Yellowstone National Park teems with activity. Wolves and bears cruise for food past bison jams that frequently clog roads. Nearby, geysers explode from the earth, and colorful hot springs pump out steam. The latter are reminders that Yellowstone is indeed a supervolcano.
As the first national park, Yellowstone claims a unique place in the U.S. But its fame comes from more than that. Of all the active geysers in the world, this park clusters the largest concentration and harbors more than half of them. By adding in other volcanic features, such as mud pots, hot springs, and steam vents, the number of active thermals easily climbs to 10,000.
Abundant wildlife pervades the landscape. For this reason, visitors love to drive through Yellowstone. Roads offer a chance to see bison, pronghorn, elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats in the wild. Their predators—wolves, bears, coyote, and fox—follow close behind.
Circling the park’s interior, the Grand Loop Road hits all the iconic sights you’ll want to see. The loop splits into a northern circle and a south circle, due to a midway connection between Norris and Canyon.
You can tour the entire loop in one day. After all, it’s only 142 miles. But it’ll be long day, and you’ll have little time for enjoying the sights.
Most visitors spend two to seven days to see Yellowstone. As a 24-hour park, you can take advantage of better sightseeing times to avoid crowds. You’ll encounter fewer people on the roads and geyser boardwalks in early morning and evening. Those are also the best times for wildlife watching. You can even watch Old Faithful Geyser explode at night.
In the park’s north country, the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs anchor the northwest corner, where elk bed down on the grass in the village. Across the northeast on a spur off the Grand Loop, the Northeast Entrance Road passes through Lamar Valley, often called “America’s Serengeti” due to prolific wildlife. Bring binoculars to spot denning wolves and prowling grizzly bear sows with cubs.
In between the two, petrified trees still stand as a reminder of a once quite different climate. To take in Yellowstone in one 360-degree view, you can hike or bike to the summit Mt. Washburn, the park’s tallest peak.
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On Grand Loop Road’s southern loop, the route connects multiple geyser basins. Norris is the hottest and most active, changing sometimes from year to year. Of course, the Upper Geyser Basin is the most famous because it holds Old Faithful Geyser, whose regular eruptions entertain thousands. At Midway Geyser Basin, brilliant color rims Grand Prismatic Spring. You can also see it from above on the newest of Yellowstone’s trails.
Filling the southeast corner of the park, immense Yellowstone Lake flows into the Yellowstone River, the longest free-flowing river in the U.S. In turn, it cuts through Hayden Valley, a wildlife mecca that often houses trumpeter swans and bison. Then, the Yellowstone River culminates in tumbling through two giant, thundering waterfalls through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Second only in popularity to Old Faithful, the rust-colored canyon attracts visitors and hikers to multiple overlooks along its north and south rims.
Outside the park, more than 22 million acres expand the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Grand Teton National Park connects to Yellowstone via the John D. Rockefeller Parkway. Bordering towns of West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Cooke City provides year-round amenities and recreation. Neighboring national forests and wilderness areas add on more places to hike, camp, fish, bike, and explore.
It’s wild country like no other. Time to put it in your travel plans.
Don’t forget to click on the yellow bar above for Yellowstone National Park details about when to go, what it costs, transportation, informative background reading, other valuable websites and maps, a photo montage, and short introductory travel videos.
Yellowstone experiences four distinct seasons. Seasons and weather are essential considerations for when to visit, especially because some roads close seasonally.
Many Yellowstone fans make annual visits to the park, in a way like returning to sacred ground. If all you have is a day or two to spend, it will result in a whirlwind trip over far too soon. You’ll leave wanting more. Most first-time visitors go for 5-7 days. That allows for overnighting in different areas of the park and gaining a richer experience. It also allows for time to take in multiple experiences: sightseeing, hiking, horseback riding, and bicycling.
Summer is high season in Yellowstone, especially July and August. All visitor services are open and so are all roads. High elevation trails are usually snow-free late July-August. Make reservations for summer lodging a year in advance. Inside park lodging and restaurants open in late May or June and close in late September or early October.
Shoulder seasons in spring (May-June) and fall (September to mid-October) offer quieter, less crowded times to travel. Spring offers a chance to spot bison and elk newborns. In fall, elk bugling fills the air as bulls gather their harems.
For summer trips, all roads are usually open. In spring, roads begin to open to vehicles in mid-April. In May, some roads are still closed, but most open by June. In fall, most roads remain open until early November except during deep snowfall. With the exception of the northern road that stays open to vehicles from Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs to the Northeast Entrance near Cooke City, snow closes all roads in winter.
Winter is a crowd-free time to visit Yellowstone. Mid-December through early March, snowcoaches and snowmobiles travel the snow-buried roads. Only a few lodges inside the park open for the winter season. West Yellowstone and Gardiner, which border the park, serve as winter hubs for lodging and visitor services.
Northern Rocky Mountain weather is erratic. High elevation helps temperatures stay cool, but wild 20-degree swings in temperature can happen in just a few hours if storms roll in.
While summertime hovers in the 70s, temperatures can plummet, and snow can fall any month of the year. The thermometer can even drop at night below freezing in places.
Due to the elevation, winter hangs on in Yellowstone well into spring. Warm days waffle between freezing and 60 degrees. Frequent squalls bring rainstorms or May snows. Fall months bring bug-free days that mirror erratic spring weather, and nights cool below freezing.
Winter snow appears in late October or early November. Snow blankets the ground, and nighttime temperatures drop to sub-zero.
Yellowstone National Park falls in Mountain Time Zone, same as Calgary, AB or Denver, CO. To check the local time in Yellowstone, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (early March, on a Sunday morning at 2AM). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (late October or early November on a Sunday morning at 2AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’
Due to erratic mountain weather, dress in moisture-wicking layers you can adjust during the day as temperatures get warmer or cooler. Always bring a rain jacket, hat and gloves. Sun protection such as a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are imperative at altitude. Be ready for snowfall, even in August.
We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong or fluctuate wildly based on the season. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general prices ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $16-22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => $23+ for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26+ per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8-10 per hour; gas and insurance are included.
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150 percent of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10 percent or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions:
Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb, and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, U.S. banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods — this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.
Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
In Greater Yellowstone, taxes vary by location and are add ons to stated prices. In general, 5-10 percent is taxed on goods and services. Lodging taxes vary 4-12 percent. Some hotels charge a resort fee, and lodging inside Yellowstone adds on a utility fee.
Yellowstone has no public shuttle system. You’ll need to rent a car and drive to see the sights.
To get to Yellowstone, fly into Jackson, Wyoming or Bozeman, Montana. In summer only, flights also go to West Yellowstone, Montana. For June through October trips, flying into Cody, Wyoming also works as the roads are open to connect with Yellowstone.
While vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free eaters can find select places to eat, Yellowstone is the land of bison. You’ll find bison burgers and other bison entrees on menus (made from farm-raised bison, not wild bison). Elk is also a favorite.
Look for regional beers. Breweries in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho put out a variety of brews, including seasonal specialities.