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My First Yellowstone Trip
Before I took my family on an epic Yellowstone vacation, I scoured the internet for top Yellowstone tips. But the reality is, much like a trip to anywhere, it all depends on your travel style.
Some people are making the long drive from somewhere and can pack the kitchen sink in the back of an SUV (figuratively AND literally). Others are flying in and out and are limited to what can fit in their suitcase.
Others are ready to immerse themselves in the harsh realities of nature and set off on a 20 mile sunrise hike. Others still are looking for a nice scenic drive with a gourmet meal at the end of the day.
Tips on your trip to Yellowstone are only as good as the person that’s giving them and only if their trip seems to align with your style.
With that said, let me explain who I am as a traveler:
I’m a seasoned traveler and the family planner. I generally decide where we’re going (with family approval) and do all of the planning myself. We prefer to fly, rent a car, and stay in at least moderate hotels. We’re late risers but we can push ourselves until late at night. We like a good combo of activity and down time for relaxation. We’ll push ourselves – but not too much. And we generally don’t like crowds.
Now that you know who I am, here’s what I discovered that helped make our trip amazing on our first trip to Yellowstone.
27 Top Yellowstone Tips
I’ve got two big, fat, giant tips for you that are probably more important than any of the others.
1. Go with the flow!
Guess what? It’s nature. Nature changes. Nature doesn’t care if you’ve planned this trip for 5 years. Nature doesn’t care if you’ve spent $8000. Nature’s gonna do what nature’s gonna do. So if there’s flooding or fire or drought or crowds or traffic jams, take a deep breath and focus on where you are and enjoy it. If the traffic is stopped, instead of thinking of it as preventing you from getting to your next destination, use the time to look around you (and even above you!). You never know what you’ll see!
2. Explore outside the park
We absolutely loved everything we saw in Yellowstone National Park. But when we went (just two weeks after historic flooding), only the South Loop was open and admission was based on an alternate license plate system. Out of our weeklong trip, we got two days in the park. That just forced us to enjoy so many other things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen in Wyoming and nearby Idaho and Montana.
Travel Tips – Getting to and around Yellowstone
Now let’s move on to the practical side of things. Namely, getting there and getting around. These top Yellowstone tips will help you with both!
3. Stay near West Yellowstone
Right now all of the north entrances are closed but we loved staying near West Yellowstone (this is the name of the town in Montana just outside the West Entrance). Not only are there attractions and great shops and restaurants, but it gives you easy access to attractions in Idaho, Montana, and even Grand Teton National Park. We stayed just 25 minutes outside of West Yellowstone at the beautiful Springhill Suites in Island Park, Idaho. By going a little further away from the park, the prices are cheaper too!
4. Rent an SUV
If you’re flying in like we did, you will be renting a car. Tip: book early because they get expensive! When we arrived, they gave us the option to add insurance to our low clearance Dodge Charger or upgrade to an SUV for $18 more per day. I didn’t want to spend any more money but it was worth it to make a better choice. Not only does it make it easier to go anywhere (we did travel over some rough terrain) but it made it easier to haul all of our stuff and see more of the park from a high vantage point.
5. Fill up gas frequently
No matter where you fly into or out of, you will be doing a lot of driving. Yes, gas is expensive. Yes, SUVs can eat a lot of gas, especially when climbing the mountains. But with a lot of long straight stretches of road, we averaged 24 mpg. However, when you’re driving in or outside of the park, it may be many, many miles before you see a gas station so fill up before you think you’ll need it.
6. Plan your dinner each evening – things close early
Plan your evenings accordingly. We’re late risers and then tend to stay late in the parks. However, if you plan to eat past 8pm, you might run into some issues. One night, we were so late that we had to resort to microwave meals cooked in our hotel room. We did end up eating at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge’s Obsidian Dining Room because it was thankfully open until 10pm. But we still had an hour wait when we got there!
Gear/Packing List – Preparing for Yellowstone
Some of this will apply before you leave for Yellowstone so consider this a bit of a packing list. But much of this is stuff you’ll need while you are in and around Yellowstone.
What to Pack (besides the obvious stuff)
7. Wear good hiking shoes/boots
Even if you’re not doing any “serious” hiking, these types of footwear give you good traction and foot stability. We don’t need any rolled ankles on this trip! I love my New Balance hiking shoes but on this trip I wore my new Merrell Women’s Moab 2 Vent Mid Hiking Boot which were super comfortable and required no break in period.
8. Protect your skin
Bring your sunscreen. You will need it. Even on cooler days, you still need sunscreen because the higher altitude means more UV exposure. Likewise, I brought sunglasses and a large brimmed hat (it helps protect your ears!). If you’ve got a small head like me, I recommend this Columbia hat that comes in one size but is adjustable! It’s also nice to bring a lightweight buff to wear around your neck. It protects your neck from the sun, can keep you warm if you need it, and is also great for pulling your hair back.
9. Watch out for bugs
Bring your bug spray too. The mosquitos can be ferocious. My husband goes straight for the DEET but I brought an all-natural bug repellent that I bought at home.
10. Dress in layers
Speaking of altitude, everyone is 100% accurate when they tell you to dress in layers. On my June trip, I packed a fleece jacket, sweatshirt, pants, shorts, flip flops, t-shirts – and I wore them all!
11. Bring a backpack
This isn’t absolutely necessarily but I love to hike so I knew I’d use this after our trip was over. I researched so many options but fell in love with this Osprey Tempest 20 Women’s Hiking Pack. It’s lightweight, relatively small capacity (good for day hikes), is super supportive and easy to wear, and comes in multiple sizes just for women (for the record, I’m 5’3′ and wore the medium/large).
