Many travellers know the United States and its famous national parks: the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Yosemite National Park in California, Zion in Utah or Rocky Mountain in Colorado. I recently had the opportunity to discover, during my road trip to the USA, the magnificent park of Yellowstone, Wyoming. Many have heard about it being the oldest park in the USA. It is kind of an emblem in the United States.
Who has never seen the amazing colours, red, green, blue, the natural pools of boiling water, the impressive fumaroles that can be found all over the park. Chances are you’ve already seen pictures of the site without even knowing it was in Yellowstone. What about the park’s extraordinary wildlife: black bears, wolves, bison, grizzly bears, etc.
The park itself is really worth seeing at least once in your life. Although it is not the most visited park in the United States, I must say that there are still a lot of people there. The fact that it is only open for a few months a year obviously does not help. I won’t give you the details of all the sites to see in the park, one by one. There are clearly too many of them and I would spoil the pleasure of discovering them by yourself. You will find the few great classics listed at the bottom of the article. Here is the essential information you need to prepare for your visit to Yellowstone Park.
I’m going to split things into two here. Either you are going directly from where you live to visit the park and its surroundings by airplane. Or you are doing a big road trip, perhaps travelling across Northern or Western America, by car/motorhome/campervan. If you are preparing for your trip to the United States, I would advise you to take a look at this great car rental comparator. I’ve already used it several times! Are you looking for a van or a motorhome? It’s this way!
As a general rule, the cheapest airport to explore Yellowstone Park is Salt Lake City. From Europe, you can find cheap flights to Salt Lake City for example for less than 400/500€ by being flexible. Feel free to compare prices on this flight comparator that I have been using for 10 years now.There are certainly other airports closer to the park, but they are not as well served and therefore much more expensive (Bozeman, Idaho Falls, etc.). From Salt Lake, you are only about 4/5 hours, travelling non-stop, to the first park entrance.
If you are already in the United States on a road trip passing through the area, there are several possibilities. Yellowstone Park has 5 entrances: North Entrance, Northeast Entrance, South Entrance, West Entrance and East Entrance.
If you are on a road trip in the Western United States area, especially travelling through the states south of the Park (Nevada, Utah and Colorado), the easiest way to get to Yellowstone is probably through the South Gate (through Grand Teton National Park). If you would like to visit Grand Teton another time, and you are travelling around North/South Dakota you will enter the park via the West or East gate.
If you are on a road trip in Northwestern USA or Canada, the north or northeast gates will be the easiest to access.
I would say that there are two main points to consider when making your travel plans: the climate and the tourists.
The weather and climate in Yellowstone are the first things I think of. Why? Mainly so you don’t freeze to death in your tent, right?! Seriously, the park is “theoretically” open all year round, however, the only road open year-round, even during winter, is the road to the far north of the park between Gardiner and Cooke. So basically, don’t come to Yellowstone during the winter season unless you like walking and camping at -20° and travelling by snowmobile!
Be aware of the season when visiting Yellowstone Park….
The main roads begin to open in mid-April, but you’ll have to wait until mid-May to see all the roads in the park open. Most of the park’s roads close in late October with the arrival of snow. As a result, the best time to come is June, July and August, which is also the hottest period. The problem is that these are also the most touristic months.
Tourists are another serious point to consider. Frankly, I enjoyed my 4 days in Yellowstone Park, but there were a lot of people in some places, especially around mid-day. To avoid large floods of tourists, it would be best to go in late May-early June, September or early October.
A word of advice: If you are not afraid of the cold and you plan to sleep in one of the lodges or small hotels in the park, for example, I would suggest going at the end of May or in mid-September. However, you will need to arm yourself with some very good cold weather equipment.
To give you some idea, I spent 4 days there at the beginning of August 2018, and at night the temperature dropped down to around 2 to 4° maximum. If you are in a tent, you will need to be equipped with a good sleeping bag!
I don’t know if you can imagine, but the park alone is bigger than the whole of Corsica! (almost 9000 Km2). No matter how you decide to travel or what you like to see and do when on vacation, everyone agrees that 3 or 4 days in Yellowstone is the minimum necessary to appreciate the size of the park and see all of it’s areas.
If you have taken the trouble to go to the park (much less simple and less known than many of the parks in the American West), make sure to respect it. If you stay and camp inside the park, you should be fine. If, however, you are staying outside the park in one of the bordering cities, you may find that you have to spend a significant number of hours on the road…
So yes, some might visit the park in a day simply to be able to say “I’ve been there”…but, in my opinion that would be a mistake. Be aware of one thing, the big loop which crosses the park is about 250 km. Knowing that the park is limited to 45mph, or about 70km/h. The National Park Service estimates that it takes 7 hours to go around the loop without stopping ….
That’s the big difficulty, so to speak! You are not required to plan the perfect itinerary in advance. But it’s a very large park and if you want to see the majority of the sites, you’ll have to plan a little bit, in my opinion.
Here are some itinerary ideas based on the number of days spent in Yellowstone Park. Of course, there are many other possibilities, depending on which gate you enter through first.
1 day: is very short and impossible to see everything. Target the area around Old Faithful and stop off to see the superb Grand Prismatic Pool. Then continue on the small loop towards Yellowstone Canyon heading towards Hayden Valley to see herds of buffalo. End your journey on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.
For this micro route, the ideal is to enter the park through the West gate and exit at the East gate (or vice versa). If you don’t want to do it alone, there are several tours available which you’ll find outside Yellowstone Park that have very good reputations.
2 days: You have a little more time but still not enough to see everything, that’s for sure. On your way back through the North Gate, visit the beautiful Mammoth Hot Springs site, then go down without stopping (or almost) to the Old Faithful/Grand Prismatic Pool area. You can spend the night at Madison Campsite for example. The next day, head back to the small loop towards Canyon Village, stop by Yellowstone Canyon and finish your day in Lamar Valley, the park’s bison refuge.
For this itinerary, the ideal way would be to enter the park from the north and exit to the northeast.
3 days: Go back north, go to Mammoth Hot Springs, then go to the Old Faithful area and add the Norris Basin area. Sleep in Madison. The next day, you can go through the bottom of the small loop to Yellowstone Lake and up to Yellowstone Canyon. Sleep in Canyon Village. Finally, go up the superb road that leads to the Lamar Valley to exit at the East Gate.
4 days: That’s the time I spent there. A lot will depend on where you are planning to sleep.
You can keep more or less to the same route as if you were staying for 3 days but you will be able to include all the little paths you wouldn’t have had time to see in only 3 days, including: going down to Lewis Falls, south of the park, taking the beautiful Blacktail Plateau Drive (west of Tower-Roosevelt), or even climbing Mount Washburn.
For hiking fans, and those who are fed up of driving, hiking in Yellowstone Park is a great idea, right?
Everyone will have their preferences on this point but the reality is this: if you do not book your night in the park at least a few months before your departure, you will not have a place!
There are generally two ways of looking at it. Either you love nature and you don’t want to leave the park every night. In this case, stay in the park for your whole stay, but you will need to book one of the campsites, pitches or cabins. Be careful, these can fill up from 6 months to a year in advance. I was able to book into one of the park’s campsites about 4 months in advance. Lucky don’t you think?!
To book one of the campsites you have to use this site. For campers, there are only 5 campsites where you can book your pitch in advance. The others are on a “first come, first served basis. You can check the availability of the campsites here.
For campers, also be aware that depending on the season, it may not be very warm in Yellowstone and that showers are not provided in all campsites. I am thinking in particular of all those who travel with their families, with babies or young children… For information, there are payable showers in all the cities outside the park (or almost). I tested one in Gardiner in the North, nice and clean.
For those who wish to sleep outside the park by choice (or found the inside the park full), you can consider sleeping:
Many, including myself, advise that it’s best to fill up on food and beverages in the cities outside the park. It’s usually much cheaper and you’ll have a lot more choice.
