With more than 2 million acres, Yellowstone National Park is intimidating. In preparation for my first trip to Yellowstone, I read countless blog posts and watched hours of YouTube videos. The content was helpful, but during my experience both planning for the trip and exploring the park, I realized that there were many things I wish I had known.
If you’re preparing for a first-time or a repeat visit, here are 10 things no one tells you about Yellowstone National Park.
1) Make Reservations and Early
If you want to stay inside Yellowstone, reservations book up quickly, especially during the summer season. The moment you know your travel dates, you should immediately book your lodging. Most of Yellowstone’s lodging and camping options have cancellation policies, making it easier to adjust your plans if needed.
I planned my visit during the off-season to avoid crowds. Once my mid-September dates were finalized, I started looking for campsites within the park. When I started planning my trip in early May, I was shocked to find that a majority of sites were already booked.
Top tip: Have an idea of when you want to visit Yellowstone? Don’t take chances and start booking right away.
2) Stay in Different Locations
Yellowstone is HUGE, covering more than 3,000 square miles. If you look at a map of the park, you’ll quickly realize that there are five entrances, with the popular sites spread out between those areas.
Unless you’re planning to stay for more than a week, you’ll need to be strategic about how you’ll fully experience everything you want to see.
To help achieve this during my four-night visit, I booked reservations at three different campsites in the park, selecting the campsites that were closest to the things I wanted to see. This helped cut down on drive times and helped make it easier to wake up early and drive just a couple of miles down the road to popular sites.
Top tip: Book your lodging based on the proximity to what you want to see and try to switch up the locations if possible.
3) There Are Animals Everywhere!
I expected to see wildlife during my Yellowstone adventures, but I didn’t fully grasp how much wildlife viewing I would experience. Animals were everywhere!
When you spot your first bison, don’t feel like you have to swerve into oncoming traffic to capture a photo. As you continue driving, you will undoubtedly see another one and possibly even a herd of bison. The same goes for elk and mountain goats.
Top tip: Just always keep your eyes open, especially for other cars slowed or stopped. A herd of cars is a good indication that there’s wildlife just up ahead.
4) There is No Cellphone Service
Yellowstone acknowledges that cell phone service is spotty within the park. And by spotty, they mean non-existent.
During my time in Yellowstone, my phone was only on the extended network with no ability to receive or make calls or send text messages. I did, however, sporadically receive text messages, usually in the middle of the night.
At one point during my adventures, a client emergency popped up, requiring me to locate WiFi. After hugging the exterior walls of the Albright Visitor Center until I had one bar of WiFi, I was able to log on to the free WiFi long enough to resolve the crisis.
Top tip: To avoid my WiFi crusade, I highly recommend downloading everything you need. Screenshot your reservations, pre-map your destinations, and let everyone who depends on you know that you’re going off the grid.
5) There’s 5G in Gardiner, MT
After all the WiFi chasing, I decided to cross over into Montana to visit Gardiner, an adorable community with restaurants, gas stations and 5G. That’s right, just 15 minutes north of North Yellowstone Entrance, you can get fully connected again!
Top tip: At any time during your visit to Yellowstone, if you’re in desperate need of cellular service, just pop up and take a break in this quaint little town.
6) Mornings Are Magical
At sunrise, Yellowstone turns into a fairy tale. The sunlight is softer, steam is rising, wildlife is casually grazing, and the traffic is much lighter.
On the way to see Yellowstone’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful, I got stopped in a surreal bison herd. They appeared to be on their morning commute, casually crossing the road to explore a valley.
A little after 7 a.m., I arrived at Old Faithful with a close-to-empty parking lot and only around 100 people bundled up and waiting for the geyser show. With a front-row seat to Old Faithful, I was able to fully enjoy the moment without feeling cramped by the average crowd of 2,000 people.
Top tip: Even if you’re not a morning person, waking up before sunrise to experience some of the busier sites in Yellowstone is well worth it.
7) Too Much Steam Can Be a Bad Thing
Even in the summer months (June – August), the average low in Yellowstone is 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the morning temperatures, the steam will appear thicker, making some of the sites harder to see.
For example, the morning I visited the Grand Prismatic Spring, the temperature was 42 degrees. This created an abundance of steam around the spring, making it impossible to see the colors. Luckily, by the time I hiked the Grand Prismatic Spring Overlook, the temperature had risen by eight degrees, and I was able to see the spring in all of its colorful glory.
Top tip: When picking the sites you want to see in the morning, decide on ones that won’t be heavily impacted by steam. Old Faithful, for example, appeared even larger when it was shrouded in steam, but the Grand Prismatic Spring made me feel like I was playing hide and seek with a hot tub.
8) Dusk is Magical Too
Similar to mornings, just before sunset is a beautiful time to experience Yellowstone. The colors soften, wildlife once again casually roams and there is a calm that surrounds nature.
Top tip: With an abundance of pull-offs and overlooks, pick a spot each evening where you can take a moment to watch the day come to a close. Even if you don’t spot any wildlife, it will still be picture-worthy.
9) Lots of Blue Pools
As the third-largest spring in the world, the Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most popular blue pools and should absolutely be on your list. However, I was amazed by the number of blue pools visible across the park.
The Black Pool in West Thumb Geyser Basin, for example, is a gorgeous blue with the breathtaking backdrop of Yellowstone Lake.
Top tip: If you’re not able to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring, don’t worry! Depending on the other sites you’re visiting, you’ll more than likely see other equally-beautiful blue pools. Most of which are less crowded and easily accessible.
10) You’re Going to Get Burned Out
Is there anything worse than feeling like you need to take a vacation from your vacation? After several days of chasing geysers and staring into pools, I felt burnt out from parking, walking, and taking selfies on repeat.
On the fourth day of my Yellowstone adventure, I made a point to slow down. That afternoon, I soaked my feet in a creek and read a book. And it felt amazing.
Top tip: With so many sites to see in Yellowstone, you too will most likely experience burnout and that’s okay. In those moments, find a place to relax, find stillness and take in the beauty of Yellowstone. Because it truly is a beautiful place.