Lodging in Yellowstone runs the gamut. You can rough it in a plank-built cabin with a woodstove for warmth, or go all out for a presidential suite.
There are six lodging complexes and 2,160 rooms and cabins in Yellowstone. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that many of these book up months and months ahead of summer.
Still, one concessionaire manages them all, so you can quickly check availability. Xanterra Parks & Resorts operates all the lodges. At their website you can quickly plunk in the dates you'd like to visit the park and quickly see what availability exists.
Where should you stay? What do you want to experience in the park?
Geysers and other thermal features? Look at the Old Faithful complex.
Waterfalls? Canyon Lodge is right near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Western Cabins here were recently refurbished.
Wildlife? Roosevelt Lodge is the closest you can get to the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley and still be in the park.
Paddling? The Lake complex and Grant Village area are right on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.
The Old Faithful Inn is my favorite lodge in the park, thanks to its rustic log-cabin construction and decor, while Lake Hotel is the best if you're looking to impress your significant other (and can afford a significant bill for multi-night stays). Many swear by the campy facilities at Roosevelt Lodge -- the lodge is for dining only, while the accommodations are in very rustic Roughrider Cabins (heated by woodstove, facilities down the path) and pretty rustic Frontier Cabins (two beds, and a bathroom).
The Old Faithful Complex
Mention "Old Faithful" and what usually pops into mind is the grand old log lodge. And while the Old Faithf Inn is the centerpiece, here you'll also find the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins and the Old Faithful Lodge with its cabins. The result is a range of options to meet just about every budget.
There are three flavors of cabins at Old Faithful -- Western Cabins ($155/2014 rates), which are quite nice and reasonably affordable; Frontier Cabins ($104-$124), which have showers, sinks and toilets, and; Budget Cabins ($74), which have beds and sinks with communal restrooms a short walk away. The Western Cabins near the Old Faithful Snow Lodge also offer some accessible cabins with ramps and accessible bathrooms.
The front-side rooms ($221-$230) at the Old Faithful Inn offer geyser basin views, though not necessarily one of the Old Faithful Geyser itself. The furniture is well-kept, beds comfortable, and bathroom facilities more than adequate and actually handsome, with a colorful tile pattern that carries a wildlife motif. Other rooms in the Inn, some without bathrooms, many without views of the geyser basin, range from a low of $103 per night to a high of $525 (the suite).
Perhaps the best aspect of staying at the Inn, as opposed to the Snow Lodge or Old Faithful Lodge, is enjoying the lobby with its massive stone fireplace or retreating to one of the balconies with a book, jigsaw puzzle, deck of cards, or game of checkers to wait out a rain, or snow, storm.
Lake And Grant Village
Several rounds of renovations have not only kept Lake Yellowstone Hotel from falling to the wrecking ball, but ensured it remains one of the most picturesque and pampering places in the National Park System to unpack your bags. Of course, a room in the hotel, arguably the flagship of the park's six lodging destinations -- Mammoth Hot Springs, Roosevelt Lodge, Canyon, the Old Faithful complex, Grant Village, and, of course, Lake -- doesn't come inexpensively. 2014 rates range from $319 a night for a room with a queen bed that faces away from the lake to $629 for the presidential suite.
Though a stay at Lake Hotel is on the high end of typical park lodgings, if you make just one trip to Yellowstone in your lifetime, the splurge might be well worth it. And yet, if the nightly rates are out of reach, there are less expensive alternatives that allow you to enjoy the setting of Yellowstone Lake cradled by forested mountains with towering Mount Sheridan just beyond the lake's south end. Adjacent to the grand hotel is the "Annex," a two-story hotel that once housed employees but now offers "Sandpiper" rooms that start at $155 a night. Loops of Frontier Cabins ($149/night) are just beyond Lake Hotel's parking lot, and beyond them stands Lake Lodge surrounded by nearly 200 Western ($194), Frontier ($125), and Spartan Pioneer ($79) cabins. To ease your meal budget, Lake Lodge has a cafeteria where breakfasts run less than $10, lunches less than $15, and dinners under $20.
Grant Village is a great location for boaters, as it's right on Yellowstone Lake and offers a boat launch. The rooms are in six long, rectangular buidlings and are comfortable, but not elaborate. The "hotel room with bath" ($155) here is decidedly motelish in both building layout and room style, but it is more than comfortable, the log furnishings nicely done, and the hot water in the shower readily available and ample.
