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If you want to experience one of the most scenic places in the United States, a trip to Montana and Yellowstone is a must.
Whenever I travel around the U.S. I often find myself sticking to major cities but sometimes there’s only so much eating and drinking you can do. My friend and I wanted to experience nature for our Labor Day weekend trip so we used our Delta miles to book flights to Bozeman, Montana, which is considered a major gateway to visiting Yellowstone National Park.
From Bozeman you can either drive to the West Entrance or the North Entrance of Yellowstone. The drive to the North Entrance takes about 1 hour 30 minutes, while the drive to the West Entrance takes 1 hour 45 minutes. When you enter Yellowstone National Park you’re basically crossing state lines into Wyoming.
We decided to go with the North Entrance just because accommodation was cheaper and there was more availability. Even during a pandemic, most places were fully booked or expensive.
The scenery in this part of the U.S is beautiful. Montana is known for its ranches and horses so a horseback ride or a trail ride is a must if you have the time. Bozeman is fairly small and can easily be explored in a day. The rest of your time will be spent driving around Yellowstone Park and exploring major sights such as Mammoth Springs and Grand Prismatic Spring.
Read on for my Bozeman to Yellowstone itinerary…
How to get to Bozeman
To get to Bozeman you’ll need to drive or fly into Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN). I think it has to be one of the coolest airports I’ve ever flown into, just because I was greeted by a T-Rex skull in the baggage claim area.
United, JetBlue, American and Delta all fly into Bozeman. We used Delta points to book our trip – if you don’t have an air miles credit card then I suggest signing up for one.
The following are all great cards:
- The Delta Platinum Skymiles Card
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card
- Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Credit Card
When signing up for a card, check to see what the sign-up bonus offer is. Sometimes credit card companies run limited time offers with large bonuses. Just make sure you meet the minimum spend to get the bonus. This may give you enough points to fly to Bozeman and back, otherwise, check out my guide to getting the cheapest flights.
Where to stay in Bozeman
Hotels in the center of Bozeman are more expensive but staying in the center of town means you can easily walk around on foot. Hotels on the outskirts of Bozeman are generally cheaper, but you’ll have to drive into town or catch an Uber if you want to drink.
Luxury – Kimpton Armory Hotel Bozeman – Luxury hotel housed in a landmark Art Deco Armory building, which was built in 1941. Located right in the heart of Bozeman just off Main Street, the Kimpton Armory Hotel boasts a rooftop pool where guests can take a dip while looking out at Rocky mountain views.
Mid Range – RSVP Hotel – Stylish, boutique hotel with chic rooms and an outdoor pool. Rooms are modern with luxury bath products, stylish Kimonos and 300-thread count, 100% Egyptian cotton sheets. The hotel is pet friendly and there’s a cafe called The Farmer’s Daughters on-site.
Affordable – The Sapphire Motel – Formerly the Royal 7 Motel, The Sapphire Motel is a budget-friendly option in downtown Bozeman. This is where we stayed during our trip since accommodation can be really pricey during the summer months. This is a classic motor court hotel with free parking outside the door of your room. Rooms are basic but comfortable and there’s free continental breakfast in the morning.
How to get to Yellowstone National Park from Bozeman
Most people drive to Yellowstone National Park. We rented a car from Bozeman Airport for the duration of our trip. Here are the two main driving routes:
North Entrance, Bozeman to Gardiner
I-90 E to Livingston then US-89 S to Gardiner, 77.9 miles, approx 1 hour 20 min
Head to Livingston and through Paradise Valley to Gardiner, MT. Pass through Roosevelt Arch into the Park, where you’ll find Mammoth Springs and the Boiling River.
West Entrance, Bozeman to West Yellowstone
US 191 S through Gallatin Canyon, 90.9 miles, approx 1 hour 45 mins
Drive through the Gallatin Canyon along the Gallatin River. You’ll eventually come to the Big Sky turnoff. If you keep going straight you’ll arrive in West Yellowstone. Continue on the main street and it will take you to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The entrance is the closest to Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake.
If you don’t want to drive or rent a car, Karst Stage offers shuttle and charter services from Bozeman to various lodges and hotels in West Yellowstone. The company also offers West Yellowstone day trips.
When to visit Yellowstone?
The best time to visit Yellowstone is from April to October. July and August are the busiest months to visit since the weather is warm and kids are off school. However, that means there are more cars in the park, the attractions are more crowded and accommodation gets booked up far in advance. Spring (April/May) and Autumn (September/October) are great times to visit since the weather is mild and it’ll be slightly less busy. Avoid visiting in the winter due to road closures and inclement weather.
