10 Tips for Visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

10 Tips for Visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

The five days we spent in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks were some of the best of our summer road trip! The parks are just gorgeous and have so many interesting and unique features, like tons of geothermal activity, big, beautiful mountains, and ANIMALS! Fun fact: Yellowstone is often described as the best place for a safari game drive in North America. Planning your own visit or just curious about our experience? Here are some of our tips for visiting these national treasures!

Small geysers dotting the landscape in Yellowstone National Park.
A hot spring flowing out into Yellowstone Lake.
Grand Tetons reflecting on a lake.

1. Get advice from the experts (& maybe a good book, too)

Getting tips from folks who know the parks is a great way to plan your trip. We are lucky enough to have friends who met and married after working at Yellowstone (adorable) and they pointed us in the direction of some favorite campsites, hikes, and can’t miss sights in the area (thanks, Wallaces)!!

Cheers-ing the Wallaces from their place in Bozeman! Thanks for the hospitality and all the great tips!

Even if you don’t already have friends who are local experts, you can meet some… hit up the park rangers! Plan to spend some time on your first day in either park going to one of the visitor centers where rangers are eager to share their tips and tricks. This will be the best place to get up to date information, including what might be closed, etc. Rangers also host programs in the campsites and at various attractions to let visitors know more. We caught a very interactive talk on how hot springs formed around Yellowstone Lake!

We learned about this “Black Pool” hot spring and why it’s now blue thanks to a talk by Ranger Margaux! 

It’s also a good idea to get a book, especially because using internet resources on the fly is tricky – there’s limited signal and no wifi in most of the park! We really loved this comprehensive National Parks Guide. Thanks to John’s mom for getting this awesome book for us!

2. Camp!

Not only is camping awesome, but it’s extremely budget friendly! Our kind of accommodation!

Our best advice about camping: reserve a site in advance. Many book up to a year out, and we weren’t ready for that level of planning! If that doesn’t work for you either, Yellowstone does have a number of first come first serve campsites which we used. The trick there is that the early bird gets the worm. A story about that: when we rolled up around 11am, a large sign at the entrance listed several open campsites so we beelined to the closest one. Well, that sign ended up being slightly misleading. Campsites still had “availability” but by 11am people had been lined up for hours waiting to get in as others checked out. We tried a few more campgrounds but it was all the same. We ended up camping just outside of the park the first night and coming back around 7am the following day to queue up for a campsite inside.

Camping was much more laid back in the Grand Tetons. We were able to drive right to a site around 10am. In June, these sites were starting to fill by early afternoon but it wasn’t quite as intense as getting a Yellowstone site.

Camping itself was a blast. Our campsites in both locations were beautiful and we even had these neighbors come visit our site in Yellowstone.

Dude, I don’t think you’re going to fit in there…

It was a great way to experience the parks up close and personal!

3. Make plans ahead of time, but be prepared to change them on the fly!

We plotted our Yellowstone itinerary a few days in advance and had a very specific plan of where we’d like to camp, what we’d like to see, and in what order we were going to do it. It was a great plan and had us hitting most of the major sites in three days. Then… we got there didn’t follow the plan AT ALL. We hit the activities on our list, but in a totally different order and thats just fine with us!

The biggest snafu in our planning was not getting the campsites we thought we would, which took more driving and waiting time than we anticipated. We also found a few of the things we wanted to do were off limits. A hike to an overlook of famous Grand Prismatic was closed for renovations, and another hike on our list was still covered in snow. These are great reasons to check in with the rangers!

Views of Grand Prismatic hot spring from the boardwalk. We had hoped to hike up to an overlook, but it was closed during our visit. Still a pretty great view!
On a very snowy hike. We couldn’t quite make it to the top of this one without proper footwear. A lesson in planning ahead!

4. Follow the crowds…

You’ll see large groups of people stopped on the side of the road all the time, especially in Yellowstone. It’s often worth it to stop, too. When we stopped blindly to check out what other people were looking at, we were treated to a few bear sightings and even a wolf in the (very far) distance!! Don’t be shy about asking people what they’re looking at. Nearly everyone wanted to chat about wildlife sightings!

Thank goodness we stopped to see what people were looking at… we were rewarded with a black bear mom and her cubs!
We nearly missed this cuteness!
When we pulled up to a large crowd looking at a tree, we had no idea what the hype was about. Turns out, there were two baby bears being chased to the top by their mom’s creepy suitor. Hard to believe this it NOT a birds nest! 

5. But get away from the crowds, too.

There are millions of visitors to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons every year. The best way to get away? Go for a hike! Lots of folks stick to the roads and paved boardwalks. Hitting the trails provides a little more solitude and an opportunity to avoid the mayhem for a bit.

John facing off with a coyote on one of our hikes in Yellowstone.
Beautiful Grand Tetons all to ourselves!

6. Become an early (or late) bird

This one’s pretty easy and follows the theme of getting away from the crowds: the earlier or later you go to the most popular sites, the fewer people there will be. Beat all the sleepers!!!

Hardly anyone at Yellowstone Lake early in the morning!
We did a double whammy crowd-beating strategy here: go later in the day, and hike away from the main area to get a low-crowd viewing of Old Faithful.
Yellowstone Canyon, approaching sunset time.

7. Bring binoculars or an awesome zoom lens

We brought a medium OK zoom lens and wished we had something more powerful to catch some of the far-away things! If you can plan in advance to bring binoculars, you won’t regret it! Some animals were easy to see from the road, but if you want a shot at glimpsing a wolf, for example, you’re probably going to need some. Thankfully, friendly folks were willing to share with us which was handy!

Trying to creep on baby (and big) bison with our zoom lens.

8. Be patient!

There will be a LOT of driving slow downs, especially in Yellowstone. It’s part of the process. Maybe bring a good audio book or a podcast or a really great playlist to keep you occupied in the inevitable animal traffic jam. It’s all part of the experience.

Not going anywhere…
There’s so much grass little buddy, why do you want to hang out on the road?
Bison always x-ing.

9. Take time for the Tetons!

Lots of visitors prioritize Yellowstone, and we did at first too. But the Grand Tetons just a few miles to the south deserve at least a few nights on their own. They have a totally different, more peaceful vibe. With snow-capped mountains always in sight, hundreds of miles of trails, beautiful lakes, and significantly smaller crowds, this is a great place to spend a few days.

#screensaver
Apparently this is the world’s most photographed barn. I took most of the pictures of it. 
So great.

10. Have fun!

This part of the USA is amazing. Get out there and enjoy it!

Having FUN at our campsite!
Looking good, Yellowstone! Thanks for the fun memories. 

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