My wife has wanted to go to Yellowstone since coming to the United States. It was been a long time bucket list item for her. We decided a couple of summers ago to visit Yellowstone. We had recently purchased our home and did not have any budget left so this needed to be a Yellowstone National Park on a low budget trip.
How to see the best of Yellowstone National Park in 3 days a small budget
My budget goal for planning this trip to Yellowstone National Park was to spend 3 days in the park for $1000 for transportation and accommodations. Low budget trips mean things like not really close hotels, subcompact rental cars, and discount Airlines like Southwest, Spirit, or Frontier.
How to get to Yellowstone National Park.
Where to fly into
You can fly into several cities and drive to Yellowstone. Airplane ticket prices and rental car prices vary a lot airport to airport. It is a good idea to look at the cost of both before booking a flight into anywhere. The closer you get to the park the more expensive the plane tickets and rental cars will both become.
Denver is served by several low cost airlines (Southwest, Spirt, and Frontier) and is the cheapest place that will get you within a day driving distance of Yellowstone National Park. The rental cars are also typically cheaper at Denver than the other cities.
Roundtrip flights on Spirit from Detroit can be had for $100-$125 during fall. Most other airlines run $300 and up for tickets. Spirit charges for carryon bags but charges less for checked bags. You have to do your homework on the overall cost of tickets considering what you will be bringing along. For several day trips my wife and I usually check one large bag when using Spirit that we share.
It will take about 8 hours to drive from Denver International Airport to the East Yellowstone Park Entrance. The South Entrance takes a similar amount of time but involves driving through the Wind River Indian Reservation. The crime and poverty rates are high within the reservation. It’s something to consider when planning on how you plan to get to Yellowstone.
Cities within driving distance of Yellowstone with commercial Airports
- Denver, CO – Least expensive option – Southwest, Spirit, Frontier Airlines
- Salt Lake City, UT- Second least expensive – Southwest
- Boise, ID
- Bozeman, MT – Second most expensive option
- Jackson, WY – Most expensive option but shortest drive
Driving to Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is located mostly in the state of Wyoming at it’s borders with Montana and Idaho. The closest major cities are Denver Colorado, Salt Lake City Utah and Boise Idaho. Denver is an 8 hour drive. Salt Lake City and Boise are 6 hour drives.
Rental Car Selection
You will be driving a lot on this trip both getting to Yellowstone National Park and after inside the park. You will add up a lot of mileage. To save money on gas choose the smallest rental car you can fit you, your family and your gear in. We went with only myself and my wife. We chose a compact similar to a Ford Focus.
A tip for rental cars. If you book through Expedia, most companies will let you book without paying with free cancellation. You can book a rental car and keep going back and checking the price right up until your trip. Rental car prices vary day to day a lot.
Chances are pretty good if you keep checking you’ll be able to find a better price before your trip. When that happens just book a new car and then cancel the old one. Keep checking for better prices and repeat.
How to get around Yellowstone
You can easily tour Yellowstone National Park on your own which will save you money versus taking a tour bus. This is a very popular way to view the park to be able to see the sights you would like to see at your own pace. There is parking at all the attractions and trailheads.
Yellowstone National Park is very spread out. The speed limits in the park are low in many places due to the winding mountain roads. Buffalo frequently walk down the roads causing traffic backups. One of the biggest challenges of seeing Yellowstone is just the time it takes to go between places in the park.
Driving time between visitor centers
Most of the visitor centers in the park take at least 1-2 hours to drive between even though the mileage doesn’t look that far when you look at a park map. There are gas stations at the larger visitor centers but nowhere else in the park. Keep this in consideration before leaving one area thinking you’ve got just enough to make it to the next area.
Plan your daily route
My recommendation is to plan a route for the day with the attractions you want to see. Depending on where you start from go to the farthest away place and work your way back visiting everything on the way back. If you staying in Gardener near the north entrance, it can take a couple of hours driving to reach Old Faithful and another hour on to the West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Yellowstone Bus Tours.
For those not wanting to drive themselves around Yellowstone National Park, there are many tour options available that will bus you around the park with guided sightseeing, hiking and other adventures. They vary from single day tours up to 10 day tours through several national parks. This is the best option if you like to leave the planning and driving to someone else. Many tour options have lodging and transportation included in the tour.
There are plenty of options with a wide range of activities from just going for the ride to see the sights to horseback riding and white water rafting. There are options suited for everyone from families to seniors.
- Flying Pig Rafting – 3, 5 and 7 day tour options
- Go Ahead Tours – 9 to 15 day multi national park tours
- Brush Buck Tours – Day trips and 2 and 4 day tours
- Yellowstone Vacations – Several day trip options
- Yellowstone National Park Lodges – Day trips and multi day trips
The tour options all start and finish at different cities. If you are planning a car free trip through a tour company they can help you arrange transportation from the airport to their lodging option.
