Below you’ll find all the best and worst of Yellowstone we have discovered so far. Places we would come back for without any hesitation and things we would avoid at any price if possible.
If I could visit only one National Park in a lifetime, it would be Yellowstone. It is “a place like no other” on Earth: beautiful and exceptional. And this has a price.
Quick facts about Yellowstone:
YNP sits on Yellowstone Plato, 8000 ft above sea level. The most popular time to visit: June – September. The park is widely known for its thermal features (10,000 to be exact; including half of the world’s geysers) and wildlife.
The Best Things of Yellowstone
1. You can go to Yellowstone on a budget
Although you can’t skip airfares and car rental expenses, there is one more major expense that will determine will your budget skyrocketing or stay within reasonable limits: accommodation. The typical price for a room at Yellowstone is about $200-$400 per night and they must be booked far in advance. But! You can stay as low as $30 per night in camping or $100 in a cabin inside the Yellowstone National Park:
Detailed information about reservations, prices, and our cabin experience is here.
Bringing a cooler stocked with food can save even more: time and money. You can stop and have a picnic lunch anywhere or take some on a hike: we never knew for sure how long we would go.
2. You can swim at Yellowstone
We didn’t even consider going swimming at Yellowstone, but quickly changed our mind during Fall heat. There are not so many places for swimming at Yellowstone: hot springs are scolding hot and mountain rivers are cold.
Firehole and the Boiling River area are two places where you can safely (and legally) take a dip or swim with the entire family. Both spots were one of the highlights of our trip to Yellowstone.
The separate post about swimming at Yellowstone with all the details is here.
3. Yellowstone has an abundant and diverse wildlife
Watching wildlife in natural habitat is one of our most favorite things during traveling.
If you love animals as much as we do, Yellowstone has something to offer: the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. Bighorn sheep, bison, elk, moose, mountain goats, mule deer, pronghorn, and white-tailed deer, black bears, Canada lynx, coyotes, grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolverines, and wolves.
Places to watch wildlife at Yellowstone:
- Hidden Valley
- Lamar Valley
- Basically everywhere in the early mornings and late evenings:
Something we missed but would love to do was bison overlooking: sitting up the hill in Lamar Valley in a portable chair, with a thermos, and binoculars to watch mamas bison nursing their calves.
We saw plenty of visitors doing that – parked a car on a side and relaxing on a blanket/chair. Save an extra hour/two for that activity :).
4. Yellowstone: comfort in the middle of nowhere
Yellowstone combines two unique things: rare beauty and good infrastructure. Miles of the boardwalk and paved trails to come on wheels (stroller/wheelchair); plenty of restrooms and picnic tables; several gas stations inside the park; nearly a dozen of general stores to buy everything from camping gear to raw eggs and cabbage:
We came fully stocked with food supplies: fruits/veggies, cheeses, sausages, cereal, etc. And every morning was buying a pack of ice from the local general store, fill thermoses (at the store too) with hot water for ramen noodles and tea. Set up for the day!
Our family tradition for the last 6 years is to bring books as souvenirs, and we found a lot of great ones to buy at Yellowstone.
On the picture below: 170 Life stories of people who were raised, live, and work in the Yellowstone National Park. Engineers, rangers, rescue workers, scientists, teachers, and … judge.
How about sending a postcard to yourself and get it when you’ll arrive home? You can do it too – there are at least two post offices at Yellowstone: Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Spring:
5. A place like no other: Yellowstone on My Maps
All the secret places as well as the famous ones that brought us the most joy at Yellowstone, I placed on My Maps. Colors, smells, and sounds are the best things in the park.
You can check the pictures and the distance between one and another:
The Worst Things at Yellowstone
Despite some unpleasant things we have never experienced at any other National Parks, I would love to come back to Yellowstone. But I wish we knew some nuances before we planned our trip.
1. Seeing Grand Teton National Park after Yellowstone might not be that impressing
For us, seeing Grand Teton National Park after Yellowstone seemed kind of … bleak. We spent 4 hours in the park, enjoyed the calmness and serenity, but it was “only mountains and lakes”. We have a lot of them in Washington :).
For me, nothing can bet Rainier and North Cascades National Parks.
I would definitely visit Grand Teton before the Yellowstone, not after!
Older kids enjoyed the Junior Ranger Program at Grand Teton:
We, adults, loved swimming in the lake, picnic lunch, no crowds, and amazing views. Swimming at String Lake, quite cold, but refreshing:
2. Rotten eggs, anyone?
The most frequent word we were hearing at Yellowstone from our 3- and 4-year olds were: STINK. We have heard it from them a thousand times, from first till last day at the park: “Why this place stinks so badly?”, “When it will stop stinking?!”, “I want to get out!!!”.
Many places in the park smell like rotten eggs. But once you get used to it, you stop noticing it. At least us, adults 😀
3. Being at Yellowstone and exploring it isn’t the same
Much more painful is spending days for getting to and from the park and not being able to explore it to the fullest: it felt like nearly half of our time in the park was absorbed by traffic and time on the road. 4 full days during our stay in the first week of September seemed like 2 or 3. If we knew about it beforehand, we would book extra nights at the park!
Besides “must-see” places there are many small stops like the one below at Yellowstone: unsigned and amazing. We would love to focus on them more closely:
4. Best time for enjoying the Yellowstone with no crowds is …
Early in the morning or after 6 pm – during this time the park is becoming quiet and peaceful, with beautiful sunrise/sunset colors. (Some places may remain congested even at 7 pm, like Lamar Valley).
But these hours are very limited: at 10 am most visitors already out and at 9 pm is already dark. (And if you looking for vivid spring pools colors, the best time is during direct sunlight, more about that at “11 things we have learned only when we reached Yellowstone”)
We really enjoyed “evening” Yellowstone, but the downside was getting home no earlier than 10 pm. And not being able to get up early to enjoy the “morning” Yellowstone, not a single time: it was too much after a long (12 hours of exploring) and exhausting day.
5. And the worst of all at Yellowstone: traffic, crowds, and parking
It was the only reason we were postponing our visit to Yellowstone for many years. And during our first day in the park, I was regretting we finally did it.
First time in my memory we had to stay in traffic for 0.5 hours… to get out of the parking lot! Not mentioning 1.5 hours waiting time at the West Entrance first thing in the morning (coming with National Parks Annual Pass saved us 30 minutes)
The next 3 days went more smoothly. But still, being stacked in the middle of the most beautiful place on earth, (and not being able to get out) several times a day is exhausting and takes its toll.
I experienced motion sickness and headaches every day at Yellowstone. The only thing I was grateful for during this traffic madness was… it seemed kids had more patience than us. Even the 15 months old :).
Thank you for stopping by! We are glad you are here 🙂