Yellowstone National Park: FAQ

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park

I think everyone can tell that I’m just a liiiittle bit obsessed with Yellowstone after my weekend trip a few weeks ago. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the post with my Yellowstone Vlog and itinerary suggestions for your own trip!

I’ve been getting a ton of questions on Instagram from people who were already planning to visit Yellowstone this year or are now planning to visit after seeing how amazing it is from that post. We all know the old saying – if one person has the question, others are probably wondering, too.

So, I thought I’d make an entire Yellowstone FAQ post dedicated to answering those questions so you can plan the most epic trip to Yellowstone.

1. Was it busy?

This was the number one FAQ I got about Yellowstone!

Yellowstone is usually a busy place, especially in the summer. I’ve heard horror stories of people sitting in traffic for hours trying to get to a specific site, but I didn’t experience any of that. I actually thought it would be busier than normal because of the pandemic (Americans can’t easily leave the US), but that wasn’t the case.

I visited Yellowstone in August 2020 and sure, there were a lot of people, but I never sat in traffic for more than 15 minutes at a time. I was also able to stay socially distant most of the time.

2. How much does it cost to get in?

It costs $35 per car to enter Yellowstone. It doesn’t matter if it’s just you in the car, or it’s packed with all of your friends. They charge by the car. The $35 will get you into the park for 7 days, so you don’t need to worry about paying each day you want to go.

If you decide to enter the park on foot or on a bicycle, it’s $20 per person.

If you want to buy the Yellowstone Annual Pass, it’s $70.

If you want to buy the National Park Annual Pass, it’s $80.

There are a few fee-free days each year. For 2020, they are Jan. 20, April 18, Aug. 25, Sept. 26, and Nov. 11.

According to the National Park Service website, all of the money collected stays within the NPS and at least 80% stays within the park where it’s collected.

Click this link for more information on park fees.

Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park

3. Should I buy the annual pass?

If you plan on visiting more than one national park within the next year, I would highly suggest buying the National Park Annual Pass ($80) that gets you into SO MANY national parks around the US. All it takes is 3 visits and the cost of the pass will be worth it.

I would only consider buying the Yellowstone Annual Pass ($70) if you know that Yellowstone is the only National Park you’ll be visiting in the next year. If you visit Yellowstone twice, you’ll break even. However, if you think you might visit another park, I’d be safe and buy the $80 pass that gets you into other national parks as well.

4. What should I bring to Yellowstone?

I explain this in further detail in this blog post, but in short, here are my suggestions:

  • Snacks, light meals, and water
  • Layered clothing
  • Portable phone charger
  • Bear spray
  • Binoculars
  • Sunscreen

5. Are there any restrictions due to Covid?

Another popular Yellowstone FAQ given the times we’re currently living in.

The only “major” restrictions are that you have to wear a mask if you go into any of the buildings and you have to eat outside. There are signs up everywhere urging visitors to wear masks at all times and stay six feet apart, but no one is really enforcing that. I definitely think everyone should be wearing masks and social distancing, but not everyone was (some were).

This is one of those times where you’ll have to take your safety and responsibility into your own hands.

6. Which sites should I see?

I could write an entire blog post about what you should see in Yellowstone…oh wait, I did! Here it is!

This post will tell you exactly what I recommend seeing and it can all be done in a weekend at Yellowstone.

Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park

7. What if I need gas when I’m in the park?

This the the exact question that I had that inspired me to write this Yellowstone FAQ post.

This is something I was genuinely worried about on my first day in the park because I had NEVER heard anyone talk about it! I drove into the park with my gas tank at 3/4 full and thought to myself “hmm I’m doing a lot of driving today. What if I run out of gas?”

I thought maybe I’d leave the park at the closest entrance and then come back in after, but no need for that! There are gas stations at Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Grant Village, Fishing Bridge, and near Lamar Valley.

I can tell you that the gas stations at Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs are open right now (summer 2020), but you may want to check on the others before you plan to use them.

8. Where can I get food in the park?

A LOT of the restaurants in the park are currently closed because of Covid. This means that the restaurants that are open are packed. At peak meal times, I saw lines out the door and down the block.

The open restaurants are near Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Old Faithful, Grant Village, Fishing Bridge, and Mammoth Hot Springs.

I’d recommend visiting those at off times. The OTHER option (and this is a pro tip) is that you can get snacks, wraps, and sandwiches inside the gas station stores. The line was never long and it was a lot less expensive.

9. Can I see everything in one day?

I wouldn’t recommend trying to see everything in one day. I think people tend to underestimate the size of Yellowstone before they visit (I definitely did!). This means they’re also underestimating how long it’ll take you to drive from site to site.

To put it into perspective, it took me about an hour and a half to drive from the northern entrance to the Grand Prismatic Spring with no traffic. That’s not even the most-southern point of the park!

