How to Avoid Long Lines and Other Tips For Making Your Yellowstone Trip a Breeze
You’ve seen the pictures and read the stories about interminable waits to get into Yellowstone and other popular national parks this summer. After the long, home-bound summer of 2020, everyone, it seems, wants to hit the road and visit our country’s national treasures — and we can’t say we blame them.
In Yellowstone, park visitation is up 17 percent this summer compared to 2019. (We don’t compare to 2020 visits because…Covid.) That’s an especially impressive increase when you consider that the number of international visitors to national parks is way down this year. So it’s a safe bet that at least some of those campervans and Subarus you see heading out of your own town are heading to Yellowstone National Park.
Although it has a landmass of 2.2 million acres and occupies a massive chunk of the northwestern corner of Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park has only five entry/exit gates. The Northeast and East Gates are accessible from the town of Cody. The South, West, and North gates can be entered from Jackson, Wyo., West Yellowstone, Mont., and Gardiner, Mont, respectively.
In terms of wait times to get into the park, these five gates are not created equal.
Enter through the East or Northeast Gates
If you want to get to the business of hiking, wildlife-watching, and geeking out on the park’s geothermal features as quickly as possible, you minimize their park entry time by choosing either the East Gate or the Northeast Gate. A National Park Service report examining traffic at the five entrances during the Fourth of July holiday weekend showed the East and Northeast Gates had far fewer entries than the other three.
The East Gate is the fastest way into Yellowstone from Cody. Located 52 miles from downtown, you can reach the East Gate by taking an approximately one-hour drive along the North Fork of the Shoshone River on the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway. This is a stunning drive, and along the way, you’ll pass impressive rock formations and breathtaking valleys. This drive also provides plenty of opportunities to catch a glimpse of the region’s iconic wildlife, such as bison, elk, bighorn sheep, and occasionally, moose grazing in the marshy areas along the river.
The Northeast Gate is a little further from downtown Cody, about 80 miles. But for many, the extra time on the road is worth it! This drive is highlighted by 47 unforgettable miles along the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, where you’ll see plenty of awe-inspiring views of the North Absaroka Mountains. The route follows the path taken by the Nez Perce when they fled from the U.S. Cavalry in 1877. Be sure to make the most of your trip to the Northeast Gate — and maybe learn a thing or two — by stopping the many viewpoints with interpretive signs along the way.
More Trip Tips
Here are a few more tricks and tips for making a Yellowstone visit even better.
Know where you’re going
Not all those who wander are lost — especially if they have a map! You can easily download maps of Cody and Yellowstone National Park before heading out on your journey.
Take the Yellowstone Pledge
We’ve mentioned the Yellowstone Pledge before, but it’s worth repeating. When you take the pledge, you’re vowing to be a responsible and safe visitor.
“I pledge to protect Yellowstone National Park. I will act responsibly and safely, set a good example for others, and share my love of the park and all the things that make it special.”
Download or order free planning guides
We have to admit, we love a plan. Things just seem to go more smoothly when you’re well prepared. Visitor guides are available from Cody Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, and attractions such as Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Do a little light reading before you arrive, and you’ll know even more about all the things this neck of the woods has to offer.
Set out early, stay late, and avoid the midday rush
The National Park Service knows best! To make the most out of your experience, they suggest arriving before the morning rush, which begins around 9 a.m. and staying until sunset, when wildlife watching is at its peak. Also, try to avoid peak visitor times at popular attractions. So, for example, that means seeing the Old Faithful Geyser or Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m.
Stock up on the essentials
Yellowstone isn’t the only place that’s popular around here — especially this year! Restaurants are immensely popular this year, so if you’d prefer to spend more time exploring and less time dining, consider stocking up ahead of time at one of Cody’s grocery stores. That way, you can supplement your restaurant meals with a picnic or two.
Midweek is the best time to go
We love a weekend in Yellowstone as much as everybody else. No, seriously, we mean everybody else! So if you want to see the park with fewer visitors, we suggest visiting on weekdays.