember, Yellowstone is big. You won’t be able to see it all in a single visit. You’re liable to meet fellow travelers who have been here dozens of times and still haven’t exhausted its possibilities. But don’t worry, Yellowstone will still be here for your second, fifth and 10th visits. The iconic spots — Old Faithful, Lower Falls, Yellowstone Lake — will be familiar from paintings and photographs, but seeing them in person is a humbling, enthralling experience. They’re not just as good as you’ve imagined — they’re better.