Planning your first trip to Yellowstone National Park?
It's a big park. And it's remote, but it's absolutely worth the trip. I'm blown away every time by the diversity of natural wonders inside Yellowstone. Geysers, waterfalls, mountains, wildlife… they're all abundant and breathtaking.
I've visited Yellowstone several times and haven't seen it all. We took our kids when they were young, and it was a lot of fun to see it with them.
My dad and I visited Yellowstone together last summer. My son and husband were going to Camp Loll nearby, and I'm not one to waste an opportunity like that. We started planning just a couple of weeks in advance, and even though it was peak season, we found affordable lodging and had a great time.
Here's what you need to know to plan your first trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Best time to go
What is the best time to go to Yellowstone National Park? Most people visit Yellowstone in the summer, but the park is open year round.
The weather is usually pleasant in July and August – warm during the day and cool in the evenings. Hundreds of thousands of people visit Yellowstone in the summer, so expect crowds, traffic and parking hassles. However, Yellowstone is a big place. If you plan for crowds, you can have a great time on the busiest days.
I visited Yellowstone in early August last year, and we loved it, except… Summer is wildfire season in the Western U.S. At best, smoke from two states away will make the air hazy. At worst, the fire will start inside Yellowstone. Wildfires can start any time of year, but are less common in May or June.
Spring (May/June) and fall (September/October) can be good times to enjoy lighter crowds and mild weather. Spring is baby animal season! However, snow could still be a factor in spring and fall.
Families who love adventure will find a variety of things to do in the winter. However, most park roads are closed to regular vehicles from early November to late-April. Visit Yellowstone's official website to learn more about Yellowstone in the winter.
How much time?
How many days should you spend in Yellowstone? You can see a lot in one full day, but I recommend at least three days. This will give you time to visit all the big attractions without feeling rushed. If you want to spend more time hiking or driving beyond the Grand Loop, plan 4-5 days.
How much does it cost?
It currently costs $35 per car to visit Yellowstone National Park. This fee is good for seven consecutive days.
How to get there
Yellowstone is located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, overlapping slightly into Montana and Idaho. It is roughly square in shape and most of the popular attractions are in the center.
There are five entrances to Yellowstone National Park. Here they are, with the benefits to each.
- North – This entrance is close to Mammoth Hot Springs – a top destination inside the park. It is located near Gardiner, Montana, which has a variety of lodging and dining options. The nearest airport is in Bozeman, about an hour away. This entrance is open in the winter.
- West – This entrance is near West Yellowstone, Montana. It has the most lodging and dining options nearby. Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone is the nearest airport to the park.
- South – This entrance is a short distance from Grand Teton National Park and about an hour's drive from Jackson, Wyoming. Lodging and dining options are limited. The nearest airport is in Jackson.
- Northeast – Silver Gate-Cooke City, Montana is nearby. These towns are tiny, but a few hotels are available. The nearest airports are in Billings, Montana or Cody, Wyoming. You'll drive through Lamar Valley, which is a great area for wildlife, as you drive to the center of the park.
- East – Cody, Wyoming is the closest city with tourist services and an airport, and it's about an hour away. You will find a handful of closer campgrounds and hotels in the East Yellowstone area. This area is scenic, but if you want easy access to amenities and Yellowstone's main attractions, the East entrance is probably not your best base.
Salt Lake International is the nearest major airport to Yellowstone. From there, it's a 5-hour drive to the West entrance or a 6-hour drive to the South entrance. Most people rent a car or drive their own to Yellowstone.
Where to stay
Yellowstone has nine lodges and a dozen campgrounds inside the park. It can take an hour to drive from outside the park to the main attractions on the Grand Loop, so staying inside the park can save you a lot of driving.
Rooms and campsites inside the park fill fast. Start shopping a year or more in advance for best selection. Read more about lodging inside the park at Yellowstone's official website.
Staying just outside the park can save you money, and give you better access to other attractions. Years ago, I camped inside the park with friends, but we have stayed outside the park on our family trips.
