Yellowstone National Park (YNP) has long been described as an au naturale destination ever American (and visitor to the country) should experience once in his or her lifetime. And between the Instagrammable viewsheds and some of the best geo-spotting anywhere on the continent, it’s no wonder why it’s held in such high praise.
But the sheer vastness of its wild spaces, coupled with the literally hundreds of miles of hiking trails that lattice the park, can make figuring out how to best navigate YNP a difficult task.
To help you with just that, here are seven tips and insider suggestions on how to get the best out of your next (or first) trip to the home of Old Faithful.
1. Think Ahead, Don’t Go on a Whim
With over 2 million acres of pristine wilderness, hiking through YNP is an undertaking that needs to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than your safety; over 1,600 people have “gone missing” on America’s public lands over the past fifty years.
We’d recommend visiting the NPS Day Hiking page to both help plan your next hiking trek, but also to ensure you won’t go too off the beaten path while trekking through the woods. Always bring a physical map of your surroundings with you—because cell phone reception in the park is notoriously spotty.
2. Bring Your Binoculars
Interacting with the park’s native wildlife is not only frowned upon—but illegal. Suffice to say you’ll want to keep a distance between you and Smokey the Bear.
By bringing your binoculars, you can get up close and personal with the park’s famous wildlife—which includes herds or road-crossing bison, introduced wolf packs, and countless migrant and resident bird species—without fear of upsetting them and endangering yourself...or getting tagged with a lofty fine. It’s also a good idea to call the park in advance to get current insights on where, say, buffalo herds and bald eagle flocks are being spotted.
3. Leave Fitto (or Fitta) at Home
If you plan on doing a bit of wildlife watching or long trail hiking, it’d be wise to leave the pup at home.
With the park’s healthy populations of bears and growing wolf populations, YNP can pose a risk to man’s best friend, especially at night. That said, if you plan on just sticking to the campground areas and open trails near the visitor’s centers, your leashed canine will be well off. But if you’re keen on doing anything else, consider phoning the pet sitter.
4. Bring a Book—and a Handheld GPS
Like we mentioned earlier: Cell phone reception inside the park is spotty, at best. A trip to YNP is a good a time as any to take a break from your apps and inbox pings.
Bring a collection of books to enjoy by the campfire after a long day of hiking. And because of how easy it is to get unintentionally lost in some of the park’s more remote areas, especially if you’re keen of hitting-up YNP’s backcountry camping destinations, bring a handheld, satellite-based GPS.
Check out Digital Trends 2018 roundup for some of the best GPS units for hiking to find the perfect one for you.
5. See the Lesser-known Geothermal Wonders
While Old Faithful seems to get all the postcard-love these days, YNP is home to a bevy of equally prepossessing geysers and hot springs to photograph and share.
Choosing to visit the park’s lesser-traveled geothermal destinations will save you both time and frustration from having to stand in the huge crowds that always gather at Old Faithful. Below is a list of geothermal destinations to consider seeing, photographing, and maybe Instagram-ing while you're at YNP:
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Lower Geyser Basin
- Castle Geyser
- Morning Glory Pool
- Mud Volcano Area
- Artists Paintpots
Regardless of which spot (or spots) you plan on checking out, always heed the caution and warning signs surrounding each geothermal hub.
6. Get Your Hiking Day Going Early—and Bring a Jacket
You know what they say: “Early bird gets the worm.” And the “worm” in this instance is the chance to hike along uncrowded trails and see early-morning wildlife.
Nearly 4 million people visit this much-loved national park every year, with many of them choosing to busy the on-site trails and activities during the late-morning or early-afternoon hours. To avoid the inevitable foot traffic of mid-day hiking, opt to hit the trails at around 6:30 am. Also, early morning hiking will provide your best bet at seeing the park’s wildlife, as they’re more active and less skittish in the morning hours; as the park gets more crowded, the sheer noise oftentimes drives more shy wildlife deeper into the woods.
And a word to the wise: Don’t forget to bundle up. YNP morning can be anywhere from ten to twenty degrees colder than daily averages—so bring a jacket!
7. Explore Lamar and Hayden Valleys
Yellowstone’s Grand Loop, Upper Yellowstone Falls, and the in-park slice of the Grand Canyon often get all the buzz. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check out the parks other natural splendors, as well.
Not nearly as visited as other areas in the park, both Lamar Valley an Hayden Valley are natural habitats that serve as a bastion for wildlife, complete with gorgeous vistas of the park’s rock formations. Arrive early, and you’ll likely be treated with uninterrupted sightings of bald eagles, coyotes, woodpeckers, and much more. In Summary: Hike, Have Fun and Respect the Wilderness Around You Yellowstone National Park is one of our nation's natural treasures, one where you can hike between redwoods, waterfalls, and canyons, all while you appreciate some of our country’s largest wildlife species. But while you’re doing so, make sure to respect the land (and its inhabitants) so that future generation can experience the same beauty.
Opt to practice the Leave No Trace principles of hiking. Mother Nature and the kids of tomorrow will thank you for it.