Yellowstone National Park is as great as the great outdoors gets. This stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous across the entire world. From geysers and hot springs to canyons and hikes, this is a must visit for every adventure traveller.
But the park is not exactly cheap to visit. Paying a visit to Old Faithful isn’t without paying for that ticket.
Yellowstone visitor numbers are controlled, but this hasn’t stopped the annual rise in prices. Even though nature and fresh air are free, it seems harder than ever to visit Yellowstone National Park on a budget.
Which is where this guide comes in! Combining personal experience with hints and travel tips from locals and travel experts, we’ve compiled this small guide to visiting Yellowstone on a budget.
Accommodation and dining doesn’t have to cost you through the nose. Would camping in Yellowstone stretch the budget further? Plus you’ll find some tricks to help you save cash.
It’s not easy to visit the park on a budget – but it’s definitely not impossible.
So let’s jump right in!
Where to Stay in Yellowstone
Staying inside Yellowstone park itself is notoriously expensive. So overall, you’re better off staying in a spot that’s just outside the park and making visits inside the national park.
You’ll need a car to get around Yellowstone anyway, so it really isn’t that much extra hassle to drive a few extra miles. You’ll be rewarded with affordable room rates, cheap restaurants, and secluded spaces.
Still, some areas are more expensive than others. West Yellowstone is the most popular destination – especially for those without a car since there are lots of tour operators in the town; this makes it one of the more expensive places to stay.
So where should you stay near Yellowstone National Park on a budget?
Just across the border in Montana, Gardiner is only a couple of minutes drive away from Yellowstone National Park. This is one of the larger towns on the outskirts – but doesn’t come with the same tourist crowds as West Yellowstone. This makes it a fantastic place for finding deals on accommodation like a budget-friendly guesthouse.
Whilst there aren’t many attractions in the town itself, it is particularly popular with those focused on checking out the attractions in the north of the park. Mammoth Hot Springs is on the road into the park – and should be the first stop on your itinerary.
Gardiner has maintained an Old West atmosphere to this day and is known for friendly locals. There’s plenty of wildlife in the area, meaning you don’t even have to venture into the park. This can save you from a visit into Yellowstone National Park itself – which charges per entry.
The Yellowstone River runs right by the town and offers some great hikes in its own right. Whilst the restaurants are mostly locally owned, they offer a surprising variety of cuisines. In many ways, Gardiner just feels like the park itself but without the extortionate costs and massive crowds.
As you can tell, the northern end of the park tends to be the cheapest. Cooke City is also across the border along the road in Montana – but on the eastern side. In many ways, it offers much the same as Gardiner, but it’s a little bit bigger with more shops and restaurants on offer.
Cooke City is a great option to find beautiful rustic accommodation on a budget – but still with plenty of tourist amenities. There are 2 creeks that run through the town offering some laid-back walks.
Whilst Cooke City is undeniably larger than Gardiner, it is still laid-back in atmosphere. Truly it is a city in name only! This makes it an excellent location for campers looking for somewhere to stay. Even if you’d rather stay at an organised campsite, these are far cheaper than those in the park itself.
Cooke City is a little bit further from the entrance to Yellowstone National Park – about an extra 20 minutes by car. Your first point of entry will be the Tower area. This is the most rustic part of the park and a great spot for escaping the huge tourist crowds around the main sights.
Camping in Yellowstone
There are a number of options for camping in and around Yellowstone National Park to suit a variety of budgets. But you’re actually better off camping outside of the park itself.
With a solid sleep system, Cooke City offers the cheapest options year-round, but you’ll have to drive a little bit longer to get into the national park. In the off-season, you’ll find some excellent deals in the West Yellowstone campsites.
Within the park itself, campsite rates can get quite pricey – but these sites are totally worth it. You’ll find the facilities are incredibly high quality, with many of them also hosting social events for campers. This is the oldest national park in the United States – so they know what they’re doing.
It can get cold and rainy around Yellowstone. It will definitely be worth it to prepare well with a high-quality camping tent.
You can also opt for backcountry camping in the park – but you still have to buy a permit. Numbers are limited, and the amount of time you can stay is also restricted (to a maximum of 3 nights). This is obviously much cheaper, but it’s definitely that you already have experience camping.
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How to Get Around Yellowstone
Travelling by car is the most popular way to get around the park. There isn’t any public transport within the park, but there is a great road network. The central ring loops around the best-known attractions, and there’s a second ring connecting visitors with northern destinations.
So what if you don’t have a car or you’re not sure still on hitchhiking? Hope isn’t lost – but you’ll need to be prepared to spend a little more money.
Renting a car is easy enough. But if you want a cheap car rental for Yellowstone, it will really be worth shopping around.
There are some fantastic tours around the park departing from towns on the outskirts. West Yellowstone is home to more tours than others – but it is also one of the more expensive areas to stay in.
There is a third option – you can travel by bike! You’ll need to do a lot of planning because the park is huge.
But for experienced cyclists, this is a really rewarding way to get around the park AND a great way to stay fit on the road. It can be quite challenging – so it’s not the best place for novice cyclists to start up.
You also need to take extra care during the winter. Cycling isn’t possible at all, and even driving can be difficult. Always check the forecast before you set off, and be prepared to have to turn back if conditions don’t look favourable.
