Yellowstone was established as the first national park in 1872. The concept of a national park was an unusual idea at the time. The first park rangers had a tough time protecting the park from poachers, vandals, and people trying to strip the park of its natural resources. To protect the area, General Sheridan and Troop M of the 1st United States Cavalry were summoned. Over a period of 32 years, the Calvary built structures, enforced regulations, and otherwise helped build the park.
Today the park receives more than 4 million visitors a year making it one of the top-visited national parks year after year. Yellowstone has been on my travel bucket list and I am happy to report that we recently visited. It is hard to know where to start when planning a trip to Yellowstone, fortunately, I have a lot of great information to share with you. Normally I cover a national park in a single blog post, but I’ll cover Yellowstone in 10 posts. All posts will be linked in this article.
How to Get to Yellowstone
Driving to Yellowstone
Yellowstone is located mostly in northwest Wyoming but it does expand into Montana and Idaho. The park is larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Luckily, there are five entrances to the park to give you access no matter what direction you come from. Which Yellowstone Entrances you should visit depends on where you are starting from and where you want to leave. Read our guide to explore each of Yellowstone’s entrances. The five entrances are:
- North Entrance is a short 3.5 miles from Gardiner, Montana
- West Entrance is located at West Yellowstone, Montana
- South Entrance is 57 miles north of Jackson, Wyoming
- East Entrance is 65 miles west of Cody, Wyoming
- The Northeast Entrance is less than 5 miles from Cooke City-Silver Gate, Montana
Flying to Yellowstone
The nearest airports to Yellowstone include the West Yellowstone Airport, Yellowstone Region Airport in Cody, and Jackson Hole Airport. Larger but further out airports include Bozeman or Salt Lake City.
What Should We See at Yellowstone?
With over 2.2 million acres of land, there’s plenty to see at Yellowstone. But where do you start? The main road of the park, the Grand Loop, is shaped like a figure-eight. At 142 total miles, the loop is best split into regions. We’ve divided the loop into four sections and compiled a guide to each part.
Guides to each of the four sections at Yellowstone
- Grant Village to Bridge Bay to Lake Village to Fishing Bridge to Canyon Village (SE) – This section’s highlights include Yellowstone Lake and the beautiful falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
- West Thumb to Old Faithful to Madison (SW) – Explore the Upper Geyser Basin, home to Old Faithful, Biscuit Basin, and others; at least 150 geysers exist within 1 square mile here. Check out the dazzling Grand Prismatic Spring, containing resident bacteria that create rainbow-like rings in the spring.
- Madison to Norris to Mammoth Hot Springs (NW) – Norris Geyser Basin is the park’s hottest and most dynamic geyser basin. You’ll find the tallest geyser in the world, Steamboat Geyser, at 300-400 feet. Tour the snow-like limestone terraces of the Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Mammoth Springs to Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Village (NE) – Start by touring Historic Fort Yellowstone. This section is over Dunraven Pass, the highest elevation main road in the park.
Guide to Entrance Roads
Don’t rush to the main Grand Loop from the gate, there’s a lot to see from each entrance to the loop. Check out our guide to each Yellowstone Entrance Road.
- South Entrance Road
- West Entrance Road
- North Entrance Road
- Northeast Entrance Road
- East Entrance Road
How Many Days Do You Need at Yellowstone National Park?
We recommend at least four days at Yellowstone. Although planning a daily itinerary at Yellowstone can be tricky. Depending on what time of year you visit, the number of people visiting can greatly impact driving times along the Great Loop.
There are many ways you can cover the park. The most important first step is to know what you want to see and what entrances you’ll be using. From there you can build an itinerary exploring the park roads covering your list of must-sees.
Yellowstone National Park Itineraries with Kids
Below are our recommendations for four, three, and two-day itineraries. Planned days do not need to be completed in chronological order since your entrance gate will vary.
A four-day itinerary will allow you to see most of the park. Build your days around the four guides given above.
- Day one – Explore the southeast section of the park to see Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Hayden Valley.
- Day two – Tour the southwest section of geysers and springs, watch Old Faithful erupt.
- Day three- Spend a day in the northwest viewing the Norris Geyser Basin and the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Day four – The northeast area can be covered in a day. Cover Historic Fort Yellowstone, Tower-Roosevelt, and the Lamar Valley.
You can cover a decent amount of Yellowstone in three days. You can either not visit a section of the park, such as the northeast, or you can see your absolute must-sees in the whole park but that will include a lot of drive time. This itinerary includes some of my park favorites.
- Day one – Visit the southeast region. Stop at Moose Falls, Lewis Falls, Hayden Valley, South and North Rims of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Canyon Lodge Visitor Center
- Day two – Explore the southest and northeast regions. Start by visiting Kepler Falls, Old Faithful, hike Fairy Falls Trail to the Grand Prismatic Overlook from Midway Geyser Basin parking lot, drive Firehole Canyon Drive, stop at Gibbon Falls, Artists Paintpots, Norris Geyser Basin, Sheepeater Cliff, and hoodos.
