West Yellowstone is the ideal place from which to explore America’s oldest national park
America’s oldest national park is also one of its largest. So picking an area of Yellowstone to focus your touring around can make it manageable. This guide to West Yellowstone should help you plan a special trip with enough variety to keep your travelers happy but not exhausted.
When I recently visited, I was shocked that even during a pandemic, Yellowstone National Park was busy and many hotels inside the park were completely booked. I chose West Yellowstone (a town just outside the park) for several reasons. It is very near the park entrance and there is lots to see and within a manageable drive. There was also a glamping resort I was interested in, just a few minutes from town.
(A note about seasons: This guide is designed for travel in high season, May through September. If you visit in the winter, when large parts of Yellowstone are closed, West Yellowstone may not the best area to stay in. More about that at the end of the article.)
Google Map - Guide to West Yellowstone
Things to Do in West Yellowstone
West Yellowstone is a charming and compact town with many outfitters to help plan and equip your adventures. If you aren’t sure what you want to do, wander around town, pop into some of the outfitters and get more information about the activities you are considering. Then grab a huckleberry ice cream cone and discuss your options.
I am listing eight things to do outside of the park first. That will be followed by what to see inside the park, that is most convenient to West Yellowstone.
8 Things To Do In West Yellowstone
The high season months of June, July & August are ideal for outdoor exploration and adventure. These ideas should offer something fun for every type of traveller in your group.
1. Cycling. West Yellowstone is surrounded by terrific cycling terrain with lots of options for both mountain biking and paved cycling. Free Heel & Wheel is right in town and can set you up with bike rentals and advise on where to go, depending on your group’s interest and skill level.
2. The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. Learn more about rescued grizzly bears and grey wolves and see a Yellowstone River Otter Exhibit. Learn how the animals and natural elements of the Yellowstone eco-system are all connected. Open 365 days a year – A Birds of Prey exhibit runs May to September.
3. Yellowstone Aerial Adventures. For the adventurers – soar through the air with over 49 challenges that cover 1000 feet of zipline. Open daily May-September.
4. Fly Fishing. If you’re an avid fly fisher you can pop in to Arrick’s on Canyon St. (the main street of town) and get advice on what flies to use. Or, book a guided float or walk/wade fishing trip. For beginners, instructional trips are available as well.
5. White Water Rafting & River Floats. You’ll have to drive to the town of Gardiner to take a trip down the Yellowstone River but it’s supposed to be great fun. Inquire about river floats for a more serene experience.
6. Horseback Riding. Ride through the Gallatin National Forest and enjoy views of Yellowstone National Park and the Continental Divide. The Diamond P Ranch has rides twice a day, every day except Sunday. Open Memorial Day through September.
7. The Playmill Theatre has re-opened. This small-town theatre has operated since 1964 and gets rave reviews for its family-friendly musical productions such as Newsies and Cinderella. A local gem. Note: for the 2022 season, masks are welcome but not required. They are operating at 100% capacity.
8. Eat! Yellowstone – the park itself – is not known for exceptional food. But there are some solid casual dining options in the town of West Yellowstone. We particularly liked the Taco Bus, Las Palmitas, which is parked right on Canyon – the main street that runs through town. (We thought the tacos were better than the burritos.)
Other good options include: Cafe Madriz for Spanish food, the Beartooth Barbeque, Wild West Pizzeria and Ernie’s for breakfast.
For a more upscale dining experience with a pretty view, head out of town to the Bar N Ranch, less than 10 minutes away. It shares a property with Under Canvas, where we stayed, and we thought the food was very good and the setting beautiful. (More on Under Canvas below).
And don’t forget to try the local treat, Huckleberry ice cream!
West Yellowstone - What to See Inside the Park
From the town of West Yellowstone you are well positioned to explore some of the most interesting attractions within the national park including Old Faithful, some pretty waterfall hikes and the fascinating Grand Prismatic, the largest hot spring in the U.S. And if you are willing to drive further you can also explore the area of the park known as the Serengeti of America, the Lamar Valley.
It takes about an hour to get to Old Faithful from West Yellowstone and the drive is pretty. Old Faithful is worth seeing although apparently the geyser doesn’t get a copy of its own schedule; it is supposed to erupt every 90 minutes or so, but was almost 40 minutes late when we visited.
Don’t be fooled as we were. There were several mini eruptions which we mistook for the big show and were about to leave. Luckily a park employee told us to wait a little longer and we were glad we did because seeing the geyser erupt 150 feet in the air is pretty remarkable. (Note: you can call the park hotline to find out when Old Faithful is next scheduled to erupt: 307-344-2751.)
