What can I say about Yellowstone that hasn’t already been said by others? Maybe the only unique thing I can say is that no one who extols the beauty and wonder of this place is exaggerating.
Typically, I divide my National Park posts into three sections – hiking, transportation options to the park, and lodging. At 2.2 million acres of land to explore, it is impossible to this post into those neat categories. Maybe this tidbit will give you a sense of how enormous Yellowstone is – to drive through the figure 8 loop roads that run through the park alone will take seven hours (not including stops to sightsee or experience anything in the park).
Given the unique geology of Yellowstone, in this post I include a little of bit of the natural history of Yellowstone, a quick descriptions of the eight major areas of the Park, transportation, and options for lodging which is a lot longer than my other National Park posts.
The amazing diversity of landscape that Yellowstone offers is the result of massive eruption, known as a super volcano that occurred and making the area a literal hot spot in the earth’s crust. From massive lakes, basalt cliffs, and thermal features, are all remnants of calderas and craters leftover from the eruption. Geysers, hot springs and other warm water features are the result continued high geothermal activity in the area, although another super volcano is not on the horizon.
Yellowstone is truly a majestically, wild place. There is so much to see and experience, my first step in planning was to sit down with a map of the Park to figure out which parts I wanted to explore. I’ve split this post by the various entrances to Yellowstone, which is crucial to making a determination of what you want to see and planning out logistics for getting to the Park and finding lodging.
While I can’t recommend hikes, the Outdoor Project has a well-curated list of hikes based on each area of Yellowstone.
WEST ENTRANCE: This is by far the most popular area of the park and where the most iconic features of Yellowstone are located. It is also the area with the most accommodations.
Canyon Village – There are lots of hikes and sights to explore in this area including the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, which can be seen in all it’s 1,000 foot glory from the Artist Point. There are also several trails that lead to the many waterfalls that come out of the Canyon. I intended to (but was not able to) hike Mount Washburn which is located in the middle of the Park and offers panoramic views. Hayden Valley is also in this area of the Park and offers abundant opportunities for wildlife sightings.
Old Faithful Area – As you can imagine, this is the most popular area of Yellowstone. There is no shortage of things to see and experience here including Old Faithful, the world’s most famous geyser. If the crowds are too much to navigate, the area offers several short hikes to other geysers and thermal pools.
Norris Geyser Area – From colorful mud pools (short hike to Artists’ Paintpot), the Yellowstone caldera boundary (hike to Gibbon Falls), swimming holes and solidified lava flow (via the scenic Virginia Cascade Drive) to the dynamic thermal pool, pot and geyser at Norris Geyser, there’s a little bit of everything to experience here.
West Yellowstone – If backpacking is on the list for your visit, this is the place to be! The Sky Rim Trail, which follows the northwest boundary of the park over ridgelines and summits, is one of the best backcountry experiences in Yellowstone. Firehole Canyon Drive and majestic mountains are other big attractions in this area.
Grant Village – Located near the south entrance of the park, the popular sights in Grant Village are the West Thumb Geyser Basin and the Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the lower 48.
Lake Village – This area encompasses the iconic Yellowstone Lake, which can be seen with the majestic Grand Tetons in the background through the Lake Butte Overlook. The Mud Volcano, which are bubbling pots and cauldrons, are also located in this area of the park. Visitors can use the boardwalks to get close to, see and smell these wonders!
Mammoth Hot Spring – Yellowstone is also home to several hot springs that are easily accessible through drives and short walks. The most famous and photogenic (read crowds!) is Mammoth. If you’re looking challenging day hikes, this is your area to enjoy! Popular hikes include Rescue Creek for wildlife sightings, Bunsen Peak for panoramic views of the area, Sepulcher Mountain prominent summit, and hoodoos which are naturally occurring stone structures. The iconic Roosevelt Arch is the gateway to Yellowstone from this entrance.
Northeast Area – Also known as the Tower-Roosevelt area, this part of Yellowstone is filled with epic hikes and opportunities for wildlife sightings. If you want the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the elusive wolverines that call Yellowstone home head to the Lamar Valley. Visitors can also experience the Soda Butte Creek which has been restored from the gold rush mining that occurred in this area.
There are several major airports that serve Yellowstone National Park. Distances between entrances can be several hundred miles long, so it’s best to choose the airport closest to the entrance where you will spend most of your time.
