Take the Interactive Quiz: How Will You Visit Yellowstone National Park?
Yellowstone was the world’s first national park.
And man, does the world visit it.
From drive-by tourists to backpacking adventurers and everyone in between, visitors always find a way to experience Yellowstone on their own terms.
When we visited Yellowstone at the end of May (Park #44 of our all-59 tour! Yay!), we expected a few early crowds. After all, this is supposed to be a record breaking year for all national park visitation, especially popular parks like Yellowstone. So we braced ourselves and expected to be a little creative with how we’d plan out our five days there.
Our style these days is “just wing it,” so we rolled into the park with no permits, no campground reservations, and no expectations. We don’t recommend this approach if you visit after Memorial Day this summer. (We only ran into a campground hang-up on our first night: our desired Mammoth Hot Springs campground was full. But we took solace in the nearby free dispersed National Forest camping.)
Anyway, after five days of seeing almost all the park frontcountry highlights, we feel like we have some solid tips for anybody visiting the park. We certainly have a unique travel style (doesn’t everybody?) but see if you agree with our advice.
Before reading our tips on visiting the park based on your personal travel style, take this quiz we designed to help you think about how you want to visit Yellowstone:
So… what were your results? I’m totally a “Flexi-tourist.” I like to vary my sightseeing, and am way too impatient to stay in one spot forever, but I find that when I over-plan things never live up to my expectations.
Now, how can you use your new-found knowledge about visiting Yellowstone specifically? Well, we have some ideas…
- The “Full Plate”
You are highly organized and love having a checklist, so let’s go ahead and make that. Here are the highlights you do not want to miss. (Listed clockwise-ish from the West Entrance)
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- The Northern Range – look for wildlife!
- Mt. Washburn – road closure prevented us from seeing this, but we heard it’s a must-do.
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – view the Upper and Lower Falls from overlooks
- Yellowstone Lake – largest high-elevation lake in the U.S.!
- West Thumb Geyser Basin
- Old Faithful: of course! It currently erupts at approximately 90-minute intervals.
- Upper Geyser Basin: while waiting for Old Faithful, take a stroll around and be super impressed with the colors and sulfury steam.
- Midway & Lower Geyser Basins – don’t miss the Grand Prismatic Spring at Midway!
You’re going to have a great Yellowstone trip. Be sure to book campsites or hotel rooms early, and space them out logically around the Grand Loop of the national park. Of course, there are downsides to the “fast and furious” style, the most prominent being the attitude of checking things off the list, stressing about a schedule, and fretting about missing something. Don’t forget; you’re at Yellowstone! There will be bear jams. There will even be chipmunk jams.
2. The “Flexi-Tourist”
You’ve used the “winging it” approach to vacations before, and it’s usually turned out pretty well. You might not get to see everything, but you always have a good time going with the flow. Here are a few things that might help guide you in your laid-back plan:
- As casual as you want the trip to be, you still have to book campsites and hotels early.
- Check at the visitor center for current weather – this might help you decide which activities will be better than others.
- There are a few main hubs of activity around the park. I’d suggest focusing on one per day, finding a few things you’d love to do in that area (think, wildlife viewing, hiking, or kayaking) and go from there.
You don’t need a reminder that you’re on vacation, because that’s just how you think. But keep in mind that there are certain highlights you might regret not seeing (like the eruption of world-famous Old Faithful) if you skip over them accidentally.
3. The “Depth over Breadth”
You are the type of person who enjoys slowing down to concentrate your focus on one area at a time. As spread out as Yellowstone is, you could aim to visit a relatively quiet corner of the park and not even register the crazies! You don’t mind doing a bit of planning, so look up the best areas based on what you are interested in:
- Learning about the park: check out the ranger program schedule, and as crowds scamper by you, you’ll hear about the unique hydrothermal features that shape this park
- Photographing wildlife: try setting up your scope in Lamar Valley and chat with the interesting wolf enthusiasts that are incredibly knowledgeable about the current wolf den in the area.
- Hiking: grab the different area day hike guides and pick your favorite area to explore.
- Taking it all in: if you like to stay in one spot, notice how the area changes throughout the day. When are wildlife active? How do the crowds fluctuate with the times of day?
Soon, you’ll be the expert on the area. If you are an especially passionate and patient repeat visitor to the park, this could be an amazing way to love on a variety of sections of the park.
4. The “Solitude Seeker”
You like to avoid crowds, and you will be in for a huge treat. Although the park feels crowded almost everywhere you go, they say that 99% of visitors only reach 1% of Yellowstone. The backcountry is huge and the trail system extensive. Permits are required for overnight trips, so be sure to plan ahead. You may have to fight traffic on your way in, but a mile or two into your hike and you’ll forget that 4 million people visit the park each year.
Cole and I were first bummed that Yellowstone’s backcountry was quite inaccessible due to unknown trail conditions, many snow covered higher-elevation trails, and dangerously high bear activity. (We got over the disappointment when it rained and snowed for our four days in the park). BUT if we were to take to the backcountry, here were a few ideas that had sparked our interest:
- Soak in a backcountry hot spring (Mr. Bubbles is a popular one)
- Hike to Dunanda Falls
- Explore the Northern Range trails
- Kayak & hike combo along Lewis & Shoshone Lakes
Just remember, backcountry permits are limited, and of course, there are safety precautions (like bear spray) that should be followed carefully. And backpacking isn’t the only way to avoid crowds. Come during the winter, spring, or fall for dramatically dropped visitation (and also fewer services). Arrive extra early to have some boardwalks to yourself. Stay late in the evening after the tour buses leave. There are several ways to enjoy Yellowstone in the exact way you want to.
Whatever your travel preference, you can enjoy Yellowstone. The more time you take to understand your personal style in visiting a place like this, the more comfortable you will be with your approach. Remember, there will be crowds. But there is a very good reason: Yellowstone is a special place. What we experienced (even in terrible weather) was unlike anything I have ever seen.
Yellowstone is the world’s first national park. Let’s see it well.