Morning steam rising from thermal features, an erupting geyser in the distance. Bison herds grazing across the plain. The occasional bear lumbering in the woods, pawing through fallen logs for insects. Cascading waterfalls plunging into a rising, hissing fog. Yellowstone is a magical place, full of beauty, wonder, and wildlife. There’s nothing like visiting this national treasure. Follow these tips to plan your Yellowstone trip like a pro.
Decide how to get there.
Whether you’re driving your own vehicle, renting one, or going with a tour group, this will be a huge factor in what you will be able to do or see in Yellowstone. Driving yourself will allow more freedom to make stops and detours as you please, while going with a group organized by a tour company allows you to relax and absorb your surroundings.
Go off grid.
Cell service is very limited in Yellowstone, so plan ahead to ensure you have what you need while in the park. Download the Yellowstone map and new app ahead of time as well as anything else you may need to access. Before arriving, in the app, select the “Settings” option and tap the choice “Download Offline Content” in order to access most of the app’s features while out of service range. Lastly, pick up a hard copy of the map for free at a park entrance or any visitor center for back up. Visitor centers typically also have some cell signal and pay phones.
If you want to overnight in Yellowstone at one of the lodging options, plan to make a reservation at least a year in advance. Even campsites quickly fill up. If you are having trouble finding availability, check back daily, as people frequently cancel reservations as plans change, or consider doing a long, full day and staying outside the park near one of the five entry points where there are more accommodation options.
Pack a picnic.
While there are some nice places to eat in the park, they can be crowded and eat into your time that could be otherwise spent exploring. There are plenty of picnic areas located throughout the park where you can pull off and enjoy a homemade lunch or snack along a beautiful river or overlook.
Part of the fun of exploring Yellowstone is the opportunities for wildlife sightings. Keep a sharp lookout for bears, bison, elk, and more throughout the drive, especially in the middle and north parts of the park. Early morning and evening are prime animal-viewing hours. Remember to keep a safe distance from all animals, even if they appear docile. The National Park Service asks visitors to keep 100 yards between themselves and bears and wolves and at least 25 yards for everything else.
Consider human and wildlife traffic.
These can create delays in your itinerary. While ambitious travelers could feasibly drive the entire loop in one day, it is a very long day of driving, and these unexpected traffic jams can add delays to your trip.
Have more questions? Comment below and we’ll be happy to reply!
Your guide to the top things to do and see in West Texas.
Davis Mountains – Far west Texas isn’t just open desert like the movies would have you believe. Explore Davis Mountains State Park’s miles of trails, camping, and informational programming… More
McDonald Observatory – The stars at night are extra big and bright at this West Texas mountaintop observatory. Hundreds of miles from bright city lights, the McDonald Observatory offers unbeatable star gazing… More
The Gage Hotel – This historic desert oasis in Marathon, TX was voted among the top Texas hotels by Condé Nast. Talk about old country charm!… More
Marfa – In this tiny West Texas town, there’s a Gram-worthy photo around practically every corner that is sure to elicit jealousy from friends… More
Alpine – Explore the town of Alpine, located between Marfa and Marathon. Catch a semi-pro Cowboys baseball game at historic Kokernot Field… More
The stars at night are extra big and bright at this West Texas mountaintop observatory. Hundreds of miles from bright city lights, the McDonald Observatory offers stargazers unbeatable views. Plan your visit around catching a Star Party where you’ll have access to outdoor telescopes at the observatory’s park and an interactive overview of the night sky. Star Parties are offered on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Dress warmly with layers because nighttime temps dip, even in the summer. Daytime activities are also offered if you’re not a night owl.
Weather conditions can quickly change near the observatory, so if the skies are overcast in the morning, things may clear up by evening. If it happens to be cloudy during your visit, you’ll be offered alternative programming indoors, or you may be able to reschedule.
Explore the town of Alpine, located between Marfa and Marathon. Get a sense of place at Stylle Read’s wall mural Big Brewster outside of the Kiowa Gallery. This mural portrays notable town figures including visionaries such as Everett Townsend who spearheaded the creation of Big Bend National Park, successful rancher Herbert Kokernot who established the Alpine Cowboys baseball club in 1946, and local celebs such as Dan Blocker who became better known as Hoss Cartwright on the“Bonanza” TV series also appear in the mural. Keep an eye out for more murals scattered throughout Alpine.
Catch a semi-pro Alpine Cowboys baseball game at historic Kokernot Field during the season that runs from May through August. With inexpensive tickets, a boisterous local crowd, the Davis Mountains as the field’s backdrop and brews from nearby Big Bend Brewing Co., you’re guaranteed to have a good time. Fun fact: the 06 symbol found throughout the park tie in to the Kokernot family’s cattle branding from back in the day. Not in town during baseball season? You can still visit the field’s exterior intricate ironwork.
The Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University is worth a visit. The Big Bend Legacy exhibit gives visitors deep insight into the natural and human histories of the region. Other temporary rotating exhibits include Terry Cockerham’s “Big Bend and the Terlingua Project” and “Early Education and the Annual Summer Normal in Alpine.” Admission to all exhibits is free!
The Gage Hotel is located in the charming town of Marathon that still has a frontier feel to this day. On the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places, the Gage Hotel was built in 1926 by successful rancher Alfred Gage and later converted into a hotel.
Guests can stay in the historic Western style hotel, pueblo style adobe brick rooms in Los Portales, or have complete privacy in casitas. Enjoy the hotel pool, gym, White Buffalo bar, and V6 health conscious foods for your coffee and smoothie needs.
Watch people and trains passing by from the ivy covered porch in a wooden rocking chair, mediate in a courtyard, or cool off in the pool with a frozen drink from the White Buffalo bar. With so much old country charm, its no surprise that this historic desert oasis was voted among the top Texas hotels by Condé Nast Traveler.
Located a short distance across the train tracks is the manicured Gage Gardens, covering a lush 27 acres. We recommend visiting early in the morning to enjoy cooler temps and beautiful lighting.
Far west Texas isn’t just open desert like Hollywood movies would have you believe. The Davis Mountains rise up above the open plain and exposing interesting rock formations along the canyon walls. Explore Davis Mountains State Park‘s miles of trails, camping, and informational Ranger programming. Trails range from easy stroll to challenging, offering something for every level of hiker. Remember to bring plenty of water on hikes, and keep in mind that burn bans may be in effect during your visit, so plan accordingly. For those looking for further hiking and camping, the Davis Mountains also serve as a gateway to nearby Big Bend State Park.
Checking information boards near the entrance of any park or campsite will give valuable information, such as check-in/out procedures, information on burn bans if applicable, maps of the area, and more.
We enjoyed a ranger programming event on our visit with a costumed Civilian Conservation Corps soldier. He discussed events of the particular time period and demonstrated what soldiers would have carried with them to set up camp. Check upcoming Ranger events before you go.
The McDonald Observatory is a short 15-20 minute drive away from Davis Mountains State Park. Plan to work this into your West Texas travels–it’s an incredible experience!
We’ve visited Yellowstone dozens of times and have spent enough time in this park to consider ourselves professional Yellowstone tourists. We’ve compiled a list of the top reasons why you should plan your trip to Yellowstone!
Only place in the world where can you see so many thermal features
Yellowstone contains half the world’s geothermal features and over 300 geysers. Grand Prismatic Spring pumps out over 4,000 gallons of water every minute, making it the largest hot springs in North America. Old Faithful is the most famous of the Yellowstone geysers thanks to its “faithful” timing; this geyser erupts regularly every 60-110 minute. Three of my personal favorite thermal features are Black Pool, Morning Glory Pool, and Castle Geyser. Our favorite geyser basins are West Thumb Basin and the Old Faithful area.
Vagabond tip: Download the National Park Service’s geyser app for up to date eruption predictions to time your routes around geysers accordingly. This was invaluable during our last visit to the park!
To see native animals in their natural habitats
Lots of open space which is also the perfect environment for other wildlife including elk, deer, moose, pronghorn, wolves, and more. The Yellowstone bison herd is the oldest and largest public bison herd in the U.S. Bison roam freely througout the park, and you may see at least a couple from the side of the road. Visitors seek out Lamar and Hayden Valley in particular for these areas’ large number of animal sightings. Wolves were only recently reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 after being absent from the park for seven decades and are a big attraction.
Vagabond tip: Always be alert driving through the park, as you never know what animals you may sight from your vehicle. And never approach wildlife, even if they look peaceful–they can be unpredictable and may charge without warning.
Camp under the stars
Have you ever seen the Milky Way with your own naked eyes? Grab a sleeping bag, pitch a tent, and star gaze in Yellowstone. The park offers several campsites, or if you’re an adventurous sort, take your gear backpacking to get away from the crowds. We camped out along a scenic river in between tall pine trees, but it was the view of the stars at night that took our breath away.
Visit the only supervolcano on land in the world
There are only 30 active super volcanoes in the world, and the Yellowstone Caldera is the only one in North America, and is also the only one located on land. Did you know that the entire area of the park is located on top of this gigantic volcano that stretches about 34 by 45 miles (55 by 72 km)? So cool!
