Planning a trip to Yellowstone can seem overwhelming and daunting, especially since you have to start making travel plans so far out. Are you confused about where to stay, how to navigate the areas, and what sight is where? What about dining in Yellowstone? If you have any of these questions, keep reading.
As we planned our recent trip, I was inundated by a massive amount of information – the best hikes, the best waterfalls, the best place to stay, etc. Not to mention that in one place a hike would be named X only to be called Y by someone else. The logistics of where and when quickly seemed to become a dense fog of confusion.
I want to use this post to help you clear up some of that confusion for you. This article will lay out an overview of the park and locations of major sights, the ins and outs of where to stay and where to eat, along with some logistical things to consider when planning a trip to Yellowstone with kids.
For more info on Yellowstone, check out these articles:
- A four day itinerary for Yellowstone
- Fun things to do in Yellowstone with kids
- Seven Family Friendly Hikes in Yellowstone
- Helpful tips for packing light. This will be crucial as you move from place to place!
Yellowstone is divided up into eight major areas: Canyon Village, Tower-Roosevelt, Mammoth, Old Faithful, Norris, West Thumb-Grant Village, Madison-West Yellowstone, and Fishing Bridge/Lake Yellowstone/Bay Bridge Area.
These areas of the park are all connected by the Grand Loop Road which essentially makes a figure eight through the park. While is it the main thoroughfare through the park, there are several side roads that lead to smaller attractions and areas of interest. Each area has its own features and unique aspects.
Most of the major junctions contain a village with a range of amenities including hotel and/or camping, gas station, general stores, and visitors center. There isn’t anything between these areas, save for a toilet area here and there at some picnic spots.
When planning drive times between the major areas, a good rule of thumb is 30 minutes between areas on the upper loop and 40 minutes between those on the lower loop.
The Canyon area is home to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, along with the Hayden Valley, both of which are shaped by the Yellowstone River. This is where you will visit the Upper and Lower Falls, along with Inspiration Point and Artist Point. If you’ve heard of Uncle Tom’s Trail or the North and South Rim drives, this is the area you will be in. Canyon Village is located here with all of the amenities- including Canyon Lodge and a campground.
The Tower-Roosevelt exemplifies the origins of the Old West. It was also my personal favorite. This is where you will find Tower Falls, the petrified tree, and the Lamar Valley. If you want to see animals, the Lamar Valley is where you need to be. Here we saw bison, a wolf, a bear with her cubs, and several different bird species.
Roosevelt Lodge is located here, where you can stay or take one of the old west cookout tours or take a guided horseback tour. This area has a gas station and other facilities, but be aware, this is the first area to close down facilities around Labor Day. If you’re visiting in fall, make sure to check before making the drive.
Fishing Bridge / Lake Village / Bay Bridge Area
This area is located at the edge of Lake Yellowstone and the surrounding dense forest. Here you will find multiple fishing and boating/kayaking opportunities. There are no major sights in this area, as the lake is the highlight, but there are some pretty hikes. The Lake Yellowstone Inn is nice and worth a visit. The area has all amenities available.
Mammoth area is mostly comprised of Mammoth Hot Springs– which is seen by the Upper Terrace and Lower Terrace drives or boardwalks. You will also find the Hoodoos, Boiling River, and the historic Fort Yellowstone, where elk are commonly seen munching away on the lawn. The Roosevelt Arch is located here at the entrance from Gardiner. This area has all facilities, including a great visitors center. I’d highly recommend this visitors center, epsecially if traveling with kids. Make sure to read this article for more fun ideas with kids in Yellowstone.
The most popular and well-known area of the park really needs no introduction. The main sights here are Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring, along with all of the geothermal sights of the Upper Geyser Basin.
The Old Faithful Inn is a beautiful sight to see, along with the amazing visitors center. As the most visited area of the park, you will find plenty of amenities (and crowds) here. We stayed at the Old Faithful Inn for one night. It is beautiful and allows you views of the geyser without the crowds, but I’d only recommend one night max. You can read along here for all the reasons I say this.
The main highlight here is the group geysers and hotspots that make up the Norris Geyser Basin. Here you will find the Porcelain Basin and Back Basin boardwalks. The Back Basin boardwalk contains Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser.
