On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park, designating 2.2 million acres for visitors to experience the unique hydrothermal and geological features that put it on the map. In 2021, Yellowstone National Park hosted 4,860,537 recreational visits, making it the busiest travel season the park has ever seen. If you’re hoping to beat the crowds and get an early start on your planning this year, let us give you a brief introduction to the wonders of this national treasure.
What is the best time to visit?
While the park is technically open all year round, you really need to do your research and be prepared if you plan to go in the winter. Most park roads are closed to cars (over-snow vehicles allowed), and almost all amenities in the park are closed. That being said, winter does offer opportunities to see Yellowstone you would never get in summer. The National Parks Service offers a great resource to help you plan your winter recreation.
If you’re not interested in winter sightseeing (and you want to meet 3 million new friends), June, July, and August are the busiest months and host nearly half of the annual 4 million visitors. Be sure to book lodging early and expect long lines at the women’s restrooms. If you have a more flexible schedule, try visiting during the shoulder season. Again, the NPS provides an excellent month-by-month breakdown of the travel seasons.
What is the closest town?
This very much depends on what entrance you’re using. Gardiner, Montana is about a 3-minute drive from the north entrance and West Yellowstone is about a 4-minute drive to the west entrance of the park. West Yellowstone is the most nostalgic little town (possibly because I visited it so many times as a child) and every time I even glimpse the word “huckleberry” I’m immediately transported back. Gardiner boasts the only year-round entrance to the park AND the iconic Roosevelt Arch, but West Yellowstone has literally any huckleberry-flavored item you could ever dream of. Take your pick.
Where should I stay?
Ooh, this is tricky. Normally I would say Flat Creek Inn (and still recommend it), but the drive might be a bit long. (But if you’re as big of a fan of us as we are of you, come stay anyway!) If you’re interested in staying in the park, Yellowstone National Park Lodges operates nine lodges totaling more than 2,000 rooms. All of them are open from late spring to early fall, except the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, which is open during winter, but be sure to check for precise opening and closing dates.
There are also 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 established sites, all of which require reservations. And you’re competing with 4,860,536 others, so be sure to make your reservations as early as you can! As always, be sure to check opening seasons and dates.
There’s also an abundance of options in West Yellowstone, Island Park, and other towns close to the parks.
What is there to see?
Did you know there are more geysers in Yellowstone than just Old Faithful? I know, it’s crazy. In fact, half of the world’s geysers can be found in Yellowstone National Park. In 2011, it was determined that over 1200 geysers have been recorded as erupting in Yellowstone. Pretty wild considering the rest of the world has fewer than 500 combined. Besides geysers, you can also experience the geological wonders that are hot springs, mudpots (more aptly named stinkpots), and fumaroles.
While Yellowstone is primarily known for its thermal basins, remember that the park is approximately 2.2 million acres and has more than 900 miles of hiking trails. (My dad has probably dragged us on at least half. Just kidding. Or am I?) These trails range from short, family-friendly hikes to wild backcountry excursions, many of which are more than 7,000 feet above sea level.
Similar to Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone also offers ranger-led programs. These programs are a great way to learn about what makes the park special. Yellowstone’s in-park ranger programs vary each season, so they suggest checking at any of the ten visitor centers throughout the park.
Last but certainly not least (people have written literal books on this subject), take a tour of the Old Faithful Inn to learn about the history, quirks, and charm of this fascinating hotel! We wrote about the history of this iconic inn a few months ago and it really is so cool. As always, be sure to check daily tour times.
How long should I spend there?
This completely depends on what type of experience you’re hoping to have. Living relatively close to Yellowstone National Park gives us the luxury of being able to go for a day at a time. Theoretically, you could see the highlights in two days, but you’ll never regret giving yourself the extra time to really see and explore one of the most magnificent and historic national parks in the country.
Let us know in the comments your favorite Yellowstone memory or experience! We’d love to hear your park stories and tell you more about our favorite things to do. See you soon!
Breanne Kunz was raised in the Pacific Northwest but grew up spending summers in Idaho and frequently visiting Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. She is a wife and mom who likes to write. She occasionally travels (not as much as she’d like) and always eats.
Acroterion, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Brigitte Werner (werner22brigitte), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Frank Kovalchek from USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Department of the Interior (n.d.). Yellowstone. National Parks Service. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm
Vardeman, K. (2022). Yellowstone National Park [Photograph]. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlykv/52278305392