When to Go
More than half of the three million annual visitors come in July and August. In September and early October, the weather is good, the visitors few, and the wildlife abundant. In May and June, you can see newborn animals, but the weather may be cold, wet, and even snowy. Between about November through April most park roads are closed to vehicles.
During the winter season, mid-December to mid-March, Yellowstone becomes a fantasy of steam and ice; facilities are limited but sufficient. Only the road between the North and Northeast Entrances stays open to cars, but snowmobiling is permitted on some groomed roads. Heated snow coaches offer tours and give cross-country skiers access to about 50 miles of groomed trails.
How to Get There
There are five entrances: from the west, West Yellowstone (Montana); from the north and northeast, Gardiner and Cooke City (Montana); from the east, on US 14/16/20 from Cody (Wyoming); and from the south, at Flagg Ranch (Wyoming), which is north of Grand Teton National Park and Jackson (64 miles away). Airports: West Yellowstone (summer only), Bozeman, and Billings in Montana; Cody and Jackson in Wyoming.
How to Visit
The 142-mile Grand Loop Road forms a figure eight, with connecting spurs to the five entrances. In early years, visitors took a week going around the loop—still a good idea. On any visit, start with the geyser basins and Mammoth Hot Springs to see wildlife and thermal features (caution: both can be hazardous if approached too closely). On the second day, travel to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Hayden Valley, and Yellowstone Lake.
On a longer stay, visit the northern range, or consider a boating or fishing trip on Yellowstone Lake; a backcountry excursion on foot or horse; or any of the numerous easy nature trails throughout the park. Your best chance of seeing wildlife is in early morning or evening.
Where to Stay
The big question for prospective visitors is whether to lodge in or outside the park. Both offer a range of facilities and price ranges. In general, the most historically significant lodges are in the park. Staying in the park also allows easier access to the various sites. There are more luxury and budget options outside the park, as well as a greater variety of shopping and dining venues.
Old Faithful Inn is the most famous lodge in this park, and perhaps in the National Park System. The main lobby, which is open to the public, has a 65-foot-high ceiling and a massive stone fireplace, and is a short walk away from the faithful geyser. There are several wings of guest rooms, which vary greatly in décor.
Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins is the other grande dame in the park, with an expansive lake view and piano music in the lobby most evenings.
Mammoth Hot Springs Cabins are simple and well located. The great outdoors is the big feature here. Elk and other wildlife may walk by your porch.
Canyon Campground is popular with families because of its budget rates and convenient location near many trails.
Yellowstone is not a theme park. The animals are wild and the hot springs and geysers and mud pots are scalding hot. When walking near geothermal features, stay on walkways and watch your children. When hiking, keep your distance from wild animals and try not to surprise them. Also, don't feed wildlife, as you will actually be endangering both the animals and other people. Keep trash and food in proper bear-proof containers. Wear appropriate clothing for weather conditions and to keep insects away, and proper footwear for hikes. Bring water with you when hiking. If you're planning to go backcountry camping, make sure you register your route at the visitors center.