12. Walking sticks can offer support
I own some walking sticks but didn’t bring them on this trip. I kind of wished that I did on some of my hikes! They are typically made of lightweight aluminum and can collapse to fit in your suitcase or backpack. I own some similar to this pair of trekking poles.
13. Buy a Yellowstone park guide with audio
A map isn’t enough. You need to have a plan. What to see and when and how to beat the crowds. There are a lot of websites and guidebooks out there but I chose to go with locals Matt and Cheryl Schoss who run the site We’re In The Rockies. This husband and wife team of educators put together a great downloable itinerary along with audio files to play while you’re driving from site to site. You get to hear about the history of the region as well as local folklore. And if you’re planning to visit multiple parks, you can get a discount on multiple guide purchases.
14. Download the official U.S. National Park Service app
You’ll want to download the NPS App before you enter the park as cell service is extremely limited in Yellowstone. You also have the ability to make the park information available offline which means you can access locally stored park info even when you have no service. My pro tip is to update the app shortly before entering the park and screenshot the geyser eruption times so you can refer to it when you have no service. (The times will turn to — when you open the app and there is no service).
15. Make a picnic a meal
Every day that we were in the park, we brought a picnic lunch with us. We stopped by Ernie’s in West Yellowstone each morning and packed sandwiches, chips, and drinks in the soft sided cooler we brought with us. What we also did (or I did) was bring a outdoor blanket to use as a tablecloth and cloth napkins. It made every picnic feel a little fancier!
16. Snack wisely
We love eating junk food when we’re on vacation. And there’s definitely a place for Doritos and Oreos. But also pack healthy snacks to keep you going. I brought fruit + nut bars with me that I bought from my local TJMaxx. And our hotel offered a continental breakfast in the morning so we all grabbed some apples and bananas to take with us.
17. Stay hydrated
This may seem like a no-brainer but if you’re coming from lower altitudes like we were, you may not realize your need for extra hydration. To stay eco-friendly, we all brought our favorite reusable water bottles (this Tempercraft bottle is my current fave). We filled them with ice at our hotel each morning and then brought along jugs of spring water that we picked up at a local grocery store.
18. Bring your zoom gear
You’ll want to get your eyes close to the wildlife, not necessarily your body. That means good binoculars (we love our Vortex binoculars), a good camera and lens (I love the Canon EOS M50), or even a portable monocular (like the Canon ZOOM Digital Monocular) perfect for spotting animals in the wild.
19. Buy or rent bear spray
You can typically buy bear spray for around $45 or rent it for around $8. Think of this as extra strong pepper spray meant to deter a bear that gets a little too close or a little too aggressive. In a perfect world, you never use it but it’s there if you need it. And you definitely might need it. Word of caution: DO NOT BUY AT HOME IF YOU ARE FLYING. It’s highly flammable and it not allowed on planes.
In the Park
Once you’ve made it to where you’re going and you’ve got all your gear, you’re ready to enjoy the park! So bring your guides and apps and make it a great experience with the following top Yellowstone tips for in the park.
20. Get your discount pass
If you’re active military or a veteran, make sure you bring your identification (a designation on your driver’s license is acceptable) and enjoy your free entrance pass for all national parks. You can take care of this right at the entrance gate. And don’t forget to ask for your military discount at many of the restaurants and gift shops!
21. Arrive early to the park OR late to the park
If you’re not a crack of dawn person, like me, don’t sweat it. Get there a little later (maybe around 11 am) and stay a little later. You’ll often see the same animals at dusk as you would at dawn. And many people are done for the day early so the park may clear out for you.
22. Watch for crowds to stop
If you see a bunch of cars pulled over to the side of the road, find a safe place to stop and check it out. They are usually stopped for a reason! Often a park ranger is there to keep everyone safe as well and answer any questions. You can also ask your fellow park visitors what they’ve seen. Most people are eager to share, help you spot wildlife, and give you tips on where else they’ve been and what they’ve seen.
23. Pay attention to the little animals and plants
Sure, the bison and elk and bears are the main attraction. But there’s a lot of joy in finding unique butterflies or red squirrels or a new (to you) swallow flying over the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. My favorite apps for nature identification are PictureThis (plant identification) and Merlin Bird ID (bird identification). Just take a picture of what you want to identify and use the app later when you have service.
24. Be patient and be respectful
Yellowstone should be enjoyed for many generations to come. That means staying on the paths and trails. It also means doing the speed limit in the park and being patient if an animal decides it’s time to cross the road. We are observers in their world.
25. Stay for sunset
If you’re a late riser like me, staying late gives you the added bonus of watching the sunset (which can be quite late in the summer!).
26. Enjoy the night sky
Another benefit of staying late is seeing the night sky. Many of the parks are designated dark sky areas and even with something as basic as an iPhone, you might be able to snap a picture of the Milky Way. Just be extra cautious of animals on the road. We saw a bison just standing in the dark on the side of the road!
27. Take pictures but take the time to look
This last one is huge so I’m going to repeat it. TAKE PICTURES BUT TAKE THE TIME TO LOOK WITH YOUR OWN EYES. Your brain will capture the memory and beauty better than any electronic device. We saw many people hold up their phones, snap a pic, and keep going. Take your pictures but then remember to be in the moment.
I hope some of my top Yellowstone tips might help you with your first or next trip to Yellowstone. And if I got anything wrong or you have a suggestion to add, please share!