How To Eat at Yellowstone on a Budget
The cheapest option is to bring food with you. You can equip yourself with a trusty backpacking stove and food before you arrive at the national park. Although this isn’t always possible if you’re travelling long distance to get here.
Both Gardiner and Cooke City have some great stores where you can stock up on supplies to cook your own food, even if you choose to camp. You’ll also find all of the villages in the park itself come with convenience stores, but these are generally more expensive.
What if you want to eat out a couple of times during your stay? There are some excellent options to cater to most tastes within the park. Breakfasts aren’t actually that expensive (usually around $5-10). So if you want to prioritise one hot meal per day that is the best option for those on a budget.
Of course, many visitors like to treat themselves one night during their trip. In this case, you’ll find some of the best mid-range and upscale restaurants in and around Canyon. It’s well worth budgeting for, with some of the best meat on offer in this part of the United States.
Why Should You Travel to Yellowstone National Park with a Water Bottle?
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So depending on how much time you have, you might not get around to all the highlights of Yellowstone. But here are some of the best things to see during your visit to the National Park.
An enduring symbol of the park, no trip to Yellowstone is complete without checking out this iconic geyser. It’s one of the most regular in the park, so you can time your trip around it.
Alongside the hot springs, you’ll also find some fantastic geothermal attractions. There’s also a small retail area, and one of the last remaining log hotels in the United States. Make sure you bring your camera and some cash for souvenirs.
Fishing Bridge dates back to 1902 and gets its name from its historic use as a fishing site. The activity has been banned these days to allow the fish population to regrow – but you can still visit and admire the fish from the top.
The Fishing Bridge Museum and Visitor centre nearby is an architectural artefact in its own right – serving as the framework for similar buildings across the United States. It’s also where you can grab information about the park.
If you want to veer away from the main tourist routes, Tower has a much more off-road vibe. This is one of the best places in the park to spot wildlife – including elk, wolves, and eagles.
Natural attractions like the Petrified Tree give this area a unique landscape. You can also learn more about local wildlife at the Buffalo Ranch. They do a lot of work to prevent buffalo extinction so be sure to leave a generous donation.
Mammoth is where you will find the park headquarters. It’s the perfect spot for grabbing information about the Yellowstone hikes.
You can also find the magical Mammoth Hot Springs here. This natural wonder is known for its calcite terraces – naturally flat edges where the water runs down.
The Gardner River is a short walk away and perfect for those interested in discovering local plant life. During certain seasons you can also spot eagles, ospreys, and kingfishers along the river.
Stretching for 20 miles through the park, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is a must-see geological attraction. You can actually complete a hike around the canyon in one day – though many visitors opt to split it between 2 days as it is quite a strenuous walk.
Nearby, the Hayden Valley is a great spot for discovering wildlife (from the safety of your car) and Mt Washburn is a major volcanic formation. This is definitely a place to remember for the rest of your life.
MATH TIME: The entry fee for Yellowstone National Park is $35. Meanwhile, the entry fee for the neighbouring Grand Teton National Park is another $35. That means that visiting TWO national parks alone (out of the 423 total in the USA) will run you a grand total of $70…
Or you can stuff that whole deal off and buy the ‘America the Beautiful Pass’ for $79.99. With it, you get unlimited access to ALL federally-managed land in the U.S.A for FREE – that’s over 2000 recreational sites! Ain’t that just beautiful?BUY THE PASS!
Top Tips For Yellowstone on a Budget
- Stock up outside the park – whether its fuel for your car or yourself, you’ll find everything is cheaper outside the park (even in the villages that are right on the boundary).
- Camp in the surrounding areas – if you’ve got a car it’s well worth considering. It will save a ton of money.
- Keep a budget to treat yourself – this is a once in a lifetime destination, so be realistic about how much you’re likely to spend on souvenirs and ice cream.
- Visiting multiple national parks in one year? – An America The Beautiful Pass is a really good deal on US national park entries.
- Plan, plan, plan! – Accept that you likely won’t get to see everything, but plan out your routes thoroughly before you arrive – you’ll be surprised with how much you save.
- The most famous attractions are free – don’t worry too much about hitting up the museums in Yellowstone National Park; most of the information is online anyway.
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Final Thoughts on Exploring Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park is a truly stunning destination! Whether you’re interested in hiking, photography, or the awe-inspiring beauty of our planet – Yellowstone should be on your bucket list.
It looks like staycations are going to be the most popular form of travel for a little while yet. So why not take this opportunity to explore one of the most beautiful corners of the United States?
There’s no denying that prices in Yellowstone National Park are constantly going up and up and up. Accommodation and dining can wipe out your entire budget if you’re not careful. A UNESCO World Heritage Site doesn’t come without a cost.
Thankfully, there are still some great ways to save money. Camping, picnics, and cycling are fantastic ways to see the national park and avoid the skyrocketing costs.
Plus, the best attractions are free! So once you’ve bought your park entry pass you’re ready to go.
Now you’re fully equipped to take on Yellowstone on a budget, it’s time for you to take on the adventure for yourself! See you there.
Thanks for reading – that was fun! 😀
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