Old Faithful Inn, next to the geyser, is the perfect spot for lunch or dinner if the main dining room is open. This national historic landmark was built in 1903 and is National Park architecture at its finest as well as the largest log structure on the world.
Waterfalls & Scenic Walks near West Yellowstone
Mystic Falls is a gorgeous cascade waterfall along the Little Firehole River. The Firehole Loop trail is a moderate hike of 2.4 miles which follows the river through the conifer forest.
Fairy Falls is one of the park’s most spectacular waterfalls at 200 feet high, and requires a significant hike. There are two ways to reach fairy Falls one is 5.4 miles return and the other is 6.6 miles there and back. Either park at the end of Fountain Flat Drive or park 1 mile south of Midway Geyser Basin at the Fairy Falls Parking Lot. This is on my list for next time!
Grand Prismatic Hot Spring is a 1.6 mile out and back trail gets a lot of traffic. It features a view of this stunning hot spring known for being the largest in the United States, and fot its psychedelic colors and for. It’s the third-largest in the world – bigger than a football field and deeper than a 10-story building.
Alternatively you can see Grand Prismatic from the Midway Geyser Basin where a boardwalk also passes Excelsior Geyser, Turquoise Pool, and Opal Pool. Complete with dramatic sound effects.
West Thumb Geyser Basin: It’s a little further from West Yellowstone but this area filled with thermal pools and set at the edge of the enormous Yellowstone Lake is fascinating. The boardwalk allows a close-up view of the turquoise pools and is easily accessible.
Wildlife Viewing - Lamar Valley & Hayden Valley
My one regret, and it’s a big one, is we didn’t get to the Lamar Valley. It’s apparently the best spot in Yellowstone from which to see wildlife, which is why it’s called America’s Serengeti. It is a significant distance from West Yellowstone and we had already travelled extensively through Grand Teton National Park so my teen crew was not keen on a lot of extra driving at that point in the trip.
The bison in Yellowstone N.P. are unique because it’s the only place in the U.S. where they’ve lived continuously since prehistoric times.
And, if wildlife viewing is your priority, you might want to consider spending a couple of nights in Gardiner or Cooke City to better position you to explore the Lamar Valley and nearby Hayden Valley. The ideal time to see wildlife is early in the morning.
Where to Stay in West Yellowstone
Glamping Resort - Under Canvas
If you are interested in a glamping adventure, I recommend Under Canvas which is just a few minutes outside of town and set in a gorgeous open valley with pretty Montana mountain views.
Glamping gives you the benefit of being immersed in nature which I felt was the perfect compliment to the incredible nature experience you have as you tour Yellowstone National Park.
I loved the setting, the stream for swimming, and that lots of activities were available on site. The Bar N Ranch restaurant, which shares the property is also very good.
Tents are available in various sizes including those with full ensuite bathrooms. If interested, read my complete review of Under Canvas Yellowstone.
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RV Park - Yellowstone Holiday RV Campground
The Yellowstone Holiday RV Campground & Marina has 16 cabins as well as RV sites at its pretty lakeside setting with a swimming beach and shoreline fishing. Another great option for families, whether you are traveling by RV or not.
They rent kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddle boards, and have a 22′ pontoon boat. Free activities include volleyball, horseshoes, barbecues and fire pits.
For campers there are shower facilities, laundry, and a camper kitchen. There’s also a general store and free WiFi.
Budget Friendly - Alpine Motel
The Alpine Motel gets rave reviews for basic but very clean accommodation and friendly helpful management. I liked the location in the heart of town and based on the reviews I would be very comfortable staying here. It received Tripadvisor’s Travelers’ Choice award for 2020 and has consistently high ratings. Breakfast is included.
Family Friendly - Kelly Inn
If you are traveling with kids and want to stay right in town, check out the Kelly Inn. It also received the Traveler’s Choice Award from Tripadvisor. The rooms look spacious and it has some family-friendly extras such as an indoor pool and mini-fridges in the room. (When we travel with our kids, I love having a fridge to keep drinks and snacks cold.) Breakfast included.
Winter in Yellowstone
Yellowstone’s Northern Range is the only area of the park accessible by car in winter. The road connects Gardiner (north entrance) and Cooke City (northeast entrance). Winter means you’ll avoid the crush of summer crowds, but the main reason to go is because it’s a great time of year to see wildlife, in particular wolves in the Lamar Valley.
Whenever you go, enjoy the splendor of America’s oldest national park. And if your travels will take you to the park next door, I’ve written an extensive Guide to Grand Teton National Park you might enjoy. Grand Teton is my favorite of the 7 national parks I’ve visited!