The Norris Geyser Basin Museum is located at the entrance to the boardwalks and only take a few minutes to see. The artist paint pots are located here too. There isn’t much else here in the way of amenities besides toilets.
Madison / West Yellowstone
This area somewhat overlaps with Norris as they are located within a few miles of one another. So, you may see some sights here listed as being located in Norris or vice versa. The main sights here are Gibbon Falls and the Madison River. This is the nearest junction to the entrance from West Yellowstone, hence the name. An information station is the only amenity here.
West Thumb / Grant Village
At the intersection between the Lake and Old Faithful Areas, West Thumb and the surrounding area. Also sometimes referred to as the Bechler Region, this area contains a smaller geyser basin, Lewis Falls and Lake, and the Continental Divide. This is the closest area to the south entrance. Grant Village is located here with lodging, gas, and other amenities.
Planning to add Grand Teton National Park to your trip? Check out our article on visiting the Tetons with kids and fun activities in Jackson Hole for kids.
Where to Stay in Yellowstone
The big debate for many people planning a trip to Yellowstone, myself included, is where to stay. Only adding to the difficulty deciding is the fact that you need to book so far ahead. It seems crazy, but I booked our rooms a year ahead and still had a few issues lining up our rooms.
Reservations open about a year ahead- May for the next year’s summer and March for the next year’s winter. So for example, reservations for the summer of 2020 open in May 2019. You can book directly through the website or call. I had no issues using the online service, but calling might be easier if you have complicated booking issues.
Stay Inside the Park or Out?
This is the first decision you will need to make when planning your visit to Yellowstone. Honestly, you can probably find a much better value outside of the park. However, Yellowstone is massive! I would highly suggest staying inside the park if it is feasible. Otherwise, plan more time for seeing the park, or expect extremely long days.
You’re already going to be spending quite a bit of time in the car, and staying outside the park will be adding another 45 minutes plus to your daily drive time to sightsee – each way! Staying in the park ultimately was worth the money in our opinion.
Where to Stay Inside the Park
When planning a trip to Yellowstone there are two schools of thought: move every day or two while making your way around the Grand Loop or choose a home base and make day trips from there.
We chose to stay in one location- Canyon Village- for a majority of our time. Traveling with kids can be exhausting, especially if you plan to get up early or stay out late trying to see animals, catch a sunrise, etc.
We didn’t want to pack up every night to change hotels. This gave us the freedom to be a little more fluid with our day to day plans, which worked out perfectly for us.
If you have older kids, you may be able to get away with moving more often, but you will need to be more deliberate in your day to day plans. Staying in one place allowed us to change plans a few time with weather or crowd issues.
Now for the best places to stay inside the park. First, let me say that staying inside the park is expensive. Even at the newest facilities, you will be overpaying for what you get. Secondly, the park’s booking website is vague and confusing, with only a few pictures and little description.
Since we didn’t stay at all of the locations, I will not go into detail about each one specifically. These are the best places to stay based on location. We stayed four nights at Canyon Lodge then one night at Old Faithful Inn.
Also, I can’t speak much for the camping accommodations, but any spots near the following would be great strictly based on convenience and locale.
Staying at Canyon Village
Canyon Village is the most centrally located village inside the park. We were able to get to most places in the park within 30-40 minutes from here. It is a perfect base if you want to stay in one spot.
The lodges are new and modern compared to some of the other properties in the park. We stayed in a superior room, which had a patio and a mini fridge. This was huge with two small kids.
Staying at Lake Village
Still somewhat centrally located, the Lake Yellowstone lodging options are another good alternative. We didn’t stay here, but it could serve as a good base for sightseeing, especially for those areas in the lower part of the park.
There are several different options here from cabins to rooms in the main hotel. This hotel is much more stunning in person than I imagined from the pictures. Inside the lobby it feels like an old seaside mansion from the 1920s.
Staying at Old Faithful Inn
I was pleasantly surprised by the lobby area at the Old Faithful Inn. Many people had told me we needed to see it, but the pictures don’t do it justice. Imagine a massive log cabin that is somehow elegant and reminiscent of the old west days of Yellowstone.
I would only stay here one night at most. The Old Faithful Inn isn’t centrally located enough to serve as a home base. Not to mention, the massive crowds that swarm the lobby can make anyone claustrophobic. However, staying here gives you the luxury of seeing Old Faithful without the daytime crowds.
