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22 Tips Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

It's rare (believe it or not) that I return from a travel location and think of a million and one things I could tell other visitors to make their lives easier before they go there. Yellowstone National Park happens to be in that category, though.

I wouldn't have expected it to be one of those destinations but that was because I didn't even really know what to expect before going. I had seen beautiful photos of the park. I had learned a few things about it from my mom beforehand while she planned the trip. I had asked for advice from people I know who had gone there. But I still returned with more tips than I went there with, and now it's time to share them with you.

Perhaps you'll return with more advice than is in this blog post (which I'd love to hear!). But before you come up with your own, at least do or understand the following:


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scenic view of Yellowstone Lake

1. Buy a National Park Pass.

If you plan to go to Yellowstone plus another national park (like Grand Teton) or another national monument, you've already made getting the National Park Pass worth it. This pass is good for a year and gets you into a long list of parks and monuments after you pay a fee. It costs $80 for most people, but veterans and military personnel get one for free, and seniors can pay $80 for a lifetime pass.

If $80 sounds like a lot to you for a year despite you going to several national parks, let me give you an example to show you why this pass makes sense. Entrance fees to national parks and monuments can be pretty pricey. For example, Yellowstone is $35 for private vehicles, Grand Teton is $30 for private vehicles. That's already $65. And if you tack on another park like the Badlands in South Dakota, you'll be paying $30 again. Already, you've passed the amount you would spend on the National Park Pass.

And keep in mind that you don't have to visit a bunch of national parks in the same week. You have a year to use the pass, so you might go to the Gateway Arch National Park in Missouri in the spring and then multiple sites in Arizona in the fall and already be well over what you paid for the pass.

2. Go during the off season if possible.

We recently went to Yellowstone at the end of May but before Memorial Day, which is the tail end of its off season. And I WAS SO HAPPY WE MADE THAT CHOICE. In fact, I can't even imagine going to Yellowstone from June to August. There were already crowds at times in May, especially near the Old Faithful area, and there aren't a lot of parking spots at the popular features and not a lot of pull-off space at the less popular features. I'm not even sure how you'd be able to see very many sights if you went in the summer.

Sure, going during the off season means some of the restaurants and small museums are closed, but on the flip side of that, it means there's still room to get out of your car to see a grizzly bear and its cubs walking around (true story), there's still room to park at the popular tourist spots, and there are opportunities to get family photos in front of the waterfalls and springs because the small groups of people make way for you.

I suggest going during the early fall and late spring as there will be fewer weather issues. Additionally, if you really want to see some bears, they emerge from hibernation during March and April, so spring is a great time to go.

Mammoth Springs town in Yellowstone

3. Find accommodations outside of the park.

There are several benefits to staying just outside of Yellowstone. The first is that you can find cheaper hotels/Airbnbs. The second is that there are more food options for dinner and breakfast. The third is that there are more shops with Yellowstone souvenirs if you can't find what you're looking for in the park. The fourth is that there can be more to see and do. For example, Gardiner, MT, has the original Yellowstone entrance arch (the Roosevelt Arch), and you can watch a lot of elk grazing in the field right next to the town.

4. Stay at a different location every night.

If you stay at the same hotel, you're going to have to do a lot of backtracking, which means A LOT of driving (and you could get stuck in traffic), which means you'll waste a lot of precious time. Instead, stay at a new place every night that's close to the end of the current day's plans or the next day's plans.

For example, we stayed in Cody before heading into Yellowstone on the east side, then we followed the roads north. That night we stayed in Gardiner, which is on the north side then headed down through the middle of Yellowstone before veering off to the west side where we stayed in West Yellowstone. On the final day, we explored the west portion and southern area before leaving out the south entrance.

5. Book your accommodation really far in advance.

Yellowstone is one of the most visited national parks in the U.S., especially during the summer, and it's not like there are a lot of places to stay inside or near it. So if you're not camping, you should book your accommodations well in advance. By "well in advance," I'm talking probably half a year before you're going, maybe even before that. Places were already getting really full when we looked in January, and we were going to be there at the end of May.

6. Accept the maps of Yellowstone at the entrance.

You most likely will not have any cell signal within the park. And even if you decide to put your destination into your GPS app before you lose signal, this still isn't a great plan for Yellowstone since you'll be stopping a lot.

