When you’re considering a visit to Yellowstone (especially if it’s your first), it can be a little intimidating. This is because there are so many choices and things to consider: What is there to see? Where should I stay? How long will my visit last? Do I need to worry about wildlife?

Don’t worry – we’ve got your back! If you’re wondering how to visit Yellowstone National Park, let’s chat about what you need to know before you go with some of our best tips to make your trip as easy as possible.

Grand View of Grand Prismatic at Midway Geyser Basin from Overlook
The view of the Grand Prismatic from the overlook.

Quick Tips

First, here are some quick tips that you need to know right away, and then we will get into the questions that we get asked regularly.

  1. Entrance pass – To get into Yellowstone, you will need to purchase a pass, either by buying a 7-day pass ($35/vehicle), a Yellowstone Annual Pass ($70/vehicle), or the America the Beautiful Pass ($80/vehicle for all National Parks).
  2. Book Ahead of Time – Lodging, including campgrounds, book up quickly. We planned a trip in two weeks during September, but I would not recommend it – it’s common for lodging and campsites to book out 9-12 months in advance.
  3. Limited Cell/Wi-Fi Coverage – There is very limited Wi-Fi and cellular coverage throughout the park. Other than at the major campgrounds and lodging areas, it’s essentially non-existent. Make sure to take a paper map or download offline maps of your itinerary and hikes from apps like Roadtrippers and Gaia.
  4. Plan for Extra Time – Build in a little extra time each day to make your trip easier. You’re heading into nature and may find yourself wishing to spend additional time in one area – or getting stuck in Bison jams! It’s best to give yourself a little leeway.
  5. Wildlife Tips & Safety – You are heading into a park full of wildlife with no gates or cages to keep you separate. Be sure to follow safety guidelines, keep your distance from wildlife as recommended, take pictures from a distance, and never turn your back on a wild animal. In addition, it’s a good idea to carry bear spray throughout the park. You can purchase ahead of time or rent at Canyon Village.
  6. Plan for Varied Weather – The weather can change quickly in Yellowstone, even during summer, so it’s a good idea to be prepared for anything. Pack layers, including a warm insulating layer (such as fleece or down) and a waterproof jacket, to be prepared. We visited in September, and daytime temps varied from the 40’s to the 60’s, and nights dropped into the 30’s. We had everything from sunshine to rain to hail, and it snowed the day we left.

Don’t Forget Your Binoculars and Camera

During a trip to Yellowstone, there will be so many things you’ll want to see in more detail. A pair of binoculars is a good idea to have on hand, to help you spot wildlife in the distance and to allow you to see more details while remaining safe.

In addition, you’ll want to have photos to remember your trip and share with friends and families, so be sure to bring a camera. A cell phone can totally work (it’s what we took along with a GoPro). However, if you are hoping for close-up images of wildlife and geothermal features a camera with a telephoto lens will be extremely beneficial.

Why should you consider a trip to Yellowstone? 

With so many National Parks to choose from, you may wonder what sets Yellowstone apart from the rest.

Some of the things that stand out about Yellowstone are the incredible variety of landscapes, the vast array of wildlife, and the impressive geothermal features.

There are plenty of excellent outdoor activities for everyone in your family as well, so there’s no shortage of fun things to do while you’re visiting this fantastic place!

Read more: 10 Activities You Shouldn’t Miss in Yellowstone National Park

Where is Yellowstone Located? 

When you’re trying to figure out how to visit Yellowstone, one of the things to know is where the park is located so you can plan accordingly.

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The park is located in the western part of the United States. The majority of the park lies in northwestern Wyoming. However, portions of the park also extend into Montana and Idaho.

There are five entrances to the park:

  • North entrance (near Gardiner, Montana)
  • Northeast entrance (near Cooke City, Montana)
  • South entrance (near West Yellowstone, Montana)
  • East entrance (near Cody, Wyoming).
  • West entrance (near West Yellowstone, Montana) 
Park Entrances

Most of the entrances (and roads) close during the winter to automobiles, except for the North Entrance. However, some roads remain open to over-snow travel on snowmobiles or snow coaches through the winter.

How to visit Yellowstone 

One of the most common questions about planning a trip to Yellowstone is how to get there. A popular way to visit if you don’t live too far away is to drive.

If you drive your own car, you can choose to camp or stay in lodging within the park. Not interested in tent camping? You can also rent an RV or camper for your trip if you don’t have your own.

Best way to experience Yellowstone

Though there are many ways to visit and see the sights, we think that a campervan or a truck bed camper is the way to go when visiting Yellowstone. There are a few reasons for this. 

First, the park has areas you can’t drive pull-behind campers due to the total length. Also, you may need (or want) to move from one campground to another to minimize your overall drive time during your trip. Having a campervan or truck bed camper makes that just a little bit easier. Plus, you can always have your kitchen with you – a massive bonus with kids! 

We used Wandervans (locations in Portland, Boise, and Salt Lake City) and could not have been happier during our trip. Their booking process is super easy to navigate, and they have done an excellent job of making sure you have all the essentials for your trip. Plus, have I mentioned how comfortable their mattresses were?! I’ve never slept so good on a camping trip in my life!

