Plannng tips for visiting Yellowstone
Yellowstone, the first national park in the world, founded in 1872, covers a massive area and tempts visitors with so many natural attractions. The geysers, hot springs, the abundant wildlife and the spectacular countryside are a lot to take in when your time is limited. Most people want to take in as many sights as possible in the time they have. So here are our top planning tips for visiting Yellowstone over 3 days. This should be read in conjunction with our article on the Top 10 Sites to Visit in Yellowstone to get the most from it.
Making the most of your time
We always try to squeeze as much out of our time in a place as we can. That way we leave feeling we have done it justice, in case we don’t get the opportunity to return. Although we would love to have spent more time in Yellowstone and take things at a slower pace, our time was limited. So, with some advance planning, we made the most of the time we had. A 3 night stay we found was enough to give us a real flavour of the Park. It was sufficient for us to get round the Park’s looped road network and also spend a full day wildlife spotting with a guide.
Yellowstone National Park entrance pass
The National Park entrance pass is an unavoidable expense as you arrive at the gates. However, there are entrance pass options available depending on your requirements. $35 will get you a seven day pass for Yellowstone. But better value is the ‘America the Beautiful’ annual pass for $80 covering all national parks and more across the USA. If you are doing a bit of touring or planning on returning on a number of occassions then its well worth it. For tourists in particular, this is likely to be the better option. The $80 pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle. Check the National Park Service site for all the options and for current pricing. Passes can be bought online or at park entry gates.
Choosing accommodation in Yellowstone
In Yellowstone your choice of accommodation is one of the most important decisions you will take when it comes to making the most of your time. Staying within the Park might cost you a bit more than accommodation outwith the Park boundary but you need to consider the time you save from not having to commute to and from the Park each day. Our view is that this is worth the additional cost to give you more time in the Park.
To stay in accommodation within Yellowstone National Park you may need to book early. Demand can be high, particularly around Yellowstone Lake which can sell out quickly. Xanterra, an authorised concessioner of the National Park Service operate and manage the accomodation within Yellowstone. You can find their website at yellowstonenationalparklodges.com.
We looked for a central base to give us the best chance of seeing as much of the Park as possible. The Lake Village area provided the ideal location to explore the geothermal sites and look for local wildlife.However, despite booking our stay several months in advance we still had to split our 3 nights.
We did this between Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Lodges and Lake lodges. Fortunately the two accommodations are less than a mile apart so it wasnt a big inonvenience but a bit of a nuisance all the same. Avoid this inconvenience by booking well in advance.
Planning your time
Yellowstone covers a vast area and it would be easy to waste time by not properly planning your stay in advance. You can use the National Park Service’s site at https://www.nps.gov/yell. It will have lots of up to date planning tips for visiting Yellowstone to help prepare for your trip.
To see what Yellowstone has to offer, you basically have 2 options.You can either tour yourself if you have your own vehicle or reserve some activities and excursions. We decided on a mix of both. We used our hired car and toured the main landscape attractions ourselves. This gave us the freedom and flexibility we wanted to explore at our pace. But we decided the best way to learn about and see as much of the wildlife as possible was to book a guide for a day. Inevitably this meant getting up at stupid o’clock but it is the best time of day to maximise your chances of seeing wildlife. So look at mixing and matching how you use your time to make the most of it.
We found the roads within the National Park to be in good condtion and sufficiently well signposted to find your way around. Although, working with a map is also a must to work out your location in relation to the main attractions.
The Park maps tend to show driving distances and approximate times between points which is really helpful when planning your days and also when you are on the move. The main road network within Yellowstone, other than the acess roads, is set out in 2 loops which come together to form a large figure of 8. It is worth taking a day to cover each loop. There is a fair bit of driving involved in this and as your speed is limited to 45mph it does take time. You also need to be prepared for unexpected delays and slow moving traffic, often because of animals on the roads. You just need to be patient.
Generally the West of the Park tends to have the greater concentration of geysers and hot pools with the broader range of the wildlife in the East around Haden Valley, Mount Washburn and Lamar Valley.
Guides need to be authorised and approved to operate within Yellowstone boundaries so numbers are limited. You may also find that the months they operate during the year are restricted. After some research we opted for an 8 hour wildlife tour with Yellowstone Guidelines. They are licensed by the National Park Service, and although this was a bit pricey it was well worth the cost. Chris, our guide, had a really good understanding of the wildlife. He was able to spot both grizzly and black bear along with wolf, elk, coyotes, mule deer, big horn sheep and mountain goats.
We couldn’t have asked for more and there is no way we could have done this on our own. The expert knowledge of a guide really comes into its own when looking for wildlife!
Conditions in the park change regularly as can the facilities that are open. The National Park Service produce a regular Park Newspaper which provides lots of news and current information. Its available for free at park entrances and at visitor centres. There are visitor centres near most lodgings which provide comprehensive information on what to see in the Park.Make sure you pick up a copy as they are really useful.
Altitude and Weather
The areas of the park that most people visit are at an altitude of 7500 feet or more. If you are coming from a much lower altitude you may need to acclimatise and drink more water to avoid dehydration which can be brought on by the altitude and dry climate.
The weather and temperature in Yellowstone can vary quickly and considerably, particularly in spring and autumn. Make sure you are prepared by having plenty of clothing including lots of layers as well as rain jackets and sunscreen. Four seasons in one day in spring and autumn is not uncommon.
If you are looking at wildlife without a guide make sure you follow the guidance provided by the Park. The guidance is there to protect both you and the animals. Stay the recommended distance from the wildlife and you’ll have a safe and enjoyable visit. Also, dont be tempted to drink the water from streams or lakes. The water in Yellowstone isn’t potable so its best to stick to bottled water. And it should go without saying, but never stray from marked trails or boardwalks around the thermal features. The water is literally boiling and lethal if you fall in. Don’t treat the warnings like a ‘Wet Paint’ sign and be tempted to touch!!
You’ll find there are a lot of organised activities and tours in Yellowstone. These range from short cruises on Lake Yellowstone, photo safaris, sunset tours to wildlife excursions and tours of the geysers and hot springs. Check out https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/boatbusn.htm for a range of activities you might want to take part in.
Best time to visit
Travelling out of peak season will give you the advantage of avoiding most of the crowds. But mainly because of Yellowstone’s location the summer season can be fairly short. We travelled in late September and found this was pretty close to the end of the summer season with a number of services starting to close down for the winter. It didnt’ give us any problems but it is something you may want to take into consideration.
Make sure you check www.nps.gov/YELL for current service information. The weather you are looking for may also influence when you travel. By the end of September there was ice on the vehicles overnight although termperatures did rise during the day.
Seeing the top sights
Taking on board these planning tips for visiting Yellowstone should help you get the most out of your visit. Be sure to visit your top attractions in either early morning or late afternnon / evening when there should be fewer crowds.
Also check out our Must see top 10 sights in Yellowstone here.
Looking for More?
If you are looking for some further reading then below you’ll find more of our articles on Yellowstone. For related reading check out the Tag links as well at the bottom of the page.
More Reading on Yellowstone
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