On the 1st I moved camp from Island Park, ID into Yellowstone National Park for a family reunion with my parents and brother – the first family vacation we’ve had together since I was in high school.
We’ve been having a good time, but since we’re visiting areas of the park I already talked extensively about last year when I was working at Old Faithful, I thought I’d give a few tips and ideas for making the most out of a trip to Yellowstone instead.
1. Visit length. If you want to hit all the highlights, you’ll need at least three full days in the park. Yellowstone is bigger than people realize, it’s 2.2 million acres and driving from the north end of the park to the south end takes a good 2.5 hours without any traffic, and that’s not making any stops.
The Loop road makes a figure 8 of the park and dedicated visitors could make a full day of the top circle as one day of touring, and the bottom circle as another, and even if you were out sightseeing from sunrise to sunset you’d still be hard pressed to get it all done in two days. This visit my family did Mammoth, Tower, Lamar Valley, and Canyon as one full day, The Upper Geyser Basin (the Old Faithful area) in half a day (and we sat out at Yellowstone Lake for the other half), and Midway Basin, Lower Basin, Norris, Mud Volcano, and West Thumb as one full day. That’s not everything by a long shot – my parents aren’t hikers so we didn’t touch any of the park’s 1,000+ miles of hiking trails for instance – but it was a majority of the highlights.
2. What to see. Yellowstone’s claim to fame is its thermal features, it boasts more than 50% of all the world’s geysers. Yellowstone is also a good place for viewing wildlife, is home to numerous waterfalls including the famous lower falls in the “grand canyon” of Yellowstone, and Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in America at its elevation. For more, you can visit the NPS website and look at the “Places to Go” and “Things to Do” tabs. https://www.nps.gov/yell/index.htm
3. Crowds and patience. July and August are the busiest visitation months at Yellowstone, followed by September and June. Yellowstone saw more than 3.5 million visitors last year and the majority of them came in those four months. The park is open all but two months of the year, but much of the park is over 7,000 feet in elevation and being as far north as it is, summer doesn’t last long. Coming outside of that four month window could be quite cold and require special gear and consideration – research ahead of time. Parts of Yellowstone are open in winter for snowmobile and ski traffic.
Most points of interest have limited parking spots available, and in the height of the season, they’ll be full by about 11 am. To get the most of your limited time in the park, get an early start to beat the crowds. Plan to arrive early at popular areas like Grand Prismatic Spring and the grand canyon of Yellowstone to ensure a spot to park, or come after dinner when the crowds have thinned out. The villages like Old Faithful have a lot more parking, so if you don’t mind a walk from the back forty, timing is less crucial.
If you do arrive at a place you want to see and notice there is no parking available, drive slowly through the parking lot, and watch for cars that are getting ready to pull out. Don’t be afraid to stop and wait for someone to leave so you can have their spot – that’s often the only way to find parking.
If you get stuck in traffic while driving, the cause is most likely an animal. While you wait, keep your eyes peeled and have someone who isn’t driving ready the camera, so that when you get up to the front of the jam you can get a picture of whatever is causing the holdup. At least that way, you’ll have something to show for the lost time.
4. Camping. Yellowstone has 12 campgrounds, seven are operated by the NPS and are first-come-first served, five are run by a concessionaire and take reservations. Only Fishing Bridge has full hookups and 50 amp service. If you’re going to make a reservation, make it early. If you’re going to try for one of the first-come campgrounds, get there early in the morning. During peak, all campgrounds in Yellowstone are often full before noon. Once it fills up, the camping just outside the park in West Yellowstone and Gardiner often also fill up quickly. I’ve written about a few of Yellowstone’s campgrounds that I had the chance to drive through, if you do a search on my blog for “yellowstone campgrounds” you’ll find them.
For information on when the campgrounds in the park open, what amenities are available at which, max equipment lengths, etc., check out the official NPS website: https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm
There is free boondocking on national forest land outside the west, north, and south entrances for sure (possibly others) but because the park is so big it may not be cost effective to boondock instead of paying for a site since you’ll be spending more on gas. Island Park is the only area I have personal experience with, it’s 20 minutes outside of West Yellowstone and was nice enough.
5. Gifts, gas, food. Yellowstone has several “villages” with restaurants, gift shops, and gas stations.
I, personally, was not impressed by any of the restaurants inside the park proper although I’ll admit I haven’t tried them all. Most have decent food, but none blew me away and of course prices are higher it being a tourist area. I prefer the restaurant selection in West Yellowstone. If you need simple grocery items, the General Stores all have a small grocery area for staples, but selection is limited. I recommend doing your major grocery shopping before you arrive in one of the towns outside Yellowstone.
Gas prices average 20-30 cents more inside the park than outside it. Most village gas stations also have a small shop for auto and RV repair if necessary.
There are numerous gift shops in the park, pretty much every hotel has one, and the general stores have gifts too. Also, let me make a plug for the Yellowstone Association here, the non-profit I worked for last summer that run the park stores inside the visitor centers. 90% of everything YA brings in goes back directly to the park, so when you shop there it’s for a good cause. Plus, becoming a YA member gets you discounts in the other gift shops in Yellowstone along with other perks – not a bad deal if you’re going to do a bunch of shopping.
If you’d like to read more about Yellowstone, you can look in IO’s post archives from when I was working here, starting in May 2015. I saw most of the major points of interest in the park that summer and participated in the 100 mile hiking club that took me to a bunch of neat off-road areas most tourists never see.
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