The coveted in-park lodging at Yellowstone National Park may be entirely booked for summer (as happens months before Memorial Day), but last-minute road-trippers can always experience the geothermal wonders and amazing wildlife of America’s oldest national park by staying outside its main entrances. Four memorable gateways in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—each with its own unique charms and affordable hotels—offer great bang for your buck and rich local experiences. Not only will Yellowstone’s roaming bisons, gushing geysers, and gorgeous scenery be an easy drive away, but a bounty of fun area activities—from gunfight reenactments to historic drive-ins—are sure to contribute lasting memories of their own.
From the South: Jackson, Wyoming
Jackson, Wyoming is the most popular point of entry for Yellowstone—and with good reason. Jackson is the most cosmopolitan of all the gateways, and gives you access two amazing national parks for the price of one, since you’ll need to drive through stunning Grand Teton National Park, with its rocky peaks, pristine lakes, and fields of wildflowers, to reach Yellowstone’s other-wordly landscapes.
What to Do: Ride the Aerial Tramway to the top of Rendezvous Peak for incredible views of the town of Jackson below. In Grand Teton National Park, don’t miss The Chapel of the Transfiguration; perched in a field of flowers with the mountains for a backdrop, it may be the most beautifully situated chapel in the United States. For an adventurous splurge, try a llama trek through the backcountry.
Where to Stay: Steps from Jackson’s happening town square, Buckrail Lodge gives you a feel for log-cabin living, with cedar-trimmed rooms from $93/night.
From the West: Teton Valley, Idaho
Known as the "quiet side of the Tetons," Teton Valley, Idaho is less-crowded than Jackson and offers more relaxation and a slower pace than other park gateways. It’s also a more affordable base than neighboring Montana.
What to Do: It’s all about live music in these parts come summer, with Music on Main every Thursday evening and the Targhee Bluegrass Festival in August. Golfers will also find plenty of options, including Headwaters Golf Club or Teton Reserve. And, there’s nothing better than watching a movie under the stars at the Spud Drive-In, a rare drive-in to claim a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Where to Stay: The family-run Linn Canyon Ranch offers beautiful timber-frame cabins from $185/night and luxury tents from $99. You can also book sunset horseback rides.
From the North: Bozeman, Montana
One of Fodor’s favorite small towns in America, Bozeman is an affordable, culture-filled college town with a love of the outdoors that’s a great base for young, active couples.
What to Do: Enjoy activities from trout fishing to white-water river rafting to backcountry mountain biking. Come evening, check out local eateries John Bozeman’s Bistro and Montana Ale Works, with 40 beers on tap, including a dark Moose Drool Brown brewed in Montana that tastes much better than it sounds.
Where to Stay: Just outside town, the fun C’mon Inn is full of taxidermied local wildlife—picture mountain goats, antelopes, and elk—plus multiple hot-tubs that are perfect spots to unwind after a rugged day out. WiFi-equipped rooms start at $110/night.
From the East: Cody, Wyoming
The onetime home of Buffalo Bill, Cody, Wyoming is one of the most popular side trips from Yellowstone. The most Old West of all the gateways, this is where you’ll want to base yourself if you have kids that love cowboys.
What to Do: The Cody Trolley tour takes you by the Old Trail Town, a restored frontier-era street. Every evening in summer, the Cody Gunslingers reenact a typical cowboy shootout in front of the Irma Hotel, named for Buffalo Bill’s daughter.
Where to Stay: The Old West-themed rooms at the K3 Guest Ranch B&B start at $159/night and can sleep up to six—making them great value for families. Kids can even sleep in a converted hay wagon.
Photo credits: Aerial tram courtesy of Jeff Vanuga; Teton Valley courtesy of Linn Canyon Ranch; Bozeman, Montana via Shutterstock; Irma Hotel courtesy of Kim Darby, Col. Cody’s Wild West Emporium