Planning a Yellowstone vacation? Good on ya! What a fabulous national park for animal adventures, geyser gazing, and hot spring hopping. There’s so much to see and do in this 2.2 million acre gem that the challenge becomes how to see as much as possible in the allotted time. Here are nine tips to make the most of your Yellowstone experience.
Yellowstone National Park hit over 4.12 million annual visitors in 2018, with peak season during June, July and August. So it pays to pre-plan as much as possible for trekking to this behemoth national park. After traveling to Yellowstone in July with my family, I learned a few tips worthy of knowing before you go. And I’m happy to share!
Nine Tips For Planning a Yellowstone Vacation
1. Book as far in advance as possible and stay in the park if you can.
Planners rejoice! Lodging and tours will fill up fast, especially for the busy summer months. And by in advance, it can be well over a YEAR! For example, I searched dates for summer 2018 and Old Faithful Inn is filling up. The rule of thumb: the more particular about where you want to stay, then the farther out you need to plan.
Sure, it’s not a requirement, but staying at one of the nine lodges or the campgrounds in the park will save TONS of time because Yellowstone is massive! And some of the best times to enjoy the park are mornings and evenings when others have left for the day for their off-park accommodations. The Yellowstone National Park Lodges website is not the easiest to navigate. My suggestion: keep checking and updating. When I did my search by dates, I also would check the specific categories of rooms for availability because I found mine by searching the other places to stay and scrolling through the list of rooms.
Another advantage to staying on property is scoring dinner reservations, which are required for Old Faithful Inn, Lake Yellowstone Hotel, and Grant Village dining rooms. Note that priority for dinner reservations is given to hotel guests. Visitors not staying at the Old Faithful Inn, Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Grant Village must wait until 60 days in advance to make a dining reservation.
So for those who are not planners, tip # 2 is just for you…
2. Don’t despair if you didn’t book months or a year in advance. Be tenacious.
I made 2 separate hotel reservations within a month of our July vacation at Yellowstone Park hotels. You read that right. Granted, we had to be more flexible about our accommodations, but it paid of for us. We stayed one night in a cabin at Lake Yellowstone and the second night at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. And believe me, I was thrilled!
As for booking tours, don’t rely solely on the website because it only takes a request form. Instead, call Central Reservations at (307) 344-7311. Once I was familiar with which tours I was most interested in, I would call to see if anyone had cancelled. Surprisingly, this was a great approach as we scored a Circle of Fire tour just weeks before our July visit!
3. Pack prudently and get gas, food, and drinks before entering the park.
Check the forecast and make sure you pack accordingly. Summer can be a real scorcher but the evenings get chilly. Must-haves would be binoculars, camera/lenses, sunscreen, bug spray and, if planning on hiking, bear spray.
Packing a cooler with goodies from Wal-Mart was an absolute lifesaver for us. We loaded up with drinks, snacks, and sandwich fixings and noshed on sandwiches for lunch. Then we splurged at the resorts for dinner both nights. Filling the cooler up nightly with ice from the ice machines kept everything cold.
And although there are gas stations within the park, it’s wise to go ahead and fill up before entering.
4. Do not miss Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley.
If keen on seeing animals, these are the two areas that cannot be missed. Everyone we met who had see some variety of wildlife had done it in Lamar Valley. Bison are plentiful, even up close to the road! We also spotted elk, wolves, and brown bears.
Tip: Book the Circle of Fire or Yellowstone in a Day tour on the Historic Yellow Bus for a guided tour that will tap into all the hotspots for wildlife watching. Early birds, there’s also the Wake Up to Wildlife Tour. The key takeaway here is to capitalize on the early mornings and/or early evenings in Yellowstone.
5. Make the trek to the Lower Falls to see the Grand Canyon.
Two words: worth it! The Yellowstone River becomes a waterfall as it plunges 308 feet over the Lower Falls. This spot is awe-inspiring as visitors are fingertips aways from the waterfall as it roars past. A fabulous photo opportunity. But warning: the trail is steep and loaded with switchbacks, which means as challenging as it is to descend, it’s that much harder to walk back up! If this doesn’t sound appealing, go to Artist Point where no climbing is required.
6. Turn Old Faithful into an overnight experience.
Old Faithful is probably the most popular attraction at Yellowstone. Named for its relative predictability, Old Faithful’s eruptions are forecast daily by the park rangers (give or take 5 minutes). Don’t miss the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, a treasure trove of wonderful information and great place to snag junior ranger badges.
Here’s our advice: make dining reservations at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room and enjoy a cocktail before dinner at the observation area on the Inn’s second floor. The Dining Room has a varied, inventive menu featuring local game, steak, chicken and seafood. Staying on property at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge made this evening complete-we could enjoy the Inn and geyser with way fewer guests and walk back to our hotel room. Priceless!
Truth: The Old Faithful Snow Lodge would have been much better had it had AIR CONDITIONING. Sure, they had a fan, but for a person like me who loves sleeping cold and piling on the covers, this was WAY too much money to pay for a hot night’s sleep. Then again, I loved rolling out of bed the next morning to watch Old Faithful with a handful of people, as opposed to the hordes who were there the previous day.
7. Let Historic Yellow Bus or Yellowstone Bus do the driving for you.
Our first day, we explored where we wanted, including the Grand Canyon and Lamar Valley. But the second day, it was a welcome break to be chauffeured around on a tour bus in a completely opposite area of Yellowstone. From hot springs to mud pots to fumaroles, Yellowstone is loaded with geothermal gems.
All the Historic Yellow Bus tours were already booked, but the Yellowstone Bus was just fine with us. The only issue we had was a couple was 10 minutes late back to our bus at the very first stop. We all sat patiently until they returned but, needless to say, it didn’t happen the rest of the day after that! Custom guided tours are also available starting at $833 for 8 hours and accommodating up to 12 people.
Tip: Touring Yellowstone can be exhausting, so pace yourself. We only had two days, so we attempted to cram in as much as possible. This is by no means a restful vacation, but we wanted to see as much as possible and were willing to push ourselves. Bonus: it meant we slept soundly as soon as our heads hit the pillow!
8. When you see lots of cars are parked in one area, STOP!
Lots of vehicles and people usually means a great opportunity for wildlife watching. This happened in Hayden Valley when we spied a full parking area and people set up with scopes and fancy lenses. Good thing we joined them – they were tracking several wolves! Not far from that spot, we saw cars double parked on the side of the road. Lo and behold, a brown bear was in the clearing and drawing all the attention.
We didn’t have to leave our truck to have a close encounter with a bison. And when I say close, I mean it walked up the center of the road, then turned and passed us on our right side. Thankfully we were in a heavy duty truck which made us feel safe and protected.
9. To save money, purchase a multipark ticket with Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
Multipark passes for both parks are $50 as opposed to $30 for entry to each park. Hey, it’s $10 and it’s highly likely that if visiting Yellowstone, you might be like us and seeking a two-fer by also going to Grad Teton. But beware: these multipark passes expire in 7 days. After our week glamping at Goosewing Ranch, we returned to enter Grand Teton and realized our pass had expired, so we decided to visit Jackson instead.
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