Every year, millions of people visit Yellowstone National Park. It’s an amazing experience and one of our favorite national parks to explore, but the fun doesn’t have to stop at the park’s borders. The area surrounding Yellowstone is full of beautiful scenery, great hiking trails, unique wildlife, and some amazing campgrounds. And these places will most likely be a lot less busy than the park itself.
So if you are planning a trip out to Yellowstone this summer, why not add on a couple days to explore some of the surrounding areas? Here are four spots that we think are worth the detour.
1. Cliff and Wade Lakes
About an hour from the west entrance of Yellowstone, in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in southwest Montana, you’ll find Cliff and Wade Lakes. This area is on a geologic fault that formed a chasm that filled with water to make the lakes, resulting in most of the lakes being surrounded by picturesque cliffs.
Wade Lake has a tent and trailer national forest campground and if you’re lucky you can score a site either right on the lake or overlooking it.
The lake is spring fed and the water is a surprisingly beautiful Caribbean blue. Although the water is cold it’s definitely swimmable in the summer. There is a small beach in the campground with a view of the naturally forested cliff across the lake. Sit on the beach and watch ospreys flying around the lake and then returning to their nests high in the trees.
You can also rent paddleboards, canoes, and kayaks from a small shop up the road from the campground. You can put in right from their dock, paddle around the lake, and stop at your campsite for a snack before paddling back to return it.
If you have your own canoe and gear, the adjacent lake, Cliff Lake, has backcountry sites that you can canoe to. These are beautiful sites right on the lake, but you are in bear country so be prepared to tie your food and gear up in a tree and use proper precautions.
2. Wapiti Valley in the Shoshone National Forest
If you’re driving east out of Yellowstone or west from Cody, Wyoming towards Yellowstone you will be driving on the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway and passing through the Wapiti Valley, part of the Shoshone National Forest. The drive itself is worth taking as you’ll wind through beautiful and breathtaking rock formations.
Although there is Yellowstone traffic along this road, most people continue to Cody or YNP without stopping, and once you’re off the main road it’s pretty quiet, so why not stop and enjoy some downtime away from the crowds?
There are several national forest campgrounds here that are situated along the Shoshone River. These are the kind of sites that you can hang out in all day and just enjoy the views, the smell of sage, and listen to the sound of the river. Not to mention watching all the wildlife that hangs out by the river and around the cliffs surrounding you.
However if you are looking for more to do in this area, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails. Just make sure that you’re back to your site in time to enjoy the amazing sunset.
3. Buffalo Bill State Park and Cody
The Buffalo Bill State Park is also along the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway running between Yellowstone’s east entrance and Cody, Wyoming. It’s quite a bit closer to Cody, making it a great spot to camp at while spending a day in town.
The campgrounds are right on the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, making it a great spot to kayak, canoe, or paddleboard if you travel with or have access to your own watercraft.
Nearby, the campground is the Buffalo Bill Dam (they really like naming things Buffalo Bill in this area!), which was a prototype for the Hoover Dam and has a visitor center. If you continue east from there you’ll drive through several fun tunnels until you come to Cody.
Cody is a decent size city and a great place to stock up on supplies, but don’t miss out on visiting the interesting Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum. It’s one of the bigger attractions in Cody and is actually like 6 museums in one: the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Draper National History Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, and the McCracken Research Library.
4. Teton Village
South of Yellowstone is another national park well worth the visit, the Grand Tetons, but if you’ve been or are looking for something a little different, drive further south and stop at the Teton Village. This is a major ski area in the winter and depending on how early in spring or late in fall you visit there is a good chance people are still dropping in somewhere on the mountain.
If you are visiting when there is still snow on the mountain, bring your snow gear and ride the tram to the top of Rendezvous Peak (10,450 ft) in the Teton Range and play in the snow.
Even if you’re not planning on playing in the snow, it’s worth the ride up just for the views and the waffles and beer. Yup, you heard me right, at the top of the mountain there is Corbet’s Cabin, a tiny restaurant that serves waffles with all different flavor toppings as well as beer, wine, hot chocolate, and other snacks.
If you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful wildflowers at the top of the mountain. Looking to do a mountain hike or mountain biking without the struggle up first? Ride the gondola up and hike or ride your bike down.
Once you get to the bottom there are multiple restaurants and shops to check out as well as a playground and grassy areas to sit and relax. Often times in the summer there will also be a stage set up with live music.
This is just a short list of things to do in the area surrounding Yellowstone. There is so much more to discover in this beautiful and unique part of the country if you just take the time to get off the beaten path and keep exploring!