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A guide to visiting Yellowstone National Park

A guide to visiting Yellowstone National Park (in any season!)

It makes me feel warm inside to know that there are currently over 6,500 national parks in the world, and even more are being declared each year.

China recently announced plans to create a new national park in the country’s northeast to conserve the habitat of ultra rare tigers and leopards that inhabit that area. It’s great news that governments are recognising the importance of protected land.

For environmentalists like myself, Yellowstone represents an important moment in history. On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone was declared the world’s first ever national park, making it the first area of land to be protected by the federal government.

Yellowstone covers a massive 3,468 square miles (8,983 square kms). Inside the park are lakes, canyons, geothermal areas, rivers, waterfalls, and mountain ranges. A large portion of the land is an active super-volcano hiding just beneath the surface of the earth. The last time it erupted was around 630,000 thousand years ago.

I’ve visited Yellowstone National Park twice, once in the summer and once in the winter, and both times it has absolutely blown my mind. If you’re planning on taking a trip to see this incredible landscape anytime soon, here’s a comprehensive guide to visiting Yellowstone National Park in any season!

Yellowstone Canyon at Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone Canyon

Things to do in Yellowstone:

If you’re heading to the park between mid-April and early November, then the roads in the park should be open to cars (you can see a live map of road openings here). The roads in Yellowstone are divided into two major loops: the North loop and South loop.

North Loop:

  • Boiling River, a thermally heated river that you can swim in.
  • Mammoth Hot Springs, a hot spring that cascades down terraces.
  • Yellowstone Canyon, a massive canyon with an impressive waterfall. Go to Lookout Point or Artist Point for spectacular views.
  • Norris Geyser Basin, a large thermal area with hot springs and geysers.

South Loop:

  • Fountain Paint Pot Trail, a walking trail with some smaller geysers and thermal pools.
  • Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world.
  • Morning Glory Pool, a smaller thermal spring which you can get up close to.
  • Biscuit Basin, which has wooden pathways over a large thermal area with more hot springs and geysers.
  • Old Faithful, a geyser that shoots water 145 feet (44 m) into the air every 90-ish minutes.
  • Yellowstone Lake, a gigantic and very pretty lake where you can go kayaking.
Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful geyser

How long will you need:

Yellowstone is big. Really big. If you’re taking a car to visit in the summer or shoulder seasons, I would recommend 2 days to see the whole park, splitting your days between the North and South loops.

If you only have one day, it might be worth booking a Yellowstone wildlife safari tour from Jackson to make the most of your time there.

If you’re going in the winter, then a day tour is the longest amount of time that you will be able to spend in the park. I have some more info on Yellowstone in winter below.

How to get to Yellowstone:

Driving into Yellowstone is the easiest way to visit if you live within a few hours drive. There are 5 entrances to come into the park: North, Northeast, East, South, and West.

If you don’t live nearby, then there are a few nearby airports that you can fly into. We flew into Bozeman, which is about an hour and 45 minutes drive from the North entrance or West entrance.

You can also fly into Cody, which is just over an hour drive from the East entrance, or Jackson Hole, which is just over an hour drive from the South entrance.

Two more airports that are a little further away but are still fairly close to the park are Idaho Falls, ID, or Billings, MT.

Where to stay in Yellowstone:

There are limited options to stay inside the national park, but there are plenty of options to stay just outside. Be sure to book well ahead if you’re travelling in peak season as accommodations can book up fast.

West Yellowstone is at the west entrance and is the closest to the park. Try the Holiday Inn or Explorer Cabins.

Gardiner is another township that is close by the North entrance. Try the Yellowstone’s Treasure Cabins or The Ridgeline Hotel.

Kayaks on Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park
Kayaks on Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone in summer + shoulder seasons:

Yellowstone is a very popular national park and it can get super busy in the peak season (July-August, especially during school holidays), so head to the park in the shoulder seasons (April-May and September-October) if you want to avoid the crowds.

Vehicles entering Yellowstone will be required to have a national parks pass. If you don’t have one, the cost is $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass which will be purchased at one of the park entrances.

National park fees are waived for national park week so if you plan to travel in April, try coordinating with those dates to save some cash!

Summer in Yellowstone is fairly mild with changing conditions. July temperatures usually range between 4ºC to 21ºC (40ºF to 70ºF). Be prepared for all sorts of weather.

Bison surrounded by snow, Yellowstone National Park
Bison surrounded by snow by the Fountain Paint Pot Trail

Yellowstone in winter:

From November to April, the roads inside the park are covered in snow and closed to vehicles (with the exception of the North entrance to Mammoth Falls). The only way to see Yellowstone in the winter is by doing a guided tour.

There are a number of companies that offer winter trips into the park. Tours usually depart from the township of West Yellowstone or Jackson, and they go out to Yellowstone Canyon or Old Faithful.

You have the option of choosing a snowcoach tour or a snowmobile tour. We chose to do a snowmobile tour with Yellowstone Vacations and rented a double snowmobile which cost $209 plus tax and the national park fee of $25. You can also rent a single snowmobile for the same price.

Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park
Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park

The snowmobile tour was every bit as fun as it sounds! We had a short briefing on how to drive the vehicles in the morning, and then we were off into the park for the rest of the day. Our tour took us all the way to Old Faithful and back. The snowmobiles could go up to around 60 mph and had heated seats and hand warmers to keep us from getting too cold.

Funny (but kind of depressing) story about our snowmobile tour to Old Faithful – we actually missed Old Faithful going off! We were eating our packed lunch in one of the yurts near the geyser, then we started walking over 15 minutes before it was predicted to go off. It turns out that it went off 16 minutes early, and we couldn’t wait around for the next round. Booooo.

Turtle (our tour guide, who had a super cool name) said it was extremely rare for his tour groups to miss Old Faithful, but he took us to a smaller geyser just down the road which goes off every 8 minutes so that we all got to experience a geyser erupting. You can see the footage in our snowmobiling adventure video below!

If snowmobiling doesn’t sound like your thing, then the other option is a snowcoach tour. The itineraries are basically the same as the snowmobile tours, but are completed in a vehicle that looks kind of like a mini-bus but with skids instead of wheels.

What to wear/bring:

Winter in Yellowstone can get super cold – January temperatures range between -17ºC to -4ºC (1ºF to 24ºF). If you’re heading into the park in the depths of winter, be sure to wear thermal underwear, a beanie, gloves, a thick winter jacket or parka, waterproof boots, and possibly snow pants if you have them.

If you don’t have some of these items, don’t panic – you can also rent gear for the trip, including helmets (which are required for snowmobile tours), gloves, a winter jumpsuit, and boots. The full gear package cost $15 to rent with Yellowstone Vacations.

Bison, Yellowstone National Park
Bison on the road in winter

Some other things to remember:

  • It can be tempting to get close to Yellowstone’s animals for a photo, but remember that these animals are wild, and they may charge if you get too close. You don’t want to be head-butted by a Bison.
  • If you’re driving, be careful of wildlife that may wander on to the road, and also be aware of the people who will pull over to get photos of it. Traffic can get chaotic when this happens.
  • It may seem obvious, but stick to the paths! We heard a few stories of people dying in various ways at Yellowstone, including one guy who jumped into a boiling thermal spring to save his dog, and another guy who went off-path and fell into the sulphuric water that sits just below the surface. Don’t be one of those people, please!

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