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A year ago, in “Yellowstone in 2020” I wrote:

“Yellowstone is certainly one of the most heavily visited national parks in the Western U.S. with over 4 million tourists coming each year from 2015 through 2019.

“But thanks the coronavirus, visitation may drop off considerably this year especially since park lodging and dining may be quite limited.

“Even in a normal year, waiting until late April or May to book lodging could result in you discovering that there is “no room at the inn.

“With luck, a year from now a vaccine against the virus will be widely available so putting off a trip to Yellowstone until 2021 might be prudent.”

So, what, if anything, has changed for those planning to head to Yellowstone this summer?

COVID Concerns

The good news is that there are now three COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. and that by the time you read this in most states residents 16 years and older are now eligible to be vaccinated.

The bad news is that some refuse to be vaccinated and even those eager for “The Jab” may have found it difficult to locate a place near where they live to actually receive it. So, in the U.S. we still are far from reaching the point where seventy percent or more of the population has immunity either from having contracted the virus and survived or from having been vaccinated.

Even if you are fully vaccinated other visitors that you encounter in and around Yellowstone, particularly indoors such as when dining, may not be. And although being outdoors may help minimize the risk of becoming infected by COVID-19, at times you may find yourself in the midst a crowd of park visitors particularly at popular locations such as the Old Faithful Geyser.

(Old Faithful Geyser; Jim Peaco and Yellowstone NP Photo)

Because the vaccine you received is not 100% effective against the original novel coronavirus and its variants there is at least some slight risk that an infected visitor could pass the virus on to you. And if you should become ill from the coronavirus while in Yellowstone where could you go to get treatment?

Even were to assume that COVID-19 will not pose a health risk to you it is still spreading through American communities so one would expect that availability of lodging, campgrounds, and services within Yellowstone might be limited again in 2021. And that does appear to be the case.

The Web site of the concessionaire that operates lodging in the park and handles campground reservations states:

“As we continue to navigate the uncertain waters of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the health and safety of our guests and employees remain top priorities. Based on the guidance and recommendations of public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Park Service, we are modifying the opening schedule of our operations and beginning with a first phase of limited services for Summer 2021.

“As health and safety guidelines allow, we hope to open additional lodging and services as part of the second phase of our Summer 2021 operations. At this point, we are not able to predict when this might happen but will provide updates as they are available.”

What’s Open, What’s Available

The concessionaire’s Website does show lodging and campgrounds that will be available during “Phase 1.” But nowhere online could I find a description of “Phase 2” of the Summer 2021 operations within the park.

(Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel; Dick Jordan Photo)

More importantly, the fact that beginning June 2, 2021 the concessionaire will begin taking reservations for stays in 2022 may be a tacit admission that dates in 2021 are nearly or completely fully booked.

The Yellowstone National Park Website does not offer much information about availability of services during the coming summer months. However, it does state:

“The below information is for reference only. We will continue to evaluate and adapt to changing COVID-19 guidance and adjust operations as needed.

“Important Safety Notice

“Effective February 5, 2021, individuals over the age of two years must wear masks, except when actively eating or drinking, in the following locations:

    1. All common areas and shared workspaces in buildings owned, rented or leased by the National Park Service, including, but not limited to, park visitor centers, administrative offices, lodges, gift shops and restaurants.
    2. Outdoor areas where physical distancing (staying at least six feet apart) cannot reasonably be maintained.

“Masks must cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly around the nose and chin with no large gaps around the sides of the face. Masks not designed to be protective, masks with ventilation valves, and face shields do not meet the requirement.

“Exceptions: CDC guidance recognizes that masks should not be worn by anyone whom has trouble breathing. Wearing masks may be difficult for some people with sensory, cognitive, or behavioral issues. If a visitor is unable to wear a mask properly or cannot tolerate a mask, they should not wear one and may be asked to leave any location where masks are required to be worn. Visitors may be asked to lower their masks briefly for identification purposes in compliance with safety and security requirements.

And the “Plan Your Visit” section of the park’s Website does provide basic, but useful, information which you should be sure to read if you are heading to Yellowstone.

Getting There By Air, Getting There By Car

Another factor to consider, especially this year, is the means of transportation will you use to reach and travel around within the park.

If you will be traveling by air there are several airports in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming that are reasonably near to Yellowstone.

But even prior to the coronavirus pandemic flights into those airports from your hometown may have been quite limited and probably would have involved at least one change of planes at an airline’s larger “hub” airport.


For example, on my first trip to Yellowstone I flew from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, were a very long layover which gave me ample time to take a taxi downtown and visit the Mormon Tabernacle and Temple Square before returning to the airport to catch a connecting flight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

I rented a car there, spent three nights in nearby Grand Teton National Park, then drove north to Yellowstone for another three-night stay before driving back to Jackson Hole to hop a flight back to Salt Lake City and then on to San Francisco and home.

(Teton Range; NPS Photo)

On my next trip I flew from San Francisco to Denver, had lunch in the airport, and then flew on to Bozeman, Montana.

After a couple of days there, I drove south and east into Yellowstone, spent nine nights at three different locations within the park, then headed northeast to Red Lodge for a short stay, and back to Bozeman to overnight before flying home.

(Bozeman Airport; Tim Gage Flickr Photo)

But during the pandemic airlines cut back markedly on flights to many destinations. Now, as people begin to plan and take trips, the number of flights will increase. But whether you can find a seat on a flight to an airport hear Yellowstone could be problematic, especially if you cannot be flexible about the dates that you leave and return home.

The easiest way to get to Yellowstone and travel through the vast park is by car. But you could spend many hours behind the wheel of your own car just getting there depending on where you live. Here are driving times in hours (not including any stops) one-way from some major U.S. cities:

  • Denver (9-10)
  • Seattle (12-13)
  • Portland, Oregon (13-14)
  • Los Angeles (15-18)
  • San Francisco (16-17)
  • Phoenix (16-17)
  • Chicago (21)
  • Dallas (21)
  • Atlanta (29-30)
  • New York City (33)
  • Miami (38-39).

If you add in overnight stops, you could easily spend two to eight or more days going to and from Yellowstone with your sightseeing along the way limited to “through the windshield” views of the passing scenery.

Yellowstone is a huge park, 2.2 million acres covering nearly 3,500 square miles, an area larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

On my first trip to the park I only had two full and two partial days to spend. One day I left my room at 7:00 a.m. and return at 7:00 p.m., on a marathon, twelve-hour whirlwind drive from Yellowstone Lake to Yellowst0ne Falls to Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful and back to Yellowstone Lake, spending at least half of the time just rolling down the park roads in my car.

Having 10 days and 9 nights in Yellowstone on my second trip allowed me to leisurely explore several areas of the park rather than rush through it as though I was on a mission to see as much as I good in as little time as possible.

Flying from those cities to the Yellowstone area and then renting a car would seem to make a lot of sense.

But as I recently wrote in “Where Have All The Rental Cars Gone: Not On The Road Again” you could arrive at your destination, wait hours to get the car you reserved or discover that even with a confirmed reservation there are no cars to be had or that you will be charged a king’s ransom for the rental. (This Washington Post story provides a detailed explanation of how the pandemic has led to the relative scarcity and high cost of rental cars.)

Last year in “Yellowstone In 2020” I said “putting off a trip to Yellowstone until 2021 might be prudent.” This year my advice is “putting off a trip to Yellowstone until 2022 might be prudent.”

(Lower GeyserBasin; Dick Jordan Photo)

In the meantime, read my 2016 story “Yellowstone: Mother of All Parks” to be inspired to keep Yellowstone on near the top of your “travel bucket list” of destinations you “must see.”

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