If you can only spend one day in the park, I’d recommend at least seeing Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Hayden Valley, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. If you’re coming in from the North, add in Mammoth Hot Springs. If you’re coming in from any other entrance, add in Black Sand Basin and Biscuit Basin.

10. Ideally, how long should I plan to see everything?

You can honestly spend weeks exploring everything Yellowstone has to offer, but I know most people don’t have weeks at a time to travel. I think the best plan is to have 3 days dedicated to Yellowstone to see everything.

I’d say two days is the bare minimum to see most things. I was in the park for 2 days and exhausted myself for those two days trying to see as much as I could, but there were other parts I would have liked to visit as well.

11. What time does the park open and close?

Once an entrance opens for the year, it’s open 24 hours a day until it closes for the season. This of course excludes entrances closing unexpectedly due to emergencies or weather.

Find more information on Yellowstone’s schedule here.

12. Will I see wildlife?

I’m not going to guarantee something that I have no control over, but if you’re driving around to different areas in the park, there’s a VERY high chance you’ll see some wildlife!

The most popular animal that Yellowstone is known for is the Bison. You’ll definitely see some Bison if you visit Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley (I had more luck in the latter).

You might also see bears, elk, and small woodland creatures like squirrels, birds, etc.

This is where I have to say – DO NOT TRY TO GET TO CLOSE OR TOUCH THESE ANIMALS! You are visiting their home, so show them the respect they deserve. People die in Yellowstone every year from getting too close to Bison because they think they’re slow, friendly animals.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

13. Where should I stay near Yellowstone?

I will always recommend staying inside the park. Whether you camp or stay at any of the hotels, lodges, or cabins, staying in the park is your best option to get an early start to your sightseeing days.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) stay in the park, here are your options:

I can only speak from experience for the northern entrance. When I went to the park, I stayed at the Roosevelt hotel in Gardiner, MT. Gardiner is a small town about 5 minutes from the entrance. There are a bunch of hotels, restaurants, bars, and more in this town which makes it the perfect home base if you’re coming in from the north.

If you’re heading in through the west, there is a town called West Yellowstone that looks to be about 5 minutes from the west entrance.

If you’re coming from the south, it gets a bit more tricky because Grand Teton National Park is almost directly south of Yellowstone. However, there are a couple hotels and ranches to stay at near the southern entrance. This would be an awesome spot to stay if you plan on exploring both parks.

Lastly, if you’re planning to enter through the east, Wapiti is the closest town in Wyoming, but most people I know that come through the east tend to stay in Cody, WY. However, the park is about 35 mins from Wapiti and an hour form Cody. So, if you can, I’d recommend staying near the north, west, or south entrances.

Have another Yellowstone FAQ?

I hope this post was helpful for you when you start planning your trip to Yellowstone! If you have questions about what to see or two in the park, they might be answered in this post.

If not, feel free to leave your questions in the comments below and I’ll add the answers to this post.

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The Comments

  • Tal
    August 26, 2020

    Thanks for a super practical Yellowstone guide! Will sae this for a future trip 🙂

  • Melissa Roos
    August 26, 2020

    Yellowstone looks so pretty! Definitely a place I want to visit in the future. 🙂

  • Camden
    August 26, 2020

    I so would love to visit Yellowstone one day! Your pictures are stunning too! I’ll definitely save this FAQ for when I eventually visit.

    • saraharnstein
      > Camden
      August 26, 2020

      Thank you! You definitely should. It’s seriously amazing!

  • Diane
    August 26, 2020

    I love your advice about not approaching wildlife. It happens so frequently! I just saw a news story about a woman who was rammed by a bison…trying to take its picture (of course). Good advice! We stayed in Livingston, MT which is North of the park, and it was such an incredibly charming and beautiful town! I almost wanted to live there, until my husband reminded me about the winters 😊Have you ever visited Livingston?

    • saraharnstein
      > Diane
      August 26, 2020

      That’s awesome! We live in Bozeman, so we drive through livingston to get to Yellowstone. My boyfriend also used to live there last year! It is SUCH a pretty place…even in winter 😉

  • Olivia
    August 27, 2020

    This is such a useful guide! I’d love to visit Yellowstone and will definitely be saving this post for when I do. Also, your pictures are beautiful!

    • saraharnstein
      > Olivia
      August 27, 2020

      Thank you so much! I honestly wish I had the answers to all of these questions when I went!

  • Liz Ellis
    December 23, 2021

    Wow this guide is amazing, thank you so much! My family and I are planning on going at the end of April next year and are staying near the West entrance. Would this location change the order for suggested itinerary? I can’t wait it looks so beautiful!

    • saraharnstein
      > Liz Ellis
      December 27, 2021

      I’m glad this was helpful for you! I wouldn’t change anything if you’re going in through the West entrance. That actually might be nicer than the Northern entrance because you’re right in the middle of the north and south loop, so you won’t have to drive far to get to the southern loop like you would going in through the north! Enjoy your trip!!