My Family Had an Epic Yellowstone Itinerary—Here’s One Thing I Would Change

Updated: Feb. 28, 2024

Planning a visit to the popular national park can be daunting. Here's the Yellowstone itinerary I followed with my family of four.

Every time I told anyone—friends, family, people I had just met—that my family’s summer vacation plan was to visit Wyoming and Montana, they inevitably asked about our Yellowstone itinerary. I get it. As a lifelong East Coaster, planning a trip to a national park out West is intimidating, even for an experienced traveler like me, who, as an editor at Reader’s Digest online, has the advantage of being able to consult with tourism boards and other travel experts.

After a year-plus of research and planning, here is the one-week Yellowstone itinerary I followed with my husband and two elementary-school-age kids—along with the one thing I wish we had done differently.

Best time to visit Yellowstone

We planned our family vacation for the last full week of August because the kids’ school starts back up the following week. Because most schools around the country start earlier than those in the Northeast, this turned out to be an ideal week to go. We still had excellent weather (minus one rainy day) and the crowds were thinner than what we heard they’d been in July and earlier in August.

My 10-year-old son was the impetus for our taking the trip in 2023. He wanted to take advantage of his free National Park Pass that every fourth grader in the United States is eligible for via the Every Kid Outdoors program.

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Getting to Yellowstone

What was arguably the hardest decision to make when planning our Yellowstone itinerary was figuring out which airport to fly in and out of. Most visitors to Yellowstone fly into one of three airports:

  • Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, Montana (90 minutes from the north entrance)
  • Jackson Hole Airport, Wyoming (60 minutes from the south entrance)
  • Yellowstone Regional Airport, Wyoming (60 minutes from the east entrance)

After much debate, I decided on a connecting flight into Bozeman, as it was the most affordable and allowed us to travel out of Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. Bradley is a much smaller and more accessible airport than any of the three major NYC-area airports.

Our Yellowstone itinerary

  • Day 1: Arrive in Bozeman, MT
    • Drive to Jackson Hole, WY
    • Overnight at Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa in Jackson Hole
  • Day 2: Explore Jackson Hole and Jackson
    • Overnight at Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa in Jackson Hole
  • Day 3: Explore Grand Teton National Park, WY
    • Drive to Yellowstone National Park
    • Overnight at Old Faithful Inn
  • Day 4: Explore Yellowstone National Park
    • Drive to Livingston, MT
    • Overnight at Under Canvas North Yellowstone
  • Day 5: Relaxing day at Under Canvas North Yellowstone
  • Day 6: Drive to Cody, WY
    • Explore Cody
    • Trail ride at UXU Ranch
    • Overnight at UXU Ranch
  • Day 7: Explore Buffalo Bill Center of the Wild West
    • Attend Cody Night Rodeo
    • Overnight at UXU Ranch
  • Day 8: Drive to Bozeman, MT
    • Overnight at La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Belgrade
  • Day 9: Fly home

Day 1: Arrive in Bozeman → Drive to Jackson Hole, WY → Overnight at Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa, Teton Village, WY

Driving a car with a view of the mountainsAnne Fritz/

Driving distance: 219 miles

After miraculously on-time and uneventful flights through Chicago O’Hare, we landed in Bozeman around 2 p.m., picked up our luggage and rental minivan; then started our four-hour drive to Jackson Hole, the furthest point on the trip. While it did make for a long travel day, the backdrop of mountains and wide-open skies we saw on our road trip through Big Sky, Montana, and Caribou-Targhee National Forest were so breathtakingly gorgeous, the journey felt like part of our adventure. Bonus: Our route took us through Idaho, so we all got to check an additional state off our list!

A view of the Teton Mountain Lodge And Spa Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa Summer Exterior With TramCourtesy Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa

Even still, we were thrilled to arrive at our hotel, the Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa, especially after we checked in to our two-bedroom bilevel suite. The kids were excited about the gas fireplace, while my husband and I were delighted we had a separate bedroom and cozy king-size bed.

After an early dinner at Spur Restaurant & Bar, the hotel’s on-site restaurant, we were all happy to call it a night.

