Planning to Visit Yellowstone? Here Are Some Helpful Hints

Okay, first off, full disclosure.  We have only been to Yellowstone and the Tetons once, so I don’t pretend to be an authority, but having just gone through the experience, I don’t take for granted what more experienced National Parks travelers might.

Also, I am not, and never have been, a camper, not even in an RV, and don’t get me started on tents!  So, if after all that truth telling, you are still with me, here’s what we learned from OUR experience.

Tip #1 Researching your Trip
I discovered this wonderful brochure late in the planning process.  It has maps, showing  where the various lodging options are located, plus information about restaurants, park activities, and many, many other helpful hints.  Don’t be put off if you are traveling in 2019 and the 2018 brochure is the only one available.  Trust me. The information doesn’t change much from year to year.  Of course, the usual travel books are available at the library, but I found this brochure provided the information that I most needed in a brief and user friendly format.

And while you are at it, be sure to download the FREE Yellowstone App from whichever place you go to for your apps.  For me, it is the Apple store,  and on their site, the app looks like this.

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Once you get the app, go to “settings” (The little gear on the bottom of the screen), and choose “Download Offline Content”.  This is important because there are many areas within the park where internet access is nonexistent, but because YOU were smart enough to download, you can access the maps and important information about the sights that are nearby.

Tip #2 When to Book Your Stay
It is important to plan your trip WAY in advance, particularly if you want to stay inside the park during the summer months.  Reservations open in March for winter bookings; spring, summer and fall reservations are accepted starting May 1,  for the following year.  

We made our Yellowstone lodging reservations for May 25- 29 in early December.  I had mistakenly thought that by choosing a time when the season was just starting and while the kids were still in school, the competition for rooms would not be as keen.  Wrong!  If we had waited much longer, we would have been out of luck.  So who else was visiting Yellowstone at the start of the season?  While there, we heard German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Hindi being spoken, and saw buses from Australian and Chinese tour companies in the parking lots.  It was nice to see people from other parts of the world enjoying the beauty that this country has to offer.   Just don’t wait too long to book your hotel or cabin.

Be sure that you book through Xanterra, the official park concessionaire.  I mistakenly thought the company I found via my internet search, entitled US Park Lodging, was the vendor through which one made hotel reservations within the park.  Wrong.    I should have contacted Xanterra, and my mistake increased the cost of our lodging by 10%.  A non-refundable 10%.  And if we need to make changes to our reservation, we need to do so through Xanterra–NOT US Park Lodging.  So, YOU have now been warned.

Tip #3 Getting There
We flew into the Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC) airport, but other choices include Cody, Wyoming(COD),  Bozeman, Montana (BZN)  or Idaho Falls, Idaho (IDA).  Cody and Jackson are the closest — a little more than 50 miles from park entrances, while Bozeman and Idaho Falls are almost double that distance.

Although United airlines offered a non-stop flight to Bozeman, we opted for a connecting flight to Jackson.  The distance and the fact that we had never visited Jackson Hole or the Tetons were the deciding factors.

It took some playing around on the United Airlines website, but the difference in prices ($654 versus $1037 Round Trip) was worth the effort to determine which arrival and departure dates were the most economical and convenient.   (We did our airline reservations before our lodging reservations).

Of course there are some who choose to drive from home to the park, and we met a few of those adventurous souls!

Tip #4 Where to Stay
For our first two nights, we stayed at the Snake River Lodge and Spa in Teton Village, because we wanted to experience as much of what the area had to offer as possible during our first visit to Jackson Hole.

If you are a skier, this is the place to be because the ski lift is a brief stroll away.  If you are trying to save money, this is definitely NOT the place to stay.  On top of the not inexpensive room rate, the hotels in Teton Village charge resort fees and village sales taxes, in addition to the regular taxes charged.

On the plus side:  Because our son was staying with us, we opted for a suite, which was very nice, with bedroom, pull out couch and balcony.