Where to stay at Yellowstone on a low budget
The cheapest places to stay are farther from the park. You can go to Expedia and search for hotels. For our low cost trip we spent the first night in Buffalo WY, then the second 2 nights in Bozeman, MT. We had about an hour and 20 minute drive from Bozeman to the park entrance in Gardiner MT. We found a crazy cheap hotel in Buffalo that we booked for the first night and last night to break up the drive back to Denver.
Hotels around the park vary from more modern chain hotels to very primitive cabins. Some of the old hotels have shared restrooms. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the hotel amenities when you go searching. Price is usually proportional to how nice the accommodations are. You can find some very inexpensive primitive old style hotels in some of the small towns nearby Yellowstone.
Towns nearby Yellowstone National Park with hotels
- Gardiner, Montana
- Bozeman, Montana
- Cody, Wyoming
- West Yellowstone, Montana
- Dubois, Wyoming
- Jackson, Wyoming
Jackson Wyoming is a resort town in both summer and winter and is the most expensive option. We found Bozeman very inexpensive because it is a University town and has a lot of hotels and isn’t entirely dependent on tourism for it’s existence.
Many of the popular attractions are closer to the North and West entrances. Grand Teton National Park is also worth visiting south of Yellowstone National Park. If you’d like to include that in your tour then you may want to stay someone south such as Jackson for at least the day you go to visit the Grand Tetons.
Do I need to make reservations?
Yes. Do make reservations and don’t wait until the last minute. You should make reservations several months before your trip. Yellowstone is a very popular tourist attraction during the summer months. Everything from hotels to rental cars will sell out.
When to go to Yellowstone National Park
The most popular time to see Yellowstone is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. My advice is go visit in mid to late September if you are able to. Day time temperatures are much more tolerable in early fall. Crowds are much less. We went in mid September and there was still very substantial crowds at Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring. The temperature was very pleasant for hiking around to attractions.
What to see at Yellowstone National Park
Old Faithful Geyser is the most well known thing to see at Yellowstone National Park. There are many other sites to see that are just as impressive if not much more impressive than Old Faithful. Everyone should watch Old Faithful but be sure to check out the other highlights.
Below is a list of some of the best and most popular attractions
- Grand Prismatic Spring – Midway Geiser Basin
- Yellowstone Grand Canyon
- Roosevelt Tower and Tower Falls
- Old Faithful
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Blacktail Plateau Rd
Our Yellowstone Low Budget Trip Costs
My goal for this Yellowstone National Park on a low budget trip was $1000. I didn’t quite achieve $1000 but came very close to it. Below is our breakdown of costs for this trip.
Cost of Transporation and Hotels for our trip
- Airline Tickets Southwest Airlines – $135*2 = $250
- Rental Car – Compact from Budget – $275
- Buffalo Wyoming Hotel – 1 night = $72
- Bozeman Montanna Hotel – 2 nights = $180
- Buffalo Wyoming Hotel – 1 night = $72
- Yellowstone Park Entrance Fee = $25
- Gas for rental car – 4 tanks – 13 gallons/tank $2.70 gallon = $140
- Total for transportation and accommodations = $1034.
3 Day Tour Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park
We visited Yellowstone National Park during the second week of September which is not considered peak time. Below is the itinerary for our trip and some highlights of the most memorable things we saw in the park.
Our 5 day travel itinerary including 3 days visiting Yellowstone National Park
- Travel Day – Fly to Denver, drive to Buffalo, Wyoming
- Day 1 – Drive to Yellowstone. See Old Faithrul and Mammoth Springs. Stay in Bozeman
- Day 2 – Go to Tower Roosevelt and Yellowstone Grand Canyon. Stay in Bozeman
- Day 3 – See Grand Prizmatic Spring and West Thumb Geyser Basin. Drive to Buffalo, Wyoming
- Travel Day – Drive to Denver. Fly home.
Travel Day – Fly to Denver, drive to Buffao, Wyoming
On our first day we arrived at Denver International Airport bright and early in the morning. We chose a very inexpensive hotel in Buffalo, Wyoming to stay at the first night. We thought this would give us a split in the 8 hours of driving necesary to get to Yellowstone from Denver.
The drive to Buffalo takes about 5 and a half hours and is pretty straight forward. All interstate. No backroads.
Buffalo, Wyoming is a cute little town with a small downtown area with some shops and restaurants to explore. We couldn’t find anything we could agree on in the town to eat for dinner. We looked up Yelp and found TA Guest Ranch a few miles outside of town.
TA Guest Ranch is located on an actual ranch and features all fresh local food. We had salad, steak, and desert that was amazingly good. This was the best food we ate on the entire trip and the only thing really noteworthy. TA Guest Ranch is highly recommended for anyone traveling through that area.
Day 1 – Drive to Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful and Mammoth Springs
On the first real morning of our trip we drove the last 3 and a half hours to get to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The first thing we did was drive through the park to get to Old Faithful. Old Faithful is another 2 hours and 45 minutes driving into the park from the East Entrance.
We got there around lunch time. Old Faithful is memorable to see and everyone visiting the park should see it. It’s the most famous feature of Yellowstone National Park. We got there with about 15 minutes to spare before it went off.
