11 Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is iconic for many reasons. It was the first National Park in the world. At 2.2 million acres, it is one of the largest U.S. National Parks. It is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world. Yellowstone is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With everything the park has to offer – geysers, lakes, rivers, mountains, canyons, wildlife and so much more, Yellowstone is simply unique. For me, Yellowstone is my happy place. Perhaps it is because I visited several times with my family growing up. Or maybe because it’s the one place that Grant and I eagerly await a return visit to. There is just something about Yellowstone that is soothing, exciting, awe-inspiring and joyful.
Yellowstone is a place that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Words really cannot explain exactly what you will find here. One thing is for sure though, no matter where you live, it doesn’t compare to Yellowstone National Park.
If you haven’t visited yet, I strongly encourage you to visit soon. Whether you live in the U.S. or not, Yellowstone is worth whatever it takes to get here and experience everything it has to offer.
After many visits throughout my lifetime, I now share 11 tips to help you enjoy your summer visit to Yellowstone.
1) Schedule enough time for your visit.
Yellowstone is huge. I already mentioned it is 2.2 million acres. That’s bigger that the states of Rhode Island and Delaware. Granted, those are pretty small states, but still… Yellowstone is bigger than an entire state!
So…you cannot see the entire park in a day. Even two days would barely scratch the surface. Sure, if all you have is one or two days, that is better that not visiting at all. But you will leave wanting more, I promise.
I say three days is an absolute minimum to spend at Yellowstone. Four or five days would be even better. This is our fourth visit together and we are still passing by things saying… “I don’t remember that…have we seen that before?”
In two days, you should be able to drive most of the park roads and see the major sights that are right off the road. You will certainly need more time if you want to do any hiking, participate in ranger talks or explore the edges of the park.
Also, you’ll want to have time to rest. Just getting to Yellowstone can be difficult. Whether flying or driving, you’ll probably be tired just from the journey here. Add in lengthy drives through the park and you’ll be exhausted by day two, I promise. Schedule enough time to take it slow and enjoy everything around you.
2) Stay in the park (and make reservations).
This again goes back to the part about Yellowstone being huge. Sure you can stay in West Yellowstone or Gardiner (both in Montana) and technically make it into the park in about ten minutes. But to get anywhere else in the park will take you another hour or two, at least.
Besides, there are some great places to stay in the park. Sure, there are tons of campgrounds that don’t even have running water, but there are fabulous lodges as well. Whatever your preference, you’ll find accommodations to meet your expectations. We have tent camped twice, stayed at the Mammoth Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge (both in the winter) and, most recently, stayed at Fishing Bridge RV Park, the only campground with hook-ups.
The campgrounds are fairly “typical” National Park campgrounds, which means basic. Some have flush toilets, but not all of them. Only five of the 12 campgrounds can be reserved in advance, including the RV Park. Most of the not reservable ones will fill up before lunch.
If camping isn’t your thing, there are seven lodges/hotels/cabins. At Old Faithful alone, options range from an “old house room” without a bathroom ($119) to a suite ($590). Our room at the Mammoth Hotel was very basic. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge is definitely more modern.
While you will find comfortable lodging, don’t expect too many modern touches. To my knowledge, there are no TVs in any of the rooms. And many do not have air-conditioning. To be fair, though, AC is not needed most days. And hopefully you’ll be too busy outside to think about TV.
Reservations are a must at a hotel. Even at a campground, I suggest reservations. We have had some last-minute success with campground reservations (within a week of a late June/early July visit), but they were not the best sites for sure!
3) You will want your own car or truck.
For most Americans, this is probably assumed, as the vast majority of us consider driving our primary method of transportation. One thing is for sure: There is no public transportation at Yellowstone.
There is no shuttle, taxi or bus service. You are completely on your own. If you are flying, rent a car. I simply would not consider visiting Yellowstone any other way.
I’m sure you can get bus service to the park. And there are tons of tour companies that you can use for a day trip. But you really don’t need to do that. Yellowstone is not difficult to navigate at all. Seriously, the roads are not complicated and most are very easy to drive.
If you are driving a RV, be sure to bring a tow car. There are several side roads and parking lots that cannot accommodate RVs, trailers or busses. If you do decide to join a tour, make sure it is a small one so that you’re not on a bus so big you miss stuff!
4) Enjoy a meal in one of the dining rooms.
Each lodge has a dining room and most have other dining options as well. For example, there is a cafeteria at Canyon, a deli at Old Faithful and an Old West Cookout at Roosevelt.
We first experienced the dining rooms on our winter visit, when that was our only option. To say we were hooked is an understatement. The menus have a good balance of “traditional fare” and more “exotic” game meats, such as bison, elk or antelope.
Everything we’ve eaten in one of the dining rooms has been expertly prepared and delicious. Now, we always make a point to eat at least one meal in one of the main dining rooms.
The restaurant at the Roosevelt Lodge is one of our favorites, but they do not take reservations. Arrive early unless you want to wait a while. On our most recent trip, we did the Roosevelt Horseback Ride and Cookout for the first time (stay tuned for a full review, coming soon).
