Experiencing the beauty of Yellowstone National Park is perhaps the pinnacle of all 60 USA national parks. Breathtaking panoramic landscapes, a myriad of wildlife residing in their natural habitats and a plethora of geothermal activity makes Yellowstone one of the most frequently visited national parks across the US. If you are visiting the states of Wyoming, Idaho or Montana, Yellowstone should be on your radar. During our recent visit to Montana, we decided to embark on an ambitious day trip from Billings to Yellowstone to explore not only the beauty of this national park but everything in between.
If you are heading south from Billings or other nearby location, we hope the following itinerary will intrigue you to check out some of the iconic landmarks along this route, including the infamous Beartooth Highway. Let’s take a look at why we think this day trip is one that will long live in your memory.
Billings to Yellowstone National Park
With five different entrances into the park, there are unique experiences waiting for you in every direction. If you read what has turned out to be our most popular post when we highlighted an epic road trip from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone, you will know that entering the park via the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole is an incredibly scenic route.
However, we wanted to focus on another area which we now consider to be equally spectacular. It’s fair to say that regardless of the direction you enter Yellowstone, you are in for a real treat because the inherent beauty of this national park is what makes it such a popular attraction.
If you are staying in Billings and intrigued by the thought of heading to Yellowstone, you will be faced with a couple of different options in terms of reaching the national park. This will likely be dependent on which entrance you want to enter Yellowstone.
For us, there is really only one route worth taking and that is via the iconic Beartooth Highway. Before we go into detail on this route, please be aware that you will be traveling to elevations of over 10,000 feet and so it’s always worth checking before you venture out to see if the road is open. Here are the highlights worth exploring along this route:
- Billings, Montana
- Red Lodge, Montana
- Beartooth Highway
- Lamar Valley – Yellowstone NP
- Hayden Valley – Yellowstone NP
- Old Faithful
Before venturing on this road trip, why not head over to one of many amazing local coffee shops in Billings to provide energy for what will turn out to be a long day exploring this part of the US. Billings is home to your traditional chain coffee shops such as Starbucks, but it’s the local establishments such as Mazevo, MoAV, City Brew Coffee and more that should attract your attention.
If you have some time to explore Billings before heading out on your road trip, take the scenic drive north of the city to the bluffs (also known as the “Scenic Rimrock Road”) to enjoy spectacular landscape scenery overlooking the urban area and beyond. Pictograph Cave State Park is a popular spot among visitors to the area, as this is where you can learn all about the life of Montana’s ancestors from over 2,000 years ago.
Riverfront Park is an area of green space in this predominantly urban region of Montana. This is the perfect spot to go for an early morning stroll along the banks of the Yellowstone River…later on, you will find out where the Yellowstone River runs through and creates iconic waterfalls in the national park! Don’t worry, the solitude of the river makes this an idyllic and relaxing environment for locals and visitors alike.
Red Lodge, Montana
Ready to set out on your adventure exploring the very best of Montana and the beautiful state of Wyoming? Hop on I-90 and head west until you reach exit 434 (Laurel and Red Lodge) and wave goodbye to the interstate as the rest of your journey will see you hit the back roads of Montana and the alpine passes across the Beartooth Highway.
Before you arrive at the gateway to what is frequently renowned as the “most beautiful drive in America” (Charles Kuralt), you can fill up with gas, grab a bite to eat and explore the small town of Red Lodge. This is the perfect town to be recognized as the “Gateway to Yellowstone National Park”, with a quaint feel and the locals offering a truly welcoming experience for anyone that passes through the town.
Home to the iconic Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary that houses a variety of species that you can usually find in the wild in Yellowstone, but are now being rehabilitated after being rescued due to injury. Those that remain within the confines of this sanctuary have been deemed to be “non-releasable” back into the Yellowstone ecosystem but despite not being able to head back to their natural habitat, they will enjoy the rest of their life in the knowledge that they will be cared for by a team of volunteers and staff that only have one goal in mind – to show love and care for these animals!
For over 30 years, Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary has been maintaining the highest level of care for 30+ animals and visitors can experience this collection of animals before hopefully having the opportunity to see their friends and family in the wild after passing through the entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
If you are interested in finding out more information, including hours of operation and exactly how you can help this organization, check out the following website for further details – Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary. Wildlife in Yellowstone is one of the key reasons why we LOVE this national park and to see a sanctuary thriving like this epitomizes everything there is to love about this region.
If you are looking to experience 68 miles of pure bliss and natural beauty, look no further than the incredible Beartooth Highway that connects the southern tip of Montana with the north-east entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
For those fortunate enough to experience this route (another reminder to check the road conditions before attempting to cross the Beartooth Highway as it is frequently closed due to inclement weather at the higher elevations on this route), you are in for a real treat and an experience that will long live in your memory.
The extraordinary Beartooth Highway is a seasonal indulgenceTravel Channel, https://www.travelchannel.com/interests/road-trips/articles/beartooth-highway
The first part of the drive is a progressive climb deep into the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains. There are several spots along this climb where you will want to get out and admire the scenery from the various overlooks on the side of the road. As you venture deeper into the mountains, the breathtaking plateaus offer irresistible views of the Northern Rockies and you continue to climb until you reach an elevation of 10,350 feet in the state of Montana. After crossing into Wyoming, you will climb slightly higher to a summit of 10,947 feet and it’s no surprise that this is the highest roadway in the Northern Rockies range.
