If you are going to visit Yellowstone National Park, which is mostly in Wyoming, you have five entrances to choose from to get there. Even if you are staying inside the park you will need to come through one of them, but otherwise you’ll probably be staying at a hotel, lodge, or campground outside the park itself.
Your Yellowstone lodging location will probably determine which way you enter, though you do have more than one option if you are coming from Cody, Red Lodge, or the Montana cities to the north.
The Southern Entrance via Grand Teton and Jackson, Wyoming
Starting at the bottom of the park is the least popular way to enter, mostly because it’s a long haul from Jackson before you get to any of the main sites in the park. This is a good thing if you want to do some nature hiking or avoid the crowds for a while, of course. You drive up the John Rockefeller Historic Highway, which is a ribbon of road in a whole lot of wild land otherwise, on both sides. The animals mostly have it to themselves.
The best reason to do this is that you can easily visit Grand Teton National Park as well from the same base. If you’re coming up from Jackson or Moran, you’ll pass through the Tetons before entering Yellowstone. You’ll pass Lewis Lake then Yellowstone Lake, where geysers are spewing out steam next to and sometimes even in the water.
This is not a choice you make to save money, however. Jackson Hole has the most expensive hotels and rentals anywhere around Yellowstone. It is, after all, where the Hollywood celebs and “money is no object” billionaires come to play in ski season.
The West Entrance from West Yellowstone, Wyoming
If your time is limited or you hate driving, the West Entrance may be your best option. It’s got the shortest distance between your hotel and the “greatest hits of Yellowstone.” This entrance leads right to Old Faithful, Firehole Lake, and the Midway Geyser Basin.
Or you can head north at the split first and start with the Norris Geyser Basin, which feels like stepping onto another planet, then to the colorful and strange Mammoth Hot Springs. Most of the main sites are on a loop road, so keep going on that and you’ll eventually end up back where you started.
The East Entrance from Cody
There are a lot of good reasons to stay in Cody and drive into Yellowstone National Park from there. Even though it’s a bit far out–45 minutes then more than an hour through the gate before hitting any of the major sites–the drive to and from Cody is almost as spectacular as the destination. On the most direct route, you drive through Buffalo Bill State Park, with its glowing orange rock formations and cliffs along a river and valley.
The city of Cody itself is no slacker either, with the giant Buffalo Bill Center museum having enough to see to occupy half a day, plus three brewpubs, plenty of restaurants, and some good shopping.
The Northeast Entrance via Cooke City, Montana
If getting there is half the fun, then the best way to get to Yellowstone is via the cool little town of Cooke City by the Northeast Entrance. From Cody you head north on the impressive Chief Joseph Historic Highway through the mountains. At the end, you connect with the Beartooth Highway and go through Cooke City to the entrance.
You also get here from Red Lodge (or Billings beyond), weather permitting, by going on the Beartooth Highway for a few hours. This is one of the most scenic drives in a region full of gorgeous drives (beloved by those on motorcycles), but this will obviously add a few hours to your trip. You won’t want to do the same route going back.
The Northeast Entrance leads into the Lamar Valley, which is the prime wildlife viewing area. You’re almost sure to see bison, pronghorns (mistakenly called “American antelope,” and maybe even a bear or wolf. Bring a camera with a good zoom and some binoculars!
The Popular North Entrance via Gardiner, Montana
The entrance to Yellowstone National Park from the north is the most popular way to get in for a variety of reasons. First, it’s the easiest way to enter the park from populated cities with an airport up north, such as Billings, Livingston, and Bozeman. Second, you’ve barely paid or shown your park pass when you find yourself in the Mammoth Hot Springs area, with easy access to the main loop that hits all the greatest hits attractions. It’s also not that far from Lamar Valley wildlife.
Last, up the road from this entrance there are plenty of places to stay outside the park, so people can fly into Montana and be at their hotel without driving half a day. Then they can get up in the morning and drive into the park, returning at night. Some of the best places to stay near Yellowstone are here, such as Chico Hot Springs Resort and Yellowstone Basin Inn at the upper level, or the many motels and cabin lodging places for a lower price. There’s also the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel right inside the park, though you’ll have to book well in advance.
You really need your own vehicle to see this are if you’re not on a tour, so rent a car with Bonwi and get some points back while you’re at it. We ended up with this nice Subaru Outback you’ll see in the video below and got 2,300 points from our rental.