Yellowstone National Park Travel Tips

The Lamar Valley has the most pleasant traffic jams in the country.
The Lamar Valley has the most pleasant traffic jams in the country.

Making Tracks to Yellowstone Slightly Off-Season

By John Wolfe

Travelers are greeted on the tarmac at Jackson Hole Airport by the stunning Tetons.
Travelers are greeted on the tarmac at Jackson Hole Airport by the stunning Tetons.

Last September, after a long, hot city summer with no vacation time, I found myself desperately wanting to soak up the fall sights of a destination on my bucket list: Yellowstone National Park.

But with the park closing its roads November 1, and the weather getting increasingly chilly out west, I had only a few weeks to set a plan in motion.

I made sure to book my accommodations and rental car (a Toyota Prius that ended up being perfect for the well-paved but lengthy roads) but decided to let much of the rest of the trip unfold in a spontaneous way.

As it turned out, my October visit was one of the best trips of my life, but it also gave me a list of things to do differently on my next time out west. Hopefully, you can be the beneficiary of my hard-won knowledge.

Cheap Digs

There are a number of ways to get to Yellowstone, and each has its pros and cons. I decided to fly into Jackson, Wyoming, which has by far the busiest airport in the state, offering the most frequent and generally most affordable flights.

The Grand Prismatic Spring feels unearthly, yet is easily accessible and great for families.
The Grand Prismatic Spring feels unearthly, yet is easily accessible and great for families.

After grabbing my rental car, I stopped for a quick burger at the adorable Jackson Drug, an 80-year-old soda fountain still serving wicked malted milkshakes as well as heftier fare. Then I checked in at one of the town’s plentiful lodging options, the Cache House.

Heading back from Yellowstone late in the day provides a perfect opportunity to catch the Tetons in dramatic backlighting.
Heading back from Yellowstone late in the day provides a perfect opportunity to catch the Tetons in dramatic backlighting.

At $70 a night, this hostel seemed a more reasonable option than the surrounding hotels and motels, whose rates tend to start at above $100 a night and can get very expensive indeed.

Those who regularly stay at hostels might balk at paying this much for a bed in a large common room, but the Cache House is definitely more upscale than your typical bunkhouse, with plush beds, squeaky clean bathrooms, and a charming, rustic aesthetic that might characterize a quaint Airbnb.

There are even queen-size accommodations for couples, should you be traveling with a partner. With so much to see and explore outside, there’s little reason to overspend on accommodations.

Be Flexible With Your Lodging

In choosing to stay in Jackson for the entirety of my trip to see Yellowstone, I knew that I had some driving ahead of me. Getting to the south entrance takes about an hour, about the same amount of time as it takes from Cody, Wyoming, to the east entrance of the park. The advantage of the south entrance is its proximity to the Bechler area,

The Travertine Terraces usher you into the northwestern corner of the park, known as Mammoth.
The Travertine Terraces usher you into the northwestern corner of the park, known as Mammoth.

which, with its tall pines and rugged backcountry, is perfect for seasoned campers looking to do serious, multiday camping.

The Grand Prismatic Spring has a convenient walkway for contemplating it's multicolored microbial mats.
The Grand Prismatic Spring has a convenient walkway for contemplating it’s multicolored microbial mats.

The beginning of the Grand Loop, which takes travelers to more accessible and popular parts of the park, is another hour of driving from the south entrance. To be sure, these drives can be breathtaking, especially in the early morning when the Tetons are painted by rosy, early morning light, but they do cut down on your free time outside of the car.

If you can’t nab lodging inside the park (which often must be reserved many months in advance) and camping isn’t your style, try staying in multiple places over the course of the trip.

Heading to Mammoth

I drove to the Mammoth area in the far northwestern region of the park, where I was bowled over by its eerie hot spring terraces and viewed a family of majestic elk at close quarters, but I would have relished the chance to finish the day in Bozeman, only 90 minutes from Mammoth and one of Montana’s hippest towns.

The old Fort Yellowstone has a small but colorful exhibit on local flora and fauna.
The old Fort Yellowstone has a small but colorful exhibit on local flora and fauna.

Similarly, a gorgeous sunset over Yellowstone Lake might lead one east to Cody for a taste of cowboy nightlife in the town Buffalo Bill founded.

Driving Yellowstone Park

Looking over a guidebook on the flight out, I had a freeing realization: I would never see everything in the park. At over two million acres, Yellowstone is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined; it would take several lifetimes to see it all.

Nonetheless, it’s easy to get into a checklist mindset when presented with so many iconic sights and experiences. This tendency can be encouraged by the fact that it’s so easy to get around the park. With its extremely well-maintained and carefully thought-out roads, it’s all too easy to drive from point to point without spending serious time in any one place. 

There’s an upside to the point-to-point approach: I was able to see almost all of Yellowstone’s wildly different landscapes, from the stunning canyons surrounding the Yellowstone River to the gentle winding Lamar Valley with its huge herds of bison.

Spontaneous encounters with wildlife are one of the great joys of the park. I enjoyed a simple packed lunch by a meadow with a bounding coyote and later watched a herd of buffalo create a minor traffic jam as they traveled from grazing spot to grazing spot just north of the Lamar River. 

Don’t Try to See Everything

Tack Shop

The downside is that you miss the great experiences that come from slowing down and getting off the beaten path. This might sound like conventional wisdom, especially in a national park, but it’s said that less than 10 percent of park visitors ever make it off the main roads!

Ipso facto, hitting the trails around the park is the best way to beat the crowds, which can get substantial at major attractions such as Old Faithful, especially during peak season. 

