Guide to Planning a Trip to Yellowstone National Park

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There's a lot of information on this web site and on the web for how to plan a trip to Yellowstone National Park.  I thought I'd try to consolidate some of it here using my information and links to other sites.  You should always use the browser's BACK BUTTON to return here.  The buttons on other pages are not set to return to this page.  Bear in mind that this is my thought process and yours may well differ.  Feel free to adapt it to yours.

This page is set up to scroll through all the information.  If you'd prefer to see a list of topics with links to the subject matter, click here.

Background

Yellowstone is huge. The first time I was there, I knew very little about it. I was actually planning a trip to Glacier National Park and decided on a short stay in Yellowstone. There are several things to consider about the visit, especially if you've never been there before. I'll try to cover some of them here. Bear in mind, this is somewhat biased toward how Sue and I travel.

When should I start planning?

Ideally, start far in advance.  Starting in June isn't too early for the following June.  The problem is getting the in-park accommodations you might want.  You don't need to worry about plane or car reservations this early, though.  If you decide last minute to visit Yellowstone, you'll need some luck with reservations in the park.  They do get cancellations so it might work for you.  You might not get your first choice of where to stay at the last minute but something is better than nothing.  Don't let starting late keep you from making the attempt.  If you try a last minute trip, call Xanterra to see what's available.  Don't assume their website is current.

When Should I Visit Yellowstone

I like to visit in early to mid-June.  The weather can be less than ideal but the wildlife viewing is great.  That's the time of year to see babies in the park.  Bear cubs, elk and bison calves and wolf pups if you're very lucky.  People also like visiting in mid to late May.  The reasons are the same but the park isn't fully open.  The weather may also be somewhat worse.  June may have less people in the park than July but don't expect empty.  There are a lot of people there in June.

July and August are also good times.  The weather can be chilly in the morning and pretty warm in the afternoon.  You likely won't see as many grizzlies during the summer since they move to higher ground.  You should still see enough wildlife to make you think you're some place special.  You'll want to get up very early on wildlife days.  Early means before dawn, not 8:00AM.  The animals don't like the heat any more than you do.  The park is probably more crowded than it is earlier in the year or in the fall.  Don't let that stop you as the park is huge and can handle a lot of people.

September would take you to the elk rut and let you see the leaves changing.  Not sure where the bears are at this time but it may depend on the temperature.  The park begins closing at this time too so that may affect your accommodations.

Other times of year, the park isn't fully open and some of the roads may be closed.  Make sure you check the Yellowstone website and the Xanterra website for information about what's available.  You may need to call Xanterra to get current information.  Also remember that in spite of their intentions, a late snow can change the road conditions.

During the summer, there can be road construction in the park and it may impact your ability to travel within the park.  You could schedule around it but I'd probably just deal with it.  The park service has information on their website concerning any such delays.  Maps show where the work is and a text box lower down explains the impact.  These don't mean you shouldn't go but they may impact where you want to stay.

Which Airport Should I Fly Into

We've only flown into Jackson Hole, WY.  I like flying into the Tetons and driving through them to Yellowstone.  We go shopping in Jackson before heading north.  Below are the other options for flying to Yellowstone that I've been able to figure out along with some comments.

You can fly into West Yellowstone, MT but that's a small plane into a small airport.  You'll still have to connect somewhere else first.  I didn't even check prices for that one.

You can fly into Denver or several other airports as well.  My feeling is that the drive is too long or has too little to recommend it.  As I mentioned earlier, it depends on whether you're more concerned about saving time or money.

What Kind of Car Should I Rent?

You can rent the smallest car that will handle you and all your "stuff".  You won't normally need an SUV but you may want to consider one for early May.  We normally get a small SUV to handle the ice chest, backpacks and camera gear.  Its just nice to have the extra room.  I use www.kayak.com to look for the company with the cheapest rate for the type car I want.  That's worked out well for us.  They show all the prices for what you asked for but you go to the company to confirm the rental.  Prices for similar vehicles can vary widely.

One small advantage to SUV's is clearance.  Sometimes in Yellowstone, you park in areas where  you wouldn't if there wasn't a grizzly in the valley.  You can get into a situation where the shoulder was lower than you expected and you have trouble getting back to the road.  This can be easily avoided by simply paying attention to what you're doing.

