The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for the American West: Caroline Wood.
Caroline lives 70 miles from the border of Yellowstone National Park and spent nearly every summer of her childhood next door to Old Faithful, where her father was (and still is) a naturalist for the Park Service. Her meticulously prepared itineraries include driving directions, restaurant recommendations, hiking suggestions, and more, all intended to keep you off the beaten track—inside and outside the U.S. national parks—and lead you to the region’s best-kept secrets, from Montana to Arizona and everywhere in between. She knows slot canyons in Utah that are empty even in high season, the best Navajo guides in Monument Valley, and which rooms at the Old Faithful Inn will afford you a view of the geyser from bed. Caroline procures the services of top-notch private guides from Glacier National Park to the Grand Canyon when they’ll add to the experience, and send you off on your own when they won’t. She has tested the best adventure outfitters (from rafting and snowmobiling to horseback riding and fly fishing) and keeps the managers of her favorite lodges and dude ranches on their toes with her frequent visits.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Lake Yellowstone Hotel, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has just undergone a renovation; it’s well worth it to pay just a bit more for one of the lake-view rooms (which typically sell out first). The Old Faithful Inn is arguably more charming, but you’ll have to listen to dozens of tour buses—and their occupants—right outside.
Meal with a view
Food options inside Yellowstone are generally quite average, but the setting of the dining room at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel is worth the expense. Have a cocktail in the sunny atrium and dinner in the main dining room; both overlook the lake, and on most evenings there is musical entertainment, either by a string quartet or a pianist. Stick to the basics when ordering; the fancier a dish sounds, the more likely it is to disappoint.
What to Do and See
Trails that lead away from developed areas are only used by about 3 percent of the park’s visitors—meaning it’s easy to leave behind 97 percent of the crowd! One good example is the Calcite Springs overlook; it’s only a quarter-mile from the road, yet it is often utterly deserted. The short walk brings you to a lovely vista over the Yellowstone River. Peregrine falcons and bighorn sheep are often spotted from here.
Visitors flock to view the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River from Artist Point, but very few continue along the Canyon Rim Trail to Point Sublime, which has incredible views looking into the canyon. It’s a three-mile round-trip that certainly lives up to its name.
While Boiling River is the only place in the park where you are allowed to soak in a natural hot spring (during daylight hours only), it is almost always too crowded to enjoy—even in the winter. The only times you’re likely to find a comfortable spot in the water are the two hours after sunrise and the two hours before sunset.
The ranger-led interpretive programs with small groups (you sign up at the visitor centers throughout the park). These are free! The ones that involve hiking tend to have fewer people, so you get a more personal experience. But I also love the short Geyser Hill Walk; since I often advise clients that they don’t need a private guide at Old Faithful, this gives them an opportunity to better understand the thermal features and ask a few questions.
Orville Bach Jr. has been a ranger in Yellowstone for 41 years (and a college professor in the off-seasons) and has written three books and countless articles about the park. He has hiked and backpacked throughout all of Yellowstone and has incredible stories to share—ask him about the time he spent 18 days cross-country skiing in the backcountry, or about his encounter with a mountain lion swimming in Yellowstone Lake. He’ll also explain why he actually thinks that the park is a better place to visit today than it was the day he arrived in 1968, and he’ll take you to some of his favorite secret spots in the park. He also happens to be my father, so he’ll only guide my clients.
Prime picnic spots
Head out from Old Faithful along the paved pedestrian path to Morning Glory Pool, a popular hot spring with rainbow hues. You’ll be among a crowd of hundreds along the path but if you keep going a little farther beyond where the trail turns to dirt, you can usually find an empty spot along the Firehole River. Lay down a blanket and enjoy some solitude before walking back through the geyser basin on the boardwalks.
The Nez Perce Ford picnic area, south of Mud Volcano on the Lower Loop, where you are likely to be the only people right on the shore of the Yellowstone River.
Go to Midway Geyser Basin at midday when the sun is out and walk up the steep hill across the road for a perfect aerial view of the technicolor Grand Prismatic Spring: brilliant blues circled with layers of orange fading to yellow at the edges.
For kids: Have them participate in the self-guided Junior Ranger Program—booklets are available at any of the visitor centers for a few dollars; once they complete the activities, they’ll earn a nice patch that isn’t available for purchase.
For adults: Carl Sheehan used to be the “park potter,” a resident artist at the Old Faithful Lodge. Today Carl works from his studio in Bozeman, crafting mugs, bowls, and dishes with themes of Yellowstone such as bison, mountains, and the Old Faithful geyser. You can purchase his wares in the lodges’ gift shops, or commission a custom piece that he’ll inscribe with the dates of your Yellowstone visit or a special message.
Mid-May through June. Wildlife viewing is at its peak, waterfalls are rushing from snowmelt, there are fewer crowds, and the wildfire season has not yet begun. The drawback is the weather, which is cool (highs generally in the 50s), with frequent rain and/or snow showers.
July and August. You’ll find warm days and cool nights, wildflowers in bloom, and hiking trails mostly free of snow—but this is the busiest time in Yellowstone, with prices to match, and skies may be hazy from wildfires. The last week of August is one of my best secrets: There’s usually lots of availability, since families have headed home and retirees wait until after Labor Day.
September to mid-October. The meadows are golden, the elk are bugling, and there are fewer crowds, though you’re likely to experience the first signs of winter, with temperatures dipping below freezing at night.
January and February. Yellowstone is a winter wonderland with limited visitation, and there are excellent opportunities to see wildlife and to cross-country ski, snowshoe, and ride in snowmobiles or heated snow coaches.
November until December 20 and March until mid-April. The park is closed to all vehicular traffic (both snow machines and automobiles).
Mid-April to mid-May. The weather is often cold, with frequent rain and/or snow showers, the trails are muddy or snow-covered, and few services are available.
Walking around the geyser basin at Old Faithful armed with an app (NPS Geysers for the iPhone, Geyser Times for Android) that tells you when the geysers are supposed to erupt allows you to maximize your time and get to where you need to be at the right moment. Old Faithful may be the most famous, but catching an eruption of Grand—which is the largest predictable geyser in the park—is even more special!
Not booking hotels inside the park one year in advance. Since there are only 2,000 rooms inside a park that sees more than three million visitors every year—and the hotels outside its borders are all a long drive from the star attractions—you need to plan ahead, especially for the iconic Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Old Faithful Inn. Reservations are accepted starting on May 1 for the following summer season and on March 15 for the following winter season.
The closest airports to Yellowstone with the most flights daily are Bozeman, Montana (BZN), and Jackson, Wyoming (JAC). There is also service to Cody, Wyoming (COD), and West Yellowstone, Montana (WYS), but these are often more expensive and the connections aren’t as convenient. Contrary to what many people believe, there is usually not much difference in price to fly into one airport and out of another, which allows you to see more without backtracking.
In the summer, weather changes drastically throughout the day. Mornings and evenings are chilly, so bring a fleece jacket,a warm hat, and lightweight gloves. During the day, sudden, intense thunderstorms occur frequently; it is imperative to have a lightweight jacket made from Gortex or another high-quality waterproof, breathable fabric that will protect from rain or wind.