I suggest grabbing up the maps at the gate when you enter. These not only show an overall map of Yellowstone, but they also have maps of specific places in Yellowstone. And since you also won't be able to Google anything, the highlighted attractions sections could also be helpful.

In this same vein, be sure to download some music or anything else you might want or need on your phone before you enter the park.

packed lunch example

7. Pack lunches.

No matter how much you plan out your days in Yellowstone, you'll likely get behind, whether that's because you want to stop at everything or because an animal is crossing the road and putting traffic at a standstill. So, to make your life easier (in other words, so that you don't have kids in the back complaining about how hungry they are or you yourself don't get hangry) and give you more time in the park, I suggest packing lunches rather than sitting down at restaurants.

In the evening, sure. Go to a restaurant because that's when you'll have time. But during the day, packing a lunch is the best option. It's as easy as putting bread, lunch meat, cheese, vegetables/fruits and chips in a cooler or insulated bag. There are picnic tables all over Yellowstone, and there's always the option to eat out of the back of your vehicle.

8. Buy a case (or multiple cases) of water bottles.

I honestly don't even remember seeing any spots where we could fill up our water bottles. Granted, there were probably water fountains by the bathrooms in the visitor centers, but you're not spending much time there, and you need to be drinking a lot of water throughout each day.

My suggestion is to buy a case (or multiple cases depending on how many people are with you) of water bottles before you go into the park. Then you can easily grab one once your other one is empty or refill a sturdier water container.

9. Wear comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots.

You'll do A LOT of walking in Yellowstone. In fact, we walked more than 7 miles every day we were there. So tennis shoes that feel good on your feet are best. Additionally, although all the most popular places have boardwalks, some of the other spots just have dirt trails, which can be dusty or get muddy, so hiking boots are also a good idea if you own them.

steam coming off a turquoise hot spring in Yellowstone

10. Bring sunscreen ... and put it on.

Per usual, I saw way too many people not taking the sun seriously in Yellowstone. And most of them paid for it! Keep in mind that you're going to be outside all day when visiting Yellowstone, and most people are going to be at a higher elevation than what they are used to. You'll also be encountering a lot of water and steam, which means there will be even more sun reflecting onto your skin.

Even if you're wearing a hat, you'd best be prepared and put some sunscreen on your ears, neck and anywhere else that's uncovered!

11. Pack clothes for varying temps and weather.

The temperature can change a lot in Yellowstone, even just in one day. When I was there in May, some mornings were cold so I would have to wear a heavy jacket but then suddenly some points in the afternoon were hot and I'd be in shorts and a tank top. Some days would be sunny and then suddenly it would be pouring rain.

All of this to say, pack and wear layers so that you can change when the temperature or weather changes. For instance, hiking pants that unzip into shorts are smart if you have them, and tank tops or T-shirts with jackets are great ideas. Bring a rain jacket because it's likely you'll need it, too.

12. Don't forget binoculars.

We had to pack for several trips and activities in addition to Yellowstone, and when we arrived, we all realized we forgot one crucial tool: binoculars. Thank goodness there were some kind people who let us look through their scopes to see some of the bears or I might have cried. Granted, I have a new phone that can zoom extremely far so that helped, but binoculars or a big scope would be best unless you're a photographer with a camera's long lens. Binoculars would also be easy to pass around to kids.

woman looking at the Morning Glory pool

13. Visit the most popular sights in the early morning.

Especially during the busy season at the park, the most popular features (like Old Faithful or Mammoth Springs) get majorly crowded. To avoid the issues that come with large crowds like not being able to find a parking spot, not being able to see anything or take photos, etc., the key is to visit these popular spots early in the morning. You'll beat all the people who wake up late or can't/don't want to get out the door quickly.

14. Read the signs in the park.

I know that, as people, we have a problem. Most of us don't read the signs, whether it's because we forget to or don't want to. But the ones at Yellowstone can be really helpful. Not only will you learn about the geographical features when you see a sign in the park, but some of them also tell you important information like where to go, more things to see, what to do, what not to do, etc.

Here's a good example: In one boardwalk area, there was a sign that told everyone to hold onto their hats because it gets even windier there and once the hat is lost, it's lost, as there are hot springs underneath the boardwalks that can kill you. Someone in my family, unfortunately, didn't pay attention to the sign or those who told him to watch his hat, and it flew off his head and landed on the ground. Now it's gone forever (and not to mention the spring could become polluted I would think). But he wasn't the only one! I counted at least two other hats as we walked.

