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Yellowstone National Park Guide: 5 Essential Tips


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One of America’s Crown Jewels and the country’s oldest national park, Yellowstone is a true must-see. Here is my ultimate guide to Yellowstone:

In This Yellowstone Article You Will Discover:

  • How to Secure a Campsite
  • When to Visit the Park
  • Safety Tips
  • And More!

Yellowstone — it’s a true icon of America, as well as being that country’s oldest and largest national park. Located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, this park is an outdoors-person’s mecca — if you’re in the continental area I urge you to make the pilgrimage (as so many Yankees do).

Here are 5 tips to make your Yellowstone visit even better:

1. Secure a Campsite Early

There are 12 campsites in Yellowstone, five of which are privately managed and accept reservations — the remaining seven are first-come, first serve. For the private campsites, reservations should be made weeks (if not months) early during peak times. For the rest — be there early to grab an available site, especially in summer (remember that checkout time is 11:00 a.m.). Even in shoulder seasons, these campsites will fill up by day’s end. (Or, you could be really adventurous and do some backcountry camping.) If you arrive in the area after noon, your best bet is to stay in Gardiner, Montana, at the park’s north entrance, then wake up early the next day to secure an in-park site. Yellowstone is very popular, which takes us to my second tip…

2. Visit in September

September is the best time to visit Yellowstone (assuming you’re not there to go skiing, of course). July and August have great weather, sure, but tourists from Sea-to-Shining-Sea swarm the park, families in tow. June is less busy, but Yellowstone’s high elevation means that remaining snowpack could hinder access to parts of the park… and it’ll be bitter cold at night. September means daytime temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius, fewer crowds, sunny skies and perfection. Except one tiny thing…

3. It’s Cold At Night — Always

I was downright shocked at how cold the nights were during my September visit. Daytime was hot: 20-degrees-plus. But by about 10:00 p.m., the chill had set in and I was wearing three layers. Midnight was near freezing. A few hours later, when I awoke shivering, it was about -2 degrees Celsius. My advice: bring a warmer sleeping bag than you think you’ll need as well as a couple of chemical warmer packs or a sleeping bag liner for good measure. Yellowstone’s temperatures vary greatly in fall especially — if you go for an early morning hike, you could be starting out in zero-degree weather and finishing at 20 degrees. Layers are key here. Comfortable sleeping presents a bit more of a problem, as you’ll crawl into your bag when it’s about five degrees Celsius knowing you’ll need another layer of clothing in a few hours when the temperature drops even more. As they say — # firstworldproblems.

4. Elk, Bison & Bears, Oh My!

Speed limits are, at times, painfully slow given the size of Yellowstone. To drive from Mammoth in the north to Old Faithful in the south can take an hour-and-a-half or more, given the 25 to 45 mph limit. But this is for your safety — and the safety of the park residents. Massive elk roam free everywhere and bison crowd the roads in the northeast sections especially. They can pop out of nowhere and really ruin your drive  — if you’re going too fast, that is. Keep a lookout. Also, don’t approach either (or any other wildlife). Elk and bison may seem like casual creatures as they graze in the fields, but they will “tear you a new one” at a moment’s notice. Also bears — grizzlies — occupy the park. You may not see one, but you should cognizant of them at all times. It is a finable offence to leave food, cosmetics, toiletries or anything else scented in your tent at any time, day or night. (Bear boxes are always available — use them.) When hiking alone, sing or talk to yourself, or yell out “no bear!” every once in a while. The worst thing you can do is surprise a bear — but give them a chance to run away and they’ll usually take it. (Find out more about bear safety here.)

5. Boiling River at Dawn

This one is a specific must-do. Boiling River hot springs is the park’s best feature (pictured at top). It is a magical place where volcanically superheated water cascades into the icy Gardiner River, forming a natural bath. During my September visit to Yellowstone, I sat in there for an hour-and-a-half… I could have stayed all day. You can sit with your back the heat and your feet in the cold, or immerse fully into hot-tub-like water. Pick a spot that suits you and let your cares float away. That said, it can get crowded — unless you visit at dawn. Few wake up at freezing sunrise to take a dip, but they’re all missing out. Not only is it the best way to warm up, but it’s a wonderfully Zen way to start your Yellowstone day. Just make sure you eventually get out and enjoy other parts of the park. (Boiling River is accessed from a parking lot about three km north of Mammoth, on the east side of the road. A 10-minute walk takes you from the lot to the springs. You’ll see the steam.)

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

2 comments… add one
  • Elvis Sep 17, 2012 Link

    I went to Yellowstone in June… it was freezing day and night. Good trip tho. So Cold!

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