The most notable aspect other than the picturesque scenery is the ever-changing climate change throughout the Beartooth Highway. During our journey, we left Red Lodge at a temperature of 70 degrees and by the time we reached the summit of the Highway, it was below 40 degrees. In such a short timeframe, you will see a dramatic temperature change, so be prepared with various layers of clothing before venturing out into the open landscape at over 10,000 feet and exploring the inherent beauty of the Beartooth Highway.
As we continued the journey into Wyoming and dropped elevation, we started stumbling across a series of mountain lakes, with crystal clear water that provided the perfect backdrop for a relaxing hike before continuing towards Yellowstone. In fact, the naked eye may only see a few of the mountain lakes, rivers and streams in this part of the US, but there are well over 10,000 in the region, varying in shape and size yet all with a common asset that they epitomize the natural beauty of the area.
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Welcome to Yellowstone National Park! The moment you pass through the north-east entrance and drive a short distance, you immediately enter the Lamar Valley region of the park which is infamous for being a haven for a diverse range of wildlife that chooses this area as their natural habitat.
If you have never seen bison, be prepared to be amazed by the amount that will likely be grazing close to the road that passes through the Lamar Valley. You may even need to stop as the bison cross the road or just decide to get “up close and personal” with your vehicle. Always take your time through this part of the park because you never know when you will need to stop or when you will need to be ready to capture that perfect wildlife sighting.
Bison are not the only wildlife in the Lamar Valley region, in fact, this is just the start of the many wildlife sightings you can anticipate experiencing. If you are fortunate enough to arrive in this area between the hours of 7 AM and 9 AM, this will increase the opportunities of seeing grizzly bears, the Junction Butte, and Lamar Canyon wolf packs, pronghorn deer and many more.
Even if you are not an early riser and venture into the Lamar Valley late morning as we did, you can still expect a diverse collection of wildlife to be residing in this area – we saw bison, coyotes, and deer before arriving at Tower Junction and heading south towards Canyon Village.
Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park
The most frequently visited area of Yellowstone National Park for wildlife sightings is the Hayden Valley area, close to Yellowstone Lake.
Renowned as being home to various herds of bison, grizzly/black bears, bull elk, bull moose among many others, the Hayden Valley landscape is the perfect habitat for these diverse species to thrive. You will find a number of spots along this drive where you can pull over and admire the wildlife at a safe distance. Always be aware of your surroundings and PLEASE understand that you are entering the habitat of these animals, rather than the opposite.
One of the highlight experiences that we encountered was watching a large herd of bison grazing by the river and just a short distance from the parking lot where we stopped. A Yellowstone National Park ranger was on hand to give everyone directions about staying close to their vehicles but willing to allow us to admire these beautiful creatures relax and capture a myriad of photographs.
When it comes to a wildlife paradise, Hayden Valley is perhaps the one spot you won’t want to miss if you are visiting Yellowstone. The beauty of this valley is that it is centrally located and easily accessible for all five entrances to the park. Part of the “loop” with Old Faithful, West Yellowstone, and Canyon Village, this is a stretch of road where you will likely want to allocate several hours to enjoy the wildlife sightings that you are pretty much guaranteed to encounter.
Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park
Driving from Hayden Valley will lead you across the Continental Divide and towards perhaps the most iconic landmark in Yellowstone – Old Faithful. A geothermal geyser that is one of the most predictable yet equally spectacular natural formations that erupts every 45-120 minutes. Located in the Upper Geyser Basin, an area that is full of geothermal activity, Old Faithful is the most infamous geyser on show but there are plenty others that don’t erupt quite as frequently but still offer awe-inspiring shows if you are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
Visitors to Old Faithful have the opportunity to experience the visitor center to learn all about the geothermal activity in the region while also learning about why Old Faithful was named as such in the late 19th-century. Head outside the visitor center to the viewing area and grab a seat to get the best seat in the house to enjoy a show that will last anywhere between 1 to 5 minutes. The eruption is anywhere from 100-180 feet but generally will be in the 130 feet region.
If you are visiting Old Faithful between the hours of Noon and 6 PM, please be prepared to experience large crowds and visitors from all across the globe see this as the highlight “pièce de résistance” attraction inside the national park.
A quick tip, head to other areas of the Upper Geyser Basin because there are several other spots where you can get much closer and enjoy amazing geothermal activities. We would argue that Old Faithful is not the best geyser in Yellowstone as there are several others that we consider to be more spectacular but in terms of status, no others can match this geothermal formation.
Having taken the iconic road trip between Salt Lake City and Yellowstone, we honestly didn’t think that the approach to America’s finest national park could get any more spectacular. However, after recently driving this route between Billings and Yellowstone across the iconic Beartooth Highway, we have found an alternative drive that is equally spectacular. Neither Montana nor Wyoming may be US states that you immediately think about visiting but after reading this post, we are convinced you may well be changing your opinion…the beauty of both is something that you cannot afford to miss.
It goes without saying, Yellowstone’s wildlife encounters are an unforgettable experience. I would argue that having the opportunity to see bison and bears in their natural habitat is almost as enjoyable as an African safari but wildlife sightings aren’t the only reason why this day trip is so enjoyable. The panoramic landscapes from over 10,000 feet along with the calming solitude of the mountain lakes on the Beartooth Highway is something we could appreciate for hours.
We hope you have the opportunity to experience this amazing drive and look forward to hearing about your experiences. Have you experienced the Beartooth Highway before? What are your favorite Yellowstone National Park wildlife sightings? Do you think Old Faithful is the best geyser in Yellowstone? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!