Yellowstone national park is one of America’s most iconic places. If you’re visiting for the first time, or just want to get the most out of the next time you go, use our essential Yellowstone trip planner.
- Established: March 1, 1872
- Location: Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
- Area: 3,471 mi² (8,990 km²)
- Time zone: Mountain Time
- Annual visitors: 4.3 million
- Number of campgrounds: 12
- Number of visitor centers: 9
WHERE IN THE WORLD
Situated in the northwest corner of Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park covers more than 2.2 million acres and extends into parts of Montana and Idaho.
Although the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem extends far beyond the park, it is located within the northern Rocky Mountains and stands as one of the last remaining large (and nearly intact) ecosystems in the northern temperate zone. Straddling the Continental Divide, most of the park is located on a high plateau surrounded by mountains and several rivers. Park boundaries also enclose alpine lakes, deep canyons, and vast forests.
Because it is one of the largest national parks in the U.S., Yellowstone has five entrances: north, northeast, east, south, and west. It takes a few hours to drive between them, so it’s a good idea to know which area of the park you’re headed for and to check the status of the roads before you go.
A BIT OF HISTORY
One of the long-standing legends of Yellowstone National Park surrounds its origin. The legend says that in 1870, explorers huddled around a campfire at the intersection of two pristine rivers overshadowing the cliffs of the Madison Plateau. They looked at one another and considered what they had seen throughout their exploration. During their discussion, they realized that the land they rested on was made of both fire and ice, and that the wild animals that thrived there needed to be preserved. Thus, the idea of Yellowstone National Park was born.
Of course, before Yellowstone became a national park, it was home to Native American tribes who, as oral tradition says, used the thermal waters for religious and medicinal purposes.
Though Yellowstone’s history is shrouded in mystery, we do know that explorers promoted a park bill in 1871, which led to the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act that marked Yellowstone as the world’s very first national park.
Yellowstone’s main road is called the “Grand Loop.” It takes between four and seven hours to drive completely, but don’t worry — you can catch your first glimpse of the park from the comfort of your vehicle. From Mammoth Hot Springs near the north entrance to Fountain Pots and Old Faithful near the west and south entrances, most of the main attractions are located just off the road. Due to the sheer size of the park, it’s best to figure out a gameplan ahead of time and know which entrance is closest to the sights you want to see.
During the summer months, a car is your best option for making the trip around Yellowstone, unless you add a bus tour to your planner. If you decide to take public transit, know that Yellowstone does not have a shuttle service, and the local bus service is limited to the Jackson Hole area only. That said, all of the 2,000-odd campsites can be accessed by car.
It should be noted that cycling is allowed on public roads, in parking areas, and on designated routes. However, there are no bike lanes and often no safe shoulders for cyclists — so be careful!
When many of Yellowstone’s roads close during the winter months, skis, snowshoes, snowcoaches, and snowmobiles become the primary modes of transportation. Only the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the northeast entrance remains open to regular traffic year round.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
General entrance fees for Yellowstone National Park are $15 per person (for anyone 16 and older) and cover a stay of up to seven days. Fees for private, non-commercial vehicles are $30. But if you’re feeling particularly excited, you can splurge and get Yellowstone’s annual pass for $60.
Special permits are required for backcountry camping, boating, fishing, and horseback riding — so if you want to try your hand at any of those activities, make sure to do your research ahead of time.
In addition to your standard hiking and camping gear, we suggest bringing a rain jacket or poncho, a beanie, a baseball cap, lots of layers (be prepared for cold weather, even in the summer), binoculars, bug spray, sunscreen, a head lamp, bear spray, extra water, and a first aid kit.
Also, know that the use of drones is prohibited. So you can leave your aerial gear at home.
The weather at Yellowstone can vary quite a bit, even within a few hour’s time. In the summer, daytime highs can reach up to 80°F (25°C) but can also drop about 20 degrees if a thunderstorm rolls in. In the winter, lows frequently fall below zero, especially at night. That said, it has also been known to snow during any month of the year, so pack multiple layers and check the weather often.
Although the lodges provide wifi, cell service and bandwidth are limited, so don’t plan on receiving many calls or texts while you’re visiting Yellowstone. To cut down on confusion at times when you’re without reception, download the Yellowstone app in advance and “save offline content.” This will ensure that most of the app’s resources are available offline, including maps, saved locations, and trail information. If you’re feeling wild, you could even download a stargazing app before you go.
YOUR TRIP PLANNER
Hundreds of thousands visit Yellowstone during the months of June, July, and August. So if you’re looking to avoid crowds, traffic, and road work at Yellowstone, add a trip to your planner between September and May.
Most of the campgrounds are open from May to November and cost as little as $15 per night. The seven campgrounds operated by the National Park Service (Mammoth, Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, Norris, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek, and Tower Fall) are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, while the other five campgrounds are operated by a lodging concessionaire and can be reserved online. In addition to standard campsites, there are approximately 300 backcountry sites that require permits. And, of course, there are nine lodges in the park with more than 2,000 rooms. If you’d rather go that route, know that the lodges fill up months in advance, so make your reservations early!
If you do decide to visit during non-peak seasons, remember that most of the park roads close in early November. Most of the stores, restaurants, campgrounds, and lodges also close during the winter, though Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel remain open, as well as the Albright (Mammoth) Visitor Center and the Mammoth campground.
As far as staying safe goes, there are three main things to keep in mind.
- As enticing as the hot springs look, don’t be fooled — they are dangerously hot and are not suitable for swimming or soaking. As a precaution, always stay on the boardwalks. If you do want to find a warm (and safe) place to swim, head to the Boiling River. It’s about a half-mile walk along the trail just north of Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Drive responsibly. Respect the posted speed limits and use the pull-off areas on the side of the road when you want to take photos, admire landmarks, or watch wildlife.
- Don’t approach bears or other wildlife.
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