Planning a vacation to Yellowstone involves many details, one of which is deciding how you will enter the park. With 2.2 million acres ⎯ larger than the size of Rhode Island ⎯ the park is enormous, which is why it’s a good idea to figure out what you want to see and know which entrance is closest to those sights.
There are five entrances ⎯ North Entrance, Northeast Entrance, South Entrance, East Entrance and West Entrance. Here are the details on each to help you plan your adventure to the country’s oldest national park.
North Entrance Brings You to Mammoth Hot Springs
Want to experience some of the West’s most spectacular scenery in a town that can feel like a cross between Northern Exposure and Animal Planet, given its wild neighbors living up the street in Yellowstone?
Head to Gardiner, Mont., just five miles from Yellowstone’s steaming terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, one of the park’s many natural wonders. Sitting at the only year-round entrance to the world’s first national park, pretty much everything in Gardiner is colorful from the scenery and people to the names of dishes on menus, adding a poetic slant to your visit.
If you are coming from the Pacific Northwest or even Missoula, Mont., the North Entrance, along US 89, may be the one for you. Situated in Gardiner, Mont., a lively small western town, the North Entrance is open year round and is the only way to reach the park’s northeastern border in the winter.
Be Wowed by Mammoth Hot Springs
From the North Entrance, you are well-situated to see the park’s incredible wildlife, as well as the famed Mammoth Hot Springs and the historic hotel and dining room located near the hot springs. You also pass the Boiling River turnoff on the stretch of road from Gardiner to Mammoth. In the Boiling River, one of two sanctioned swimming areas in the park, you can swim in an area where warm hot springs water enters the Yellowstone River.
Explore Lamar Valley
From Mammoth, you can head east on the northern most road in the park to get to the expansive Lamar Valley, referred to as the Serengeti of the United States, because of the extraordinary diversity of mammals living there. It is the Lamar Valley that the first wolves were reintroduced to the park in 1995-97. It is also home to grizzly bears, black bears, bison and elk, among many others. Bring your binoculars!
Northeast Entrance Puts You at Doorstep of Park’s Wildlife
Closest to Cooke City, Mont., and its sister village Silver Gate, this entrance gives you the best access to Yellowstone's legendary Lamar Valley where grizzlies, black bears, bison
and wolves roam. The tiny outpost of Cooke City (year-round population is 100) has a downtown that spans only a few blocks but offers good dining and lodging options
Closed in the winter time, the Northeast Entrance makes sense to enter if you are coming from the northeast side of Montana like Billings or Red Lodge, Mont. From Billings, you can take I-90 west to US 212 west and from Red Lodge, Mont., take US 212 west. Driving US 212 west is arguably the most dramatic route to enter the park.
Be Amazed By Beartooth Pass
With its sweeping alpine vistas, Beartooth Highway, along US 212, is the closest you may get to feeling as if you are on top of the world. Every corner of the road presents a more incredible view than the previous. Head south over Beartooth Pass, before dropping into Cooke City and Silver Gate, the closest towns to the Northeast Entrance.
Fuel Up in Cooke City
Cooke City itself is a tiny town but offers a number of services from lodging to restaurants and gas. From it, you can drive to the Northeast Entrance is a matter of minutes. Once you go through the entrance gate, the Lamar Valley unfolds before your eyes. Home to bison, grizzly bears, black bears, wolves and elk, plan to spend some time along the roadside pull-offs, viewing the animals from a safe distance. You’ll find the Lamar Valley will give you an overwhelming sense of what the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem looked like before white pioneers settled there more than 150 years ago.
East Entrance Brings You to Yellowstone Lake
The East Entrance brings you right to the Yellowstone Lake, the largest mountain lake at such a high elevation of 7,733 feet. It stretches 20 miles long and 14 miles across and its shorelines are dotted with geothermal features. From there, the West Thumb Geyser Basic and Old Faithful lie to the southeast and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the north.
To get to the park’s East Entrance, you will pass through Cody, Wyo., founded by Buffalo Bill Cody himself. While Cody is 53 miles from the East Entrance, it is the closest town to the entrance.
Have an Authentic Western Experience
Cody is an Old Western town that celebrates its rich history through daily summer rodeos and incredible museums that make up the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. With its historic downtown and numerous family friendly activities, including the Cody trolley tour where you can learn more about Cody’s history, it is well worth a stop for a day or two. Admission to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is good for two days, so take your time exploring.
