After visiting Yellowstone National Park eight times since 2005, Todd Rightsell gives us the inside scoop on the best features, campgrounds, and hikes this incredible park has to offer.
Yellowstone National Park is a huge place and with so much to do and see. It can be a bit overwhelming to plan a visit to the park. Hopefully the following tips/suggestions will help you in your planning whether you are a first time visitor, or a seasoned pro.
That said, the suggestions below are just that, suggestions. Do your research and find out what appeals to you. Then load up the camper and go have fun!
TOP YELLOWSTONE TIPS
1. Stay in Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone and the surrounding area is the size of a small state. Do whatever it takes to get camping arrangements inside the park. You’ll be glad you did. The distance between major points around the road is generally about 18-25 miles, but don’t let the seemingly short distances fool you. Driving around here just always seems to take longer than you expect. The posted speed limit is forty-five miles per hour, but you’ll be making good time if you’re doing twenty to twenty-five. That includes stopping to take pictures, waiting on animals to clear the road, and dealing with the traffic.
2. Be patient, Yellowstone is crowded.
From the second week or so of June until early September, be prepared to deal with the crowds. Yellowstone gets literally millions of visitors from June through August. The Park Service does a great job of dealing with this surge of visitors and, if you just go with the flow, you will have a great time. If the animals can deal with the crowds, we can too. This is typically what happens when somebody spots a bear (or some other large animal) in Yellowstone.
3. Hang out with a Park Ranger.
I say this all the time, but I think it bears repeating. Take a Park Ranger led hike. No matter how many times I go to Yellowstone (or any other park), it seems these programs always end up being some of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of my trip.
Programs of all sorts are offered in every major area throughout Yellowstone National Park. They are usually free (never more than a few dollars), you’ll learn a ton about whatever it is you signed up for, and you’ll meet some great like-minded people along the way. The Park Rangers in Yellowstone are top notch. Take advantage of that and ask them every question that pops into your mind. I have stumped them a time or two, but not often. All in all, the Park Ranger hikes are the best deal in Yellowstone.
4. Know where the animals are, and the natural oddities are.
Big animals and weird things are probably why you’re going to Yellowstone. Know where to find them both. The east side of the park is generally considered to have more wildlife than the west side, the exception being bison, which seem to pop up everywhere. Hayden and Lamar Valleys, both on the east side of the park, are your best bets for big wildlife, which are probably the ones you came to see. You’ll see bears, wolves, coyotes, bison, elk, pronghorn, and the occasional moose.
Conversely, the west side is where all the really weird stuff is including abundant thermal features. All of the park’s major geyser basins and thermal features (Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, etc.) are on this side.
TOP YELLOWSTONE CAMPGROUNDS
Yellowstone has twelve campgrounds. All but the biggest of truck campers will have no problem in any of them. Each has it good points. Some have a bad point or two but, rather than give you all the boring nitty gritty details of each, I’ll just give you a few tips about camping in Yellowstone in general. If you are after more specifics, you can find them at http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/camping-in-yellowstone.htm.
1. Make reservations.
I rarely make campground reservations myself but, over the past several years, Yellowstone has gotten very crowded. Every year it seems like it is harder and harder to get a campsite.
Of the twelve campgrounds, five take reservations and the remainder are first come, first served. Up until a few summers ago, I never had a problem, even at the smallest campgrounds, but the last three to four years campsites have been very difficult to come by.
If you are flexible and have the time to wait around, you can usually get something for a couple days out if you talk to Xanterra reservations, or stop by the campground itself and talk to one of their agents. If you are on a tight schedule, make your campground reservations in advance.
2. Don’t grow roots.
If you have never been to Yellowstone National Park before, you simply can’t imagine how large the landscape is. You don’t want to spend all your time driving. After all, you probably drove a really long way just to get here. Do yourself a favor and don’t spend all your time in one campground while you are here.
Ideally, you should make reservations (see above) for two to three nights in three or four different areas of the park. That way you’ll do much less driving and get to see a whole lot more. Fortunately, the campgrounds which take reservations are spread out fairly well so this is pretty easy to do.