- Day three – Visit the north and northeast region. Explore the travertine terraces and springs of Mammoth Hot Springs at the Upper Terrace and Lower Terrace, visit the Albright Visitor Center, Wraith Falls, drive Blacktail Plateau Drive, Lamar Valley
We don’t recommend trying to cover the whole park in just two days. If we only had two days to visit the park we would visit the lower loop:
- Day one – Visit the areas of Norris, Madison, Old Faithful and West Thumb
- Day two – Explore Grant Village, Bridge Bay, Lake Village, Fishing Bridge, and Canyon Village
While in the area, we recommend planning a couple of extra days to visit the Grand Tetons. See our guide to the Grand Tetons National Park.
Entrance Fees for Yellowstone
A seven-day pass can be purchased for $35 but we highly recommend buying an America the Beautiful pass for $80. The pass is good for one calendar year and is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites.
If you have a 4th grader, check out the FREE Annual 4th Grade pass which is good for the duration of the school year through the following summer (September-August).
Current U.S. military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force, as well as Reserve and National Guard members, qualify for a free annual pass.
Best Time to Visit
Yellowstone receives more than 4 million visitors a year with June, July, and August as the busiest months. If you homeschool or can arrange online homework for a week, we highly recommend visiting in May or September. When we visited in mid-September we found the road and trail traffic to be light, the weather perfect, and top sites such as Old Faithful not crowded.
Where to Stay at Yellowstone
Accommodations near Yellowstone are not going to be cheap. With over 4 million visitors each year, lodging is at premium prices. Add in having a big family and you’re going to spend a lot. However, to make you feel better, remember that you are not paying daily entrance fees per person. So when you average it out…well, I tried. Be prepared for high prices.
Inside the park
See our guide for staying inside the park.
Outside the park
- Hotels – See our guide to gateway cities and big family friendly accommodation.
- Vacation Rentals for big families can be found outside the park near the gateway cities.
- Camping and RV – There are many options for camping and RV near Yellowstone.
20 Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park with Kids
- Book your accommodations early. If booking inside the park, start checking a year out. If only a month or two out, you might find a few cancellations but lodgings usually sell out.
- Book multiple hotels. To shorten your drive times, be willing to book different nightly accommodations as you move through the park. We stayed in Moran, WY, West Yellowstone, MT, and Gardiner, MT during our four day visit.
- Don’t count on cell service. If you find you don’t have any service, turn your cell to airplane mode to help save your cell battery from your phone continually searching for service. You’ll want your cell charged for all the pictures you’ll be taking!
- Pack clothing layers to shed as the day gets warmer. Morning can be chilly.
- Check road conditions. If staying outside the park, check road conditions before heading to the park. Snow even in September can delay gate openings while roads are being plowed.
- Check eruption times. If your day includes visiting Old Faithful, visit early and check the NPS site before you leave your hotel for the next estimated eruption time to help you time your visit.
- Bring binoculars to look for moose, bears, and wolves in the distance.
- Download the NPS Yosemite app. The app is a great resource to plan your trip.
- Pack a toddler carrier. Most paths are not stroller friendly.
- Complete the Junior Ranger booklets.
- Buy the Trail Guides – we found these 7 at the Old Faithful visitor center. Well worth the donation of $1 each!
- Pack food for lunches to feed your crew before anyone gets hangry. The flexibility of being able to eat whenever and wherever helps. You’ll find grocery stores in Jackson, WY (57 miles south but convenient if you also visit the Grand Tetons), West Yellowstone, MT (west entrance), and Gardiner, MT (north entrance). There are general stores in the park but you’ll find a better selection in one of the towns.
- Be flexible, have a plan but realize that your day might turn out totally different.
- Get to the park early. As with most national parks, the earlier you visit the better. Parking lots fill up fast.
- Know the sunrise and sunset times of the area to make the most of your day. Driving the roads at night with wildlife who walk where they want may be dangerous.
- Purchase or rent bear spray of you’re going to hike anything more than the short well-visited paths.
- Talk to your kids about safety. Let them know the rules for staying on boardwalks, keeping a safe distance from wildlife, and to not feed any animals, even birds or squirrels.
- Pack your patience! During the summer months roads are busy with visitors and wildlife.
- Plan your top must-sees. You’re not going to be able to see the whole park during your visit. Know how much to schedule for your family’s abilities and energy. Less is better, you can always add on that day if wanted. Read your crew’s mood – if they find one part of the park boring, move on (for me this was the geysers, after about a dozen, I was ready to move on 🙂 ).
- Take your time! Enjoy the vistas, the sounds of nature, the fresh air, and the time together exploring.
More Yellowstone Trip Planning Information
- Yellowstone Guide to SE Grand Loop – Grant Village to Bridge Bay to Lake Village to Fishing Bridge to Canyon Village
- Yellowstone Guide to SW Grand Loop – West Thumb to Old Faithful to Madison
- Yellowstone Guide to NW Grand Loop – Madison to Norris to Mammoth Hot Springs
- Yellowstone Guide to NE Grand Loop – Mammoth Springs to Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Village
- Guide to Yellowstone’s 5 Entrance Roads – What to See and Where to Stop
- Guide to Yellowstone’s 5 Entrances
- Where to Stay and Eat Inside Yellowstone with Kids
- 12 Stunning Scenic Yellowstone Drives
- 12 Fabulous Yellowstone Waterfalls with Little to No Hiking
- Yellowstone National Park Guide with Kids – Itineraries, Maps, and 20 Tips for Visiting