Bozeman to Yellowstone 3-4 day itinerary
This Bozeman to Yellowstone itinerary includes a day exploring Bozeman and two days exploring the National Park. We booked a hotel in Gardiner for the night and entered by via the North Entrance. If you have longer you can spend more time exploring the park and stop for activities such as horseback riding along the way.
Day 1: Land in Bozeman, Sightseeing
If you can catch an early morning flight, you can be in Bozeman by late morning/early afternoon. You’ll want to pick up a car rental from the airport (more about that later).
Once you’ve picked up your car, drive to downtown Bozeman and check-in to your hotel. After freshening up, spend the day visiting Bozeman’s attractions and breweries. Since it’s a small town, most stuff in Bozeman is walkable, although we did take a couple of Ubers to breweries that were a bit further out.
Here are some of the things to do in Bozeman:
Montana Grizzly Encounter
This Grizzly Bear Rescue & Education Sanctuary is located about 15 minutes east of Bozeman, so you’ll need to drive or take an Uber to get there. We thought this might be cool but it was actually a bit disappointing/depressing.
It’s basically a small grass enclosure with some boulders next to a noisy highway. When we visited there was one bear in the enclosure – they have several bears at the sanctuary staying elsewhere and they’re rotated for visitors.
Two of the bears were rescued from captive situations, while the other two were born in the wild but were orphaned at a young age. In front of the enclosure are educational signs with information about bear safety and conservation, and there’s a small gift shop selling souvenirs.
I understand that the sanctuary is a non-profit working hard on bear conservation but I guess I was expecting something a lot larger and better maintained – more like a safari park. This was sadly more like visiting a zoo.
Prices: Adults 13 and Older $9, Children 4-12 $7, Seniors 65+ $8, Under 3– Free
Museum of the Rockies
Museum of the Rockies is a natural history museum with an extensive collection of dinosaur fossils. Outside the museum stands a bronze sculpture of a horse named Rusty, while inside the museum visitors are welcomed by a giant T-Rex sculpture called Big Mike. There are several permanent exhibits inside the museum, as well as changing exhibits throughout the year.
Opening hours: 9.30am to 4.30pm
Bozeman Hot Springs
Located about 8 miles west of Bozeman on US 191, this natural hot spring facility boasts 12 different pools with temperatures ranging from 59 to 106 degrees, as well as wet and dry saunas. Opening hours vary according to the day and time of year, so check the calendar on the website before you go. Some days there are night swims, while other days it opens super early in the morning.
MAP Brewing Company
This was our favorite thing to do in Bozeman! MAP Brewing Company sits at the foothills of the Bridger Mountains and has an outdoor terrace with sweeping views of the lake and Glen Lake Rotary Park. The brewery has a wide selection of seasonal and year-round beers on tap and beer flights are available. It’s a really nice place to enjoy a summer’s afternoon in Bozeman. We took an Uber there because it’s not downtown and we wanted to enjoy some beers.
Address: 510 Manley Rd, Bozeman, MT 59715
Mountains Walking Brewing Company
After MAP Brewing we took an Uber to Mountains Walking Brewing Company. This place was really busy and the atmosphere was friendly. We sat at the bar and ordered their Fried Broccolini “Wings” and a pint. The brewery also serves wood-fired pizzas, bison chilli and a buttermilk chicken thigh sandwich, among other things. There are also daily food specials, including Tuesday Tacos, Wing Wednesdays and Broccolini “Wing” Wednesdays.
Where to eat:
Bozeman has an array of really great restaurants. Here are my top picks:
Feast Raw Bar – Fusion bistro/raw bar serving New American fare and seafood dishes. Dishes are made with sustainable seafood and locally sourced meats and produce. Standout menu items include Bison Carpaccio, Blue Crab Claw Salad, Vietnamese Chicken Wings, Pineapple Chili Salmon and Sesame & Chia Seared Tuna.
Plonk – Restaurant on Main Street serving a large selection of wines by the glass as well as cocktails. Has a large brick-walled interior and walled courtyard for dining outside. The Happy Hour here runs from 3-5pm and 10:30pm-midnight daily and includes food specials plus discounted wines and cocktails.
Dave’s Sushi Off-Main – Bozeman’s best sushi restaurant is owned by Dave, a software engineer who was so addicted to sushi that he decided to open his own restaurant. It’s a casual, laid-back venue serving sashimi, nigiri and specialty rolls, as well as beer, wine and sake.
