A road trip to Yellowstone National Park is one of the quintessential American vacations. While it is possible to fly straight to Bozeman and arrange a tour, driving to Yellowstone can be more rewarding and offer you more freedom.
You don’t have to be an experienced outdoor enthusiast to enjoy a self-guided trip to Yellowstone as long as you know the logistics of how to get there and how to navigate inside the park.
Getting to Yellowstone
Total, there are five entrances to Yellowstone National Park around its perimeter. Beginning with the first Montana entrance and continuing clockwise they are:
- West Entrance West Yellowstone, Montana
- North Entrance Gardiner, Montana
- Northeast Entrance Cooke City, Montana
- East Entrance Cody, Wyoming
- South Entrance Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Best park access for those traveling from the south along Interstate 15
- Access at: West Yellowstone • Montana
- Open to cars: mid-April until early November
- Region: Geyser Country
The most popular entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the West Entrance via the quaint town of West Yellowstone has the easiest access to the famed Old Faithful. You’ll also have immediate access to some of the most spectacular geothermal features created by the Yellowstone Caldera. As the National Parks Service describes, “Yellowstone National Park preserves the most extraordinary collection of hot springs, geysers, mud pots, and fumaroles on Earth. More than 10,000 hydrothermal features are found here, of which more than 500 are geysers.”
From the west entrance, you’ll find Madison Junction about 30 minutes inside the park. Here you’ll find the Madison Campground and a visitor rest area with an information center, bathrooms, and a picnic area.
Turning south toward Grant Village Junction will take you through the Lower, Midway, and Upper Geyser Basins.
In the Lower Basins, you’ll find the Great Fountain Geyser, and one of the most sought-out attractions in the entire park: the Firehole Canyon Swimming Area. A consequence of an underground hot spring that erupts right into the river is the naturally warm water found here. This is one of only two places in the park where they allow swimming, so it fills up quickly on a nice day.
Within the Midway Basins is where you’ll find, among many others, the Grand Prismatic Spring. It is so named because it is so incredibly colorful. “Microorganisms called thermophiles, or heat lovers, make their homes in the hydrothermal features of Yellowstone,” explains the National Parks Service. “Although individually they are too small to be seen with the naked eye, so many are grouped together in the park’s hydrothermal features—trillions!—that they often appear as mats of color.”
In the Upper Basins is where you’ll find what is possibly Yellowstone’s number one attraction: Old Faithful. There’s a visitor center onsite where you can get the day’s eruption predictions and more information about the geysers nearby.
Best park access for those traveling from the west along Interstate 90
- Access at: Gardiner • Montana
- Open to cars: year-round
- Region: Mammoth Hot Springs
Using the North Entrance to Yellowstone in Gardiner is the fastest way to reach Mammoth Hot Springs. Originally designed to be Yellowstone’s main entrance – evidenced by the grand Roosevelt Gate that greets you when you arrive – it is still an extremely important access point as it is effectively the only gate that’s open in the winter. When you first arrive, you can visit the Albright Visitors Center to get more information about the region.
Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the world’s examples of travertine terraces. They are created by the interaction of thermal spring water with natural limestone. While they used to be open to the public to bathe in, the National Parks Service halted this practice to protect the fragile terraces. “Thermal water rises through the limestone, carrying high amounts of the dissolved limestone,” they explain. “At the surface, carbon dioxide is released and calcium carbonate is deposited, forming travertine, the chalky white mineral forming the rock of travertine terraces.”
If you want to get a particularly interesting view of Mammoth Hot Springs, you can take the Upper Terrace Drive loop. Though it’s only a mile long, there are several places along the way to pull over and take pictures.
The same geothermal activity in the area that creates Mammoth also feeds what’s called the Boiling River. Though bathing in most of the thermal waters within Yellowstone is prohibited, it is legal here when conditions allow.
When you’re ready to leave the Mammoth Junction area, you can take the main road to Tower Junction, or you can take the scenic Blacktail Plateau Drive. Though this six-mile-long road is unpaved and has better wildlife viewing opportunities than the main drag.
And if you’re ready to exit the park back through Gardiner, you can take Old Gardiner Road instead. It’s a one-way, unpaved road that goes from Mammoth back to Gardiner.
Best park access for those traveling from the east along Interstate 90 or 94
- Access at: Cooke City • Montana
- Open to cars: early May until early November
- Region: Lamar Valley
Arguably the most dramatic way to come to Yellowstone, the approach to the Northeast Entrance might be just as exhilarating as the park itself. To reach it, you’ll have to pass through Cooke City, which lies at the end of one of the most scenic highways in the country: Beartooth Scenic Byway, or colloquially, Beartooth Highway.
