Heading to Yellowstone National Park in 2024? Your trip involves crucial decisions: When to visit, where to stay, what to eat, and what to see.

While all of these are important, another key decision is choosing the right entrance to Yellowstone National Park. With five official entrances, each offering unique attractions, selecting the best entrance based on your location and preferences can significantly enhance your journey. Keep in mind that entrance opening and closing dates are weather-dependent, so always check the conditions on the park website before heading there to avoid any disappointments.

Below, I provide insights into each entrance, including the busiest times to visit, road conditions from the nearest town, and details about the road within the park until the nearest junction. If you have any questions beyond the information provided, feel free to reach out.

Notably, the Northeast Entrance, also known as the Silver Gate, remains open year-round. 

However, during winter, access is limited to driving through the park from the North Entrance until the Chief Joseph Memorial Highway and the Beartooth Highway open. Once these routes are accessible, you can reach Cooke City from Cody, Wyoming, or Red Lodge, Montana. 

Plan your entrance wisely for an unforgettable Yellowstone experience!

Consider enhancing your Yellowstone Trip. Book a private hiking tour with me to reach scenic, lesser-known destinations Beyond the Boardwalks.

The West Yellowstone Entrance 

Busiest Month:  Late June, July, August, and Early September

Historic Busiest Time of Day: Between 8-11 am, waits can be well over an hour long in the summer and early fall.

Seasonality: Scheduled to open to passenger vehicles on April 19th, 2024. Closes October 31st, 2024.

Closest Town with Amenities: West Yellowstone, Montana

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

What You See Driving In:

Embark on a memorable 14-mile drive from the West Entrance to Madison Junction, tracing the picturesque Madison River. Encounter bison, elk, bald eagles, and osprey along the flat, straight road, with convenient pullouts to admire the valley and surrounding ridges. In the fall, witness the enchanting spectacle of elk bugling in the early morning mist.

Be aware that during the summer and early fall, this entrance is the park’s busiest. There will be traffic and often, a lot of it.

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 restaurants are also 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 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.

West Yellowstone exudes a vibrant atmosphere, yet a significant challenge looms – the escalating issue of unsustainable traffic. Despite its appeal, finding a place to eat can be a daunting task without careful planning. In recent years, West, along with other gateway towns, has grappled with severe understaffing, causing delays at entrance stations and lengthy queues in town.

The reality is, without an early start, you may find yourself stuck in lines either at the entrance station or winding through the town towards it. It’s important to note that these observations are not intended to cast West in a negative light; rather, they shed light on the genuine challenges faced by this charming small town. Be prepared for potential delays and plan accordingly to make the most of your time in West Yellowstone.

The South Entrance

Busiest Months: July and August 

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

Seasonality: Scheduled to open to passenger vehicles on May 10th, 2024. Closes October 31st, 2024.

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: 

Upon entering through the south gate, the road meanders through the woods, featuring a charming pullout for the small yet enjoyable Moose Falls. Continuing beyond Moose Falls, the road remains within the wooded surroundings, occasionally providing glimpses of the scenic Lewis River Canyon to the east. As you progress, the road aligns with the river, offering breathtaking views of the waterway and potential wildlife sightings. While elk, moose, and bears are not commonly spotted, keep a keen eye out in this area.

Lewis Falls is a must-see. When here, take a moment to pause and relish the views before heading north. Continuing past the falls, you’ll encounter Lewis Lake, with numerous pullouts along the road for your enjoyment. Post-lake, the road ascends over the Continental Divide, eventually descending to Grant Village and the West Thumb Junction.

What to Expect Before the Entrance Station: 

Before reaching the entrance station, transitioning from Grand Teton National Park to Yellowstone via the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Highway unveils a scenic journey. Leaving the lake behind, you enter the woods, witnessing signs of recent forest fires along the way. Several side roads diverge into the wilderness, offering glimpses of nature in both directions. A few miles from the park’s south entrance, you’ll cross the Snake River and pass Headwaters Lodge and Cabins – your last opportunity for gas and snacks before entering the park. As you approach the entrance station, more stunning views of the Snake River await, setting the stage for an immersive Yellowstone experience.

The North Gate at Gardiner

Busiest Months: July and August

Historic Busiest Time of Day: Between 9:30-11 am, 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 2024 will once again have visitors using the “temporary” road to reach Mammoth and 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 will more than likely never go through the Gardner River Canyon again. Instead, the new, “temporary” road now follows the old stagecoach road that connected Gardiner and Mammoth. The road is two lanes, extremely windy, and paved. The new road twists and turns more than many would like, showing off the mountains more than the canyon road. The speed limit is slow, as it needs to be with all the sharp turns the road takes. The good news is that the slow speeds one is required to drive give 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. 