Wandervan getting ready to drive through the Roosevelt Arch

What are the nearest airports?

If you’re too far away to drive, there are several airports within driving distance of Yellowstone.

A handful of the closest airports are: 

  • Bozeman, Montana: about two hours from the North Entrance
  • Billings, Montana: approximately two hours forty-five minutes from the North Entrance
  • Jackson Hole Airport: about a one-hour drive from the South Entrance.
  • Salt Lake City Airport: about a six-hour drive from the South Entrance.

Though the Salt Lake City airport is further away, it could be a great option if you plan to fly in and rent a campervan from somewhere like Wandervans. The drive would also give you a chance to spend at least one day in Grand Teton National Park on your way through!

How big is Yellowstone? 

It’s time for a little bit of a geography lesson! 😉 Yellowstone spans across parts of three states- Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana – and is over 3400 square miles. As a reference, that’s bigger than the entire state of Delaware!

What does that mean for you? Because the park is massive, it can take hours to drive from one side of the park to the other. So, we suggest planning your itinerary carefully and breaking each day down into sections of the park as we do in our 3-day Yellowstone Itinerary.

Where is the best place to stay?

Because Yellowstone is so large (driving from the South Entrance to the North Entrance can take two and a half hours – without Bison jams!), we think it’s best to stay inside the park if you can.

Although it can be convenient to have one place to stay for your entire stay, we actually think it’s better to move campgrounds or lodges when visiting Yellowstone due to the park’s vast size.

If you’re able, book your accommodations first in 2-3 areas of the park. Then, as you’re planning your Yellowstone itinerary, adjust your itinerary around your lodging. You can see examples of how to do this in our 3-Day Yellowstone Itinerary.

We also put together an article with more examples of where to stay in (and near) Yellowstone. If you can stay in the park, we think that is best. However, we also realize that’s not always possible, so we share alternate lodging suggestions to help you make the most of your trip.

Booking.com

What should you do about food?

Yellowstone does have restaurants, snack shops, and more available throughout the park. Dining is located primarily at each major attraction or lodging areas, such as Canyon Village, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Old Faithful.

However, we found that taking our own food made things much more manageable. We could stop whenever the kids got hungry (or while we were waiting for crowds to die down). Then, if everyone was ready to eat, we didn’t have to wait to drive across the park for a restaurant or cafeteria.

Note: Some restaurants are closed for the 2021 season. Find a full list of food options and current operations here.

man cooking on camping stove at back of Wandervans campervan next to river under grey skies
Making dinner by the river!

What is the weather like in Yellowstone? 

The weather in Yellowstone can be unpredictable because of the high elevation. Even during the summer, when the temperatures are in the 70’s Fahrenheit during the day, they can still quickly drop into the 40’s at night. You can find historical averages here.

We visited in September, and the weather was in the 50’s most days and the 30’s at night. We also had quite a bit of rain (and even a little hail!) during our trip.

You’ll want to be prepared for cold weather, especially at night, at any time of the year. It’s also not uncommon for the first significant snowstorm to come in September or October.

What are the best things to do?

There are plenty of activities to keep you and your family busy and entertained in Yellowstone. From hiking to waterfall hunting and learning about all the different geothermal features in the park, there is something for everyone.

In particular, we really loved visiting Midway Geyser Basin and the Fairy Falls Overlook Trail for views of the Grand Prismatic.

Grand View of Grand Prismatic at Midway Geyser Basin from Overlook
The view of the Grand Prismatic from the overlook.

More of our favorite activities are visiting West Thumb Geyser Basin, Old Faithful Geyser Area, Norris Geyser Basin, and viewing wildlife in Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley.

Read more: 10 Activities You Shouldn’t Miss in Yellowstone National Park

How Many Days Should You Spend

When it comes to National Parks, the longer you can spend, the better. That said, we think that 3-5 days is a great time frame to see the park’s highlights without feeling like all you did was simply drive from location to location.

If you have a shorter trip planned, you’ll want to plan your days to maximize your time. You can see our detailed 3-day Yellowstone Itinerary (with suggestions for trips that vary from 1-7 days) here.

What Should Your Budget Be? 

One of the most significant factors for planning any vacation is often how much it will cost. Visiting Yellowstone is no different. We were able to budget under $2500 for our entire trip for our family of four, including food! We spent two days driving, plus time in Grand Teton (1-day) and Yellowstone (3-days).

We had a campervan, but you could save even more ($800+) if you choose to camp instead.

However, if you choose to stay in one of the lodges in the park, such as Old Faithful Inn, you can expect to spend $200-1100 a night. Therefore, you’ll want to consider your lodging preferences as you finalize your budget.

Entrance Fees

You’ll want to keep Entrance Fees in mind as well as your planning your budget. Thankfully, there are a few options you can choose from. For example, suppose you’re only visiting Yellowstone and don’t anticipate visiting any other federally owned lands in the coming year. In that case, the least expensive option is the 7-day pass for a private vehicle at $35.