So listen to this advice and read the signs!

15. Watch your young children carefully ... or don't bring them.

This point probably sounds harsh, but I'm saying this out of concern for your children's safety. Yellowstone is NOT a place where you can let your kids wander, whether they're 2 or 10 years old. In fact, in many areas, if you get off the boardwalks, you could die. So if you do bring your young children, make sure they're very obedient or that you don't set your young ones down to walk around if they can't understand commands very well.

Another thought is that you will be doing a lot of walking (miles and miles of it). If you don't think that's something your kids can handle at this point, maybe it's best to go somewhere else on vacation this year or go yourself and take them when they're older.

a museum in Yellowstone National Park

16. Stop at the museums.

Although they're not going to be the best museums you've ever been to, the exhibits in Yellowstone are good places to visit because they give you background information about the park that you're exploring. You can learn about how the land features were made and about the history of the park. (That latter topic was my favorite because there were a lot of fun facts included in the exhibit. This one is located at the Mammoth Springs visitor center.)

Plus the museums give you a chance to be indoors for a little bit before going out in the sun again, and they always have nicer bathrooms than the ones you've been visiting in the more remote places of the park.

17. Fill up your gas tank outside of the park.

There are just a few gas stations in Yellowstone, and they all seemed to be more expensive than the gas stations outside of the park. So fill up before you enter Yellowstone if you want to save some money. Plus, it's unlikely that you'll use up a full gas tank if you're exploring the park for just a few days, so you might not even have to fill up again until you leave.

18. Don't feel rushed when other tourists drive behind you.

Remember, it's better to arrive alive. And this saying becomes very real when driving on certain roads in Yellowstone. Some of them are very curvy. Others are on cliffs. I don't care if you feel like you're making other tourists upset or if there's a long line of them behind you. It's. Better. To. Arrive. Alive. Don't worry about rushing and upping the gas. The speed limit is pretty low in most parts of Yellowstone anyway, so you're likely driving the correct speed if you're moving slowly.

As for the flip side of this, you drivers who tail the slower drivers ... STOP. It's safer to go the speed limit, especially in Yellowstone, rather than hit an animal that totals your car, hit the car in front of you or drive off a cliff.

a grizzly bear and her three cubs

19. Pull over when you see people congregating.

Multiple people coming together, especially those with their cameras and scopes, on the side of the road means that they've seen or are currently watching a popular animal. (It's most likely a bear!) It's so worth it to find a spot to pull over and get out to learn more. We did this several times and got to see a black bear with two cubs and a grizzly bear with three cubs. It was a highlight of our trip!

20. When you pull over, make sure you do it right.

The rangers will ask you to move your car if you're not parked correctly ... even if you see a bear and you've pulled over in a small space so that you can get out of your car and take some pictures.

What do I mean by "correctly?" According to the multiple rangers that we heard getting on to people during our Yellowstone trip, all your tires must be off the main road. So if part of your car is still in the driving lane, I wouldn't try getting out yet. Park well and then see the animal so that you're not interrupted as you watch.

a bison in Yellowstone

21. Check out the spots even just a few people are stopped at.

Don't skip the pull-off areas and parking lots that don't seem as busy! Yes, the crowded areas are where you'll see the most popular and unique sights, BUT, there is so much beauty in the other areas as well, including trails with woods and smaller waterfalls.

These places are easy to enjoy because you might see more animals there, get some pretty outdoor shots that look like paintings and also find some peace and quiet in nature for a little bit without the hustle and bustle of tourists.

22. Visit Grand Teton or Jackson Hole since you're already in the area.

If you have the time on your trip, you might as well go hiking in Grand Teton National Park or at least spend a day in Jackson Hole (and then you'll have driven through Grand Teton anyway). Although there are not tons to do in Jackson Hole unless you're skiing or white water rafting or horseback riding, the town of Jackson can be a great place to relax after all that driving and walking in Yellowstone. (If you're interested in the free things to do in Jackson, check out this blog post.)

a view of Yellowstone river

There you have it! All of the tips I can think of so far as it relates to Yellowstone National Park. While I might add to this post as time goes on, you'll be able to learn more about what it's like visiting this area in a soon-to-be-published blog post, which will include a three-day itinerary. But until then, do the research that you can and start planning for your outdoor adventure!



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