Day 2: Explore Jackson Hole and Jackson

A beautiful view from the mountainsAnne Fritz/

Thanks to being on East Coast time, we all woke up early and were raring to go. After breakfast at the hotel, we rode the Aerial Tram, which whisks you up 4,139 feet in a span of 12 minutes. Built to transport skiers and snowboarders in the winter, the gondola runs year-round for those looking to explore the mountain. It offers stunning 360-degree views, and on a clear day, you can see the nearby town of Jackson Hole Valley and the Teton Mountains.

Some folks choose to follow one of the many hiking paths that loop down and around the crest of the mountain. Because we were still getting used to the elevation, we kept our hike short and sweet.

A kid posing for a photo at antler archesAnne Fritz/

That turned out to be the best decision for us, as later that morning, we rented bicycles from Teton Village Sports. We needed our energy for the 15-mile ride into the town of Jackson, along a mostly flat bike path. Even though we are all avid cyclists at home (it’s how my husband and I met!), the ride was a bit of a push for my 8-year-old daughter, who gamely says yes to everything. Still, she made it in one piece and enjoyed a well-deserved ice cream cone once we dropped off our bikes at the sister shop in town. We pursued the touristy stores, poked our heads into the Million Dollar Cowboy bar so the kids could see the famed horse saddle barstools, and took photos under one of the equally famous elk antler arches, all before Ubering back to our hotel.

That evening, we grabbed an early dinner at the Mangy Moose, a famous après-ski hangout and a must-see for any visitor to Teton Village.

Day 3: Explore Grand Teton National Park → Drive to Yellowstone National Park → Overnight at Old Faithful Inn

A water fall Grand Teton in the National ParkAnne Fritz/

Driving distance: 94 miles

Finally, it was time to visit not one, but two national parks! Grand Teton National Park is an easy 30-minute drive from Teton Village and on the way to Yellowstone National Park. I had heard from a few people that Jenny Lake was a must-see for its natural beauty, so that was our primary destination within the park. Unfortunately, the day we were there was gray and drizzly, but as we took a boat ride across the lake, I could imagine what it might look like on a clear day. We made the short hike to Hidden Falls, a 100-foot waterfall. Even the dreary weather didn’t detract from its cascading magnificence. You can hike the 1.8-miles around the lake back to the boat dock or return via boat. Because of the weather, we opted to take the boat round trip.

From the north entrance of Grand Teton National Park, it’s a 30-mile shot up to the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park, then about another 30 miles to the Old Faithful Inn. Though mileage-wise it’s not far, the drive on twisty, turny roads took about 90 minutes. I’m told that in the peak months, traffic can make it much longer. Like our ride from Bozeman to Jackson, the scenery was so breathtaking, the drive was part of the fun.

Our destination for the night was the Old Faithful Inn. Completed in 1904, it’s another must-see on your Yellowstone itinerary. Not only is it the oldest lodging in the National Park System (NPS), but it’s also one of the largest log-style structures in the world. The seven-story inn features a massive four-sided stone fireplace flanked by comfy hickory chairs that are nearly as old as the inn itself. It’s the perfect spot to sit and rest and mingle with fellow visitors.

We opted to stay in the Old House, the original building of the Inn, for a more authentic experience. That meant our room didn’t have its own bathroom; instead, we shared a communal bathroom and shower with other folks on our floor. The bathrooms are plentiful and clean, never crowded, and most are gender-specific. The one exception was the old bathtub rooms that are available to all guests; each features a giant clawfoot tub and conjures images of visitors of yore cleaning up after long weeks of travel.

Rooms in the newer wing are handicap accessible and offer en suite bathrooms.

We arrived at the Inn late in the afternoon and enjoyed exploring the many nooks and crannies of the historic hotel, including getting a close-up view of the handcrafted copper and wrought-iron clock and the wrought-iron gates that lead up to the now-closed Crow’s Nest overlook. Because there is no Wi-Fi, we were able to enjoy quality family time, including an intense game of Uno.