After watching Old Faithful we hiked around the other smaller geysers in the area. There are a lot of interesting pools with bubbling hot water, tiny geysers and other interesting features. These are worth the walk around the whole Old Faithful area.
On the way to Mammoth Springs we crossed through an open prarie and found our first large herd of Buffalo. Yellowstone National Park is home to 4000 to 5000 Buffalo that roam around the park. As we found out on this trip, they also use the park roads to get around.
It’s not uncommon to suddenly hit a giant backup in traffic and have no idea why. Frequently it is from Buffalo walking down the road. They really don’t care about cars or cars following them down the road.
After our buffalo encounter, we eventually made it to Mammoth Springs. This is a large area with a several terraces with hot springs flowing off. It is worth the time to hike around all the trails all over Mammoth Springs. There are several good overlooks and hotsprings all over this area.
After hiking around Mammoth Springs we drove through the North Entrance visitor center. Elk herds congregate in in the lawns by the visitor center in the evening. This is the best place to see Elk up close.
We spent the next 2 nights in Bozeman, MT.
Day 2 – Go to Tower Roosevelt and Yellowstone Grand Canyon.
On the drive to the park in the morning, we passed a large herd of Elk on the side of the ride including a buck with enormous antlers. We had to pull over for some photos.
Blacktail Plateau Drive
The first thing we did in the park was take the Blacktail Plateau Drive which is a small steep dirt road that goes through some nice view points. We had no problem with it in a subcompact rental car. It was dry. I’m not sure it would have went as well if there was mud.
Tower Roosevelt – Tower Falls
We walked along the lookout for Tower Falls. Tower Falls are one of the traditional Yellowstone sites that was used to help establish Yellowstone Park.
After checking out Tower Falls we took the hike down to the bottom of Tower Creek and spent some time walking around the creek. This was the nicest hiking area we went to during our trip. You can walk quite a ways up the creek and enjoy the views.
Yellowstone Grand Canyon
After Tower Roosevelt we went to the Yellowstone Grand Canyon. We spent several hours walking around both sides of the Canyon and any hike we could do down to get better views of the falls. There is a lot to see and hike around here.
The Yellowstone Grand Canyon is probably the most scenic area of the park. It is not as famous as Old Faithful but deserving of much more time during your stay in the park.
After the Yellowstone Grand Canyon we drove towards Fishing Bridge area and stopped at a few of the sites along the way. The most notable on the map is the Mud Volcano. After that it was pretty close to the end of the day so we drove back towards Mammoth Springs and on to Bozeman. We found a nice micro brewery to eat dinner at in Bozeman.
Day 3 – See Grand Prizmatic Spring and West Thumb Geyser Basin.
Lower Falls Trail
The first thing we did was head back to the Grand Canyon to hike down the Lower Falls Trail which we were feeling too tired to do the day before. This hike down into the canyon is well worth the effort for the views of the lower falls and the canyon.
Firehole Lake Drive and White Dome Geyser
We took a quick stop at several sites along road including the Artist Paint Pots and Fountain Paint Pots. After seeing many similar features in the park none of these are that spectacular if your on limited time. The White Dome Geyser is a large dome geyser in the middle of the Firehole Lake area that is worth a quick stop to see.
Old Faithful Inn
We stopped at the Old Faithful Inn to have lunch at the dining room. Everyone should at least go inside the Old Faithful Inn to look around. It is the largest log structure in the world. It has beautiful construction inside. This was the only real dining experience we had inside the park. We had the buffet in the dining room. It was respectable.
Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin
The Midway Geyser Basin is the most scenic hot spring and geyser area in the park. The Grand Prismatic Spring is several large hot spring pools that are really deep blue colored. We almost didn’t stop at this area because neither of us had heard of it before. My wife saw it in the brochure and wanted to see it. Plan on spending some time in this area. It is a must see at Yellowstone National Park.
West Thumb Geyser Basin
West Thumb Geyser Basin is located along the west shore of Yellowstone Lake. It has a nice boardwalk hike along the lake that goes past several hot springs that have formed along the lake shore. The lakeshore is a nice break from the canyon and prarie feel of the rest of the park.
Travel Day – Drive to Denver. Fly home.
After the West Thumb area we started heading towards the east park entrance and heading back to Buffalo Wyoming. We spent several more hours in the park than we planned to on this day since originally the Grand Prismatic Spring wasn’t on the plans. Consequently, it was close to dark when we left the park exit.
The drive from the park entrance past Cody, Wyoming and on to Buffalo Wyoming is all 2 lane backroad highways. It’s kind of a creepy dark middle of nowhere feeling drive at night. I don’t recommend doing this drive back after dark and wouldn’t do it again. It was several hours of very high stress driving.
The following morning we drove back to Denver International, returned our rental car and flew home.
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About the author
My name is Doug Ryan. I am an adventure sports fan and an avid skier, sailor, mountain biker who also enjoys paddle boarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, and travel. I take any chance I can get to get out in the snow or water. I actively run an adventure sports meetup where I get asked many questions. I decided to start Endless Rush Outdoors as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for adventure sports their gear.