We stayed here one night in a superior room, but they leave a lot to be desired. The original rooms looked really nostalgic and much more beautiful than ours, but there is a shared dorm style bathroom.
Since we booked a year ahead, it was hard to know how that would work with two young kids. The superior rooms look like they haven’t been freshened up since they were built in the 50s (by my guess based on the decor).
Dining in Yellowstone
Is it expensive?
Dining in Yellowstone is interesting to say the least. When planning our trip to Yellowstone, we’d heard the food is horrible and overpriced. However, we found it to be on par with your average restaurant chain (think Chili’s). No one is going on and on about the culinary experience, but the food is good.
We found the prices to be fairly reasonable, considering you are essentially trapped into eating there.
To be fair, though, we didn’t eat at any of the main dining rooms at the lodges. I believe these are where the biggest complaints on food pricing originate.
If you do decide to do a meal at one of the main dining rooms, take note. All of the main dining rooms require reservations made at least two days ahead. However, I would make them as soon as possible if you want a decent time slot.
What dining options are there?
Each major village area has a few different dining options. Usually, there is a cafeteria option, a diner or grill type of mid level restaurant and a main dining room.
Often, there is a bar area (kid friendly) attached to the main dining rooms. These usually are open later than the mid level restaurants, but serve drinks and appetizers only.
We found that the hours at most of these are staggered with the lower to mid level options closing fairly early- often around 6 or 7pm.
Are the restaurants in Yellowstone kid friendly?
While all the restaurants are family friendly, eating in Yellowstone is not exactly suited to traveling with young kids or those with fluid plans. If you don’t make reservations for the main dining room, you are at the mercy of the odd hours kept at the grills and cafeterias.
Many days we had eat at the bar area attached to the main dining room because the grills were already closed.
Remember, they only serve appetizers and have no kids menus, even though they shared a kitchen with the dining room. So, our children ended up eating lots of fries or other random appetizer for a meal. Of course, no complaints from them.
Moreover, many places did not have child friendly cups with a top. I completely appreciate the environmental aspect, but once, our kids were even given a GLASS of milk. Naturally, we had a few spills. I would highly suggest taking sippy cup or water bottle that you can refill, which we packed but kept forgetting.
Should we buy groceries?
To help avoid a large dining bill and for convenience, I would plan to stop at a grocery store before entering the park. This will allow you to get a few picnic essentials.
Not only did we have several picnic lunches, but we had a couple of breakfasts and dinners in our room if we were up early or came in later in the evening.
One thing to consider is whether or not your room will have a refrigerator. Ours in Canyon Lodge did, which is one reason I chose it. If not, you can take a cooler. We actually rented one from a place in Bozeman for only a few dollars a day.
Also of note: the general stores are usually fairly well stocked with plenty of basic grocery items. You can find anything you need for a picnic, so don’t panic when buying groceries outside the park. You won’t starve if you forget something. The general stores and gas stations also had a good selection of craft beer (by the single) and wine you could purchase.
Other things to consider:
Bear spray: Ok, we never once used ours. Admittedly, there were a few times we accidentally left it in the car. That said, I would for sure err on the side of caution and get the bear spray. Note: you cannot take it on an airplane, so do not try to buy before you go! (regardless of how great that Amazon deal is). Your best bet is to rent when you get there. We rented from a place near the Bozeman airport called Explore Rentals. Highly recommend them!
Cooler rental: I would highly suggest this. We were able to rent a large, hard sided cooler for a minimal fee. This helped tremendously with picnics, which allowed us to utilize our time and get the most out of our days. We rented from the same place as the bear spray mentioned above. I’d highly recommend them. Good prices, good service, and a great location if you’re flying in and out of Bozeman.
Road Closures and Park Conditions: There is always upkeep going on in the park. This means some areas may be closed during your visit. If you want to plan ahead for this, you can check out this site. This was a bit more in depth than we wanted to get, but I’m sure it could be helpful for some people.
I hope this article helps you with all of your questions. I know it can be overwhelming to plan a trip to Yellowstone, especially when trying to make the most of your time. Please reach out if you have any questions! Our goal is to help you with the things we had trouble with or were confused by.