Wow! So it’s been over a month since I’ve last posted because life has just been totally crazy lately! And one of the things that’s been taking up a big bulk of my time recently has been planning our 2018 travel, including a planning a summer trip to Yellowstone, America’s very first National Park.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big planner and prefer mapping out our travel at least a year in advance. But with Yellowstone? Early action isn’t just good planning — it’s mandatory if you’re hoping to stay in the park itself.
That’s because you essentially have 5 options when it comes to your accommodations if you’re planning a summer trip to Yellowstone:
- Staying at the in-park lodges, run by Xanterra
- Staying outside the park, in surrounding communities
- Camping inside the park, at a reserved campsite run by Xanterra
- Camping inside the park at a first-come, first-served campsite
- Backcountry camping requiring a permit
Each of the options have pros and cons, so I’ll explain those below, as well as the process for booking each option. And of course, I’ll share which one we chose while planning our own summer trip to Yellowstone.
Staying at the in-park lodges, run by Xanterra
The National Park system maintains a number of lodges (essentially bare-bones hotels) and within Yellowstone there are nine such properties, comprising 2,000+ total hotel rooms.
Staying in-park is really key, because you save precious time by not having to drive into the park each day. As “Bison Jams” (traffic jams caused by Yellowstone’s wild buffalo blocking the road, or, alternately, traffic jams caused by Yellowstone’s many tourists stopping to take photos of wildlife near the road) are fairly common, it can easily take anywhere from 2-5 hours to get from outside the park to the spot you’re hoping to see inside the park.
That being said, these definitely aren’t the Ritz Carlton. Most of the rooms don’t have air conditioning, tvs, or mini-fridges. Many don’t even have private bathrooms. And the decor is…well…not particularly “modern.” And yet, the lack of competition and high demand means they can pretty easily charge Ritz-Carlton-esque prices…rates in the summer generally range anywhere from $150 – $500 a night, per room.
To book at the lodges, you have to go through Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the private company that operates all the in-park lodges (as well as the lodges in other National Parks, like the Grand Canyon.) If you’re going in the summer, you’ll have your choice of any of the lodges, however for winter trips, only two properties are available: the Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins or the Mammoth Hot Springs & Cabins.
And the key here is booking EARLY. Top sites like the Old Faithful Inn easily book up a year in advance. Luckily, that year-ahead system makes cancellations a fairly regular occurrence, so if you can’t find availability on the Xanterra website, you can always call them daily to ask about potential cancellations.
Staying at an in-park lodge also gives you preferential reservations at Lodge dining facilities, but based on all the reviews I’ve seen…that’s not really saying much. Still, it’s a bear-proof, climate-controlled place to stay that’s in the park and that doesn’t require bringing your own gear…#winning.
Staying outside the park, in surrounding communities
If you require nicer accommodations than what the National Park Lodges offers, you’re looking for something with a lower price point, and/or all the in-park lodging is already filled, another option is to stay in the communities surrounding Yellowstone.
To the South, that means Jackson, Wyoming (outside Grand Teton National Park, a 2.5-hour drive to Old Faithful). To the North, it’s Gardiner, Montana (a 2-hour drive to Old Faithful). To the East, there’s Cody, Wyoming (a 3-hour drive to Old Faithful). And finally, to the West there’s West Yellowstone, Montana (about an hour drive to Old Faithful.)
In these communities you’ll find the usual options of hotels, motels, campgrounds, and AirBnBs, not to mention grocery stores and restaurants, particularly in the summer months. The prices are usually much less expensive than staying in the park, but the tradeoff is all the extra driving time you’ll end up adding to each day. Still, if you’re just planning on hitting the main tourist trap sites and have the patience to sit through Bison Jam delays, this can be a good option.
Camping inside the park, at a reserved campsite
So you want to stay in-park but don’t want to pay the hefty pricetag associated with the lodges? If you’re willing to bring your own RV or camping gear, there are plenty of camping options available in-park as well.
Five of those campgrounds, comprising 1,700+ individual campsites, are reservable, and they offer varying site features; some allow RVs & generators, others are tent-camping only…some offer amenities like flush toilets, showers, and laundry facilities, others are more rustic. Each night in a reservable campsite will set you back just $25 – $50/night.
Much like the lodges, though, you’ll want to book early, and you have to book through Xanterra as well. Summer camping spots often fill up six months in advance or more.
Camping inside the park, at a first-come, first-served campsite
If you’re dead-set on camping, but weren’t able to snag one of the reservable spots in time, there’s also a backup option: another 425 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, for just $15 – $20 a night. The key to snagging one? The earlybird gets the worm…or in this case, the campsite.
Plan to arrive before 8am (before 7am is even better) to your desired campsite to try to snag a site that’s being vacated that same day. The entrance to each campsite will announce how many new vacancies you’re likely to find on a given day, and if you’re lucky enough to get a spot, you can stay there for up to 14 days at a time. You can choose to pay for your whole stay in advance for or day-by-day; if you pay day-by-day, just make sure to renew your payment each day before the designated check-out time.
The risk here is obviously that you might not get a campsite at all. If you’re planning on going this route, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan in mind. Consider exploring the options at the nearby State Parks and/or National Forest Campsites in case you run out of luck.
Backcountry camping requiring a permit
Finally, if you really want to experience the wildest side of Yellowstone National Park, then you may consider backcountry camping. (For the uninitiated, this means camping outside of a designated campground, usually along a trail, in which you hike-in and hike-out all your camping gear.)
Backcountry campsites offer nearly no amenities — usually just a food storage pole, and in some cases, a firepit. You’re on your own for water, restrooms, food, bear deterrent, etc. That being said, the sites are frequently located on beautiful trails with breathtaking views.
Should the idea of backpacking not make you want to run screaming in the other direction, you’ll be pleased to know that this is the most economical option in the park at just $3 per person, per night. But there’s also a bit of bureacracy involved: you must obtain a backcountry permit from one of the park visitor centers or ranger stations before you head off on your adventure. And if you want to reserve one of the backcountry camping sites along your intended trail, you’ll be subject to a lottery system and an additional $25/reservation fee. You’ll want to get your backcountry campsite requests in by March 31 for the upcoming year, in order to be included in the lottery.
Finally, before you decide to go have your own backcountry adventure a la Reese Witherspoon in Wild, remember this: you’ll need to carry bear spray, bear-proof food containers, and weather-appropriate gear with you (potentially including snow axes and crampons for early/late season trails at higher elevations). I think it’s fair to say it’s not really an option for beginners.
One thing worth noting if you’re planning a summer trip to Yellowstone: the prices I’ve listed for all these options don’t include the park entrance fees. The most common entrance pass is the seven-day, which is good for every passenger inside your car, and costs just $30 for Yellowstone only, or $50 if you also plan to visit Grand Teton National Park to the south of Yellowstone. If you’re on a budget, don’t forget to check out the calendar of fee-free days, or buddy up with your favorite 4th grader, as all 4th graders get a one-year National Park pass. (Thanks, Obama!)
For us, the options were pretty simple. Knowing that we were going to be flying into the region instead of driving (so not able to carry in all our camping gear), and knowing that we wanted to maximize as much time as possible inside the park, we went with the first option, staying in the National Park Lodges. We chose the Canyon Lodge, for its close proximity to many of the hiking trails we plan to tackle.
Which one would you have picked if you were planning a summer trip to Yellowstone? Tell me in the comments.