Day 2: Drive to Mammoth Hot Springs and stay in Gardiner
On the morning of day 2 you’re going to drive to Mammoth Springs, which takes about 1 hour 30 minutes. You’ll stay in Gardiner for a night, which is right on the edge of the North Entrance.
Breakfast at Farmers Daughters
Farmer’s Daughters is part of the RSVP Hotel and serves healthy food at reasonable prices. It’s a really bright, airy spot with wishbone chairs and stylish decor – the perfect place to start your day. On the menu you’ll find fresh smoothies, juices, breakfast items, salads and sandwiches.
Mammoth Hot Springs
Now that you’ve lined your stomach it’s time to drive to Yellowstone National Park! Put “Mammoth Springs” into your GPS and get ready to see one of Yellowstone’s best attractions.
As you enter the park you’ll drive through The Roosevelt Arch; an enormous stone archway that was constructed in 1903. The inscription on the top of the arch reads, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
This large complex of hot springs sits on a hill of travertine (a form of terrestrial limestone) at the park’s Northern Entrance. Over thousands of years, hot water from the spring cooled and deposited calcium carbonate, forming the terraces that you see today. It’s an incredible sight to see, so make sure you get your camera out!
When visiting the springs you can walk on boardwalks above the steaming geothermal area or take a drive around the travertine terraces. You can’t swim in the hot springs.
Drive along Upper Terrace Drive, which is a one mile loop with a few parking spots along the way. On the route you’ll see the main terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, as well as views of Fort Yellowstone and the Gardiner River.
Make sure you stay on the boardwalk, designated trails, or roads at all times. Allow yourself about an hour to explore the area.
If you have time, you could try a hike in the area; check out this list of hikes created by the National Park Service. You could also pop your swimsuit on and go for a swim in the Boiling River (if it’s open). This is one of the very few places where you’re permitted to swim in Yellowstone.
Where to stay in Mammoth Springs
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins is the only hotel in the hot springs area. There are also two campgrounds – Mammoth Campground and Indian Creek Campground. You’ll have more options if you drive over to Gardiner, which is just outside the edge of the park.
Comfort Inn Yellowstone North – This is the hotel we booked. It’s actually now been renamed Antler Lodge. Facilities include a fitness center, free high-speed WiFi, guest laundry, plus there’s a free hot breakfast. If you want to grab lunch or dinner you can visit the on-site restaurant, Antler Pub & Grill.
Yellowstone Riverside Cottages – Located on the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone Gateway Inn offers 5 cottages, 7 suites, and 4 studios. All of the cottages and suites have a kitchen, while the studios have a kitchenette. This means you can cook your own meals instead of eating out all the time. The hotel also has a large deck and pergola overlooking the river, Yellowstone National Park and The Roosevelt Arch.
Yellowstone Gateway Inn – Hotel offering apartment-style suites with kitchens and separate living rooms. Dogs are permitted in select rooms, although there’s a pet fee of $15 or $20 per night depending on the room.
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel – This is the only hotel at Mammoth Springs; the rest are in Gardiner. Built in 1936, the hotel offers a variety of room types including deluxe rooms, suites and cabins with hot tubs. On-site facilities include a dining room, terrace grill and bar, as well a ski shop offering lessons and equipment.
Day 3: Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful, drive through Gallatin Canyon
After a night in Gardiner it’s time to some more of Yellowstone’s best attractions, including Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful.
Grand Prismatic Spring
With its bright bands of orange, yellow and green, Grand Prismatic Spring is the most photographed feature of Yellowstone National Park. The spring gets its colorful hues from various types of heat-loving microbes that live around the edges of the spring. The center of the pool is incredibly deep and sterile due to the extreme heat, giving it a deep blue color.
Measuring 370 meters in diameter, it’s the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world.
In addition to Grand Prismatic Spring, you should also pay a visit to Excelsior Geyser, Turquoise Pool and Opal Pool, which are all close by in the Midway Geyser Basin.
This is the most famous geyser in Yellowstone Park. Geysir eruptions usually last between 1.5 to 5 minutes and they can vary from 100-180 feet in height. A ranger station records the time and length of each eruption to predict the next one, usually with a high degree of accuracy.
Intervals between eruptions range from 60-110 minutes so you may find yourself waiting around a while to see the next one. The viewing area has benches though, so you can sit comfortably while you wait. Old Faithful usually erupts around 20 times per day so it’s really just a waiting game.
Being such a popular attraction, Old Faithful can get very crowded making it difficult to get a good viewpoint. Try to avoid peak times of the day and go in the morning.
