Shopping and Dining

A trip to Yellowstone is quite unlike a vacation to most anywhere else.  You’re not really headed to the area for what man made things are around – instead, you’re heading out to Big Sky country to see nature.  So, because of that, adjusting your expectations on shopping and dining is somewhat necessary.

As I mentioned previously – Charles and I are big fans of VRBO vacations.  It gives us a place to stay with a kitchen and the flexibility to do what we want and not be reliant on what we can find in a town we don’t really know.  Which, when weighed against a small town like West Yellowstone is a good thing.

On the flight out, we’d discussed what we wanted for dinners that week (which is a typical conversation we have each week while I’m planning meals).  And based on that conversation, I made a grocery list.  After we landed and got our rental car, we headed to the local Albertsons to stock up on the items we needed.  (We were still in Bozeman at the time).  We both knew that the shopping options in West Yellowstone were somewhat limited so, we planned accordingly.   Our first night in town, we had planned on dining out, and then had figured we’d have one other night out, and would cook at home the rest of our nights at the house.

Saturday Night (well it was early evening in Montana, but we were still very much on NC time) we headed to the Three Bears Café for dinner.  We had been there on our first trip to MT together, and wanted to return.  It wasn’t anything fancy – but was good homey food (with plenty of leftovers) and we were satisfied.

We’d cooked tacos and a chicken and pasta dish later the week, which sorted us out for the rest of the nights we were there.  Our last night in town, we didn’t want to cook again since we were leaving the next morning, so we decided to head back to the Three Bears to share a dinner together (again, very yummy homey food).

There are other options in town – it’s not that there was just one place – but it was one we liked and had special memories for us – which is why we went there.  Like most towns, there was a bar and grill called The Buffalo – which had an interesting menu – but wasn’t up and running full time since it was still before the full season.  There were two or three Chinese food places, a few pizza shops, a European café, a bakery, a gastro pub called the Slippery Otter (which was very good for the lunch we had there) and  a few other places as well. (Including two Mexican food buses, which confused us). The establishments know their clientele and the food is plenty, delicious, and filling.  There weren’t a whole lot of ‘upscale’ places around that I saw, but it’s just not really the kind of place you’d expect a dress up fancy dinner.

I was really surprised to see only one Fast Food place in town – it was a McDonalds (no surprise there) but I’m glad that there wasn’t the typical whole row of burger joints along the main drag that there tends to be in bigger towns.

Breakfasts for us were had at the house.  Yogurt and cereal for me, cereal and milk for Charles.  Simple stuff, but easy enough to be thrown together and had while we prepped for the day out and about.

Lunches are something you do need to plan for.  Because Yellowstone is so spread out (remember, you will need a car to see everything) there are not shops or restaurants all over the place.  Charles and I picnic when we’re out and about on these trips – so when we stopped at the store, we picked up lunch meat (salami), cheese, eggs (which we hard boiled), hummus and triscuits.  We also grabbed bananas and apples.  Most days, We had a dashboard picnic because it was either drizzly or too cold to sit outside, but a few of the days, it was so sunny and nice that we enjoyed picnicking beside a stream watching whatever was going on around us.

Each morning before we headed out for the day – we’d fill the gas tank in the car.  That way, we paid non park prices and were sure we’d have enough to drive around and get back to the house.  We never used a full tank – but it was one less thing we had to worry about.  When Charles was getting gas, I’d grab a bottle or two of my caffeine of choice and tuck it in the cooler to sip on through the day.  (I also had my water as well).  Gas stations are plenty in West Yellowstone – although it does seem like they price match with each other.  When one station went up a few pennies on one day – it was by the next day that the rest of them all matched the price.

For shopping – we didn’t do a whole lot of it – but there is always some that gets done.  I pick up postcards to keep and send to the people at home, and they are available nearly everywhere we looked.  There’s a cute little yarn and quilt shop in town, so we poked around there and I found some yarn that is the same colors as the Morning Glory Pool.  And there is always the selection of tee shirt and souvenir shops, candy shops, and the like.  We spent our rainy day in town puttering around and seeing what there was to see.  If you’re an outdoorsman, there are outfitters that are around too – but since we’re not, I don’t know what they offer, other than knowing they do a fishing report each day, and put it on their front window, telling fishermen what flies work best to catch things.  (Which I thought was curious).

