Yellowstone is the first national park in the United States after President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park services. It has long been a draw and we had been meaning to go for a long time. The weekend was the perfect opportunity to getaway. We decided to fly to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then drive to the South Entrance, making our way around the rest of the park in 2 days. However, we didn't get to the park until 4pm on Saturday, which left us with only 4 hours to explore before sunset. We had to be back in Salt Lake City by 9pm on Sunday, which meant we had to leave the park by 3pm at the latest.
In summary, 1 day and 1 night are not enough to enjoy and explore this 2.2 million acre park. Ideally, two full days and one night (hopefully camping) would be enough to hit the highlights without rushing, and give a chance to take a couple of short hikes as well.
Prices: The entrance fee for one vehicle is $25 and is valid for 7 consecutive days. This fee allows entrance for both the Grand Teton National Park as well as Yellowstone National Park. Motorcyclists have to pay $20, and bicyclists $12.
Transportation: We chose to fly to Salt Lake City on Friday night, stay the night there, then drove for 6.5 hours in our rental car to the South Entrance of Yellowstone on Saturday. We got lunch at Jackson Hole, and continued the roadtrip through Grand Teton National Park to the South Entrance. We exited the park via the West Entrance, driving down Idaho into Salt Lake City (5.5 hours). We flew out of Salt Lake City on Monday morning.
You could choose to fly into Jackson Hole airport, which should cut down your driving time to just 1.5 hours from there to the South Entrance, but I can't imagine those flights being cheap. Also the airport is only open seasonally, as are all entrances to Yellowstone except the north ones.
If you have a couple of families going, it might be worth it to drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Yellowstone (16 hours).
Weather/Best time to visit: August-September or mid May-June before the summer crowds gather. Beware that most of the entrances to the park are closed before mid-May and after mid-September. There may also be construction happening on some of the internal roads, so do pay attention to the newsletter handed out by the ranger along with the park map when you first enter the park. During construction, the roads are typically closed between 10pm and 8am.
When we went, it was in the upper 70s and lower 80s (Fahrenheit). It was not too hot when you were driving with your windows down, but was when you were hiking.
Stay: You can choose to camp, but be sure to book campsites well in advance. The same goes for the many lodges within the park that are operated by Xanterra. If you want to take a chance, call the lodges the day before or the day of for any cancellations...and you might just get lucky! This website lets you browse through the lodges' availability and book them as well.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone, where prices for everything seem to be exorbitant!
Navigating the park: This is the high level map of the park
We went counter clock-wise, entering from the south, going straight towards Old Faithful, and then up towards Madison and Norris. We cut through to Canyon and went down to Lake, for Hayden Valley (that stretch between Canyon and Lake) is where you can see hundreds of bison grazing in the morning. Then we went back up to Canyon and further up towards Tower Falls/Tower-Roosevelt area. We made a left towards Mammoth, then down to Norris and Madison, and exited the park via the West Entrance.
Highlights of the park: Definitely don't miss the Old Faithful. The geyser erupts approximately every 90 minutes, and if you have to wait, you can "hike" around the Upper Geyser Basin that the Old Faithful is part of. Don't miss the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin. The Fountain Paint Pot and Artists Paintpots in the Lower Geyser Basin and Norris Geyser Basin accordingly are different and interesting, with bubbling mud and murky sulfur ditches. Definitely hang out in the park till after dusk/sunset for many animals come out to graze then. I've heard bears come out around 4 or 5pm, and we saw many elk and bison around 8pm.
The mud volcano and Sulphur Caldron in the Hayden Valley are nothing spectacular. However the Artist Point in Canyon Village has great vistas of Upper and Lower Falls, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The road to Tower-Roosevelt, and then onwards to Mammoth Hot Springs through the northern parts of the park have intriguing and varied rock formations along the canyon amidst vast fields full of yellow, purple and pink wild flowers.
If you're short on time, you can easily skip Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces as they have "dried up" over the years. Due to geothermal activity underneath, many of the gaps have clogged, preventing the scalding water to ooze out. No scalding water = no bacteria growth = no colorful calcite formations. You can also skip the Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin, which is labeled as the world's tallest geyser...except it hasn't erupted to its tallest potential since 2005!
Also be warned that if you're checking out Hayden Valley in the morning/evening, don't be in a hurry, for you're not going to get anywhere until the hundreds of bison are done crossing the street...and they take their time! You just have to wait patiently for them to pass, or till a ranger or a huge tourist coach bus come by to nudge these beasts along.
Resources/Links: These are the four sites I found quite useful in determining our visit to Yellowstone
- Wikitravel information on Yellowstone National Park
- Visit Yellowstone
- Lodges at Yellowstone
- Discover Yellowstone
- National Park Service site