Yellowstone National Park is one of those places that is on everyone’s bucket list…or should be. Geysers shooting thermally heated water high into the air, bison and elk roaming around what’s known as the “Serengeti of America,” rainbow-ringed hot springs, and summer wildflower carpets draw millions of people a year.
You would think a national park trip would be cheap, but with high hotel rates in the park, expensive food, and lots of driving, costs add up. That doesn’t mean you can’t visit Yellowstone affordably, it just means you need to do some preplanning. The bonus is that my budget-friendly tips will also enhance your park experience.
It’s really nice to stay inside the park, but Yellowstone lodging is quite spendy. Staying outside the park in one of the Gateway towns can be less expensive, but it’s not cheap. Hotels in West Yellowstone or Gardiner, Montana are the best buys.
To really save some dollars, plan ahead and reserve a campground site. There are 12 campgrounds within Yellowstone and several more outside the park. It’s best to reserve a campground for at least the first night as it can be difficult to get a site at one of the first come-first served campgrounds. The cost of lodging can vary.
Not only does camping save money, it’s a chance to deepen your experience in the park and with your friends or family. Roasting marshmallows around the campfire and attending a Ranger Talk make a Yellowstone stay even more special.
There are plenty of places to eat in Yellowstone. From nice restaurants to diners to markets filled with camping food, you’ll find everything you need to stay full. But by shopping ahead of time and picnicking you’ll save money.
The closer you get to Yellowstone, the more expensive and limited the shops get. Big stores in Idaho Falls, Idaho or Bozeman, Montana will have lots of selection at a reasonable price. Jackson, Wyoming has lovely grocery stores, but prices are higher. By the time you get to West Yellowstone, Montana, the stores are smaller and more specialized.
My family loves picnicking in Yellowstone. It requires a little more preplanning, but setting up lunch or dinner at one of the many picnic areas in the park is a nice treat. It’s quiet, we often see wildlife, and we get a break from the Yellowstone crowds. If you’re hiking, you can just pull up a rock and enjoy your snacks in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Wondering how hot springs get so hot or what lives in them? Want to know how wolves affect the Yellowstone ecosystem? Don’t know the difference between a geyser, hot spring, fumarole, or mud pot? Want to know how early park visitors saw the park and explained the oddities to their family back home?
The National Park Service offers a slew of free programming. From the Junior Ranger program for kids to Ranger walks to evening programs in campground amphitheaters, there are educational (and inspirational) programs covering a wide range of park topics.
Minimize the Driving
Yellowstone National Park is big – nearly 3,500 square miles. There is one long road that makes a figure eight with spur roads leaving the park. Most people spend a lot of time driving, which not only costs money and the environment, but really isn’t that much fun.
Pick one area per day and see it well, rather than trying to cram in every geyser basin and historic site. Park at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and walk the trail along its edge. Watch Old Faithful erupt from the bandstands, then walk up to Observation Point, Solitary Geyser, and the Upper Geyser Basin. Throw in a walk to Biscuit Basin and you will have seen more than almost anyone else at Old Faithful.
Focusing your attention on one place allows you to get to know it better and have a deeper experience. And you get out of the car.
Melynda Harrison aka “Traveling Mel,” writes about Yellowstone National Park at YellowstoneTrips.com. She is a naturalist, writer, and lover of all things outdoors. She has led natural history trips in Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks, hiked many miles, and taught science to kids around the thermal basins. Find Yellowstone tips, Yellowstone itineraries, and hiking guides on her site. Say hi on Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram!