What’s the best way to get to Yellowstone? Here’s the simple answer: However you want to. But, with five entrances and the fact that life is never really that simple, here are a few questions (and entrance highlights) to help you sort it out.
- What is your mode of transportation? Bozeman is the closest airport. Jackson is reasonably close but relatively small. Many people fly into Salt Lake City and drive the remaining distance to Yellowstone.
- What direction will you arrive from? Yellowstone has five entrances. (More information about that, below.) Which direction you will be arriving from influences which entrance it makes sense to use. For instance, my family never uses the West entrance because we have to go miles around the park to reach it. The distance to each of the other four is similar to one another so we often base which entrance we use on where we are coming from (say, Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming, the Tetons, or the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming). Each of these leads naturally to a different entrance.
- Where is your first stop in the park? While there be many things to see and do along the way, it may make the most sense to go in through the entrance closest to what you most want to see, especially if you will be arriving late in the day.
Important Things to Know
Even though your GPS may have announced that you have arrived, there are still miles and miles to go to get from the park border to the developed areas and most popular sites once you reach the park. Along the way to your hotel, dinner, or intended destination, the park roads will take you over rugged, unfamiliar, and, in some ways, fantastic, terrain. Leave yourself time to enjoy it.
Also, with annual visitation on the rise, lines–including the ones to get into the park– are growing longer. In the face of this, the National Park Service has adopted this slogan: Pack your patience. Follow their advice. It will help.
The Five Entrances
We’ve used all five and, like all other things in Yellowstone, we’ve developed favorites. On our last visit, we arrived via the East Entrance. This took us from Cody, through the Wapiti Valley, and into the park, over Sylvan Pass, and along the shore of Yellowstone Lake. A week later, we left through the South Entrance, which took us along Lewis Lake, Lewis Canyon, and the Tetons. (In case you were wondering, yes, the exits are labeled entrances.)
Northeast Entrance at Cooke City, Wyoming
Receiving the lowest traffic by far, the Northeast Entrance can be accessed by the Beartooth Highway via Red Lodge, Montana or the Chief Joseph Highway via Cody, Wyoming. Both highways offer stunning views. The Beartooth doesn’t open until sometime in May and closes in early fall, so check for closures before setting off that way.
Entering through the Northeast will take you through rugged terrain and along the rim of Ice Box Canyon, so named for the places in the deep, narrow chasm that the sun can’t reach to thaw winter’s ice, even in high summer. According to The Guide to Yellowstone Waterfalls and Their Discovery by Paul Rubinstein, Lee H. Whittlesey, and Mike Stevens, Ice Box Canyon is home to two waterfalls that have been identified but are so inaccessible it is believed no one has ever seen them.
Since the late 1990s, the road through the Lamar Valley has gone from one of the loneliest to one of the busiest due to the reintroduction of the grey wolf to Yellowstone. Pay attention as you drive. This area is abundant in wildlife. I’ve seen bison, bear, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, and wolves along this stretch.
North Entrance at Gardiner, Montana
This entrance is home to the Roosevelt Arch. It was dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt, the driving force behind the creation of Yellowstone. Just over five miles from Mammoth Hot Springs, it will deliver you to a developed area (one with food, lodging, and flushable toilets) much more quickly than the other entrances.
Lower in elevation, this area is drier and warmer than other areas of the park. Mammoth Hot Springs usually gets less tourist attention than other areas. It is possible, however, that it gets more attention, during the fall elk rut.
Receiving the second-highest traffic numbers, this entrance shares a highway with the Tetons, so it’s the one to travel if you want to see both parks in one trip. It also takes you through the heart of grizzly country, so keep your eyes open for bears.
This entrance road passes through large areas of forest that have grown up after the Fires of 1988, as well as uncomfortably near the rim of Lewis Canyon. This portion of the park is thick with lodgepole pine, so while it comes close to Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation lake in the U.S., it doesn’t show much shoreline. The West Thumb Geyser Basin is not only interesting because of its location along the edge of the lake, it is a great place to get out, stretch your legs, and explore.
This entrance is located an hour east of Cody, Wyoming, via a road that sometimes runs alongside the Shoshone River and passes through what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the “fifty most beautiful miles in America.” Just a few miles into the park, Sylvan Pass sits at 8,530 feet. At that elevation, the snow lingers late and arrives early. Lake Butte Overlook is just a short drive off of the main road and offers a panoramic view of Yellowstone Lake. At Fishing Bridge, the road crosses the Yellowstone River. While fishing is no longer legal at Fishing Bridge, it’s the perfect place to watch for trout below the surface of the water.
West Entrance at West Yellowstone, Montana
This entrance receives the most traffic of any in the park. It provides good access for people coming in from California and Utah and is only thirty miles from Old Faithful. This stretch of road follows the Madison River in places, passes through lodgepole forest, and may offer a glimpse of a bald eagle. If you turn toward the Old Faithful Area, you will pass several geyser basins and parallel the Firehole River.