If you are planning your itinerary well in advance, you might consider doing your grocery shopping in one of the major cities in the area (Livingston, Idaho Falls, Billings, etc.). You will find large supermarkets, such as Walmart, and food there costs almost nothing…
In the park, you will find food and drink at gas stations and in tourist shops. You will always find what you need in case you’ve forgotten anything, so don’t worry. You will also find some nice restaurants in the park, especially in the tourist areas. Beware of prices….
The entrance to the park is obviously subject to a charge, i.e. $35 per car in 2018. You have 7 days validity for this pass with your vehicle. Another possibility is to include this national park within the ‘America The Beautiful’ card. This is a card which provides access to all US national parks for one year. It only costs $80, which is not really expensive considering the possibilities. Depending on the number of parks you plan to visit, it is even worthwhile for a 3 week or month long vacation. I even bought one … You can buy them at any park entrance. So don’t try to buy one in advance, there’s no need.
- Some of the main tips to help you make your trip to Yellowstone a success:
Get up earlier than everyone else. Ideally, you should be on your way before the sun rises. As for taking photographs, you will enjoy the beautiful colors (even if it isn’t Grand Teton National Park) and as well as that, you will avoid the crowds of tourists who turn up from 8/9am,
- Don’t hesitate to stay late in the evening, at least until sunset. The temperature drops quickly and so tourists return quickly to their lodges and you will also have far fewer people around,
- Be careful of distances that may seem short when looking at the map but are not really short at all,
- If you can avoid going back to the park and having to driving at night inside the park, it would be better. I came home one evening at 11pm after having eaten outside the park and believe me when I tell you that you get some good scares with buffalo and coyotes in the middle of the road…
I deliberately didn’t want to itemize all the sites in Yellowstone Park. I might spoil the pleasure of discovery for you when you get there, mightn’t I? Here are some of the park’s classics that I really liked:
1 – Old Faithful Geyser
This is the main ‘must see’ where everyone goes in the park. It is one of the largest natural geysers in the park, with an eruption about every 90 minutes. The eruption, which is quite nice to see, lasts between 2 and 5 minutes.
2 – Hayden Valley
This is the valley of the park which is famous for its buffalo gatherings. If you want to see them up close, this is the ideal place. Often by the roadside and even on it, you will be amazed.
3 – The Norris Geyser Basin area
This area is very active in the park and offers visitors superb views of wildly coloured hot springs. Let yourself be carried away for a few hours in this setting.
4 – Mammoth Hot Springs and Minerva Terrace
This is one of the most beautiful examples in the world of limestone deposition in a geothermal zone. From a photography viewpoint, you will really enjoy this area and should make the most of walking around in this apocalyptic setting.
5 – Yellowstone Grand Canyon
You have access to a magnificent view of the largest waterfall in Yellowstone Park from this point. The colours of the surrounding mountains are crazy (see Artist Point) so take the time to discover the different points of view.
6 – The Midway Geyser Basin and the Grand Prismatic Spring
This is a superb area to discover with the famous Excelsior Geyser pouring tons of water into the Firehole River but even better is the extraordinary Grand Prismatic Pool, the largest natural swimming pool in the park (60m x 100m). The colours, both at the edge and from the mountain, are impressive.
7 – Lake Yellowstone
The last place I really liked was the famous lake named after the park. Throughout your walk, you will have the opportunity to stop by. Take the time to stroll along the beaches of the lake while looking around you… I saw some beautiful antelopes, alone in the forest. A delight.
Of course, there are many other very nice places in the park. I’ll let you discover them for yourself once you get there 😉
I hope you enjoyed this article in preparation for your visit to Yellowstone Park! You now have what you need to prepare for your stay in the in the USA’s first national park.
In any case, even if the park is quite touristy, I really appreciated the 4 days I spent there. Try to lose yourself as much as possible on the small paths, if you have time, to avoid the large crowds of tourists. However, I preferred (a matter of taste) the Grand Teton National Park, just to the south. Wild animals were often much easier to approach and see and I haven’t even mentioned the breathtaking landscapes. I’ll tell you about them in a future article.
I look forward to seeing you soon with another article about our trip to the USA.I wish a good preparation,