Yellowstone National Park is a place that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. But, with the variety of things to see and do and the sheer size of the park, planning a visit can be overwhelming. To get you started, we’ll share our top tips for Yellowstone so you can get the most out of your visit.
But, first, what makes Yellowstone National Park worth a visit? For starters, it is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world. It’s also the only place in the country where bison have lived without interruption.
But that’s not all. You’ll also find lakes, rivers, mountains, canyons, and an abundance of wildlife. Yellowstone was also the first National Park in the world. And, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For Grant and I, Yellowstone is our “happy place.” Yes, we love all the national parks for various reasons. But there is just something about Yellowstone that is soothing, exciting, awe-inspiring and joyful.
Quite simply, Yellowstone National Park is iconic.
So, let’s take a look at our tips for visiting Yellowstone so that you can have a successful visit.
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Tip #1: Know When to Go
Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make when planning a visit to Yellowstone National Park is not understanding the seasons. There is a reason why more than half of the annual visitation occurs in just three months (June, July, August) and, historically, as much as 90% occurs May-September. And it isn’t because people simply don’t like cold weather.
In reality, the park is difficult to access in the winter. Only one road is open to automobiles year-round – the road from the North Entrance in Gardiner, MT to the Northeast Entrance in Cooke City. Check Yellowstone NP road status here.
Other roads are typically closed from early November to late April, with intermittent closures likely in October and May. We even had to watch road conditions carefully when we visited in late September.
With this, services (hotels, restaurants, stores) are fairly plentiful from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend but are limited the rest of the year. While you will find some services available in shoulder seasons (April, May, September and October), you’ll want to plan ahead and know what is available before you arrive.
Visiting Yellowstone in the summer gives you the best opportunity to see the entire park. Shoulder seasons will often be less crowded but generally mean fewer services and a higher likelihood of road closures.
Winter in Yellowstone
In the heart of winter (mid-December to mid-March), most of the roads are open only to oversnow travel – slowcoaches and snowmobiles, which are heavily restricted. Thus, the only area of the park you can drive to is Mammoth Hot Springs, just inside the North Entrance.
At Old Faithful, you’ll find a variety of services available from mid-December to early March. But, getting there is a bit of a challenge since you can only reach the interior of the park by oversnow travel. For most people, this means a guided snowcoach or snowmobile tour.
Honestly, winter is one of the most magical times to visit Yellowstone National Park. I was lucky enough to go with my family a couple of times growing up and Grant and I visited in February 2011. We’ve been itching to return ever since. But, it takes a lot of planning and is somewhat costly.
We suggest visiting in the summer first, then returning at other times of the year, if possible.
Tip #2: Don’t Rush Your Visit
Yellowstone is huge. At 2.2 million acres, it’s bigger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware. Granted, those are pretty small states, but still… Yellowstone National Park is bigger than two different states!
So… you cannot see the entire park in a day. Even two days would barely scratch the surface. Sure, if all you have is one or two days, that is better than not visiting at all. But you will leave wanting more, I promise.
I suggest planning at least three days when visiting Yellowstone National Park. Four or five days would be even better. Seriously, every time we visit, we pass by things saying, “I don’t remember that… have we seen that before?”
In two days, you should be able to drive most of the park roads and see the major sights that are right off the road. You likely will not have time to stop at every single geyser basin, though. And, you will definitely need more time if you want to do any hiking, participate in ranger talks or explore the edges of the park. This is especially true if visiting in the shoulder seasons when days are shorter. (We recommend NOT driving around the park when it is dark. Wildlife on the roads is a serious concern, especially at night.)
Also, you’ll want to have time to rest. Just getting to Yellowstone can be difficult. Whether flying or driving, you’ll probably be tired just from the journey there. Add in lengthy drives through the park and you’ll be exhausted by day two, I promise. Schedule enough time to take it slow and enjoy everything around you.
Tip #3: Stay Inside the Park
Where you stay when visiting Yellowstone will have a major impact on your visit. This is because of how big and spread out the park is.
Sure you can stay in West Yellowstone or Gardiner (both in Montana) and make it into the park in about 5-10 minutes. But to get anywhere else will take you another hour or two, at least.
