Updated: Jan 22, 2020
Yellowstone National Park is a place of great wonder and excitement. Filled with geothermal features and sites beyond compare, the park is like no other place you will find in the United States. It has a rich history which stretches well beyond the stories of Old Faithful and bison roaming across the roads causing traffic jams.
But with all it does have to offer those visiting you might want to consider a few things before taking the trip to this highly visited and vastly popular park.
1 - BOOK CAMPSITE IN ADVANCE
If you are planning on staying in the park, you will quickly find that if you have not booked in advance sites fill quickly!
When I visited I noticed on weekends ALL campsites were booked to capacity well before I had arrived at 9 am.
A park employee commented, “We are a very busy park. Especially for larger units you will want to make sure to find and book early because these sites are not guaranteed on the day of arrival, especially later in the day. Booking is quick and easy online and allows you to skip the worry of same day arrival.”
I checked daily the campsites to see how many of them opened up in the three days I visited and noticed that Monday was less busy than the weekend however also sold out. The only time they do not sell out in advance typically is during the snowy season, but in this case camping options are very limited and road closures can easily effect your mobility.
While there are some sites reserved for backpacking and thru biking these are very limited and only available on a first come first serve basis on the day of. Do not bank on these or expect them if you are in a rig, van or even a tent camper coming in a car, that is not what these sites are held for.
2 - DOWNLOAD OFFLINE MAPS
The park itself is a void of cell signal. With only one tower (a Verizon tower), the access to being able to call out or use online maps is extremely limited. If the park is at capacity at times you might have the appearance of signal only to find that even with 4G appearing on your screen that you cannot actually use the service because it is overwhelmed by those trying to tap into the same limited resource.
For this reason I suggest downloading offline maps of not only the park but the surrounding area. Google offers great offline map resources from your app or from computer access. I personally download my maps according to where my trip will take me up to 10 points of interest. In other words, I plan each stop and drop a pin on the map which then locks in the GPS coordinates for each. From here I can send the offline map to my phone to have quick access to wherever I want to go in detail. This will allow me turn by turn directions, but also a visual of all of the roads and cross sections I might encounter along the way.
3 - KNOW HOW MUCH TIME YOU WILL HAVE
Yellowstone is a large park and there are many things to do. Knowing how much time you have to enjoy the park is key to planning your days and how many things you will be able to see and do.
If you are fortunate enough to spend a week in the park you will be able to see all of the geothermal features, visit the valley where the wildlife roam free, check out all of the visitors centers and possibly take a hike or two. But if your time is much more limited you will want to decide in advance your priorities in the park so you can make the most of your time while there and avoid getting stuck following the crowds on the wrong loop.
The park is designed in a figure 8 or sorts. The majority of the geothermal features are located on the lower east side and the entire western side. The upper eastern side is more of the scenic drive which offers access to bison, elk and other animals. If you are visiting during the winter months this section (upper eastern) is often the location which is shut down the earliest with snow and ice.
There is an entry point to the park at each of the four sides, no two entrance areas is the same in appearance. On the east you will find lake access which will by far allow you the best view points of the lake itself as you drive the road from Cody inward. On the south you will find the Tetons, a beauty in itself to be enjoyed. Northern entrance and Western entrances each have communities just beyond the boundaries of the park which are perfect for a quick stop to restock supplies, stay in a hotel not located in the park, or grab a little fuel.
Depending on your entry to the park and your time frame you can plan to see many of the most popular locations easily by doing a little research in advance.
4 - BEARS
This area is known for not only your standard run of the mill bears which are throughout the United States but also Grizzly Bears, the most dangerous of all the bears found in North America. These bears are much larger not only in statute but also have claws which are much more pronounced than a black bear (almost 6 inches long). The Grizzly Bear which inhabits this area, typically strays away from people, however as they prepare for their hibernation and as they introduce their young to the world around them, they can become much more aggressive.
For this reason the park urges you not to hike alone, to carry bear spray, to take precautions at your campsite to protect yourself from a bear shopping spree of your food and to remember basic tips for being our in nature around them. These tips typically are very common sense, but things like keeping on the path, making noise when you travel about to allow proper warning of your presence so as to not catch a bear off guard and knowing what to do if you should encounter one of these creatures are all important things to know.
Bear spray is provided at the various visitors stops, however at a hefty price tag of $50 per can. I suggest preparing before you visit by picking up bear spray online or at your local outdoors store well before you travel to Wyoming. I noticed even at the local WalMart and Big5 spray was higher than it can be purchased in other regions.
Make sure you learn about what to do should you encounter a bear by speaking to a ranger at the park upon arrival. Additionally read all materials provided about proper food storage and use bear boxes when available. Bears are smarter than you might think, and your car isn’t always the best storage for your food!!
Now with this said, I saw exactly one bear on my trip, and that bear was at a distance of over 1000 yards, on a mountain while I was below visiting Old Faithful. Are they out there? Yes, but will you see one, not always!!
5 - PET RESTRICTIONS
We all love our furry friends, however in more recent years these furry friends are being more and more limited at National Parks. Why?? Well there seems to be a variety of reasons for this. In many cases it is to prevent issues with local wildlife, in other however it has been linked to lack of clean up and responsibility of pet owners which would walk their pets and not clean up after them.
