For Newbies to Yellowstone NP

The following question was posted on the Wyoming TA Forum; it generated many helpful (and some humorous) answers.  Here is the post:

Jun 20, 2011, 9:16 AM  “We just retired - so we have plenty of time… I have been reading these posts for   weeks and it is overwhelming - and exciting too!  But, are there some things the experienced travelers or locals can tell me - mistakes newbies make?  Thank you.”

The answers, i.e., mistakes, were edited, consolidated and written as suggestions.  So with that introduction, read on.  Key websites are provided at the end of this article.

Things You Need to Know So You Don’t Make Mistakes   (The bear, whoops, bare, facts you should know about Yellowstone NP) 


Consider accommodations in or near YNP; think of lodging simply as a place to “crash” after a long, wonderful day. YNP’s reputation is based on the natural wonders, not lodging.

Should I Lodge Inside or Outside the Park?

Inside the park – a bit pricey, ranges from motel-like to rustic, but it saves travel time in and out of the park, especially important when arriving and leaving in the dark. Food choices exist, some say of marginal quality, some say filling and fine (enough). You can always visit locations outside the park.

Outside the park – more selection, better lodging, more restaurants, might be less costly.  But, more time, not to be dismissed lightly, involved in getting to/from park highlights.  And you really do NOT want to drive in the dark; wildlife is anywhere.

If outside the park, lodge nearby – The park is huge, you'll be driving a lot, so lodging in distant locations is not good use of your time.  When making reservations, be sure to understand what “a few minutes from the park entrance” really means.

Reservations  Make reservations well in advance – they can be changed; read lodging cancellation policies.

Split lodging in two places, if possible and appropriate for you – the park is that large.  Consider splitting your accommodations between, for example, Canyon/Lake and Tower/Roosevelt/ Mammoth Hot Springs; or, between Old Faithful and the above.  If outside the park, lodge in Gardiner and West Yellowstone for easiest access to park highlights.  Cooke City and Silver Gate are fine for the Lamar Valley, but distant from other sights.  See View Map on park home page

Planning Your Time

Don’t over-plan; obsessive/compulsive planning will be your downfall here – be flexible, the park “demands” that; it’s in charge, you are not.

Allow ample time for your visit - try for at least 3 full days.  Don’t try to "see it all" in too short a time; you’ll be skimming the surface.

Acclimate to the altitude before exerting yourself.

Don’t try to do too much in any one day.

“Slow down, you’re going too fast…Give yourself time to “smell the roses”. Take walks or hikes, stop and stay at viewpoints.

Don’t rush and feel like you have to get on the next site.  Enjoy the moment.

Take the time to find/observe wildlife.

Be patient at viewpoints; don’t be ready to hurry off.

Be patient at bear (bison, whatever) jams.

Pull over at viewpoints, wait, see. Ask what others see especially people with long lenses and spotting scopes.

Socialize; enjoy the company of others at viewpoints, lodges and cafes. Share experiences and sightings.

When outside, look around, carefully. Look behind you. See. Observe. If enjoying a location take pleasure in it, change your plans on the fly.  Sticking blindly to a schedule can ruin great moments.  (You have that cooler to keep you company.)

Don’t underestimate the amount of walking you’ll do in the geyser areas.  Bring water and hats and sunscreen  If with kids, watch them closely.  Use the facilities before entering the geyser areas.

Clothing, What to Wear and Layering

You’ll be at 6,500+ ft. elevation so plan for all kinds of weather including rain, cold, heat.

Bring a hat, the sun is very strong.

Bring the right shoes/boots, such as sneakers, tennis shoes, hiking boots, etc.  Flip-flops and sandals won’t do well on some walks or locations, and they can slip.  (High heels?  You are kidding, right?)  

Bring clothing for layering. Life is casual here, no jacket, slacks or ties – or heels.

Your base layer is the key. It is the layer that will be with you all day.

Stop in at your local REI or EMS or other reliable sporting goods store and get a wicking T-shirt. (Check out liner socks while you are there, too.) Wear your T around town as a base layer to see how you like it. There is more than one fabric called "wicking," so if at first you get an uncomfortable one, get a different one. There are light weight ones for summer and heavier ones for cool weather. It might be bettet to avoid cotton for a hiking base layer. 

Gloves, comfortable broken-in boots, hats for sun and for cold ... voila! 

Driving and Exploring

Use the facilities when you can, not when you need to.