This stretch of highway 212 begins in Red Lodge, dips briefly into Wyoming, and comes back across the state line just before Cooke City. Along it, you’ll find several places to stop and park to take a hike, admire the view, buy supplies, or even go skiing in the middle of the summer. It goes directly through one of the nation’s most pristine alpine areas, replete with hundreds of mountain lakes that beg for a closer look.
You can also reach Beartooth Highway via the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway. Also known as Highway 296, it branches out from highway 120 and travels northeast through the corner of Wyoming to reach Beartooth about 15 miles before the entrance to Yellowstone.
Once you reach the park, you’ll be right in Yellowstone’s most ideal spot for wildlife viewing. The Lamar Valley is known for its enormous variety and population and of birds and mammals, so be sure to bring a camera. This is the area of the park that’s notorious for seeing buffalo, bears, and bald eagles, among many other types of animals.
From the Northeast Entrance, it takes about an hour to reach Tower Junction, which connects to Mammoth Hot Springs and Canyon Village.
Best park access for those traveling from the east along Interstate 90
- Access at: Cody • Wyoming
- Open to cars: early May until early November
- Region: Lake Yellowstone
About an hour west of Cody, Wyoming is Yellowstone’s East Entrance. Cody is on the far end of a loop spurring off of Interstate 90, so it’s not a city that attracts many tourists that aren’t visiting Yellowstone. But because its tourists are so specialized, they have a lot of resources, lodging, and dining available specifically catered to those visiting the park.
After crossing Sylvan Pass, the road to the park’s interior meets Yellowstone Lake. The lake holds many records for alpine lakes. “Situated at 7,733 feet above sea level, Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America,” the National Parks Service explains. “Yellowstone Lake freezes over completely every winter in late December or early January, with ice thicknesses varying from a few inches to more than two feet.”
Even when it’s not frozen, the lake remains extremely cold year-round, rarely rising above 41º F. Because it’s so cold, swimming in the lake is forbidden, as it is unlikely to survive more than 20 or 30 minutes being submerged in it.
Boating is a favorite pastime on Yellowstone Lake, and there are several ways you can do it.
A handful of outfitters are authorized to give tours on motorized vehicles to suit pleasure cruisers, anglers, or those seeking to spend some time in the backcountry. If you’d like to chart your own way, you can rent a small boat with an outboard motor by the hour from Bridge Bay Marina. You are also welcome to bring your own boat, though outside crafts are subject to many regulations as well as an inspection to prevent contaminants from entering the lake.
Once you are done exploring the Lake Yellowstone area, Lake Village has easy connections to Canyon Village and Grant Village.
Best park access if you’re traveling either east or west along Interstate 80 and from Jackson
- Access at: Grand Teton National Park • Wyoming
- Open to cars: mid-May until early November
- Region: Southern Lakes
If you’d like to combine two national parks into one trip, then the South Entrance proves ideal. Highway 191, which extends inside Yellowstone, begins far south as a spur from Interstate 80. It then winds through Jackson and Grand Teton National Park before entering Yellowstone.
When using the South Entrance, keep in mind that you will either need a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass or you’ll have to pay two separate entrance fees for each park. Once you’ve managed to enter Yellowstone, you’ll arrive at Grant Village and the Southern Lakes Region.
In addition to Lewis, Shoshone, and Heart Lake – the latter really is roughly shaped like a heart! – you’ll be in the perfect spot to explore the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. This portion of the lake is home to a huge amount of geothermal activity, and there are several places where you can see hot springs meet the shore. Also in the area are several fumaroles, geysers, and ‘paint pots,’ many of which are visible on the short trail that begins at the West Thumb Information Station.
From Grant Village, you can connect to Madison Junction and Lake Village.
Internal Road Junctions in Yellowstone National Park
No matter which entrance you choose, you can also navigate between sites using Yellowstone’s internal network of roads and junctions. Most of them are closed to vehicle traffic only in the winter, but maintenance or extreme weather can force road closures at any time. You can always double-check Yellowstone Park road conditions ahead of your trip to ensure that your desired route is open.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet with all of Yellowstone’s major junctions that you can use as a quick reference.
