Biggest mistakes people make at Yellowstone National Park

I like to call Yellowstone National Park the Disney of the Wild West. Every year the park attracts an obscene number of people (more than 4 million visitors, apparently!) to feast their eyes on some of Mother Nature’s quirkiest wonders. 

Yellowstone has garner attention for its geothermic landscapes as well as it’s rustic, western charm. The park is one of the most visited parks in the United States and the oldest. It seems as if the park is always overrun with tourists. Every one is cramming into small spaces and trying to take the same iconic photo.

Among all the chaos, many of the tourists are making the same mistakes. Some of these mistakes are small, but a few of these mistakes can completely derail your bucket list trip. Here are a few of the biggest mistakes tourists make and how to avoid them: 

Landscape photo of the snow-capped Teton Moutains in Grand Tetons National Park in Wymoing. The sun peeking out behind the clouds and illuminating the mountains in Grand Teton National Park.

Not visiting Grand Teton National Park

This is the biggest and most sinful mistake that Yellowstone Park visitors can make. The two national parks are nearly joined with no more than a 45-minute drive from Grand Teton National Park from the center of Yellowstone National Park

This park is relatively quick to explore and offers a completely different vibe than Yellowstone. Yellowstone boasts hot springs and geyser basins while Grand Teton focuses on mountains and those celestial views. Definitely make sure to stop here, even if it’s just for a day

Grand Teton is bordered by mountains and offers clear summit views nearly everywhere in the park. With lush fields and rolling hills for wildflowers to grow, Grand Teton is ideal for nature walks and watching wildlife. Photographers flock to the park year-round to shoot landscape and wildlife photography. 

Even if you only catch a sunrise, sunset or spend a few hours hiking and relaxing in Jenny Lake, Grand Teton should definitely be on your Yellowstone itinerary

Sun peeks out behind blue, cloudy sky and forms a sunspot. Yellow, green wheat grass fills a open pasture. Old, deserted barn sits to the left of the pasture and a line of trees flank on the right. Dark, rocky mountains silhouetted in the background.
Iconic Chambers Homestead on Mormon Row stands still on a hot, sunny afternoon.

A photography hot spot is Mormon Row. Photographers will camp out along the roadside for hours waiting for the perfect lighting to recreate or revitalize the iconic photographs of Moulton Barn or Chambers Homestead. The rustic farm buildings create the perfect muse for even the novice of photographers. 

Further south, travelers can venture to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, only 7 minutes from the mountainous haven. Jackson Hole is a great pit stop on the beginning or end of your Yellowstone trip, or if you need reacquainting with civilization in the middle. The small mountain town boasts western pride and educates visitors in the life of a cowboy. The charming town square offers numerous western comfort foods and quaint shops to please my fellow shopaholics. 

Not planning ahead

Many people don’t realize that most accommodations in the park are booked sometimes more than a year in advance. In fact, more than 88% of Yellowstone’s campsites are by reservation only. 

You can certainly find camping in the park short notice, but it requires waking up very early. 

Ensure that you figure out the ideal location because it will drastically shape how your daily itinerary looks for your trip. 

Not picking up a map 

The first way to staying ahead of the curve is familiarizing with the layout of the park. There’s nothing worse than wasting precious time with nature when you’re trying to navigate your way to the next hot spot. 

Yellowstone is a huge park, measuring 63 miles from north to south, and 54 miles from east to west. On average it takes about 45 minutes to drive in between the major towns inside the park.

Look at the map and know the layout of the park. Don’t try to go from Lamar Valley to Old Faithful in one day. You’ll realize that they are clear across the park from each other and you’ll be spending more time in the car than exploring Yellowstone’s unique, volcanic landscape.

On my recent road trip to Yellowstone, I divided the park into four sections. I tackled one section a day and thoroughly explored it. That way most of my day wasn’t spent zigzagging across the park to see random attractions and missing essential highlights. This means less driving time and ultimately more time to explore. 

On my five days in the park, I was diligent in taking notes and not jaunting off to various areas of the park. If I arrived at Mammoth Springs in the morning and it was busy, I would visit another nearby attraction and return until I could take my time to enjoy the geological wonders around me. 

I found that I was often most rushed on scenic drives — ironic. If turns off were crowded, I would denote that with an ‘x’ the route on my map and come back at a different time. 

Like most tourist hot spots, the park is quieter in the early morning and evening. This is also the ideal time to see wildlife. Try trekking out before other campers and nature seekers and you’ll have better luck avoiding the crowds. 

It’s also nice to know about the current park conditions such as road construction and fire warnings. During my visit, the road to Mammoth Springs was under construction and took twice the amount of time to travel. I made up for this lost time by scheduling my days in the northern park and making sure I didn’t miss ideal attractions. 

