Whether you are planning on staying in Yellowstone National Park or using one of the nearby communities as your base camp, it can be a hard decision to pick a Yellowstone gateway community to concentrate on. (Alternatively, you may want to visit them all!). With this in mind, I’m writing this guide to help you explore two majorly cool options – Jackson Hole and Cody, WY. Both will give you very different experiences in themselves, and they give you different access points to Yellowstone. There are other gateway communities around the park (Yellowstone is massive), but when I went, these did not provide easy access to the park due to a 500-year flood that happened in 2022. So, let’s look at Cody and Jackson Hole to see if either of them is for you as you think about where to stay near Yellowstone.
- 1 Eastern Yellowstone Gateway Community: Cody
- 2 Southern Yellowstone Gateway Community: Jackson Hole
- 3 Planning A Wyoming Trip?
Eastern Yellowstone Gateway Community: Cody
Cody has a really unique vibe, and not just because it is an old cowboy town that has never forgotten its roots. It’s located at a lower elevation from most of Yellowstone National Park (https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm) and thus, its environment feels decidedly distinct from the park. When you are in Yellowstone, you will be surrounded by forests and fields, unless you are marveling at geothermal formations that suppress the greenery with their heat, fumes, and toxic materials. But when you drive down to Cody, those trees thin out and are replaced by scrappy shrubs and resilient bushes, the likes of which are shared across the arid Western United States. The soil here too takes on a hue that is different from what you will see in much of Yellowstone. It is more red, tinged by iron.
In this way, if you are looking for a change in scenery, Cody is the place to go.
Attractions and Things To Do
Buffalo Bill Center of the West
As the Yellowstone gateway community, Cody has more than just the world’s first national park to call its own. It is also home to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which is actually five museums in one! I was a little skeptical when I first read about this place, because I kind of wondered – how can a small town like this be home to such a spectacular, world-class museum?
Well, I don’t know about that how question, but I can definitely answer the yes/no question there. YES, Cody is home to one of the coolest, biggest museums on the American West that is out there. You can delve into natural history, indigenous culture, and the culture of the cowpokes that have called this place home in more recent history. If you are a museum buff, you could easily spend the entire day here. One ticket gets you into all three museums, and there is SO much to take in in each one.
The Buffalo Bill Center is also my kind of learning institution. They teach via immersive displays and through various means of engagement. The people who put this place together and maintain it on the day to day, really bring the museum A-game. You will have all of your senses engaged here, in each of the three museums. You will be able to learn via your imagination and escape, through touch, sound, and visual delights, and through the in-depth information that you can engage with along the way.
If you did no other museum in all of Wyoming, I would suggest that you do this one. And if you aren’t just coming to Yellowstone to hike and take photos, I would suggest that you at least stop in Cody to take in this amazing place.
In addition to the museum, Cody is home to a variety of hiking options outside of the park as well. So, you can explore the unique environment on foot if you’d like. There are also opportunities to explore via mountain bikes and ATVs out here.
For the additional attractions, I’d give Cody a close look when considering where to stay near Yellowstone.
Other Things to Consider About Cody
Cody has a different feel than Jackson Hole. It is still a substantial community, complete with multiple gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and shops (and a myriad of stop lights). But it isn’t quite as geared towards tourism in the same way that Jackson Hole is. This is still a community where local people can afford to live and thrive. (So, please respect that).
If you are looking for a genuine, small-town Wyoming feel when looking for your Yellowstone gateway community, Cody will have that for you. This is a living, breathing town with all the good and bad. You will find plenty of tourism offerings but not as much of the curation as in Jackson Hole. The suppliers in Cody will also be a bit different, but I think you can find just about anything you need in this town.
Access to Yellowstone
Cody is about 1 hour from the border of Yellowstone National Park. Please check the Yellowstone website to see if there are any road closures.
It will be a drive up into the mountains from Cody to Yellowstone, and a somewhat steep and winding drive out and back to town.
You will have easiest access to parts of the park nearby the eastern exit.
Travel times and the trails you are looking to access should all factor into your consideration of where to stay near Yellowstone.
Southern Yellowstone Gateway Community: Jackson Hole
For my Arizonans out there, Jackson Hole reminds me so much of Sedona, but on a larger scale. It is magical, it is somewhere you want to be. It draws you in in this indescribable way. But at the same time, it is a testament to tourism gone wrong in so many ways. It is has become unaffordable to local people (in 2022 there was only one house in all of town that was selling for under 1 million dollars).
