13 Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

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Yellowstone National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. The park has often been called Wonderland. No matter where you turn in the park – a new wonder awaits you. For some reason, all this wonder can make people lose their heads and sort of lose all sense of danger. Here are 13 things to know before visiting Yellowstone National Park

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Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is open year-round

The VAST majority of visitors of Yellowstone National Park’s four million visitors come between late May and early September. The weather is reasonably warm and snow isn’t likely. But did you know that the park is open the other 7 months of the year? For obvious reasons, visitation is the lowest during the winter.

The best time to visit Yellowstone is between April and May and September and October. The weather is mild and the crowds are moderate. The wildlife tends to be more active during these times. Spring is when the babies are born and many animals are breaking their winter fast. Fall is when many animals are mating and the winter food rush is on.

If you can avoid visiting in June, July, or August. These are the busiest months in the park and the crowds are MASSIVE. Expect to share the popular features with a hundred plus new friends. If you are looking for a wilderness experience during these months, head into the backcountry. For the most part, once you are five miles from a trailhead, the crowds will thin and it will be a much more pleasant experience.

Yellowstone is a massive park.

Yellowstone National Park is about the size of Puerto Rico. The park covers roughly 3,468.42 sq. miles with five different park entrances.

  • North Entrance – Gardiner, Montana
  • Northeast Entrance – Cooke City, Montana
  • South Entrance – Jackson, Wyoming
  • East Entrance – Cody, Wyoming
  • West Entrance – West Yellowstone, Montana

The maximum speed limit is 45 miles per hour. Take for example, Yellowstone’s Grand Loop. The loop is 142 miles long and will take a minimum of three hours to drive assuming absolutely no traffic, wildlife on the road, or stops. Realistically, the Grand Loop will take 4 to 7 hours accounting for all the potential delays.

Don’t plan on getting anywhere in Yellowstone quick. It should be a leisurely drive where you stop and take in the scenery and are prepared to sit in the buffalo and bear jams.

Distance between the Entrance Stations
EntranceNorth Northeast West East South
North 51 miles52.6 miles78.6 miles93.8 miles
Northeast 51 miles94 miles88 miles135 miles
West 52.6 miles94 miles79.6 miles68.2 miles
East 78.6 miles88 miles79.6 miles67.7 miles
South 93.8 miles135 miles68.2 miles67.7 miles

Despite its size, Yellowstone isn’t the easiest park to visit. The closest major airport is Salt Lake City, UT and it’s 5 hours away. Even it’s interstate access is limited. The entrances are a minimum of 1 hour from the nearest interstate exit.

Learn more about the best ways to get to Yellowstone here.

Book as soon as you can.

Yellowstone National Park is one of the best parks in terms of places to say. There are a range of options from campgrounds to luxury hotels in the park and an array of options outside of the park.

In total, the park has 12 frontcountry campgrounds with about 2,150 campsites and 9 lodges and cabin area with about 2,000 hotel rooms. While having 4,150 plus places for people to stay in the park seems like a lot, it really isn’t when you consider that in:

  • May 2019 averaged 14,000 visitors a day
  • June 2019 averaged 25,000 visitors a day
  • July 2019 averaged 30,000 visitors a day

The hotels and 5 reservable campgrounds tend to be book fast like six months to a year ahead. If you are planning to visit during a holiday or weekend in the summer book your accommodation as soon as you can.

There are 7 first-come-first-serve campgrounds in the park. Spaces in these campgrounds go FAST. I was in Yellowstone in late September and managed to snag a spot at Norris Campground early afternoon. I was EXTREMELY LUCKY. I couldn’t believe my luck. The following morning I headed out of the campground to start my day. It was 6:30 am and there were 15 people already in line to see get a campsite for that night. If you have limited time in the park, I would avoid planning to stay in the first-come-first-serve campgrounds.

The crowds in Old Faithful in mid-September

The Wildlife is Wild!

Yellowstone National Park is the BEST National Park for wildlife viewing. Basically, North America’s Serengeti. While it is the best, the bears, bison, wolves, elk, and all the other species found in the park do what they want when they want. They are WILD animals. The animals are no trained and there is no guarantee you will see any wildlife but bison.

Don’t be this person. Check a few more funny reviews of the National Parks.

Yellowstone isn’t a Petting Zoo

Every year a few park visitors learn the hard way that the wildlife is not tame and can be incredibly dangerous. They are not to be touched or fed. It is detrimental to wildlife for them to interact with you.

Yellowstone National Park regulations state the following
Never approach animals. The animals in Yellowstone are wild and unpredictable, no matter how calm they appear to be. The safest (and often best) view of wildlife is from inside a car. Always stay at least 100 yards (91 m) away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards (23 m) away from all other animals, including bison and elk.

