Visiting Yellowstone will create a lifetime of memories. I spent seven seasons living and working in America’s first national park and have visited several times since. These nine tips should help you plan a budget summer vacation in Yellowstone National Park.
Reserve a Cabin in Yellowstone National Park
For the most authentic, low-cost Yellowstone experience, camping is an affordable option. However, it’s not for everyone. Towns outside Yellowstone offer hotels with room rates less expensive than within the park but the advantage of staying within the park is being in the center of activity and less time in the care.
There are nine accommodation facilities within the park either offering hotel rooms or cabins. Old Faithful is the most popular destination with three lodging options, the historic Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Lodge and Old Faithful Snow Lodge. If you’re able to do so, book a room at the Inn with a shared bathroom. These rooms are hard to come by as they’re popular but an alternative is an Old Faithful Lodge cabin. Roosevelt Lodge offers affordable cabins with most having shared shared bathrooms.
Tip: Book your accommodations early, as in, NOW. If accommodations are sold out now, you may be able to roll the dice and hope someone checked out early or canceled their reservation.
Packages are Perfect
A vacation package offers the most value and your best bet is by booking directly with Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park’s lodging and activity operator. Choose from multi-night packages which include overnight lodging, activities, and welcome gift. Vacation packages offer value with pre-planned activities and guaranteed lodging yet offer flexibility. They take the stress of planning off of you and in the hands of professionals.
View Yellowstone by the Sun and the Moon
Must-see and popular Yellowstone sites include Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mammoth Terraces and Lake Yellowstone. Enhance your visit by stopping in a National Park Service visitor center for advice on other sites such as the favorite Norris Geyser Basin, Lamar Valley and Tower Falls. These visitor centers are perfect for finding a hiking trail best for your skill level. My faves are Cascade Lake and the Brink of the Lower Falls in the Canyon area, Mount Washburn and Pebble Creek near Roosevelt.
Yellowstone is pretty incredible at night, too. Because there isn’t light pollution, look into the dark sky to see the stars sparkle. My favorite nighttime activity is watching a geyser eruption by moonlight. Other full moon activities include viewing waterfalls and walking the Mammoth Terraces. Of course, exercise caution during nighttime excursions. Stay on trails, be aware of your surroundings and watch for wildlife.
Join a National Park Service Ranger
National parks are truly America’s best idea and best bang for your buck. The National Park Service offers several free programs throughout the summer. These include entertaining and educational talks and hikes. The evening campfire programs in Yellowstone campgrounds are popular, too. My favorite ranger-led hike was to the park’s fossil forest.
Ride the Wagon to the Cookout
The park concession company Xanterra Parks & Resorts offers a menu of activities including bicycle rentals (Old Faithful Snow Lodge) bus tours (let someone else do the driving), fishing charters, horseback riding and photo safaris. One of my favorite activities is the Old West Cookout at Roosevelt Lodge and can be enjoyed by a one or two-hour horseback ride or by wagon which is easier on the budget. If you’re heart is set on a horseback ride, choose the one-hour option. Trust me.
Dining Rooms are Lovely
Before entering the park, pick up a disposable cooler and purchase beverages, breakfast and snack items. There are several picnicking spots and if that’s your thing, plan accordingly, too.
Be sure your car is refueled before entering the park. Yes, there are several dining locations, grocery stores and fueling stations but prices within the park are a bit more expensive than outside. The National Park Service regulates the prices park concessionaires charge and it’s the park’s unique location and level of service which dictates prices.
If you’re seeking an eco-elegant dining experience, save by enjoying lunch in a dining room rather than dinner. You’ll still have a lovely experience but your wallet will thank you. The Old Faithful Inn and Lake Yellowstone Hotel dining rooms are popular (sidebar: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter dined at the Lake Hotel Dining Room – a birthday party was also thrown for Mrs. Carter in the Lake Area Employee Pub in 1993 – and Harrison Ford dined it the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room when I worked at both locations) and definitely worth the visit. If you didn’t pack breakfast or dinner items, save on your budget at the park’s cafeteria’s. My fave option for the best value and retro experience is to eat in a General Store diner counter at Canyon, Fishing Bridge, Lake Yellowstone or Old Faithful.
Obey the Laws
Avoid unnecessary expenses during your summer vacation by obeying the laws. Unnecessary speeding tickets and/or fines for disobeying park laws can put a dent in your travel budget. Pack your patience as roadways will most likely be congested and plan accordingly. Use common sense and follow the laws to avoid costly fines.
Slather on the Sunscreen
Learn from me and wear your sunscreen! My first summer, I ended up with second and third degree burns on my shoulders due to being sunburned. I was dumb and hiked in a tank top without sunscreen for 8 hours. Because of the high altitude – and my stupidity – I permanently damaged my skin. I also had a costly (and painful) trip to one of the park’s medical clinics and could have avoided this if I slathered on sunscreen.
Yellowstone National Park Entrance Fees
As of June 1, 2015, a seven-day entrance permit is $30 for a private vehicle and is valid for entry into Grand Teton National Park. If planning on visiting other national parks within a 12-month period, consider purchasing the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass for $80. U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents aged 62 or older can purchase a lifetime Senior Pass for $10 which grants entry into Yellowstone and other federal lands. View the National Park Service annual pass options on their site.
Of course, you could always spend your summer working in Yellowstone.
With some planning, you can have the national park experience to fulfill your dreams and satisfy your bank account.
Note: This article originally appeared on Yahoo!’s Contributor Network and was published Nov. 27, 2010.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links in order to support my traveling habit.