Yellowstone National Park is a VERY popular destination for summer travelers. This park is so massive that it can be daunting to think about how to plan a trip to see Yellowstone. If that’s you, you’re in the right place! I’m going to break down the steps I take to plan a trip to just about any national park.
Before you read further, have you seen my weekend itinerary for Yellowstone yet? If not, open this post in a new tab to read when you’re done with this one!
Step 1: Decide when you want to visit
Yellowstone is obviously going to be the busiest in the summer months (June-August). This is when kids are out of school, the days are longer, the weather is better for being outside. It’s a no-brainer that the summer is when people will want to flock to Yellowstone to see it’s beauty. However, with lots of people comes lots of traffic.
There are many pros to visiting Yellowstone in the summer, but the main con is going to be the sheer amount of people you have to deal with. The traffic can back up and the parking lots at most of the sites are quite small. Yellowstone is trying to combat this by offering a shuttle service starting this year, but personally, I think most people will opt to still use their own car.
My general advice is to go in May or September. This is my favorite time to travel anywhere because the weather is still nice and there will almost always be less people during these “shoulder months”.
That said, if the summer is the only time that works for you, then do it! Even if you have to wait in a bit of traffic, it will be worth it to see what Yellowstone has to offer.
Step 2: Decide how long you’d like to stay
Once you decide when to travel, you’ll have to decide how long you’ll stay. Most people that come to visit us in Bozeman try to see Yellowstone in a day because it’s a longer drive from here (about 1.5 hours to the north entrance). However, you need at least two days to comfortably see a lot of the park. Ideally, you’d section off 4-5 days to really see it and take it all in, but I know that doesn’t always work with everyone’s schedule.
A good way to figure out how long you’d like to stay is to make a list of everything you want to do and see in the park. To see most of the sites along the main road, you’ll need at least two days. If you want to do any extra activities like horseback riding, white water rafting, full day hikes, etc., I’d give yourself an extra day for each of those.
Step 3: Figure out where you’d like to stay
The next step to plan a trip to Yellowstone is to figure out where you’d like to stay. There are a number of hotels within the park which to me, is the ideal option. You can find more information about those here. I haven’t done this, myself, but this seems like the best way to see the most of the park. How cool would it be to see wildlife in the morning with no one else around?!
If all the hotels in the park are booked up or it’s just not your thing, there are hotels near most of the entrances. Living in Montana, I’m most familiar with the northern entrance. Gardiner, MT is the closest town that’s right outside this entrance. The whole town is catered toward Yellowstone tourists, so there are plenty of hotel options here.
If you’re going in the west entrance, you’ll want to look at hotels in West Yellowstone. If you’re coming in through the east, you’ll want to look at Cody, Wyoming for places to stay.
Another fun option to consider is getting a hotel near the southern entrance. This would put you right in between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, so you can see both in one trip!
PRO TIP: If you plan on visiting more than 3 national parks in a single year, buy the Annual Pass. It’s $80 per year and each car into Yellowstone is $35 each visit.
Step 4: Research what to do in the park
This will probably be the most overwhelming part of figuring out how to plan a trip to Yellowstone. But don’t worry! I’ll break it down for you.
The most important thing to know about Yellowstone is that while there are a TON of hikes to do, most visitors are coming to see the “sites”. When I say “sites,” I mean the geysers, hot springs, and other natural phenomena that are in the park. Most of these are sectioned off into different areas, or basins. Each basin has it’s own parking lot, so it makes it easy to plan a route along the main road.
The main road is in the shape of a figure 8, so it’s easy to think about the park as two halves: the southern loop and the northern loop.
If you only have two days in the park, I always recommend starting with the southern loop because that’s where most of the sites you’ll want to see are located. The second day should be spent catching up on what you missed from the first day, and then exploring the northern loop.
To get you started, here are the main sites you’ll want to make sure to see:
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Northern Loop)
- Mammoth Hot Springs (Northern Loop)
- Grand Prismatic Spring (Southern Loop)
- Old Faithful (Southern Loop)
There are SO MANY more things to see in the park and if you want a more detailed list, check out my post about how to see Yellowstone in a weekend!
This post also has a lot of ideas for different activities and how to book them inside and outside the park.
My next piece of advice is to download the Yellowstone App.
This will help you do a few things:
- Have a map of the park when you’re driving and don’t have service.
- Plan your trip ahead of time by flagging the sites you want to stop at.
- Give you geyser predition times, so you’ll know when Old Faithful (or any other predictible geyser) will go off.
–> Have more Yellowstone questions that need answers? Check out my Yellowstone FAQ! <–
When is your next Yellowstone trip?
I hope this post helped you get started and showed you step-by-step how to plan a trip to Yellowstone! Let me know when your next Yellowstone adventure will be in the comments. What are you most excited for?