Yellowstone Discovery: Planning your Trip

Golden Gate – Yellowstone (near Mammoth entrance)

To celebrate Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary, this month we will be embarking on a virtual tour of the world’s first national park.

Yellowstone has captured the hearts of millions of travelers who have journeyed from all over the globe to explore the nature, wonder and majesty of the this natural treasure.

Yellowstone owns a piece of my heart. I fell in love with Yellowstone when I spent my freshmen year attending Montana State University in Bozeman. Unfortunately I was in a freak car accident in 2003 that forced me to move back to NC to recover, but Yellowstone never left my heart.

In 2004 I was blessed to spend a summer living and working at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. On the edge of twenty, I packed my bags and drove across country with a CD mix tape (yes those were a thing then) and headed west ready for adventure.

My dorm was less than a five minute walk from the Old Faithful Geyser. Bison would often frequent our area and you could see the Milky Way at night. I loved living in Yellowstone. During that summer alone I hiked over 100 miles of trails and explored every road and backroad I could find. I learned everything I could about the park’s unique thermal features, natural and cultural history.

After my stint working at Old Faithful, I moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University. My goal – to be a hit songwriter and unfortunately the other Adele got their first.

When I wasn’t writing songs and attending class – I was working to save money for an annual pilgrimage to Yellowstone. Once you visit Yellowstone it never really leaves you – you long to return.

After graduation in 2009 the economy was reeling and my anticipated path of writing songs with Taylor Swift didn’t work out (I can still dream). I packed my bags and ended up in Bozeman again. This time running my own music business and spending most of my free weekends exploring Montana and Yellowstone Country.

I preface this entry with my backstory to shed light on my unique viewpoint when it comes to YNP. I lived and worked in the park and surrounding region for many years and can provide an insiders perspective.

Everyone should visit Yellowstone (and neighboring Grand Teton) at least once. I hope this blog series will inform you about the park and also encourage you to plan your visit.

With the pandemic – Yellowstone visitation went up from 3 million to 4 million visitors in 2020/21. A lot of this was fueled by lockdown and the desire to get outside. I understand Yellowstone needs to be preserved and increased visitation worries some, but at the end of the day Yellowstone was created for the ‘benefit and enjoyment of the people.’ It is a place of wild wonder that begs exploration – it is also a place of dangerous beauty that you don’t got into without respect and awe. When you visit Yellowstone do so with wonder in your heart and a respect for the land.

Where to Start:

Throughout this series will zero in on topics from history and geology, hiking trails and lodging to key places of interest…Yellowstone is a huge park (second largest in the Lower 48) and extremely diverse in it’s topography, recreation and travel options.

I’ve visited YNP over fifty times and I still haven’t seen it all and that’s okay. Don’t stress if don’t see everything the first time. That being said, I do recommend at least a week to see the top sites and have time to get off the beaten path a little.

Later in this series we will dive deep into various itineraries depending on your travel goals. I’m always happy to answer any questions too as you plan your trip to ensure you can tailor it to your specific goals. Yellowstone has something for everyone from recreation to scenic drives and out of this world geology – Yellowstone never runs out of wonder.

As you begin to plan your trip – I would recommend visiting the NPS website. It provides a wealth of information about the park. You can download the YNP map, learn about lodging and hikes, visitor centers, ranger activities, thermal features and more. The park service also has a ton of great online virtual tours (which I have enjoyed during COVID when I’m stuck at my computer).

You can also check with local chamber and tourism councils like Bozeman, Big Sky, West Yellowstone, Jackson (WY), Cody (WY) to gather information

I recommend purchasing a Yellowstone Map – National Geographic has a great topographical one that really gives you a deeper view. The official park map is fine for road travel, but it helps to have a more detailed view if you like to hike or are interested in the area topography.

There are several really great tour books on YNP…

  • Yellowstone Forever (non-profit for YNP) has a great guidebook selection that I recommend – click here
  • Also the Moon Guide is helpful

Some have recommended the Gypsy app. I have not used it (cell phone service is iffy in the park except Old Faithful, Canyon…), but it has great reviews and acts as a tour guide as you are driving.

How to get there?

Yellowstone is located primarily in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, with the northern and western entrances in Montana. A small section of Yellowstone (the remote and mostly inaccessible Bechler area) is in Idaho.

