Yellowstone is one of the most popular of the U.S. National Parks, so if you are visiting Yellowstone with kids during the summer, you can expect to encounter heavy crowds. There will be everything from families, to travelers in RVs, to large bus tours full of tourists.
Yellowstone National Park is over 3,500 square miles. With a space so vast and so much to seeing, planning a family vacation to Yellowstone can be a little intimidating. That is why I’ve put together these tips for visiting Yellowstone National Park to make your trip less stressful.
To start, the one mistake that many people make, myself included, is not giving themselves enough time to experience the park. You can see quite a few of the highlights in a couple of days if you are staying in or near the park.
But you really need to give yourself at least three to four days to get in some hikes and see more of the remote areas. If you have a week for a Yellowstone family vacation and love to hike, you could certainly spend all your time in the park. But for families, I’d recommend splitting a week between Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone.
Tips for Visiting Yellowstone National Park
Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Thank you for your support in keeping this blog alive!
1. Getting to Yellowstone
The closest major airport is Salt Lake City (4.5 hours), however, you can fly into Jackson Hole (especially if you are starting in Grand Tetons) about 2.5 hours to Old Faithful.
Or you could fly into Bozeman, MT, about one to two hours and then spend some time exploring Southwest Montana or staying on a dude ranch nearby.
2. Stay in the park
If you really want to make the most of your time in the park, it would be best to stay in the park, otherwise you will waste a couple of hours each day just getting to and from your lodging outside of the park.
3. Make your reservations early
Reservations in Yellowstone book up nearly a year in advance. However, you can keep checking back because there are cancellations. Getting campground reservations is a little easier, but even those should be booked early.
4. Stay nearby if lodges are full
If you can’t get into the park, the best places to stay would be West Yellowstone (45 minutes to Old Faithful) or down in Jackson Hole (but then you are driving through Grand Tetons each day – beautiful drive but long.) If you can’t get a hotel or campground, there are many unique Airbnb’s near Yellowstone.
5. Split your time within the park
If you do stay in the park, you may want to split your time between two sections to minimize the driving. While there are tons of services around Old Faithful and the Old Faithful Inn is a landmark, I found that area too crowded and less “National Park-like.”
If I were to do it again, I’d stay a couple of days near the beautiful Yellowstone Lake, and then another couple of days up in Mammoth Springs. The elk like to come and graze on the town lawns, making for a great viewing experience.
6. Allow time for bison jams
When you are planning your day, keep in mind that driving through the park takes a lot longer than you plan. Not only are there speed limits and single lane roads, but you can encounter slow RVs, animal traffic jams, and scenic viewpoints that will entice you to make unplanned stops along the way.
7. Prepare to unplug
Keep in mind that there is very little cellular service in the park. If you are relying on your phone’s GPS, be sure to set your destination at one of the few spots in the park where you can get service, like Old Faithful or West Yellowstone. The nice part of that is that you can actually spend unplugged family time during your drives and hikes.
8. Become a member
If you are staying for a few days, consider purchasing a Yellowstone Association Membership. Not only will you receive a free t-shirt, bag or stuffed bison, but you will also get 15% off all other gift shop purchases throughout the park, while supporting the National Park.
9. Use the bathroom when you see them
Most of the main attractions have bathrooms, although you may need to wait in a line. Some of these are just a step above a port-a-potty so be sure to bring along some travel toilet tissue and hand sanitizer or Wet Ones.
10. Pack a picnic
Each of the main villages have food options, and there are many places to stop and enjoy a picnic. These can all be found on the map given out at the entrance. Just keep in mind that when you get out into Lamar Valley, there aren’t many services around.
11. Leave no trace
Visiting the National Parks is a good time to teach the kids about responsible tourism. Not only does this include “Leave no trace” principles when it comes to carrying out whatever you bring in, but it also means teaching them not to be a touron.
This includes being responsible around wildlife. I love this article about the crazy questions people ask Park Rangers because they don’t understand that this is nature…not a zoo. So, no selfies with bison and no walking up to bears or elk. When they say stay back, it is for a reason.
