A beginner's guide to visiting Yellowstone National Park: Everything you should see and do
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I recently returned from an incredible trip to Yellowstone, our nation's first national park. It was very strange to be there in the days of COVID-19, but it was also one of my best visits yet, as it wasn't as crowded as it's been in the past. It was also my first time actually staying inside the park, which was quite a treat.
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Of course, you could easily spend weeks exploring the sprawling 2.2 million acre park and still not see it all. But even a day trip here or long weekend getaway is well worth your time. Here's everything you need to know to plan your trip to Yellowstone National Park.
What to see and do in Yellowstone
Let me start with the highlight: the wildlife.
Among the many rare species you might encounter are grizzly and brown bears, wolves, mountain lions, foxes, coyotes, elk, deer, buffalo, moose and every matter of birds. You can easily pull off the road and see any or all of these animals at once. Buffalo, in particular, are known to cause traffic jams as they use the same roads you do to commute.
Travelers will also discover a ton of adventure in this park. You can camp, hike in the backcountry, boat, fish, cycle and, in the winter, you can even try cross-country skiing.
Both biking and hiking are great ways to experience the natural wonder of this incredible park, and there are plenty of mountain biking and off-roading opportunities. Campsites are available from just $5 a night, and there are approximately 900 miles of trails to explore in the park — just be hyper-aware of your surroundings, as you'll be sharing the territory with some fearsome predators. When I was there last, I saw both bears and wolves.
There are so many amazing hikes here that aren't too difficult and are within walking distance of accessible parking areas. My favorite was probably the hike to Mystic Falls from Biscuit Basin, not too far from Old Faithful. The 2.5-mile round-trip walk takes you to a dramatic waterfall. If you hike a little farther you might luck out like I did and see Old Faithful erupt on the horizon.
Probably the most famous of all Yellowstone's attractions, Old Faithful is a massive geyser that erupts reliably every 60 to 110 minutes. It's a cone geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin and easily accessible by road, and park rangers can tell you when the next eruption is during the day. There are benches from which you can watch the spectacle. It erupts about 20 times per day, and the plume of water and steam can be as high as 180 feet!
You can usually stay at a lodge near Old Faithful, but for the 2020 season, only cabins are available.
Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
This river valley formed by the Yellowstone River is probably my favorite part of Yellowstone. I've been here now in several different seasons and it's always changing, always distinctly different and always awe-inspiring.
There are several viewpoints, and it's one of the most dramatic areas in the country. I'm especially fond of Artist Point. As you can imagine, they call it that for a reason.
You can also check out the Canyon's Lower or Upper Falls viewing areas. I highly recommend doing the Brink of the Lower Falls observation point where you can really get a sense of the river's immense power. If you're driving, be prepared to pull over constantly to get a new perspective.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs was one of the first parts of the park that saw policing back in the 1800s when poaching was a problem. The U.S. Army had a base there (it still houses park employees) and it's home to historic Fort Yellowstone.
Travelers will also find the Mammoth Hot Springs lodges and cabins, places to eat and even a gas station.
But the best features are the dramatic hot springs laced with boardwalks for closer observations. You can get a good look at the many steaming hydrothermal pools and the travertine terraces. You can walk (or drive) to the Upper Terraces. There's also a hiking trail circling the pools and falls, but bring your bear spray. In a 24-hour span, I saw a grizzly bear and her cubs, and the next morning I saw another grizzly near the road.
There are also herds of elk that call the area home. You're pretty much guaranteed to see elk during a trip here.
Biscuit Basin and Mystic Falls
Not far from Old Faithful you'll find Biscuit Basin, which is home to gorgeous hot springs and small geysers with fairly regular eruptions.
The mix of colors and textures in the rocks is striking. You can follow a wooden walkway and it will eventually lead to an easy hike to Mystic Falls and a spectacular waterfall in a river valley.
Related: State-by-state guide to reopening America
There are also plenty of fun family-friendly activities just outside the park in cities such as Gardiner and West Yellowstone, Montana. Consider, for example, the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. You and the kids can see live bears and wolves who can't return to the wild and learn a ton about the fearsome animals from a safe distance.
Whether you're exploring the park by foot or car, don't forget to grab an $80 annual national park pass. Yellowstone National Park normally charges a $35 entrance fee per vehicle, so if you have any other national park trips on the horizon, you can easily get your money's worth.
