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Yellowstone in September Itinerary Help

We are flying into Bozeman for a 6 or so night stay in the Yellowstone area. I am feeling overwhelmed with how we should divide up our stay to see the the sites and work in a few nice long hikes. I am currently thinking:
1. Day 1 Arrive in Gardiner, MT early evening
2. Day 2 in the park, night 2 in Gardiner and check out
3. Day 3 in the park , night 3 in the park at Canyon Lodge (due to currently being the only available option) Prefer 1 night due to the cost, but maybe 2 if cheaper room opens up
4. Day 4 in park, night 4 in West Yellowstone
5. Day 5 in park, night 5 in West Yellowstone
4. Night 6 and day 6 in Bozeman before heading home on day 7

My husband and I are not into crowds, of course want to see geysers and animals but don't want to spend our whole day in the car. Would love some longish hikes and "hidden gems" to avoid the high tourist areas
Can you help with some suggestions of how to split up the regions between the 4 full days in the park?

Posted by
850 posts

September won't be crazy busy in Yellowstone.
Because of its altitude, there is often snow by mid-month, and things start to close down.
I was there in early Sept. a couple of years ago. Lodging choices in the park open up daily as people who reserved early decide to not go, so keep checking.
The NP website is the best place to look for ideas--consider taking a ranger walk, we enjoyed them and they were very informative.

Posted by
20 posts

We did a South Dakota/Wyoming trip last fall that included 4 nights in Gardiner (starting 9/15) to explore Yellow Stone. It wasn’t as crowded as the summer where you can have bumper to bumper traffic but it was still very busy. We got a great deal on a one bedroom unit with full kitchen at the travel lodge in Gardiner so we just based there. It was a drive to parts of the park like Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I think basing your self in a couple of different areas is a good idea. I would have stayed in Gardiner/near old faithful and near Yellowstone lake to hit the major areas of the park. I agree with the above posters that rooms were available while we were there that were not when we booked - the prices were still fairly high but you are paying for location. The most crowded was old faithful geyser area, the Grand Canyon area and Mammoth Hot Springs. Some of the other parking areas around other major attractions particularly in the Geyser area were still full requiring you to circle a few times to get a spot. You will want to check about any road closures as some roads were closed or had delays due to construction. We did of course encounter some delays due to wildlife but that was actually fairly exciting. We had great weather and thoroughly enjoyed the park. Enjoy!

Posted by
1701 posts

As was mentioned, the NP Guide is an excellent resource for roads and trails in the park, and the park website has pretty good detail regarding the various hikes.
Our particular "hidden gem" is the Mary Mountain/Nez Perce trail that cuts thru the southern part of the park from west to east. Starting at the trailhead just south of Madison Junction, the mostly flat trail winds thru some of the prettiest scenery in Yellowstone. It parallels Nez Perce Creek and essentially traces the route taken by Chief Joseph and his band when they transited the park trying to escape from the Army in 1877. There's an excellent story board just south of the junction that explains what happened there - it's worth a stop. Along the way you'll pass several hot springs that drain across the trail and into the creek - take care not to get too close. We've done the trail several times and have always seen buffalo in the meadow about 30 minutes into the hike. Be sure to give them plenty of room - they can get pretty testy if you approach too close on foot, which is a whole different experience from viewing them at a distance from inside your car. About 4 miles in you'll cross the creek on an ancient bridge and then enter the forest for the remainder of the hike. There's a picturesque picnic spot about a quarter mile after the bridge that makes for a good turnaround point if you don't want to proceed any further. One note: the trail is occassionally closed due to grizzly bear activity in late September ... particularly if there's been a recent kill. Do bring bear spray for any hikes into the back country.
Another excellent resource is the National Geographic Trail Map (number 201) for Yellowstone - has all of the trails delineated in much greater detail than the park map, along with mileage splits.

Posted by
158 posts

Doug, this in the "Beyond Europe" section of the forum. : )

Martina, Gardiner entrance is the lowest portion of the park. It's bit more "scrub-brushy" compared to the forests, meadows and rolling plains you'll find deeper inside the park/caldera. It's not a bad place for a base for forays into the northern portions of the park, but compared to what you'll see inside the park, it's not really a place I'd spend too much time "exploring". West Yellowstone is touristy and not what I'd call the best national park experience. I get that it has lots of lodging, and that's why people stay there, but if you can find lodging anyplace else, you might want to consider skipping that area. But, be warned. The park is huge, speed limit is 45 mph, so you WILL be spending decent amounts of time in the car if you want to see the cool stuff.