We've only rented in Jackson Hole, either at the airport or in town.  Two of the rental companies have moved from the airport and are located in town, near Albertson's.  They're cheaper and it worked out well.  We caught an 8:00 AM flight while staying at Jackson Lake Lodge.  It wasn't a problem to drive into town since they opened very early.  To save enough money, I'd do it again.

If you're there in May or June, make sure your car has a snow scraper.  Ours didn't.  If it would have been colder, we might have had problems getting to the gas station to buy one.

Where Should I Stay

In my biased opinion, you should stay in the park.  Whether you camp, stay in a lodge or stay in a cabin, you should be near the action and cut down your driving time.  You can do without a TV or a pool for a few days.  So can your kids once they see what is really going on out there.  There's nothing wrong with staying in a couple of places in the park.  It cuts down on the driving and lets you get a different perspective on things.

Inside the Park.  Below are my thoughts on some of the housing areas.  Remember its partly my opinion and yours might differ.  We get more hung up on location than we do fancy accommodations.  You make reservations at the Xanterra website or by calling them at the number on their site.  I don't have any camping information here but the park service website has all you need.  This map will show you where the lodging areas are located.

If I were to rank my favorite accommodations in the park, they would be:

Camping.   We've never camped in Yellowstone, so I don't have any direct information.  Instead, I'll provide a link to the National Park Service's website on campgrounds.  Pay careful attention to what services they offer and whether they allow tents.  The campgrounds don't all have showers, for instance.  I'd probably prefer Canyon since I like they location and they have all the things you'd expect.  Slough Creek also is in an interesting location.  Here's a link to another site with information on the campgrounds within Yellowstone.  It has a text explanation rather than a large matrix to follow.

Outside the Park.  If you need swimming pools, internet and the like, you'll have to stay outside the park.  I realize we all have different needs but I don't think that's the best way to visit Yellowstone. You should be close to what makes Yellowstone so great. That said, there are three main gateway areas you can find places to stay.  There's an additional possibility in Jackson, WY but that is simply too  long of a drive if you have a choice.  Here's a few thoughts on what the locations offer and some links that might help you find a place to stay.  I haven't stayed in any of them so no opinions.

Should I Stay in One Place or Move?

There are different opinions on this.  It partly depends on how long you are there.  I’ve never felt that packing to move out everyday and checking in somewhere else that evening is a good use of time.  I suppose it depends on your tolerance for such things.  The reason people do it is that the park is bigger than you think, if you’ve never been there.  You also travel slower than you think because of the opportunities to get distracted by wildlife and assorted traffic jams.  If you move around some, getting to Hayden or Lamar Valleys in the early AM will be easier.  If you stay the entire trip at Mammoth, for instance, getting to Hayden Valley is a long haul.  Especially if you want to be there at 6:00AM.  On one trip we split the time between Canyon and Roosevelt.  We had to spend some time organizing clothes for the move because we didn't want to mix dirty with clean.  Other than that, I enjoyed being in two different places.  You have to decide at what point its more trouble than its worth.  Two would normally be my limit but we did 3 once because Sue wanted to stay in a cabin at Lake the first night.

How Long Should I Stay?

You should stay 4 days if you can.  If you need to stay less, you might miss some things but you'll have a great time anyway.  If the best you can do is day trip from Jackson, then go for it.  Just don't forget to start early and get back late.

I like to stay 6 or 7 days.  I have no issue with backtracking and seeing things more than once.  We basically like the wildlife and spend many hours in pursuit of whatever kind of critters we see.  If you can, don't forget to save a day for Grand Teton National Park too.

Dining Choices Including Picnicking from Your Ice Chest

So you're a foodie and only interested in fine dining.  You're likely to be disappointed with all theYellowstone Picnic Area places in Yellowstone.  There's food areas at all the junctions.  Here's a link to the park service's website and what type of restaurants can be found there.  They refer to fine dining at two locations.  I believe these are the restaurant at Lake Hotel and Old Faithful Inn.  The dinner we had at Old Faithful was an elk and trout surf and turf.  I don't know if it was fine dining but it was pretty good.  Reservations are required at both places for the dining room.  Make your reservations by calling Xanterra in advance of your trip.