Personally, however, we think the best buy is the America the Beautiful Pass. For $80, you get access to national parks and national wildlife refuges, plus most national forests. 

If you’re current U.S. Military or if you have a 4th Grader, you can get an annual America the Beautiful Pass at no cost. Here is where you can grab your Every Kid Outdoors Annual 4th Grade Pass.

What is the best time of year to visit Yellowstone? 

Truth be told, there are perks to visiting every season, so there is no perfect answer. To choose the best time for you, consider your fitness level, the activities you want to do most, and whether you’re open to a trip in the snow.

  • Summer: While the weather is likely to be best, everyone knows it (if you know what I mean). You’ll enjoy more sunshine, but you’ll also likely find yourself fighting to get a parking spot at popular attractions, running into more traffic than in other seasons, and having a more significant challenge securing lodging (they often book out 9 months in advance!)
  • Spring & Fall: Visiting Yellowstone in the Spring or Fall might be your perfect time to visit. You’ll enjoy weather that might be cooler but more availability when it comes to lodging and attractions (likely not as busy!)
  • Winter: Visiting Yellowstone in winter can be an incredible adventure. The park is beautifully covered in snow and is rarely busy. Though certain parts of the park aren’t accessible in winter, it can be a truly unique experience!
Two boys looking at springs in Fountain Paint Pot Area in Yellowstone

When are Yellowstone Attractions Least Crowded?

The busiest time of day throughout most of the park tends to be mid-day (from around 9 or 10 am until 5 or 6 pm). 

If you can catch the most popular areas (Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic, etc.) in the early morning or evening, you will have fewer crowds to fight. We recommend keeping that in mind for the places you absolutely don’t want to miss.

What should you pack? 

When packing for Yellowstone, whether you’re camping or staying in a hotel, there are a few essential things to pack in addition to your regular clothes and toiletries.

For our complete list, head to What to Pack for a Trip to Yellowstone.

Best Apps to Make the Most of Your Yellowstone Trip

GyPSy Guide

GyPSy Guide is essentially an audio tour that you pick up wherever you start your day. It automatically plays as you drive through the park. Plus, it works like magic, even when you don’t have a cell signal. (They use satellites, but magic sounds more fun.😉) We learned so much more about the park’s history and different geological features that we would have missed without this app. “Secret school” for the win!

Roadtrippers

Roadtrippers is a road trip planning app. You pop in your destinations, and it lays out the order that makes the most sense to minimize your drive time. They have both a free and a paid Plus version. The paid Plus version lets you plan longer trips, share with friends, and access maps offline…this is super beneficial when we were in the park as service is limited. If you like the map and itinerary we created on Roadtrippers, you can use code: STOKEFAM for $5 off a year of the Plus plan!

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Yellowstone National Park App

The Yellowstone National Park App is especially beneficial when you want more information about a particular area to find information on road closures, schedules, and more. However, the thing we liked the most is the live Geyser Prediction. When you are in a service area (the main campground areas, Old Faithful, etc.), you can pull up predictions to help you plan your timing for the day.

Related: Why Don’t All Campers Know About These Apps?!

Is Yellowstone good for kids? 

Yes….and no. Yellowstone is an excellent place for kids, but there are some things to know before you visit with small kids in tow.

One of the most popular national parks, Yellowstone provides excellent opportunities for family travel. And…we firmly believe that kids can go anywhere, and adventure doesn’t have to wait just because you have children.

Yellowstone can be a fantastic introduction to geography and natural history. From animals to geysers, there really are things of wonder in Yellowstone.

two boys and man watching bubbly muddy areas at Mud Volcano Area in Yellowstone
Watching the bubbly mud at Mud Volcano Area.

That said, some trails are close to steam vents, boiling hot pools, and other geothermal features. It is also full of animals that roam freely and can present dangers, so it’s important to respect wildlife, follow guidelines, and take precautions to keep you and your children safe.

I share this because we had a stage where one of our kids was a “runner,” and I would have been a nervous wreck! But, if your kids are used to listening and paying close attention (or they’re still small enough for you to carry), it’s a great destination.

Final Tips & Tricks

With all of these tips and tricks in your back pocket, you’ll be well on your way to having the best trip ever. Your family will love touring Yellowstone National Park, and you’ll be able to enjoy your vacation with less stress!

As you’re planning additional details of your trip, check out the following guides we’ve created to make things easy. If you have any questions, let us know in the comments!

Want All Our Tips & Tricks to Plan Your Trip?

Grab a copy of our printable Yellowstone National Park Trip Guide & Itinerary and get our best tips, itineraries, and suggestions to make your trip easier – it even includes links to our personal Roadtrippers maps already done for you! 

Just download your maps ahead of time, print (or download) the guide, and off you go!

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The Yellowstone National Park Trip Guide & Planner is a compilation of some of our most popular Yellowstone posts (plus a bunch of sweet bonuses)! It Includes:

Additional Help for Planning Your Yellowstone Vacation

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