Obviously, Mammoth Hot Springs is the closest major point of interest to Gardiner. Worth a few hours to explore. But while you're in the north portion of the park, you really need to spend time in the Lamar Valley. That's where you'll see lots of critters, especially if you drive through there early in the morning or later in the afternoon/evening. Bison, pronghorn, both kinds of bears, wolves, and more. It's the area they call "America's Serengeti". Also, check out Roosevelt Lodge. There are cabins there, albeit a bit rustic. But it positions you closer to more of the more interesting areas of the park than Gardiner. Also a nice place to get dinner, or just relax on the porch of the main lodge with a beverage watching the afternoon colors change.

It gets much less crowded as you go east from there toward Cooke City. Exit the park through the northeast entrance and you can drive up Beartooth pass (about 11,000 ft!), with great hiking options along the way, or head toward Cody via the Sunlight Basin, which is also a gorgeous drive. If you want to get to get back to the heart of the park, drive from Roosevelt over Dunraven Pass, stopping at the lookouts along the way for glimpses of wolves and bear. That takes you to the Canyon area, where you'll find more crowds, but also opportunities to hike and see the falls and canyon. Really spectacular. If you can get lodging here, you'll be in an even more central spot to see the rest of the park.

Following the Yellowstone River toward Fishing Bridge, you'll drive through the Hayden Valley, where you'll see lots of buffalo. The Yellowstone Hotel area is nice and central to everything if you're staying there, but can be a bit crowded and less "wild" than what you may be looking for in a National Park experience. Obviously, the geyser basins are a major draw. Probably less people and more interesting hikes in the Lower Basin. But the Upper Basin has the iconic Old Faithful and a few others that are much easier to access. Driving toward the south entrance, you'll see less iconic Yellowstone sites, but also encounter less people.

Some people, after a few days in Yellowstone, want some variety of scenery. If that's the case, you could exit the south entrance, and head toward the Tetons, which I've seen dozens of times and still never disappoints.

Finally, Bozeman is a really cool town, with great restaurants and a fun vibe. If you can, try to spend some time there (as opposed to just making it your departure point).

Posted by
5 posts

thank you for the great tips! Unfortunately, Roosevelt lodge closes Sept 2 so that won't work as do the Lake Lodge Cabins. Yes, Gardiner is just a place to sleep for a couple of nights and we plan on spending the days in the park. My husband definitely does not "have" to see Old Faithful but we hope to see some less populated geyser viewing areas. We also like park visitor centers.

Posted by
7640 posts

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Day 1 Arrive in Gardiner, MT early evening

    Hopefully your plane arrives early enough so that you can get to Gardiner before dark? Yankee Jim Canyon north of Gardiner is chock-full of wildlife. September also starts the elk rut and they are kind of crazy!

  2. Day 2 in the park, night 2 in Gardiner and check out

    Head in to the park, head out east from Mammoth to the Lamar Valley for wildlife. I'd do this first instead of Mammoth as if it's still warm you'll have better wildlife luck early in the AM. Go out to at least Pebble Creek Campground before you turn around. Work your way back to Tower Junction and if you have time head south to Calcite Springs and Tower Fall before you head back to Mammoth. In June there were lots of Black Bear visible around Tower Junction to keep your eyes peeled. At Mammoth walk the Lower Terraces, drive the Upper Terraces. Hikes: Yellowstone River Picnic Area (just east of Tower Jct). Beaver Ponds at Mammoth. Bunsen Peak. ALL need bear spray.

