Yellowstone Road Trip#PNW . Hiking . Idaho . Outdoor Recreation . Trailer Camping . Travel
Yellowstone Vacation – Recommended 7 Day Itinerary (Day 1)
You are viewing Day 1 of our 7-Day Itinerary for Yellowstone National Park, “Yellowstone Road Trip.” Click on any of the days in the list below to view the post for other days. You can also click here to view our full, printable 7-Day itinerary with highlights from each day to help you plan your own adventure to and through Yellowstone National Park.
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Day 1: Yellowstone Road Trip – THIS POST
- Don’t run out of gas in the desert
- If you DO run out of gas, check out the countryside and wind turbines
- Check in at Henrys Lake State Park
Depending on the starting point of your Yellowstone Road Trip, you’ll likely have to drive a bit to get to Yellowstone. Smaller regional airports dot the Western states around Yellowstone in Northwestern Montana, but the larger airports are a bit further away. Unless you are flying in to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the closest regional airport is in Billings, Montana, about 4 hours away. Salt Lake City, Denver, and Boise are the next closest. We drove from Boise, which should be just under 6 hours without any particularly long stops.
Rule #1 when driving long distances: don’t wait until the last possible station to re-fuel; you’re likely to run out of gas along the way. I wish I could say this was the first time I’ve run out of gas in the desert, but it’s happened at LEAST one other time when driving across the high desert through Oregon to my hometown of Bend. That time, Nyah was only a few years old, and my grandpa drove out 60 miles with gas. For years, any time the low fuel gas light and “ding” would come on, Nyah would ask nervously: “should we get gas before we run out?” This time, she handled it like a pro, and even her little sister seemed to enjoy the detour.
We stopped in Mountain Home and should have filled up the tank. I later learned from Jake at Express Towing that fuel calls spike during the summer months when vacationing drivers pulling trailers forget to compensate for the added weight, especially if there is any headwind. That was his very kind way of saying I should have been more prepared and fueled up at any of the dozens of gas stations along the freeway.
But I didn’t. At the point I realized my tank was dangerously low, Interstate 84 had veered South, and we were continuing East on I-86. There’s a long stretch of freeway with nothing but farmland and open space as far as you can see, with only the occassional exit ramp to more rural acreage. And right now, there’s the added bonus of (perpetual) road construction, so the freeway narrows to a two-lane highway with no shoulder. It was at this point that we decided to take the next exit and avoid the inevitable spectacle of shutting down the freeway (and risking an accident) by running out of gas in the middle of the construction zone. We were less than 20 miles from the next station in American Falls, but decided to follow the winding frontage roads that parallel the freeway, just in case.
Sure enough, about 1/2 mile past the turnoff to Massacre Rocks State Park, the truck sputtered and came to a rest on a rural road near a dozen massive wind turbines. What I thought would be about an hour ordeal turned out to be 3 1/2. I thought about biking into town, but we were just under 13 miles from town, and the temperatures had climbed to the mid-90s. Nyah and I climbed the nearest ridge to get cell phone reception and make the necessary arrangements. And, making the most of the unplanned adventure, we took a few stock photos of the turbines and the girls searched the nearby rocks for shiny black obsidian that they added to their ever-growing rock collections.
We spent a few days in this area earlier in the season, at Massacre Rocks State Park. So although this particular stop and location were unplanned, we know the spot well. Some of the most distinctive (non-geological) features in this part of the state are the dozens of towering wind turbines, spinning in the wind, generating clean, renewable energy. It’s hard to picture just how massive these turbines are, but the photo with the tiny trees beneath the turbine starts to capture the scale. (Check out our “Utilities and Natural Resources” stock gallery to download these and other free stock photos).
Our friend Sandy came to the rescue; she’s joining us this week at Yellowstone, along with her sister, Susan. She happened to be right near Massacre Rocks when my texts came through, so she picked up the girls and drove in to American Falls while I waited for the gas delivery from Express Towing. Once I refueled and made it back to the girls, we headed out on the second half of the drive.
We had hoped to get to Henrys Lake State Park before dinner time. With our hot afternoon detour, we didn’t arrive until 11:00 pm. Unfortunately, the most scenic part of the drive comes after St. Anthony’s as you wind up into the Targhee National Forest toward West Yellowstone. All we saw were headlights and the occasional roadside village with a few restaurants and hotels catering to tourists visiting the National Park and surrounding forests. We’ll be back this way in a few days, though, driving to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to check out the classic Western town and bike around a bit for the day.
I’ll share more about Henrys Lake State Park tomorrow, but it’s one of the best spots to camp outside of Yellowstone National Park. It’s only 9 miles from the West Gate of the National Park, and the camping spots are ample, comfortable, and scenic. You’ll want to plan ahead, though; even though you might find a walk-up site available during the peak season, most spots fill up as soon as booking is available for the Idaho State Parks, 9 months prior to your travel dates. Here’s what we do: set a calendar reminder to pop up 9 months before you want to travel, and then book your expected dates far in advance. Remember that federal campgrounds have a 6-month window, but the Idaho State Parks give you 9 months to plan and book.