No Reservations? 5 Tips for Where to Stay in Yellowstone Country

The registration desk at the Old Faithful Inn. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco

The registration desk at the Old Faithful Inn. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco

Amid record-breaking visitation numbers, Yellowstone National Park is one of the country’s most popular national parks. This means you and thousands of others are wrestling for the same campsites and lodges to spend the night. Here are five tips for last-minute travelers who don’t have reservations for their rapidly approaching Yellowstone vacation.

1. Capitalize on Cancellations

The bad news is lodging inside Yellowstone National Park often fills up six months to a year out, with many enthusiastic people making their reservations the day the park’s reservations desk opens slots for the following year. The good news is some of those early birds end up cancelling their reservations. If you have some flexibility with dates, you may be able to capitalize on cancellations more easily than those who don’t.

Identify the lodges in the park in your price range and call the park’s reservations line at 307-344-7311 or go online at yellowstonenationalparklodges.com to see if there have been cancellations. For instance, the Old Faithful area offers three different types of accommodations. There’s the Old Faithful Inn, which is the most historic of the three having been built in 1904. Rooms range from $88 to $148, and its grand lobby is a great place to spend the evening, listening to music and chatting with other visitors. The Old Faithful Lodge and Cabins are a collection of 1920s cabins with a cafeteria-style lodge that offers accommodations ranging from $88-$148 per night. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins, priced between $114-$284 per night, offers a restaurant, gift shop and ski and snowshoe rentals in the winter.

2. Stay Outside the Park

Elephant Head Lodge, 12 miles from Yellowstone's east entrance. Courtesy photo

Elephant Head Lodge, 12 miles from Yellowstone’s east entrance. Courtesy photo

While staying in the park has its advantages, there are a number of historic, charming towns around the park’s five entrances that offer great accommodations, dining venues and activities. The farther the town is from the entrance, the more likely you will be able to score a room. However, keep in mind people are visiting Yellowstone in record numbers, so there is no guarantee that even in the farther-flung towns you will get a room when you roll into town.

Start calling hotels and campgrounds before you begin your road trip to make reservations. Having a reservation will make your vacation a lot more relaxing. Otherwise, you’ll discover rather quickly that towns like Gardiner, Mont., that sit right at a major entrance to Yellowstone can be completely full when you arrive in town in the evening and sometimes, even that morning. Avoid frantic late-night searches for vacancies by arriving in town early in the morning before everyone else arrives later in the day.

Lodging near Yellowstone’s West Entrance
Lodging near Yellowstone’s North Entrance
Lodging near Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance
Lodging near Yellowstone’s East Entrance
Lodging near Yellowstone’s South Entrance

3. Know Your Campgrounds

Yellowstone has 12 developed campgrounds. Five of them accept reservations, and the remaining seven are first-come, first-served. It’s always worth trying to make a last-minute reservation for a campground.

Campgrounds that Accept Reservations

The five campgrounds in Yellowstone that accept advanced reservations are the following: Bridge Bay, the park’s largest campground with 432 sites, sits on the shore of Yellowstone Lake and is open late May to early September. It fits RVs up to 40 feet. Open late May to mid-September, Canyon offers 273 sites and is located south of the Tower Roosevelt area. It fits RVs up to 40 feet.

Madison is a large campground with 278 sites along the Madison River and is open late April through mid-October. It accommodates RVs up to 40 feet. However, construction crews will be working on a paving project in 2016 and campground loops will be closed in the process.

Fishing Bridge RV is only open to RVs as there is a lot of bear activity in the area. Open early May through late September, it offers 325 sites and accommodates RVs up to 40 feet. Lastly, Grant Village offers 430 sites on Yellowstone Lake and is open late June through mid-September. It accommodates RVs up to 40 feet. To reserve a site at one of the five campgrounds listed above, visit yellowstonenationalparklodges.com or call 866-439-7375.

Yellowstone’s First-Come, First-Served Campgrounds

Otherwise, Yellowstone offers seven campgrounds that are first-come, first-served. The “first-come, first-served” jargon is really park service code for “arrive early in the morning to ensure your spot for the night.” During the height of the summer season, don’t expect to show up at a campground at 5 p.m. and get a campsite. They will all be taken.

Yellowstone’s first-come, first-served campgrounds include the 75-site Indian Creek open early June through mid-September. It accommodates RVs up to 35 feet. Accommodating RVs up to 25 feet, Lewis Lake has 85 sites on the south side of Lewis Lake and is open mid-June to early November.

The log registration building at Indian Creek Campground. Photo by NPS

The log registration building at Indian Creek Campground. Photo by NPS

On the park’s northwest corner sits Mammoth with 85 campsites. Its open year round and fits RVs up to 75 feet. Farther south, Norris, in the Norris Geyser Basin, offers 100 sites, fits some RVs over 30 feet and is open mid-May through late September. On the northeast side is primitive Pebble Creek with 27 sites and only a few sites to accommodate RVs. It is open mid-June through late September. Nearby is Slough Creek with 23 primitive sites in the Lamar Valley open mid-June to early October. In that same area is Tower Fall, a 32-site primitive campground open late May through late September.

4. Stay in a National Forest or State Park Campground

Surrounding Yellowstone are a number of U.S. National Forest Service-maintained campgrounds and state park campgrounds. Often, the national forest campgrounds are primitive, offering a bit more solitude, pit toilets and potable water taps, but no showers or stores. Do some research about the route you intend to take to and from the park and identify these campgrounds along the way.

5. Travel with a Tour Company or an Organization

Tour companies and organizations like the Yellowstone Association offer trips to Yellowstone National Park that often include lodging in the park. Better yet, many offer all-inclusive trips, so you can take worrying about lodging, meals, transportation and so on off your to-do list.

The World Outdoors, based in Boulder, Colo., offers incredible trips for active travelers to Yellowstone and Grand Teton. With The World Outdoors, you will relax in some of the park’s most iconic lodges and campgrounds, many of which booked up months ago. You’ll enjoy gourmet meals on the trail and in local restaurants without having to lift a finger. And you’ll experience the best of Yellowstone with professional guides who have the outdoor expertise and equipment to access the most beautiful trails, show you magnificent wildlife and keep your family safe.

The Yellowstone Association also offers lodging in the park when you enroll in its great Lodging & Learning Programs. The nonprofit organization has a variety of classes that touch on everything from park geology to the hidden park gems. At night, you’ll stay at classic Yellowstone lodges, some that have been booked for months.