Everyone we met was very kind.  Obviously we didn’t get to really know anyone, and we were most definitely from out of town – but we didn’t run into anyone who was blatantly rude or inconsiderate.  I was able to make polite conversation with most of the people I ran into – and we would discuss the weather, where we could see animals, and what we were into.  It was a nice experience – and much more relaxing than the huge crowds at Disney that give me the heebeejeebees.

I did some research before we went – on the yarn shop and such – and most of the rest of it was just poking around in the shops and seeing what there was to see.  It was a good break from the car trekking and we found some neat things – also saw some gorgeous local art (we didn’t invest in it, but it was still awesome to see).

Adjust your expectations accordingly – the draw of the area isn’t the shopping and the luxury of things – more so the beauty of the area and the land, the animals, and the people.

What to Pack

Packing Lists.

I’m known for my packing lists.  I’m also known for my overpacking.  I’m not sure why – but I do know that from time to time, I have been known to take far more than what I need on trips.  I think it may be because I’m trying to accommodate every possibility when we’re away.  But – it makes your bags a lot heavier than they need to be – and lugging that stuff through the airport is just not a fun way to start (or end!) a vacation.  So, over the past few years, I’ve been trying to pare down what I pack and what I get while I’m away.


Know the weather forecast and general climate conditions for when you’re heading to Montana and Wyoming.  It’s a very volatile climate – and it isn’t uncommon to experience multiple seasons in a single day. Or even at a single time.  Heck, it was 55 degrees and sleeting one day on our trip.  Layers are important.  It’s chilly in the morning, warms up to a comfortable afternoon, and then cools down again in the evening.  It doesn’t get ‘hot’ to NC standards – and when it is warm – it was never truly humid (either in the spring season, or the summers when we were in Glacier before).  Comfortable walking shoes are a must – for when you’re exploring the different hiking trails and the geyser basins.  An uncomfortable pair of shoes can truly ruin your day – making you not want to walk and see the things you really can’t see anywhere else on the planet.   Make sure to pack at hat too – because when you’re out and about – the sun can be bright – and you don’t realize it. (There’s not a lot of haze in the sky – so it seems to be stronger than it normally is)

Toiletries and Supplies

When we travel to VRBOs we tend to buy our toiletries and stuff when we get to our destination and do our first grocery shopping.  That saves on weight and bag space, and ensures that we have what we want to use when we get there.  However, there are always times when you may run into needing something other than what you’ve packed.  Because West Yellowstone is a smaller town, there aren’t major big box drug stores around.  There are two small grocery markets available, but since we didn’t shop there, I don’t really know what their selection was.  I’m guessing they have the basics, but if you need something specific – I would recommend making sure you pack it along with you.

The lodges and hotels in the Park have gift shops and general stores that sell the common items that people may need while they travel, but they are generally at a hefty markup and in much smaller packaging that makes it not truly worth the investment (although they’re good for an emergency).

Depending on the season you head out in – pack sunscreen. (Not your average daily sunscreen, but the stuff you put on so you don’t get burnt). The sun is more intense in Yellowstone – mostly because of the elevation and clear skies – and you don’t want to turn red and get uncomfortable while you’re out and about.  (Yes, I did mostly car touring, and wished I had sunscreen, my right arm has a tan, my left arm doesn’t!).

Definitely make sure that you take along any medications that you need, along with your prescriptions for them (always a good tip for when you’re traveling). Like I said, there isn’t a lot around in West Yellowstone (or Mammoth/Gardiner that I saw) so, once you leave a big town (where you landed most likely) you’ll be out of range of a Target or WalMart run, and not around a big box drug store either.

Camera Gear

YES.  If you’re wondering if you’ll need it – take it. If you think you’ll just enjoy the landscapes and such and remember it – without photos – or you don’t think there will be things to take photos of – take your camera anyway.  I wasn’t going to take my camera with me, and just rely on my phone to document our trip – but I am so dang glad I talked myself into taking it along with me.  Because Yellowstone is so big and spread out – the zoom on a camera phone just doesn’t do justice to the pictures you may want to take.

Hiking Gear

While we’re not huge hikers (and definitely not technical hikers) we do have some things that we take along to make sure we are able to do what we need to do.  We have hiking poles that we got from REI a few years ago that I use for balance – (Charles uses them too).  They come in handy  Charles also has a monopod that he uses as part of his camera gear that also works for a hiking pole.

