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National parks, for me, carry sweet, nostalgic memories. Not only are the vistas etheral and have an instantaneous soothing effect, they are the background of the slideshow of my youth.
At a ripe age of 1, I embarked on my first trip: a road trip to Yellowstone with my family. Since then, I’ve made that same voyage numerous times with friends, significant others and even solo. There’s something about Yellowstone that calls me back time and time again.
I feel most connected when watching wild critters gallop across the landscape or watching a sunrise. It comes at no surprise that every three or four months I trek out into the wilderness to spend some quality time in nature.
And after all these years, Yellowstone National Park still beckons me back again and again. In early August, I embarked on a national park road trip that I had taken as a teenager ten years earlier. This road trip was a testament to my love of travel and it was an opportunity to reminisce.
Yellowstone, which is Cheyenne and Apsaalooké (Crow) Native land and is connected to over 27 Native tribes historically, is one of the most visited parks in the United States, which sometimes comes with an expensive price tag.
After visiting Yellowstone more than a handful of times, I’ve made plenty of expensive mistakes. There are times when my budget-friendly road trip suddenly turned into an expensive money pit. Here is a budget-friendly guide on how much a 4-day trip to Yellowstone costs.
When to start planning your Yellowstone trip?
Since Yellowstone is so popular among hiking enthusiasts and those looking to experience some of America’s greatest natural wonders, it can be expensive to experience it all. The easiest way to make a significant dent in your Yellowstone budget is to plan ahead.
How soon should you plan ahead for your trip to Yellowstone depends when you’re visiting. High season in Yellowstone starts in May and ends in early October. If you are visiting during the high season, most experts recommend planning for your accommodations at least three to six months in advance. This is when most of Yellowstone’s reservable accommodations (including many of their campgrounds) start to fill up.
If you are more of a spontaneous traveler, and like to wing-it on your travels, you can still experience Yellowstone on an affordable budget. In fact, I hardly ever plan my Yellowstone trips far in advance anymore. Utilziing most of these tips has not only saved me the time and stress of planning a vacation, but also a good chunk of money. So fear not, it’s totally possible.
How much to budget for gas on a road trip
The short answer is that it all depends on the distance you’ll be driving on this road trip. The easiest way to calculate your overall gas prices is to dive your estimated trip mileage by your car’s mileage (ex: 3,000 mile road trip / 30 mpg = 100 gallons). You’ll then take that answer (which would be gallons used) and times it by current gas prices in the area (ex: 100 gallons x gas price ($2.70 in Yellowstone), this will give you your estimated cost of gas for the entirety of your road trip.
A great tool I like to use is GasBuddy where I can scout gas prices in the area I am visitng. I mutlitply expected gallons by the highest gas price I can find to calculate my gas costs. By using the most expensive gas prices, it gives me a little more cushion in my budget, especially since the cost of gas can so quickly set you over-budget.
Overall, the biggest cost you’ll accrue on your Yellowstone road trip is your gas prices.
On my most recent trip to Yellowstone, I clocked more than 2,000 miles on this road trip. Since I live in Minnesota, it made sense to drive and forego the costs of a flight and renting a rental car. In an eco-friendly car with generous gas mileage, I only spent around $250 USD on gas. With the above equation you can ballpark exactly how much you’ll spend on gas overall.
Road trip gas total = $250 USD
Cheap flight options to Yellowstone
If your only option is to fly to the west, there are other ways you can save a few bucks on your national park road trip. Look for cheap flights to nearby airports by using Kiwi. I’ve used them in the past to book cheap flights to Puerto Rico and Iceland.
Do you need a rental car to visit Yellowstone?
When it comes to exploring Yellowstone, a car is necessary. Unlike other national parks, Yellowstone doesn’t have any public transportation in place for hikers or day visitors.
If you are flying into Yellowstone, you are able to rent cars at the airports.
Driving in a national park is simple and a little slower than average traffic speeds because we’re all gawking at the scenery. Take your time and enjoy it. Most of Yellowstone’s roads are well-kept and even paved, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle isn’t necessary.
You are looking for a guided experience of Yellowstone, there are numerous available for surrounding areas. Visitors in the area for a short period of time, prefer day trips, or would like to kayak or raft the Yellowstone River all have guide-tour options available.
What’s the cheapest Yellowstone lodging?
One of the biggest mistake people make in Yellowstone is not camping in the park. Not only is one of the most effective ways to save on your Yellowstone budget, the experience itself is noteworthy.
In our hectic everyday lives, we don’t often get to unplug and slow down. Camping not only forces us to be momentarily off-grid, it reminds us to take note of the little things.
Yellowstone Lodge is one of the most beautiful hidden-gem national park lodges.