Of the others, Roosevelt is my favorite.  Their menu is a little different and the bison sirloin was excellent.  That coming from someone that doesn't really eat steak.  The various cafeterias are OK.  They're pretty quick if you are on the go.  Canyon has a lounge where you can have a couple of drinks before dinner.  The Old Faithful Inn has some nice areas for a couple of beverages as well.  Roosevelt's porch with the rockers is hard to beat.

I can't really talk about meals without mentioning the ice chest.  If you're willing to get up at dawn to see wildlife, you shouldn't have to interrupt what you're doing to find the nearest cafeteria.  We take an ice chest and load it up with breakfast stuff, tortillas, chicken, cheese and water.  There's several nice picnic areas in Yellowstone and we try to take advantage of them.  We just give the ice chest to someone when we leave.  You could also pack it with clothes and take it with you on the plane.  The store at the junctions has some food available.  If you run low, they might have what you want.  If not, there's a grocery store in West Yellowstone and I assume one in Gardiner, MT.

What should I get for my ice chest?

We mainly got things for breakfast and lunch. We stopped at Albertson's in Jackson but any decent grocery store would do. We also got water and soft drinks and kept some in the ice chest. You can get ice at the grocery store and reload ice at the gas stations in Yellowstone. Here's a list of the type of things we picked up.

We picked up a few things for lunch. Nothing great because we wanted to eat and move on to the next thing planned for the day.

There's a few other things we normally pick up. Not directly related to breakfast or lunch.

Weather

Think cool mornings and evenings with warm to hot afternoons.  At least in late June through August.  Also expect it to change at a moment's notice.  We also felt threatened by late afternoon storms that apparently went up some other valley because we didn't get any rain.

In May and early to mid June, it can still be wintry.  The low elevation is 6800 and the high is 9000 or so.  When we got there on June 7, it was snowing.  The temps were in the 30s and the wind was howling.  We were ready for it but still kind of surprised. 

Pay attention to the weather before you go.  Better to not get an unpleasant surprise.  You should also have a rain suit or at least a poncho.  If  you're there anyway, no reason to let a little rain get in your way.

What to Take

I'm not about to create a packing list for you.  I will list some things for you to consider and try to explain why you might need them.  You should make up your own mind about whether or not you agree.

What Things Must I See

There are too many to really list them all.  You might not even like the same things I do.  I'll list a few things here but they will be more for people that have never been to the parm.  The map link will show the approximate location of these sights in the park.  These are not in a particular order.  You can decide that for your self.  Some of these might truly be Must Sees but are cool in their own right and near other places on the list.

  • Upper Geyser Basin. Upper Geyser Basin (map) - Much more interesting than I expected.  Located right beside Old Faithful.  It has a boardwalk so its an easy walk and OK for wheel chairs.  Make sure you stay on the boardwalk and keep an eye on the kids.  Young ones may not understand why they can't explore.  If you hustle a little, you can watch Old Faithful erupt, walk the Upper Basin and then rest on the bench while watching Old Faithful again.  If you see several eruptions here, you'll not make it in time but that's good too.

  • Old Faithful.  Click for larger pic.  Use BACK to returnOld Faithful (map) - Of course its well hyped.  Its also worth it.  Very cool to watch this geyser go off.  I think the eruptions are roughly every 90 minutes.  There's benches to sit on and its pretty easy to get set up to take a picture.  When we spent 3 nights at the Old Faithful Inn, we saw it erupt 6 times without making any plans to do so.

  • Old Faithful Inn Lobby.  Click for larger pic.  Use BACK to returnOld Faithful Inn (map) - This inn is over a hundred years old.  Its worth seeing even if you don't stay there.  If you're in the parking lot at Old Faithful, take a minute and walk up to the inn.  Even the lobby area is very cool and worth seeing.  Some of the old rooms have log walls but no bathroom.  You have to use the baths located down the hall.

  • Upper Falls from the Overlook.  Click for larger pic.  Use BACK to returnUpper Falls (map) - Easily seen from an overlook.  Trails give you better looks.  Take the turn off to the parking areas for both the Upper and Lower Falls.  The Upper ones are the first parking area you come to.  Plenty of parking and a short walk to the overlook.  This area is a short distance south of Canyon Junction and is accessed from the Grand Loop Road.

