We recently visited Yellowstone again. We go just about every year. We put together a little video with tips that came to use throughout the day. In this article, I’ve included the video and the written tips. You might find the maps helpful to download and print.
1. Take a photo at the entrance sign
I know it’s a bit cliche, but we’ve been doing this since the 1980s, and it’s fun to look back on our little collection of photos.
2. Have a 4th-grader? Get a free park pass
If you have a child in the 4th grade, visit https://everykidoutdoors.gov/pass.htm to claim your free park pass. This is equivalent to the $80 annual national park pass. This pass gets your family into any national park for a year.
3. Get a park map
When entering the park, the ranger at the booth will give you a brochure and a newspaper. The style of the brochure is consistent across all national parks, and it does not change from year to year. The newspaper is updated for each year and contains critical park information, such as road closures and other details.
The brochure also has a very good map of the park. This is necessary at Yellowstone because you will not have cell service in the park. And because the park is HUGE, you’ll want to refer to the map as you travel.
4. Go with the flow
You have to see Yellowstone on Yellowstone’s terms. While it’s critical to have a game plan, you also have to be flexible. You will almost certainly get in traffic jams, either due to construction, bison walking in the road, or people stopped to look at wildlife near the road. In the summer, sometimes you will have to wait in line for a parking spot at some of the stops. Other times, you’ll want to stop and enjoy a moment of nature.
Again, having a game plan is critical. But don’t be so tied to it that you can’t enjoy the moment when a moment comes. Once we watched a pelican hunt for fish for a half-hour. Last time I went, I saw three swans floating down the river. I could have pulled over to watch them and enjoy the moment, but I kept on driving. I wish I would have stopped.
5. Know which wildlife to stop and watch
You know someone is a first time visitor to the park when they’ve pulled over to see one bison way off in the distance.
You will see plenty of bison. The time to stop is when they are right next to you on the road, or when you see a big herd. The bison is by far the most common animal you’ll see in Yellowstone.
I think just about any other animal is worth stopping for:
- Elk. Especially big bull elk with massive antlers.
- Bears. Any bear, black or grizzly, is awesome.
- Wolves. It’s rare to see a wolf. If you see one, stop!
- Coyotes. Not quite as rare as a wolf, and not quite as popular for some reason. But I’ve only seen coyotes maybe twice, and I would definitely stop to see them.
- Birds. I know these aren’t as popular as the land animals, but they can be really cool. Ravens are the most common, and I wouldn’t stop to see them (although I saw a bunch of babies in a Raven’s nest recently and it was stop-worthy). But eagles, pelicans, swans, and osprey can be really interesting. Just look up occasionally and don’t miss out on them!
6. Visit the easy waterfalls
On the lower loop, there are 9 easy waterfalls to visit. You don’t even need to hike to them. So the effort-reward ratio is awesome!
- Undine falls
- Tower falls
Middle road (in between the loops):
- Upper falls of the Yellowstone
- Lower falls of the Yellowstone (this is the famous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone)
- Virginia cascades (cannot access with an RV)
- Gibbon falls
- Firehole falls (cannot access with an RV)
- Kepler cascades
Going south on the road to Grand Teton:
- Lewis falls
Here’s a map with all of them:
7. Bring bikes
I tried this for the first time on my last visit, and it was great! There are a few biking trails in the park.
One goes behind the Grand Prismatic Spring, from Fountain Flat Drive to the Fairy Falls parking lot. We saw a bison herd up close. Also, you can walk to the overlook for amazing views of Grand Prismatic Spring. You can also use it as a jumping off point for a shorter hike to Fairy Falls.
There is a paved path near Old Faithful that allows bikes. This can be a great way to Geyser Gaze faster. There are 5 predictable geysers near Old Faithful (including Old Faithful). They span about a mile. Sometimes they go off at about the same time, so having a bike would allow you to get from place to place much faster. We did a lot of walking the day we went because we didn’t even know we could ride bikes there.
You can bike to Lone Star Geyser. This is a 5.3 mile out and back trail. So doing it on bike rather than on feet could save a lot of time.
You can also bike to Natural Bridge, near Bridge Bay.
For more serious bikers, there is Mt Washburn and Bunsen Peak.
8. Stay on the boardwalks
You’ll hear this often at Yellowstone. That’s because every so often, someone goes off the path and dies. Granted, they do some really dumb things, like try to soak in the hot pots or save dogs who have run into a spring.
Still, it’s not worth it. Besides, let’s protect nature, ok?
9. Consider packing a picnic lunch
There are many picnic places throughout the park. These are easier to get to when you need to eat. There are restaurants at Old Faithful, Grant Village, Canyon Village, Mammoth, and Tower.