Experience a part of history
Signed into law by Congress in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park in U.S. history. Yellowstone’s history begins much earlier than that though, with Native American tribes in the area for centuries who were followed by pioneers traveling west. Many iconic greats in American history have left a footprint on the park since it was established. President Roosevelt laid down the first cornerstone of the Roosevelt arch located at the northern entrance in Gardiner, which is inscribed with a quote from the legislation which created Yellowstone.
Vagabond tip: It’s fun to stroll some of the tourist shops along the Gardiner main street with an ice cream cone of some of the best we’ve ever had!
Take a hike
Explore the back country of some of America’s most beautiful land. We recommend breaking up full days of driving with at least one hike to stretch and go exploring off the park’s paved roads. Some interesting hikes are Uncle Tom’s Trail, which is short but steep and descends 500 feet toward the base of the Lower Falls, and Mystic Falls, which is a moderate 2.5 mile hike and gives you an overlook of Biscuit Basin.
Vagabond tip: Safety first! Always carry bear spray and make noise throughout hike. Park rangers also suggest that hikers travel in groups of three or more. (P.S. Check out our favorite NPS Rangers, Christina Warburg’s Instagram account @christinaadelephoto for some of the most beautiful photos of U.S. national parks and interesting anecdotes.
Inspiring landscape and wildlife sure to spark wonderment at all of the sheer natural beauty. Even the drives are stunning with roads skirting cliffs with canyons and rivers coursing below, waterfalls at bridge outlooks, and always scanning for a glimpse of wildlife. The park attracts artists from all over the world seeking inspiration. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the most iconic views of the yellow stone of the canyon is aptly named Artist Point.
Old Faithful Inn
Experience one of the most interesting American architectural feats for yourself. Old Faithful is constructed of lodge pole pine and looks like a giant wooden cabin. It was built in a unique style in its conception and inspired an entirely new architecture genre, National Park Service rustic. No two windows are alike, with the architect intending the building to reflect the non-parallel symmetry of nature. Another interesting feature of the Inn is the Crows Nest. Grab a spot on the outdoor deck facing Old Faithful geyser for the geyser’s nearly hourly entertainment. In the evenings, grab a drink and settle in for live music in evenings.
Soak in a natural hot tub
Ditch the spa for a dip in one of Mother Nature’s hot tubs. Most of the park’s thermal areas are way too hot to touch, but a few places are safe for a dip. We were thrilled to visit Boiling River just north of Mammoth Hot Springs, where hot springs enter Gardner River to create an enthralling experience. Imagine one side of your body icy cold from the mountain river, and the other half steeping in steaming water from hot springs. Winter visitors can also visit Boiling River, since the northern entrance from Gardiner into the park is open through the park’s colder months.
Great trout fishing
Trout Fishermen claim Yellowstone to have some of the best fishing in the U.S. Test your skills and fling a cast into Yellowstone Lake or Madison River for either fly or lure fishing. Yellowstone waters are home to sizable native cutthroat, brown trout, rainbow trout and brook trout.
Make lasting memories
Reconnect with yourself, friends, and family in nature. Yellowstone is the perfect place to make lasting, timeless memories. Stephanie’s family has been visiting Yellowstone for decades, and we’re already planning our next trip to Yellowstone together!
*All pictures are our own unless stated otherwise.
The Bradley-Taggart Lake loop is a phenomenal moderate half-day hike with stunning views of the Tetons throughout. The loop visits two of the six glacially-formed lakes that lie at the base of the Teton Range. We started from Taggart Lake Trailhead that took us along a bubbling mountain creek and dense aspen groves with some leaves just starting to transform the trail into autumn. The trail leveled out with terrain changing from forest to clearings.
The glass surface of Bradley Lake mirroring the mountains looming over the distant shore was mesmerizing. Low wind conditions and sunny skies made for the perfect photo op! By this point, we had befriended a couple from Ohio visiting the national parks for the first time. They kept us company for practically the rest of the hike and shared lots of laughs. Props to JJ for this shot of us!
We continued uphill to reach the second glacial lake: Taggart. After a couple miles of incline we reached the overlook which sits a couple hundred feet above the lake. Sadly, our new friends decided to return to the trailhead, while we opted to continue a little farther to find the perfect picnic spot. The extra distance was well worth it! We were rewarded with a boulder nestled on the shore overlooking the deep blue and green water. Feeling content from our tranquil perch, we lounged soaking in the views for the better part of two hours.
We retraced our steps back towards Bradley Lake since the bridge connecting the loop was out. Nearing the end of our hike, we found a clearing with a panorama that tugged on Stephanie’s need to bust out some yoga moves from a boulder.
Also, Brandon was challenged to a Macarena dance off. And won.