Each lodge also has a “Yellowstone General Store” where you can buy snacks, such as hot dogs or ice cream. They also generally have a small “grocery” section with the basics.
5) Know where (and when) to find wildlife.
One of the highlights of Yellowstone is the amazing wildlife. In fact, we look forward to that more than anything else when we visit.
So, what will you see here? You’ll see bison and elk for sure. You won’t have to drive far to see a few hanging out near, or even on, the road. You’ll also probably see a couple of black bears and maybe a grizzly bear or two. Pronghorn antelope are fairly common. Occasionally you’ll spot a Bighorn sheep.
Supposedly there are moose in the park, but we haven’t seen one on any of our four visits. My dad said we saw one, but I don’t remember it, so I don’t count it.
If you’re super-lucky, and have good binoculars, you might see a wolf. They are generally no where near the roads, so you’ll have to work for this one! You will often find a bunch of folks with spotting scopes set up in one of the valleys on lookout. You can ask them if they’ve seen one before spending hours just looking and hoping.
Where will you find these amazing creatures? The short answer is anywhere, anytime. More specifically, Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley in the early morning or late evening are great for wildlife. Middle of the day when it’s hot is one of the worst times to find wildlife.
A drive through Hayden or Lamar Valley to start or end our day is one of our favorite things to do. Even if you don’t spot wildlife, the views never get old!
6) The photographer should not drive.
In our family, Grant is the photographer. I do take pictures, mostly on the iPhone, and enjoy learning techniques to take good photos. But when it comes to serious photography on a real camera, Grant is the expert.
So, despite the fact that in the “real world” Grant can be found driving about 85% of the time, at Yellowstone, I am the driver. This is so that Grant can jump out quickly to take pictures when we spot wildlife.
Often, you will be driving down the road and suddenly come upon a bear or a bull elk, or something else amazing, but there is no where to park. This next part is super important…. You cannot simply park your car in the middle of the road and get out and take pictures! Don’t be “that guy” (or girl)!
When I drive, I can drop Grant off so that he can start taking pictures right away and then I go find a place to park. Sometimes, a spot is fairly close by, other times it means a five-10 minute walk down the road.
Either way, we’re not holding up traffic. Believe it or not, there are some people that actually need to get places quickly. Maybe they have a dinner reservation or it could be an employee trying to get to work. You simply cannot stop on the road, unless the wildlife is on the road and in your way, which does happen at times!
7) Understand that wildlife can be dangerous.
You’ll see signs and reminders everywhere about this, so it should not be hard to forget. The main thing you need to remember is that this is not a zoo! This is real life. These animals are not hand-fed. No one “brings them in” at night. They are living in the wild. Yellowstone just happens to be a great place for them to live.
People get hurt by wildlife all the time. On our most recent visit, there was a couple that had a run-in with a bison that sent them to the hospital. That was on a boardwalk, where you would probably feel “safe.” Just remember, the animals can go anywhere they want to go… boardwalks, parking lots, campgrounds, etc. Give them their space!
Most of the animals are used to people being around and are just doing their thing, not paying any attention to you. But that can change at any moment. So be aware and use common sense. Sometimes there will be rangers around to help out, but not always.
Generally, you do not need to be afraid of the wildlife. Just respect they will do whatever they want, whenever they want. If hiking off the main boardwalks, buy (or rent) bear spray. Hopefully, you’ll never have to use it, but you’ll feel much better just having it.
8) Think carefully before bringing your dog.
Dogs are technically allowed in the park, but not on any of the boardwalks, trails, geothermal areas or in the backcountry. So, as far as I can tell, you can have your dog at the campground or in a parking lot (I don’t think they are allowed in hotels, but I’m not positive about that). Pets must be kept on a leash or in a crate at all times. Basically your dog will have to stay in the car (or in your camper) pretty much all the time.
The reason for the strict pet policy is simple… Yellowstone is a very wild place. There are tons of wild animals who could harm your pet or transmit disease. We have seen a few dogs in the park. If you decide to bring your dog(s), you won’t be alone. Just think carefully about how they will spend their time.
If you can leave them in the camper, great! But you can’t just run back every couple of hours to check on them and take them out to potty. Yellowstone is simply too big for that to be feasible.
We did bring our cat this past visit. She was fine staying in the camper during the day. But, we would not have done that if we weren’t staying at Fishing Bridge. While the temperatures are generally low enough that you don’t need to worry about air conditioning, it does get hot at times, so I wouldn’t want to take that chance.
9) Be prepared for cold weather any time of year.
Speaking of temperatures, understand that Yellowstone plays by its own rules. While we were there, the last few days of June, we had daytime temperatures in the 40s, rain, hail, sleet/freezing rain and it appeared to have snowed (well, flurried) at some point.
Quite simply, we were VERY happy to have our camper with our heaters with us! Lows were in the 30s, so even in the camper we needed an extra blanket and the heater running every night.
