By Megan Mattingly-Arthur
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States, attracting more than 3 million visitors each year. The park offers a bevy of exciting things to see and do; careful planning can help park-goers make the most of their visit.
When to Visit
Yellowstone is beautiful year-round, but the majority of the park operates seasonally. Although the roads between Yellowstone National Park’s North and Northeast entrances are open to automobiles year-round, the rest of the park entrances and roads are subject to seasonal closures and travel restrictions. For that reason, most people will want to plan their visit for sometime between May and October, when most of Yellowstone’s roads and facilities are open.
Travelers can also use their interests to help them determine the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park.
- May and early June visits are great for those hoping to spot young animals, but temperatures may be chilly, and not all facilities and roads will be open.
- The park’s peak tourism season is from early July to mid-August, according to Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures. She states, “You’ll encounter crowds then, but everything is open, the wildflowers are wonderful, and so is the weather (most of the time).”
- Although the landscape is much less lush in late-August and September, it’s a good time to visit for travelers who don’t relish the idea of crowds.
- Portions of the park are open for very limited activities during the winter season that runs from mid-December into early March.
How Long to Stay
Yellowstone National Park consists of 2.2 million acres of pristine wilderness. It would take months – if not years – to thoroughly explore Yellowstone, so travelers shouldn’t expect to see everything the park has to offer in a single visit. Sunset offers a three-day itinerary and Frommer’s offers two-day and five-day itineraries to help travelers make the most of their limited time in the park.
Yellowstone Insider recommends staying a minimum of two days and two nights, but Chapple recommends staying longer. She states, “The park is so large and the wonderful features so spread around that you need at least a week to see the highlights,” she said. “Then you will want to go back many times. There is so much you can enjoy by walking a mile or two!”
What to Pack
Nights and early mornings can be rather chilly in Yellowstone, even in the summer, while afternoon temperatures can climb into the 80s. “Bring layers of clothing,” Chapple recommends. Packing clothing that can be layered is a good strategy to ensure that park-goers are prepared for the Yellowstone’s characteristically unpredictable weather.
Yellowstone National Park Lodges advises travelers who plan on hitting the trails or hiking the park’s backcountry to pack layers that include insulating underwear, a mid-weight fleece or wool pullover shirt; a heavyweight wool, down or fleece jacket; brimmed and insulating hats, lightweight gloves, moisture-wicking socks, and hiking boots or good athletic shoes.
A waterproof and windproof jacket, as well as knee-high gaiters and water-resistant boots are recommended for winter visits. Water bottles, snacks, insect repellent, lip balm, and sunglasses can also help travelers stay comfortable and safe while exploring the park.
Chapple advises, “Bring plenty of sunscreen. Take binoculars or a spotting scope, as well as your camera – especially for animal watching.” Travelers who are planning to camp in Yellowstone National Park should bring tents, mats and warm sleeping bags. Camping equipment can be rented or purchased at sporting goods stores in the area.
Where to Stay
Regardless of where you plan to say, it’s a good idea to make reservations whenever they’re accepted. Accommodations in and around the park fill quickly during the park’s peak season, so those who fail to make reservations may find themselves with limited lodging choices. Additionally, Chapple recommends, “Plan to camp or reserve lodgings in more than one place. A few nights in each of two to four locales will maximize what you’ll see and minimize driving time.”
Yellowstone National Park provides excellent camping opportunities.
- The park boasts 12 campgrounds, seven of which are operated by the National Park Service and are available on a first-come, first-served basis while the remaining five campgrounds are operated by Yellowstone National Park Lodges and accept reservations.
- Yellowstone also offers near-unlimited backcountry camping opportunities.
- Although only one of Yellowstone’s 12 campgrounds can accommodate RVs, travelers can find several other RV camping options in the area.
Other Lodging Options
Yellowstone also offers plenty of great lodging options for travelers who aren’t interested in “roughing it.”
- The park boasts nine lodges, including the popular Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and the Old Faithful Inn.
- There are also numerous lodging choices in the communities just outside of the park, including resorts and spas as well as guest ranches and cabins.
Where to Eat
Restaurants and dining facilities are located throughout Yellowstone National Park, offering everything from snacks to a fine dining experience. There are also plenty of restaurant options to be found in the communities that surround Yellowstone; some of these restaurants may appeal to budget travelers who don’t want the hefty price tag that often comes with eating at a major attraction.
- TripAdvisor reviewers praise the Roosevelt Lodge Dining Room for its family-friendly atmosphere and convenient location in the park. The dining room serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner favorites for under $30.
- The Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room also ranks highly with TripAdvisor reviewers due to its willingness to accommodate families and large groups. Like the Roosevelt Lodge Dining Room, the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and is open late.
- Yelp reviewers recommend the Canyon Soda Fountain for its fun, traditional diner atmosphere. The diner serves breakfast favorites, sandwiches, burgers, and salads for $10 or less, making it a favorite among budget-conscious park-goers.
- The Canyon Lodge Dining Room is another Yelp favorite. The full-service restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a casual atmosphere.
Travelers on a budget can also visit any of the supermarkets, grocery stores, and general stores located in the communities outside the park to find budget-friendly picnic fixings.
What to See and Do
With so many available activities and attractions, choosing an itinerary can be difficult. It could take a lifetime to see and do everything in Yellowstone National Park.
Some of Yellowstone’s most-notable can’t-miss attractions include:
- Old Faithful Geyser – A favorite among park-goers of all ages, the predictable geyser erupts every 35 to 120 minutes
- Mammoth Hot Springs – Another park favorite, the hot springs features dozens of individually-named thermal features
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – A favorite attraction for geology enthusiasts, the canyon is 20 miles long and up to 4,000-feet wide
- Yellowstone Lake – The sparkling lake is 7,732 feet above sea level and covers 136 square miles
Additional activities include:
- Day hiking on more than 1,000 miles of trails
- Wildlife viewing – Yellowstone boasts 67 species of mammals, 330 species of birds, four types of amphibians, and six types of reptiles
- Picnicking – the park features 52 picnic areas
- Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing
- Snowmobile tours
- Horseback riding and llama packing
- Backcountry camping and hiking
Even the most well-planned Yellowstone National Park vacation is subject to unforeseen circumstances, whether it’s unpredictable weather, road closures, or wildlife events, such as bison jams. To ensure that things go as smoothly as possible, set aside some extra time to accommodate for crowds, traffic jams, and travel within the park. It’s also important to remember that some of the activities available in the park – such as fishing – require permits; these permits can be purchased at any of the park entrances.