Though distant from the Upper, Midway, and Lower geyser basins, the complex here is right on the lip of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and just a dozen miles from the Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest and most colorful thermal basin in the park.
The big news for 2014 is that the lodging is pretty much being reinvented. Some 200 cabins were removed following the 2013 season, (in the end some 300 will be taken out), and five new lodges are going up on their places. Three were under construction going into the Fourth of July weekend, and construction on two more is expected to get started next year with completion in 2016. Interestingly, the new three-story lodges are modular in construction. Those to go in this year were being built by Martel Construction and will be brought into the park later this year and lifted into place by cranes. This approach is expected to take unpredictable weather conditions out of the construction equation and result in a sturdier lodge.
The Western Cabin is the best bet at Canyon. Inside character-rich beetle-killed pine is in heavy use throughout, from the bed frame to the desk, dresser, wainscoting and even the trim.
Mammoth Hot Springs
At park headquarters you'll find another nice range of options, from simple rooms ($90) in the hotel with bathroom facilities down the hall and rooms with bathrooms ($129) to cabins -- some with bathrooms ($145), some without ($89), and even some with hot tubs ($239) -- surrounding the hotel.
Though farthest from the park's geothermal wonders, this lodge arguably is the front door to excellent wildlife viewing in the Lamar Valley just to the east. Wolves, elk, bison, antelope, bighorn sheep, coyotes and even bears can be seen in the early summer and fall in the valley.
The main lodge is for taking meals, while the surrounding cabins come in two flavors: Frontier cabins ($124) offer two double beds and a simple bathroom, and Roughrider ($74), which have one or two beds, a short walk to communal bathroom facilities, and a woodstove to keep warm when the nights turn cold.
Don't be discouraged if you initially strike out. There are always last-minute cancellations, and sometimes group tours that reserved large blocks of rooms back in December failed to book them all and release rooms en masse, so it doesn't hurt to check back on a regular basis for cancellations. Unfortunately, the concessionaire does not offer a wait-list.
If, despite your best efforts, you can't land a room in the park for your desired dates, make a blood oath to start earlier next time and then turn your sights to the gateway communities. West Yellowstone and Gardiner are the closest to the park; both actually share a boundary line with Yellowstone.
West Yellowstone, though, has more than 2,000 rooms in summer and, if you prefer geysers over wildlife, is closer to the geyser basins so you might want to look here first. West Yellowstone to Old Faithful and its geyser basin is 30 miles and will take about 45 minutes, maybe longer if you stop along the way. You easily could spend a day with stops at the Firehole Canyon Drive, Fountain Flat Drive, Fountain Paint Pots, the Midway Geyser Basin, and the Upper Geyser Basin along with Biscuit Basin and Black Sand Basin. And that's without taking any hikes.
If you prefer wildlife watching and have your sights set on scoping out the Lamar Valley for wolves, bears, bison and elk, then Gardiner is closer than West Yellowstone ... but not as close as Cooke City or Silver Gate. Though decidedly smaller and less commercial than any of the other gateways, Cooke City and Silver Gate are so very colorful and charming that a night or two here wouldn't be a mistake if you don't mind not having a Starbucks or Domino's to deliver.
Cooke City to Roosevelt is a flat drive right through the Lamar Valley. Again, much to see. While the distance is only about 30 miles, you'll want to take your time stopping here and there to look around or to take a hike.
Jackson and Cody are so far away (56 and 53 miles, respectively), that using them as a basecamp for a Yellowstone visit would not be the Traveler's first, second, or third recommendation.
If you've somehow managed to be shut out of all indoors accommodations, campgrounds and RV parks are your remaining options.
Yellowstone has a dozen campgrounds, but reservations are accepted for just five campgrounds: Madison, the Fishing Bridge RV campground, Bridge Bay, Canyon, and Grant Village. The other seven -- Mammoth, Norris, Tower Fall, Slough Creek, Pebble Creek, Indian Creek and Lewis Lake -- run on a first-come, first-served basis.
To check availability in the five where reservations are accepted, you can call 307-344-7311 for same-day reservations, or 866-439-7375 for future dates. You'll find RV parks in all gateway towns.