Of all the national parks I’ve ever visited, I never felt more unprepared than I did when I visited Yellowstone National Park. I had done research and thought I had everything figured out. But Yellowstone National Park is a unique park. It presents some challenges that other parks just don’t have. And those challenges can leave you feeling a little overwhelmed if you don’t know what to expect. So I’ve come up with a few things you need to know about Yellowstone National Park to help you prepare for your visit.
Yellowstone at a Glance
located in Wyoming, Montana + Idaho
Established in 1872
NPS Abbreviation is YELL
Highest elevation 8,900 feet
Visited in May + September
Table of Contents
- It’s Big
- It’s East to Get Turned Around
- It’s Our First National Park
- It’s Crowded
- It Has Five Entrances
- It’s Got Crazy Weather
- There’s Lots of Wildlife
- It’s Hard to Get a Place to Stay
- You Need More Than a Day
- There’s No Phone Service
- You Might Get Tired of Geothermal Features
- There’s Food and Fuel in the Park
- It’s a Fee Based Park
- You Might Need Bear Spray
- Expect Some Closures in the Park
- There’s a Mobile App
- How to Get to Yellowstone National Park
- More Resources for Things You Need to Know About Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park isn’t the biggest park in the national park system but it’s a large one. In fact, it’s the second largest park in the lower 48, right behind Death Valley National Park. Looking at a map, it might not look that big, but trust me, driving to it – and through it – you will see just how big and spread out it is. Depending on which entrance you use to enter the park, it might feel like you’ll never stop driving.
So, just how big is it? Yellowstone is approximately 3,500 square miles or over 2 million acres. It’s hard to put that into perspective so for visualization, Yellowstone is the size of two states: Rhode Island and Delaware put together. Neither of those states are huge but just the fact that the United States has a national park bigger than two states is pretty amazing to think about.
It’s East to Get Turned Around
Because Yellowstone is so big and has so many stops and places to see, it’s easy to lose your way and get turned around in the park. Before you know it, you’ve wasted precious time wandering around just trying to get back on track.
One of the best things you can do to prepare and avoid this scenario is to download or print a Yellowstone National Park map from NPS.gov ahead of time. This will give you a chance to get to know the park and it’s layout. You can print a map for research and then pick one at the entrance station.
Looking at a map before you go also gives you a chance to plan out what you want to see and even maybe make a list.
Southerner Says: In addition to the usual National Park Service map, there’s full size map available for printing, as well as a braille, large print and an audio version map at that link.
It’s Our First National Park
Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872 making it the United State’s first national park. That’s not something you have to – or particularly need to know – about Yellowstone National Park before you go but it does help to appreciate the preciousness of the park.
Yellowstone is special. It’s – I would even say – an honor to be able to visit such a rare piece of our country. So treat it with respect. All the parks deserve respect but Yellowstone is highly deserving and should be treasured. Once you see it, you’ll know what I mean.
You might assume that since Yellowstone National Park is so large, there’s no problem with crowds. That assumption would be wrong. Yellowstone has some pretty famous and legendary features and everyone wants to see them. Sometimes – it might feel like – all at the same time. Popular places like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring have the potential to feel more like an amusement park than a national park.
There are a few things you can to do mitigate a potential crowd issue. Here’s what I suggest:
Visit in the Off Season
Yellowstone National Park’s visitor season peaks logically, in the summer months. According the National Park Service, the busiest times are July through September. So when is the best month to visit Yellowstone National Park? If you can visit before school is out and after school starts in the fall, you’ll notice a big difference in the crowds. I’ve visited in late May and mid September and enjoyed them both but the fall was definitely the least crowded.
Another way to beat the crowds in Yellowstone National Park is by getting to the park early. That might not be what you want to do on your vacation but getting on the road and to the popular sites early, puts you ahead of groups and families that tend to get a later start. Tour buses show up around mid morning so getting ahead of them is just smart. Plus getting up early gives you a better chance to see wildlife as they get moving around in the park in the morning.
