Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park

tips-visiting-yellowstone (1)

A limestone mound at Mammoth hot springs

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.

The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River

The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River

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

Elk near Canyon Village

Elk near Canyon Village

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.

A geyser in Biscuit Basin

A geyser in Black Sand Basin

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.

Bison blocking traffic

Bison blocking traffic

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

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

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.

Kepler Cascade

Kepler Cascades

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.

Note:

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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Norris Basin, click for larger image

Norris Basin, click for larger image

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Becky

At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

21 Comments

  1. Dawn on August 7, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Thank you for the information!



    • Becky on August 9, 2016 at 8:57 pm

      You’re welcome Dawn!



  2. Joanna on August 6, 2016 at 5:48 pm

    The pictures are beautiful! Thank you for the valuable information.



    • Becky on August 9, 2016 at 8:56 pm

      You’re welcome Joanna, glad you found this helpful.



  3. Sue Ann Jaffarian on August 6, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Breathtaking! It’s on my travel bucket list.



    • Becky on August 6, 2016 at 9:53 am

      It’s definitely worth a visit Sue Ann!



  4. Diane on August 6, 2016 at 5:36 am

    What a perfect post with perfect timing. I am heading to Yellowstone in September as well as Glacier, Custer State park and anything I can squeeze in a three week time between New England and there. Great blog. Thanks.



    • Reine in Plano on August 6, 2016 at 8:18 am

      Diane, just my 2 cents but at Custer the best view of Mount Rushmore is from the hiway in Custer. The National Monument was way too crowded for us to enjoy. And in the Custer area, Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument are well worth a visit. We like cave tours and both were well worth it. Interestingly enough for caves so close together they are completely different. And if you like caves, Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Montana between Custer and Glacier is neat for an enroute visit.

      We were at Yellowstone last month and Becky is spot on in her timing observations. We had 4 days at the park and were glad we had planned that much time.



    • Becky on August 6, 2016 at 9:51 am

      Have a good time Diane! I worked in the Badlands in the summer of 2013 and got to explore Custer and the surrounding area too, neat area: https://interstellarorchard.com/2013/06/09/custer-state-park-sd/



  5. Rodolfo M Tenorio on August 6, 2016 at 5:11 am

    Great info and lots of fun. Visited it twice. Snowmobiling once, a blast and on the motorbike and hiked the second time. Never really saw as much as you described here. Will have to go back (not in winter) to see some more of your recommendations.😂. Thanks.



    • Becky on August 6, 2016 at 9:44 am

      Glad you had a good time Rodolfo, that’s the most important thing. Friends of mine worked the winter season at Yellowstone and their pictures were amazing. I bet it would be a blast to visit then – it’s a matter of finding somewhere to store the RV.



  6. Judith Blinkenberg on August 6, 2016 at 4:03 am

    Thank you for all this great information! I only have 4 days planned next June so I may need to call and plan another time like September. I would like to go sometime in May when animal babies are around even though it’s cold. We want to see the Grand Tetons also. I’ll check back on your 2015 posts. Thank you!



    • Becky on August 6, 2016 at 9:42 am

      You’re welcome Judith! You’ll get to see more than the average tourist if you’re staying four days, it’s a good start.

      I arrived last year the second week of May and it was down in the 20’s at night and 40’s during the day. Chilly, but if you come with the right gear it’s doable. Take care!



  7. lindaandmike on August 6, 2016 at 12:08 am

    very good thank you b+



    • Becky on August 6, 2016 at 9:37 am

      You’re welcome.



  8. Sarah Shillinger on August 6, 2016 at 12:07 am

    Gorgeous



    • Becky on August 6, 2016 at 9:37 am

      It sure is.



  9. Ron on August 5, 2016 at 9:20 pm

    Good overview, we took 4 weeks to explore Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons and felt there was much we missed.



    • Becky on August 6, 2016 at 9:36 am

      I wasn’t able to see it all in a whole summer Ron, don’t feel bad.



  10. VictoriaEP on August 5, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    Hi Becky,
    I’ve been reading your blog for over a year but have never commented. Time to mend my ways! I’m heading to Gardiner, MT tomorrow for a family reunion. I’ll take your suggestions to heart and try to get my family up and going early in the day. I suspect I’ll be seeing the sights early with just a few of my 30+ family members – they tend to stay up too late to do morning activities, but maybe they’ll be enticed by your lovely photos to get on the road and into the Park early. Thanks so much for allowing me to follow along on your travels.



    • Becky on August 6, 2016 at 9:35 am

      I’m glad you decided to comment Victoria! I hope you and your family have a great time and that you get to see all of these sights in person. Yellowstone is an amazing place. Safe travels and happy trails!



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