We almost always stay inside the park. But, in September 2023, we stayed in Gardiner, MT for three nights then one night at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel (inside the park). Even after several previous visits, we underestimated just how much time we’d spend driving to and from Gardiner. It was time-consuming, especially with shorter days and limited daylight.
Quite simply, staying inside the park saves you time driving, giving you more time to explore. That said, we understand that you may prefer to have a wider variety of lodging options or access to other services. Additionally, the gateway cities are also quite nice themselves.
Accommodations at Yellowstone
Whatever your preference, you’ll find accommodations to meet your expectations. We have tent camped at Canyon and Bridge Bay, RV camped at Fishing Bridge, stayed at the Mammoth Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge (both in the winter) and, most recently, stayed at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. All provide different experiences that we have enjoyed.
Inside the park, there are 12 campgrounds, all of which are available by reservation only in the summer. Some are reservable through Yellowstone National Park Lodges, while others are through Recreation.gov.
Some campgrounds offer flush toilets but some are pit toilets only. Additionally, only three offer showers. If traveling with an RV, it is important to note that five campgrounds have a dump station but only Fishing Bridge RV park offers hookups. It is worth noting, though, that only hard-sided RVs are accepted at Fishing Bridge due to bear activity in the area.
If camping isn’t your thing, there are nine lodges/hotels/cabins offering a variety of different rooms. At Old Faithful alone, options range from cabins with a shared bathroom to suites with views of the geyser basin.
Finally, for the most flexibility, make your reservations as far in advance as possible. Yes, you may have some luck with last-minute reservations but you’ll definitely be limited on where and when they are available.
Stay tuned for an upcoming article with more details on where to stay when visiting Yellowstone National Park.
Tip #4: Have Reliable Transportation
For most Americans, this is probably assumed, as the vast majority of us consider driving our primary method of transportation. One thing is for sure: There is no public transportation at Yellowstone.
There is no shuttle, taxi or bus service. You are completely on your own. If you are flying to the area, you will need to rent a car. I simply would not consider visiting Yellowstone any other way.
Yes, there are tour companies that you can use if you don’t want to drive around the park. But you really don’t need to do that. Yellowstone is not difficult to navigate at all. Seriously, the roads are not complicated and most are easy to drive, as long as you follow basic safety recommendations.
If you are driving a large RV, we recommend you bring a towed vehicle. Additionally, we do not recommend sightseeing while towing your trailer. There are several side roads and parking lots that cannot accommodate RVs or trailers. In the summer, large crowds can make parking difficult for all vehicles and oversize parking is not always plentiful.
Finally, while there are gas stations and even service centers in a few areas around the park, they are far and few between. Make sure you keep the gas tank full and know what is open if visiting in the off-season. In fact, we almost got ourselves into a sticky situation when we did not look at our gas gauge before driving out to Lamar Valley. Thankfully, it worked out ok but we were sweating it for a while.
Tip #5: Enjoy a Meal in a Park Dining Room
Each lodge has a dining room and most have other, more casual dining options as well. For example, there is a food hall at Canyon, a bake shop at the Old Faithful Lodge, a formal dining room at Lake Yellowstone Hotel and an Old West Cookout at Roosevelt.
We first experienced the dining rooms on our winter visit, when that was our only option. To say we were hooked is an understatement. The menus typically have a good balance of “traditional fare” and more “exotic” game meats, such as bison, elk or antelope.
Everything we’ve eaten in one of the dining rooms has been expertly prepared and delicious. Now, we always make a point to splurge on at least one nice meal. Most of the dining rooms accept reservations for dinner, while breakfast and lunch are first-come, first-served.
Perhaps our favorite restaurant is the Roosevelt Lodge Dining Room. Unfortunately, they are one of the few that does not take reservations. Arrive early unless you want to wait a while. For something more adventurous and unique, consider the Roosevelt Old West Cookout. You’ll reach the dining area by horseback (our recommendation) or covered wagon, then nosh on steak, Roosevelt Baked Beans and a wide variety of other sides.
