Clever Tricks To Visit Yellowstone National Park In The Summer On A Tight Budget

From watching the sunrise over a field where a herd of bison is grazing and admiring shockingly colorful hot springs to hiking along the rim of deep canyons to see rushing waterfalls, Yellowstone National Park has some incredible experiences to offer those who make the journey. Unfortunately, while national parks are supposed to be for everyone, with the cost of flying across the country, the climbing prices of rooms at the park's inns, tours, and dining, this breathtaking park is rapidly becoming too expensive for most Americans to visit. If you're willing to compromise on how you get to the park, rough it in nature when you get there, and do your research in advance, however, you may just be able to swing a trip to this iconic place.

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For travelers looking to save money, the best way to do that might be to visit at a time of year when there aren't as many visitors, like December or January. However, for families looking to take their kids when school is out, the busiest months, July and August, might be the only option. You could choose an alternative setting, like Badlands National Park, where you can also see bison roaming free, or Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is like a mini Yellowstone without the crowds, complete with natural steam vents and hot springs. However, if your heart is set on a classic pilgrimage to Yellowstone in the summer, here are some tips and tricks to keep your budget affordable.

Fly to Salt Lake City and drive to Yellowstone

If you're too far from Yellowstone to drive, or can't justify the extra days off from work to have a road trip before and after your vacation, you're going to have to fly. A lot goes into picking the perfect flight for an upcoming vacation, from avoiding long layovers to picking the best seat on the flight so you can get some last minute work done, but have you considered flying into an airport that's farther from your actual destination? It's definitely less convenient than just getting off the plane and being where you want to go, but for destinations like Yellowstone, being willing to travel a little farther once you get off the plane can save you a lot of money.

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Yellowstone Airport and Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport are both great choices for getting as close as possible to a park entrance, but if you're feeling overwhelmed by the price tag on your summer vacation, you might want to consider another option: Salt Lake City. If you're leaving from New York City, choosing Salt Lake City might save you almost $200, and more than $500 if you're flying from some international locations. Once you're in Utah you'll have to drive around 5-6 hours to reach Yellowstone, but depending on how much you enjoy road trips, that could be more than worth the savings.

Skip the tours at Yellowstone

There are some amazing tours you can book while you're in Yellowstone, where expert guides will lead you around some of the park's best landmarks and give you the best shot at seeing the most exciting wildlife — but these come at a premium. Many of the most popular tours cost more that $300 per person, with some private tours costing more than $1,000 for a single day. While many of these tours make for a fun trip, you can have incredible experiences in the park without paying for a guide if you take the time to research the best spots to go on your own.

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For instance, if you are traveling to Yellowstone in order to see incredible wildlife, you might want to go to Lamar Valley. This broad grassland is home to elk and bison, and sometimes you can even spot wolves there. If you want to see Old Faithful and other exciting geothermal spots, you can hike the Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Observation Point Loop (just make sure you do it safely, especially if this is your first solo hike.)

Consider driving around Yellowstone

You're coming to Yellowstone for scenic hiking, so why do you need a car? Yellowstone National Park is absolutely huge, larger than the entire state of Delaware and its tiny neighbor Rhode Island put together. If you were planning a vacation to these states, you probably wouldn't assume you could walk the entire time, and the same is true of Yellowstone. Unless you only want to stay in a small, specific area of the park, you'll need transportation. The only other real alternatives for anyone who isn't a cycling pro or has months to explore the park on foot is to take a tour bus, and that's pretty expensive. It only costs $35 to bring your car into Yellowstone — just steer clear of reckless road trip mistakes while driving and don't get too distracted looking at the scenery. You can always pull over.

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If you live too far away to take your own car, you may have to get a rental, which does add to your budget. Even if you're roadtripping to Yellowstone, however, that might not be a bad monetarily to take a rental car instead of your own vehicle. In one of his road trip hacks, financial expert Clark Howard advises renting a car for most vacations, since adding a lot of mileage to your own car could cost more in the long run.

Camp at Yellowstone

In the past, one of the best ways to visit Yellowstone was to stay in the inns and cabins there, but according to a 2023 report from Montana Free Press, prices at some of those venues had gone up more than 50% since 2018. If you're looking for a more affordable option, try camping. Not only is it an incredible way to experience the natural beauty of the park up close, some of the park's most popular campgrounds cost between $20-40 a night, instead of the $125-475 you could end up paying for a cabin or lodge in August. Before you pack up all the items you need for a quick and easy camping retreat, be aware that you'll need to book around a year in advance to secure one of these coveted spaces.

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You might want to choose Slough Creek, which is considered one of the best places to see wild animals like bison, wolves, and bears in their natural habitat near your campsite. If you're looking for more privacy in a crowded park at peak season, try booking Pebble Creek, where there are less than 30 campsites. If you're not a big fan of roughing it outside but are still willing to give camping a shot to save some money, you might want to book Grant Village Campground, which has cell service, laundry, and showers, and is also close to shops and restaurants.

Cook your own meals at your Yellowstone campsite

There are plenty of restaurants to eat at in Yellowstone National Park in summer, and general stores where you can purchase and heat up quick meals — but even if you skip the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room for cheaper options like the Old Faithful Inn Bear Paw Deli, eating out for every meal on your vacation is going to make a serious dent in your budget. If you're going to camp in the park, however, you might as well cook there, too. It's easier than you think.

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You should do all your grocery shopping at a regular supermarket before you arrive at the park, and prioritize snacks and meal choices that don't need to be kept colder than a cooler can handle. You definitely can live off of sandwiches and fruit, but if you prep your meals in advance or buy easy meal components pre-marinated meats and pre-made pastas, all you'll need to do is rev up your camp stove and your favorite portable grill, and you can eat well for the same money you'd be spending at home. Just don't bring your own firewood to the campsite.

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