The Complete Guide to Camping at Yellowstone


** See the Google Sheets spreadsheet I put together covering all the campgrounds in Yellowstone Park **

I’ll never forget the time we camped near Hebgen Lake, just outside of Yellowstone. We were in a tent. And at night, we heard coyotes howling nearby. It was thrilling; you can’t get that in a hotel.

We’ve visited Yellowstone many times. Sometimes we camp in the park, sometimes we camp outside the park, and sometimes we stay in a hotel.  We like all three options for different reasons.  

In this article, we will cover all the details you need to know if you want to camp IN or NEAR Yellowstone.  

Before we begin, I want to make it clear that, although I am an Eagle Scout, I don’t consider myself a camping fanatic.  I’m not Bear Grylls.  I usually camp in a tent or trailer about 3-5 times per year.  So if you’re a city slicker and camping seems daunting to you, I understand.  

But take it from me, it is doable. And I would encourage you to try. It’s an entirely different experience than a hotel.

Why camp?

We like camping at Yellowstone for a variety of reasons:

It’s cheap. The sites range from $15-$80 per night (in the park, the max is $32). This is far cheaper than staying in a hotel, lodge, or cabin within the park, which cost anywhere between $177 and $400 per night (during peak season), or hotels outside the park, which cost around $200 per night. 

Less driving (if you camp in the park). If you camp IN the park, you’ll spend less time because you won’t have to drive INTO the park.  It’s closer to the sites, obviously, and it’s GREAT for getting an early start on the day.  This is crucial at Yellowstone so you avoid some traffic jams and so you can get parking at some of the stops. 

Even if you stay on the edge of the park, like West Yellowstone, the drive into the center of the park (the Grand Loop Road) is still 14 miles.  Being able to skip the driving and the entry lines can save a lot of time. 

Less crowds (if you camp outside the park). If you camp outside the park, you’ll trade driving time for nicer campgrounds. Recently we camped near Hebgen Lake and we had to drive 30 minutes to get to the park. But the campsites were a little bigger and the campground was more remote. 

Wildlife. Many of the campgrounds (inside and outside of the park) get 4-legged visitors, like bison, elk, and yes, bears. 

Don’t let that scare you. Remember, you don’t have to outrun the animal, just the person next to you. LOL. No really, there have only been 8 bear-related deaths in Yellowstone ever, and only 44 injuries since 1979.  So it’s not very dangerous. 

We stayed at Grant campground once and had a huge bull elk visit us and bugle. It was fantastic. 

This guy visited us in our campground. Not the most flattering picture of him, I know.

We’ve also seen wildlife while camping outside the park. We once had coyotes howling in our campground, and recently we saw a fox just outside our campground. 

Yellowstone doesn’t have fences, so it’s not like wildlife know about the boundaries. The national park sits inside of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which has wildlife all over the place. 

Ranger programs. If you stay in the park, the big campgrounds have amphitheaters where rangers will give talks at night. 

We have enjoyed these so much over the years. The most recent program we attended was at Madison, where the ranger used a slideshow of incredible images, walking us through the four seasons at Yellowstone. 

After a long day of experiencing the park, it’s nice to just take a little walk to the amphitheater to listen to a program. 

(Note: In 2020, there are no ranger programs due to COVID.)

Campfires. It’s a great American tradition: cooking s’mores around the campfire.  Campfires are great places for connecting, because people talk to each other when they sit around a campfire.  Recently we had a huge group of kids dancing around the campfire in our campsite.  It was fantastic.

Morning Mountain Air. One of the things I like most about camping is waking up to beautiful mountain mornings.  I don’t want to go all John Denver on you, but hey, I love the mountain air, the trees, the birds, etc. 

Camping INSIDE Yellowstone

There are some differences between camping inside the park vs outside. First we will cover camping INSIDE the park. 

I put together a chart with tons of information about the campgrounds in Yellowstone in a quick format on a Google spreadsheet.

Click the image to go to Google Docs for a more readable view.

Definitely check this out if you’re planning on staying inside the park.

What campgrounds are there in Yellowstone?