Yellowstone is much like other parks in this regard. While there are some areas which you are allowed to have your pets, this is becoming more and more limited. There are signs throughout the park about pets on leashes, pets not being allowed on trails and penalties for not cleaning up after your pets.
But at Yellowstone, something many might not consider is safety of their pets due to the geothermal features.
Boardwalks surround many of the features to keep you off of the crust level, a thin layer of minerals and soil which appear to be solid ground but in several areas are only a millimeter thick. Animals by nature are curious and tend to stray from the path and this has resulted in many issues around these features which have boiling hot grounds which can be very dangerous should you attempt to walk on them.
If you love your pets, remember this is not a suggestion it is a rule!! It is a rule for a reason and there have been some instances where it has been broken and horrific things have happened.
6 - SHOWERS
Not all campgrounds have showers!! But just because your campground doesn’t have showers does not mean you do not have access to showers at the park. Technically anyone who pays entrance to the park itself has access to its amenities. If you book a campground without showers you can drive to another in the park and use those facilities.
During summer months Grant Village Campground, Fishing Bridge RV Park, Canyon Village Campground and the Old Faithful area have both showers and laundry which you can use.
These facilities are coin operated and require quarters. You can also snag a shower at Mammoth Hot Springs area but there is no laundry at this location.
7 - PREPARE FOR CLOSURES & CONSTRUCTION
There seems to always be some kind of construction going on around the park to maintain roadways and with good cause as there are millions of motorists which visit annually. Before you visit you will want to look online at the official park website where they post closures and construction. This will allow you to have an idea of areas to avoid if you have a more limited time frame at the park.
I noticed on my visit that two areas were under construction. The first was the eastern most entrance just before you arrive at the turn to go toward the western entry point. For about 5 miles the road was gravel, uneven, barricaded in some places and some of the view points were closed. I nearly missed the Visitor Center at this point all together because I didn’t know how to navigate around the construction zone and actually had to turn back to catch it.
The other area of construction I hit was on the north western loop where traffic was being stopped and allowed to pass through on only a single lane. We sat piling up for about 45 minutes before being escorted down the narrow lane. It seemed they were doing some work on the roadway to reinforce the shoulders and fill in road wear pot holes.
8 - GAS PRICES
It is inevitable if you are in the park for a few days you will need to get gas, and for that gas you will pay hefty prices!! Gas is nearly 40 to 60 cents higher inside the park than it is in the neighboring communities.
When I visited I fueled up in Cody, 52 miles from the eastern entrance, I have a small car and though I get about 40 miles per gallon I noticed that I needed gas again within the 3 days I was traveling thanks to the start and stop of visiting all of the view points. I didn’t see the harm in fueling up in the park rather than waiting until I reached the western or northern entrances (both of which have small communities with more competitive gas prices). And for that decision I paid heavily!! I cannot imagine having to fuel up a large unit in the park and would suggest instead to make the plan to depart the park and save the money.
9 - WHERE IS CELL SERVICE?
As previously discussed cell service is a bit of a mystery when visiting Yellowstone. At times it becomes downright upsetting to think you have full bars and still cannot call out. But there is a solution if you absolutely need cell service for business or to touch base with your family. The communities both west and north have cell coverage that actually works!! In fact, at the northern most entrance, Mammoth, you can actually use call service from the lodge and fort area as well.
Is it a little out of your way to have to depart the park to use your phone? YES. But in a pinch if you need this service it is worth it to have an ideas as to where you should be going to find usable signal versus becoming increasingly frustrated.
I found that the northern town of Gardiner not only could I thrive in a work setting with cell signal but also with WIFI which was available in several points. Subway was my go to office in lieu of my typical Starbucks (there was not one there) because it has very rapid WIFI, perfect for uploading content, using my devices and sending emails.
10 - CAMPING ALTERNATIVES
So what happens when you want to visit Yellowstone, but don’t have a reservation? Or if you are a person who wants to save big on your campsites and can do so by not needing all the amenities?
National Forests are your friend!!! In any direction of the park you can find some great alternatives for camping thanks to the National Forest Service.
To the north there is not only an improved campground at a fraction of the cost of staying in the park but also a Forest Service Road camping area for boondocking up to 14 days at a time for free.
East toward Cody you will find at least 6 campgrounds outside of the park which provide improved camping with beautiful views of the rivers and mountains. These campsites are reasonably priced, below that of the park and allow a bit more seclusion than the much larger campgrounds of the park. If you choose to explore these take note that some do allow hard sides only because of bears while others welcome tents as well.
South bound and into Teton you can find several camping options. Right on the Snake River there are a few popular boondocking sites which are typically filled quickly. If you are a van or car camper these sites will be a little more difficult to claim for your own as you will not be able to leave anything staking your claim on them. These are great for detachable RVs and tent campers. Beyond that and through Teton there is another area which offers camping, again for free. I actually used this location when traveling because it had amazing views of the Tetons, was on a road which was easy for my small car to drive down and provided a community camping experience which I shared with several awesome people. Just up the winding road there are additional more private sites also on Forest land.
To the west, you will find Forest camping at a discounted price from in park rates just a bit beyond the community of West Yellowstone. These sites are a bit more removed feeling from the park than others which seem to be a mere continuation of the roadway, but allow you access to basic amenities and also cell signal from the locations.
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