We had dinner at the Inn’s Old Faithful restaurant. It wasn’t our favorite meal of the trip, but it’s the only option for a sit-down restaurant in the area. Be sure to pop your head into the restaurant’s Bear Pit Lounge, which features original etched glass and bear pit murals.

Pro tip: Reservations for National Park Service hotel rooms open up 13 months in advance, and dining reservations are available starting 30 days out. You’ll want to make both as soon as you know your plans.

Day 4: Explore Yellowstone National Park → Drive to Livingston, MT → Overnight at Under Canvas North Yellowstone

A view of Old Faithful in yellow stoneANNE FRITZ/RD.COM

Driving distance: 100 miles

After a quick cereal breakfast in our room (we brought cereal and a few dry provisions to avoid having to pay the markup at the general stores within Yellowstone), we were ready to head out to the Old Faithful geyser, located a short distance from the Inn.

Though signs predicted an eruption at 7:52 +/– 20 minutes, we waited and waited and waited some more. The eruption eventually came, spurting high up into the air for several minutes, so were were able to check “See Old Faithful in action” off our Yellowstone itinerary bucket list.

We then toured the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. Opened in 2010, the center showcases interactive exhibits about the park’s unique topography and animals plus facts about its history. Best of all, the two-story high glass windows offer a perfect view of Old Faithful’s eruptions. We notched two more viewings without even trying!

From there, we returned to our room to pack up our luggage before heading out on our tour of Yellowstone’s other notable features. We started with a stop at the Fountain Paint Pot, an area of steam pools from volcanic activity that show up in ochre, gold and other earth-toned hues. Unfortunately for us, the morning we were there was cool and windy, so the steam from the pools blew across the landscape, obscuring our views.

Next, it was off to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, also known as Artist Point. As the name suggests, it offers picture-perfect views of the area, including the Upper and Lower Falls that run in between the canyons.

Afterward, we started our drive to our next destination, Under Canvas North Yellowstone in Paradise Valley, Montana, for two nights of glamping. I had seen many photos of the property, just south of Livingston, and had high expectations for this leg of our trip.

A beautiful landsacpe view of yellowstone national parkAnne Fritz/

But first, another two-hour drive. Not to sound like a broken record, but the drive through North Yellowstone is truly spectacular. The two-lane road twists up and down mountainsides, offering breathtaking views of the valleys below. There aren’t as many sites in this portion of the park, but it’s worth it for the view alone. Be sure to stop at the original entrance marker to Yellowstone Roosevelt Arch on your way out of the park. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone to the arch. It’s no longer in use, but you can pull over and park for a closer look.

After a pizza lunch in nearby Livingston, we doubled back to Under Canvas. The glamping brand has sites outside 10 national parks around the country—its North Yellowstone property is the newest and had its inaugural season in 2023. The campsite is nestled on the west side of the Yellowstone River and, like all the Under Canvas properties, has individual large canvas tents set on platforms. Each tent has a comfy bed, rustic West Elm furniture and a bathroom, complete with a shower. Our tent was a suite, which featured a pull-out sofa for the kids to sleep on.

After the hustle and bustle of Jackson and our checklist of things to see at Grand Teton and Yellowstone, it was delightful to have a minute to sit and breathe, surrounded by nature. We played countless games of Yellowstone Monopoly in the main tent, which serves as a lobby, restaurant, bar and general gathering spot. We ate our leftover pizza for dinner and ordered a few appetizers from the restaurant before heading back to our tent for the night.

Though I expected to sleep like a baby given the remoteness and dark skies and super comfy bed, a howling wind kept me up. Because of Under Canvas’s location in a valley and the lack of surrounding buildings or forests, the wind can be intense. As the gusts rattled our tent, I pretended I was a pioneer in a covered wagon. It gave me a new appreciation for the many challenges faced by those early explorers.

Day 5: Relaxing day at Under Canvas North Yellowstone

Tents are step up during a beautiful view of sunstetAnne Fritz/

Under Canvas North Yellowstone is less than an hour from the park, and the property can help arrange local activities including fishing, trail rides, river floats and more. Still, we were enjoying relaxing so much, we opted to stay put and only left the property for lunch in nearby Emigrant.