And this is not abnormal. This is our third visit at this time of year, and we always experience very cold nights. Three years ago, we actually had to buy ourselves another layer… and we thought we had prepared well enough.
On this trip, our last couple of days were mostly sunny with highs in the upper 60s/low-mid 70s. That was a very welcome change after several days of cold and rainy. We actually got to wear short-sleeves and be comfortable!
Basically, be prepared for anything. And if you’re tent camping, bring LOTS of layers, especially for nights. I seriously don’t know how we survived in a tent… I guess we are getting “weak” in our old age!
10) Expect to not have cell service or WiFi.
Yellowstone does have a few cell towers and you will occasionally get service. When and where seems to be a mystery, though. Generally speaking, we usually got service at higher elevations. Even then, though, it was not always reliable.
I think you can purchase WiFi at a couple of the lodges, but we weren’t staying there and didn’t look into that. In Mammoth, the visitor center has free WiFi. It was better than nothing, but not great.
We did have good cell service in West Yellowstone and Gardiner, so if you must connect to the outside world, those are good areas. We couldn’t even get service at Old Faithful. That said, we did see folks who appeared to have service when we didn’t. Maybe it’s just AT&T.
While we did make a point to turn on our phones a few times, we really just enjoyed the time being unconnected. The National Park Service would rather you enjoy the wilderness and disconnect, so they are not concerned with adding more cell towers or increasing connectivity.
11) Budget time and money for souvenir shopping.
This is somewhat ironic for me to suggest, because Grant and I are typically not big souvenir shoppers. We spent a month in Italy and came back with a shot glass as our only souvenir. Granted, we were traveling with very small backpacks, so we literally didn’t have room for more, but that is still fairly typical for us.
We tend to get a magnet (Grant) and shot glass (Bonnie) and maybe a bumper sticker for the camper. We really don’t do a lot of shopping.
But Yellowstone has some great souvenirs and things that are actually useful! They always have great shirts, sweatshirts, hats and of course the usual postcards, keychains and such. Yellowstone even has some local wine and liquor. Somehow we resisted the urge to buy any on this trip.
We spent the first few days of our trip checking out what each store had to offer. Mostly, the different stores have similar stuff, but not completely. By the time I was ready to buy my souvenir mug, the store we were at didn’t have it. Thankfully, we still had the opportunity to stop by another store!
Just trust me that it is easy to find stuff you like. I even found a great t-shirt on sale for $7! We did have to pass on the $70 moisture-wicking polo that Grant wanted because it just wasn’t in the budget, but even that would have been super useful.
If you’re into souvenirs at all, plan ahead… You will be tempted at Yellowstone!
Bonus Tip: Go in the Winter
In 2016, Yellowstone National Park had about 4.2 million visitors. That’s a lot of people! It is the fourth most-visited park, behind Great Smokey Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. Even more staggering than the number of people who visit, is when they visit. About 90% of those 4.2 million visitors come May-September. This means that five months out of the year, there are well over 3 million people visiting. The other seven months, well under half-a-million visitors.
Not only is the park MUCH less crowded in the winter, it is totally different when covered in snow. Yes, part of the reason that Yellowstone has so few visitors during the winter (and late Fall/early Spring) is because the park service doesn’t plow most of the roads.
The only road that is open to cars in the winter is from the North entrance in Gardiner to the Northeast entrance at Cooke City, MT. The Mammoth Hotel is open, and you can drive to it. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge is also open, but you have to take a snowmobile or snow coach.
Visiting in the winter sounds a little complicated at first, but it’s really not. There is tons of information available online and several different packages you can book. We enjoyed not only the solitude of the park, but the true “winter wonderland” that it turns into.
As magical as Yellowstone is during the summer, it is a completely different kind of magical in the winter… One that is just as mesmerizing and just as awe-inspiring! We visited in February 2011 and are looking forward to another winter trip, hopefully soon!
Planning Your Yellowstone Visit
A visit to Yellowstone really is not difficult to plan. Honestly, getting there is probably the most difficult part. If you are flying, Salt Lake City is the closet major airport, which is about five hours from the nearest entrance to Yellowstone. My preference is to fly into Bozeman, MT and enter through the North gate in Gardiner (a little over an hour drive).
If driving, there are are five entrances – North, Northeast, East, South and West. You can come from just about any direction. The biggest and best “gateway” towns are Cody and Jackson, both in Wyoming. Cody is about an hour east of the East entrance. Jackson is just south of Grand Teton National Park, which is adjacent to Yellowstone to the South.
Grand Teton is worth a visit, too, but that’s a whole separate article for another time! If you like rodeo, Cody is your town. We will have an article about all the great stuff in Cody very soon.
If you haven’t been to Yellowstone National Park, or if it’s been a while, I strongly encourage you to go as soon as possible. It truly is my favorite place that I have ever visited and a National Park that should be a required visit for everyone!
We do plan to write additional articles about Yellowstone in the coming days/weeks/months (as our schedule allows). If you have any questions about planning your visit, please let us know. We’d be more than happy to help you plan your visit to this magical place!