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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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
For more ways on how to stay safe and continue preserving our national parks, visit nps.gov.
Thinking camping is too expensive
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.