Water Bottles

Yes.  Yes Yes.  You are at elevation, and the air is dryer than it is in most other places – which means you run the risk of getting dehydrated and everything that comes along with that. (For me, it’s nasty headaches). Take a water bottle with you – or re-use one that you have – but make sure you’re drinking frequently.  We got into the habit of drinking water every time we got back into the car after getting out to look at something.  It helped us to stay hydrated and thankfully, we avoided nasty headaches on this trip 🙂

Busy Stuff

When we travel, I always take what I call a ‘busy bag’. In my bag is whatever yarn project I’m currently working on, my Kindle, my journal, and a coloring book and pencils.  Keeps me busy on the plane, and gives me something to do in the house/apartment/room in the evenings. (I don’t always use it, but it’s good to have when I want it).  It’s helpful to remember that when you leave the house/hotel and head into the park – you will not have phone service or internet access.  For some people, that’s a scary thing – but for me, it was wonderful to not feel like I had to check in on Social Media or work all the time.  (Charles and I both just put our phones in airplane mode when we were leaving in the morning and didn’t even check them until the evening).

Travel is a personal thing – the stuff I want to take with me so I feel comfortable is not always going to be the stuff that you take with you to feel comfortable. Assess where you’re going, what you plan on doing, and who’s going along with you and plan accordingly.  Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, so stressing out about something that you may have forgotten is definitely not a good thing and can put a crimp in an otherwise awesome day.

Where to Stay

Over the past few years, Charles and I have started taking advantage of having a ‘central’ location, and then taking our time exploring what is around that location each day.  We generally find our places to stay using the Vacation Rental By Owner services that you can find online (

For this trip to West Yellowstone, we found a wonderful place called the Arrowhead Lodge as our central location.  The lodge itself is a smallish building of 5 apartment units, and while I can’t speak for the other units, ours was very comfortable and well appointed.  It had everything we really needed, wasn’t too big, wasn’t too small – so for these bears, it was just right!   (One bed room, one living room/kitchen common area, and a bathroom).  It was comfortable, well lit, and was just a nice place to come home to, cook dinner each night, and then hang out and relax before we headed to bed.

For larger family groups – there are other options and sizes – depending on what you need.  You’ll want to make sure that you look at where the place is, and what it offers.  The VRBO site is very helpful in detailing what is what and what is included.  For Arrowhead Lodge, the owners were very helpful and touched base with us a few times throughout our stay to make sure we were doing okay.

Remember, a VRBO stay isn’t a hotel. You won’t get a chocolate on your pillow and you’ll have to make your bed every morning, but it’s a home away from home, and is a good way to have a low stress trip.  (Well, for us it is)

There are some hotels in West Yellowstone, and more than a few interesting ‘motels’ as well (They looked clean and well taken care of – but they had some funny names!).

Within the Park itself, there were lodges that are managed by Xanterra. (The property management company that is contracted by the National Park Service).  The locations are Old Faithful Lodge (Near Old Faithful naturally), Yellowstone Lake Lodge, Mammoth, and Roosevelt.  Each offers something different in their style and amenities – and are very popular with people.  They tend to book up quickly when they open reservations for the season.  From what I’ve seen, this year’s reservations booked up when the window opened for them last year – so you really need to be on the ball to get them.  (And very lucky!).   On my first trip to Yellowstone, we stayed in one of the cabins near the Old Faithful Lodge.  It was comfortable, and warm. But wasn’t anything spectacular.  Granted, I was dealing with kidney stones on that trip – and don’t remember a whole lot about it – but for me, it was a comfy bed and a clean shower, and that was pretty much it.  Charles and his family had stayed in the Old Faithful lodge previously, in the older section – and it was a bit of an unusual situation – the bathrooms and showers were not in the room – they were a common room – down the hall.  Definitely adds some extra flavor to your vacation!

One thing I can’t really speak to, are the accommodations for camping.  We are not campers.  I haven’t camped in forever, and really don’t think I ever will.  (I Iike my creature comforts too much) However, there are a number of campgrounds within the park – both for campers (large and small) and tent campers.  So, if that’s your thing, there are options for you as well.  I know when we were there, we saw that some of the campgrounds were already full.  I’m not sure if they’re a first come/first served kind of situation – or you can make reservations for them – but they were a very busy place.

So, my recommendation is to make sure you have a list of what you want in your place to stay.  If you want to be in the Park, start looking early and book well in advance. If you’re more flexible and want a low stress kind of vacation – take a look at VRBO and check out those rentals.  It’s a flexible place – and you’re able to make your vacation what you want it to be with a little research and an open mind.