We played more Monopoly, joined a complimentary activity of wild-flower arranging, walked along the Yellowstone river bank and generally enjoyed our setting and being with each other.

The evening was more of the same—quality family time with a side of complimentary s’mores and an epic sunset accompanied by the sounds of a local country singing duo.

All in all, Under Canvas was everything I hoped it would be—we were immersed in the great outdoors in a remote-feeling location, yet slept in a comfy bed and didn’t have to set up a tent or cook over a fire pit.

Day 6: Under Canvas North Yellowstone → Drive to Cody, WY → Overnight at UXU Ranch

A view of river and mountains from a carAnne Fritz/

Driving distance: 225 miles

While planning our Yellowstone itinerary, I debated between making the six-hour drive north to Glacier National Park and heading east to Cody. On one hand, my son really wanted to see Glacier National Park, near the Canadian border. On the other, I knew my extroverted daughter would be ready for more entertainment in the way of stores, restaurants and people. I was swayed after learning about the Buffalo Bill Center of the Wild West, a branch of the Smithsonian (more on that in day 7). Without question, going to Cody was the right decision for my family.

After a lovely breakfast at Under Canvas, we left for our 3.5-hour drive to Cody. A majority of the drive is along I-90, where the legal speed limit is 80 MPH and there was next to no traffic. After we turned off on to state roads, we still made a nice clip. Like all our trip, the scenery was so amazingly vast and beautiful, with mountains in the distance and wide-open vistas, the journey was part of the adventure.

We arrived in Cody in time for lunch. There are a number of restaurants as you drive into town and along Cody’s main thoroughfare, 16th Street. We opted for the Proud Cut Saloon, a family-friendly restaurant with outdoor seating, and a stop at Bigg Chill for ice cream.

Then it was time to head to our lodging for the night, the historic UXU Ranch, set on nearly 40 acres leased from the Shoshone National Forest. The ranch was founded in the late 1800s and is made up of one central lodge with check-in and dining, plus several log cabins for guests. We stayed in the Stage Stop, a sizable two-bedroom, two-bath cabin that originally served as a stagecoach stop for those on their way to Yellowstone.

Families riding horses with helmets on their head on mountainsAnne Fritz/

After getting settled, we walked over to the stables, where we met the two wranglers who would be taking us out on a trail ride on the property. They provided horses and helmets for all of us. We progressed at a walk up and down the mountain—the perfect place to take in the panoramic views.

The chef at the ranch is Vincent Fiore of the cooking show Wiseguys. I opted for his signature lasagna while my husband sampled the balsamic-glazed salmon and the kids gorged on fried ravioli. Dessert was cannoli and New York–style cheesecake. Suffice to say, none of us went to bed hungry!

Day 7: Explore Cody

walking along the storefront Anne Fritz/

We fortified ourselves with a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes at the “U,” as the ranch is called by locals, before heading into Cody for a full day of exploration, and I do mean a full day.

We started at the Buffalo Bill Center of the Wild West, a world-class center featuring five museums all under the same roof: Buffalo Bill Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, Draper Natural History Museum and Whitney Western Art Museum. The center is large enough to be a destination on its own for many travelers. As we were on a schedule, we focused on the museum’s highlights. Some of our favorites included sketching in the art museum, the collection of native American headdresses and the Western-themed playground, which is built around Buffalo Bill Cody’s boyhood home that was moved from its original location in LeClaire, Iowa.

The museum is within easy walking distance of Cody’s main street, so we left our car parked at the museum to grab some lunch. We were told that the restaurant at the Irma Hotel was a must-see. The hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the namesake of Buffalo Bill Cody’s wife and dates back to 1902. The centerpiece of the restaurant is a cherrywood bar that was built from a plank of wood gifted to Cody by Queen Victoria.

We had burgers for lunch, followed by a memorable dessert of blueberry cobbler.

After lunch, we wandered up and down 16th Street for some window shopping. My husband bought a cowboy hat, and the kids bought some fresh fudge at locally owned Cowtown Candy Company.

