Do I need reservations in Yellowstone?

Do you really need to have reservations going to Yellowstone? Or can you just find something along the way? This post takes a look at this and lets you know what might work for your planning style.

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Some people plan their vacations to the finest details. Reservations are made months in advance with a carefully planned itinerary. Planning is a part of the joy of their vacations with the research adding to the anticipation. On the other end of the spectrum are the people who toss a few things in a bag and hit the road, trusting it will all work out somehow. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.

Lodging inside Yellowstone

You usually can find something spontaneously, but often not inside Yellowstone. Xanterra manages the lodging in the park as well as campgrounds that take reservations. They are your only option for booking lodging in the park. By staying with Yellowstone National Park Lodges (Xanterra), you’re also helping to maintain the historical buildings as that maintenance, remodeling, etc. all falls on Xanterra’s shoulders. They have done a fabulous job with this task over the years.

In park lodging comes in various price ranges to match most any budget. However, the number of beds available at different price ranges are limited. Also, for camping, if you have an RV/camper that exceeds 30 feet (with tow vehicle or towed vehicle), the number of spaces is minimal. With camping, the shorter your overall rig, the easier it is to find something.

The campgrounds operated by the Park Service are first come – first served. The stay limit is 14 days, and checkout is at 10 AM. Owners of large RVs are advised to walk in first to see if they’ll fit, or if they want to take their rig along the often bumpy roads.

The park service now has a page that shows what’s open for campgrounds, when they filled the previous day and which ones have not yet filled as well as another page for in-park lodging. Very handy and useful.

In summary: if you want a guaranteed place to rest your head at night in Yellowstone, you need reservations. Otherwise, you may end up needing to drive an hour or more to find something.

Balcony of the Old Faithful Inn

Lodging Outside Yellowstone

Because Yellowstone cannot house all the visitors that come, they rely on the five gateway communities to provide further lodging options. As the number of visitors has risen over the years, during the peak of the summer, people have found they need to travel beyond those gateway communities to find a hotel room. But, during the shoulder seasons, when fewer services are available in the park, it’s quite reasonable to be able to travel without reservations booked in advance and find somewhere to sleep.

The busiest entrances are the West (West Yellowstone) and the North (Gardiner) entrances. The Northeast Entrance (Silver Gate/Cooke City) has the least amount of lodging options as it’s the smallest gateway community. The Wyoming entrances on the East (Cody) and South (Jackson), have many lodging options but have a longer drive to get into the park. However, those drives do not feel nearly as stressful to me as you are sightseeing along the way, and traffic moves along better. Plus, during the peak of the summer season, the drive time from West Yellowstone can slow from about an hour to Old Faithful to up to three hours in a solid line of traffic. That’s the same amount of time it takes to get either from Cody to Old Faithful or Cody to Mammoth (driving on the Chief Joseph Highway).

And there are campgrounds in the National Forests surrounding Yellowstone as well as in the gateway communities.

In Summary

If your style of travel is to plan in advance, you’ll have reservations and know where you’ll stop each night. If you prefer to go with the flow and let serendipity happen, you’ll have the easiest time doing this in the shoulder seasons. Just know you might need to travel beyond the gateway communities to find something with space. If your heart is set on staying inside the park, then work on your reservations in advance. Keep checking back to the reservation site as everyone changes plans all the time, and rooms do open up.

Be Outside • Take Notes


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