It is for YOUR safety and the safety of the wildlife.  Bison and elk are huge animals who can move quickly. Bison can run up to 40 miles an hour and elk can run up to 45 miles per hour. The fastest that 100-meter dash World Record holder Usain Bolt has been recorded is 28 miles per hour.

Both elk and bison can accelerate at the drop of a hat and are faster than you. On average, bison gore five people a year in the park. All of these incidents involved Yellowstone visitors who are less than 25 yards from the wildlife. See the video below for what can happen when you get to close. This video is graphic.

Thankfully, the little girl in the video is alive. There is no reason to be within 25 yards of any animal in the park.  If the animal approaches you back up.

There is no reason to be within 25 yards of any animal in the park.  If the animal approaches you back up.

I can clearly remember the first time I watched someone injured by an animal.  Although, I may just remember it because it was the first time I said the word “shit” and my mother has told the story often.  I was 8.  We watched a woman walk-up to an elk to take a picture with it.  My mother leaned over to my father and whispered: “that woman is about to get the shit knocked out of her.” This was not meant for my little ears.  A few moments later, the woman put her arm around the elk.  He turned around and kicked her.  Eight year old me turned around and said: “that women sure got the shit knocked out of her.” The women walked away but she was brused.  She got lucky.  The elk could have attacked her with his antlers and done serious damage.

Let nature happen.

The park is a nature preserve.  This means that nature should happen with limited human interface. It can suck, but it’s the circle of life.  Let things run their course as nature intends them to. 

Do not interfere.  Do not offer food, comfort or warmth.  Do not touch.  If you see an animal hit by a car, please report this to the rangers.

If you are concerned about the welfare of an animal, let it be and alert a park ranger to its location.  Their job is to protect the park and the animals within it.  They will know how to handle the situation if there is anything that can or needs to be done.  Don’t put the animal in your car.  You are not helping it, in any way shape or form.  If the animal goes in the car, fingers crossed a zoo or animal rescue facility has an immediate space to take it, otherwise, park service will have no choice to put it down.

In particular, if you see an injured wolf, grizzly bear, black-footed ferret or Canada Lynx, wolverines.  Please let park service know.  All of these animals are either endangered and extremely rare and park service should be notified of sightings.

I have found two very similar stories about a young bison calf being found by themselves at the side of the road. Both calves were cold, wet and abandoned after their mothers swam across a river.

It must be awful to see the cute brown bundle that is a baby bison shivering all alone. But they live in a world where it is survival of the fittest. This sounds harsh but not every baby animal makes it at adulthood.

On May 16, 2016, a father and son found a young bison calf in just this situation. They ignored the warning of several individuals around them and loaded the calf into their car to take it to the park rangers for help.

Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park
This was taken on May 16, 2016. Please don’t put the animal in your can no matter what. Courtesy of Karen Richardson

When they delivered the bison to the rangers, they discovered that National Park Service does not manage for individuals animals; we manage for ecosystems. NPS attempted to reunite the bison calf with its mother but they were unsuccessful. None of the rescue centers or zoon were in the position to take the calf so it was euthanized.

In May 2019, Ron Stervenz came across an abandoned bison calf while filming in Yellowstone. He left the bison calf alone and after 30 mins, the mother returned and found her lost calf. He made this amazing video about it. Watch it to the end to see how happy everyone is when they are reunited.

Stay on the boardwalks and trails.

Yellowstone has marked trails for several reasons.  The first is that the boardwalks provide a safe area for visitors to get up close to the geysers and hot springs areas.  Without the boardwalks, walking through the hot springs is like traversing a landmine field.  No one knows what is underneath that crust: it could be solid rock or it could be a hole full of boiling water.  

At least 22 people have been boiled to death by falling into Yellowstone hot springs.

The second is Yellowstone sees 3.8 million-plus visitors a year.  If all 3.8 million people walk every which way, the parts plant life would be massacred.  Social trails would take over and would ruin the wilderness in popular areas.  Save a plant.  Stay on the trail.

The third is it only takes one person being off the trail to encourage someone else to go off the trail which then cascades.  Set an example and stay on the trail.

Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park
One of the many hot springs in the park. Stay on the boardwalks for your safety and the safety of the springs.

Use the pull-offs.

Every day thousands of people drive through Yellowstone on the TWO lane roads.  Traffic is a huge issue in general. There are a lot of reasons Yellowstone’s traffic is horrible. General road maintenance can shut down parking areas or lanes. The bison can decide to cross the road and create a bison jam. A bear or a wolf is sighted and hundreds of people line the road to get a glimpse.

The park pullouts and the graveled sides of the road are there for a reason.  If you want to stop and look at something, pull over and then look at it. 

Do NOT STOP YOUR CAR IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD.

Stopping your car in the middle of the road is both rude and disrespectful for other park visitors. It causes traffic to back-up and NPS has started scaring off wildlife when irresponsible people don’t pull over and keep the traffic flowing.