The best times to visit Yellowstone
The peak time is definitely summer when everything is open. It can get hot, but it's generally not humid. You should pack shorts for the daytime, and be sure to bring sweaters, a sweatshirt or a coat. Yellowstone is in the mountains and it gets cold at night even in the summertime.
You can travel here all year long, including during the winter, which would be a magical (albeit cold) time to visit Yellowstone. Warren Smith, a chiropractor at HealthSource in Butte, Montana, told me he has cross-country skied into the park from West Yellowstone, and outfitters will take even take you snowmobiling.
My personal favorite time to visit is in the early fall when the crowds are thinner, and the colors begin to change. Temperatures are more moderate and it's not quite so hot. You get more of the park to yourself and wildlife is more likely to be around. Keep in mind, though, there can be freak snowstorms even in September — so pack for anything.
Read our complete guide on the best times to visit Yellowstone.
Where to stay in Yellowstone
There are plenty of places for you to stay in and around Yellowstone. Both vacation rental properties and hotels are plentiful at all five entrances to Yellowstone (there are three in Montana and two in Wyoming).
Related: How to visit the national parks for less
Points hotels near Yellowstone
Search Cook City, Gardiner, Red Lodge or West Yellowstone in Montana for hotels or rental properties near the trio of Montana entrances. There are also plenty of places to bed down at the two Wyoming entrances. You can search Cody, Wyoming and areas in Idaho.
If you're looking for places to spend points, however, there are far fewer options unless you're willing to stay a few hours outside the park in places like Bozeman, Montana or Idaho Falls, Idaho.
There's a nice Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone where last-minute rooms in July started at $281 a night. That's steep, but if you book early you can certainly find better rates. A long weekend in September will set you back $252 a night, or you can use 45,000 IHG Rewards Points per night.
I booked a room here in July and, despite the last-minute reservation, managed to secure a decent rate. Just watch out for added taxes and fees (unlike the rest of Montana, there are taxes in West Yellowstone). The final price ended up being almost $300 a night. Ouch.
There are also two Choice hotel properties travelers may want to consider: An Ascend Hotel for $212 a night and a Comfort Inn starting at $186 a night in West Yellowstone. Choice also has select properties in Livingstone, Montana, but that's an hour away from the park.
Travelers can also consider the Days Inn by Wyndham West Yellowstone (from 15,000 Wyndham points per night). And if you have Best Western Rewards points, you could try the Best Western Desert Inn or the Best Western Weston Inn, both from 28,000 points per night.
If you're looking for a major chain hotel, you'll need to head to Bozeman, Montana for a Hilton or a Marriott property. Rates are generally better, but it's a good 2-hour drive to Yellowstone. Prices are also high during the peak summer season — yes, even in 2020 — and can easily run at least $250 per night.
When it welcomes its first guests on Aug. 18, the 122-room Kimpton Armory Hotel Bozeman will be one of the area's most exciting new properties. The art deco building dating back to 1941 and features a whiskey bar, a rooftop pool and a concert hall. It's about an hour from Big Sky and two hours to the north entrance to Yellowstone.
In Big Sky, the relatively new Wilson Hotel, a Residence Inn by Marriott, is one of the first from a major brand in the area.
Related: How to use points to stay near national parks
Staying inside Yellowstone's borders
Within the park, travelers will discover several rustic lodges. Xanterra is the concessioner for all accommodations inside Yellowstone National Park (as well as Glacier and others, too). Many of the large lodges have existed for more than a century, so keep that in mind and manage your expectations accordingly.
Related: I went to Glacier and Yellowstone during COVID-19 and it was weird
Hotels sell out quickly during the high season. Even this summer, with the coronavirus crippling travel, there isn't much availability. In fact, only cabins are available in the park right now. Lodges are closed and are likely to remain shut down for the remainder of 2020. That makes inventory even scarcer than it usually is this time of year.
I was able to find some dates with availability, but prices are high. At Mammoth Falls Lodge cabins, rates were $277 a night for dates in July and August.
Back in June, I stayed in the cabins at Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge. They are charming but basic. The beds are small, and there's no air conditioning. Still, it was really fun staying inside the park and having easy access to hiking trails and the beautiful Mammoth Springs.
