Interesting, beautiful places to stay near, but outside of Yellowstone?
August 15, 2018 7:26 AM   Subscribe

My folks' 50th wedding anniversary is coming up, and they've expressed an interest in a family trip west, preferably to Yellowstone or nearby. I'm trying to help with this, and need some advice.

This will be happening the last two weeks of June or in early July 2019, and it's possible the in-park historic lodge options are likely already booked up (I am still looking into this). I'm looking for some suggestions for other nearby resort / hotel / lodge options that rise above being bland / tourist traps / nodes of rote, packaged, industrial tourism.

Some particulars:

* 10 people altogether, ranging in age from 6 to 76. Some nearby activities for the four kids (ages 6, 8[2x], and 11) would be ideal. Mobility issues are not a concern.

* We will need 3 rooms, possibly 4, with private bathrooms.

* Prioritizing time spent outside vs. time spent driving [either ourselves or in shuttles, etc.] once we are there.

* We have 3 vegetarians.

* Setting price aside for the time being to get the largest palette of options.

* Strong interest in local + natural history / hiking / swimming / biking / sitting around in beautiful spots.

Thanks in advance, hivemind - I know nothing about the area and welcome any suggestions that help us pull this off!
posted by ryanshepard to Travel & Transportation around United States (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
We stayed at Alpine Lodge in Red Lodge, MT a few summers ago. It is a cute little town; most of the activities are outdoor, but there is also a wildlife refuge that the kids might find interesting. We had no problems as vegetarians.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 7:53 AM on August 15, 2018

A number of years ago we road-tripped to Yellowstone. Cody, Wyoming is the closest town on the east side and is doable for day trips, though I don't remember it being all that nice (it leans a bit heavily on Western kitsch, to the point of having a daily staged gunfight which startled the hell out of us). Red Lodge, Montana is much nicer, but is a lot further from the park than it looks -- the road between the park crosses 11,000' Beartooth Pass and is no joke. Even outside from getting in and out of the park, you'll be doing considerable driving within the park itself, which is enormous.
posted by irrelephant at 7:53 AM on August 15, 2018

Stayed for one night at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Tetons, and man, its effing spectacular.

Looks like they do have some availability (though not for mountain-view lodge rooms on the date i picked, and though the price is steep.)
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:59 AM on August 15, 2018

We stayed in West Yellowstone, MT and really enjoyed it. Very close to the park and a nice little town.
posted by Rad_Boy at 9:00 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yellowstone is all about driving around and waiting in line for the parking lot to see the sights, and stopping on the side of the road to see wildlife while people behave dangerously around cars and take selfies, and avoiding selfie-takers pushing you into geysers. (But it's really cool! Just be aware it's really big and really crowded, esp. in June/July.)

There's plenty of hiking, you need bear spray for anything not near tourist areas. There are horsie rides and raft trips, and some guided boat tours near the lake. There are very few bike paths. I never did the hot spring swimming thing. There are no shuttles per se, just commercial bus tours.

Make sure you understand the lodging options because they're all different. Lake Yellowstone Hotel might is probably least crowded, but there isn't much to do. Old Faithful is a big complex and you can walk a paved path to several geothermal features. But since you'll be driving anyway, staying outside of the park might give you more dining/shopping/etc options, although you'd miss the verisimilitude of the lodges.

IMHO, the Grand Teton lodges have better food (different vendor). There are some hiking paths that go around the lake to the mountains, and it's a drop-dead gorgeous area.

If you were going earlier in the year, I'd say consider Zion or Grand Canyon, which have excellent shuttle systems.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:06 AM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's pretty much all two-lane roads. You'll spend a lot of time driving. Traffic jams inside the park are frequent and unavoidable. Any wildlife larger than a rabbit that is visible from the road will cause a jam. Rangers spend a lot of time shooing people along so they don't block the travel lane while they gawk at the first of the dozens of elk or deer that they're going to see in the park. Bison on the road cause gridlock.

We went last Summer, and overall, it was a good experience. Spectacular scenery, but I got overexposed to geysers after a while. Also, they smell bad.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:22 AM on August 15, 2018

The rates for lodges within the parks are set for the season with the approval of the National Park Service, so the "good" news is that if, say, Yellowstone Lake Hotel or the Old Faithful Inn have availability you are assured that you're not getting ripped off (well, more ripped off). Lodges, resorts, and hotels outside the parks vary their rates seasonally and according to peak travel, so staying outside the park might not save you any money. FWIW Yellowstone Lake Hotel was renovated a few years ago and it's very much targeting a five star sort of experience (well, as five star as you're ever going to get from a park concessionaire). Old Faithful Inn is beautiful and more or less historic (depending on which wing you stay in), but there are many room types and sizes and the prices vary accordingly.

As other people have said, though, there's a whole lot of driving in that area. You should allow an hour to drive between any of Yellowstone's major developed areas, and the parking at some features can be a huge mess. We bailed out of one rather than hover for parking, and when we saw the mess at another one we decided to add it as a stop on our way out of the park the next morning. If the goal is to see Yellowstone you'll save (some) time and driving by staying within the park, but you'll still end up doing a lot of driving between the major areas in the park.

Grand Teton National Park is indeed quite beautiful and well worth visiting on its own merits but if I were planning a trip to Yellowstone I'd want to stay in Yellowstone and not have the extra driving to do every day.
posted by fedward at 9:56 AM on August 15, 2018

>> bland / tourist traps / nodes of rote
Understand that the closer you get to Yellowstone/Grand Teton, the more touristy things will become. As noted above, Cody has some interesting things, but gets very touristy this time of year.

I would definitely recommend the drive through Y/GT, it's not to be missed. But it will be very crowded, and (by the standards of a National Park) to my taste, somewhat touristy. I don't know that staying in the park would be my ultimate objective.

