The Five P’s For Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 as the world’s first national park. It encompasses 3,468 square miles and includes rivers, lakes, canyons, mountain ranges, and roughly half of the world’s known geysers. It is truly a spectacle to behold, and people flock from all over the world to see its wonders. With all of the beauty and aw inspiring features in the park, it can be easy to forget Yellowstone can also be frustrating and dangerous. Thus, there are some things you should know that will help make your visit to Yellowstone the trip of a lifetime. We call it our Five P’s for visiting Yellowstone.
Yellowstone greets roughly 4 million visitors per year from all around the globe. You will run into a significant number of people on the roads, in shops, and at just about everything you stop to look at. Knowing this going in will help you cope with the traffic and chaos which can ensue at many of the major attractions.
Additionally, Yellowstone is a dream destination for many from around the world, not just the U.S. You will run into a lot of people using English as their second language. Some may speak no English at all. They may talk differently, drive differently, and park differently. Try to remember they are there for the same reasons you are, regardless of where they are from.
Lastly, remember some folks have never seen mountains before. Some have never seen evergreen trees, and certainly not a herd of Bison. What some of us may take for granted as everyday occurrences based on where we live, others may be experiencing for the first time. Practice patience when situations arise such as being stopped on the road for 20 minutes while folks take pictures of something.
As with just about any endeavor, planning is a crucial part for your visit to Yellowstone. As previously mentioned, the park is absolutely massive, so without a plan, it is easy to miss attractions or waste time driving back and forth to see them. If your time to visit the park is limited, then planning is even more important.
We suggest buying some guidebooks and maps for Yellowstone prior to leaving on your trip. You can find several on Amazon, but we used Yellowstone’s Geysers, Hot Springs, And Fumaroles by Carl Schreier. This field guide breaks the park down into basins with maps and pictures which makes it easy to group attractions by day. We combined this book with a park map and Google Trips to make the most of the time we had at hand. Also, don’t be afraid of using a good old piece of paper and a pen to plan out your days. Afterall, the paper doesn’t need 4G to work and there is spotty signal in several areas of the park.
Additionally, if you are using an app like Google Maps, plan on the fact it won’t take into account if there is a bison in the road (ask me how I know). Add a little to the estimated drive times suggested by apps. Also, at the time of our visit, there was some major road work being done on the upper loop. This could add some to your drive times as well. Taking these situations into account may help with packing too much into one day which can turn hectic in a hurry.
Lastly, geysers tend to run on their own schedules. I know, weird right? Luckily the NPS have boards around some of the major geysers with estimates of their next eruption times. For instance, the Great Fountain Geyser only erupts every 8 to 12 hours. If you miss it in the morning you can try to plan on swinging back by later in the afternoon. This is another reason to try and break the park down into sections so you are somewhat close by.
As planning was more about when and where to go, prepare is more around what to take with you. This is from the view of someone staying in an RV and conducting day trips to the park. We didn’t do any backcountry hiking or cycling so we will leave that to the experts in those fields.
Bring a lot of water. The altitude is high, and in August the temp was in the mid 80’s while we were there. With four of us traveling in the nice air-conditioned Jeep JK, we still went through half a case of bottled water a day. I would also suggest bringing snacks and lunch with you if at all possible. There are only a few places to buy food in the park so the chances of a member of your party getting hangry is highly likely. Plus it is cheaper. Lunch at the Yellowstone Lodge was roughly $10 per person and took a bit more time than we liked. I will say the food was awesome, however!
Another item of importance is bear spray. Even if you aren’t planning on being in the backwoods of the park. Yellowstone is a giant wildlife refuge and as such, the animals run the park. We didn’t see bears where we went during our visit, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. If possible, purchase the spray before you go. Spray in the park and surrounding stores was right at $45 per can versus $30 per can on Amazon.
We also suggest bringing a good camera. Phone cameras have come a long way, and we use ours a lot, but they are no match for a good DSLR. A spendy camera isn’t an essential item to bring, but you will be glad you had one if you do. Some of our best images were taken using 18-55mm and 70-300mm lenses. Some folks had some far more impressive looking lenses, but we are happy with our results.
Oh, and bring chapstick. You will thank us later for doing so. Just saying.
Stay on the path. We could just leave it there, but for the sake of a little more in-depth content, expansion is warranted. Around most of the major attractions, there are paths or boardwalks. Understand these allow us park visitors access to geysers and such without falling through the crust into 180+ degree mud and water. That would make for a bad day. It also allows the natural features of the park to stay…well…natural. You can imagine what 4 million sets of footprints a year would do to a fragile ecosystem.
Another point to add regarding paths is the fact they are rather narrow at around 8 feet wide or less. You will find foot traffic gets held up as folks take selfies or have their fellow park visitors take pictures of them near a park feature. Just be patient as we mentioned earlier, and you will be able to make your way for your own selfie time. It isn’t worth getting in a hurry and knocking someone off in a hazardous area.
A prime example of this is around the Excelsior Geyser Crater. Walking past this amazing pool took some time as numerous people were taking pictures. It was also very windy the day we were there, so even more caution was required. Additionally, it was part of the route to the Grand Prismatic Spring, so the foot traffic was heavy. Being in a hurry here could be very dangerous considering the water is roughly 200 degrees! Don’t be too freaked out though. There was a railing to prevent such catastrophes.
The foundational reason for creating national and state parks is to preserve natural ecosystems and formations. Yellowstone is, of course, no exception. It is important for us as visitors to the park to do our part to maintain what has been passed on to us by past generations. The NPS can only do so much to maintain our parks. The least we can do is to not make their jobs more difficult by leaving trash about.
As we were driving past a herd of bison we noticed a bison calf chewing on a plastic bag. I’m sure it could have blown away from some folks so we are not suggesting malicious intent. Just using it as an example of how easy it is for us to negatively impact life around us. Taking ownership of our own actions is a great way to make sure Yellowstone stays as amazing as it is today for future generations.
It is hard to put into words just how stunning and vast Yellowstone National Park is. It is truly a magnificent park teaming with life and geological wonder. We realize this post didn’t even scratch the surface of what there is to do and see in the park, but it wasn’t the intent of the post. We hope by reading this you are able to have a positive mindset towards your visit, and by leveraging the 5 P’s you will be able to experience the grandeur of Yellowstone for yourself.