If you are heading to Yellowstone National Park this year, you have a lot of decisions to make. When will you visit? Where will you stay? What will you eat? What will you see? When will you book a hiking tour with me to cool, lesser-known destinations? 

One of the other questions you will need to ask yourself is “what entrance will I use to get into Yellowstone National Park?”

Officially, the park has five entrances from which to choose, each of which offers something a little different. Depending on where you are driving from and where you are headed, picking the right entrance can make the trip that much more enjoyable. While everyone who visits the park will inevitably end up with their favorite way to enter the park, I wanted to be of use and let you know what each entrance has to offer. Please note that the opening and closing dates for many of the entrances are weather dependent. Always check with the park before you head toward an entrance. I would hate for you to drive all this way and not be able to get into the park. 

In the sections below, I share with you the busiest times to visit each entrance, as well as sharing what the road to the entrance is like from the nearest town. I also let you know what the road in the park is like until you reach the nearest junction. If you ever have a question beyond the words below, please do not hesitate to reach out. Finally, the Northeast Entrance, known as the Silver Gate, is open all year, but in the winter months, you can only reach it by driving through the park from the North Entrance. Once the Chief Joseph Memorial Highway and the Beartooth Highway open up, you can reach Cooke City from Cody, Wyoming or Red Lodge, Montana.

The West Yellowstone Entrance 

Busiest Month:  July and August

Historic Busiest Time of Day: Between 9-11am, waits can be over an hour long in the summer. 

Seasonality: Schedule to open to passenger vehicles April 21st, 2023. Closes November 1st, 2023.

Closest Town with Amenities: West Yellowstone, Montana

Distance to Closest Major Park Attraction: Old Faithful is 31.4 miles from West Yellowstone. The other geysers basins, housing the Fountain Paint Pots and Grand Prismatic, are slightly closer.  

What You See Driving In:

The 14 miles of driving from the West Entrance to Madison Junction are incredibly memorable. You’ll drive along the Madison River, often spotting bison and elk, as well as bald eagles and osprey. The road is pretty flat and straight with a handful of pullouts to look for animals and take in the beauty of the valley and surrounding ridges. In the fall, this is a magical spot to see elk in the rut, bugling in the early morning hours through the fog. 

The Vibe of West: West Yellowstone is the stereotypical tourist town and a busy, seasonally opened gateway to the park, with a rural Montana twist. In town, you’ll find dozens of shops selling gear and nicknacks embalmed with Yellowstone words and pictures, as well as plenty of places to eat and stay. You’ll also find the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a not-for-profit wildlife park and educational facility that opened in 1993, as well as a giant screen theater, which shows regular movies, as well as a film that tells the story of Yellowstone. A few fast food restaurant are found in town. Additionally, there are a handful of sit-down restaurants and coffee shops to grab. Drink or bite to eat. Generally, West Yellowstone is a great introduction to the park, for both new visitors and those traveling with children. It is definitely a tourist town, with a hint of an old west vibe. One of the underrated gems of the region for those hoping to get to know Yellowstone tourism even better is the Museum of the Yellowstone, housed in the historic Union Pacific Train Depot.

The South Entrance

Busiest Month: July and August 

Historic Busiest Time of Day: Around 10am, Typically with minimal wait times.

Seasonality: Schedule to open to passenger vehicles May 12th, 2023. Closes November 1st, 2023.

Closest Town with Amenities: Jackson, Wyoming is over 50 miles away

Distance to Closest Major Park Attraction: Yellowstone Lake and West Thumb Geyser Basin

What You See Driving In: 

After entering the south gate, the road stays in the woods for a bit, passing by a small pullout for the small, but fun Moose Falls. Beyond Moose Falls, the road continues in the woods, occasionally offering views of the Lewis River Canyon to the east. Eventually, the road meets the river, giving you fantastic views of the waterway, as well as a chance to see some wildlife. While not commonly spotted, be on the lookout for elk, moose and bears in this area. If Lewis Falls is once again open (construction had the pullouts closed in through 2022) stop here and enjoy the views before heading north. Past the falls, you’ll reach Lewis Lake, which can be enjoyed by the numerous pullouts along the side of the road. After the lake, the road climbs up over the Continental Divide before dropping down to Grant Village and then the West Thumb Junction.  

What to Expect Before the Entrance Station: 

After leaving Grand Teton National Park, the road to Yellowstone enters the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Highway. The lake vanishes behind you and you enter the woods. Signs of recent forest fires can easily be seen as you work your way north and a few side roads dart into the wilds in either direction. A few miles from the park’s south entrance, you’ll cross the Snake River and pass by Headwaters Lodge and Cabins, your last place to grab some gas and snacks before entering the park. Once you approach the entrance station, you’ll get more great views of the Snake River.

The North Gate at Gardiner

Busiest Month: July and August

Historic Busiest Time of Day: Between 9:30-11am, waits can be ~30 minutes in the summer

Seasonality: Open year round

Closest Town with Amenities: Gardiner, Montana 

Distance to Closest Major Park Attraction: Mammoth Hot Springs

What You See Driving In: 

The tourist season of 2023 will have visitors experiencing a whole new entry way into the northern part of the park. In June of 2022, the old road from Gardiner, Montana to Mammoth Hot Spring suffered a serious amount of damage and may never go through the Gardner River Canyon again. Instead, the park and contraction crews worked tirelessly through the summer and early fall of 2022 to get the old stage coach road connection the two areas paved and ready for visitors. The new road is windy, showing off the mountains more than the canyon road. The speed limit is slow, as it needs to be with all the twists and turns the road takes. The good news is that the slow speeds one is required to drive gives a better appreciation for the landscape around you. Near the end of the road, you’ll crest a hill and take in a view of the steam rising from the iconic terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. 