There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone and over 2,000 campsites.  There are 5 campgrounds you can reserve in advance, and 7 that are first come/first serve (FCFS).  There are also many backcountry campsites for hard-core hikers who will be WAY off the beaten-path.

Generally, the reserved campgrounds are on the lower loop and the FCFS campgrounds are on the upper loop.

The reserved campgrounds have between 273-432 sites each.  They are Bridge Bay, Canyon, Grant, Madison, and Fishing Bridge RV Park. 

The FCFS campgrounds have between 16-111 sites each.  They are Indian Creek, Lewis Lake, Mammoth, Norris, Pebble Creek, Slough Creek, and Tower Fall. 

Here is a park map with the reserved campgrounds in BLUE, and the FCFS campgrounds in RED:

2020 UPDATES: In 2020, Fishing Bridge RV Park is closed for renovations, and ALL FCFS campsites are closed due to COVID.

When are the campgrounds open in Yellowstone?

Most campgrounds are open from mid-June to mid-September.  However, Madison is open until October, and Mammoth is open year-round. 

The reserved campgrounds OPEN UP online 6 months in advance, at https://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.

When do they fill up?

This depends on a few factors, and this year (2020) is even more difficult to gauge because so many of the campgrounds are closed. But there are a few general things to know.

Big sites fill quickly.  There are very few big RV/trailer sites in Yellowstone. Therefore, they fill up EARLY. I’m writing this in July, and the big sites are booked the rest of the year. I’m not sure when they booked up, but I imagine it was before the camping season even started.

Smaller sites, including tent sites, will stay open longer.  But right now, they are booked out about 5 weeks. Again, this may be different in a non-COVID year. 

The point is, if you want a reserved site, book as early as possible. 

FCFS sites book early in the morning. As for the FCFS sites, here’s what you need to know: get there EARLY IN THE MORNING. Many sites book up at 6:00 or 7:00 AM. 

So rather than sightseeing and then hoping to find a spot to sleep, you have to do it the other way around: find your campground early, then go sightseeing. 

I’ve read stories online of people getting to a campground at 5:00 AM and waiting in line until a spot opened up around 10:00 (check out time).  I guess if you’re in an RV you can hang out and sleep or something, but this isn’t something I want to do. 

We once hopped from campground to campground in order to see more of the park with less driving.  It’s a great strategy, but I think maybe times have changed (although you can still do it through the reserved sites).  If you’re hoping to do that with the FCFS campsites, it might be very difficult.  You’ll want to have a backup plan.  

How much does it cost?

Campgrounds in Yellowstone range from $15-32 per night, except for Fishing Bridge RV Park, which costs $79.  Bikers and hikers — people without a vehicle — pay $5-9 typically.  Those with a Senior Pass or an Access Pass (for the disabled) get a 50% discount at all the campgrounds except Fishing Bridge RV Park. 

How do I book a site?

You must book your sites by visiting https://www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com, or by calling 307-344-7311 (307-344-5395 for TDD service). 

What else should I know about camping in the park?

There are a few other things you should know before you go camping in Yellowstone.

  • Measurements. When Yellowstone lists measurements for RVs/Trailers, they list the total vehicle + trailer length. So basically, at most campgrounds, there is only one parking spot for your truck and trailer — so both need to fit into the spot.  Most campgrounds do not have wide enough spots for you to park your truck next to your trailer.
  • Very few big RV spots. Most national park campgrounds were created before the advent of the huge bus-style RVs, so the sites are small.  Most of the sites accommodate only 40 feet or less.  Mammoth and Norris have a few larger sites.  
  • Crowded (small) campsites.  One of the complaints I’ve seen online is that national park campsites are cramped.  They tend to be smaller, which means your neighbors are closer.  I’ve never been annoyed by this, personally.  However, when I stay outside of Yellowstone, I’ve noticed the campsites are a little bigger.
  • Generators. Some campsites in Yellowstone allow generators, which can only be used from 8am to 8pm.  Check the chart above if you need a site that will allow generator use. 
  • Hook up sites.  All 5 of the reserved sites and 2 of the FCFS sites have hook ups.  Check the chart below. 
  • Stay limit. There is a 14-day stay limit at all parks in Yellowstone except at Fishing Bridge RV Park, where there is no limit. 
  • Backcountry camping. There are tons of campsites for hikers who want to get off the beaten path.  You must obtain a permit for this.  To find out more about the permit process, and where the campgrounds are, see this link on Yellowstone’s website
  • 2020 updates.  All FSFS campgrounds are closed.  Also, Fishing Bridge RV Park is closed for the season for renovations.