Flying:

  • I recommend flying into Bozeman Montana’s Gallatin Field. I lived in Bozeman over five years and this airport provides easy access with nonstop flights from hubs like Chicago and Minneapolis.
    • Flying into Bozeman also gives you the advantage of having two direct ways of getting into Yellowstone – via the windswept Paradise Valley (Northern entrance at Gardiner Montana) or the lush and winding Gallatin Canyon scenic drive that leads to the west entrance (West Yellowstone, MT)
    • Bozeman is a great town and cultural hub of Yellowstone country with unique shops, nationally renowned artists, delicious restaurants and acclaimed local sites like the Museum of the Rockies and Montana State University
    • Stay tuned for more articles about Bozeman in the coming month(s)
  • Cody, WY: I love Cody and recommend including a stop in Cody during your trip. You can fly into Cody – but I usually recommend this only if you are planning to stay in the Cody area for most of your trip and using it as a base. Cody is roughly seventy miles east of Yellowstone. Cody is part of Yellowstone Country and yet its proximity to the equally breathtaking and truly western Bighorn Canyon area means that you might just want to plan a ‘Cody’ trip if you are flying in there. Cody and the area of the Bighorn is so amazing that you could spend weeks in that area alone
  • Billings: Montana’s largest city is logical guess for many who want to fly into YNP – while not as convenient as Bozeman – the advantage of Billings is that you can enter the park through the mountain hideaway of Red Lodge and enter into Yellowstone via the famed Beartooth Highway.
    • Beartooth Highway is an All-American Road (think Blue Ridge Parkway) that connects Red Lodge to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone at Cooke City.
      • Unfortunately every time I have tried to drive on the Beartooth Highway (I’ve been to Red Lodge and Cooke City but not on the same day) – snow has closed the Beartooth. This road usually doesn’t open until at least the end of June and closes in October.
  • Idaho Falls – 3 hours from Yellowstone area and a decent sized airport. This would give travelers the advantage of seeing the beauty of southeast Idaho en route to YNP
  • Jackson Hole, WY: This makes sense if your also focusing on the Grand Tetons (just south of YNP).
  • Salt Lake City, UT – Several YNP friends have flown into SLC and driven the six hour road trip to Yellowstone for several reasons: 1) SLC is a huge airport and you can sometimes get cheaper flights and rental cars) 2) you can extend the trips by combining Northern Utah with Idaho and YNP country.

Transportation:

You will need a car! Yellowstone is a driving trip. While you will have the opportunity to hike into the backcountry – you need a vehicle to get in an out of the park. NPS is offering some limited shuttles, but don’t fly in expecting to get far if you don’t rent a car.

  • If you don’t want to rent a car – you can fly into Bozeman and coordinate with a local tour company – but that is not ideal.
  • All the major airports have car rentals.

Where to Stay:

We will continue to discuss lodging options as we explore specific areas like Old Faithful and Canyon; West Yellowstone and Gardiner…but here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Yellowstone offers a variety of lodging options inside the park. I definitely recommend booked 1 or 2 nights in the park, but economically and from a reservations standpoint I advise you focus on booking rooms outside of the park during peak season.
    • I started planning a YNP trip in late 2021 for summer 2022 and all the rooms were booked. Rooms will open up – but it can be the ‘wild west’ of reservations – especially post COVID.
      • I love each of the lodging options offered in the park and it is fun to mix and match during your stay.
        • I love staying one night at the Old Faithful Inn – the history is amazing and it has the ambiance of a grand old park hotel.
        • The Snow Lodge at Old Faithful is modern enough without compromising the ‘mountain feel’ of Yellowstone
        • My favorite hotel is the Lake Hotel – stepping into the hotel you feel like you are in a dream. The views of Yellowstone Lake are superb and the lodge reminds me of The Great Gatsby – elegant and of a more refined era
        • Roosevelt offers the true dude ranch type experience from cabins overlooking the Lamar Valley area; horseback riding and more. I love this spot
    • When I lived in the area I usually would camp and then go out to dinner at one of the lodges. Camping in the park is amazing and I will dedicate time to focus on this in a future blog.
      • Quick Tip: Canyon is my favorite campground because it is centrally located and within walking distance to food, showers, laundry and of course the beautiful Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
      • We also enjoyed Madison – which is around 30 minutes from West Yellowstone and 30 minutes from Old Faithful.
      • Grant is also a good campground – but it gets very cold because the sites are right on the edges of Yellowstone Lake

