Yellowstone National Park - Road To Yellowstone

Navigating Safely Inside America’s Oldest National Park

Mark Quasius
Jul 1, 2011
Photographers: Mark Quasius
Yellowstone National Park is so large its boundaries span three states. Though road maps and GPS can help you from becoming completely lost, you still have to be careful traveling on a road not designed for your particular RV.
Photo 2/16
To make things easier we mapped out some of the best routes for RVs, so that you can spend more time enjoying the scenery and less time trying to figure out the many twists and turns within Yellowstone’s borders.
The Park
Mention Yellowstone and the first thoughts that come to mind are bears and Old Faithful. While Old Faithful is certainly the most popular attraction in Yellowstone, it’s merely one element of a huge thermal area. In fact, one fourth of the world’s geysers are found in Yellowstone. But, the park is much more than geysers, hot springs, and boiling mud pots. Yellowstone Lake is the largest mountain lake in the United States.
Photo 3/16   |   Yellowstone’s roads are laid out in a figure-eight loop design. Five spurs connect the Grand Loop with the gateway communities.
Snow runoff feeds the lake and a number of streams and rivers, which flow into the lower areas. These valleys are host to a plethora of fauna, including bison, elk, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, and more than 100 different species of birds. Anyone who has stood at the brink of the Yellowstone River’s 308-foot-tall Lower Falls will never forget the view down the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
How Big Is It?
Yellowstone encompasses more than 2.2-million acres. Mostly in Wyoming, it overflows into Montana and Idaho. In 1891, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed Yellowstone’s roads in a figure-eight pattern. Today’s roads basically follow those same routes and are known as the Grand Loop, which is 154 miles long.
Photo 4/16   |   The elevation gain encountered in the mountains approaching Yellowstone.
Five spur roads also serve as entrances to afford visitor access from different areas of the country. The terrain varies greatly between these entrances. The interior roads have undergone extensive remodeling in recent years, making them more RV friendly.
North Entrance
The north entrance connects Yellowstone to Interstate 90 at Livingston, Montana, via U.S. Route 89. This 56-mile drive follows the old Yellowstone Road, which was the original entrance to the park, connecting to the gateway community of Gardiner, Montana. This route travels alongside the Yellowstone River and is an easy drive for RVs with no steep grades, switchback curves, or steep drop-offs. The downside is that it’s also the least scenic. RVers who choose this route will undoubtedly stay at one of two full service private campgrounds in Gardiner or at the no services NPS campground at Mammoth.
Photo 5/16   |   Bull elk can be found in a number of areas. The fall rut is the best time to see them as they gather harems and spar with other males.
West Entrance
The west entrance connects the park to the popular town of West Yellowstone, which has a number of private campgrounds, as well as dining, shopping, museums, and more. It’s located right on the park’s border.
Bozeman is a 75-mile scenic drive to the north on U.S. Route 191. Its grades are slight and the road is fairly straight.
If you head west on U.S. Route 20, you’ll arrive at Island Park, Idaho, in another 20 miles. The only serious grade here is Targhee Pass, but it’s long so the angle isn’t that bad. Island Park is a different twist, because it’s away from the busier scene in West Yellowstone, yet is in the middle of its own pristine wilderness.
Continuing south on U.S 20 for another 52 miles will eventually connect you to Interstate 15, the Snake River Valley, and Boise via Interstate 86 or continue down I-15 to Salt Lake City.
South Entrance
The south entrance connects the park directly to its sibling to the south, Grand Teton National Park. Leaving the Grand Loop at Grant Village, this road stretches to the John D. Rockefeller Parkway in Grand Teton National Park. It climbs through forests and crosses the Continental Divide three times before reaching Lewis Lake and eventually the park border. There are numerous grades, but they are short and you won’t have any problems handling them with an RV.
East Entrance
The east entrance connects the park to Cody, Wyoming, which is a popular stopping place due to its accessibility from the north, east, and south. The 54-mile drive from Cody to the park border starts out fairly flat, but gradually increases in interest. You’ll begin by passing through a tunnel that skirts the Buffalo Bill Dam and Reservoir. You’ll pass through scenic Shoshone Canyon and arrive at Pahaska Tepee, just outside the park’s border. Entering the park you’ll begin the long climb over the Absaroka Mountains; there are lots of grades. The roads have been recently widened and repaved so they will be easy enough to handle for most RVs. Other than Cody and the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum itself, the big attraction to Cody is the accessibility to other areas, such as Thermopolis, the Bighorn Mountains, or Red Lodge, Montana.
Photo 6/16   |   Traveling to Yellowstone from the eastern side.