>> Strong interest in local + natural history
Really? There's a lot of places in Wyoming that are interesting - and small, out-of-the way - along the route that you might be taking. There's the Medicine Wheel near Lovell, a dinosaur tracksite near Greybull, a dinosaur dig and museum in Thermopolis (and hot springs for swimming), and my personal favorite, Fossil Butte National Monument south of Y/GT. A lot of the towns also have nice museums with interesting local history, and the museum in Cody is excellent for Western art, natural history, and archaeology. You will doubtless pass through National Forests that offer non-crowded, non-touristy hiking, camping, and photography opportunities. If any of this sounds interesting, I could elaborate or provide links.

>> Setting price aside for the time being
Well, heck, that would be Jackson. ;>) Seriously, Jackson is fun if you're looking for a bit more upscale experience.
posted by dono at 11:08 AM on August 15, 2018

So one thing your framing of the question about tourist traps and industrialized tourism makes me want to address that I think you may not totally realize:

The area where Yellowstone is located is rural and remote. There is nothing within an hour's drive of the parks there other than towns that basically exist to lodge and feed park visitors. They are "touristy" in the sense that there are a lot of hotels and some restaurants in what are otherwise fairly empty regions of Montana and Wyoming, but there are few tourist attractions in the towns themselves, especially the ones closest to the park. So you could stay someplace like Cody that has a lot more going on, e.g., but it's an hour outside the park, so if your desire is to maximize time in Yellowstone and minimize driving you might consider staying in a boring location closer to the park, like Gardiner.

Jackson is the most "resorty" and upscale of the towns nearby. They also have a cool wildlife art museum. It's still a good hour+ drive from Yellowstone though.
posted by phoenixy at 2:18 PM on August 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT (about 80 miles away from the north edge of Yellowstone) is absolutely amazing for kids and adults alike. It's also one of the closest airports, so I would plan on either arriving there or leaving there.

Yellowstone is enormous. If you're not planning on staying in the park, you should be planning to split your time among the cities that border it, eg: some time in Gardiner, some time in West Yellowstone, some time in Jackson; because driving across the entire park one way is likely to take up half a day or longer.
posted by meowzilla at 2:45 PM on August 15, 2018

If Yellowstone is booked up, and if you're flexible on location, you might consider Durango, CO as an alternate location? Still a little touristy, but nothing like the massive crowds and traffic jams of Yellowstone, and there's lots of hiking, rafting, biking, horseback riding, and kayaking, plus touristy-but-fun-for-kids things like old-timey railroad excursions. I've been to Mesa Verde twice, once at age 8 and once as an adult, and it was a fascinating trip, both times. Definitely not as big as Yellowstone, so there's not as much to do, and you can see most of Mesa Verde in two or three days, so you'd maybe split your time between Durango and environs and the park... but, on the flipside, fewer crowds, really cool history, and I think they have plenty of lodging availability -- on my more recent trip, I stayed at the Far View Lodge overnight, and it was really quite lovely, especially the stargazing.
posted by halation at 4:36 PM on August 15, 2018

Try to find an airbnb in Livingston MT. its a comfortable 1 hour drive from Yellowstone through one of the most beautiful valleys in the world, and the town itself is lively and charming.
posted by Grandysaur at 10:19 PM on August 15, 2018

Several years ago we rented a cabin on the Yellowstone River just outside of Gardiner, MT. It was about a 10 minute drive to the park and it accommodated a family of five easily. There are a number of cabins that are pretty new and well maintained.

You can do a search for Yellowstone River Bend Cabins and it should turn up.

We have also stayed in the park at various spots, and while staying in the park is usually more interesting, the cabin had its charms which included the sound of rushing water through the night.
posted by mygoditsbob at 5:04 AM on August 16, 2018

If you have two weeks, I would try to see both Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. If you have no experience with that area, the Tetons are just incredible and not to be missed. I camped when I was there last year so I can't offer advice on lodging, but please, see both. They're not far from each other.

With ten people, I'm guessing you'll be in more than one vehicle? Check with your carrier, but it's very likely you will have no cell service in the park, so do not expect to be able to make plans that way. It's almost certain you will have no data except in some of the hotels. The park only has wifi at a few of the hotels, and you have to pay for it. So if kids need games or videos to be entertained, plan ahead.

Cody is boring and I definitely would not use it as a home base. If you can't stay in the park, find something park-adjacent (West Yellowstone most likely) and plan to drive a lot. There's just no way around this; the park is huge. If you're not going to the Tetons, then Bozeman would make a fine place to stay if you don't want to spend all 2 weeks in the park. As someone noted, the Museum of the Rockies is perfect for someone interested in natural history. It's a college town so it doesn't have a particularly touristy feel. There are tons of outdoor things to do in the surrounding area - biking, hiking, fly fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, rock climbing, mountaineering. You could easily spend two weeks doing all of that within 25 miles. I used to work here and that's the place to go for advice and equipment.

I can't recommend a specific place to stay because I haven't been there in years, but there are hotels and resorts in all price ranges. I'm sure there are whole houses available for rent, especially south of town in Big Sky, where lots of rich people have vacation homes they use for skiing.
posted by AFABulous at 4:33 PM on August 16, 2018

Chico Hot Springs Resort in Pray, MT is lovely for kids and adults and is about 50 minutes from Yellowstone’s north entrance. I would not want to drive from there to the park daily, but it is a nice diversion in and of itself.

Check the park lodges for cancellations frequently as you may be able to get a few rooms even if booked up now. Canyon Lodge has many rooms and seems to have openings frequently.
posted by loopsun at 5:15 PM on August 16, 2018

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