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To Drive or Not to Drive in Yellowstone

The Deal Detective
by , SmarterTravel Staff
The Deal Detective -Female
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on July 31, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Cooke City, destination, family travel, guided tour, Jackson Hole, national park, road trip, senior travel, summer, The Deal Detective, The Deal Detective, West Yellowstone, wildlife, Yellowstone National Park.

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Dear Deal Detective:

We'd like to make a very short detour to Yellowstone National Park in conjunction with an upcoming trip to Billings, Montana. Being short on cash and time and physically unable to do much walking, we'd like to see the main scenery without spending days driving aimlessly around in the park. We're not too interested in museums or educational presentations either. Nature is our thing. Are there bus tours from a nearby town that would allow us in a one day tour to see a quickie view of the park? Where to stay is also a question. Are there any reasonable accommodations outside of the park? Thanks if you can help us out.

—judson

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Dear judson,
If it's nature you're after, you couldn't have chosen a better place than Yellowstone to find it. As the oldest national park in America, Yellowstone has wowed visitors for centuries with its abundance of wildlife and spectacular scenery. However, with an area that spans three states and a plethora of unbelievable sights, it can be overwhelming to plan a trip.

Whether you're driving or taking a guided tour, a great place to start your research is at YellowstonePark.com. Here, you'll find information galore on places to stay, routes to take, and things to do. Plus, you can build a personal itinerary by simply saving the items you want to include on your vacation in the site's trip builder tool. Also, if you want to really plan the ultimate Yellowstone getaway, you can order the free trip planner, which includes maps, lodging, dining, and activity information, and coupons.

But I digress from the question at hand. You wanted to know about a quick tour that will give you a general sense of the park, as well as affordable places to stay. I've planned a trip around these criteria to offer you the best advice. For starters, since most tours leave from West Yellowstone, you'll want to find lodging there first. The Three Bear Lodge and Restaurant makes an ideal jumping-off point, as SeeYellowstone van tours depart from here. I was able to find a standard room with a queen bed for $95 per night during the summer. The lodge also offers family units that sleep four starting at just $128 per night.

Once your room is booked, you can then decide on which tour best suits your needs. SeeYellowstone offers three scenic full-day park tours to choose from, including the Lower Loop, Upper Loop and Evening Wildlife, and Grand Teton tour. All excursions include a picnic lunch or dinner, wide viewing windows, and a knowledgeable guide. On the Lower Loop tour, you will see Old Faithful, Geyser Basin, and Yellowstone's Grand Canyon for $64.95 per person. The Upper Loop tour costs $69.95 per person and is wildlife heavy, departing later in the day. Seniors and children get a discount. As an avid fan and repeat visitor of Yellowstone, I chose the Lower Loop tour, as it covers a few more of the iconic places that make the park famous. The overall cost of my trip for two adults for two nights would come to about $320, without entrance fees and gratuities.

The tours are an excellent way to learn a great deal about Yellowstone without the added concern of driving, traffic, and directions. However, if you're good with a map and like being behind the wheel, you can save money by going it alone. With five main entrances to choose from, you can fashion your trip around what direction you're traveling.

One of the most comprehensive ways to see the park is to start at the south entrance—where you can find lodging in nearby Jackson Hole or Teton Village—and travel north, ending at one of the two entrances there. In between, you can choose whether you want to go west to see Old Faithful or east to see the Fishing Bridge. The west route provides a bit more of the classic stops, and might be a good starting drive for first-timers. If you do your research beforehand, you can plot where you want to stop and what you most want to see.

Since you will be heading towards Billings, I would recommend ending at the northeast entrance via the west route and traveling through Canyon Village. This way, you'll see many of the all-important stops, plus have ample opportunities to encounter a broad range of wildlife. The drive is about 117 miles, which will cost about $22.66 (assuming $4.26 per gallon at 22 miles per gallon). Cooke City is a great place to rest your head after your drive, with several options of places to stay. Plus, the next day you can drive along the Beartooth Highway, considered one of the most scenic drives in the U.S. The overall price of this trip versus the guided tour will be a bit less, depending on where you choose to stay.

I hope this helps! If any of you other readers have tips or recommendations on ways to see Yellowstone in a day without too much physical exertion, please add your comments below.

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