National Park Series: Yellowstone National Park
The National Park Series is going to work just a little bit different than the weekender. This is a comprehensive guide, so it's going to be a little longer and more thorough, probably without restaurant suggestions (National Parks tend to be scarce on those), with a section on tips for visiting the park, and sometimes an itinerary to give you ideas. Plus a lot of pictures to show you how incredibly beautiful these places are.
Staying in any national park is going to be an exercise in frustration, if you're like me and dislike both 1) spending excess money and 2) hordes of tourists. The accommodations inside the NPS, although convenient, don't give a lot of bang for your buck or privacy to enjoy NATURE, what I'm assuming you're there to see. You also have to book, like, years in advance.
SO, on that note, I suggest either staying outside of the park or camping inside or very near to the park. Both have their pros and cons.
Camping - Inside the Park
Very convenient, but requires some planning ahead. There are great and beautiful campsites inside Yellowstone, of which my favorites are
1) Pebble Creek Campground. Located near the Northeast Entrance (my favorite entrance), close to Lamar Valley and Cooke City. 27 campsites that are all first-come, first-serve, so you'll have to get there before noon if you want to guarantee yourself a spot. Nestled at the base of the Absaroka mountain range and positioned next to a creek (hence the name), you get absolutely incredible views and that relaxing babbling brook noise to coax you to sleep and take your mind off the bears - just kidding. Kind of. There are also hiking trails right from the camp, which is always a plus.
2) Slough Creek Campground. If you want a spot at Slough Creek get ready to head out early and arrive just after dawn. Seriously, that's how quickly this campground fills - for good reason. It is possibly the best campsite in the park for star-gazing, and located in Lamar Valley where wildlife are beyond plentiful. You shouldn't be surprised if you see a stray bison wandering through the campground or hear the wolves howling at night. Very close to the incredibly beautiful Beartooth Highway, outside the Northeast Entrance. 16 sites open June through September.
3) Tower Fall Campground. Probably the least isolated of the three, this campground is a great base point for exploration. From here it's very easy to get to Tower Fall (who would have guessed?), a beautiful 130-foot waterfall, as well as Lamar Valley, and the six-mile trail to Mount Washburn, the tallest point in Yellowstone NPS. Also located super close to the Tower General Store for all your general store needs. Nearby Roosevelt Lodge offers dining if you're sick of the campfire variety, as well as horse-back riding. 31 first-come first-serve sites, so once again, plan on getting there early in the morning.
Camping - Outside the Park
There are some great opportunities to camp just outside the park, that are just as beautiful and most of the time less expensive and crowded than inside Yellowstone. But what you gain in privacy you sacrifice in convenience, since you'll have to commute into the park. A few great spots at different entrances are:
1) Eagle Creek Campground - Gardiner, Northwest Entrance. This campground gets 5 gold stars for convenience since it's located literally at the Northwest Entrance, two miles into the hills above Gardiner. The view of Gardiner from above is beautiful, although the campground is located in a pretty bare, brown and tree-less area. The fee is a whopping $7. The drive on 89 from Livingston through Paradise Valley and into Gardiner is jaw-droppingly beautiful, with many camping options visible along the way. Gardiner is a cute little town with unique restaurants like the Iron Horse Grill, general stores, gas stations, NPS information and souvenirs.
2) Beartooth Lake Campground - Cooke City, Northeast Entrance. If a scenic campground is your main goal, you can find one at Beartooth Lake. These campsites are located along the Beartooth Scenic Highway (which is less like a highway and more like an incredibly beautiful, scenic, amazing road that literally goes over the tops of mountains) between Cooke City and Red Lodge. Which means you'll either have to drive through Yellowstone to access the Highway via Cooke City, or start in Red Lodge and reach it that way. Either way you're in for an incredibly beautiful drive. However, there are only 21 sites and no reservations allowed, so you'll have to start out early due to this site's relative inaccessibility. Only $15 per night.
3. Lonesomehurst Campground - West Yellowstone, West Entrance. West Yellowstone is an established town with A LOT of RV camping, motels and tourist-y little cabins right in the town. This small, private, and beautiful campground on Hebgen lake is an exception to the other campgrounds where tent campers may feel like second-class citizens. Of the 27 sites there are only 5 electrical sites. The lake is beautiful, the campground DOES take reservations, and it costs $16 per night. If easy-access and convenience are your goals, this site is for you.
