Like a lot of avid travelers during COVID times, I too was itching to get away from home but wanting to do so in a safe way. A road trip out to Wyoming, filled with social distancing and beautiful views, was the perfect cure for the time being while we all patiently wait on our amazing medical and scientific community around the world to develop and distribute the vaccines. In order to not undo what the scientific community is working so hard to contain, it’s also important to do ANY traveling – for work, leisure, or otherwise – as safely as possible. Most of these travel tips for Yellowstone really apply to traveling in non-pandemic times, but considering we’ll be dealing with some level of COVID for the next few years, take that into consideration as well. And now, for the main event…
14 Travel Tips for Yellowstone
1 – Buy An Annual National Parks Pass
K no seriously, BUY AN ANNUAL NATIONAL PARKS PASS. I’m sorry… was I screaming? Well, yes, I may have been. I have also written a love letter to it because I’m very normal. Seriously having this saved me so much time/money. It is $80 for one full year. The pass can have two names on it (meaning you and a partner/friend can split it, and only one of you needs to be present when used) and allows up to three more people into the park with it. In Yellowstone there was also a lane specific to annual pass holders, so you got to speed on in. I quite seriously cannot recommend getting this enough. Of all my travel tips for Yellowstone (and national parks in general) this is probably my best one.
2 – Drive Yourself vs. Relying on Tours or Transit
Now, this might not fit into everyone’s budget and I totally get that. But if you can make it work I highly recommend driving your own or renting a car. We rented a small SUV for the entirety of our trip and it was the perfect vehicle. We were able to easily pull on/off to lookout areas and were on our own schedule the whole time. I couldn’t imagine exploring any other way and this is one of my best travel tips for Yellowstone.
3 – Time the Popular Spots Right; Choose Early or Late
Yellowstone was pretty busy, particularly at some of the key touristy areas we all want to check out. To avoid big groups at places like Mammoth Springs, Grand Canyon, and Old Faithful, go either earlier in the morning or later in the evening.
4 – Look for Overlook Hikes at Popular Spots
Most of these bigger attractions have their normal view that probably 90% of park visitors go to and a hike/overlook view. If you want to avoid people and get a more aerial view of things, highly recommend these hikes. They’re typically short, easy hikes and you’re better able to keep your distance from other people.
5 – Plan Old Faithful Right
Let’s talk about the exploding elephant in the room…Old Faithful. This wouldn’t be a travel tips for Yellowstone blog post without some specific notes about everyone’s favorite American geyser. We tried to go here around 2pm one day and there was, not exaggerating, a line of cars a mile long to get into the parking lot… and the parking lot is huge. So we said politely “no thank you line, we will be visiting tomorrow” and did just that. I recommend getting here earlier than 10:30am to ensure parking and a seat for prime viewing, particularly now that people are social distancing on the benches. However, if you decide against sitting in the crowd (which, I can’t blame you), I’d recommend either hiking the overlook viewpoint or walking up through the nearby basin. Both have great views of Old Faithful, however they do not have as pretty of a backdrop so if that matters for your photo taking.
6 – Check Old Faithful Eruption Times
Another Old Faithful tip is to look up when it has gone off that morning, and to plan around that. They say that it goes off every 90 minutes, +/- 10 minutes, so you can do the math and plan your arrival accordingly so you aren’t waiting an hour to watch Old Faithful do its thing.
7 – Sunset and Sunrise in the Valleys for Animal Sightings
If you’re anything like my fiancé and me and want to see the most animals, either sunrise or sunset are going to be your best bets. There’s a reason you hear that from people when talking about travel tips for Yellowstone; it’s because it’s just true. We spent sunset in Lamar Valley with about 1,000 new snorting, bison friends and it was so much fun.
8 – Keep Your Distance from Wildlife
When it comes to animals in the park, please use common sense. Keep your distance from them and watch them with respect. This isn’t just a travel tip for Yellowstone, in fairness, this applies to traveling in general. However, in Yellowstone, Elk and bison are everywhere and you absolutely don’t need to get out of your car and walk anywhere near a herd. Not only are you putting yourself in danger, but you’re likely to get a ticket from a park ranger AND you’re putting the animal(s) at risk too (if they defend themselves, they’re likely to be put down). Not to mention, you just don’t need to because I promise you if you follow my advice and go to one of the key valleys during sunset, you will see them everywhere and they will not be afraid to trot up onto the road and walk next to your vehicle and snort close to your face with the window down and maybe terrify you a little bit (not speaking from personal experience or anything nope not at all).
9 – Plan Your Trip Around Park Geographies
The park is huge, so if you’re spending multiple days exploring but don’t want to stay in the park due to cost or whatever reason, I recommend you split your time between staying by the north entrance and west entrance and do geyser/spring things on your days staying on the western side. Look up places to stay in Gardiner, Montana by the north entrance; it’s the cutest little town right at the entrance and we stayed in this incredible VRBO (and also look at this sunset from the property, I’m still dreaming about it). The west entrance has a ton of hotels close to it, but we stayed about 20 minutes away at this super incredible mountain resort and had a really good time. Seriously a private hot tub after a long day of walking around and hiking was just what the fake doctor (me) ordered.
10 – You Don’t Need a Week to Hit the Hot Spots
Although the park is big, truly you can experience the whole thing in three days if you’re good with starting somewhat early and driving around a bit. And everything around you is gorgeous so the driving is not hard at all. This does not include any longer hikes, and if you wanted to do some more serious hiking then I’d recommend a few more days. But check out my 3 day Yellowstone itinerary to see how we got it done.
11 – Research Lesser Known Attractions to Visit
There are very popular attractions because they’re beautiful, such as Grand Canyon (definitely worth it) and Old Faithful (pretty cool but honestly, the basin around it was more fun). However, some of the best things we saw were not the main attractions. Things we really enjoyed included Firehole Canyon Drive, random picnic spots next to the water, both Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley, and Black Sand Basin.
12 – Definitely Visit Black Sand Basin
Speaking of Black Sand Basin, do you want to see Grand Prismatic Spring but are worried about the crowd? Drive just a little bit farther and go to Black Sand Basin. The crowd is about 1% of the size and Rainbow Pool is one of the springs here and it looks just the same as Grand Prismatic, just a little bit smaller. This particular basin was full of gorgeous springs including Emerald and Opalescent Pools.
13 – Dress in Layers & Wear Comfortable Shoes/Boots You Can Move In
We wore hiking boots, light pants/leggings, a light shirt, and a removable layer everywhere we went in the park. The weather was beautiful but it was definitely a little cooler in the mornings, so having layers was perfect.
14 – Keep the Car Stocked
Things we had in our car at all times while we were driving through the park: a physical map (get one when you drive in), multiple camera lenses (wide angle, telephoto, and an everyday use one), binoculars, a cooler with sandwiches and snacks, a six pack of local craft beer, multiple refillable water bottles, hand lotion, extra masks, hand sanitizer, a pair of hiking sandals, Sand Cloud Turkish towels, a bunch of plastic bags for garbage/etc., and a good attitude! Ha, I’m sorry, I just had to throw something cheesy in there. But seriously, do you need the perfect packing list? I’ve got you covered.
With these travel tips for Yellowstone, you should be set. But if you have any questions, feel free to reach out here or DM me on Instagram. I’m always willing to chat all thing travel!