Each lodge also has a “Yellowstone General Store” where you can buy snacks, such as hot dogs or ice cream. Many also have a small “grocery” section with the basics, which is perfect for campers or anyone looking for picnic supplies.
Tip #6: Know Where (and When) to Find Wildlife
One of the highlights of Yellowstone is the amazing wildlife. In fact, we look forward to that more than anything else when we visit.
So, what will you see here? You’ll see bison and elk for sure. You won’t have to drive far to see a few hanging out near, or even on, the road. You’ll also probably see a couple of black bears and maybe a grizzly bear or two. Pronghorn antelope are fairly common. Occasionally you’ll spot a Bighorn sheep. Of course, the animals do whatever they want, so nothing is guaranteed.
Supposedly there are moose in the park, but we haven’t seen one on any of our many visits. My dad said we saw one when I was young, but I don’t remember it, so I don’t count it.
If you’re super-lucky and have good binoculars, you might see a wolf. They are generally nowhere near the roads, so you’ll have to work for this one! You will often find a bunch of folks with spotting scopes set up in one of the valleys on the lookout. You can ask them if they’ve seen one before spending hours just looking and hoping.
Where will you find these amazing creatures? The short answer is anywhere, anytime. More specifically, Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley in the early morning or late evening are great for wildlife. The middle of the day when it’s hot is one of the worst times to find wildlife.
A drive through Hayden or Lamar Valley to start or end our day is one of our favorite things to do. Even if you don’t spot wildlife, the views never get old!
Tip #7: The Photographer Should NOT Drive.
In our family, Grant is the photographer. I do take pictures, mostly on the iPhone, and enjoy learning techniques to take good photos. But when it comes to serious photography on a “real” camera, Grant is the expert.
So, despite the fact that in the “real world” Grant can be found driving about 85% of the time, at Yellowstone, I am usually the driver. This is so that Grant can jump out quickly to take pictures if we spot wildlife.
Often, you will be driving down the road and suddenly come upon a bear or a bull elk, or something else amazing, but there is nowhere to park. This next part is super important: You cannot simply stop your car in the middle of the road and get out and take pictures! Don’t be “that guy” (or girl)!
When I drive, I can drop Grant off (if it’s safe to do so). That way, he can start taking pictures right away while I find a place to park. Sometimes, a spot is fairly close by, other times it means a 5-10 minute walk down the road.
Either way, we’re not holding up traffic. Believe it or not, there are some people that actually need to get places quickly. Maybe they have a dinner reservation or it could be an employee trying to get to work. You simply cannot stop on the road, unless the wildlife is on the road and in your way, which does happen at times.
Tip #8: Understand that Wildlife can be Dangerous
You’ll see signs and reminders everywhere about this, so it should not be hard to forget. The main thing you need to remember is that this is not a zoo. This is real life. These animals are not hand-fed. No one “brings them in” at night. They are living in the wild. Yellowstone just happens to be a great place for them to live.
People get hurt by wildlife all the time. It seems like every summer there is a run-in with a bison that sends someone to the hospital. Sometimes that is because of poor choices on the human’s fault. Other times, it is because animals are wild and do whatever they want even if you are doing your best to stay back.
Remember, the animals can go anywhere they want to go… boardwalks, parking lots, campgrounds, etc. Stay alert, no matter where you are and give all wildlife their space.
Most of the animals are used to people being around and are just doing their thing, not paying any attention to you. But that can change at any moment. So be aware and use common sense. Sometimes, there will be rangers around to help out, but not always.
Generally, you do not need to be afraid of the wildlife. Just remember they will do whatever they want, whenever they want. And, if you are hiking off the main boardwalks, you should certainly buy (or rent) bear spray. Hopefully, you’ll never have to use it, but you’ll feel much better just having it.
Tip #9: Think Carefully Before Bringing Your Pet
Pets are technically allowed in the park, but not on any of the boardwalks, trails, geothermal areas or in the backcountry. All pets must be physically controlled (on a leash or in a crate or car) at all times and can only accompany people within 100 feet of roads, parking areas and campgrounds. Basically, your dog will have to stay in the car (or in your camper) pretty much all the time.