Ins and Outs of camping in Yellowstone on a budget
When it comes to nabbing the cheapest and more affordable camp sites in Yellowstone, the secret lies in non-reservation camping. Non-reservable campsites in Yellowstone cost a fraction of the price as reservable campsites. Visitors often book their campsites in advance, but it’s not always necessary.
Cost-saving lodging hacks in Yellowstone
I lucked out, and with certain access passes, you received a discount on campground rates inside national parks as well. For me, that meant camping only cost $10 a night. That’s a steal of a deal! You can’t even camp in a national forest for that cheap.
Many visitors are deterred away from camping because they need to reserve campsites nearly six months in advance to guarantee their spot. If you’re unsure of your travel dates or are a traveler that likes to wing their vacations, don’t fret. I didn’t reserve any of my campsites beforehand and was able to stay in all the national parks nearly every night. This was a huge feat especially in Yellowstone where first-come, first-serve campsites are a rarity.
Total for Yellowstone Lodging costs = $40 or $10 USD per night
Entrance fee for Yellowstone National Park
There are numerous entrance fee options for Yellowstone visitors. The best way to save on your entrance fee is to purchase National Park Access Pass, this covers all your regristration fees for a year at all national parks. This pass costs $80 USD and is a good investment for those will spend more than 2 weeks in a national park or visit more than two national parks more a year.
If you are not looking for an annual pass, Yellowstone charges a weekly entrance. Per vehicle, is costs $35.
During an ideal 4-day Yellowstone vacation, visitors should also venture to nearby Grand Teton National Park — it’s a mistake not to. A day-trip to Grand Teton National Park would add another $35 USD to your Yellowstone budget.
Total entrance fee costs = $70 USD
Cheap food options in Yellowstone
I’d estimate that 90 percent of my food budget on my Yellowstone road trips is spent on groceries. Then other 10 percent is absolutely spent on ice cream! (Pro tip: always leave some room in your road trip budget for ice cream or treats out — you’ll thank me later).
When it comes to road tripping, it’s easy to stop at a grocery store and stock up food for the 4-day Yellowstone trip. Cooking over the campfire is a passion of mine so I often have a bit of a more expensive food budget than other travelers. (I’m sorry, I cannot say no to s’mores and fresh, high-quality coffee grounds!)
On average I’ll spent about $100 USD on a moderate food budget. This budget includes daily treats such as a $8 USD ice cream cone in Yellowstone’s tourist areas and even snacks I’d eat on my hikes or on the road. This averages out to $25 USD per day.
Want a more frugal food budget? There are times when my camping food budget doesn’t exceed $10 USD per day because I’m eating the same things for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The more repetitious your meals are, the more you can buy in bulk for cheaper. My go-to breakfasts are coffee with turkey bacon and eggs. Lunches are egg sandwiches or something easy to bring in the car cooler. Dinner is usually brats with ears of corn and other in-season roasted veggies, with a beer or two. Can’t forget those coveted s’mores either!
TOTAL FOOD COSTS = $100 USD
At Yellowstone, I roasted s’mores to my heart’s content and went through quite a few bundles of wood. One of my favorite things about camping are the campfires, so I love spending hours curled up by the fire and admiring the stars.
It does get fairly cool at night in Yellowstone, so a toasty fire always feels nice. Depending on what you were thinking about for food, you might need more or less firewood. I usually end up cooking two meals a day over my campfire and carrying a lunch in the cooler to feast on in between hikes.
The best places to purchase bundles of wood was outside the park for $7 USD in West Yellowstone’s grocery store. Inside the park, firewood cost about $8 USD and the bundles were smaller.
TOTAL COST FOR FIREWOOD = $60 USD
GRAND TOTAL YELLOWSTONE COSTS =
$520 USD for 4-days, an average of $130 USD per day
Reading this number you might gawk, but this is essentially a 4-day Yellowstone budget would be the same ballpark for a couple or even a small family. When traveling solo, like I often do, you are unable to save on bigger trip expenses, such as gas, by splitting that with someone else. If I eliminate gas from my overall budget budget, this road trip would cost me $68 USD per day. I would say that’s very affordable for a solo traveler.
When compared to some of my international trips, this road trip was a little expensive in retrospect. Typically, I can make a road trip much more affordable. There are definitely many things that I would change about the purchases I made on this trip. Overall, this trip was within my budget and would be a great way for families or groups to travel together at a more affordable rate.
What I would do differently
I lucked out on the trip and didn’t have to pay a fortune in admission costs or camping. Instead of pocketing that extra cash, that seemed to translate to more money being spent on food. (I blame my sweet tooth!) Spending $100 USD on food is a lot for 4 days. I definitely could’ve halved the cost of food and still had a semi-luxurious camping trip.
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions expressed in this article are my own and have in no way been affected by my partnership with mentioned companies and brands.