Underestimating the number of people

To piggyback off my earlier point, not anticipating the high demand in the park can ruin the relaxing vibe of your vacation. Due to the park’s expansive state, it’s easy to forget the high draw and attention the park has. Competing for campsites, waiting in line for photos in front of Old Faithful, or simply the fact that you’ll probably never be alone on a hiking trail, are all things visitors often gloss over.

As an off-the-beaten-path traveler, I want a visceral experience during my travels. When I cannot experience the park’s beauty in solitude, the park’s scenery doesn’t awe me. Instead of my chaotic reality melting away, I’m more focused on keeping people out of my bubble and trying not to photobomb other park-goers photos. The park is no longer tranquil, nor is it fascinating. 

To avoid crowds, embark on your treks early in the morning. You’ll also beat the heat. Also, practice patience. Everyone wants to get their Christmas card photo taken in front of Old Faithful. Get creative and think of other photos to take or unplug and be grateful that you get to experience these wonders. 

Avoiding crowds is definitely achievable, it only requires a little planning beforehand. Take your time. You’ll often be able to soak and retain more memories about the park if you stroll on the boardwalks instead of power walk towards the next Instragrammable wonder. Give yourself the flexibility to come back and see something again if it’s packed with tourists. You won’t regret it in the long run. 

Two adult buffalo graze in lush green pastures in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Dozens of buffalo graze in the grass behind me. Mountains and rolling hills covered with evergreens are faint in the distance.
Buffalo grazing in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

Treating the park as if it’s an amusement park

Too often I hear horror stories about how tourists have been killed or animals have been killed due to tourists’ reprehensible actions

No, the wildlife cannot be touched or petted. This isn’t a petting zoo. No, you can’t disobey signs that say “stay on the path” or inform you about how to stay safe. This isn’t a time to be a rebel and not follow the rules. 

National parks are meant to be a looking glass into the wilderness for tourists. The protected vistas are a prime example of why conservation is important and necessary. If tourists continue to act like national parks are amusement parks, wildlife in the park will suffer.

Editor’s note: 

The need for conservation efforts became evident in January 2019 when the United States endured a federal government shutdown. Three visitors died  visiting the national parks during the government shut down and several national parks suffered were vandalized. Case in point, visitors cut down Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park. These travesties were preventable

Also, don’t pull over for every elk and bison!

I guarantee that you’ll see more bison and elk in Yellowstone than you will the rest of your lifetime. If you go in August, which is mating season for bison, you’ll be able to see hundreds of bison in the Lamar Valley or even lying in the geyser basins and near some hot springs.

Some wildlife that is rarer for and that you should keep an eye out for are bears, moose and mountain sheep. We ended up seeing a mountain sheep by Mount Washburn. Definitely a highlight of our trip!

Also, don’t stress if you don’t get a picture of all the wildlife you see. I didn’t get a picture of the mountain sheep, but it’s the memory that matters. In addition, make sure you are using caution when you see animals. Make sure you give other motorists enough space to slow down for wildlife and also make sure you aren’t getting too close to the wildlife. They are wild after all!

Editor’s note:

For more ways on how to stay safe and continue preserving our national parks, visit nps.gov.

Thinking camping is too expensive 

Camping at Yellowstone is very affordable (I camped for only $10 a night!) But you must be ready to hustle and get a campsite. I mean seriously hustle

If you don’t end up getting a campsite in Yellowstone, have faith. There are dozens of campsites located outside of Yellowstone that you can stay at. If you’re camping in a tent, still call RV parks for availability. Many RV parks have one or two tent areas. 

If you need a complete list of local campsites, visit a Yellowstone Visitor Center. They have a five-page packet full of information and numbers you can call.

Similarly, venture outside the park for groceries, gas and other camping necessities. 

Inside the park, the cost for food and supplies is astronomical. I purchased a bundle of wood for $8 in the park. The bundle had probably 4-5 large, chunks of firewood. When I bought firewood at a grocery store in West Yellowstone I got twice the amount of wood for $7. A heck of a better deal. Every night, I’d make a trip to West Yellowstone for the necessary supplies. I’ll admit, most of those “necessary supplies” were for ice cream runs. 

Thinking you’re immune to the sulfur stench 

It’s never a question of whether you’ll smell the sulfur at Yellowstone — it’s inevitable — it’s whether the smell will make you sick to your stomach. The smell of sulfur can cause stomach aches and mild nausea. If you’ve never smelled sulfur, the odor is similar to hard-boiled egg yolks. It’s potent and pungent. 

The sulfur comes from the hot springs and geysers in the park. There aren’t any home remedies to eliminate the stink, unfortunately. Though, there are a few things to help ease the torrential, smelly fumes.

A ranger once told me that he chews mint gum which slightly lessens the odor. I didn’t try this method, but it’s definitely worth a shot. I found that not visiting the sulfur hot spots in the hottest parts of the day also helped. The combination of the unbearable heat and vicious stench is what threw my stomach for a loop. If I visited the hot springs and geysers after I ate or in the cooler parts of the day, the smell was tolerable.  

