There is a plethora of information on the web about planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park, but most of it focuses on what you should do and see. But this guide is different. Here I am going to tell you what you should AVOID when planning a trip to Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park is the largest national park in the US with 5 entrances. Just this aspect alone makes planning a trip to Yellowstone overwhelming. While it is one of the best national parks to visit, first time visitors are often frustrated planning a Yellowstone vacation. Here we help break it down to what you should not do while planning your first trip to Yellowstone. With that, we provide helpful details on where to stay to erase one more barrier in planning your amazing trip to Yellowstone.
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7 Big Mistakes To Avoid When Planning A Trip To Yellowstone National Park
Mistake #1: Staying in Only 1 Place While Visiting Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park is a massive park with a ton to do and see. The biggest mistake visitors make is staying in only one place for the duration of their trip. Since the park is so huge with only 1 lane roads throughout the park, it is best to break your stay up into different locations to get the best of the park without spending the entire day driving to your destination.
Below I provide a breakdown of the different accommodation options within the park and outside the park’s borders. Hands down the best place to stay for convenience to the most sites is Canyon Village. From here you can easily visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Tower Falls, Roosevelt area, Yellowstone Lake as well as Lamar Valley and Mammoth Hot Springs.
The section of the park that is not easily accessible from here is Old Faithful, which is where we would recommend you stay as your second location inside the park.
Mistake #2: Trying To Do Too Much In Your Visit
Another huge mistake people make when planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park is trying to pack in too much into one trip. Again, how do we know this? Because we did it and so do most visitors to Yellowstone. Yellowstone may look small on the map, but it is actually quite big when you have to explore the whole thing. There is also so much to see and do throughout the park that you really should give yourself ample time. This is why more than 70% of visitors to Yellowstone National Park are return visitors!
If your trip to Yellowstone allows only a few days in the park, don’t try to see it all. Plan on seeing just one section of the park, rather than spending all day every day driving from one section to another. When planning a trip to Yellowstone, we highly recommend NOT burning yourself out. You can only see so many viewpoints, tourist hot spots and wildlife in a day. Don’t push yourself to the point where you don’t even get to enjoy it.
We recommend making a list of your must see places in Yellowstone, choosing a few and spending longer at these rather than running from one thing to another. Of course, I am usually the one who is running from one thing to another trying to fit it all in, but trust me, you will find yourself stuck at various viewpoints for much longer than you imagined! Plus, taking your time at Yellowstone allows you the opportunity to spot more wildlife and making it much more enjoyable.
Mistake #3: Not Packing the Correct Gear for Yellowstone
One thing you must realize about planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park is that you will need a variety of gear, clothes and equipment to fully enjoy the park. When we say gear, we mean things that enable you to see the wildlife and to capture amazing photos of your journey as well as layers for all types of weather. Do not make the same mistake I made by not taking the correct items along.
For those who are interested in spotting wildlife, you must remember to bring a set of high powered binoculars. Often a bear will be within close view, but to fully see the bear in all it’s glory you will need binoculars. While seeing the animals might be enough for some, others will want to capture the images in photos. To do this, you will need a good telephoto lens. I did not remember to bring mine and even with my lens fully zoomed out, the animals were often just tiny specs in the distance.
Lastly on the gear front, it is highly recommended that you bring a tripod as the best viewing of animals is often in the early morning or dusk hours when light is lower. This is not a must have, but you will be glad to have it when the time comes.
In addition to photographic gear, you must make sure to bring the correct clothing. In basic terms pack for all seasons while visiting Yellowstone. It is advisable to bring rain gear, puffy jackets, hats, boots and lots of layers. During our visit we experienced bitterly cold mornings, windy afternoons, rain and hot sunny days.
Mistake #4: Only Planning A Trip To Yellowstone In The Summer
Most people think that they can only plan a trip to Yellowstone during the summer. Why? Because that is when there will be the best weather and when they believe the experience will be most enjoyable. However, you must realize this is also when EVERYONE else is planning a trip to Yellowstone!
I am here to tell you that this isn’t totally true. You can plan a trip to Yellowstone at any time of year and we highly recommend visiting considering shoulder season and winter visits.While you cannot see and do as much in the winter months as you can during the summer, the shoulder season of spring and fall are excellent times to visit.
Yellowstone has become so popular that the tourism boards have ceased advertising summer travel to the park and instead are focusing on promoting different season events and activities to help ease the burden of excess tourism. The winter views in Yellowstone are outstanding. Consider seeing bison covered in snow or how the Grand Prismatic looks with the backdrop of white. There are also amazing activities like snowshoeing, snowcoach tours and of course hot springs!
Mistake #5: Seeing The Park From Your Car, Not The Trails
So many visitors to Yellowstone National Park end up seeing the park only from the window of their car. This ties into the other mistakes mentioned here, by not planning enough time for your Yellowstone visit that you are stuck in your car all day every day rushing between sites. Don’t make this mistake. Make sure you find the time to get out of your car and onto the trails.
I know this can be difficult with the amazing amount of viewpoints offered all over the park, but there are just as many or more amazing hiking trails that will offer you a real glimpse into Yellowstone and it’s ecosystem. Once on the trails you will find a variety of small animals as well as a real sense of the park that started the entire US National Park System.
Many of the popular trails at Yellowstone are either wooden boardwalks or concrete paths making the park accessible to all types of travelers. Note that even if a trail isn’t that long, they are often filled with so many interesting sights that it will take longer than you think! On the Mammoth Hot Springs trail above, we planned only 20 minutes but saw an elk on the side of the path and ended up staying for an hour and a half! Plan for plenty of time into your itinerary for unexpected diversions.
Mistake #6: Only Visiting The Tourist Hot Spots And Nowhere Else
Touristy locations are touristy because they are pretty great. There is no doubt about that, however there are so many other amazing places to explore in Yellowstone National Park, that we don’t think you should spend your entire trip just hopping from one crowded tourist favorite to another.
We will be the first to say that we LOVE touristy locations. Why? Because they are usually touristy for a reason. That being said, a huge mistake people make when planning a trip to Yellowstone is JUST visiting the top touristy locations and nowhere else! Of course you need to visit the Grand Prismatic, but there are lots of other things to see too!
While planning your trip to Yellowstone, make sure to map out time to visit some of the more off the beaten path locations like Mud Volcano or the Lamar Valley. These are not going to be isolated areas with no other tourists, but they are places that are a bit further afield making them a bit less crowded during the high season since most visitors don’t manage to do the entire 8 road circuit.
Mistake #7: Skipping the Visitor Centers & Guided Tours
In a rush to see as many places as possible, many visitors skip the informative visitors centers, ranger talks or don’t know to download the super helpful GyPSy App. There is very little if any usable cell reception within the park, so you will need to download this app prior to your trip. It is a great audio tour guide for the park, for only $5 (If you also plan to go to the Tetons, consider the package guide for $9).
Apart from the GyPSy App, the visitor centers all offer a ton of useful information, ranger talks and videos to provide more details about the park. Plan to stop into the different visitor centers to learn about the different regions of the park. For example, the Old Faithful Visitor Center houses the Young Scientist Exhibit Hall with interactive scientific explorations and lessons on how to predict when Old Faithful will erupt. Each center offers different exhibits and a different focus, so it is well worth making the time to stop into them all!
Top Mistake To Avoid While AT Yellowstone
All of the above mistakes are things to avoid while planning your trip to Yellowstone, however, we have one more HUGE mistake we urge you to avoid while visiting the park – getting too close to the animals.
We have all seen the news reports of tourists getting run down by a bison. This only happens when people get too close to the animals. Trust me, you will have plenty of opportunities to get up close to the majestic wildlife of Yellowstone National Park without risking your life.
You can almost always see bison in the Lamar Valley area where they are at a safe distance away. Additionally, you will be hard pressed to leave your Yellowstone trip without seeing bison right by the side of the road. When they are that close, there is NO need to get out of your car for a selfie. Please stay inside the safety of your car and stay far away from wildlife while out on the trails.
Another mistake to avoid is skipping past all the adorable towns on your way to or from Yellowstone National Park. Towns like Gardiner, Red Lodge, Livingston and others offer a variety of great restaurants, breweries and places to stay.
NOTE: As of July 2022 the north entrance to Yellowstone remains closed due to flooding damage. Check with local authorities for latest status.
Where To Stay In Yellowstone National Park
One of the most overwhelming aspects of planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park is deciding where to stay. There are 5 entrances to the park, 3 of which are in Montana with the other two in Wyoming. The majority of the park is actually in Wyoming, but most likely you will find yourself crossing state lines a few times during your visit.
Staying Inside the Park
There are a variety of places to stay inside the park. All of these options require that you book well in advance – 6 months to 1 year in advance. If you are a super planner and have already planned your trip to Yellowstone, and if you have a decent budget, it is well worth staying some part of your trip inside the park.
Yellowstone National Park Lodges offers 9 hotels/lodges throughout the park from rustic cabins to higher end hotels. The best bet to book accommodation inside the park is to check the Yellowstone National Park Lodges page for more information. A brief rundown of the options are below.
- Roosevelt Lodge Cabins are rustic with no private baths. Located in the northern part of the park new Tower Junction.
- Canyon Lodge & Cabins offer lodge rooms and Western style cabins, located near the middle of the park, this accommodation offers unparalleled options for dining and sightseeing.
- Old Faithful Lodge Cabins is a historic lodge featuring a gorgeous lobby with a great view of Old Faithful geyser. Some have private bathrooms, while some do not. Located on the western side of the park near the West Yellowstone entrance.
- Old Faithful Inn is a national Historic Landmark hotel offering a variety of room types. In the middle of the most popular parts of Yellowstone National Park
- Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins is open both summer and winter, offering modern cabin style accommodations with private bath.
- Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins is located near the North entrance of the park and walking distance to Mammoth Hot Springs.
- Grant Village is a lodging complex comprised of 6 two-story buildings with 50 rooms each. Less atmospheric in the construction, however it is located near Yellowstone Lake and only 20 miles from Old Faithful.
- Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins is another designated Historic Landmark offering comfortable hotel rooms and cabins, all with private baths.
- Lake Lodge Cabins offers views of the Yellowstone Lake and has cabins with private baths near to the lobby.
Staying Near the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park
The best options for staying near the North entrance to Yellowstone National park would include the cute town of Gardiner. This small town offers a variety of accommodation options for most budget levels.
If you don’t mind being a little bit further outside of the park, we highly recommend checking out the beautiful high end Sage Lodge. The lodge overlooks a beautiful lake with mountains in the distance with activities such as fly fishing and float trips offered from the hotel. This is definitely a splurge, but well worth it.
Staying Near the Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park
The Northeast entrance to the park is probably one of the least used entrances as there is not a ton of stuff nearby. However, that is not to say that you shouldn’t venture this way. Entering or exiting this section of the park allows you to experience the beautiful Beartooth Scenic Highway that is often labeled as the most beautiful drive in America.
If you want to stay right outside of the park, there are a few hotels in Cooke City/ Silver Gate.For a bit more options and things to do, Red Lodge Montana is a good option, although a bit further away over the Beartooth Pass.
Staying Near the West Yellowstone Entrance to the Park
West Yellowstone tends to be one of the most popular places to stay outside of the park since it is closest to Old Faithful and the more popular sites in Yellowstone. As such, this area tends to also book up quite a bit in advance like the places inside the park do as well.
Here you will find all sorts of accomodation options from camping, cabins, hotels and even luxury yurts.
Staying Near the South Entrance to Yellowstone
The south entrance to Yellowstone is one of the two entrances that are in Wyoming. This one is near Jackson Wyoming, not to be confused with Jackson Hole. Jackson Hole is a great base for seeing both the Grand Tetons as well as Yellowstone National Park, however it is much closer to the Tetons.
Here in Jackson, there is a variety of options, although if you want more it might be better to look even further south towards Jackson Hole.
Staying Near the East Entrance to Yellowstone in Cody Wyoming
The East entrance to Yellowstone National Park is near Cody Wyoming. From the town of Cody all the way towards the entrance to the park the area is dotted with accommodation options. This section of the park is a good place to base yourself for one or two nights before moving further west.
We hope this post helped you figure out a few mistakes to avoid when planning a trip to Yellowstone. This park has been on our to do list for so many years, but we found it so overwhelming planning a trip Yellowstone that we kept putting it off. Don’t delay, get out there and experience the park. It is amazing and we hope that our tips help make your trip planning just a bit easier.
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