The reason for the strict pet policy is simple: Yellowstone is a very wild place. There are tons of wild animals that could harm your pet or transmit disease. And, even if your pet is well-trained, you never know how wildlife will react to them, which could put you, your pet, wildlife and others in danger.
Yes, people bring their pets and that’s ok. Just think carefully about how they will spend their time while you are out exploring.
If you are RVing and can leave your pet in the camper, great! But you can’t just run back every couple of hours to check on them and take them out to potty. Yellowstone is simply too big for that to be feasible.
That said, we did bring our cat with us on one visit. She was fine staying in the camper during the day. But we would not have done that if we weren’t staying at Fishing Bridge, where we had hookups. While the temperatures are generally low enough that you don’t need to worry about air conditioning, it does get hot at times, so I wouldn’t want to take that chance.
Note: Qualified service animals assisting people with disabilities are allowed but does come with risks.
Tip #10: Be Prepared for Cold Weather Any Time of Year
Speaking of temperatures, understand that Yellowstone plays by its own rules. We’ve been there at the end of June with daytime temperatures in the 40s, rain, hail, sleet/freezing rain and even some snow flurries.
Summer lows are often in the 30s, so even in the camper, we needed an extra blanket and the heater running every night.
And this is not abnormal. We’ve visited three times in late June/early June and we always experience very cold nights. One time, we actually had to buy ourselves another layer… and we thought we had prepared well enough.
Of course, we’ve also had summer days that were mostly sunny with highs in the upper 60s/low-mid 70s. That was a very welcome change after several days of cold and rain. We actually got to wear short-sleeves and be comfortable!
In September, we experienced mostly cool weather, with layers being a must. Mornings and evenings were quite cool. But it did warm up enough for short sleeves a couple of times.
Basically, be prepared for anything. And if you’re tent camping, bring LOTS of layers, especially for nights. I seriously don’t know how we ever survived in a tent… I guess we are getting “weak” in our old age!
Tip #11: Expect Limited Connectivity
Cell service and WiFi at Yellowstone is limited. But, there are a few cell towers that typically provide service in most developed areas (Mammoth, Old Faithful, Canyon, etc.). You can also often get service at higher elevations, such as Mount Washburn. Still, with big crowds and limited connectivity, service is not always reliable.
If you are staying at one of the lodges, you might be able to get WiFi but I think that is only available to registered guests. And, from our experience, it isn’t always great. The only public WiFi is available at the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs.
You will also generally have good cell service in the gateway cities of West Yellowstone and Gardiner, which is one reason some people prefer to stay outside the park. And, we understand that sometimes you do need to stay in touch with family or take care of business on the road.
Honestly, though, Yellowstone is such a wild and natural place, it’s the perfect time to disconnect and just enjoy your surroundings.
Final Thoughts on Our Yellowstone Tips
Planning a visit to Yellowstone National Park sometimes can feel overwhelming. It is a large park with many different things to see and do. But, it’s such a great place, that it is absolutely worth it. And we hope these Yellowstone tips will help to make your planning and travel easier.
If you are traveling in an RV, consider using our book, USA RV Adventures to help with your trip planning. We have three itineraries that each include Yellowstone National Park. Additionally, our friend and fellow Moon author, Becky Lomax has several books to help you plan your trip. We’ve even used them ourselves! In particular, if your time is limited Best of Yellowstone and Grand Teton is specifically designed to help you get the most out of 1-3 days in the park.
You can also check out some of our other articles on Yellowstone and the surrounding area, including:
- Three Great Hikes in Yellowstone
- Finding and Photographing Wildlife at Yellowstone
- Old West Cookout and Horseback Ride
- Visiting Cody, Wyoming – Heart of the West
Additionally, stay tuned for my upcoming articles with more details on visiting Yellowstone in the fall and where to stay. And, of course, if you have any questions for us, you can leave a comment below or reach out via email or social media.
If you haven’t been to Yellowstone National Park, or if it’s been a while, I strongly encourage you to go as soon as possible. It truly is my favorite place on Earth and a National Park that should be a required visit for everyone.
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We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
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If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
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We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.
We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
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We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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