Bison Jams where the animals are standing in the middle of the road are the exception to stopping in the middle of the road. These animals are big and they know it. They have been known to stand in the middle of the road and make cars go around them. I do not recommend playing chicken with the bison to try and encourage them out of the road. Just wait them out. They will eventually move.

Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park
I pulled into a pullout to take this photo of grizzly bear.

It’s not a garden.

The flowers and plants that grow in Yellowstone are not there for you to pick to decorate your hotel room or save in a scrapbook. They are there to make produce seeds that will grow the next generation of other plants or provide food for the wildlife.  The wildflowers need to stay in the park.  They need to produce seed. Don’t gather the pine cone or basically anything in the park.  Everything that isn’t man-made is important to the life cycle of the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Removing nature from the park ensures that the next visitor to pass that spot will not get the same enjoyment.

*** If you suspect a man-made object is older than 50 years old, do not touch it.  Note the location and let a ranger know it could be considered a historical artifact.

It is not your backyard.

It is not your backyard. Children should not be free to roam around.  They can get into trouble really fast.  They can pick flowers, feed the animals or run into the geothermal fields and risk being boiled to death (not joking). Watch your kids, trees aren’t their jungle gyms and rocks aren’t for throwing.

Do not let feed the small wildlife such as birds, chipmunks, and any other animal in the park.  I love Park Services’ new slogan “A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear.”  Once an animal learns that humans equal food, it’s behavior is forever changed.  There is no going back, and relocating the animal doesn’t work.  Park service has tried this.  The bears usually bet the rangers back to the campground. Additionally, many wildlife can carry diseases such as plague (black death), hantavirus, and/or rabies.

Also, the levels of sodium found in most human food is really unhealthy for the small furry rodents

Things to Know Before Visiting Yellowstone National Park
This cute furry little muskrat approached me for a handout.

It is not a compost facility.

I think sunflower seeds and pistachios should be banned from the park (mostly for the feeding aspect).  I hate walking up the trails and seeing the seeds spread out along the trail.  Yes, they are biodegradable but that’s not the point.  The goal is to protect the environment and the shells are not native or natural in that environment.  This also goes for fruit as well. Banana peels, orange peels, and apple cores belong in trash cans.

Organic Litter is still LITER

Plus if you don’t sunflower seeds your kid will not think about feeding them to the mini-bears (aka chipmunks and squirrels).

Follow the “Leave No Trace” philosophy.

It is a NOT a landfill.

I wish I didn’t think it was odd when I return from a hike and don’t have someone else’s trash with me.

Alas, it is an odd hike when I don’t clean up someone else’s trash. Pack it in, pack it out.  I don’t care what it is. If you insist on hiking with your baby have a plan for carrying out the diaper.  Don’t leave it on the trail for someone else to carry out.  There is a special circle in hell reserved for the person who left their diaper on the side of the trail Memorial Day Weekend 2016 in Pinnacles National Park, CA.

Don’t throw anything you brought with you out in the park (unless it’s in a trash can).  I don’t care how small, don’t do it.  If it came with you on your hike, take it out with you.  I don’t care what it is don’t throw it out.  I have found everything from empty bottles of water to small candy bar wrappers to a full baby diaper.  If you see trash on the trail pick it up and carry it out.

Lee H. Whittlesey wrote a 292-page book about deaths in Yellowstone.

Death in Yellowstone National Park isn’t an uncommon occurrence.  It is common enough that someone wrote an entire 292 page book on it.  It is called Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, 2nd Edition. It covers deaths in the park of all manor.

Some are accidents, some are deliberate, and some are downright terrifying.  The book covers deaths from the first US occupation of the park to modern events.  It details various ways people have managed to get themselves killed in Yellowstone National park. People have jumped into hot springs and been boiled alive.  Twenty people have died that way in the park (that we know of). People have died eating a poisonous cousin of the parsnip.  They are gored by bison.  People down in the rivers, they fall off cliffs.

I am not trying to scare you away from visiting the park but make you aware of the dangers in the park.  The book makes an intresting read about stange and dark ways people manage to kill themselves.

Yellowstone is not Disney World.

At the end of the day, Yellowstone National Park is NOT Disney World.  It is not a controlled environment designed for you to have fun.  The animals are not animatronics.  The plants aren’t grown specifically for your enjoyment.

The park makes for a great vacation but remember that it is a wilderness area.  It is possible to have an amazing time and see the wildlife while still respecting the park and not causing any damage to the park and its wildlife.

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Planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park and don\'t know where to start? Here are 13 things to know before visiting Yellowstone National Park

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Jennifer Melroy

Jennifer has been obsessed with national parks as a child.  This Tennessee native spent her childhood exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and traveling with her parents to National Parks and around the Caribbean.  She is always planning her next adventure and is ready to see the world while trying to visit all 59 National Park (*She is ignoring the hunk of concrete that just became a national park).

Jennifer Melroy has 97 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Melroy

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