One more tip to avoid crowds at Yellowstone National Park, is to stay late. If you aren’t already doing this when you visit national parks, you’re missing a huge opportunity to experience some of the best moments. For one, there’s the sunset. Most national parks have overlooks and turnouts perfect for sunset viewing. Because of the water and it’s thermal features, Yellowstone National Park is a perfect park for optimal sunset views.
It Has Five Entrances
Yellowstone National Park actually occupies space in three states: Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Because of that, there are five entrances to the park. What entrance you use to access the park will largely depend on where you decide to stay. Therefore, the entrance where you enter also plays a big part in what you can see if you don’t have much time allotted for visiting the park.
The five Yellowstone National Park entrances are:
- west entrance – West Yellowstone, Montana
- north entrance – Gardiner, Montana
- northwest entrance – Cook City/Silver Gate, Montana
- east entrance – Cody, Wyoming
- south entrance – Jackson, Wyoming
The busiest entrance is the West Yellowstone one followed by Gardiner, Montana in the north and Jackson, Wyoming in the south. If you can plan on entering the park from one of the eastern entrances and not the busiest ones, you will save yourself some time.
Southerner Says: note that all entrances but the north (Gardiner) and northeast (Cooke City) are closed during winter. The road (Hwy 212) between these two entrances is open but the highway east of Cooke City know as the Beartooth Hwy usually closes in October sometime due to snow.
It’s Got Crazy Weather
Because parts of Yellowstone National Park is at a high elevation, it’s not uncommon to encounter some erratic weather even in summer.
The first time I visited, I drove up from Jackson, Wyoming and entered through the south entrance. The weather had been cool in Jackson. Overnight temps were in the 30’s but the daytime highs were mild, in the high 60’s and low 70’s. The closer I got to Yellowstone – around Lewis Lake, which is about 65 miles from Jackson – I was surprised to see the lake still iced over and snow piled as high as the car along the road.
That should have been my first indication that we were in for a crazy weather day. Our 60 degree day plummeted to 30 degrees as we drove further into the park. We experienced rain, hail or sleet – I’m not sure which – fog, wind and thankfully some beautiful sunshine. Four seasons in one day.
The best way to deal with Yellowstone’s weather is be prepared for anything. Dress in layers. A long sleeve shirt over a short sleeve with a rain jacket should work just fine. REI has the rain jacket that I carry everywhere but you could even carry a packable poncho. Having a rain jacket or poncho also helps protect from wind and any other precipitation you might encounter.
To keep your head warm in windy conditions, a snug fitting hat or a beanie is best. Baseball caps or hats that don’t fit tight aren’t recommended because that hat is going to fly off of your head and straight into a thermal feature. And it will be there a long time. Not only is that not good for the microorganisms and other stuff, it’s just plain ugly to look at.
There’s Lots of Wildlife
If you’ve researched visiting Yellowstone National Park, then you’ve probably already seen videos of good encounters and – not so good encounters – with wildlife in the park. Bison are everywhere. One of the things that sets Yellowstone apart when it comes to wildlife is not just how much wildlife there is, it’s where the wildlife is.
It’s very common to see bison in the roads, on trails and just in general, where people are. Because of this, it seems every season, someone gets hurt by wildlife at Yellowstone. How great are the odds of you getting hurt by wildlife at Yellowstone National Park? Not high if you follow some simple guidelines from the National Park Service (NPS).
The park service asks visitors to give animals room to move around. This requires that you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from wildlife like bison and elk and 100 yards from bears and wolves. Always remember you are visiting their home. They may somewhat be acclimated to humans but that doesn’t mean they aren’t wild animals.
It’s Hard to Get a Place to Stay
Yellowstone National Park is notorious for being a one of those places where it’s difficult to book accommodations inside the park. Even campsites are hard to come by. So what can you do? If you are adamant about staying inside the park, then it’s best to make your plans early.