If you’re daunted by the idea of hiking, try the easy-going hike around the Upper Geyser Basin, home to the most geysers anywhere in the world. If you don’t mind a little elevation, you can add the Observation Point Trail that joins this circuit to get a prime overhead view of Old Faithful.

Check for When Old Faithful Will Erupt

Be sure to check the posted eruption times beforehand if you’re not keen on waiting. In the northwestern Mammoth area, the moderately difficult Beaver Ponds Trail takes you past several of the titular ponds (although you’re more like to see woodpeckers and jays than the elusive beavers themselves) and a babbling stream.

The splendidly named quaking aspen native to the region provide ample opportunities for golden leaf peeping in the fall. Finally, if you want to get up there with the eagles, try the popular Mount Washburn Trail. Despite featuring 1,500 feet of elevation gain, this wide, well-maintained trail should be doable for most people, especially if you’re willing to slow down and enjoy the amazing panoramas, some of the best in the park.

Cody is a town that's proud of its Western culture and nowhere is it more visible than at the Cody Nite Rodeo, seen here in the off-season.
Cody is a town that’s proud of its Western culture and nowhere is it more visible than at the Cody Nite Rodeo, seen here in the off-season.


Take Care of Yourself

Think of this as a corollary to the above recommendation. Whether hiking or driving, you may find yourself some distance from any amenities, especially in the off-season, when many of the camp stores close down. In the wilderness, this can be risky. Bear spray is a must and best rented or purchased before getting to the park; in my case, I was able to rent it when I picked up my car!

Best laid plans: An elk at the entrance to the Beaver Ponds Trail necessitated doing it in reverse.
Best laid plans: An elk at the entrance to the Beaver Ponds Trail necessitated doing it in reverse.

Chances are, you’ll need more water than a personal liter-sized bottle can hold, so pick-up a gallon jug before heading to the park. While you’re at it, you may want to grab a larger pack of caffeinated beverages and protein bars for snacking and staving off fatigue on the road. 

Geyser Grill for $10

Even when they are open, affordable food options are rarely the tastiest selections. The one meal I purchased in the park was a merely okay double cheeseburger from the fast-food-style restaurant Geyser Grill. At less than $10, it was reasonable enough—and not the kind of inflated price you tend to expect at tourist attractions—but it wasn’t the healthiest or most filling option, either.

So, pack a to-go lunch before heading out. I absolutely devoured the delectable breakfast burrito from D.O.G., one of the best this breakfast-food aficionado has ever had, and the not-quite-New-York-standards-but-still-good bagel I got from Pearl Street Bagels, both in Jackson.

Go Beyond Yellowstone

With so much to do in Yellowstone, it may seem crazy to try to visit anywhere else. Still, wonderful surprises await you outside the park’s perimeter. The drive to Cody turned out to be just one of these surprises. Exiting the park through the east entrance, I was immediately blown over by the staggering cliffs and stunning aspens of the Shoshone National Forest.

There’s plenty to explore in these parts, but the Shoshone is less user-friendly than Yellowstone; be prepared to spend significant time studying maps of the area. The rugged mountains lead towards the incongruous sight of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, a massive manmade lake surrounded by towering peaks just west of Cody. 

Spot the grizzlies! Packing binoculars will help you enjoy these spectacular beasts without getting too close.
Spot the grizzlies! Packing binoculars will help you enjoy these spectacular beasts without getting too close.

Cody has small-town charm in spades, but it’s also home to such major attractions as the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the popular Cody Nite Rodeo, which runs from July to September each year. Be sure to check out Buckstitch Canvas Saddles & Tack, even if you don’t ride: The fantastic variety of horse accessories there might convince you to pick it up. Just look for the building with the giant Wild West rifle on top.

Silver Dollar Bar

Jackson itself is a fine place to get a sense of Wyoming’s unique culture. For a bite to eat, the appropriately named Local does high-end bites as well as any city slicker’s establishment. Carnivores may relish the chance to splurge on a dry-aged buffalo ribeye.

More modest, but no less delicious, is the fare at the Fiesta Mexican restaurant on the western edge of town. Don’t let the humble digs fool you. The suadero and pastor tacos here are the real deal.

I have to admit I wasn’t sure that you could find great Mexican food outside of the usual American hot spots, but Fiesta definitively proved me wrong. 

Nightlife in the High West

To kibbitz with townies in Jackson, try one of the great bars—or try both, because there are only two that stay open late in Jackson, at least in the off-season.

The Silver Dollar features a hypnotic bar top inset with hundreds of the shining coins and a rowdy but friendly crowd. It’s bustling with energy even on weeknights.

Don’t get this joint confused with the other late night hang, located around the corner, the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.

Even on a Tuesday, the Silver Dollar Bar is packed, with a band jamming by the second bar in the back.
Even on a Tuesday, the Silver Dollar Bar is packed, with a band jamming by the second bar in the back.

It feels a little more spacious, maybe because of the big-boned nature of their bar stools: repurposed saddles, complete with stirrups.

After sidling up to the bar, you might enjoy one of the numerous Wyoming-made spirits, or you might end up tapping your cowboy boots to the live local tunes and decide to hit the dance floor. Given that some of the biggest names in country have taken the stage, you never know who might be strumming into the wee hours. 

The next morning, with country tunes still jingling in my head, I recovered from the effects of the previous night’s Wyoming whiskey by trudging over to Cowboy Coffee for a great cup of joe, brewed perfectly from Jackson-roasted beans.

Before saying so long to the Cowboy State, I made sure to snag a chic forest green camp mug as a cute souvenir for a co-worker back home.

John Wolfe

John Wolfe is a New York-based writer with a passion for cultural exploration that takes him to wherever he feels he can learn the most about the diversity of human experience (often exotic dive bars).

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