Driving in Yellowstone is a critical part of your planning.
Carefully planned driving can make your trip while poorly planned driving can break your trip. In this article, I’ll cover 8 important things you need to know about driving in Yellowstone.
Weather, wildlife, construction, traffic, and distance are all factors that can play into the amount of time it takes to travel through Yellowstone National Park.
Wouldn’t it be a bummer if you traveled all the way to Yellowstone just to find out the roads are closed for the season? Or if you found yourself in a roadside emergency and you didn’t know how to find help? These scenarios would put a major damper on your vacation.
So how can you make sure this doesn’t happen to you? What should you keep in mind about driving in Yellowstone as you plan your vacation so you can have the best experience?
Here are the 8 most important things to know when driving in 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.
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 5 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 speed limit is 45 mph
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 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.
Sometimes these wildlife jams can cause accidents on the road because people get impatient, or they aren’t paying attention to the cars in front of them. 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 West Yellowstone, MT; Gardiner, MT; Cooke, City MT, and Jackson, WY.
If you are visiting from the East Entrance, the closest town is Cody, WY which is 53 miles from the entrance. You may need to stop for a fill-up sooner than you would entering from the other entrances, but that’s okay because there are gas stations located inside Yellowstone as well.
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 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.
|Old Faithful (2 stations)||Yes||Auto repair and towing|
|Grant Village||Yes||RV/Auto repair/ towing|
|Fishing Bridge||Yes||RV/Auto repair|
|Mammoth||Yes||The outside city of Gardiner will have services|
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 find another person who 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
If another person with a working vehicle isn’t around to help and you find yourself walking to find help, make sure you are exercising safety. Do not approach wild animals and make sure to give them their space. Walk safely along the road; Be aware of what is ahead of you and what is behind you just in case a car comes your way.
Cell phone coverage is available, but sparse in Yellowstone. 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 the greatest you will ever have. 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 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
Learn more about when the roads open in our post When is the best time to visit Yellowstone?
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.
It is recommended that RV visitors make a reservation so that proper RV accommodations can be worked out. You can call 307-344-7311 to make a reservation; be prepared to give your RV and towed vehicle length.
Roads closed to larger RV’s
- Virginia Cascades
- Firehole Canyon
- Blacktail Plateau Drive
- Dunraven Pass
- Chittenden Road
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.
Check out our Yellowstone itinerary and audio guide to take the stress out of planning and make your trip a once in a lifetime experience. Safe travels!