Yellowstone National Park Travel Guide

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Yellowstone National Park Travel Guide

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Grandfather of the national park system, Yellowstone became the first national park open to the public on March 1, 1872. Today, millions of nature-seeking travelers descend upon the park (mostly in summer, but many during the beautiful winter, too) to see the park’s unique hydrothermal and geologic wonders, waterfalls, lakes, vast plains and wildlife, from moose and elk to bison and bears. More than 60 percent of the world’s geysers are here – including that most famous one of all, Old Faithful – as well as colorful, bubbling mud pots. Get back to nature in the grandest way possible at Yellowstone. Here’s your handy Yellowstone National Park travel guide:
 
Where Is Yellowstone National Park? How Do I Get Around Yellowstone National Park?
Yellowstone is in the northwest United States and covers 3,472 square miles in three states – with 96 percent of the park in Wyoming. Small sections of the park are in Montana and Idaho. If you’re flying to Yellowstone, you’ll likely land at one of the regional airports nearby – Jackson, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana; or Idaho Falls, Idaho. During the peak season, there are direct flights into West Yellowstone, Montana.
 
If you’re driving to Yellowstone, you’ll take Highway 20, 191, 89, 212 or 14/16, all of which connect to or border the park, depending on which direction you’re coming from. There are five entrances: north, northeast, east, south and west. Once you’re in the park itself, there are eight visitor hubs, compete with visitor centers, museums and accommodations: Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower-Roosevelt, Canyon Village, Fishing Bridge, West Thumb, Grant Village, Old Faithful and Madison. Less developed areas include the wildlife-watching spots of Lamar and Hayden valleys.
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Where Should I Stay When Visiting Yellowstone National Park?
In a park as large as Yellowstone, there are countless options for lodging. Think about what you want to see the most and try to find a hotel or campground that puts you within easy driving distance of those sights. Also consider moving accommodations during your trip, in order to maximize sightseeing in different sections of the park. There are some fantastic lodges within the park, but keep in mind you’ll have to book far in advance. Towns outside of the park, but close to an entrance, are also an option for accommodations.
 
Inside the park, we recommend:
 
Old Faithful Inn: This popular and iconic lodge is the largest log structure in the world and gives you a front-row seat on one of the park’s must-see attractions. And it’s not everyday you can stay overnight in a national historic landmark.
 
Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins:
Open year-round, the timber-, log- and cedar lodge is an all-service property with stylish cabins and guestrooms.
 
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins: Open year-round, this property offers standard guestrooms, cabins and one-room suites, all a short distance from its namesake hot springs.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins: Another national historic landmark, this elegant property sits on the banks of Yellowstone Lake.
 
Lake Lodge Cabins: Pull up a rocking chair and contemplate the vast expanse of Yellowstone Lake and tranquil meadows from the veranda at the main lodge of Lake Lodge Cabins.
 
Canyon Lodge & Cabins: This is the largest property within the boundary of Yellowstone National Park and offers a variety of guestrooms, suites and cabins.
 
Grant Village: Named for President Ulysses S. Grant (who declared Yellowstone as the first national park), Grant Village offers hundreds of guestrooms, most with fantastic lake views.
 
Roosevelt Lodge & Cabins: Rustic cabins, a charming front porch, family-style dining define this property near Tower Falls.
 

Other Places to Stay Near Yellowstone:

 
Jackson, Wyoming: A popular point for Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, this quintessentially western town is not only beautiful, but has all the amenities you’ll want and need, great shopping and dining and many accommodation choices.
 
Cody, Wyoming: Consider Cody on the east side of Yellowstone National Park for its convenience to great hiking and the opportunity to stay on a working ranch.
 
Island Park, Idaho: Close to the west entrance, this small town boasts a 36.8-mile Main Street! The landscape is remarkable because the Island Park Caldera, one of the world’s largest, was formed after a volcanic eruption two million years ago.
 
West Yellowstone, Montana: One of the most popular places to stay because it’s just a mile from Yellowstone National Park, this bustling tourist hub offers an airport, shopping, dining, museums and more.
 