3. Know thy neighbor.
If you don’t, you will by the end of your stay! The campgrounds in Yellowstone are not known for their privacy, so don’t expect any. But who cares? Most of us are only in our campsites for a couple of hours in the evening bragging about what we saw/did all day. Swapping tales is one of the best ways I know for finding new things to do in any locale. So say hello to the folks in the next site and you may learn about something really great.
This nice couple stayed next to me for a couple of nights in Canyon Campground. Since they had a Northstar too, we had a quite lot to talk about. That’s one of the greatest things about truck camping, the people!
TOP YELLOWSTONE HIKES
Yellowstone has literally hundreds of miles of trails and some of the best scenery in the lower 48 states. Hiking here is a real treat. Just remember that you are not necessarily at the top of the food chain. It can be dangerous, but so can driving your truck camper. And, just like driving your truck camper, a little bit of common sense and caution goes a long way toward mitigating those risks.
Hundreds of thousands of people hike here every summer, and there are very few dangerous wildlife encounters. Don’t let the stories dissuade you from a life changing experience on the trails of Yellowstone. Plus, if you do decide to venture out, you’ll leave 99% of the crowds behind after walking just a few hundred yards.
1. Bunsen Peak
Of all the hikes I have done in Yellowstone, this one ranks as my second favorite. Bunsen Peak, at 8,564 feet, soars above Swan Lake Flats just south of Mammoth, and affords sweeping views of both Swan Lake Flats and the town of Mammoth.
The trailhead is about five miles south of Mammoth on the park road just after you cross the Golden Gate Bridge (yes, there’s a Golden Gate Bridge in Yellowstone). From the trailhead, the trail climbs steeply up several switchbacks to the summit some 1,300 feet above where you started.
The views along the way are some of the best in the park. It’s about two miles to the peak, from which you can either retrace your steps back to the trailhead, or continue down the east side and make a big loop of about seven miles. This is the by far the best day hike in the western part of the park.
2. Rose Creek
You won’t find this one on the official park maps. It starts from behind the Lamar Valley Buffalo Ranch and follows Rose Creek for about two miles or so to the now abandoned Rose Creek Pen. The pen is actually the remains of one of the original acclimation pens used to house the wolves when they were first reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.
I learned about this trail during a Yellowstone Institute class in 2008. Our instructor (that’s him above) was part of the team of scientists involved in the wolf project from day one. His firsthand account of the day they hauled the first wolves up in crates and let them go in the pen was riveting.
While I did this hike with a group the first time, I have done it since by myself. Either way it’s a great hike. Just be sure to carry bear spray and make plenty of noise. After all, this is Lamar Valley and you never know what might be around.
The hike is about two miles one way to the pen, mostly uphill. Be sure to look for elk sheds along the way.
3. Mt. Washburn
At 10,243 feet in elevation, Mt. Washburn is generally known as the best hike in Yellowstone, and for good reason. The view from the top is panoramic. On a clear day you can see the Teton Range some 80 miles to the south. Don’t forget your camera!
Put an extra layer in your pack. At over 10,000 feet, the summit is usually pretty windy. This is one of the best places in the park to see Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep. They can often be seen along the slopes or, if you are lucky, right on the trail itself. The hike is pretty much all uphill, but the reward is worth it, and then it’s all downhill on the return trip.
There are two trailheads to Mt Washburn. They are several miles apart on the Park Road near Dunraven Pass. However, if you have two cars in your party, you can hike from one to the other and experience both segments of the trail. Either way, you’ll be glad you decided on this one. No matter which trailhead you start from and/or return to, the whole round trip hike is about six miles.
Keep in mind that some of these trailheads are pretty small and parking may fill up fairly early. That’s another great thing about a truck camper; you can always get there early, hang out until it warms up, and then head out. But, like everywhere else in Yellowstone, the earlier you go, the better your chances are of seeing wildlife.
Hopefully I have given you a bit of insight into the Yellowstone National Park that I love and appreciate so much. As long winded as I have been, I have only scratched the surface of what Yellowstone has to offer. The place is just big. While every visitor is sure to find a different and unique path through the park, there is one thing I can promise you. You will never forget your path.
Have you traveled to Yellowstone or another fun National Park with your truck camper? Please share your story.