Northeast Entrance
The only way to access Yellowstone’s northeast entrance is via U.S. Route 212, also known as the Beartooth Highway. TV personality Charles Kuralt called the Beartooth Highway “the most scenic drive in North America.” This 80-mile drive from Red Lodge, Montana, to Yellowstone’s northeast entrance is simply amazing — but it’s also the most demanding.
Leaving Red Lodge will take you through the Custer National Forest as you climb through the forested foothills of the Beartooth Mountains. Once you reach the north face there’s a steep climb through switchbacks that cling to the side of the mountain.
We’ve taken this route with an SUV, a 33-foot gasoline-powered Class-A motorhome, and a 42-foot diesel-pusher with no equipment issues. But the drive itself was slow and required lots of concentration and effort to navigate the tight switchbacks, narrow roads, steep drop-offs, and tough climb. It’ll be pedal to the metal most of the way, so your equipment and cooling system need to be in top condition. If you aren’t comfortable with this or don’t have the equipment, take the drive in your tow or towed vehicle and leave the RV behind. Red Lodge is a great place to base camp from.
Beartooth Pass
Those who do take the drive will be rewarded with amazing mountain views. On the way up to Beartooth Pass at 10,940 feet, your journey will begin in green forests then climb through rocky mountain faces on the way up to the arctic tundra scenery near the top. You’ll be looking down at frozen lakes and across at glaciers that are now level with you. Once up top you’ll traverse the easy rolling hills of the mountains and pass by Top of the World Store, which is a popular stop.
We find that parking the motorhome across the road from the store in the large gravel lot affords us the chance to unhook the Jeep and explore the many side roads and sites available. Once you are finished, the descent down through Cooke City and Yellowstone is easier because the grades aren’t as steep, but are longer. For this reason we recommend traveling with the RV only in a southerly direction. To travel it northbound would put extreme stress on your RV’s brakes on those north face switchbacks.
Keep in mind that this alpine country has a short season. The Beartooth Highway generally opens around Memorial Day, but that depends on how long it takes to remove the heavy snowfall from the previous winter. Many side roads and trails will remain blocked in mid June, so a July trip might be a better choice if you choose this route.
Detours
Fortunately, there is another way to access Yellowstone’s northeast entrance without having to deal with the switchbacks. The southern half isn’t so bad. The Beartooth Highway is intersected by Wyoming Highway 296, also known as the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. You can leave Red Lodge via Montana Secondary Highway 308 to Belfry, then head south through ranch lands to the 296, skirting around the highest part of the mountains all the way. The Chief Joseph Highway will then intersect with the Beartooth Highway a few miles south of the Top of the World Store. You can then head up to the store, park the RV there, and take your towed vehicle to see the northern half of the mountains or head south to Cooke City and Yellowstone. There are some grades on the Chief Joe, but they aren’t as severe, so they won’t tax your equipment as badly. This route also provides access between Red Lodge and Cody, so if your route includes those stops, this may be beneficial to you.
Photo 10/16   |   Motorists must yield to oncoming traffic, includin this bison herd, south of Madison Junction.
Interior Spur Roads
Once you have arrived at one of the five Yellowstone entrance stations you will travel whichever spur road connects you to the Main Loop. If you enter via the north entrance it’ll be a short 5-mile drive from Gardiner, Montana, to Mammoth Hot Springs.
Photo 11/16   |   The Yellowstone River plummets 308 feet down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone at Lower Falls.
This drive enters the park through the Roosevelt Arch then passes through Gardiner Canyon, which parallels the Yellowstone River. Bighorn sheep are known to frequent this area as well as elk so keep your camera handy. Just prior to entering Mammoth Hot Springs you’ll pass the Mammoth Campground. It’s a no-frills campground, but it’s open year round and it does have some decent sized spaces.
If you enter Yellowstone from the west entrance, you’ll pass alongside the Madison River, which has some good wildlife habitats. Bald eagles, river otters, elk, bison, and trumpeter swans are known to be in the area. Trumpeter swans are generally seen near the Madison River bridge halfway through the 14-mile drive. Just before reaching the Grand Loop you’ll pass by the Madison Campground. Another no-frills campground, this does have a nice setting with some decent-sized sites. Bison and elk are known to pass through.
Arriving from the south, you’ll drive 22 miles from the park’s southern border with Grand Teton until West Thumb. You’ll pass by Lewis Lake and travel over a number of medium grades just before arriving at Grant Village. While it has good facilities, it really isn’t in the heart of the action. When you daytrip the park, you’ll spend a lot of time just driving to the more interesting sites.