We unanimously agreed that that evening was our favorite of the trip—and it was also the most jam-packed! We started with dinner and a cowboy music show at the Cody Cattle Company. The cavernous venue is a raucous fun time for the whole family. It kicks off with a buffet dinner of beef brisket, barbecue chicken and sides, and a kid-friendly mac and cheese, followed by a dessert of freshly baked brownies. After everyone has had their fill—seconds and even thirds are encouraged—it’s time for the musical entertainment of Ryan Matin and the Triple C Cowboys.

Ryan gets the crowd involved by acknowledging guests from every state and country in attendance, telling jokes and, of course, playing country music and other singalong hits. The lively show kept us going and pepped us up for our next stop: The Cody Night Rodeo.

The rodeo is close enough that you could walk, but we opted to drive so we could make an easier getaway after our long day.

It was—yes—our first rodeo, and we weren’t sure what to expect. From the start—when a horse rider cantered around the arena with an oversize American flag to the strains of the national anthem as the sun set—to the finish, it was a delight. The rodeo features barrel racing, calf roping and bull riding. In between events, a rodeo clown emcees the event, telling jokes and stories, all capped off by country and pop music.

The kids will never forget being invited down to the field with all the other kids in attendance to chase after two calves in an attempt to grab a bandanna off each. This is a nightly occurrence at the rodeo, and surely generation after generation of kids remember it.

We heard that it’s a local tradition to head to the Dairy Queen for ice cream after the rodeo, but after our long day, we opted to head back to the ranch instead.

Day 8: Drive to Bozeman, MT → Overnight at La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Belgrade

Driving distance: 184 miles

The next day, we grabbed breakfast at 8th Street at the Ivy; then meandered through town and made one last visit to the candy store before hitting the road back to Bozeman. We doubled back on the same route we took on our way out. Even after a week, the wide-open skies and the mountains’ majesty still awed us.

We stayed at the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham in Belgrade, Montana, because it has an indoor pool and is near the Bozeman airport, where we had an early flight the next morning. It wasn’t the fanciest hotel, but it served its purpose.

The kids spent the afternoon in the pool, and my husband and I repacked our suitcases, which after seven nights in four different hotels had somehow expanded to overflowing.

To end our trip on a high note, we drove to the neighborhood surrounding Montana State University and enjoyed a lovely meal at the Urban Kitchen restaurant. My husband had a locally raised pork chop, and I had miso black cod. Because we missed Dairy Queen the night before, we headed to the closest one for a dessert of sundaes and Blizzards. It was packed with boisterous local high school students who headed there after their school’s football game. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to close out our epic trip.

Day 9: Fly home

Our flight home routed us through Dallas. It worked out well, as our three-hour layover allowed us plenty of time to visit the American Express Platinum Lounge (I’m a cardholder). We had brunch in the lounge before boarding our final leg home to Hartford.

What I loved about our trip

Hands down, I loved all the family time. Because we were in so many remote locations, Wi-Fi was spotty, so not only were the kids off their tablets, but I was also on my phone less. Instead, we played Uno, Monopoly and various guessing games that the kids made up.

What I wouldn’t miss

It’s hard to pick one favorite, between the mountain town of Jackson, the peaceful serenity of glamping at Under Canvas and the Old West activities and vibes of Cody. Because it is often overlooked on many Yellowstone itineraries, I will put in a plug for Cody. It helped to break up the biking, hiking and other outdoor activities with a couple of days of good old-fashioned entertainment.

What surprised me

Though I had been to the area before, in both summer and winter, this born-and-bred East Coaster had somehow forgotten how very vast the West is. You can drive for hours and still not see a cityscape or crowds. The trip was a good reminder of how large and varied our country is.

Even as we drove more than 800 miles total on our trip, we never got tired of seeing the stunning scenery.

What I would do differently

The one thing I would do differently on our Yellowstone itinerary is to flip-flop our visit to Under Canvas and Cody, Wyoming, which is about an hour away from Yellowstone’s east entrance. Then we could have stopped at Under Canvas North Yellowstone on the return trip to Bozeman, Montana, which would have made the trip a full loop, whereas we doubled back. This would have saved us about 150 miles on the road.