  3. Day 3 in the park , night 3 in the park at Canyon Lodge (due to currently being the only available option) Prefer 1 night due to the cost, but maybe 2 if cheaper room opens up

    I look at the Yellowstone lodging literally every day. A bunch of Lake Lodge cabins just opened up so look there to see if anything is available. From Mammoth head East, then south over Dunraven Pass to the Canyon area. Work your overlooks on the South and North Rim drives, then go south thru Hayden Valley (wildlife) to Mud Volcano and the Lake area. There is road construction at Fishing Bridge altho it is coming along. In June it was awful but they have got some pavement down now. It might be OK to drive east to Lake Butte Overlook for a great view of the Lake and the Tetons. Hikes: Storm Point (parking is in the construction zone so a PIA). Elephant Back. Natural Bridge

  4. Day 4 in park, night 4 in West Yellowstone

    IF weather is fair - you might hike Mt Washburn from the Chittenden side. Dunraven TH for Washburn is to close in August for construction and may or may not be open yet. Do Norris Geyser Basin and Artist Paint Pots

  5. Day 5 in park, night 5 in West Yellowstone

    Geyser Day! Download the app from GeyserTimes.org before you travel. Update it from your hotel room as there is no service until you get in to OF. Start at OF, walk the Upper Basin trying to see some of the predictable geysers. Pop in to the OF Inn lobby. In the afternoon work your way back to West Yellowstone via the smaller basins and scenic side drives. Midway Geyser Basin has horrible parking problems and loads of tour buses. Try to do this as late in the afternoon as you can if you want to see Grand Prismatic. Don't do it in the AM because the steam from overnight's cold temps will obscure the colors.

  6. Night 6 and day 6 in Bozeman before heading home on day 7

    Hike on the way back to Bozeman - consider Ouzel Falls in the Big Sky area. Nice museum at Montana State - Museum of the Rockies. You could also go back in to the park and hike Fairy Falls or Mystic Falls.

Septembers have gotten busier over the last few years. Not as busy as July and August but nearly as busy as June. So far there has not been much in the way of wildland fire smoke in the park this year. There may be some in Sept altho the night cool off enough by mid-Sept that that puts a damper on fire behavior.

Have a wonderful time. I go every year at least once. This year I went in June and am going back in 2 weeks.

Posted by
7640 posts

Regarding the suggestion of the Mary Mountain trail - every time I've driven by there the last few years it's been closed. There is a lot of bear activity back in there so if it is open and you choose to do it both of you need bear spray and to be completely comfortable with bear safety precautions. NPS recommends hikers go in groups of 3.

Posted by
1962 posts

In September 2017, we flew into Bozeman, rented a car, and drove to Gardiner. We spent 3 nights in the Riverside Cottages. We loved staying there; but the business has been sold and I have no idea if the new owners are as good as the originals. We had a great day driving through and exploring the Lamar Valley, and a slightly disappointing day driving to Old Faithful. I say "disappointing" because Old Faithful was just too crowded and I wish we had checked out at least one of the less crowded geyser trails we passed on our way to Old Faithful.

Then we drove through Yellowstone to Jackson, WY, and spent a couple of days enjoying Grand Teton NP. Jackson is a foodie paradise, especially Bin 22. Grand Teton may lack the "must see" attractions of Yellowstone, but the mountain range is beautiful and we enjoyed our time there before flying home from Jackson.

You might consider Grand Teton instead of West Yellowstone and flying home from Jackson instead of Bozeman.

Posted by
1701 posts

Regarding the Mary Mountain Trail: the park website is showing that it's open as of the most recent update on 7/29.
It's one of the longest trails in the park at 21 miles and goes deep into the back country once you cross Nez Perce Creek at the 4 mile mark. I really wouldn't go any further than that unless you're very experienced hikers and are comfortable with procedures in bear country. The trail up to that point is pretty user-friendly for casual hikers - mostly out in the open with clear fields of view of what's ahead and off to the side of you, so you're unlikely to disturb or startle any wildlife along the way - you and the animals will have plenty of warning.
That said, I'd take any bear warnings seriously and avoid or vacate any area where activity has been reported, especially in September when they're actively foraging for food before bedding down for winter.
And as was mentioned, take bear spray with you for any hikes in Yellowstone ... whether the trails are posted or not.

Posted by
5 posts

Thank you all so much for your ideas and input. I hope to see bears only from a distance!

Canyon Lodge is of course filled up the night(s) we were hoping to be there on Sept. 17th. If nothing opens up in the park before then, is it reasonable to stay at one of the motels just past the east entrance for Night 3 and then head in for the canyon related sites?

Posted by
464 posts

Martina,

Even Sept can be a busy time in Yellowstone.