Arriving from the east, you’ll first pass by Pahaska Tepee, just outside the gates. This area is U.S. Forest Service land and is great habitat for moose and grizzly bear. Once you enter the park you’ll begin a slow climb over the forested mountains before climbing Sylvan Pass and then drop down to Sylvan Lake. From there it’s a series of medium grades. Once at Sedge Bay it’s fairly flat all the way to Fishing Bridge as you skirt the shores of Yellowstone Lake. Fishing Bridge is the only full-service campground within Yellowstone Park. However, it was designed in the 1950s when RVs were smaller, didn’t have slide-outs, and didn’t have the electrical needs that today’s RVs require. Obviously, it’s pretty dated. At the time of this writing, the electrical grid was still being replaced, so you’ll need to verify if you can get electrical service before making a reservation
Photo 12/16   |   Leaving Fishing Bridge, the east entrance road skirts around Yellowstone Lake’s Sedge Bay before beginning its climb at Sylvan Pass.
However, it has the best location, because it’s close to Hayden Valley, Canyon, and the Yellowstone River. That makes it easy to stay out late in the evening to view wildlife without having to make a long trip back to an outside RV park. If you can live with a parking-lot atmosphere, Fishing Bridge Campground can be an option for you.
Arriving from the northeast entrance, you’ll travel through Lamar Valley for 29 miles until reaching Tower Falls. Lamar Valley is a big area for elk, bison, grizzly bear, and wolves. Yellowstone’s wolf restoration project is a huge success and visitors flock to see them. Wolves are elusive, though, and most visitors will never see one unless they stop at Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Your best chance of seeing wolves are in Lamar Valley, very early in the morning or late in the evening.
Photo 13/16   |   The switchbacks beginning at the Beartooth Highway.
Grand Loop Roads
RVs can drive any of the roads within the park except for one section. The section between Tower Junction and Canyon goes through Dunraven Pass and has numerous tight curves that cling to the side of Mount Washburn during that steep climb. It won’t be possible to keep a large RV within its own lane on those blind curves, so I recommend taking another route with the RV and save this road for your towed vehicle.
For a full, comprehensive detailed guide to other roads within Grand Loop be sure to view the complete unabridged version of this article at www.rvmagonline.com.
Camping in Yellowstone
There are a number of campgrounds within the park. Many of these are primitive sites better suited for tent camping or the smallest of RVs. There are a number of campgrounds better suited for medium-sized RVs. Bridge Bay, Canyon, Madison, and Mammoth are all popular campgrounds. Many of these are administered by Xantera Parks, a private concessionaire, so you’ll need to call them in advance to make a reservation. Fishing Bridge is the only full hookup facility within the park (see the “Interior Spur Roads” section earlier in this article.)
Fishing Bridge and Mammoth can handle 40-foot RVs, but the others will have shorter length restrictions. Keep in mind that the park service likes to keep things natural, so you’ll undoubtedly encounter trees overhanging the access roads and intruding into your site.
If you have a larger motorhome with slide-outs, you should consider one of the private RV parks in the nearby gateway communities. West Yellowstone and Gardiner are right on the park border, so travel time into the park is minimal and will often reward you with views of wildlife.
Some Final Advice
Be sure to allow plenty of time to visit Yellowstone. A weekend won’t cut it. It takes a minimum of four days to see the main features and a week or more to really get to know it.
Many want to see a grizzly bear or some other specific animal. The truth is that not everyone who visits gets to see a bear, because they don’t have regularly scheduled appearances (this isn’t a theme park, after all). There are times when you may not see anything for a few days and then suddenly you will see a number of them. The key is to be out there, driving the park roads and exploring.

Sources

Beartooth Highway
Red Lodge, MT 59068
307-250-1510
http://www.beartoothhighway.com
Buffalo Bill Historical Center
Cody, WY 82414
307-587-4771
http://www.bbhc.org
Cody Country Chamber Of Commerce (Wyoming)
Cody, WY 82414
307-587-2777
http://www.codychamber.org
Gardiner Chamber Of Commerce (Montana)
Gardiner, MT 59030
406-848-2446
http://www.gardinerchamber.com
Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
800-257-2570
http://www.grizzlydiscoveryctr.com
Pahaska Tepee
Cody, WY 82414
800-628-7791
http://www.pahaska.com
Red Lodge Montana
http://www.redlodge.com
Top Of The World Resort
Cody, WY 82414
307-587-5368
http://www.topoftheworldresort.com
West Yellowstone Chamber Of Commerce
West Yellowstone, MT 59758
406-646-7701
http://www.westyellowstonechamber.com
Xanterra Parks & Resorts
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
866-439-7375
http://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
307-344-7381
http://www.nps.gov/yell

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