Be prepared: Driving in Yellowstone has its challenges!

By April. Updated by Matt, Jan 2022

It’s one of the most common questions I receive: how long does it take to get places in Yellowstone?

Because Yellowstone is so big, planning a trip can be difficult. It’s hard to know how to plan out your days when you don’t know how long it will take you to get places.

You must have a car to see Yellowstone; there aren’t any shuttles. Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road can be looked at as a figure 8, or an Upper Loop and a Lower Loop. Each loop takes about 2.5 hours to drive without stopping. It’s feasible to spend a day on each loop and skim the highlights of the park. There are plenty of gas stations throughout the park, so running out of gas is extremely rare.

But I’ve received many questions from my viewers and readers about this topic, so keep on reading because I’m going to cover the main things you need to know!

There are 5 entrances to the park

There are five entrances to Yellowstone. Although more than 90% of the park is in Wyoming, three of the entrances are located in Montana. 

These entrances all lead to the Grand Loop Road, which is where almost all of the main attractions to the park are located.

It takes some time just to get to the Grand Loop Road from the entrance. Here are the entrances and times:

EntranceGateway CityTime from Gateway City to EntranceTime to the Grand Loop
West West Yellowstone, MT0 Minutes20 minutes
NorthGardiner, MT0 Minutes10 minutes
SouthJackson, WY1 hr +30-40 minutes
EastCody, WY1 hr30 minutes
NortheastSilvergate, MT5 minutes45 minutes
5 Entrances to Yellowstone

It can take 7 hours to drive around the Grand Loop Road

Yellowstone is as big as Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The Grand Loop itself winds for 142 miles around Yellowstone. However, because Yellowstone is laid out in a figure 8 shape, it’s easy break the trip up.

Two days for a quick trip to Yellowstone is feasible; one day for the upper loop and one day for the lower loop. But if you want to take your time and enjoy the beauty around you, planning for the detours you may experience, we suggest allotting four days.

Plan on 20-30 minutes between circles!

The Upper Loop takes about 2 hours to drive, not counting any traffic or wildlife jams. Attractions on the Upper Loop are Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Falls, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Norris Geyser Basin.

The Lower Loop is slightly larger and can be traveled in 2 hours and 45 minutes not including time to see the attractions. There are quite a few attractions on the lower loop including Old Faithful, Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Lake, Grandview, and the Artist Paintpots.

There are 4 major stops or intersections on the Upper Loop, and 6 major stops on the Lower Loop. They are around 15-20 miles between each stop. Generally, allot 30 minutes of driving time between major stops.

The size of the park is one of the most challenging aspects of visiting Yellowstone for first-timers. That’s exactly why we created an itinerary for you, so you know how much you can feasibly see in one day.

The speed limit is 45 mph

Buffalo Jam

The top speed in Yellowstone is 45 mph with many areas that drop to a slower speed limit. While a slower speed limit adds more time to your trip, it’s important to follow the speed limits that are posted.

Yellowstone has areas with winding roads and wildlife crossing can be a road hazard, especially for a speeding car. Beware of bear, buffalo, and traffic jams.

Yellowstone’s wildlife is certainly one of the things that make the park attractive to its visitors. People go to Yellowstone hoping, almost expecting, to spot a bear. Buffalo are a given.

But these beautiful creatures can also be the source of frustration during your Yellowstone vacation. Don’t be too surprised if you find yourself trapped in a jam caused by buffalo stalling on the road in front of you or by people who have spotted a bear and want to stop and take pictures.

Bear Jam

“Bear jams” and “Buffalo jams” are very common and can probably be considered part of the typical Yellowstone experience, especially if you are visiting during the summer months.

These jams can add anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours to your trip through the park.

If you’re stuck in a bear jam, like in the picture above, it is OK to get out of your car to observe, but don’t get too close to the wildlife. The rule of thumb is to stay 25 yards away from bison and elk, and 100 yards away from bears and wolves. Often a ranger will be there for crowd and traffic control.

Gas Stations: Where to fill up

You can fill up your gas tank before entering the park at gas stations in “gateway towns” such as West Yellowstone, MT; Gardiner, MT; Cooke, City MT, Jackson, WY, and Cody WY.

Here’s a list of services you should be aware of:

                        

Gas/Propane ExchangeRepairs
Old Faithful (2 stations)YesAuto repair and towing
Grant VillageYesRV/Auto repair/ towing
Fishing BridgeYesRV/Auto repair
CanyonYesNone
Tower/RooseveltYesNone
MammothYesThe outside city of Gardiner will have services
Yellowstone repair and fuel resource

What to do if you have a driving emergency

If you experience trouble with your vehicle, there are several service stations throughout the park that offer towing and auto repair services.

