Yellowstone is one of the most visited national parks in America – and for good reason! But if you’re traveling with pets, exploring the park requires a little more creativity. Read on to make sure your entire family enjoys the trip!
Given the strict limitations Yellowstone places on pets in the park, you’ll need to find a balance of activities in the area. Of course, you’re there to see the sights. But your pup wants to sniff, hike, and look around, too! Since the trails in the national park are off-limits to pets, you’ll have the opportunity to explore beyond Yellowstone’s boundaries where you and your dog will find some real gems.
Pets in Yellowstone National Park
Most national parks place restrictions on pets, and Yellowstone is no exception. Pets in Yellowstone are not allowed more than 100 feet from a road, parking area, or campground. And when outside your vehicle, pets must remain in a crate, carrier, or on a leash no longer than six feet.
Normally I get a little ruffled when pet restrictions feel overbearing. But, in this case, the reasoning is sound. The policies are there to protect you and your pet from the wildlife and geothermic dangers in the park. During our visit we saw four grizzlies, three wolves, several herds of buffalo and elk, and numerous springs and pools with water hot enough to kill.
The challenge, then, is finding the right balance between auto-touring in the park and pet friendly activities beyond Yellowstone’s borders. After all, your dog is going to want to burn off some energy and have some fun.
Sniffing Around Yellowstone
Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the world’s first national park. Encompassing 2.2 million acres, 96% of the park lies in the northwest corner of Wyoming, with small portions located in Montana (3%) and Idaho (1%).
The park’s most striking feature is its varied landscape. There are mountains, canyons, lakes, geysers, forests, grasslands, waterfalls, hot springs, and rivers. Where else do you find this kind of diversity? No wonder the wildlife thrives!
Pet Friendly Perspective
If you have your heart set on hiking some of Yellowstone’s more than 950 miles of trails, it might be best to board your pet for a few days. However, for the majority of people who simply drive around the park and enjoy the overlooks, there’s a better answer!
Yellowstone has four entrances, making it easy to break up the park into segments. And outside the park you’ll find the surrounding areas are much more pet friendly!
A Trip Around Yellowstone With Pets
Day 1: Northeast Corner
Driving from Cody, we entered the park’s east gate, in the midst of Yellowstone’s big mountains. Soon we were gazing across magnificent Yellowstone Lake. Sitting at an elevation of 7,700 feet, and with a depth of more than 400 feet, the lake seems to stretch on forever.
There are turnouts and parking areas along the shore where your pets can hop out of the car and admire the view. Depending on your timing, this would also be an excellent spot for a picnic!
Heading north along the Yellowstone River we then traveled through the canyon area of the park.
We were even lucky enough to catch site of a mother Grizzly and her two cubs foraging near the road!
We exited the north gate in the town of Gardiner and cruised up Hwy 89 toward Livingston where we camped for the night. After the chaos of the park, the drive was blissfully quiet and quite scenic as we skirted the river. We were all happy to stretch our legs on the pet friendly walking trail we found at the campground. And the stargazing that night was top-notch!
Though it’s not far according to the map, driving through Yellowstone takes longer than you’d think. With road construction, heavy tourist traffic, and our leisurely, wildlife-spotting pace, this section took us several hours to drive. So you should also plan for things to take longer than you might imagine!
Day 2: Gardiner, Paradise Valley, Bozeman, and Hyalite Reservoir
Rather than heading right back into Yellowstone the next day, we explored the area north of the park. You and your pet could easily spend several days enjoying all the pet friendly things we found to do!
Gardiner and Jardine, Montana
Gardiner has the typical feel of a small, western town. It’s unpolished and friendly, with little pomp and a down-to-earth respect for the practical. The streets are lined with modest houses, the business owners go out of their way to be helpful, and the locals are more than happy to stop for a chat.
Though there are only a handful of restaurants in town, we found a couple with pet friendly outdoor seating!
Another good thing to note is that you don’t necessarily need to go deep in the forest to encounter wildlife. We met a small group of elk on a walk around the town!
For some more great views, follow the signs from Gardiner toward Jardine. It’s a short seven mile drive up the road, and well worth the time!