The cabins at Old Faithful Lodge are cuter and just steps from the famous Old Faithful geyser. They're tiny, sure, but the perfect base for exploring the nearby geysers, mountains and hot springs when I stayed there in June. Rates in August start at $174 a night.
If you're thinking about staying inside the park this summer, you want to act fast.
Betsy O'Rourke, chief marketing officer at Xanterra, told TPG earlier this year, "We open the inventory 13 months out and we sell out in a few hours. However, about 30% of that inventory cancels and gets rebooked."
Her advice? Check back frequently. "Our cancellation policy is 48 hours out, so we do get cancellations even close in."
You can find better deals if you're willing to stay at a vacation rental instead. Airbnb has plenty of properties, especially for travelers who want something unconventional like a traditional log cabin, glamping-style tent or a treehouse.
Even last minute, there's availability on Airbnb outside the park. I recommend searching for West Yellowstone or Gardiner. I found plenty of options near Montana's Western entrance to the park starting at $157 a night.
Luxury accommodations near Yellowstone
It can also make a lot of sense to use your credit card points to help offset the cost of an upscale stay near the park. Consider redeeming a stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book a stay at an independent property. You could also "erase" a qualifying travel charge by using a card like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.
The Under Canvas "glamping" lodge is just 10 minutes from Yellowstone's West Entrance. I found availability in August for $264 a night. With taxes and fees, a four-night stay would be just over $1,200.
If you really want to splurge, try the Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana — it's about 4.5 hours from the park, and rates start around $1,600 a night. Paws Up resort in Greenough, Montana is also a 4.5-hour drive, and rooms will set you back about $1,700 a night. And the first five-star, ultra-luxury hotel in the entire state, a Montage in Big Sky, will debut in 2021.
Camping in Yellowstone
Of course, you can always camp inside Yellowstone. Yellowstone has 12 proper campgrounds with over 2,000 individual spots. You can head over to Yellowstone National Park lodges to make reservations, which cost $27 a night, on average.
Other campgrounds are available on a first come, first served basis. They fill up quickly in the summer, and in 2020 not all campgrounds are available because of the pandemic, so your mileage may vary. A search in July found just four of the 12 campgrounds open and accepting reservations. In fact, most were full by 7 a.m.
If you have an RV or camping equipment, you can stay outside the park in the surrounding national forests for very little — or nothing at all. It's called dispersed camping, and travelers comfortable with a more primitive stay should consider the surrounding Custer Gallatin or Bridger Teton National Forests.
How to get to Yellowstone
Flying to Yellowstone
You can fly to a number of cities that put Yellowstone within reach. The easiest and closest airport is Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) in Montana, which bills itself as the "Gateway to Yellowstone." It's the busiest airport in Montana with nonstop service to 21 U.S. cities.
Related: New routes make it easier than ever to visit these top US National Parks
American Airlines has been betting big on Montana and added four seasonal flights last year for this summer. American was set to fly to Bozeman from Los Angeles (LAX), New York-LaGuardia (LGA) and Philadelphia (PHL) and to Kalispell (FCA) from LGA. None of those flights are happening, but we're hoping they return next year.
American normally flies from Newark (EWR), Chicago O'Hare (ORD) and Dallas Fort-Worth (DFW) nonstop to Bozeman. I found tickets in September for between $377 and $425 in the main cabin. Award prices started at 25,000 AAdvantage miles in coach or 50,000 miles for first class, plus $11.20 in taxes and fees.
United flies to Bozeman from six of its hubs, and Delta Air Lines also flies from six hubs, including Salt Lake City (SLC). At this time, Delta is only flying from Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP) and Salt Lake City (SLC). Alaska Airlines has flights from Portland, Oregon (PDX) and Seattle (SEA), and Allegiant flies from four cities including Nashville, Tennessee (BNA). Frontier flies from Denver (DEN), and Sun Country now flies from its Minneapolis hub. JetBlue normally flies from New York-JFK and Boston (BOS) but this summer, they're not flying from New York.
Give yourself two hours for the drive from Bozeman to Yellowstone depending on traffic, weather and which park entrance you’re using. There are a variety of operators that offer guided tours of Yellowstone. Karst Stage is one touring company that operates charter buses and day trips from Bozeman to the park.
