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.
Vacation Vagabonds loves food and wine just as much as we love hiking and adventure! We’ve uncovered the top five date night spots in Jackson Hole for the foodie inclined.
Most unique cuisine: Bin 22
We promise you won’t be disappointed at Bin 22, a wine bar and tapas restaurant located off the Town Square. The restaurant has a buzzing interior and charming patio with heaters–vital if you’re visiting from Texas, like us! What makes this spot really unique is that you can pick out a bottle from the specialty grocery store front with no corking fee. This tapas spot is perfect for late night dining and sharing plates to sample a variety of menu items. Our voted most interesting dish is the grilled Spanish octopus served with fingerling potatoes and fennel in a lemon-basil vinaigrette. Stephanie had to be talked into this one by our waiter, and regrets nothing! The cheese plate also blew us away, which is saying something. Brandon takes cheeses very seriously with family ties hailing from Wisconsin/Michigan.
Vagabond Tip: Make reservations or plan to arrive before/after the dinner rush during peak season. Bin 22 can get really busy!
Drinks with a view: Amangani Resort
Go for brunch, a late afternoon aperitif or late night drinks and apps. The view from the Amangani Resort cannot be beat (talk about inspiring major vacation envy among all your friends)! Cozy up by the fireplace and watch the sun set over the Tetons and valley below. Vinos would be pleased with the options offered, and the cocktail menu is exceptional. Brandon’s 22 Boulevard cocktail (Wyoming Whiskey, boulard calvados, and honey sage tea) was unparalelled! We were also impressed by the Amangani Grill’s take on hush puppies with crab. Definitely worth the ten minute drive outside of town.
Vagabond Tip: Make a day of the Amangani Resort area! Trail rides are available through the adjacent ranch in the summers, and the resort offers a full service spa and other services. The reflective pool is also incredibly tempting!
Intimate setting: Nanni’s Ristorante
Nanni’s Ristorante is Italian cooking done right. We couldn’t help but fall for this charming wooden cabin with a easygoing vibe, and their handmade pasta dishes speak for themselves. Dim lighting and homemade style cooking are sure to inspire great conversation and lasting memories. Stephanie raved about the mushroom and parsley gnocchi, and Brandon ordered the carbonara with pancetta and egg yolk. We always make a point of dining at Nanni’s and continue to return to year after year.
Western home cooking: Cafe Genevieve
Cafe Genevieve offers a menu inspired by Southern-style cooking with Western flair. An intimate restaurant in a historic wooden cabin, Cafe Genevieve is popular with locals and tourists alike. Savory dishes are on the dinner menu here, with options like Idaho trout (pictured below, left), shrimp and grits, and seared buffalo tenderloin. Cafe Genevieve is also open for brunch and lunch, so you have lots of flexibility in your schedule to fit in a provincial meal here.
Vagabond Tip: Cafe Genevieve’s novelty menu item is “pig candy” or candied bacon (pictured below, right), and Brandon swears it tastes almost exactly like you would expect.
What other spots should be on here? We want to hear about your favorites! Leave a comment or question for us.
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.
Jackson Hole is a western town nestled in between the Teton Mountain Range and Gros Ventre Range. I’ve spent summers in Jackson for as long as I can remember, and always find fun new things each year. Here are some of my favorite classic Jackson Hole must-do’s in town.
Window shop on the Town Square
Dozens of tourist and specialty shops line the streets surrounding the Town Square, making it a perfect way to spend the afternoon. Some of our favorite touristy shops include Shirt Off My Back, Skinny Skis, and Jackson Trading Company. Most unique store on the square goes to By Nature Gallery which features fossils, meteorites, petrified wood, and gorgeous gems worked into jewelry pieces. Most recently, the store displayed a giant sloth foot and triceratops skull. It’s like walking into a museum with pieces you can take home…if you can afford it! For those daring to go off the beaten track and do some thrifting, there are some great hidden gems just off the square. Browse & Buy (associated with the Episcopal Church next door) offers an assortment of used clothes, books, and sports equipment. We’ve picked up a great hiking backpack there, and if you’re lucky, you can find great deals on skis and snowboards in the off season.
Western shoot out
The Jackson Hole Shootout has been a Wyoming tradition since 1957. Unaware spectators wandering the Square may be caught off guard by smoking gunfire, runaway horse-drawn wagons, and cowboys running along rooftops. The shoot out is put on by actors at the Jackson Hole Playhouse every summer evening, except Sundays. As the locals put it, there’s no shootin’ on Sundays!
*Fun fact: The Shootout is the longest, continuously running gunfight in the United States with an estimated 4 million spectators over the years.
Wander art galleries
Marvel at impressive western-inspired artwork, of which there’s no shortage. Jackson boasts over 25 art galleries, all with a unique flair. Many galleries join up for monthly Art Walks and other events to provide drinks and appetizers while you cruise the local art scene. My favorite gallery that I return to year after year is Altamira Fine Art (@altamirafineart). Altamira always has some gorgeous color-infused Nieto paintings (my absolute favorite) and other emerging and established artists. You can also drop by legendary nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen’s (@thomasdmangelsen) Images of Nature gallery to view his iconic work.