This summer, we had my family reunion in one of the most beautiful locations around, Yellowstone National Park. We had a fabulous time visiting with family, watching wildlife and standing beside the ever-impressive geysers as they erupted. Everything we saw inspired awe. It is a magical area of wilderness, mostly untouched by humans.
So in the spirit of learning from our experience and helping you with your own future vacation planning to Yellowstone, here are five tips for getting the most out of your own vacation:
1. Go in the off season, and plan ahead so that you can stay in the park. It will eliminate a tremendous amount of travel time. The best time of year to visit Yellowstone is in April, May, September and October. These months boast mild temperatures and limited tourists. Also, you are more likely to see wildlife because they are not hiding from the heat. Because it was a family reunion, I didn’t have much control over the dates. We went in July, one of the busiest times of the year. There were people everywhere! In fact, after driving for three hours one day, we could not find a single parking spot in two locations totaling seven parking lots! Frustrated, we ventured elsewhere as we witnessed countless cars circling every one spot that became available. This leads me to my next tip…
2. Go to the main attractions first thing in the morning. Do not wait for the afternoon to visit the Mammoth Hot Springs or the boiling river or Old Faithful; instead, make them your first stop of the day. Then, as you travel back to your lodge/campsite/hotel, you can hit all the other sites along the way. If you anticipate long travel, leave early. Remember, the park is enormous, so plan your days well to get the most out of your time. We got up with the sun in an effort to spot more wildlife. We saw a tremendous amount of elk and buffalo in the early hours of the morning. You will have the most sightings at dusk and dawn.
3. Give yourself at least three full days. More would be great, but to see most attractions, you should dedicate an entire day to the north and west sections, and split a day between the east and south. Or you could spend two days in the west, considering the east doesn’t have as many attractions and would be good for a traveling day — either on your way in or on your way out of the park.
4. Use your every kid in a park 4th grade pass to get the $35 entrance fee waved. They don’t automatically hand out maps when you enter the prepaid lines with your pass, so make sure to request one or stop at a visitor’s center right away for the literature they have to offer. Also, enter the park as early as possible as the traffic gets pretty backed up in the afternoons. To determine which entrance and exit you’d like to use, strategically plan what you want to see most and where you are staying as well as where you will be headed next. We entered from Idaho Falls and so came through the West side. When we left, we headed to Montana, so leaving through the north entrance made most sense. There are five entrances ⎯North Entrance, Northeast Entrance, South Entrance, East Entrance and West Entrance.
North Entrance Brings you to Mammoth Hot Springs.
Northeast Entrance puts you at doorstep of the park’s wildlife.
East Entrance brings you to Yellowstone Lake.
South Entrance allows you to tackle two national parks in one day by way of Grand Teton (this trip there was volcanic activity, so most of Grand Teton was blocked off — but last trip we spent almost an entire day exploring the area).
West Entrance brings you to geyser paradise.
Whichever entrance you use, make sure to gas up and come prepared with snacks. We went through an entire tank in two days!
5. You can’t see everything, so decide ahead of time which attractions are most important to you and your family members. The first time I went, with just my parents, my dad had a book with a list of 101 waterfalls in the park. We managed to hit 13 in one day! There are limitless attractions, but some of the most spectacular things are not even listed on the tourist maps. Typical must-sees include Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Grand Canyon, Grand Prismatic Springs, Lamar Valley, and Yellowstone Lake.
However, there are countless attractions equally awe-inspiring that get less attention. For example, the boiling river where you can swim with the sensation of half your body freezing and the other half of your body in hot springs (I had to take my sibling’s word for it as we got there at rush hour and were never able to get in, hence my suggestion to get there early). There are tons of falls, but some of my favorites were Tower falls, Undine falls, Upper and Lower falls (you can walk to one brink and hike to the other and watch the water go over the edge. The magnitude of volume is astonishing from this remarkable perspective!), Mystic falls, Union falls, and Moose falls just to name a few.
In the west thumb there are incredible hydrothermal areas including the Paint Pots, Mud Pots, the Abyss Pool, Twin Geysers, Black Pool, Fishing Cone, Big Cone, Lakeshore Geyser, Lakeside Spring, Seismograph and Bluebell Pools and Thumb Paint Pots. Old Faithful is awesome, but don’t skip both loops around it in the upper geyser basin. There are tons of beautiful geysers including the castle geyser. Also, there are many overlooked basins that are worth a stop including Black Sand Basin (my favorite containing the emerald, rainbow, and opal geysers!) and Norris Geyser Basin.
To see wildlife, visit Hayden valley in addition to the more popular Lamar.