But sometimes you’re not that close when you’re hungry. Also, the lines can be huge and the prices expensive.
Even if you decide to eat in the park, I recommend packing snacks in case you need them.
10. Don’t take 12 kids to Yellowstone
OK, so this is a little silly. Recently we went to Yellowstone with my wife’s siblings and parents: a total of 7 adults and 12 CHILDREN (all under the age of 14). It was CRAZY.
11. Take 12 kids to Yellowstone
It was also CRAZY FUN. We stopped at Fountain Flat Drive to see some bison. While we were there, the kids used the dead trees to built a fort!
12. Be nice to the park rangers
The park rangers can be a little intense at Yellowstone. A little too intense. On our recent trip, we were corrected at least 3 times by a ranger: for walking off the path literally one foot, for running on the board walk (that was me), and for one of our kids hanging out the window a bit as they were looking at animals.
But hey, they have to deal with a TON of visitors, many of whom are rude and inconsiderate. The rangers are just trying to protect the park.
So I’m encouraging you not to take it personally. Be nice to the rangers.
13. Enjoy the moment
There is so much to see at Yellowstone that you can’t see it all. Ever.
So put down the camera sometimes and just enjoy the moment. Think of what it would have been like to be the first person to discover what you’re looking at. And think of how everyone else would not have believed you.
Take. A. Moment.
14. Look up!
There are always birds flying overhead at Yellowstone. On my last trip I saw a ravens’ nest at a gas station, three swan floating down the river, and an Osprey catching a fish. I once saw a pelican hunting for fish, floating down the river multiple times.
15. Record potential animal attacks
There are signs everywhere telling you NOT to get too close to the animals. Still, people get too close to the animals. Most of them walk away just fine, without being attacked.
I’m not rooting for anyone to get attacked, but I’m just saying: if someone is dumb enough to get too close, you should be recording it just on the off chance they get attacked. There are some crazy YouTube videos of some of these attacks and near-attacks.
On our recent trip, many people got too close to a bison. A throng of people watched the drama unfold as the bison climbed up onto the boardwalk. See my video above for more.
16. Bring sunscreen, lotion, chapstick, bug spray
Yellowstone gets windy and sunny. It’s already in the dry Rocky Mountain climate, which many visitors are not used to. Packing some of these things will help you feel more comfortable.
17. Visit early or late to see animals
Most of the animals hang out on the east side of the park, in Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley. It can take an hour or more to drive to that side of the park.
Animals are most active at dawn or dusk. So if you want to increase your chances of seeing bears and wolves (you’ll always see bison, so don’t worry), get to those spots very early or stay very late.
Getting in the park early is the best anyway, because you beat the crowds. But we’ve also had some rewarding sightings at dusk.
18. Dress in layers
On our recent trip, the temperature started at 39 degrees at 6:00am, and got up to about 80 degrees by 4:00pm. That’s a 40 degree change! I mean, hey, we’re in the rockies. BE PREPARED.
19. Allow about 30 minutes between major stops
Yellowstone is HUGE. A lot of people wonder how long it takes to get places? Answer: a long time.
There are two loops: an upper and lower. It takes about 2.5 hours to drive each loop.
There are 8 major stops in Yellowstone. Each of these range from about 14 miles to 21 miles in distance from the next. Considering traffic and mileage, plan on about 30 minutes from one to the next. Sometimes you’ll go faster, sometimes slower.
20. Consider Jr. Ranger/Passport books
I take my kids on vacation partly for family time, partly to show them the wonders of our earth, and partly to learn. I try to instill in them that learning about our world is fun.
So, I bribe them. “Get your Jr. Ranger badge by completing the booklet, and I’ll buy you a stuffed animal from the visitor center.” They finished it on the first day on our last trip. And they get a little souvenir from the park.
NOTE: During COVID, you must print this off at home on the Yellowstone website.
Yellowstone is a lot of driving and walking. That can be a little boring for kids. I understand this. So I try to keep them engaged with bike rides, music, food, and yes, a little bribe. Last time we even went river rafting and horseback riding.
A lot of adults like the Passport to the national parks. When you visit a park, stamp it with a cancellation stamp at the visitor center. Just like a real passport, it logs your travels. I personally own one and enjoy checking off the parks. I’ve been to over 50 sites!
21. End with ice cream
As I said, food helps to keep a trip interesting for my kids. I’m guilty as well.
In West Yellowstone there is a place called The City Creamery, which serves homemade ice cream. They have a flavor I love: Double Chocolate Orange. It’s the perfect ending to a long day in the park.