Inside the Park
Yellowstone National Park has nine lodges. Only two of those are open during the winter. Most accommodations can be booked up to a year in advance. According to Xanterra – the company that runs many of the lodges in Yellowstone – planning and flexibility is the key to booking rooms in Yellowstone National Park.
The same goes for campsites. Yellowstone has 12 campgrounds either managed by the National Park Service or Xanterra. Most campsites can be reserved ahead of time but they fill up quickly. Once again, planning a visit in the off season will work to your advantage when booking campsites. You can book campsites that are managed by the National Park Service at Recreation.gov and for those managed by Xanterra, at their website linked above.
For last minute trips to Yellowstone, a few of Yellowstone’s twelve campgrounds are first come first served, which means you don’t need a reservation. For more info about how that works read my Camping in a National Park article.
Outside the Park
If you are unable to find a place to stay inside the park, then the next best place – even though it is a busy entrance – is West Yellowstone, Montana.
West Yellowstone is located just right outside the west entrance of the park. The scenery on this route into the park is beautiful since the road runs along the Madison River. There are plenty of pull-offs and places to start your day.
West Yellowstone isn’t a big town but there are plenty of accommodations, restaurants and stores for supplies. In the busy season, it’s not uncommon for West Yellowstone accommodations to be full, so again, plan in advance.
Second to West Yellowstone, Gardiner, Montana or Jackson, Wyoming are both good options. Just prepare to drive a bit more from them.
In Gardiner, I’ve stayed here right on the Yellowstone River.
You Need More Than a Day
Because Yellowstone is a so large and diverse, there are a lot of things to see. Couple that with time spent just getting around, the big crowds, and possible wildlife jams, you need to be generous with the time you’ve allotted in the park. To see it properly, Yellowstone is not the kind of park you just run into for a few hours.
Just how much time do you need in Yellowstone National Park? If your time is limited, then two days will get you started. Three days are even better. But to really really appreciate the the park and not feel rushed, then four or five days up to a week is what I would recommend.
There’s No Phone Service
Most people prepare for phone service to be spotty in national parks but in Yellowstone National Park, there’s hardly any phone service in the interior of the park. There are towers in the more populated villages at the north and south but once you are in the park don’t count on an reception.
Southerner Says: I have Verizon and my daughter has AT&T and neither of us had service inside the park.
To offset no phone service, always have a plan and then let someone know about your plan. Especially if you are alone. If you are doing any backcountry hiking, follow park regulations. Check in with rangers at the corresponding visitor center – Yellowstone has eight – and know when you need a permit.
Checking in with rangers and visiting the visitor center also gives you the chance to get information and check on any park alerts you need to know about. And if you need it, there is Wi-Fi is available at the Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs in the north section of the park.
You Might Get Tired of Geothermal Features
You might not think about this one, but after a while, some of the features will start to look the same and because of that, unfortunately, they lose some of their fascination.
So what can you do to keep it interesting? If you are in the park for several days and have plenty of time, then mix things up with some non-geothermal tours like kayaking or fishing or even hiking to a different area. That’s the great thing about Yellowstone National Park – it has a little bit everything. And you can go from hot pots and geysers to evergreens and mountains fairly easy.
Having plenty of time is also helpful. That way you’ll have time to explore and you won’t have that rushed feeling when you are trying to do too much. When that happens, it’s easy to just move from site to site without really appreciating what you are seeing.
There’s Food and Fuel in the Park
With so much driving, you’ll be happy to know that you can gas up your vehicle and buy snacks or even have a sit down meal in the park.
Some of the restaurants had to close in 2021 but in normal years, in summer season, you can find food at Canyon Village, Grant Village, Lake Village, Tower/Roosevelt, Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful Village. In addition to actual restaurants, all of these locations have General Stores – that are open in 2021 – and most have snacks, ice cream and some diner type food.