12. Stay on the path
Not being a touron (tourist + moron) also means being respectful of the ecosystem. Yellowstone sits on top of a super volcano. In places, the earth’s crust is extremely fragile and thin.
Last summer I read multiple stories about people who died in the park because they were hiking alone without bear spray or they fell through the earth’s crust or even that they decided to take a dip in a hot spring and got boiled to death.
It is gruesome but all avoidable. Keep a close eye (or hand) on little ones and stay on the boardwalks when visiting geyser basins or geothermal features.
13. Buy bear spray
I’d also recommend buying some bear spray at one of the visitor centers before heading out on any hikes, especially if you are heading into backcountry.
These signs along the rim hike at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone made us a little nervous and I kept my bear spray handy.
14. Don’t overdo it on the hot springs
Understand that everyone can get geothermal feature fatigue. There is the Norris Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hot Springs…you get the idea.
Don’t plan on visiting multiple geyser basins in one day or they will start to be less interesting. Instead, break it up with a visit to a geothermal feature combined with a hike or a drive through Hayden’s Valley to view some wildlife.
15. Get up early
The best wildlife viewing is going to be in the early morning or closer to dusk. Just keep in mind that you don’t really want to drive through Yellowstone at night.
There are many parts with narrow, winding roads and you never know what might be standing in the middle of the dark road. Stop into the visitor center and ask the park rangers where wildlife has been spotted recently.
16. Wait for Old Faithful
When visiting Old Faithful, there are multiple buildings around the Visitor Center and a huge parking lot so it can be confusing at first to figure out where to go to see the geyser eruption.
When you pull into the lot, Old Faithful will likely be on the left hand side. If you head into the Visitor Center, you can find out when the next predicted eruption will be.
However, if you walk up and see huge crowds around the geyser area, chances are it will be soon so you might want to head right over and ask one of the park rangers.
17. See Old Faithful from the back
At Old Faithful, some recommend walking around and watching the eruption from the far side, where there aren’t as many crowds. Depending on the wind, you may also get some spray in that direction though.
We got lucky and walked right up maybe 15 minutes before an eruption. A ranger was giving a talk and people were sitting on the benches. By standing directly behind the people on the benches, we had an unobstructed view and the crowd didn’t bother us at all (until we wanted to get lunch after.)
18. Park south of Grand Prismatic Spring
If you are going to the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin, be aware that the parking lot is very small and gets really backed up. You may be better off parking on the street but it is only available on one side.
If you are heading north from Old Faithful, once you pass the parking lot, there is no parking on that side of the street for another mile. So either park where you see a spot before you get to the parking lot or take your chances in the lot.
Also, Grand Prismatic Spring is very popular and the boardwalks are very narrow so hold hands with your young kids so people squeezing by don’t knock them off the boardwalk.
19. Hold onto your hats
If you are wearing a hat in the geyser basin areas and it is windy, hold on tight! We saw quite a collection of hats in the springs.
20. Bring binoculars
Bring binoculars! If you see a bunch of people pulled off the road with binoculars or zoom lens, chances are they have spotted some wildlife. It makes sense to keep your binoculars and cameras within easy reach.
We were so lucky to spend some time watching a grizzly bear chow down on a dead bison in the river. Having binoculars brought the experience up close (closer than we would want to be in real life that is for sure!)
- If you are new to visiting National Parks, check out these National Parks tips for first-timers
- Check out my top 10 things to do in Yellowstone
- Don’t miss my tips on where to find wildlife in Yellowstone
- If you need help planning your trip, be sure to check out my friend Melynda’s service at YellowstoneTrips.com
- Make your park lodging reservations six months to one year in advance
- Look for deals for lodging in West Yellowstone
- If you stay down in Jackson Hole, we enjoyed our time at this hotel
- A great way to keep kids entertained during long rides is with these National Geographic fill in the blank and Junior Ranger activity books
- Don’t forget to bring along bug spray, sun screen, refillable water bottles (I love these insulated ones for keeping drinks cold), snacks, wipes, garbage bags, sanitizer, and sweatshirts. Temperatures can vary throughout the day so it makes sense to layer up.
- You will also want your binoculars, good camera, extra batteries and storage, and car chargers for mobile devices.