If you have not already reserved hotel rooms for every night of your trip you need to. I’ve seen West Yellowstone motels sell out, even in September.

Travel safe,

One Fast Bob

Posted by
7640 posts

I'd recommend checking that Xanterra website multiple times a day. When you are on the computer just open a tab with the booking page. Just yesterday a whole bunch of things popped open for Lake Lodge in part of September. They have been doing some reno there so it looks like they got some stuff finished early. Your best chance is 30 or so days out (I start checking often at about 35 days out) as Xanterra imposes a cancellation fee less than 30 days out so you'll have a flurry of cancellations then. You are booking directly with Xanterra and not using one of the 3rd party res sites, right? The 3rd party sites charge a 10% fee and have horrible cancellation. I also check often in the late evening after the Xanterra phone line closes and in the early AM before they open. That way you can get cancellations before the reservations nab them. Phone lines are open 8-5 I think (and close for lunch). If you call they may also be able to release ADA rooms. If things are full and the ADA rooms are still available they will release them about 30 days out.

If you stay at a gateway town, the ones that I most often recommend are Gardiner and West Yellowstone which you've already got. I do not recommend staying out the East entrance toward Wapiti or Cody - just waste too much time driving back and forth on that east entrance road AND Sylvan Pass on that road is often the 2nd location to close if there is wintry weather. (Dunraven Pass is usually first.) At this time in September you are already edging in to chancy weather. The lower elevations will be fine, mountain passes may get a skiff of snow. You could easily do either 3 nights in Gardiner or West Yellowstone and 2 in the other location.

Out the NE entrance are Cooke City/Silvergate which are fine if you know you want to spend time in Lamar Valley sitting and waiting on wildlife. It's not a location I recommend for 1st timers unless someone is coming in from the Dakotas.

Out the South entrance, the closest lodging is Headwaters which is a yucky location. Nothing there, only one restaurant, not convenient for either Yellowstone or Grand Tetons and they had a big fire there a few years ago so "fire scar" is not my favorite viewing opportunity, lol!

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks again, Pam. I have been checking throughout the day. Lake Lodge and Roosevelt are closed for the season at the time we are planning on going. Fingers crossed on Canyon. I'll try calling late or early - great idea!

Posted by
4207 posts

Great advice from Pam and hubestur above. Any chance you get, via cancellations or whatever, to sleep in the park (vs. a gateway town) would be a better experience, less time spent driving, closer to the best areas. My favorites would be Lamar Valley and Norris Geyser Basin, both relatively less visited than more famous areas. Old Faithful is certainly worth some time even though it may be crowded. The Lake cabins are good and very centrally located, if they're open. The Lake Hotel is probably what's closed. I agree that Cody would be a bad choice for a gateway, Gardiner and West Yellowstone are better. We'll be driving to the park in September for a few days so maybe we'll see you in front of some bison along the road somewhere! ;-)

Posted by
11502 posts

Yellowstone in Rick Steves’ Europe? Not sure I get it, but okay.

Doug, Martina has posted in the "Beyond Europe" forum where questions such as hers are welcome.

Posted by
7640 posts

Dick, Norris is pretty packed these days with Steamboat going with frequent eruptions (although the interval seems to be widening, darn it)! They've started designating overflow parking on the road at the junction and have cut a new trail from the roadside parking slots up to the main parking area so people don't have to walk along the entry road. The advantage to using the overflow parking is that it puts your car further away from the overspray when Steamboat does go! Still, even at that distance, I got spray all over my car in June and still can't get the particulate crud off the windshield. Fingers crossed it goes when you are there in Sept!

Martina, good luck. Check online at odd hours as the Xanterra reservations desk is only open during the day.

I'll add one more bit for anyone interested in geyser gazing. Download the free app from GeyserTimes.org to keep up with eruptions and prediction times. No service at Norris or Lower Basin but good cell service (Verizon) in the Upper Basin so you can keep track of the big erupters there and work them in to your viewing day.

Posted by
5 posts

Managed to snag a room for night 4 at Canyon so I'll have to rearrange some of the other nights. Managed to get the least expensive room so I am really hoping to snag the same room for night 3 as well!

Posted by
7640 posts

Excellent! Fingers crossed! It will be fairly easy to re-arrange your sights to accommodate your lodging.