In winter, you can dine at Old Faithful – the only lodge open in winter – and Mammoth Springs. Madison Junction has a warming station with snacks.
For fuel stops, there’re service stations at Canyon Village, Fishing Bridge, Grant Village, Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and Tower Junction. You can even gas up 24 hours a day with a credit card. The park also has Level 2 electric charging stations in various areas.
It’s a Fee Based Park
Yes, Yellowstone National Park charges an entrance fee. You can buy a 7 day park pass for $35 or a Yellowstone annual park pass for $70. The annual passes are of course valid for one year. However, if you love national parks, the America the Beautiful Park Pass is the best deal around for park travelers.
Basically, for $80, you get a pass that grants you – and whoever is in the car with you – entrance into the park of your choice – and over 2,000 other interagency sites – for an entire year. To find out more details, I wrote another article about What is the America the Beautiful Pass and Why You Need It.
Also, if you stay in West Yellowstone – the busiest entrance – there’s a dedicated lane for pass holders which makes getting into the park less time consuming and a little bit easier.
You Might Need Bear Spray
One of the most important things you need to know about Yellowstone National Park is that it’s home to both grizzly bears and black bears. If you plan on doing any hiking – especially backcountry hiking – Wyoming Game and Fish recommends that everyone in your party have bear spray. Bear spray is a non-lethal deterrent designed to stop bears before they attack.
If the thought of this scares you to death; you are not alone. Thank goodness there are plenty of helpful tips about dealing with bears and even a useful video on the Yellowstone National Park website. It highlights making sure you are able to get to your bear spray easily and knowing when and exactly how to use it.
If you already own a can of bear spray, just don’t forget to check the expiration date to verify if it’s still good before you take it out into the field.
Expect Some Closures in the Park
Because Yellowstone National Park is mostly impassible in the winter months, the time available for maintaining the park and making repairs is short. With 251 miles of road and that weather, there’s a lot of upkeep and maintenance required. So don’t be surprised to find some road and even some sites closed for a few days or even an entire season. This year – 2021 – a section of the Grand Loop Road is closed. The good news is you can track these closures by checking nps.gov for the latest planned closures before you go. Occasionally, unexpected things do happen and things close but that’s not generally the rule.
There’s a Mobile App
The National Park Service released a useful mobile national park app earlier this year. However, Yellowstone National Park had their own app before the NPS had one. Both apps are available in the Google Play Store and App Store. I recently used the NPS app for a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and found it super helpful.
A couple of the best features in the Yellowstone app is that you can track the status of current road conditions,. Use it to check the occasional closures I just mentioned above. You can also see live geyser prediction times and look at the menus for restaurants. Another convenience is that you can download the app and use it offline since you probably won’t have cellular service.
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How to Get to Yellowstone National Park
If you are planning to fly into the area and drive to Yellowstone National Park, consider flying into either Jackson, Wyoming, Bozeman or Billings, Montana or even Salt Lake City, Utah. You could combine a Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park road trip.
The airport codes for those cities are:
- Jackson, Wyoming – JAC
- Bozeman, Montana – BZN
- Billings, Montana – BIL
- Salt Lake City, Utah – SLC
More Resources for Things You Need to Know About Yellowstone National Park
Trust me, you can never have too much info about a national park. To help you prepare for your visit, here’s a few useful guidebooks and resources to better prepare you for what you need to know about Yellowstone National Park.
- Fodor’s Travel Guide to Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks
- Lonely Planet Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Park
- Yellowstone National Park Trail Map
- Buy an America the Beautiful pass from REI.com online before you go (they give back to the parks)
- Remember to Leave No Trace when visiting public lands. To learn more visit lnt.org.
Yellowstone National Park is one of my favorite big parks. There’s really is no where else like it in this country. Doing the proper research and being prepared makes it so much easier and much more enjoyable. If you have any tips or suggestions about visiting Yellowstone National Park, feel free to leave me a comment. Happy trails!