Buy a cowboy hat downtown at the third-generation-owned Wayne’s Boots or Boot Barn up the hill and head to two of Cody’s family friendly venues that offer cowboy music during the evenings. The Cody Cattle Company has a really casual atmosphere where kids can run around the establishment’s wooden picnic tables. Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue is a more upscale dinner show that takes place at the Buffalo Bill Center. In June 2016, the show moved to a new Dining and Entertainment Pavilion at the center.
Stop at Buffalo Bill Dam
From Cody to the entrance, you will take the Yellowstone Highway, also known as US 16-20-14, past the enormous Buffalo Bill Dam six miles from town. Completed in 1910, it was the tallest dam in the world then. Today, it supplies water to 93,000 acres of farmland in the Bighorn Basin, bringing to life alfalfa, sugar beets, oats, barley and beans. The dam’s visitor center is open daily May 1-Sept. 30. From there, you will continue through the valley, eventually, reaching Sylvan Pass, which is RV-friendly and tops off at 8,350 feet.
South Entrance Allows You To Tackle Two National Parks in One Day
If you are looking to tackle two national parks in one day, the South Entrance is for you. From Jackson, Wyo., you can stop at the awe-inspiring Grand Teton National Park along your 57-mile drive north on the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Highway up to Yellowstone. Plus, if you are staying in Jackson, Wyo., the South Entrance is the easiest entrance to access Yellowstone.
Jackson itself is an incredible mountain town that attracts skiers to its steep slopes in the winter and throngs of tourists in the summer. Blending the Old West with upscale boutiques, Jackson is the ritziest of all Wyoming towns. But it has a full range of hotels and eateries, catering to every type of traveler.
Once you enter through the South Entrance, you will drive along a stretch of the park’s road without any turnoffs for more than 20 miles. But once you hit the West Thumb Geyser Basin, you can stretch your legs and explore some of the park’s amazing geothermal features. From there, head west to view Old Faithful or continue north along the shores of Yellowstone Lake and on up as far as the Lamar Valley, which stretches to the Montana border and is known for its abundance of large mammals, including wolves, bison and bears.
West Entrance Brings You to Geyser Paradise
If geysers are on the top of your Yellowstone hit list, you may want to enter the park via US 20 and the West Entrance, as it puts you in the heart of the park’s geyser country.
This entrance is the park’s busiest, so it’s no wonder that West Yellowstone, Mont., is a bustling gateway with dining, shopping and attractions for travelers. Located just across the Wyoming border in Montana, West Yellowstone is a convenient entrance town for those coming from Idaho or western Montana, especially Missoula. Visitors will find Wild West flavor, plenty of lodging and a mix of cultural and outdoor activities.
Welcome to Geyserville
When you enter the park through the West Entrance, you will drive 14 miles until you reach Madison, a jumping off point for geyser basins to the north and south. Head south and you will see the largest geyser basin in Yellowstone called the Lower Geyser Basin, which includes Fountain Paint Pot, Firehole Lake Drive area and the Great Fountain Geyser. You’ll want to stop at the Midway Geyser Basin, slightly south, which is home to the dazzling Grand Prismatic Spring, which has resident bacteria that creates rainbow-like rings in the spring.
Further south is the Upper Geyser Basin, which is home to Old Faithful, Biscuit Basin and others. At least 150 geysers exist in 1 square mile here.
Up north you’ll find Norris Geyser Basin, the park’s oldest and hottest thermal area with two walkable zones. It’s home to the Steamboat Geyser, which is the world’s tallest geyser at 300-plus feet. If you drive farther north, up to the park’s northern border with Montana, you can explore the boardwalks of Mammoth Hot Springs, a two-tier travertine wonder.
West Yellowstone Attractions
There’s also a lot to do when you are ready to take a break from sightseeing in the park. Minutes from the West Entrance sits West Yellowstone, Mont., home the Grizzly &Wolf Discovery Center, as well as lodging and dining.
Catch a show at the Playmill Theatre or study up for your park trip at Yellowstone Giant Screen Theatre, which shows IMAX movies about Yellowstone and beyond. It also is home to a number of well-equipped RV parks, which make it a fantastic place to park your RV and launch your tours of the park via your car.