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The view from our balcony at the Snake River Lodge.  Yes, we had a bit of rain during our stay.  

Still, we preferred Springhill Suites by Marriott, in Jackson Hole.  We stayed there for the last two nights of our trip.  It is only 15-20 minutes from the airport, it offers free a great free breakfast, you can walk to lots of wonderful restaurants in the “downtown” area, it also offers rooms with a couch (our couch had a trundle bed), and it was significantly less expensive (58% of the cost of Snake River Lodge).  Not only that, but it is right across the street from a FREE parking garage!

For our four days in Yellowstone, we decided to split our time between the northern and southern parts of this huge park– two nights at the Lake Hotel and two nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.   That worked out really well for us, because it allowed us to easily visit everything we wanted to see.

If you look at the map below, you’ll see that the roads in Yellowstone make two big loops.  yellowstone mapAs you would expect, the Lake Hotel is located across from Yellowstone Lake.  This very beautiful, peaceful property, was recently renovated. P1190626

It has all the amenities you would want: coffee and tea making paraphernalia in the room,  a hair dryer that is NOT attached to the wall, the bottles of goodies (shampoo, conditioner and body lotion.)  It also has a gift shop, a restaurant and a snack bar.

The hotels within the park all practice “sustainability”.  You can opt to forgo room service for a $5 per night credit to your room charge.  We decided to do that, and donate the savings to Yellowstone Forever.  I have to tell you, we really LIKED not having our room made up.  It was easy to make the bed (we do that at home) and hang up our towels–and we were guaranteed that the maid would not be cleaning our room when we wanted to return to it.

But more about the wonderful Lake Hotel:  The lounge is has a great view of the lake, and the piano music every night makes your before (and after) dinner drinks even more enjoyable.

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The hotel has lots of interesting architectural features, like this beautiful fireplace.  Be forewarned, though, this stay is not going to be a cheap.  Our two nights here were the most expensive of our trip.  If you are looking to conserve your vacation funds, choose a different option, but be sure to come here for dinner or lunch.

We also loved the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, but for different reasons.  This hotel had NOT been recently redone.  For example, the toilet seats are way lower than you might expect.  Be sure to LOOK before you sit!  There are no coffee or tea making supplies in the room, BUT there IS a hair dryer that is not attached to the wall.  (Can you tell I HATE the “on the wall” hair dryers?)  The shower is small and the shower head was located for people of below average height, but the hot water was plentiful and the beds were comfortable.P1030126

The location is fantastic.  Even the elk agree–They would hang out right under the hotel windows.

The park rangers put up orange cones to remind the visitors that the elk are wild animals, and they should keep their distance.  Not everyone heeds the warning, and some visitors have gotten injured because they got too close.

I also loved the photos in our room that depicted the early days of the park.

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You can’t sit on these terraces any more.  They are way too delicate and the ground is unstable/

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It used to take DAYS to get through the park.  The coaches averaged 6 miles per hour and there WERE stage coach robberies, back then, just like in those Saturday morning westerns of long ago.

Tip #5  Getting Around the Camp
We rented our car from Enterprise, which was one of three vendors that are on site at the airport.  Other car companies are located in Jackson Hole, about 15 minutes away.  Although renting from an airport based company increased our cost slightly, because of airport taxes, we thought it was worth the convenience, especially because we had an early morning flight home.  Service was good, it was easy, and they upgraded us to the BIGGEST SUV I had ever seen in my life.  (Our son picked up the car, it was not chosen by this Prius driver!)  Presumably the other car companies offer shuttle service, but we didn’t see any while we were at the airport, so perhaps you need to call into town for that service.

So, that’s all I’ve got for the preparation phase.  Next post will be about tours, dining and the actual park experiences

As I mentioned in my opening, this was our first trip to the area, so this Yellowstone newbie welcomes comments from any and all who have different hints/experiences/observations to share.  Talk to us!