– North Entrance: Bozeman, Montana (88 miles); Billings, Montana (172 miles)
– Northeast Entrance: Bozeman, Montana (167 miles); Billings, Montana (177 miles)
– South Entrance: Jackson Hole, Wyoming (49 miles)
– South Entrance: Idaho Falls, Idaho (108 miles)
– West Entrance: Idaho Falls, Idaho (108 miles); Yellowstone Airport (1 mile but only open seasonally)
– East Entrance: Yellowstone Regional in Cody, Wyoming (67 miles)
Travel Within the Park:
Although there are shuttle services from the airport to the Yellowstone, there is no shuttle service inside the Park, so a vehicle is a must to get around. With millions of visitors coming to Yellowstone during the summer, make sure to pack your patience for both entering the park and driving inside during peak season!
As with other National Parks, there is an entrance fee for Yellowstone National Park.
– Cars/Other Vehicles, $35; Motorcycles, $30; & Bicycle/Walk-In, $20/per person (seven day pass)
– Annual Yellowstone Pass (unlimited visits to Yellowstone): $70
– Annual National Park Pass (unlimited entrance to any public lands operated by NPS): $80
There are nine hotels within Yellowstone National Park, each provides both hotel-style rooms and cabins. These accommodations are extremely popular and sell out at least a year in advance. Visit the Yellowstone website for information reservations.
Yellowstone also offers 12 campgrounds. Only five of these campgrounds use a reservation system and the remaining seven are first-come, first served. Given the popularity of Yellowstone among visitors, many of these sites are taken by early to mid-morning. All but one, the Mammoth Campground, are for seasonal use only. The fees for individual sites vary between $15 – 20/per site. Group sites and other sites with hook up accommodations also vary in price.
Because it spans three states (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho), there are five entrances into Yellowstone and visitors have a range of gateway town options that provide many lodging options.
– North Entrance: Gardiner, Montana (less than a mile)
– Northeast Entrance: Cooke City – Silver Gate (26 miles)
– West Entrance: West Yellowstone, largest town outside Yellowstone (less than a mile)
– East Entrance: Wapiti, Wyoming (45 miles) and Cody, Wyoming (65 miles)
– South Entrance: Jackson Hole, Wyoming (50 miles) also only 5 miles to Grand Teton
There are also plenty of national forests available for reserved and dispersed camping near Yellowstone.
– Bridger-Teton National Forest (South Entrance)
– Gallatin National Forest (West, North & Northeast Entrances)
– Shoshone National Forest (Northeast & East Entrances)
Reserve your sleeping accommodations through these resources
– Towns/Cities near Yellowstone
– Gardiner, MT Visitor Guide
– Yellowstone Gateway Town Information
– Campgrounds Outside Yellowstone (listed by entrance)
For centuries, the Shoshone lived and thrived in Yellowstone. Many areas of the parks were spiritually significant and sacred to the community. As with other parts of the west, the mid 19th century gold rush brought an unprecedented level of commercial mining and lumber operations to Yellowstone. With the expansion of the white settlers into the area, the Shoshone signed the Lamar treaties (1851 and 1868) with the U.S. government to ensure they retained control of their ancestral land and homes. As with other treaties, the government would not honor their agreement with the Shoshone.
Starting in the 1870’s the U.S. government started taking measures to drive out native communities. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone as the first National Park to protect the wild resources. However, it also started the eradication of Native people from the area. The Shoshone that lived in the Mountains remained in the park until 1879 by which time their population started to be decimated by small pox and violent attacks by settlers. Some members fled the Yellowstone area and joined the Eastern Shoshone. In 1886 the U.S. Army forcibly assumed control of the land and pushed out the remaining native people through extreme violence. A decade later, the Supreme Court citing the establishment of Yellowstone as National Park decided native communities had no rights to the land.
Today, Eastern Shoshone advocate for buffalo restoration and changing the names of several mountains in Yellowstone including Mount Doane to the First People’s Mountain. Gustavius Doane for whom the mountain is named supported the genocide of native people in Yellowstone including the Marias Massacre in which over 200 native people, mostly women and children, were violently murdered. They also advocate for expanded use of their ancestral land which they can enter without a fee for traditional purposes but the National Park Service severely limits the activities they can engage in within Yellowstone. (SOURCE: Intermountain Histories)