The Yellowstone River flows out the north border of the park, through the village of Gardiner, and up Paradise Valley to the town of Livingston. This spectacular river valley, flanked by the Absaroka Range to the east and the Gallatin Range to the west, is one of he most idyllic places we’ve ever visited.
The pastures stretch for miles, the mountain peaks frame the view, and right through the middle of it all, the river tumbles along over perfectly worn stones.
There’s no shortage of things to do with your pets in the Paradise Valley. The Yellowstone is a world-class fly fishing river with many access points along it’s shores. Wildlife viewing is always exciting in this part of the country, and antelope, bighorn sheep, bison, elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer are often seen from the roads. Of course, one of our favorite activities is hiking with the dogs. The Gallatin National Forest offers spectacular trails for serious hiker and those just enjoying a stroll in nature.
The National Forest Service has offices in Gardiner and Livingston. Stop in for the latest trail conditions and recommendations for your skill level. One of the most popular trails in the area is Pine Creek Falls, a 5.1 mile out and back that originates at Pine Creek Campground on Pine Creek Road. It sounds spectacular, but we opted for the less trafficked 3.3-mile Suce Creek Trail off East River Road.
This trail was shady and quiet on a weekday. In fact, we only saw one other person during our hike! And we got a good look at some wildlife … a mother and baby moose were browsing near the trail. We gave them plenty of space, and they kept a close eye on us!
If you’re sore from hiking, you might be happy to discover that Paradise Valley is home to several hot springs. The most popular is Chico Hot Springs, with its resort, day spa, and access to the natural hot springs-fed pool.
A day pass to the pool is just $7.50 per adult and provides access from 8am to 11pm. If you’re looking for pet friendly accommodations, their brochure claims that they invented “dog friendly.” So your pup will likely look forward to the stay as much as you!
Bozeman is one of those cities we go back to over and over and always find something new. The lively main street has a nice selection of pet friendly shops and restaurant patios. After working up an appetite window shopping, we settled at The Garage Soup Shack & Mesquite Grill for a fantastic lunch. Then we discovered something else to love about Bozeman!
Every Saturday from June through September, Bozeman shows it’s stuff at a spectacular, and dog friendly, farmer’s market. It’s a big affair with fresh fruits and veggies, handmade products by local artisans, and plenty of fodder to snack on while you browse the bounty.
Many of the vendor booths are located inside the pavilion, and if you carry your pup, he can go inside. Those with larger dogs will find a decent number of booths outside. And taking turns looking around the pavilion while one of you waits with the dog is no hardship. There are food trucks where you can grab a snack and soak up a little sun.
Another new treasure we discovered on this trip was Hyalite Reservoir and Hyalite Creek Trail. Located just 12 miles south of Bozeman in the Gallatin National Forest, this 206-acre lake is a dog’s dream!
Splashing along the shore, getting out for a paddle, enjoying a picnic, and hitting the trails together are all options here!
Day 3: Pets in Yellowstone – Northwest Corner
On the third day of our trip, we headed back into Yellowstone to explore the northwest section of the park. Entering the north gate from Gardiner, we came almost immediately to Mammoth Hot Springs.
As we drove, we spotted three wolves making their way along a distant wood line. Although we didn’t get photos, it’s still my Yellowstone “best moment!”
After a day in this amazing landscape, alive with boiling mud and steaming streams, we drove out the west gate and spend the night in the little town of West Yellowstone.
Day 4: West Yellowstone, Earthquake Lake, and Big Sky
Alternating days in and out of the park allows you to see more of the area with your pets. The area west of Yellowstone offers some great hiking and sightseeing.
West Yellowstone, Montana
The town of West Yellowstone sits just outside the western gate of the national park and caters to the many tourists passing through. We were particularly excited to get back here to visit our friend, Chris at Morning Glory Coffee & Tea. Pets are welcome inside the coffee shop. So don’t leave your pooch on the sidewalk while you dash in to get a cup of freshly roasted coffee!
With your daily caffeine requirements met, stop at the Forest Service office for the latest on trail conditions, maps, and recommended hikes. West Yellowstone sits within the borders of the Gallatin National Forest and there are several trails you can pick up right in town.
The Boundary Trail runs nearly 5 miles along the national park border and is particularly pet friendly. Pets can be off-leash, as long as they respond to voice commands!