Cell coverage is spotty at best, so you may have to walk to the nearest cell phone service area to make a call or flag another vehicle down who can assist you. Here are some phone numbers you can call for help during an emergency:

Rangers frequently drive the Grand Loop Road in officially-marked National Park Service vehicles, sometimes with police lights on top. Flag them down, if needed.

You’re never far away from help.

Cell coverage

Cell phone coverage is available, but sparse in Yellowstone. Don’t rely on it!

About 50% of Yellowstone has cell phone coverage. You can find cell phone reception at the West Entrance, Old Faithful, Grant Village, Fishing Bridge at Yellowstone Lake, Lake Village, Canyon, Tower Roosevelt, Mammoth, and Gardiner.

However, the cell phone coverage is not good. Cellreception.com rated the top cell phone providers and their coverage in Yellowstone. Verizon was given a 1.8 out of 5, AT&T and Sprint both had a score of 1.5 out of 5, and T-Mobile got a measly 0.8 out of 5, giving the total coverage score a 1.7 out of 5.

This coverage also tends to decrease as the number of visitors in the park increases.

The lack of coverage is one reason why you need a map. You’ll receive one when you enter the park, but you can download our travel guide, which has a map for each day to guide you through the park.

The park is always open…but the roads aren’t

Even though the park stays open all year, four out of five of the Yellowstone entrances close from November to April. Why? Because Yellowstone gets 5-13 feet of snow every winter!

The only entrance open year-round is the North Entrance, which takes you from Gardiner, Montana to Cooke City, Montana.

Why does the park stay open during the winter if all the roads are closed? Because visits and travel are still possible using snowmobiles and snow coaches. If you are planning to visit between November and April, make sure you book a rental for a snowmobile or for a snow coach tour.

Sometimes road closures are unpredictable due to construction, mudslides, fires, etc. but you can find up-to-date status of road closures at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/parkroads.htm

Limited Use Roads

The roads in Yellowstone range from 18 to 25 feet wide with some pull out areas measuring 66 feet wide.

Most of the roads in Yellowstone do not have a safe shoulder for bikers, however, bikers still ride through the park. Bikers and motorists should be courteous of each other.

If you are visiting Yellowstone in an RV it’s important to know which roads are RV friendly and which ones are not. RVs can drive most places in Yellowstone National Park with a few exceptions including the area through Dunraven Pass, going from Tower Junction to Canyon. This area is especially steep, tight and curvy.

It’s probably also important to know that your RV and towing equipment should be less than 40 feet in length. The Fishing Bridge RV park and Mammoth campgrounds are the only places that will accommodate a 40-foot RV and even then the space is limited.

Roads closed to larger RV’s

There is only ONE shuttle in the park…sort of

Many national parks have a shuttle system, but Yellowstone is so big that it has always been too impractical to have a shuttle system. Many tour busses accommodate large groups of visitors, serving as a quasi-shuttle system.

However, in 2020, Yellowstone announced it will pilot a driverless shuttle system in Canyon Village. Canyon Village has the largest and the newest lodging facilities in the park, with multiple restaurants nearby, so this is a natural place to test the shuttle system.

Maybe this is a hint at the future, but for now, if you want to see Yellowstone, you’ll need to do it in a vehicle.

Yellowstone National Park is not a quick-trip destination. There are lots of beautiful things to see that you won’t want to miss. Give yourself plenty of time to take in the beauty and to explore Yellowstone’s wonders.

Part of giving yourself the needed time for Yellowstone is to plan your driving time and plan for the encounters that may add extra travel time.  Keeping these 8 important things to know about driving in Yellowstone in mind while planning your Yellowstone vacation will maximize your experience, making it unforgettable….in a good way.

Related Questions

Is driving in Yellowstone scary?

Driving in Yellowstone is not scary AT ALL. There are no sheer cliffs that you drive along. The park is mostly a flat drive through pine trees.

If you’re stuck in a traffic jam or buffalo jam, it can be annoying. But it’s not scary.

Driving on the Beartooth Highway on the way into the park, however, is another story.

Is it hard to drive in Yellowstone?

It’s really not hard to drive in Yellowstone; there are few road options, and you really can’t get lost.

The bigger challenge is knowing what attractions to stop at and how to plan out your day. You’ll be met with many signs for different attractions on the way through the park. You can’t stop at all of them!

Knowing which attractions to stop at and how to plan out your day is the most difficult part of driving in Yellowstone. That’s why we created a no-fail plan for you to see the best of Yellowstone.

How long does it take to drive from West to East?

To drive from the East Entrance to the West Entrance, it takes about 2.5 hours.

To drive from the Northeast Entrance to the North Entrance, it takes about 1.25 hours.

To drive from the Northeast Entrance to the West Entrance, it takes about 2.5 hours.

How long does it take to drive from the North to the South?

A lot of people fly into Bozeman and drive through Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park. From the North Entrance to the South Entrance it takes about 2.5 hours, barring any buffalo jams or siteseeing.

Resources