Camping OUTSIDE of Yellowstone

There are SO MANY campgrounds outside of Yellowstone that it would be impossible to discuss each one or make a chart.  But, here are some things that I think are important to know.

  • More options. If you stay outside the park, you’ll have a much greater selection of campgrounds, amenities, and hook ups.  Obviously there will be a cost difference as well. Forest service campgrounds often start at $20, while private sites with lots of amenities will cost much more. 
  • Longer camping season. Parks inside Yellowstone are generally open mid-June to mid-September, while campgrounds outside the park have a longer season. I did a recent search and I found many sites available in October. 
  • Forest Service campgrounds. Most campgrounds near Yellowstone are administered by the Forest Service.  This link shows you which campgrounds are near which entrance to the park.  Go to recreation.gov or use the recreation.gov app to search for availability and to book your sites.  
  • Free camping.  The Forest Service has some free sites.  These obviously have very few amenities — oftentimes they just have water.  I’ve put together a little map of some free sites around the area. This is by no means a comprehensive list.
  • Private campgrounds.  There are also many private campgrounds and KOAs all around the park.  My suggestion here would be to use Google Maps to search for camping in the area you’re interested in.  Speaking of which…
  • Consider your area.  If you’re thinking about camping outside the park, consider that it will take some time to drive to the park, and then even more time to drive to the Grand Loop Road.  If you camp in Cody, Wyoming, for example, it will take you 2.5 hours to drive to Old Faithful.  Generally, you’re closer to the action if you stay in West Yellowstone or north of the park near Gardiner, MT.  If you stay on the east or south sides of the park, the drive to the Grand Loop Road is longer. If you’re planning on visiting Grand Teton, maybe you’ll want to camp in between the parks. 
  • Consider the trade offs. Generally, staying outside the park is a trade-off.  You’ll have more options, more space, and fewer crowds.  But you’ll drive more.  On a recent trip, I stayed near Hebgen Lake.  It was a beautiful campsite, and the drive was really pretty.  But I didn’t spend much time in the campground because I had to drive a lot (and site-seeing in Yellowstone takes most of the day anyway). 

Other things to know

Here are a few final things to know about camping in or near Yellowstone.

Weather.  The temperatures fluctuate drastically in the area.  During the day, the temperatures usually get to the 60s and 70s in the summer (sometimes 80s).  At night, it’s usually in the 30s (yes, even in the summer).  So BE PREPARED for cold nights and perfect days.  Dress in layers.  If you’re tenting it, make sure your sleeping back is sufficiently warm. 

Bear boxes.  It’s bear country, so you don’t want to be luring them into your campground by leaving your food out.  Almost all campgrounds have bear boxes for you to keep your food in at night.  You can also keep the food in your vehicle or trailer.  But don’t keep it in your tent!  Don’t leave it out on the table or make a habit of throwing discarded food (for example, soup) on the ground.

Firewood.  Rather than bringing your own wood for campfires, you should buy it at your campground from the camp host, or from a place nearby.  Some forests are being infected with beetles.  So they don’t want you to bring wood from another place that might have bugs in it.  It’s not outlawed, but they prefer you to buy the wood local.  Typically this costs around $6-8 from the campsite, or you can buy it a little cheaper in the city (like West Yellowstone).  

Summary

I’ve tried to cover just about everything I can think of, especially considering camping is a huge industry with a lot of variety, and Yellowstone is a huge park with a lot of options.

If I missed anything, please let me know.

I hope this helps you plan your next camping trip to Yellowstone.  We’ve enjoyed it so much over the years that I hope this will make it a little easier for you to enjoy your next camping trip to Yellowstone.

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