Drive back to Bozeman via Gallatin Canyon
Now it’s time to make your way back to Bozeman via the Gallatin Canyon. You’ll basically drive out the West Entrance and along 191 US 191 N towards Bozeman, driving through the canyon. It’s a jaw-dropping sight!
The road is lined with towering walls on either side and the Gallatin River flows right along side it. Definitely a beautiful drive. If you have the time you can stop for activities such as fishing, kayaking and white water rafting.
If you have 4 days or more…
If you’re flying home the following day you could easily got to Bozeman Hot Springs before heading to the airport since they often open super early in the morning around 5.30 or 6am. A soak and a swim would be a great way to relax and unwind before your trip to the airport.
If you have some more days I’d suggest spending more time in Yellowstone Park or organizing a horseback ride! We actually didn’t have much luck organizing a trail ride since it was a bank holiday weekend. None of the ranches answered our emails or calls, but you can give these a try:
Ranches around Bozeman and Yellowstone that advertise horseback riding:
Renting a car in Bozeman
Car rentals are rather expensive in Bozeman, so be on the lookout for deals. We found our deal on Hotwire but you can also check Priceline, RentalCars.com and Kayak for deals.
When you arrive at Bozeman Airport, the car rental desks are inside the baggage claim area at arrivals on the left. The process was fairly quick and easy and we were in our car within about 20 minutes. We purchased the optional Roadside Assistance, just because the man working on the desk said sometimes people end up with flat tyres and other issues when they’re inside the National Park.
What kind of car do I need for visiting Yellowstone?
Any car is suitable because the roads are paved, so choose whatever’s most comfortable to drive and sit in for a few hours.
Tips for for visiting Yellowstone National Park
Book Yellowstone accommodation well in advance – I can’t stress this enough, book your accommodation well in advance, especially if you want to visit during summer, which is peak season. Yellowstone is one of the most visited National Parks in the U.S and hotels within the park get booked up over a year in advance. If you’re booking close to your visit, you may be able to find accommodation in towns outside the park, such as Gardiner or West Yellowstone.
Plan your route carefully – Don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to drive from one place to another. Use Google Maps to calculate driving times and distances.
Follow the rules – Don’t litter, don’t approach the animals and make sure you follow the rules that are on the signposts.
Watch out for animals – When you’re driving, always watch out for animals in the road. Also watch out for traffic jams from people slowing down to watch the animals.
Try to wake up early – The earlier you get up, the better. There’ll be less cars on the road and less tourists at all the attractions if you can set off around 6 or 7am. You’ll also be able to pack more things into your day. The park is busiest around 10am till sundown.
Check for road closures – Some roads are only open in summer. If there’s inclement weather, roads may be closed or there may be traffic. Check for road closures and watch the weather forecast.
Sunset and sunrise are the best times for viewing wildlife – These are the times when animals are most active and looking for food.
Educate yourself about bears – Learn what to do if you see a bear because there are many of them all over the park. If you stick to the main attractions you’re not likely to see a bear but you should still know what to do if you see one. Back away slowly and never run from a bear. Check out this handy guide for bear tips.
Which Yellowstone entrance is closest to Bozeman?
Yellowstone’s North Entrance is the closest entrance to Bozeman.
Is Bozeman a good base for Yellowstone?
Absolutely. There’s a reason it’s called Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport! Bozeman is definitely a good base for starting your journey to Yellowstone and it takes just 1 hour 30 minutes to get to Mammoth Springs and about 1 hour 45 minutes to get to the West Entrance.
Is Bozeman Montana worth visiting?
Bozeman is a small city with a handful of attractions so I’d say you only need 1 or 2 days to explore the downtown area. That being said, it has some fantastic restaurants and breweries, and if you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you’ll find plenty to do here. Surrounded by mountains and forests, Bozeman is a great base for exploring Montana’s landscape, as well as Yellowstone National Park. White water rafting, fly fishing, skiing and biking are just some of the activities you can do near Bozeman.
A final word…
Montana is a beautiful place with stunning mountain scenery. From the moment you drive out of the airport, prepare to be amazed at how picturesque it is. Bozeman is a really convenient place to start your Yellowstone trip and you can definitely see quite a few things in 3 days if you only have a long weekend.
This Yellowstone itinerary covers some of the major National Park sights and some of the best places to eat and drink in Bozeman. With a few more days you could have a more leisurely trip and incorporate some outdoor activities into your itinerary. However long you have, the journey from Bozeman to Yellowstone is worth it.