Getting around and doing the things in Yellowstone without blowing your caldera

So far R and I have visited almost 20 national and state parks. They are beautiful and serene and the people are lovely and the science is sublime. Yellowstone is much the same, but it’s also draining. To wit, we saw more family arguments, overtired children on full meltdown, and road rage than anywhere we’ve been.


Even I got tetchy a couple of times. (Ryan is somehow immune. “Inner peace, dear,” he keeps saying. Like that’s a real thing.)

What you have to keep in mind when going to Yellowstone is that this park is huge; 3,468.4 square miles huge. All of the amazing things you want to see and do are very far apart from one another. There are no shuttles. You’ll be on a two lane road that is subject to closures for construction and wildlife crossings. Your speed limit is 45 mph. Parking capacity is no where near sufficient.

Just writing all that stressed me out a little.

Let’s all take a deep breath and look at the map. I know, I know, the print on this goddamned thing is tiny. Click the link for a bigger version. What’s important at this stage is that the two main loops (the red circles) are close to 145 miles long. It will take you an hour, for example, to get from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful. And that’s assuming no one stops on the road (instead of in a pullout like they’re SUPPOSED TO) to take a picture of a bison.

Bigger version of this map here.

Given the distances you’ll be traveling you have three options: 1) make this place a regular vacation spot and fit the activities in over several trips; 2) move your base camp one or two times; or 3) surrender.

We chose to move camp a couple of times. We stayed at Lewis Lake, Indian Creek, and Mammoth Hot Springs (for this last one we were aiming for Slough Creek but we couldn’t get in).

If you know when you are going to be in the park and for how long, you can make reservations ahead of time and save yourself some anxiety. If not, you can do like we did and take your chances in the first-come, first-served sites. Get there by 7:30 or so and you’ve a good chance of getting a spot.

Plan your time based on what’s available in the section of the park nearest your campsite or hotel. Do yourself a favor and stay IN the park. Find hotels and cabins here. Tent and RV campgrounds here (scroll down on that page for a table that will show you which sites have flush or vault toilets, in the event this matters to you). Canyon Village is the most central location if you’re looking to stay in one place.

The geysers and hot springs are on the west side of the park, the waterfalls, canyon, and (when we were there at least) the bison are on the east side. The wolves are rumored to hang out in the northeast, which is why we were trying to stay at Slough.

The visitors’ centers are wealths of information. Go to all of them. They will help you figure out what you want to do.

Above all, remember that sometimes, even on your own vacation, you’re going to have to live vicariously:

yellowstonebison - 1 (1)
Ryan gets a picture of a bison while I watch. Photo by Tricia (also Ryan).


  1. Your first paragraph reminds me of my trip to Yosemite a few years back…but there were shuttles which were jam packed to the brim. Something about being on a packed bus full of people in the wilderness kind of tainted the experience for me. Reminded me more of Disney world. Good to know Yellowstone gets packed, too, I’d love to get there someday but I’ll aim for the cusp season to avoid the crowds.


  2. A great plan, Hazel. The bigger national parks can get really crowded regardless of the time of year. We haven’t been to all the parks yet, but in my opinion the one that has the shuttle system worked out is Zion. It’s a magnificent park and they bring in more shuttles if it’s busy.


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