Yellowstone National Park

Embrace the crowds in our country's oldest national park – and active supervolcano

Jul 20, 2016Words By Forrest MankinsPhotos By Forrest Mankins

The Yellowstone Gift Shop

"For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People."

Organic Act of 1872, the legislation that created Yellowstone National Park

An Insider's Guide to

Yellowstone National Park

Map illustration by Nicole Varvitsiotes

Why Go Now

July is undeniably the busiest month at almost all of our national parks, but for good reason. Sometimes it can feel a bit like Disneyland in the main arteries and attractions of Yellowstone, but fear not! There are ways to escape the crowds. To boot, the weather is warm (usually 65-80°) during the day, making conditions perfect for long days of fishing, swimming, hiking, or paddling.

After colder winters, the snowmelt can sometimes linger well into the spring, but July is always a safe bet for full-on summer weather. This means that all of the facilities of the park are sure to be open as well, and you should make a point to visit them. The park does an excellent job of providing resources and information to anyone who seeks it out, and knowing more about the land you're on will greatly enhance your appreciation for the place.

The temperature begins dropping off as the sun goes down, bringing the heat of the day down to 40-50° and sometimes colder. After a full day out in the sun it’s nice to look forward to cooler temperatures and sitting around a campfire with a tumbler of whiskey and a warm sleeping bag waiting for you in your tent. Although it's generally sunny during the summer months, you should always bring rain gear, as afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Rockies.

The famous wildlife of Yellowstone is out in full force this month – from any of the roads weaving through the park, you'll be able to spot deer, elk, moose, and bears. Wolves are common in the Lamar and Hayden valleys, with grouse, raven, and ground squirrels dotting the landscape. The ubiquitous purple flowers during the summer are called shrubby penstemons, and make for great photos. Just don’t pick them!

Know Before You Go

Per usual, the Yellowstone National Park website is an enormously important resource while you're planning your trip. Government websites are not known for being easy to navigate, but the National Park Service has done an amazing job at creating the ultimate resource for both new and experienced visitors. Learning about the wildlife, campsites, and weather is all so easy on the website that I didn’t require too much supplemental information.

Be sure to check out the new NPS Yellowstone app, which is extremely convenient for info on the go. Give a follow to @Yellowstonenps on Instagram – the account combines useful information with a lot of cool nature and wildlife shots.

Still in need of information? Just head into the park and ask a ranger! The folks working in the park want to be working in the park, and they love sharing their knowledge. Time and time again I was so pleasantly surprised at how helpful and friendly everyone I spoke with was.

Potential threats are numerous in Yellowstone, just as in every wild place, and require a little planning and research to ensure a safe and fun time. Bears are a constant presence in the Rockies, and the park strongly advises that all campers, hikers, and anyone doing anything more than driving through buy bear spray and know how to use it. Even today, bears are still often fed by visitors in the park, which changes their interactions with humans for the worse. Use bear canisters, store food in bear lockers, and be smart about how you interact with wildlife.

There have been 22 deaths on record in Yellowstone's thermal features and geysers, and one of those just happened recently. We all know better theoretically than to stray from the boardwalk, but when you're there the beauty can be overwhelming; our better judgement can take a back seat in the heat of the moment. Get it into your head before you go: stay on the trail. It's the number one safety rule, and can't be ignored. This rule is clearly marked throughout the park, and there is no reason to put yourself, the wildlife, and the fragile ecosystem in danger.

One other thing to look out for while you're in Yellowstone: the other drivers. The roads through the park are well maintained, but are winding and just two lanes wide, often with dense forest right up to the roadside. Moose, elk, deer, and bear often appear out of the trees at full speed crossing the road, and without any warning. Add the fact that over 3.8 million people visited in 2015, and the importance of remaining cautious and defensive while driving in the park is even more important. With stunning scenery all around you, remaining focused while driving is a real issue, and the reason for all of the pullouts along the roads. So use them if you want to get a good look.

What should I pack for my trip to Yellowstone National Park?

Here are the top five items we'd recommend stashing in your adventure duffel:

Fishpond Yellowstone Wader DuffelWhether you're stashing your road trip essentials or all the gear you need to fly fish on one of Yellowstone's many miles of freestone streams, the Wader Duffel does it all. We especially love the bottom vented compartment, perfect for storing wet waders, and the fact that it was made from recycled commercial fishing nets.