You can also fly into Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Jackson, Wyoming. The airport is only 45 miles south of the park. It also gives you easy access to Grand Teton National Park. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines all fly to Jackson Hole airport, and Frontier offers seasonal service.
Delta has flights from Salt Lake City for about $300 in the main cabin in August or 23,000 SkyMiles plus $11.20.
You could also fly to Idaho Falls, Idaho and its Idaho Falls Regional Airport (IDA). It's just under 100 miles from Yellowstone. Allegiant offers year-round, nonstop flights from Las Vegas (LAS) and Phoenix-Mesa (AZA), and seasonal service from Los Angeles and Oakland (OAK).
Delta offers year-round, nonstop flights from Salt Lake City and seasonal service from Minneapolis, and United has service from Denver. United's flights to IDA were about $347 round-trip in main cabin or 25,000 United miles and $11.20 in taxes and fees.
Of course, there's always Yellowstone's eponymous airport. Yellowstone Airport (WYS) is located just 2 miles from Yellowstone National Park. Delta flies into this airport from Salt Lake City, and I found tickets from $175 in August.
Where to eat in Yellowstone
Montana and Wyoming aren't exactly known as foodie paradise. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants, but haute cuisine isn't exactly a thing.
Personally, I recommend doing grocery runs and always keeping a picnic ready for those mountain meadows you stumble upon. Be sure to pack lots of snacks, as restaurants are typically only open in the high season and often have limited hours.
They are also few and far between, especially inside the borders of the park, and they're especially scarce in the age of coronavirus. In fact, most restaurants inside the park remain closed, and the few that are open are take-out only. Forewarned is forearmed.
Smith, the chiropractor from Butte, told me he really likes two places in West Yellowstone: the Slippery Otter Pub that serves bison and elk burgers, and The Branch Restaurant and Bar. Unfortunately, it was closed when I visited in early July (probably due to COVID-19). Hopefully, it will reopen next year.
One of the most important things to know about visiting the national parks right now is that most of the bathrooms I encountered in both Yellowstone and Glacier were closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. If you go, definitely have a plan for the call of nature. Folks driving motorhomes will be fine, but be sure to plot your visit and use bathrooms wherever you find them.
Getting around Yellowstone
I strongly recommend renting a car (or an RV!) for your trip to Yellowstone National Park. The park is really designed for drivers, with major roads taking you to most of the iconic attractions. Still, if you really want to explore, bring hiking boots. And don't forget to pack your bear spray. You can't fly with it, though, so buy bear spray after your flight.
If you'd rather not drive, seasoned park veterans take visitors on the famous Yellowstone Yellow Bus Tours. The vintage 1920s buses are an iconic part of the park's heritage. The long, yellow buses with rollback tops are perfect for gazing at the mountains without worrying about the notorious curves in the park's roads.
"These days, a fleet of eight vintage White Motor Co. buses ferry visitors on guided wildlife-watching tours, photo safaris, sunset tours and more," says operator Xanterra. "The distinctive antique yellow vehicles have retractable canvas roofs and panoramic windows, making them ideal for sightseeing. Plus, they’re really cool to ride around in."
They also book up quickly, so you'll want to be aggressive with your planning. But, unfortunately, Yellow Bus tours are not running during the 2020 season due to coronavirus concerns.
You could also bike around the park, but there's not a lot of separated bike lanes. There are, however, a few trails specially designed for mountain biking. There's a complete guide to biking in Yellowstone here, but you can also rent bikes at Old Faithful Lodge.
Yellowstone National Park should be very high on your travel bucket list. It's a great time to go local and explore the nation's many national parks. Yellowstone is a personal favorite, and getting to see wolves and bears here was one of the highlights of my entire year.
If you’re traveling to Montana, don’t limit yourself to Yellowstone National Park, though. Across the state, there’s Glacier National Park and countless sites that tell the incredibly important history of Native Americans in the United States. Big Sky, not far from Yellowstone, is also surging in popularity. It’s a great spot for skiing in the winter.
I highly recommend a visit here this year, especially since travelers with a U.S. passport might find they can't venture too far from home. Just be sure to pack your masks and have a firm plan for where to stay — and use the bathroom — before you go.
Additional reporting by Meghan Hunter.
All photos by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.