Budget Travel’s highly selective advice for navigating the world’s first national park.
LAY OF THE LAND
Yellowstone is spread across 3,472 square miles, largely in Wyoming. Its five well-spaced entrances each lead to the Grand Loop, the main road, which traces a figure eight as it runs past the major attractions: Old Faithful and neighboring geyser basins, Yellowstone Lake, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, all accessible via short walkways. It takes at least three hours to drive from the forested south end, near Grand Teton National Park, to the range-filled plains of the north, on the Wyoming-Montana border.
The National Park Service website, nps.gov, details the full range of lodging options, from campsites to hotel suites, along with activities such as chuck wagon dinners and vintage-school-bus tours. For reservations, the site links to Xanterra, the concessionaire that runs 9 hotels and 5 out of the 12 Yellowstone campsites. (The other campsites, operated by the National Park Service, don't take reservations, so show up early, day-of.) Beware that other unaffiliated websites offer information on the park and may do bookings, but they often charge unnecessary fees. For summer, it's advisable to reserve at least six months in advance.
There are free ranger talks year-round; schedules are posted at nps.organd in Yellowstone Today, a quarterly newspaper. To delve deeper, sign up for one of the courses run by the park's educational group, the Yellowstone Association Institute, which offers a roster of multiday programs, such as Yellowstone for Families, a hands-on, four-day class geared to families with kids ages 8 to 12. It runs from June 6 to August 19, 2011; you can arrange to go from Monday to Friday or Friday to Tuesday (yellowstoneassociation.org, adults $669, kids $405 for four days, including lodging and two meals daily). YAI also has landscape-photo classes and private, naturalist-led outings (from $240 per day). A little-known benefit of studying with the Institute: the chance to stay at its Overlook Field Campus, a trio of large rental cabins in Gardiner, Montana that sleep 12 and normally rent for $400 a night. They have full kitchens, washers and dryers, and balconies with sweeping views.
WHERE TO STAY
Grant Village Campground
Be prepared to give the size of your tent or the length of your RV. Open this year from June 21 to Sept. 25. 866/439-7375, campsites $20 for up to four people.
Lake Lodge Cabins
Three grades of cabins, many of which date to the 1920s, have been recently updated. All have private baths. 866/439-7375, from $69.
The Old Faithful Inn
This 1904 log master-piece has a five-story-tall lobby, and you can see Old Faithful from its public second-story deck. There's a range of room options, including old-fashioned, beadboard-paneled quarters; rooms with shared bathrooms down the hall are a bargain at $96. Doubles with bath from $126.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge Western Cabins
A collection of houses set in a field. Most have two queen-size beds, a private bathroom, and a front porch, and all are within easy walking distance of Old Faithful. Cabins from $96.
The Roosevelt Lodge
A 1920 lodge named for Yellowstone regular Teddy Roosevelt. Request your own tiny cabin with a wood-burning stove. Cabins from $65.
WHERE TO EAT
The Bear Paw Deli
Sandwiches and ice cream, right off the Old Faithful Inn's lobby. Open from May 6 to Oct. 8.
Ice cream cone, $2.75.
Roosevelt Old West Dinner Cookout
A nightly extravaganza, June 10 to Sept. 4, near Tower Junction. Wagon ride and dinner, $57 adults, $47 kids ages 3-11; 2 and under free; horseback rides to the dinner from $68 adults, $58 kids.