Holy moly. We have a range of emotions about Yellowstone! To start: it’s incredibly gorgeous, with mesmerizing geology and exciting animals. But then: there are SO many people. Clogging the roads, clogging the trails, clogging the overlooks… And when I say clogging the roads, I mean people just stop their cars in the middle of the road to gawk at animals. Which I get on one level–I too love to gawk at animals. But you can’t just stop in the middle of the road and sit there. We got stuck in a traffic jam for an hour and ten minutes because clueless looky-loos stopped to stare at wildlife and didn’t care about anyone else around them. This happened on our first foray into the park, and I thought J would refuse to go back in because of it. On our last day in the park, we passed (going in the other direction, luckily) a three-mile backup due to bison-peepers. Three miles!!!
Let me repeat the advice I gave in our Glacier post:
- Get into the park EARLY. Definitely before 8am.
- Pick a target or two to focus on each day, visit them, and get the heck out of the park.
- Carry your mask for squeezing into crowded overlooks or passing people on a narrow trail.
- Take a deep breath, try to relax, and don’t lose your mind when the cars ahead of you on the scenic drive are just crrraaawwwllliiinnnggggg along.
And I’ll add one: if you must stop to ogle animals, PLEASE pull off the road, or drive to a pullout and get the heck off the road before you stop your car!
Rant over. Again, the park is otherworldly beautiful, and I want you to visit–but I also want you to be prepared for all the people!
Camping, eating, and drinking
We stayed in West Yellowstone, and did a small amount of eating and drinking there. While we weren’t jumping for joy about our eating and drinking experiences, we did like our campground. Read about our West Yellowstone stay here.
Hiking and exploring
Remember that dogs are not allowed on the trails in Yellowstone National Park. 🙁 (Uncle Jim thinks it’s to protect our tasty dogs from being eaten by Yellowstone beasties, but small children are probably pretty delicious, and people are allowed to bring them hiking, so explain that to me.) See our West Yellowstone post for dog-friendly hiking ideas in the nearby national forest.
The most accessible scenic drives are–not surprisingly–near the busy western entrance by West Yellowstone. If you’re based farther north or east, check out these two scenic drives.
Meditate, brace yourself, and then do some driving. The park is gorgeous and full of fascinating vistas and short hikes from overlooks. Look at this map and plan your journeys–that central loop is the most-traveled. One day, we drove from West Yellowstone around the north side of the central loop to Canyon Village. Another day, we headed south towards Old Faithful. Decide how much driving (and how many slow drivers in front of you) you can handle and then go for it, and good luck.
Get a map at the entrance gate and read about the stops along your route to determine if they’re worth checking out. Or, maybe your constitution is stronger than ours and you can stop at all of them–that’s great! We found it helpful to target specific stops and zoom in and out in order to preserve our sanity.
Anytime you can hike away from a busy overlook you’ll have a more pleasant experience. For example, we really enjoyed hiking around Norris Geyser Basin: the hikes spread people out, and you get up close and personal with shooting geysers, colorful springs, wacky vents, and then you can skip the crowded nearby overlooks that offer similar views.
It may be controversial, but we didn’t bother with Old Faithful. We did see other geysers erupt while wandering park trails (and each eruption was super exciting!) without the insane crowds at Old Faithful. If it’s something you’ve always wanted to do (for me, that was the Grand Prismatic overlook), by all means, do it, but get there early and be prepared to be surrounded by lot of others.
And make sure you get out on some real trails:
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone overlook is crazy packed, for good reason. It’s absurdly gorgeous. But do yourself a favor: if you leave the overlook and hike along the South Rim Trail even like 1000 feet, you’ll be (mostly) alone! Nobody seems to bother leaving the overlook area! We hiked the South Rim Trail to Point Sublime and back and it was a delight. Point Sublime wasn’t the most sublime of the views we saw along the canyon, but it was sublime to be away from all the people.
Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser Loop
We wanted to do a “real” hike in Yellowstone, and we didn’t want a crowd, so we chose the 8.8-mile Fairy Falls – Imperial Geyser loop. It was perfect for us: not crowded once we passed Fairy Falls (although we started really early), scenic, and geology- and animal-rich. We loved it, and even got to zip up to the Grand Prismatic overlook (the one uber-touristy thing I wanted to do in Yellowstone) twice. Note that for Grand Prismatic you don’t want to hit the overlook early in the morning because the steam will obscure the rainbow of colors in the spring.
Norris Geyser Basin
As I mentioned above, this was a fun little stroll on boardwalks through Yellowstone’s hottest, oldest, and most dynamic thermal area. It’s full of geysers, springs, and vents where you can get up close and personal to some of the park’s wacky and famous geological features. In an easy couple of miles, you can visit both sides of the basin, Porcelain Basin and Back Basin. Just don’t leave the boardwalk like this doofus.
Those are the only hikes we did, as we were only there for two days and part of that time was taken up by hiking in the national forest with Bugsy. Did we miss anything major? Is Old Faithful worth the hassle? What about some of the farther flung locations like Mammoth Hot Springs, Lamar Valley, and Yellowstone Lake?
I worry that my tone here is too negative. You really should visit Yellowstone, I just want you to be prepared! For reference, we were there just after Labor Day in 2020, so in a non-covid year, you may encounter fewer people working and schooling remotely. If you go, let us know about your experience!