Outside the park:

  • I could write an entire book just on lodging outside the park – from dude ranches to boutique hotels or chains – there are tons of lodging options from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, Livingston and Gardiner, Red Lodge and Cooke City, Cody and Jackson, Island Park ID and more…
  • The key is to think about what type of lodging experience are you looking for?
    • I often recommend mix and matching with maybe a night at a resort and then renting a cabin…Yellowstone is so large that you can build several lodging stops into your itinerary with variety to truly take in the different regions of the national park and Yellowstone country.
  • Bozeman: I definitely recommend Bozeman for lodging outside the park for a few reasons
      • 1. Access: You can easily get to the northern and western entrances of YNP
        • Bozeman is only 90 minutes from Gardiner MT and West Yellowstone MT and both drives are arguably the most scenic in the country.
      • 2. Lodging: Bozeman has dozens of hotels from national chains like Hilton to boutique bed and breakfasts. The rates are usually slightly cheaper than in the park
      • 3. Thing to do: Bozeman is a destination in its own right – with museums, trails, food and music.
  • West Yellowstone, MT: This western gateway town has a fun ‘campy’ vibe with national chains like Holiday Inn and local motels and resorts. I love ‘West’ – because it is literally right on the border with Yellowstone and offers good food, and neighboring access to the glorious Gallatin Canyon and neighboring Hebgen Lake.
    • Definitely my top choice for Gateway towns/access to the park
    • Accessible via Highway 191 via I-90 (in Bozeman)
  • Gardiner: I recommend spending one night in Gardiner (at least) where you can really focus on exploring the northern part of Yellowstone and the neighboring Paradise Valley. Gardiner has a lot of heart and embodies the spirit of YNP – it is the originally ‘gateway’ to Yellowstone (accessible via Highway 89, south of Livingston MT off I-90)
  • Cody: An experience within itself – Cody is seventy miles east of Yellowstone and embodies the spirit of the American West. Founded by Buffalo Bill Cody – this town is home to the renown Buffalo Bill Center (five museums in one) and the Cody Nite Rodeo.
  • Jackson Hole (Jackson): While Jackson is a fan favorite of many of my friends…it is my least favorite gateway town. It has a headache inducing mix of swanky cowboy cool with tacky cheap tourism traps. I am not saying this to be negative to Jackson – which obviously has its charms, but for I personally would not recommend it as my top place to stay – unless you are focusing on the Tetons.

What to Pack:

When packing for Yellowstone it is important to remember that the weather is erratic and you need to be prepared for extremes. Layering is important. I remember starting off the day with a dusting of snow and three layers and by mid afternoon I was down to a light fleece and by afternoon a tee shirt.

  • If you plan on hiking make sure you have proper layers (and of course plenty of water and a first aid kid) For more info I recommend this link

When to Visit?

Yellowstone is technically open all year, but only from the Northern to Northeast entrances.

The majority of roads are closed to vehicular traffic from November to April (and beyond depending on snow accumulation).

Each season in Yellowstone is remarkable and beautiful, but summer and early fall are my favorites as I am a hiker and I love scenic driving.

I love winter because of the unique quiet serenity and crossroads of fiery thermal features against negative degree temps.

Winter: The winter season is limited. You can drive into the park (limited access) via Gardiner/Mammoth to Cooke City. Fun fact – Cooke City doesn’t have a school so kids are bused in from Cooke City to Gardiner every morning (around seventy minute drive!) Cooke City is only accessible in the winter via Yellowstone so they keep that portion of the road clear.

  • The Old Faithful area is open in the winter (Snow Lodge); Snow coaches bring in travelers from West Yellowstone; snowmobilers also tour the park in the winter. Some even ski into Yellowstone…

Additional Prep Tips:

  • Book early and plan early!
  • Learn about park safety and rules ahead of time.
    • Yellowstone is a beautiful, but DANGEROUS place with over 10,000 thermal features. Many have tragically perished by falling into hot springs or get injured by wildlife simply for not following park rules. Don’t come to YNP unless you are going to respect it. Otherwise you put yourselves, the wildlife and the park in danger!

I can’t wait to continue this journey with you! My next post will be about the history and geology of the park…from there we will learn about various areas of this vast wilderness and discuss popular ‘hotspots’ like Old Faithful and beyond.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s