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Yellowstone Travel Guide

Yellowstone Photo info
Lee Prince/Shutterstock

With dramatic peaks and pristine lakes, Yellowstone is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. Multicolored pools swirl around hot springs; verdant forests weave past expansive meadows; and volatile geysers launch streams of steaming water toward the sky. With so much unspoiled natural beauty, it's no wonder everyone suspected John Colter (a scout for explorers Lewis and Clark) was embellishing when he first described Yellowstone's geothermal curiosities in 1807. Nowadays, there's no doubt that ... continue»

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When to Visit Yellowstone

The best time to visit Yellowstone is from March to May or from September to November. These seasons offer mild weather and fewer crowds. July and August are the most popular months to visit: the kids are out of school and the weather is warm enough to sleep outside. However, this park is no stranger to the cold: Temperatures have been known to drop into the 30s even in the summer. During the winter, expert a wide range of temperatures, spanning from subzero digits to 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Don't let that stop you: There's nothing quite like seeing plumes of steam rise from beneath a thick blanket of snow and ice.

Best Times to Visit Yellowstone»

Yellowstone Temperature (F) Yellowstone Precipitation (in)

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Getting Around Yellowstone

Yellowstone Neighborhoods

Yellowstone National Park's roughly 3,500 square miles seep slightly over state borders into Montana and Idaho, but its major attractions are contained in the northwest corner of Wyoming. The major (Wyoming) portion of Yellowstone is divided into five regions: Mammoth Country, Geyser Country, Lake Country, Canyon Country and Roosevelt Country. Montana's North and Northeast entrances lead directly into Mammoth and Roosevelt Countries. From Wyoming, Lake Country is easily accessible from the East and South Entrances, while those traveling through Idaho can head straight through the West Entrance into Geyser Country.

Keep in mind that Yellowstone is massive, and the best way to get around is by car. 

Mammoth Country

The area near the park's North Entrance is known as Mammoth Country and contains the majestic Mammoth Hot Springs. The springs are created when heat, water and limestone interact to make tiered terraced stone formations. The result is a multicolored and nature-made sculpture. This location is also distinguished for its abundant elk population. From the springs, continue driving about 20 miles south, and you'll run into Norris. And if you venture 18 miles east, you'll stumble upon the Tower-Roosevelt Junction.

Geyser Country

Surrounding the West Entrance, Geyser Country is home to Old Faithful, Yellowstone's most famous attraction. Old Faithful is known for spewing thousands of gallons of steaming water into the air approximately every 60 to 110 minutes. Other popular attractions in Geyser Country are the Norris and Firehole River Geyser Basins, the Grand Prismatic Spring and the Morning Glory Pool, a hot spring in the Upper Geyser Basin. Surrounding the Old Faithful area, you'll also find plenty of facilities, including lodging, shops and gas stations.

Lake Country

Lake Country is defined by the area that surrounds Yellowstone Lake and is located near the park's East Entrance. The lake and the adjacent dense forests make this region ideal for spotting some of the park's wildlife, which include bald eagles, bears, bison and moose, among other critters. Lake Country is also home to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which offers a unique combination of lakeshore geysers, hot springs and paint pots. In the Lake Village area, you'll find features such as a campground and picnic area, a gas station and a medical clinic.

Canyon Country

Just north of Lake Country, Canyon Country includes both the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Hayden Valley, which were shaped and defined by the Yellowstone River. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is known for golden cliffs and two major waterfalls, while Hayden Valley, a former lake bed, offers a marshy habitat that's perfect for waterfowl, as well as numerous bears, bison, elk, moose and wolves. Canyon Country cannot be accessed directly from one of the park's entrances; instead, visitors will have to travel within the park to reach this area. Here, you'll also numerous camp sites, the Canyon Visitor Education Center and the Canyon Lodge, which features a cafeteria, a small snack shop a lounge and a dining room.

Roosevelt Country

Roosevelt Country — occupying the area near the Northeast Entrance — captures the spirit of the Old West better than any other part of Yellowstone. There you can walk among the fossilized remains of ancient plants and standing trees in the Petrified Forests (trees turned into stone) or view Tower Fall's 132-foot drop. You should also consider swinging by the Roosevelt Lodge, a 1920 property, which features scenic trails behind its grounds as well as historic Roosevelt cabins.

Cody, Wyo.

Sitting just east of the park, this small town offers several lodging and dining alternatives as well as several enjoyable things to do. Attractions like the allegedly haunted Old Trail Town, the educational Buffalo Bill Museum and the lively Cody Nite Rodeo make Cody an enjoyable daytrip for Yellowstone visitors.

West Yellowstone, Mont.

Like its name suggests, the small town of West Yellowstone sits just west of the park in southwestern Montana. West Yellowstone offers several opportunities to kayak, bike and hike, as well as numerous children's nature programs. Those who are interested in the area's wildlife may enjoy a trip to the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center — where you can get up close and personal with local four-legged friends — or daily presentations given by park rangers on a variety of nature-related topics. If you're looking for a bit of entertainment, West Yellowstone features an IMAX theater and a summer time rodeo. West Yellowstone is also home to several shops, hotels and dining options that are generally more affordable than those found within the park.

Safety

Safety hazards in Yellowstone range from trifling headaches to severe hazards, such as animal attacks. But the more prominent threat is altitude sickness. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea and muscle pain. Remember to drink lots of water, eat light meals and stay away from caffeine and alcohol.

When sightseeing in the park, keep in mind that many of the geothermic attractions, such as the geysers and the mud pots, can be dangerous. It is best to keep your distance. Also, look out for snags, or dead trees, scattering Yellowstone, and if you plan to camp, pick a site that's isolated from dead trees.

Animal attacks are uncommon in Yellowstone, but visitors should still take precautions. If you are camping in the park, the established campsites are usually not at risk. Campers in the wilderness should avoid sleeping near any animal carcasses, since they generally attract meat-eaters. Keep all food and garbage out of reach from bears and other critters as well. No matter where you set up camp, make sure not to leave any food within the vicinity of your tent; instead, suspend any food from a tree branch high above the ground.

If you can help it, avoid wandering off on your own. But if you are by yourself, make plenty of noise (talking, shuffling branches) when hiking to warn animals of your presence, and keep pepper spray handy. While they may seem docile from afar, getting too close to herds of buffalo — which can often be spotted along the road — is not a good idea. If you're hiking, avoid exploring areas where visibility is low, since bears have limited eyesight. The National Park Service recommends maintaining a 100-yard distance from bears and wolves and a 25-yard distance from other large residents, like elk, deer and coyotes.

If you do encounter a bear on the trails, you should not run. Instead, avoid eye contact and back away slowly while making noise, and most of the time, the bear will move along. Do not fight back if you are attacked; the best way to fend off a bear is to drop face down to the ground, cover the back of your neck with your hands, tuck your knees to your stomach and play dead. The bear will more than likely lose interest.

The best way to get around Yellowstone is by car, especially as there is no public transportation system. You can rent a car at any of the nearby airports, including the Yellowstone Regional Airport (COD) in Cody, Wyo., and the Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Jackson, Wyo., as well as the Gallatin Field Airport (BZN) in Bozeman, Mont. However, that doesn't mean that you should spend your entire vacation behind the wheel. Each of Yellowstone's five regions has an area to park, allowing you to leave the car behind and explore by bike or on foot. Guided tours are also available.

Getting Around Yellowstone»

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