Old Faithful Inn at night

Demand makes Yellowstone overnight trip planning a challenge

Unless you made your reservations months ago, a Yellowstone overnight trip in 2021 will be a challenge, with lodging virtually sold out for the summer and available regional housing on the expensive side.

If you’ve checked travelyellowstone.com and expected to see some sort of housing options available only to find the Park sold out for virtually the entire summer season—even the expensive suites at Lake and Mammoth—you are now in the position of crafting a new itinerary that doesn’t include a convenient stay at Old Faithful Inn or Mammoth. But, like most of us, you missed your 2020 visit and after a year holed up in home, you are itching for a Yellowstone trip. So plan ahead you must.

We cannot stress enough how important it is to have a game plan for your Yellowstone overnight trip, especially at a time when all accommodations in the Park, including campgrounds, are filled to capacity. That means having a plan but also the flexibility to change it.

In past years you could count on a decent number of lodging cancelations a week or two out: folks would make a Yellowstone reservation months in advance and then drop it right before their trip. Xanterra addressed this by adding a small cancelation fee to dropped reservations, but that doesn’t stop the practice from continuing. In the past, you were usually rewarded by obsessively checking the Yellowstone reservations website for such cancelations, but with 2021 shaping up to be such an unusual year, it’s hard to predict whether there will be a large number of cancelations. (So far, no.) The other wild card this summer: whether Xanterra adds more lodges and rooms to available Yellowstone inventory. Not every lodge is fully open, and some, like the cabins at Roosevelt Lodge, may still open this year. (A number of factors determine whether more lodging will be available, including worker availability.) So keep watching the listings for availability.

Cooke City

Still, the smart move is to have a backup plan in case no Park lodging becomes available. So you’ll be looking at staying outside the Park in a gateway city. This isn’t necessarily the worst situation. Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Cooke City (which is surprisingly unchanged from the above vintage postcard) all offer a range of lodging options at a variety of price points. In Gardiner, traditional hotel rooms will run you $240 a night and more, but availability for summer 2021 is already tight. Traditional hotel rooms and cabins in West Yellowstone in 2021 run a wider range of prices, and availability is tight for June. (Hint—less than 20 miles up the road from West Yellowstone is Big Sky, with cheaper rooms and plenty of vacancies.) There are also plenty of houses and cabins for rent via AirBnB and VRBO.

An underrated destination is Cooke City, where the offerings may be a little more rustic and remote from the busier parts of Yellowstone but definitely comfortable. Take, for example, Big Moose Resort, located right outside of town. Cabins run between $135 and $150 a night, but you are not roughing it with satellite TV and WiFi available. In town, rooms at the Super 8 go for $159 a night, while rooms at the Alpine Hotel and Soda Butte Lodge can be found at a slightly cheaper rate. No, nothing in Cooke City will be fancy, but the town is very pleasant, and the location is great. There are also plenty of houses and rooms (like those offered at Silver Gate’s Range Rider’s Lodge) for rent via AirBnB and VRBO.

Also featuring a lot of availability so far is lodging at Grand Teton, though the prices are fairly steep for Jackson Lake Lodge or Headquarters Lodge–$320 or more a night for a cabin with two queens. You’ll find similarly priced options farther south in Jackson, where a room at a Motel 6—even one modernized with Ikea-like furnishings—will run you $286 a night plus taxes. And, of course, you can stay at a gateway community farther afield, such as Cody or Bozeman, which definitely turns your Yellowstone visit into a series of day trips.

This is an unusual year for Yellowstone National Park travel. Be prepared to be flexible in your planning, and definitely lay in a game plan before committing to that Yellowstone overnight trip.

Photo of Old Faithful Inn by Jacob W. Frank, courtesy National Park Service. It was taken in 2017.

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