Madison Junction • 30 min east of West Entrance
- Connections to Grant Village Junction (1 hr 20 min SE) and Norris Junction (30 min NE)
- Easy access to Old Faithful and other Geothermal features
Norris Junction • 1 hr south of North Entrance
- Connections to Madison Junction (30 min SE,) Mammoth Hot Springs (45 min N,) and Canyon Village (30 min E)
- Easy access to Sleve, Nyphar, and Grey Lakes
Mammoth Hot Springs • 15 min south of North Entrance
- Connections to Norris Junction (45 min S) and Tower Junction (40 min E)
- Easy access to Mammoth Hot Springs geothermal area and its eponymous resort
Tower Junction • 1 hr west of Northeast Entrance
- Connections to Canyon Village (1 hr S) and Mammoth Hot Springs (40 min W)
- Easy access to Tower Falls and Lost Lake
Canyon Village • 1 hr, 30 min west of East Entrance
- Connections to Norris Junction (30 min W,) Tower Junction (1 hr N,) and Lake Village (35 min S)
- Easy access to Hayden Valley and Dunraven Pass
Lake Village • 1 hr west of East Entrance
- Connections to Grant Village (45 min SW) and Canyon Village (35 min N)
- Easy access to Bridge Bay, Fishing Bridge, and Yellowstone Lake
Grant Village • 50 min north of South Entrance
- Connections to Madison Junction (1 hr, 20 min NE) and Lake Village (45 min NE)
- Easy access to West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, Riddle Lake, and Craig Pass
Winter Season Roads
While the harsh mountain winters in Yellowstone force the closure of most of the roads in the park to cars, there are still stretches that are drivable, or accessible by snowmobiles and snow coaches.
North to Northeast
Heading south through the North Entrance at Gardiner, branching out to the east from Mammoth hot springs is the only road within Yellowstone that’s open to car traffic in the winter. Passing through Tower Junction and the Lamar Valley, it eventually reaches the Northeast Entrance near Cooke City.
While the Northeast Entrance is reachable during the winter, the only way to get there is via Yellowstone’s North Entrance. The roads that continue beyond it are closed to cars during the winter as well as part of the spring and fall.
Though small, Cooke City does have a year-round population, and there are some options for lodging, gas, and dining if you manage to make your way there. But from mid-October until the end of May, you won’t be able to continue past it onto Beartooth Highway to reach Red Lodge. There’s also the road that connects Cooke City to Clark and Cody, Wyoming – known as the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway – mostly open, though a crucial mid-section along it is closed to motor vehicles from early November until mid-May.
Additionally, the normal parks services that you can usually find at the Northeast Entrance – like pass sales and other ranger services – may be unavailable until the spring.
Yellowstone has a winter resort season that’s serviced by oversnow travel, meaning by snowmobiles and snow coaches. Roads open to oversnow travel weave well into the park and give you winter access to Geyser Country and winter lodges.
You can arrange an oversnow tour with a licensed provider.
Start Planning Your Road Trip to Yellowstone
While Yellowstone National Park is extremely accessible to tourists arriving by car – it is maybe the ideal way to visit – there are some things to keep in mind when you’re planning your trip to ensure it goes smoothly.
- Always check the current road conditions in advance of your trip. Even if it’s the summer, roads may be closed for maintenance or to fix any damage.
- Any entrance pass to Yellowstone admits yourself and anyone traveling in your car. There are some restrictions and additional fees if you are coming in an oversized vehicle that holds more than five passengers.
- Parking within the park is highly regulated, so parking or pulling over in undesignated areas is generally prohibited unless it’s an emergency.
- In the height of the summer, parking at the most famous sights – like Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful, and Lake Village – can be extremely limited. Parking in undesignated places in Yellowstone is prohibited, so it’s best to plan to see these attractions early in the day.
- While traveling through the park along Grand Loop Road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City is possible in the winter, there will be no facilities in between. Be sure to bring plenty of water and any other supplies you might need just in case something happens along the way.
- Speed limits inside Yellowstone can be much different from other highways in Montana. Be sure to note and follow any applicable road signs.
- If you’d like to camp overnight in the backcountry, you will have to make sure you leave your car in a secure, designated area, as well as have a backcountry permit. You can apply for one from the National Parks Service either by mail or in-person annually and ideally between January 1st and March 30th.
- Campgrounds within the park can fill quickly during the summer. If you would like to camp at one of Yellowstone’s campgrounds, reserve your spot well in advance when applicable.
- Yellowstone has a handful of in-park lodges. They are extremely popular and are sometimes booked up to a year in advance.