Visiting Yellowstone Country for the First Time

Natural Bridge Falls, Big Timber, Montana Natural Bridge Falls, Photo by David Janssen

We're on the countdown to summer! Soon, summer vacations will begin, and if you're making your maiden voyage to Montana's Yellowstone Country, here's some insight on what to expect as you plan out the details of your trip.


Getting Here 

This summer, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport has twenty-three nonstop flights to major cities nationwide, including a new flight from Los Angeles on Avelo Airlines beginning June 28. For those on the West Coast, leaving home in the morning and exploring by the afternoon is feasible. If you're flying, you'll likely want to rent a car, although some shuttle services are available to Big Sky or West Yellowstone. 

US I-90 takes you through much of YC and is the dropping-off point for towns that aren't right on the interstate, such as West Yellowstone, Big Sky, Gardiner, Cooke City, Silver Gate, and Red Lodge. For those who are driving, you're in for a treat; the views are spectacular from one end of the region to the other. 

Many people underestimate the distance between towns in this neck of the woods. Montana is the fourth-largest state in the U.S., with plenty of open space between towns. You'll be hard-pressed to find a drive that isn't scenic, but if you plan on exploring different areas, you'll want to allow extra drive time into your itinerary. And on that note, gas, and battery charging stations can be far between, and some areas have spotty cell service, so mind your gas tank as you go along. 


Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is open! Park roads have been fully restored after last year's flooding, and everything is accessible. Keep in mind; summer is the time for improvements to roads and bridges, so be sure to check the current conditions before you head out. 

Don't plan on a quick spin if you're visiting Yellowstone National Park. The park has two-lane roads, and many of them are winding. Speed limits are generally 45 miles per hour but can be even slower depending on the time of year. Rather than planning your trip by mileage, using this map that shows both mileage and drive time will be helpful. 

While you'll likely see bison and elk any time of day, wildlife is most active early morning and late evening when they are eating, so if you hope to get a glimpse of bears or the elusive wolves, be sure to get there early or plan to stay late.

You don't need a reservation to get into Yellowstone, but you can expect heavy traffic. Most loops form a figure eight, so you can plan different routes accordingly to see the most during your visit. 


Weather in Yellowstone Country

Weather in YC can vary dramatically. It's not uncommon for storms to roll in and back out again, so bring layers, including rain gear, warm fleece, and hats. If you plan to go hiking, biking, or fishing, it's a good idea to stop at the local Chamber of Commerce or visitor's center to check the trail and river conditions before you go. It was a banner snow year, which will likely stick around for quite a while at higher elevations. 


Where to Stay

You'll undoubtedly want to make reservations for accommodations, whether it's a hotel or campground, as things can fill up quickly. This is a popular destination, so don't assume you can find something when you arrive. However, at this point, there is still availability in Yellowstone and outlying towns, so now is a good time to firm up your plans. You'll find a variety of accommodations; boutique hotels, national brands, cozy cabins, and full service RV parks.

Outside of Big Timber, Montana Scenic Drive Outside of Big Timber, Photo by Andy Austin

Getting Off the Beaten Path

Of course, you'll want to hit the highlights in places such as BozemanWest YellowstoneRed Lodge, and Livingston, but we also encourage you to get off the beaten path and explore some of the lesser-known areas in the region. For example, a drive to Café 191 in Melville outside of Big Timber is an extraordinary drive with a view of the Crazy Mountains and rolling farmland. Also, be sure to see the iconic Melville Lutheran Church and stop at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail site on the Yellowstone River just north of Big Timber off U.S. 191. 

Or pack a picnic and explore Natural Bridge Falls Picnic Area. You'll drive through the Boulder River Valley Backcountry Drive, which is stunning and only gets a little traffic. It's an out-and-back, but if you're up for some hiking, the road ends at a popular trailhead leading into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area.

You can find more ideas like this on our website. We encourage you to plan your route to include some of these hidden gems; we guarantee you won't regret it!

Big Timber, Montana Big Timber, Photo by Andy Austin