  • Lower Falls from Artists Point.  Click for larger pic.  Use BACK to returnLower Falls (map) - Artists Point is where you see the Lower Falls.  To me these are more impressive than the Upper Falls.  Continue to the parking area at the end of the road.  There are several different angles that you can take pictures from.  There's also a trail with a lot of steps that will take  you near the falls.  We haven't made that hike.

  • Brink of the Upper Falls.  Click to see larger picture.  Use BACK ARROW to return here.Brink of the Upper Falls (map) - This viewing area lets you watch the falls from the point where the river heads over the rocks and down.  The road to this parking area is just a little north of the road to Artist's Point and is well marked.  The view back up the river is pretty too.  The walk from the parking lot to the brink of the Upper Falls isn't too far.  This might not truly be a must see but is pretty cool and you'll drive right past the road anyway.

  • West Thumb Pool.  Click for larger pic.  Use BACK to returnWest Thumb Geyser Basin (map) - If you come in from the south entrance, you drive right by this small geyser basin.  In my opinion, its  worth a stop but may not really be a must see.  If you're staying up north in the park it might not be worth it simply due to the length of the drive and the number of larger basins in the park.  Its located very near Grant Junction.  Mostly we found very pretty pools and mud pots here.

  • Norris Geyser Basin.  Click for larger pic.  Use BACK to returnNorris Geyser Basin (map) - This is really two different basins located in the same area.  They're at Norris Junction on the west side of the park.  About a half hour south of Mammoth and 50 minutes north of Old Faithful.  We ended one of the days with a visit to Norris Geyser Basin.  Both Porcelain and Back Basins are worth seeing in my opinion.

  • Trout Creek section of Hayden Valley.  Click for larger pic.  Use BACK to returnHayden Valley (map) - This beautiful valley is an excellent place to see wildlife.  Beautiful scenery along the Yellowstone River.  We saw a large bison herd along and on the road.  Get here early.  We saw grizzlies, otters and the usual bison in June.  The Trout Creek area seems to offer opportunities to see grizzlies off in the distance.  Hayden Valley is on the east side of the park and starts a couple of miles south of Canyon Junction.  Don't be afraid to make multiple trips through this area.

  • Tower Fall.Tower Fall (map) - is located between Dunraven Pass and Roosevelt Lodge.  There's a fairly large parking area there and a store / gift shop.  The overlook is only a short walk.  The walkway used to go on down toward the bottom but washed out and was closed when we were last there.  In 2008 we watched a large bull moose in the field beside the store and parking lot.  The parking lot does get kind of full at times.

  • Lamar Valley Scenic Shot.  Click for larger pic.  Use BACK to returnLamar Valley (map) - Another great place to see wildlife.  Predators too.  Its located in the northeast part of the park.  The road into the valley starts at Roosevelt Lodge.  Its about 5 miles to the valley and the road ends at the Northeast Entrance in Cooke City.  Keep an eye out for people with scopes.  If you see some, stop and see what they're watching.  Get here early.  In 2008, we enjoyed watching 4 wolves torment a bison herd using our scope.

What Should I Use as an Itinerary in the Park

I put some sample itineraries on this site.  They might be helpful to you in planning your trip.  If  you don't like something about them, change them.  We've been there enough times that we just make it up as we go on a daily basis.  If you're new to the park, these might be useful.  There's text descriptions and maps.  The itineraries are based on starting at each of the junctions.  They may not be exactly what you want but should get you started.

Are there things I should never do in the park?

This section is offered to make you aware of things that might other people or get you in trouble with the rangers. It isn't here to limit your fun in any way.   There's likely more things that I'll think of and add later.  Here's a link to the NPS website on this topic.

Should I visit Grand Teton National Park

Yes, by all means.  Its worth spending a couple of nights there if  you can work it out.  We finally got a full day there in 2008 and really enjoyed it.  The other trips we were passing through or just had an afternoon.  The Tetons are beautiful in their own right and look nothing like Yellowstone.  Here's a link if some of our trip reports and pictures might be interesting to you.  The same page has links to some of the lodging in the park.

What Else Should I Consider

Here's a few assorted thoughts.  Not entirely planning information but things that might be useful during your stay.

What Are Some Other Information Sources