It is important to note that the road no longer passes the Boiling River. The Boiling River no longer exists in the state that provides any soaking value to anyone and the park does not allow anyone access to the area. Again, the Boiling River is no more. Check out Chico Hot Springs or Yellowstone Hot Springs if you crave a soak.

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. In town, there are a handful of coffee shops and restaurants, a few food trucks, a small grocery store, and a couple of touristy stores to shop in. You’ll also have a 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.

Like West Yellowstone, Gardiner has also grappled with severe understaffing in the area’s amenities, causing delays and lengthy lines in town. 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. Unlike West, the lines to enter the park in Gardiner have been extremely manageable. However, that could change this year. Be prepared for potential delays and plan accordingly to make the most of your time in Gardiner.

The East Gate

Busiest Months: July and August

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

Seasonality: Scheduled to open to passenger vehicles on May 3rd, 2024. Closes October 31st, 2024. 

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:

Upon entering the park through the east entrance, the road ascends to Sylvan Pass, offering an opportunity to spot wildlife such as bears and bighorn sheep. This scenic route concludes at Fishing Bridge, passing by small lakes, trailheads, majestic views, and a side road leading to a lookout near the lake. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife along the way, and on clear days, the pullout provides a glimpse of the Tetons in the distance. As you traverse the lakeside, explore a pullout for a thermal feature and numerous spots to walk along the shoreline, increasing your chances of encountering bison and birds.

What to Expect Before the Entrance Station:

Before reaching the entrance station, the 52-mile road from Cody to the East Gate presents an incredibly scenic and geologically rich journey. Passing Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Buffalo Bill State Park, the road follows the North Fork of the Shoshone River, showcasing stunning rock formations. Numerous campgrounds and pullouts offer opportunities to take in the captivating views. Approaching the park, the terrain becomes more wild, revealing mountains, forests, and rocks that make this road a fantastic drive to Yellowstone. If you haven’t experienced the drive through the east gate to Cody, it comes highly recommended. Cody itself is a captivating town with excellent amenities and a remarkable museum, making it a worthwhile stop on your Yellowstone adventure.

Silver Gate: The Northeast Entrance 

Busiest Months: July and August

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

Seasonality: Open year-round from the west.

If you are hoping to access the park from the east, the Beartooth Highway and Chief Joseph Highway will open sometime in May. 

Closest Town with Amenities: Silver Gate and Cooke City, Montana

Distance to Closest Major Park Attraction: Lamar Valley

What You See Driving In: 

If you drove to Silver Gate and 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 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 Valley. 

The Vibe of Silver Gate and Cooke City: 

Those who love Yellowstone tend to love Silver Gate and Cooke City. However, keep your expectations down. This is an extremely tiny town in the middle of nowhere, virtually cut off 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 complaining 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 the 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 Months: 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: 

Nestled between Big Sky and West Yellowstone, this scenic stretch of road showcases the region’s waterways and offers occasional glimpses of the majestic mountains. The 21.3-mile route within the park features welcome signs at both ends but lacks additional amenities.

While the posted speed limit is 55mph, it’s common for drivers to exceed 70-75mph along this stretch. However, it’s crucial to adhere to the rules, as numerous animals, including bears, elk, deer, bison, and coyotes, are hit by cars each year.

For a safer drive, follow posted speed limits, and if someone is tailing you, utilize pullouts to let them pass. While the route doesn’t offer much for short hikes or easy activities in the park, adventurous hikers can summit mountains and traverse passes into the park’s interior. Although wildlife sightings are not guaranteed, remain vigilant, as surprises may occur. In my experiences, I’ve encountered only a handful of animals, with the most exciting being a moose resting beside a creek in mid-March. Keep expectations in check, but embrace the potential for unexpected wildlife encounters along this captivating road.

Want Information on Having the Best Wildlife Watching Opportunities Possible for Your Trip?

Pick up my wildlife-watching guidebook, based on my 35+ years of wildlife-watching experience in Yellowstone National Park. 

Hoping to Experience Hikes that Lead You Beyond the Boardwalks?

Embark on a journey Beyond the Boardwalks and experience the breathtaking beauty of Yellowstone National Park through invigorating hikes! I’m here to make it happen.

Offering private hiking tours throughout the year, I’ll guide you to hidden gems and stunning trails that reveal the park’s true wonders. Additionally, I’ve compiled my 50+ favorite hikes in and around Yellowstone in a comprehensive guidebook.

Let’s turn your adventure into an unforgettable day out enjoying nature’s marvels. Join me Beyond the Boardwalks!