Distance & Time Calculation:   Don’t underestimate the size of the park and distances, plus its geographic and geological diversity. Park speed limits max out at 45 MPH; you’ll rarely experience that.  The park map provides distances between points.  Mulitply the miles by 1.5 or 2.0 to estimate time required. You’ll be stopping a lot, seeing wildlife, viewing scenery, walking/hiking, etc.

Don’t spend all your time driving. Go into picnic or parking areas and discover why they are so located. You might be the one who first sees that wildlife!

Don’t skip apparently unremarkable locations; they might be rich scenically and have wildlife.  For example, LeHardys Rapids and Floating Lake, among many other locations, are not just bodies of water, something might be lurking there.  Is that valley empty?  Probably not.  Look at the tree line, the meadows, the water, the islands, the shorelines.

Involve the kids in the Junior Ranger, ranger talks and other programs.  You’ll all benefit.

What to Carry on Walks - Water, insect repellent, hat, sunscreen.

Cameras and binoculars, good one(s), 8 x 42, roof prism, should be immediately reachable. Bring one 2+ GB card and one backup, two batteries and charger. Bring cameras for the kids, as well.  (For viewing and photographing wildlife, see the article, below.)

Driving precautions/advice in Yellowstone:

Do not stop in the middle of the road or park with tires in the road.

Drive carefully and respectfully; no horn blowing. The next slow driver might be you observing wildlife.

Don’t tailgate, very dangerous in the park (and don’t zoom around cars; there might be a jam, wildlife or people ahead).

Pull over, off the road, when driving so slowly that traffic has backed up behind you.

When the traffic is slow or stopped, don’t fret, see why.

Backtracking - fear it not, it’s a good thing, you'll see more.


Keep away from wildlife; obey the park rules, be safe.

Leave pets at home.

Don’t try for that great shot of you next to a Bison, Elk or Bear.  They are bigger and faster than you.

Read the park website article(s):

Huge (and dangerous) mistakes newbies make:

Feed the bears

Walk up and pet the moose

Let your kids ride the buffaloes

Drive fast and pass on curves

     “We thank you for your support.” - Signed Yellowstone Paramedics


Have a cooler for snacks, water and meals so you can stop anywhere for snacks or picnic and not have to find dining when you least want to.

What to bring for picnics? 

Don’t rely solely on park food; it is adequate in quantity, is not fine but OK dining. You have that cooler and adjacent towns.

Visit adjacent communities and dine there; support the neighbors.

Eat before you go into geyser areas, these areas are large and take time to explore.

Get an early start each day, and plan to dine before and after the family hours (e.g., in summer, for dinner, before 4:30 PM and after 7:00 PM) then explore more or return to areas of interest.

Don’t Be Impolite and Behaviorally Challenged

Shhhh… within reason.

Don’t be noisy or ask loudly "What do you see out there?”

Don’t slam your car door and honk at other cars; people might be wildlife watching.

Turn down or off your music, especially at wildlife jams and viewpoints, whether you are in the car or on a motorcycle.

Silence is golden when cabins are adjacent.

Don’t step in front of a person who is just getting ready to snap that perfect picture.  If taking a group shot from a path or boardwalk, try to stand on the same side of the walk as your subjects.  Then you won’t hold up others. 

Around Yellowstone

Explore as time permits some of the small towns on this trip – they are historic and interesting and deserve our patronage.

Two remarkable museums definitely worth seeing:

Cody, WY 

Buffalo Bill Center of the West    A fascinating world class complex (with cafeteria).  The center consists of five museums and a research library on one site that include exhibits on Yellowstone National Park, Western Art, Plains Indians, Firearms and on William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody.  Plan on at least three hours.  For all ages.

National Museum of Wildlife Art - North of Jackson, on road between Jackson and the south entrance to Grand Teton National Park. 

Resources, Websites and TA Articles that Will Help in your Planning and Experience (For more articles, select “Things to Do” and “Travel Guide”, left hand column, plus the upper right hand corner on the forum pages.)

Yellowstone National Park Website:  The park website contains an enormous amount of information.  If what you seek is not easily found, use the search box.  See “View Map” on home page for a terrific interactive map (you’ll get a hard copy at the park entrance).  Hikes, weather, open/closing dates, things to do, etc, are all here.

Official Lodging and Tour Vendor for Yellowstone National Park   Call them at least once a day and monitor the website continuously, cancellations occur.  Don't use other agencies, they charge a service fee and they have to contact Xanterra themselves which you can do for free. Lodging locations, costs, reservations, camping, things to do and much more are here.

Packing for your trip, an article prepared by several TAs:

Wildlife viewing and photography, an article prepared by several TAs:

What's up in Yellowstone NP?

TA Trip Reports: