In September 2021 we visited Yellowstone National Park for the very first time and were blown away by the variety and rugged beauty of the sights and sounds. It was a bucket list trip we won't soon forget and we learned some helpful tips along the way. Here are the 5 most helpful things we found out during our first-ever trip to Yellowstone National Park.
1. Be a 2%-er
Only 2% of annual visitors to Yellowstone National Park get more than a 1/4 mile from a paved road or developed area, so rent bear spray from Teton Backcountry Rentals and get out there! We highly recommend hiking or backpacking the Pebblecreek Trail located in the northwest corner of the park. Our favorite campsite on the trail is 3P4, pictured above. It's only 3.25 miles from the Warm Creek Trailhead but requires an elevation climb of 1,000 feet, so be prepared for a strenuous hike. Once you arrive in the meadow, all that climbing will have been worth it because you'll have the whole valley to yourself, except for the moose and mule deer that stroll by the creek between 7:00 and 8:00 pm each night.
2. It's 30 Minutes Between Each Grand Loop Stop
You've probably heard Yellowstone National Park is massive and will take far longer to drive through than you might expect, but how long should you realistically plan to get from place to place? We discovered each major stop on the figure-eight Grand Loop Road (Mammoth, Tower, Canyon Village, etc.) is about 30 minutes apart, however, that can stretch to 45 minutes or longer depending on the time of day and the whims of the park wildlife and tourists. We ran into the bison jam pictured above while heading south from Madison Junction to Old Faithful at around 7:45 am on the last Thursday in August. We had left West Yellowstone before 8:00 am, with delicious coffees from the Book Peddler Cafe in hand, thinking we'd beat the crowds and traffic heading to Old Faithful. Alas, we sat at a dead-stop for about 30 minutes. When we reached the bison and realized they had caused the jam, we couldn't help but chuckle...then cackle as a bison that had just crossed to the east side of the road decided to cross back to the west side, bringing the traffic behind us back to a halt.
If you spend more than two days in the park, don't be surprised if you become desensitized to the wildlife. After viewing a mama and baby moose while backpacking the Pebblecreek Trail, waking up to an elk in our Canyon Campground site, viewing multiple bison herds in the Lamar Valley, and multiple elk strolling through the North Gate area, we were a bit nonplussed by lone bison or elk along the roadsides. After such experiences, you too may find yourself getting a bit salty when the touristy newbs stop traffic to snap photos of a lone elk two miles from the park entrance.
3. Book Campsites, Hotels, and Backcountry Sites Early
If you're planning to stay in the park, then make your reservations as far in advance as possible. Beginning in April 2022, you will be able to make reservations 13 months in advance for the park's lodges and campgrounds at www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com. To book a room in one of the lodges, it's necessary to do so 9-13 months in advance. For campgrounds, you can find sites still available up to 4 months in advance, but the best ones will likely be taken. Pictured above is site #71 in the C Loop of Canyon Campground which we reserved just shy of 4 months before our trip. Overall, we loved the site and unzipped our tent the first morning to find an elk standing 30 feet away. While a great experience and picturesque in the photo above, you don't see the dumpster 50 feet to the left and the bathroom building 100 feet behind us. Both features are convenient but result in lots of foot traffic by the site at all hours.
For backcountry sites, walk-up permits may be available up to 2 days beforehand, but do you really want to travel all the way to Yellowstone and not be able to stay where you want? We applied in late March 2021 (a few days after the early access lottery had closed) and the backcountry sites we had requested in Bechler Canyon for September were no longer available. Fortunately, a ranger not only called to give us the news vs. just sending an email, but took a good 20 minutes of his time, recommended other trails and sites that were still available, and even gave us his direct line to call back with more questions. A direct line! We were impressed by not only his indispensable knowledge but personable service.
Visit www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/backcountryhiking.htm to learn more about backcountry camping and the application process.
4. Book Your Rental Car Before Your Flight
This tip may only be relevant in 2021, but we had no idea how limited rental cars would be prior to our vacation. Five months before the trip we booked a flight to Bozeman Yellowstone National Airport and were giddy to have found a direct flight from Detroit until we checked Kayak.com for rental cars and discovered the best deal was $1,750 a week for a Ford Fiesta. Call us cheap, but paying over $800 for anything less than an SUV is sacrilege. After checking with Enterprise, Hertz, Avis, and National we discovered not only was $800 the going rate for an economy car but supply was extremely limited due to COVID with some sites showing no availability whatsoever. Fortunately, we discovered that the Enterprise at the Jackson Hole Airport happened to have a much better deal and Delta had no change fees and was able to switch our flights from Bozeman, MT to Jackson Hole, WY for the same price. Phew!
Here are some tips from Consumer Reports for getting around the rental car shortage, which is projected to last for quite some time. Take our advice, book early, and check rental car rates before you jump on an airfare deal!
By the way, the Jackson Hole Airport may be our favorite airport in the world for convenience and scenery. Stepping off the tarmac you walk directly into the baggage claim area, which is only 50 feet away from the car rental counter. If you have rented from Alamo, Avis, Enterprise, or National, then you'll step directly out the main doors and into the parking lot where your car awaits! No shuttles, no-nonsense, just glorious mountains.
5. Download Offline Maps and Music
There is no wifi or cell reception in the park unless you are within a mile of one of the major stops (West Thumb, Old Faithful, Madison, etc.), so do NOT count on access to a digital map or your favorite tunes unless you download them ahead of time. We downloaded maps from Google Maps, music from Pandora, and some podcasts from Stitcher and thoroughly enjoyed the stunning vistas set to a soundtrack of Bob Seger and The Marshall Tucker Band.