Bozeman, Montana: This picture-perfect college town sits in the Rocky Mountains near Yellowstone National Park. If you choose to stay here, don’t miss the Museum of the Rockies, home to the largest collection of dinosaur fossils in the country.

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What Is the Best Month to Visit Yellowstone National Park and How Can I Avoid the Crowds?
Yellowstone is open year-round, with the exception of two short shoulder season (about two months total) to transition from season to season. This is typically sometime in March of April in the spring and September and October in the fall. The best months to visit Yellowstone National Park are July and August when the temperatures are warm, but of course, this popular time means lots of other tourist sharing the roads, the sights and the accommodations. Aim to play your trip for the beginning or end of the summer season – you may just have to pack a few warmer clothing pieces, but the quieter ambience will be worth it. The summer temperatures are generally in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit, but nighttime can get as chilly as 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
 
If you’re considering a winter trip to Yellowstone – and you definitely should, not only for the lack of crowds, but for the optimal wildlife viewing opportunities, including wolves – you’ll experience temperatures around zero or below. Layer warmly and you can enjoy a full day of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in a winter wonderland.
 
How much does it cost to go to Yellowstone National Park?
Of course, budget is personal and what is costs to go to Yellowstone National Park for your family may vary wildly from another family. On average, a seven-day trip to the park will run about $1,600 for a solo traveler, $2,900 for a couple and $5,400 for a family of four. Hotel rates range from $70 to over $300 per night. And you’ll want to budget anywhere from $50 to $100 per person for local transportation, activities and dining.
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How to Visit Yellowstone National Park
You’re going to be driving – a lot – in Yellowstone and if you’re visiting in the summer, a lot of that driving will be slow. The traffic can be congested on the main roads, sometimes due to human drivers, sometimes due to wandering bison!
 
The main roads that link the five park entrances are the Grand Loop Road, Norris Canyon Road, West Entrance Road, North Entrance Road, South Entrance Road and East Entrance Road.
 
Plan on three or four days minimum to visit Yellowstone National Park (and tack on two more days if you’re visiting nearby Grand Teton National Park). The best way to tour Yellowstone is by car unless you are on a bus tour or with a group travel operator that offers transportation.
 
So, how long does it take to drive the Yellowstone Grand Loop? Plan on 4 to 7 hours to drive the loop in full, although you’ll likely be breaking that into chunks depending on where you staying. Don’t try to drive it all in one day. From each of the five entrances, it’s about an hour’s drive to get to the Grand Loop, which then snakes it way for 142 miles through Yellowstone National Park. As you make your way along the loop, you’ll get to every classic sightseeing destination: Mammoth Hot Springs, the Fountain Pots, Old Faithful and more.

How Do People Spend 3 Days in Yellowstone?

 
Short on time and want to pack in the best of Yellowstone in just three days? Here’s what we suggest.
 
Day One: Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, Grand Prismatic Spring, geyser basins near Old Faithful, Canyon Village, West Yellowstone.
 
Day Two: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, drive over Dunraven Pass, Hayden Valley, Mud Volcano .
 
Day Three: Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley
What Should You Not Miss in Yellowstone National Park?
 
From its famous geysers and bubbling hot springs to its gushing waterfalls and wildlife-rich valleys, here are the top sights in Yellowstone National Park:
 

Thermal Features in Yellowstone National Park

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Old Faithful: You can’t miss that iconic, steaming spout shooting, on average, 130 feet into the air. It erupts approximately every hour and a half – check the visitor center for more accurate timing. Watch from the perimeter of the geyser or grab a table at the Old Faithful Inn’s dining room. Or, hike one mile to Observation Point and see the Upper Geyser Basin from above.
 
Upper Geyser Basin: This is Yellowstone’s largest geyser basin and contains the world’s largest concentration of hot springs. There are more than 150 geysers in this area, including Old Faithful. Most of the geothermal features are close to the Firehole River.
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Grand Prismatic Spring: Located in the Midway Geyser, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the country’s largest hot spring. It’s 370 feet in size and approximately 121 feet deep. You’ll be mesmerized by the kaleidoscopic, swirling colors – from deep red to bright yellow to brilliant orange (the colors are actually caused by colorful thermophilic bacteria and their particular hue depends on the temperature of the water). Try to get there early to avoid the crowds, but expect fog until late morning when it’s cooler. Tip: Head to the Fairy Falls overlook for great views of the spring.
 
Fountain Paint Pot Trail: As you hike the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, you’ll see hydrothermal features that speak of Yellowstone’s still-active volcano – notice hot springs, geysers, mud pots and fumaroles.
 
Mud Volcano: Check out this area of muddy hot springs and steaming vents north of Fishing Bridge Junction.
 
West Thumb Geyser Basin:This is the largest geyser basin on the shores of Yellowstone Lake and includes Potts Basin to the north. West Thumb itself is a caldera in a caldera, about the same size as the Crater Lake caldera in Oregon.
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Norris Geyser Basin: Move over, Old Faithful – Norris Geyser Basin is the oldest, hottest geothermal spot in Yellowstone National Park. Walk the boardwalks to see Echinus Geyser and Steamboat Geyser within this otherworldly landscape.
 
Porcelain Basin: Another eye-popping geothermal sight, and the fastest changing area in the Norris Geyser Basin, so even if you’ve visited Yellowstone before, this is worth another look.
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Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces:Watch as the bubbling waters trickle down the travertine terrace of Mammoth Hot Springs. You can get to the various terrace levels via the boardwalks. Consider walking to the Upper Terraces for even better views. And keep a close eye out for the elk that typically graze along the edge of the springs.
 

Waterfalls

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Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone: You can’t miss this 20-mile-long, 1-mile-wide canyon formed by natural wind and water erosion. This is one of the most popular hiking spots in Yellowstone National Park. Favorite trails include Artist and Lookout Points for their incredible views of the canyon. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone offers the chance to see the Lower, Upper and Crystal Falls that together make up Yellowstone Falls.
 
Lower Falls: This is the tallest waterfall in Yellowstone National Park – 308 feet tall. See the falls up close at the Brink of the Lower Falls, Red Rock Point, Artists Point, Uncle Tom’s Trail and various points along the South Rim Trail.
 
Upper Falls: View this impressive 109-foot waterfall from the Brink of the Upper Falls platform or Uncle Tom’s Trail.
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Tower Falls: Look for this stunning 132-foot waterfall in the northeastern section of Yellowstone National Park near Tower Junction. Visitors may not hike to the bottom of the falls, but instead to the Tower Fall overlook where you can see Tower Creek flow into the Yellowstone River. You may even glimpse the resident bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks and black bears.
 

Views

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Inspiration Point: Hike on the North Rim Trail to Inspiration Point (or drive to the parking area at the point). You can walk down a short flight of stairs to the lookout point, which offers incredible views up and down the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
 
Point Sublime: This viewpoint on the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone lets you see the canyon wall to the northeast beyond Artist Point. It’s worth the 3-mile roundtrip hike to see vistas you can’t glimpse by car.
 
Lookout Point: This panoramic overlook on the north rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone boasts stunning views of the Lower Falls.
Where Can I See Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park?
Any visitor to Yellowstone National Park is hoping to glimpse the wild, unfettered wildlife that roams within this massive park. The park is home to the largest concentration of mammals, both large and small, in the Lower 48 United States.
 
You’re sure to see bison – they’re everywhere – probably in front of your car, blocking traffic. (Just another reason to take it slow when driving on Yellowstone roadways.) Stay in your car and never approach or feed wildlife of any species.
 
Bring along a pair of binoculars so you can see animals in the distance as well, including wolves, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, coyotes, bears, mountain goats and more.
 
Don’t miss these two wildlife hot spots:
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Lamar Valley: The wildlife haven of Lamar Valley sits between the Northeast Entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs in the Tower-Roosevelt section of the park. There are bison for days, grizzly bears, pronghorns, bald eagles and wolves. Stay alert when you’re driving and stay at least 100 yards away from wolves and bears and 25 yards or more from other mammals, such as elk and bison.
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Hayden Valley: For hordes of bison, elk, coyotes – even grizzly bears – head to Hayden Valley in the Canyon Village area of the park. There are two fantastic hiking trails here: the Hayden Valley Trail and the Mary Mountain Trail. You can also get a good view from the Grand Loop Road.

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