We rented a cabin at Henrys Lake State Park on our first family trip. It's a few miles from West Yellowstone, Montana, near Island Park, Idaho. There are a lot of fun outdoor activities in this area. Click the button below to check rates and availability for West Yellowstone Hotels on TripAdvisor.com.
On my most recent trip, we booked a camping cabin at Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch just outside the South entrance. It's a short distance from both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. There isn't much nearby, but the location couldn't be better if you plan to visit both parks.
Check rates and availability for Headwaters Lodge on TripAdvisor.com. Click the button below to learn more.
- Review of Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch
- Fun Family Activities at Henrys Lake State Park
- Tips for Booking a Great Vacation Home
Yellowstone has many helpful amenities inside the park for travelers. First and foremost, you can buy fuel for your car inside the park. There are six gas stations inside the park.
You'll find restrooms at every major stop. Some restrooms are primitive. Restrooms attached to visitor centers are modern and clean. There are five major visitor centers inside the park, plus museums, gift shops, general stores and more.
Restaurants and gift shops can be found at most of the visitors centers or lodges inside the park. The 50's diner at Canyon Village is fun. My favorite place to eat is the cafeteria at Old Faithful. There is a good variety for picky eaters, and it's affordable, but the food isn't that good. It's the classic national parks ambience and view of Old Faithful that can't be beat.
There are many picnic areas inside Yellowstone. Just be sure to use the bear-proof garbage cans when you are finished. Never feed the wildlife.
Yellowstone National Park is located in a rural, mountainous area. Expect phone service and WiFi to be spotty or non-existent. You'll have the best service at the big visitors centers and lodges, and nearby cities.
Things to do
There is a long list of must-sees at Yellowstone National Park that can fill multiple blog posts. Here's a quick overview.
Yellowstone's biggest attractions form a Figure-8, known as the Grand Loop Road. The big bottom loop sits in the center of the park, and that's where you'll find Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and lots of other good stops. Mammoth Hot Springs is at the north end of the smaller top loop.
It takes a full day to drive both loops without stopping, and you'll want to make plenty of stops. If you have 1-2 days, focus on the southern loop and see Old Faithful, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the geyser basins and more. Spend your second or third day on the Mammoth Hot Springs loop.
Wildlife live everywhere in the park and you could spot an elk, bison or bear at any time. Keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready.
Three days is enough time to enjoy all the big stops on the Grand Loop and feel satisfied with the Yellowstone experience. However, you won't get far off the beaten path. Consider spending 4-5 days if you want to spend more time on hiking trails, drive Yellowstone's other scenic roads or build in some down time.
It pays to wake up early at Yellowstone. Wildlife are most active in the early morning hours. Roads and parking lots are least crowded before 10 AM. The only reason we missed Grand Prismatic Spring on the last trip was that we couldn't find an empty parking space in the afternoon.
- 5 Fun Things to do with Kids at Yellowstone National Park
- 3 Tips for Safely Seeing Wildlife at Yellowstone National Park
How old should kids be?
My children were ages 1 and 4 on our first trip. We were traveling with extended family whose children ranged in age from 4 months to 8 years. Everyone had a great trip! I think that Yellowstone is for all ages.
That said, there are real dangers that families should consider. Scalding thermal pools, wild animals and steep trails are not fenced off in most parts of the park. Parents will need to be vigilant to help keep children safe. Yellowstone helps visitors keep a safe distance with stroller-friendly boardwalks, guard rails and warning signs.
Depending on your interests, the age of your children might limit your activities at Yellowstone. My dad and I hiked all over the north side of Yellowstone Falls on our last trip. We saw plenty of families on the trails, but 2-3 miles of moderately strenuous hiking would have been tricky with most young children – especially if they weren't seasoned hikers.
Yellowstone is a fantastic family destination – every bit as good as you've imagined. It's big park, in a remote location and you should expect to do a lot of driving. Summer has the best weather, but biggest crowds. There are lots of fun things to do, and amenities to help you enjoy your stay.
Yellowstone National Park is truly one of our national treasures, and you should definitely go if you have the chance.