Lamar Valley is an incredible area right inside the Northeast entrance of the park. It's widely known as the best area for wildlife viewing in the park, even called the American Serengheti, and you are pretty much guaranteed to see huge, roaming herds of bison. People also flock to this river valley to try and spot the Junction Butte and Lamar Canyon wolf packs. You might also see pronghorn, grizzlies, badgers, bald eagles, osprey, coyotes, and deer.
Mount Washburn is the tallest point in the entire park, and apparently you can see the Grand Tetons in the distance from the summit. We went during the peak of wildfire season, so we got a significantly smokier view. But it was still incredibly beautiful. The hike is easy enough for beginners. There's a ranger station at the top with bathrooms, a viewing platform, and information about the mountain and park.
Yellowstone Lake is the largest high elevation lake in North America. Due to extremely cold water, swimming is not recommended, but you can rent boats and spend the afternoon on this beautiful lake. Be aware that the ice typically doesn't melt until late May, or early June.
Norris Geyser Basin is SO COOL. A huge hotspot (ha ha) for geothermal activity, with beautiful bright blue pools and orange and green rivers of water. Pressurized steam shoots from the ground and small geysers erupt every so often. It's a large area, with a 1.25 mile raised platform trail throughout the basin. Expect a lot of tourists, especially weekends and holidays during peak season.
Grand Prismatic Spring is my personal favorite part of the entire park. It's incredible and there's nothing like it in the rest of the United States. There will be a ridiculous amount of tourists and parking is horrible. Go anyway. Also, if you wear a hat, leave it in the car. This area is extremely windy and the acidic pools are like a graveyard for hats of tourists past.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has a lot going on. Lower Falls is one of the most photographed landmarks in the park, and for good reason. It's incredible. It also is a bit of a cardio workout to get down to the viewing area and back up to the parking area, though it's all paved. There area number of trails and viewing platforms here, and the canyon is incredible. It does get quite crowded.
Mammoth Hot Springs this place seriously looks like a different planet. And it was actually used as the surface of Mars in a film. Large white mineral formations spew steam and hot water into the air, and some crystal blue pools interrupt the bizarre landscape. There's not necessarily any hiking as all paths are on raised platforms. It's an incredibly unique place to check off your list.
The Boiling River I can personally attest to how fun the boiling river is. It gets crazy busy with tourists, but bring some friends and you'll die laughing trying to keep your footing on the slippery rocks (they're small and round, not painful or dangerous). The boiling river is a specific area where hot springs join with the cold river and you get an experience kind of like a natural hot-tub, but with occasional cool drafts of water. It's awesome.
5 things to know about visiting Yellowstone
1. RESPECT THE PARK
Nothing infuriates me more than people taking advantage of the NPS and then ruining it. DO NOT leave your trash, DO NOT try and carve your name into anything, and stay on the damn trail. Especially in Yellowstone, where there are tons of high traffic and biologically fragile geothermal areas. Don't leave the raised wooden walkways, no matter how good the photo op, for both your own safety and for the future of the park. Do even better and yell at any tourists you see stomping around off the walkway (you will see some).
2. Expect Tourists
If you're using the National Park System to get off the beaten path and enjoy some solitary time in the wilderness, there are a lot of beautiful parks to do that in and Yellowstone is not one of them. Don't get me wrong, it's a huge park and you'll be able to find campsites, especially backcountry ones, where you are very isolated. But when hitting the main highlights of the park, which are beautiful and worth the crowd, you will be swamped by tourists. Expect it, embrace it.
3. Expect Traffic
Especially on weekends or around holidays. Near the most popular areas of the park, traffic will be very backed up. Parking will be insane. Expect it, embrace it.
4. BE AWARE OF WILDLIFE
Don't tempt fate. Obey the park's guidelines for how close you should ever get to wild animals. Carry bear spray with you, especially if you're going to be hiking on less populated trails or hiking solo. DO NOT feed animals, animals that start associating humans with food rewards usually end up having to be euthanized for the safety of visitors. You don't want to be the cause of that!
5. Go during Late Spring or Early Summer
Although it'll be busy, it's totally worth the crowd. If you want to beat family season, go in mid-to-late May while school is still in session. The temperatures are perfect for hiking, the flowers are beautiful, and you're beating wildfire season. We hiked Washburn during the peak of wildfire season and although it was still beautiful, you can see from the picture below that our view was mostly haze.