The Vibe of Gardiner: 

Gardiner, Montana has changed very little in the last 30 years. The area is busier, but the amenities found in town remain minimal. The town is laid back and chill, and hopes that those who enter town have the same attitude. If you come to town in a rush, you’ll not only get frustrated, but you’ll also leave a bad taste in the local’s mouths about those visiting the park. In town, there are a handful of coffeeshops and restaurants, a few food trucks, a small grocery store and a couple of touristy stores to shop in. You’ll also have chance to book a whitewater rafting trip in town, if you desire. In town, you’ll also have a chance to walk and drive through the famous Roosevelt Arch that greets visitors before they reach the entrance station.

The East Gate

Busiest Month: July and August

Busiest Time of Day: Around 9-11am, waits can be ~20 minutes in the summer

Seasonality: Schedule to open to passenger vehicles May 5th, 2023. Closes November 1st, 2023

Closest Town with Amenities: Cody, Wyoming is 52 miles away. 

Distance to Closest Major Park Attraction: Yellowstone Lake and Hayden Valley

What You See Driving In:

After entering the park through the east entrance, the road climbs up to Sylvan Pass. Along the way, keep your eyes scanning for wildlife. Bears and bighorn sheep are often found along this road that ends at Fishing Bridge. You’ll pass by small lakes and trailheads, majestic views and even a side road that heads up to a lookout when you start to get close to the lake. On a clear day form the pullout, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the Tetons in the distance. Once along the lake, there is a pullout for a thermal feature, then plenty of spots a few miles away to stop and walk along the shoreline of this magnificent body of water. Near the water, the opportunity to see bison and birds increases. 

What to Expect Before the Entrance Station: 

The 52 mile road from Cody to the East Gate is incredible scenic and a geologic paradise. After passing Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Buffalo Bill State Park, the road skirts along the North Fork of the Shoshone River, showcasing the region’s stunning rock formations. Along the route, you’ll find plenty of campgrounds and pull outs to take in the views. The closer you get to the park, the more wild the terrain gets, showing off the mountains, forests and rocks which make this a fantastic road to drive to reach Yellowstone. If you have never driven in and out of the park through the east gate to Cody, I highly recommend it. Cody is a cool town with an amazing museum and plenty of amenities.

The Northeast Silver Gate Entrance 

Busiest Month: July and August

Busiest Time of Day: Around 10am, waits can be around ~15 minutes in the summer

Seasonality: Open year round 

Closest Town with Amenities: Cooke City, Montana

Distance to Closest Major Park Attraction: Lamar Valley

What You See Driving In: 

If you drove to Cooke City and didn’t reach there from the park, you already drove on one of the most scenic roads in the region. Both the Beartooth Highway and the Chief Joseph Memorial Highway are truly stunning and are destinations on to themselves. Once you get to through the northeast entrance, known as the Silver Gate, you’ll drive through the forest along a creek, getting impressive views of the region’s wilderness and mountains. The further west you drive, the more likely it is you’ll start seeing wildlife, as Lamar Valley is just 21 miles from Silver Gate. Definitely stop and take in the views at the pullout for Barronette Peak, scan for wildlife at Round Prairie, near Pebble Creek, and then get ready for potentially the best wildlife watching you’ll have in Yellowstone in Lamar. 

The Vibe of Cooke City: 

Those who love Yellowstone tend to love Cooke City, but keep your expectations down. This is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, virtually cutoff from the rest of the world for most of the year. There is no cell service and very few places with wifi. In the winter, the only way in and out of town is through the northern range of the park to Gardiner, then up Highway 89 to Livingston and Interstate 90. There is a visitor center with public restrooms and some local information, as well as friendly gas station attendants who, if the day isn’t super busy, can recommend some awesome places to go. The people here are burly and Montanans and if you find yourself asking where all of the amenities are, or complain about wait times or limited options for dining, they may not take too kindly to you. Don’t let that scare you away, though. The townsfolk are awesome people with amazing stories and a desire to live on the edge of wilderness. In the summer, the town population grows quite a bit and more restaurants and shops open up. Again, keep expectations low and be patient. This is a small town and they want to remain that way.

Bonus: The Highway 191 “Entrance” 

Busiest Month: July and August

Busiest Time of Day: Mornings and evenings, as traffic heads to and leaves the park

Seasonality: Open year round

Closest Town with Amenities: Bozeman, Big Sky, West Yellowstone

Distance to Closest Major Park Attraction: None

What You See Driving In: 

Found between Big Sky and West Yellowstone, this stretch of road shows off some of the waterways of the region and also offers a few glimpses of the mountains. You’ll find a welcome sign on either end of the 21.3 mile route in the park, but no other park amenities. Along the stretch of pavement through the park boundary, the speed limit is 55mph, but most people speed through here at 70-75mph. Don’t be like them. Follow the posted rules and if someone is tailing you, pull off the road at a pullout and let them pass. For those hoping for a short hike or something along this route, there really isn’t much to do here. Longer hikers can summit mountains and cross over passes into the interior of the park. Keep an eye out for wildlife, but keep expectations low. Of all the times I have passed through this section, I have only seen a handful of animals, with the most exciting being a moose laying next to a creek in mid-March. You never know though!

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