Tenkara RodGreat for both beginners and experienced anglers, the Sierra Rod package from Tenkara has everything you need – rod, line, reel, and flies – to get out there and catch a trout or two. This rod collapses down to 20 inches long (down from an extended 10 feet), making it easy to throw it in the trunk of your car and go.

Stanley Coffee PercolatorThe best part about camping? Waking up to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee in the outdoors. We trust Stanley with all of our campout cooking needs, and this coffee percolator is no exception. The robust stainless steel construction repels rust, and the removable silicone grip means you can place the pot directly onto the fire grate. Brews a batch big enough for the whole sleepy group.

Yellowstone MugHearty coffee means you'll need an equally hearty mug, and Pendleton's oversized 18-ounce Yellowstone mug does just the trick. Both dishwasher- and microwave-safe for when you get back home, the design is based on window decals given to park visitors in the 1920s.

Western Rise PopoverWe love this durable Western Rise shirt for fishing, but don't let that fool you into thinking that's the only time to wear it. Sure, the ultra water resistant lower (and water resistant upper) help keep you dry as you're casting a line, but this breathable fabric and active fit are perfect for exploring the rest of Yellowstone, from Norris Geyser Basin to Grant Village Campground.

Bonus Round: Rumpl BlanketWe've said it before, and we'll say it again – we can't get enough of Rumpl's insanely comfortable road trip-ready blankets. Wrap it around yourself as you drink coffee at the campsite or drape it over your lap as you drive the Grand Loop Road to find a perfect spot for stargazing.

What activities should I plan ahead of time in Yellowstone National Park?

Fishing in Yellowstone is a great way to slow down and connect with the nature around you, and with more than 2,600 miles of streams in the park, there’s an almost endless supply of opportunities. Wild Rainbow trout, Brown trout, and Brooke trout are abundant in nearly all of the freestone streams.

One thing to consider is fishing pressure – you can hike as much or little as you want to fish in the park, but remember that the closer you are to the roads, the more wary the fish will be. When talking to fly fishermen/women, they’ll probably talk a lot about catching trout on dry flies, but for the 90% of the time when the trout aren’t feeding from the surface during a hatch, try using small wet flies that sink down into the water column where the trout lie. Scuds, nymphs, and streamers imitate a variety of local meals and are often times easier and more successful to fish.

No state license is required to fish inside of the park, but you must purchase a Yellowstone National Park fishing permit, available at all ranger stations, visitor centers, and Yellowstone general stores.

If you're looking to go on a tour with a knowledgeable guide, there are no shortage of excellent companies in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, just an hour outside the park to the south. Check out wildlife tours with Eco Tour Adventures or Yellowstone Safari Company.

Beat the Crowds

My favorite entrance to the park is the South entrance. Grand Teton National Park is right next to Yellowstone, and in my opinion, coming into the park from this entrance has some of the most spectacular views of the area. Bonus: you pay one entrance fee for both parks, so it's a win win. The South entrance is one of the busier entrances, but even in peak season it isn’t too bad - especially considering the views and wildlife along this route.

Otherwise, head in through any of the other four entrances, all of which are open this time of year: North, East, Northeast, and West. To see a slice of Yellowstone's history, drive through the North entrance and the Roosevelt Arch, a triumphal arch built in 1903 to commemorate America's first national park.

If you're flying into the area and driving from there, look into flight to Billings, Montana; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; or Salt Lake City, Utah.

Where should I stay in Yellowstone National Park?

There are 12 campgrounds in Yellowstone – five you can reserve in advance, and seven are first-come, first-served. Check out the camping page on the Yellowstone National Park website, and the time that all spots are full – some even before 6 am – you'll see how competitive it is to get a campsite.

The biggest stressor is having to reserve spots far ahead of time – a park ranger told me that there are people booking a year in advance to get their favorite spots again and again. Even with the first-come, first-served spots, long lines form well before the campgrounds open and fill incredibly quickly.

If you can plan ahead well enough to reserve or get up incredibly early, here are some popular sites: Grant Village, Mammoth Hot Springs, Indian Creek, Tower Fall, and Norris.

In addition, there are nine lodges in the park, and they usually have more availability than the campsites. The Old Faithful Inn, Canyon Lodge & Cabins, and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel are popular spots to stay.

What's the one shot I have to get in Yellowstone National Park?

