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Driving in Yellowstone: 10 Things You Need to Know

Buffalo on the road blocking cars in Yellowstone

It’s one of the most common questions I receive: how long does it take to get around 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.

  • Hit all the main attractions easily with our Yellowstone Itinerary. Bonus: it comes with a 3-hour audio guide to tell you the best stories and information about the park!

It takes some time just to get to the Grand Loop Road from the entrance. Here are the entrances and times (see the links for details about each entrance):

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
Map of Yellowstone's 5 entrances

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 to 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.

Map showing sites along the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone
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, Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

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 in the road in yellowstone
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 bears, 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. Bison 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.

people watching black bear cub in road in Yellowstone
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.

There are Many Gas Stations

It may save you some money to 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.

But there are also multiple gas stations within the park!

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

  • There are two service stations at Old Faithful with fuel, auto repair, and towing services available.
  • Grant Village has a service station on the southwest shore of Yellowstone Lake (20 miles from Old Faithful); fuel, RV/auto repair and towing are available at this location.
  • Fishing Bridge also has fuel and RV/auto repair.
  • The Canyon Village service station, located near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Dunraven Pass, has fuel and propane bottle exchange.
  • Tower/ Roosevelt Junction also has fuel and propane bottle exchange and is located close to the Lamar Valley.
  • Mammoth Hot Springs has a service station located at Yellowstone Park headquarters, which offers fuel and propane bottle exchange.
  • There is also a Phillips 66 in Moran, WY between Jackson and Yellowstone.    
Map showing gas stations in Yellowstone

                        

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 that can assist you. Here are some phone numbers you can call for help during an emergency:

  • Service Stations: 406-848-7548
  • Non-life-threatening emergency: 307-344-5600
  • Life-threatening emergency: 911

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.

Don’t Plan on Cell Coverage

Map showing cell phone coverage in Yellowstone

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 to 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.

Not sure which Yellowstone entrance is right for you?

Download our Free Quick and Easy Guide to Yellowstone’s entrances!

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.

ALWAYS CHECK THE STATUS OF ROADS BEFORE VISITING YELLOWSTONE. You can find the up-to-date status of road closures at https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/parkroads.htm

When is the best time to visit Yellowstone?

RVs Aren’t Allowed on All Roads

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

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 to 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 RVs

  • Virginia Cascades
  • Firehole Canyon
  • Blacktail Plateau Drive
  • Dunraven Pass
  • Chittenden Road

There are Charging Stations for Electric Vehicles

Map showing electric vehicle charging stations in Yellowstone
Electric Charging Stations in Yellowstone (via NPS)

Good news! Yellowstone has installed at least six electric charging stations in and around the park.

Just be aware that it takes 4 hours to charge your vehicle at one of these stations, so you need to try to plan it out so you’ll have things to do while your vehicle is charging.

Old Faithful is a great stop to charge your vehicle because there is so much to do there, including watching geysers erupt, eating, and touring the Old Faithful Inn.

At Canyon Village, you may be able to leave your vehicle on the charger and catch a ride to the visitor center and restaurant area on the park’s only shuttle, which gets us to our next point…

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.

If you want to see Yellowstone, you’ll need to do it in a vehicle.

Related Questions

Can I Just Drive Through Yellowstone without Paying for a Park Pass?

No. If you are driving through Yellowstone to get somewhere else, you must still have or pay for a park pass in order to enter the park.

The exception would be if you drove through when the ranger booths weren’t staffed. Technically you’d still be breaking park rules (law?) and could get fined if a ranger checked out. But if you’re simply driving through the park after hours, it’s possible to drive through it without having to show a pass at the toll booth.

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 only a 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 takes about 2.5 hours.

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

To drive from the Northeast Entrance to the West Entrance 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 sightseeing.

Does Yellowstone Require Reservations or Timed, Ticketed Entry Passes?

No, Yellowstone does not require a park reservation, or a timed ticket to enter the park. All that is required is a park pass.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Yellowstone is confusing because it’s huge and there are so many things to do! 

Need a game plan so you don’t miss out on the best things to do in Yellowstone? Check out our itinerary

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times!

But that’s not all! Our itinerary includes a free audio guide to listen to while driving with over 3-hours of stories about the park!

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO
YELLOWSTONE

YELLOWSTONE TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Yellowstone National Park, check out our Yellowstone Homepage

ENTRANCES: Yellowstone has 5 entrances: The West Entrance, the East Entrance, the Northeast Entrance, the North Entrance, and the South Entrance. Learn which entrance to Yellowstone is right for you with our Free Quick and Easy Guide

THINGS TO DO: Don’t miss all that Yellowstone has to offer including Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone Lake, Norris Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs, and West Thumb and Grant’s Village

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Learn all about where to stay and where to camp when visiting Yellowstone and things to do in Cody, Wyoming, and other areas surrounding Yellowstone

WHERE TO EAT: Check out the best places to eat including the Old West Dinner Cookout and also where to get groceries and eat picnics in Yellowstone National Park

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out if you need a reservation or bear spray and binoculars, as well as tips for driving in and flying to Yellowstone 

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Yellowstone National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Yellowstone YouTube Playlist

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