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!
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.