How to plan for Yellowstone National Park
When I started writing about Yellowstone I realized there’s a lot to know and tell about this national park. This first aricle is about how to plan for Yellowstone National Park and where to find useful information. In the highlights of Yellowstone, you will find our personal highlights, as well as some disappointments, which will hopefully make it easier to on how to plan for Yellowstone. Enjoy this Yellowstone National Park information!
[Please note that this article was first published in summer 2013 and updated in 2019]
Why to go yo Yellowstone National Park
When planning our USA roadtrip, we initially just wanted to visit Colorado. But after doing some research, I knew that Yellowstone had to be in our trip as well. I saw the ‘Yellowstone Supervolcano’ documentary on tv and even though the pictures on the internet didn’t look that impressive at first, it was a gut feeling we needed to make our way over. Call it fortunate or unfortunate, for Dutch standards the park is quite far away from everything. It’s a full day drive from Salt Lake City and even longer from Denver. Sure, you could probably drive it in a much shorter time but do you really want that? If you plan on going, take your time on driving! We came from the southwest (Salt Lake City) and the last hour before Yellowstone the landscape was already pretty gorgeous. When taking the road in southern direction, towards Denver, the drive is even more stunning and passing the Grand Tetons to Yellowstone is a must, because in my humble opinion, these are among the most scenic mountains on the planet!
How much time do you need for Yellowstone and where to stay
I knew that one full day in Yellowstone would not be enough, so we planned two full days inside the park. If you have more time, please consider spending more days there, you won’t regret it! We were up and running from 5.00 am until 10.00 pm for three days in a row and still didn’t get to see everything we wanted. Unfortunately, we just didn’t have more time as there were so many other things we wanted to see when going all the way to the USA. Life is all about choices, especially when you come from overseas.
Our most important piece of advice is to book your accommodation well ahead! Showing up just like that and expecting to find a place to stay in the park will result in a disappointment, especially in the high season. Everything inside the park is operated by Yellowstone National Park Lodges, you can make reservations for both hotels and campsites. We were pretty shocked to find out that all hotels and many campsites were fully booked months in advance already. Especially since we were traveling mid June, which we thought was not yet high season. We reserved our campsite two months in advance and by then it was already pretty booked up. Other options are staying in West Yellowstone or other towns outside of the park, but I guess you don’t really want to stay far away, having to take a long drive every time you want to see something…
We stayed at Madison Campsite which we thought has a good location in the southwestern area of the park. It’s not too high up altitude wise, so it doesn’t get too cold during the night. Madison is quite close to some major highlights such at Old Faithful and Norris Geyser Basin. The campsite is large but quiet, at night the only thing that woke me up would be someone snoring (the perks of tenting) or a car coming back from somewhere in the middle of the night. The bathrooms were pretty clean and there was a place to wash dishes which was a luxury. There are no showers though, the closest ones are at Old Faithful Inn, about 30 minutes driving away or at West Yellowstone. The site rate for Madison Campground in 2019 is USD 26 per night.
Als make sure to check this Yellowstone Packing list before your head off on your adventure!
How to plan your time
I know you probably don’t want to plan every minute of your trip, but try to take some time to read about what Yellowstone National Park has to offer. There’s a lot to see and do and because there are so many other tourists (yes, you won’t be alone!) traffic jams occur a lot and at major sights, it can sometimes be a pain to find a parking spot. Lonely Planet has a guidebook just about Yellowstone and Grand Teton which was useful when planning from home, but we didn’t use it a lot while in the park because the park service can provide you with plenty of information upon arrival. Just make your way to a visitors center, there are some in various areas of the park. They will be happy to help you with any questions you have. You may also want to check out the website of the National Park Service, which we got a lot of information from, especially about activities and hiking. In addition, make sure to order your national park planning map in advance.
The roads in Yellowstone are in the shape of an 8. We did the upper loop in one day and the lower loop in one day. You could probably do the both of them in one really long day, but the distances and driving times were longer than we expected! Sometimes there would be a major traffic jam for a bear next to the roadside or bison suddenly crossing, which easily led to at least a half hour delay. We also thought there was ‘too much’ to see, or at least, too much for just two days. During our first hour on the road we stopped at every roadsign and everything that looked even slightly picturesque. However because of our endless stopping we missed the guided ranger walk we planned on joining (they’re free and highly recommended!) and realized we needed to make choices about what to see and do.
Our next piece of advice is to wake up early and stay up late! On our first night, we decided to take a drive to Old Faithful, the park’s most famous geyser that erupts pretty much every 90 minutes. There is even a Twitter account where rangers predict the next eruption: GeyserNPS. We didn’t have cell coverage in the park (no wifi available unless you are paying for it or staying in one of the resorts) but eruption predictions are posted in the visitors center as well. We arrived at Old Faithful just before sunset and there were less than 50 people there. We were lucky because we only had to wait for about ten minutes until the eruption came. With the sun setting and the sound of water blowing high up into the air, it was a truly stunning experience. When we were there again two days later and hundreds of people were sitting around the geyser, we realized we had been lucky to experience the blow with only a few people around earlier that week…
Be bear aware!
One last bit of advice when planning a trip to Yellowstone is to be bear aware! When buying outdoor gear in Denver we asked the guys at the outdoor shop we went to if we really needed bear spray. After we told them we were going to Yellowstone, their answer was a definite yes. At first, we were kind of funny about it and kept on thinking it had been a waste of money because after all, $50 is a lot for something that you’re not even allowed to bring home and hopefully not going to use. Upon arrival at the campsite we were told a bear had been seen on the premises the night before and we were given very strict instructions on how to camp with bears. Of course we followed the guidelines of the campsite concerning food storage and while hiking in the backcountry, we were as careful as possible. However, we still had a close bear encounter. When we saw a grizzly and another black bear on the road later that day and heard that two years earlier two male hikers were killed by bears, we realized bears are a serious threat and should never be underestimated.
I hope the above information has been helpful in how to plan your trip to Yellowstone National Park. If you’re looking to plan your own trip, make sure to order your copy of Lonely Planet Yellowstone that’s filled with more useful information. Alternatively, make sure to book your accommodation well ahead as summers are usually pretty much booked up well in advance. Check availability and prices for all accommodation around Yellowstone National Park here.