The one shot that I really wanted was of the geysers. They are such iconic and remarkable features that a visit to Yellowstone wouldn’t seem quite complete without experiencing and photographing these otherworldly thermal pools. Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic are wonderful, but in the West Thumb Geyser Basin, and again slightly north of Old Faithful, there are many walkways where you can get up close and personal views of the geysers. Just remember – stay on the boardwalks!

What's the secret shot I have to get in Yellowstone National Park?

There are more than your fair share of classic shots to get in Yellowstone and Teton, but what I would suggest for a secret shot is to check out the geysers in the morning. An early drive around some of the active geothermal areas in the park will show all of the steam in the air, turning pink and orange from the rising sun - it’s hard to take a bad photo once you’ve arrived on time.

What's the best way to get off the beaten path in Yellowstone National Park?

Well under 10 percent of Yellowstone is accessible by the road system, and while that 10 percent can be crowded, there are many hikes and trails that take you away from the vast majority of people. Sunrise is between 5:30-6:30 am in the summer months, and that is your best bet for beating the crowds in any part of the park. It may seem too good to be true, but every day we got out early for sunrise, we were rewarded with a park almost to ourselves. 

What's the best day hike in Yellowstone National Park?

A highly recommended place for day hiking in Yellowstone is in the Canyon area of the park. Traversing through steep cliffs and pine trees with the roar of the river below is an unforgettable experience. The day we were scheduled to make this hike, we were warned away by a ranger because of recent bear activity, which is common in any park in the Rockies. Heed the rangers' warnings and take your pick of the many other notable day hikes like Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, and Back Basin.

What should I eat in Yellowstone National Park?

If you're not catching your own fish, I have two favorite options for you: one inside Yellowstone, and one outside of the park in Teton National Park. The first is Grant Village Dining Room. Open from 6:30 am until 10 pm, you needn’t cut your hours outside short to make sure you arrive in time. My second favorite is the Pioneer Grill at Jackson Lake Lodge, an informal 1950s-style diner with great food – not to mention the nearest spot to get reliable wifi, so you can post all those photos you just took. [H]

Discover Yellowstone National Park on Social

Yellowstone National ParkBy The Numbers

  • 2,000Annual earthquakesIn Yellowstone National Park
  • 3States in Yellowstone National Park96% of the park is in Wyoming, 3% in Montana, and 1% in Idaho
  • 11Native species of fishIn Yellowstone National Park
  • 3,700-8,400Gallons of waterExpelled during an eruption of Old Faithful
  • 11,372Feet of elevationAt Eagle Peak, the highest point in Yellowstone National Park
  • 900Miles of hiking trailsCriss-crossing Yellowstone National Park
  • 300Active geysers in Yellowstone National ParkAnd about 10,000 thermal features in this active supervolcano
  • 768,936Average visitors in the month of JulyFrom 1979-2015 in Yellowstone National Park
  • 12Campgrounds in Yellowstone National Park5 with reservations, and 7 first-come, first-served
  • 3,468Square milesOf land in Yellowstone National Park
  • 47-80Degrees FahrenheitAverage low and high July temperatures in Yellowstone National Park
  • JACJackson Hole AirportLocated just 50 miles from the park's South entrance
  • 1872Founding yearOf Yellowstone, America's oldest national park

Know Before You Go

  • From May through November, anglers are free to explore Yellowstone's more than 2,600 miles of streams. Try your hand at catching a trout or two – just make sure to pick up a Yellowstone National Park fishing permit before you do, available at all ranger stations, visitor centers, and Yellowstone general stores.
  • In the past two million years of geologic activity, Yellowstone has erupted three times, two of which have qualified it as a supervolcano – that is, a volcano that's capable of an eruption of more than 240 cubic miles of magma. The last eruption was 174,000 years ago, and scientists have deemed it unlikely to erupt again in the next 10,000 years.
  • Founding editor of Outside Magazine, Tim Cahill, takes us on a journey into Yellowstone, a park that lies just 50 miles from his home and that he's spent the past 25 years slowly exploring. Lost in My Own Backyard is divided into three sections – one on hiking and Cahill's favorite trails, one on getting into the backcountry, and one on other books about Yellowstone – and gives a local's look into the vast land that makes up Yellowstone.
  • Former Civil War general and then-president Ulysses S. Grant signed the Organic Act of 1872, declaring Yellowstone the first national park in the United States.
  • Check out the official Yellowstone National Parks Service Instagram for updates and inspiration before you head out into the Wyoming wilderness.

The Yellowstone Gift Shop