Little mistakes add up 

There are a lot of minor details that can definitely make or derail your trip. For instance, make sure that you pack the right attire and equipment for your Yellowstone vacation. The most important part is to make sure that you enjoy your vacation. It’s never about whether you say everything attraction or landmarks, it’s about the memories you make along the way. 

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Quirky Globetrotter

Hi! I'm Martha! The mastermind behind Quirky Globetrotter a feminist travel blog. Quirky Globetrotter is devoted to telling narratives devoted to female solo travel and hidden gems worldwide with an emphasis on intersectional feminism and how that impacts travel on a global and local level.

20 thoughts on “Biggest mistakes people make at Yellowstone National Park

  1. Excellent advice – though I admit we broke #1!! But, in our defense, we didn’t have much time, only being there for a weekend. It is a gorgeous place, and we really loved our visit and hope to return. You are right though, need to set the right expectations!

    1. My sister lives the beach so I can relate to exactly what you are saying! At any destination, you should be conscious of the footprint you are leaving. When I walk the beach in the morning looking for shells, I spend most of my time picking up trash. It’s just one small way I can help out!

      Hope you head out west soon! It’s so beautiful out there 🙂

  2. Yes! Thank you for this! My husband and I are setting off in our RV, with plans to visit as many national parks as we possibly can, so these tips are super helpful.

    1. That sounds exciting! What parks are you hoping to see? Are you mainly going out west? Would love to hear more about your upcoming adventures!

    1. You’re welcome! And it’s so great, I definitely would make it part of a NP road trip, that’s always a great time 🙂

  3. We have not visited Yellowstone as yet but it is on our list to do things. I had never heard of Grand Teton so now we have another reason to visit. I like your saying – ‘the Disney of the Wild West’ it gives me an idea of what to expect. Also the tip on booking well in advance and getting a map is noted.

  4. The scenery is absolutly stunning! And just to get to se a bison or two, thats kind of once in a lifetime I would think, atleast for me 🙂

  5. Even after all my travels to the US, I’ve not yet made it to one national park! I know Yellowstone was popular, but 4 million people popular is something insane! That said, I totally see why. When I do finally visit, I won’t make the mistake of missing Grand Teton, and I definitely won’t be treating it like an amusement park!!

  6. Wow! There’s so many valuable tips on your post. Yellowstone National Park is one of the places I really want to see because of its hotsprings. I always plan ahead and I always have a map (hard copy and an app) so that I won’t get lost. Although you put it as a BIG NO, I would still go visit Grand Teton National Park as I really love wildlife.

  7. Yellowstone is on our bucket list but we haven’t started planning yet, so I’m so glad to have found this!! So many great tips- it looks and sounds amazing!! My in-laws and my parents have both been and loved it, but they didn’t plan as well and were overwhelmed by the number of people. And I hadn’t even thought about the sulfur stench- definitely remembering that, as we have a 1 year old!

  8. I always wanted to visit the Yellowstone National park. It’s such an amazing place. You have definitely made a detailed list of things which will be very helpful to visitors. But I still find people visiting national parks without a map surprising.

  9. Thank you for these incredibly useful and insightful tips (and mistakes to avoid!) for a trip to Yellowstone. I like the way you systematically broke the park into quarters to explore–that gives me a much more tangible idea of how big the area really is! As an early riser and a photographer, I would definitely be one of those hitting the park early to avoid the crowd and experience the awe and majesty of nature. Bonus that Grand Teton is under an hour away; definitely a two-for-one adventure worth taking!

  10. I’ve always wanted to visit Yellowstone National Park but have yet to make it out there. I also hate crowds, so would need to consider a non-summer visit in addition to early and late in the day visits. I can’t believe how horrible people were during the shutdown – are we animals? But these are great tips on planning way in advance so that you can enjoy a fabulous visit.

  11. So many great tips here and very useful. I checked most of your tips on my visit there – the park is the most awesome thing one can and should do in my opinion. However nature takes precedence and on my spring trip there I wanted to visit Grand Teton after Yellowstone but it was not to be because the roads were closed due to snow. My highlight was seeing a grizzly – it was such an incredible experience , spoilt somewhat by 2 people getting out of their cars to get a better photo of said bear. Luckily nothing untoward happened and we went away happy.

  12. Grand Teton sounds like a great miss. I have always heard about the awesome Yellowstone but never Grand Teton. Also, some of the mistakes pointed out apply in most of the national parks. One must plan ahead and travelling with a map turns out to be important and helpful for all. Camping sounds fun and I am glad it isn’t expensive. Wildlife areas and the habitat should really be respected. I wonder why people get down the vehicles to pose or irritate animals with flashlights or can’t make the difference between national park and amusement park.

  13. I remember you mentioning that the National Park campsite was not available for you in your other blog, so I really learnt a lesson that you must book the campsite in advance or else you have to reach really early full stop so I think it is always better not to underestimate the crowd and actually book your campsite well in early before going to Yellowstone National Park.

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