For as long as I can remember, Yellowstone National Park has been a dream destination. Growing up seeing the world renown park featured in books and movies and even as the fictional setting as Jellystone Park for the cartoon character Yogi Bear, Yellowstone has been on my mind. It’s unfortunate it took me this long to make it there, but thankfully I can say I finally did! And, trust me, it was well worth the wait.
One of the main reasons I’d never made it to Yellowstone Country (the counties in south-central and southwest Montana surrounding and inclusive of Yellowstone National Park) was because I just didn’t know much about the area. I also didn’t know when to go and how much time I would need for such a trip. And truthfully, being vegetarian, I wasn’t quite sure what the heck there would be available for me to eat (let me just go ahead and debunk the myth that there are only bison burgers available, ha ha).
The good news is I have answers to all those questions and hopefully can help steer you in the right direction to plan your own trip if you have not been, or for your return trip if you have already visited. Because here’s the thing; Yellowstone Country has this sneaky power to touch your heart in a way that will inevitably bring you back again. It’s just not possible to visit Yellowstone Country and not fall in love with it. I’m already planning my return trip there.
In this post, I’m going to share about the areas surrounding Yellowstone Park in Montana (I’ll have a separate post on the Park itself, because it clearly warrants its own highlight). I thought it would be helpful to showcase some of the great things to see and do in the area before and after you make your way into Wyoming to see Yellowstone. Here are just a few of the many options:
Bozeman, Montana– Bozeman is the city most people fly into as they plan their Yellowstone adventure. The great news is that many airlines now fly direct from cities across the US (Chicago Friends; both United and American have direct flights into Bozeman, so you have no excuse). I absolutely adored Bozeman for many reasons; it is a college town home to Montana State University, has a charming downtown area and has many outdoor activity options in nearby communities. IT’s a place with lots of character, an active foodie scene, cute coffee shops and boutique shopping, so there really is something for everyone. Bozeman is also known for its many breweries, so if beer is your thing, you are in luck. We even visited a distillery and I tried huckleberry vodka for the first time, and loved it (huckleberry is a smaller, more tart version of a blueberry). What I loved most about Bozeman was the ability to travel less than half an hour outside the city in several different directions for great hiking trails to summits overlooking the area or breathtaking waterfalls. It’s truly paradise for any outdoor adventurer.
Gardiner, Montana– About a two-hour drive from Bozeman through the stunning Paradise Valley, you’ll arrive into Gardiner. This tiny town lies right on the border of Wyoming along the Yellowstone River, literally looking into Yellowstone National Park. The town serves as one of the northern entrances into the Park, and for that, serves as a great home base for exploration into Yellowstone. We stayed two nights in Gardiner at the most unbelievable and unique place I’ve ever stayed; a 5 bedroom lodge that is also an art gallery. The owners built the Elk River Art Studio and Lodging on their own and as artists, use the lodge to showcase their beautiful artwork. Not only that, the property lies right on the Yellowstone River, looking across at the mountains of Yellowstone. It was one of the most unique and enchanting ways to experience the majesty of the Park, while enjoying the laid back vibe of Gardiner.
West Yellowstone, Montana– West Yellowstone is probably the most popularly known spot to enter and exit Yellowstone National Park; it is the closest entrance to the famed Old Faithful geyser after all. You will definitely find more options of places to stay and things to do in West Yellowstone as it does cater to the higher volume of travelers coming through. I loved the ambiance almost mimicking the Wild West and enjoyed strolling through all the souvenir shops and seeing the wide array of restaurants. Another cool thing I did not realize is that West Yellowstone is only about a 10 mile drive from the Idaho border and the “continental divide” where Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all meet. Since I had never been to the area before, I was pretty excited to cross 3 states off my list (I only have 7 left to have visited all 50 states). At any rate, West Yellowstone also has a plethora of outdoor activities in the area like fly fishing, hiking and skiing (just to name a few), which makes it such a great destination to get out and be active.
To answer my own questions I listed at the beginning of this post for planning a trip to Yellowstone Country and Yellowstone National Park, here are a few of my tips:
When to go: I personally think the best time to visit is the fall. You miss the rush during the summer and will have a better chance to see what you want and stay where you want (but still make sure to plan out as far as you possibly can). Yellowstone Country will have areas with beautiful foliage and the perfect temperature for hikes. I’ll even go as far as recommending the last 3 weeks of September as an ideal time to visit since you’ll miss the Labor Day crowd and hopefully get into the area before the really cold temperatures and snow settle in (you just never know though, so be prepared).
How much time you need: Obviously this varies based on your interests and what you would like to see and do. Ideally, I would say give yourself at least one week to explore the area to not feel rushed. A rough outline (which I used on my trip) could be; fly into Bozeman, spend a day or two exploring that area, drive to Gardiner and stay 2-3 nights while you explore northern Yellowstone National Park (I recommend a minimum of 3 full days for Yellowstone…it’s simply not possible to even touch the surface in 1 or 2 days), stay one or two nights in West Yellowstone and explore western and southern Yellowstone National Park and head back to Bozeman for your return, with a stop in Big Sky, Montana on your way back.
Other tips: Pack layers! I can’t stress enough the unpredictability of the weather in that area. Coming from flat Chicago, I forget that the area of Yellowstone Country has many different elevations and landscapes, bringing with it a wide range of temperatures. You could be in sun and 50 degrees in the morning in one location and in a 20 degree white out blizzard a few hours later in another location. It’s best to be prepared. And the weather apps do very little in helping you prepare even a few days in advance, so just bring lots and lots of layers!
Hope this helps give you an idea of what to see and do in Yellowstone Country. Stay tuned because I have so much more to share, and trust me, you won’t want to miss it.
Please Note: This post is in collaboration with Yellowstone Country. All opinions are my own.