It gets intensely crowded. And the local folks are often outnumbered by visitors. All the same, I can’t say that Jackson Hole isn’t somewhere that I hope to go back to. Taking the bad with the good, it was still somewhere that I understand why so many people flock there and pay big money to stay. So, when thinking about where to stay near Yellowstone, Jackson Hole might still be a good option for you, but it comes with caveats that I will outline for you below.
Everything surrounding Jackson Hole is mountainous beauty. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. When I first got there, it reminded me of New Zealand (one of my all time favorite places). And even the drive up to Jackson Hole from the south was awe-inspiring. Imagine the wide-open spaces of the plains, merged with the wild expanse of wooded, powerful mountains. It’s a place that feels deeply sacred and at the heart of what we have some to call “wilderness.” The town is nested in all of this, and while it isn’t the kind of place where you will be roughing it by any means, it feels like adventure.
There is hiking and other outdoor activities to be done in any direction leading out from Jackson Hole – from national parks to national forests and more. In the winter, there are also ample opportunities to get out on the snow as a skier or snowboarder. If you can afford to stay here, there is a little something for everyone in this Yellowstone gateway community.
Attractions and Things To Do
Besides Yellowstone, the most important (in my humble opinion) attraction near Jackson Hole is Teton National Park. I have a great post about some beginners hikes in this park. Do let the Tetons sway you when you are thinking about where to stay near Yellowstone. They are some of the most exceptional and breathtaking mountains in the entire world. There is tons of hiking, and sightseeing to be done in this park.
The Tetons are also closely linked to Yellowstone, so I think visiting this park is an awesome complement to Yellowstone itself. There are grizzlies, elk, and other large animals that call this place home, and while it lacks the immense geothermal elements of Yellowstone, its craggy peaks make it totally unique.
You could easily spend 1-2 days here alone, or several days if you are looking for backcountry hikes and camping opportunities. Backpacking permits are a bit hard to come by, however, so do you research when planning your trip.
Downtown Jackson Hole is also full of little tourist shops and restaurants. It is a great place to spend a lazy afternoon or morning exploring and looking for the perfect souvenir. I’ve also had some VERY good breakfast in town – from an amazing (but popular) French bistro, to a very fun and tasty bagel house. For those members of the family that aren’t as fond of hiking and the outdoors, this is the place for them.
Other Things to Consider About Jackson Hole
Crowding and Conditions
Jackson Hole might sound like the perfect Yellowstone gateway community so far, and there is a lot to love about it. However, it isn’t all good in this mountain town. Like Sedona, Jackson Hole is a ground zero for “overtourism” in the United States. While you might find some other technical definitions of this word elsewhere, I consider that to mean that tourism has overtaken the local community in importance, leading to local people needing to leave the town in order to survive.
Properties here are far outside of the range that regular people can afford, and vacation homes have become more and more of the norm. Take a peek at Airbnb and you will see luxury homes and condos on offer – none of these affordable to local people as homes or to many travelers as lodging.
The streets are crowded, both with cars and pedestrians, and parking in the surrounding national parks can feel more like a nightmare than your dream vacation.
The prices for hotels in Jackson Hole can also be outrageous. When I stayed here, I got a modest but clean motel-type room that went for $400 a night. Yes, you read that night. And this was in the shoulder season. Now, I did find my lodging a little late and I had limitations on when I could go because this was linked to a work trip, but… I have never stayed in such humble accommodations for that much, ever. And I would never consider $400 a night as an option in all but the most special of cases. My typical range for hotel prices is preferably from $100-$150 a night in the US to balance cost with quality.
I believe if you plan far ahead, you can find better prices than this, but please beware if you are thinking about Jackson Hole as your base camp.
Access To Yellowstone
Jackson Hole is 1.5 hours from the nearest Yellowstone entrance, and it is about 2.5 hours from Old Faithful.
In terms of suppliers, you will have a Target and REI on hand, along with other grocery stores and shops. So, you should have no problem if you forget gear for your trip or need to pick up anything in town.
Planning A Wyoming Trip?
Where did you pick when considering where to stay near Yellowstone?
Are you looking for other things to do and explore in Wyoming? If so, consider some of the small towns that you will find on your drive between Yellowstone and Denver – Laramie and Saratoga. Escape some of the crowds and get your dose of Wyoming culture and the state’s sweeping landscapes. I will also be building out Nightborn’s Guide to Wyoming in the coming weeks and years, so be sure to give that a look for more travel ideas and information on this wild, western state.
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