It’s good to keep in mind that, even though you’re in a well-populated area, wildlife encounters can happen. Bears, moose, elk, and other Yellowstone dwellers regularly roam into town.
To avoid confrontations, it’s best to keep your pups leashed unless their recall is absolutely solid. Off-leash dogs can chase and harass wildlife, causing them undue stress and possible injury. And dogs can easily get lost or injured in the process. Wherever you hike around Yellowstone, it’s also important to carry bear spray. And putting bear bells on your dog will help alert wildlife to their (and your) presence.
Driving north from West Yellowstone takes you to a fascinating place, where geologic activity has forever transformed the landscape. On August 17, 1959, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale triggered an 80-million ton landslide. The displaced earth dammed the Madison River and created what is now known as Earthquake Lake.
Passing by tranquil Hebgen Lake, you’d never guess that this was the site of such terror and devastation. During the earthquake, the shifting tectonic plates caused the lake bottom here to drop by 20 feet. That generated a huge wave that crashed over the top of the Hebgen’s dam and raced down the river valley.
Further downstream, the Madison River had been completely choked off by the landslide, and the water was rising quickly. Many families were camping in the national forest near the slide area, and 28 people tragically lost their lives that night.
By morning the water had completely engulfed the campground. Just three weeks later, the lake was five miles long and 190 feet deep. The rapidly rising lake was threatening to burst through the landslide dam, so a spillway was constructed to allow the water to continue downstream.
But rivers do what rivers do. Since the spillway was constructed, the Madison has been eroding the opening. Now more water leaves the lake than enters, and the lake level is dropping. Like water from a bathtub, the lake will eventually disappear and the river valley will return.
Continuing north on Hwy 191 toward Big Sky takes you through Gallatin Canyon, along the milky-blue Gallatin River. There are many turn-outs, campgrounds, and picnic areas along the river, so take your time and enjoy the beauty of this special place.
The meandering highway takes you inside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, and then back out again. These borders are well signed, so when you’re inside the border take care to respect the national park’s pet restrictions.
As you ramble along, the snow-capped peaks of Big Sky Resort – the largest ski resort by acreage in the U.S – soon appear on the horizon. We love visiting ski towns in the off-season, and Big Sky is unlike any we’ve seen before! Covering nearly 5,800 acres it’s a massive venue. There are several hotels, shopping centers, and residential communities, all crowned by Lone Peak at 11,166 feet.
To get the lay of the land, stop at the visitors center at the intersection of Hwys 191 and 64. Here you’ll find information on local businesses, maps of the area, and tips on dog friendly hiking trails.
After reviewing the options, our first stop was Big Sky Town Center. Ty and Buster enjoyed sniffing around the park, and their noses led right to the Blue Moon Bakery. With it’s dog friendly, covered outside seating area, pizzas, salads, and mouthwatering baked goods, it was a great find.
Once again, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. After posing for a few pictures, Buster caught a bear trying to sneak up on him! And we happened to see this bighorn sheep grazing just off the road as we drove by.
Day 5: Pets in Yellowstone – Southern Half
Entering the park again at the west gate, our first stop the next day was Old Faithful. We arrived just after the geyser had erupted, so we had about 90 minutes to hang out. Dogs aren’t allowed on the boardwalks around Old Faithful, so we walked Ty and Buster in the large parking area. Fortunately the weather was cloudy and cool, so the boys napped in the motorhome while we watched the geyser erupt.
Afterward, we spent some more time along the shore of Yellowstone Lake. Then we turned around and left the park through the south gate.
Our next stop was Grand Teton, another national park that makes visiting with pets a bit tricky.
Pet Friendly Accommodations and Restaurants
The campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park and Gallatin National Forest are pet friendly. If you’re looking for more creature comforts, you’ll find pet friendly campgrounds with more amenities in Livingston, Bozeman and West Yellowstone.
There’s also a nice selection of pet friendly hotels in Bozeman and West Yellowstone.
You’re going to need to eat! There are a number of pet friendly restaurants to choose from in Bozeman and West Yellowstone.
It’s easy to see that Yellowstone National Park could present a challenge for people traveling with pets. But the surrounding areas provide more than enough entertainment to keep any dog happy! So balance your time inside and outside the park, and the entire family will enjoy your trip.
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