Visiting Yellowstone National Park for the First Time
First-Time Road Trip to Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park, located in Wyoming and Montana, is an amazing sight in the summer. This year, three of my friends and I decided to pack up the car and make the 13-hour drive from Seattle to Yellowstone and see what it was all about. This would be everyone’s first visit to Yellowstone National Park. We were particularly excited to see the famous Old Faithful geyser and Mammoth Hot Springs, but wanted to make sure we covered all of the other sights as well.
We planned a 5-day trip and booked campsite reservations for two of the nights and a hotel outside Yellowstone National Park for the last night. We spent two days driving and three days exploring the park itself. I had read several different travel guides and websites prior to the trip and many of them recommended spending at least a week in the park, which initially made me nervous that we would be rushing through all the different sights. However, during the trip itself, I didn’t feel rushed at all. We were able to see all of the sights without feeling like we were always on a time constraint. I think the amount of time we spent at Yellowstone National Park was perfect. One more day would probably have been the maximum amount of time I would have wanted to spend there. The experience could be different if you’re backcountry camping or want to do several hikes a day. We were car camping and only did two hikes during the trip, not including the walks around the attractions.
Yellowstone National Park Weather in June
I did some research before planning the trip to figure out the optimal time to visit the park. July and August are generally the peak tourist months because of the consistently sunny weather and low chance of rainfall. School is also out during that time, which makes Yellowstone National Park ideal for a family vacation. My friends and I decided to try avoiding the crowds and planned our trip during the second week of June. Weather reports showed that June has a much higher chance of rain, is generally colder (low 60’s), and has the highest concentration of bugs. All three of these factors made me a little uneasy, but I decided to take the risk.
I started checking the Yellowstone National Park’s weather forecast a few days leading up to the trip and was extremely disappointed to see that snow, rain, and thunderstorms were forecasted for the entire duration of our trip. Yes, SNOW in June! Apparently, 2011 was an unusual year in terms of weather in Yellowstone, and winter lasted longer this year than normal. We decided not to let this stop us, however, and brought warm clothes and rain gear along. Luckily for us, the weather forecast ended up being wrong. We experienced some sprinkles the second morning and heard some thunderstorms, but there were no major rainstorms or snowstorms. The sun was out for most of our trip, but it was still very chilly at night. From what I read, rain can come and go at any time in Yellowstone, but it is usually a brief downpour. The weather can also vary dramatically depending on which area of the park you are in, since the elevation can be dramatically different and also because Yellowstone National Park covers such a wide area of land.
We arrived in West Yellowstone and was greeted by beautiful sunshine shining down on the vast, green pastures. As we drove to our first campsite (Bridge Bay Campground), it started to gradually get cooler as we got further into the park and gained elevation. As we neared the campsite, we saw that parts of Yellowstone Lake were still frozen, and piles of snow five feet tall were piled along the sides of the road. This would be a cold night!
Camping – Bridge Bay Campground
There are quite a few campgrounds that are available for advance reservations if you’re planning on camping during your visit to Yellowstone National Park. There are also numerous campsites available on a first-come, first-serve basis if you’re more of the spontaneous type. You can also obtain a backcountry camping permit if you enjoy more secluded camping, but keep in mind that the majority of Yellowstone National Park is considered “bear country.”
We had booked a specific campsite at Bridge Bay Campground because we heard it had an amazing view. However, because of the amount of snow that was still on the ground, most of the campsites were still closed. The park ranger assigned us another campsite. Even though there was still snow on the ground at the new campsite, at least the grass was visible!
There were public bathrooms available at this campground, as well as a pay shower and laundry facilities. You can also buy firewood from the check-in area, and there is a store nearby that you can visit to buy any necessities and/or food. Most of the designated camping areas in Yellowstone National Park are fairly accommodating and have access to public bathrooms and even showers. Check Yellowstone National Park’s website for more details on each campsite.
One thing to keep in mind at ALL of the campsites in Yellowstone National Park: do not leave food out! Make sure to lock everything in your car, including garbage. You aren’t supposed to even dump cooler water on the ground because there is usually leftover food scent that will attract animals. We were lucky to not have had any close encounters with animals during the night, but animals definitely did wander through Bridge Bay Campground. We saw buffalo and elk droppings around the area, and heard what we thought were animal footsteps and noises near our tent at night.
Camping – Canyon Campground
For the second night, we made a reservation at Canyon Campground because it seemed central to everything else in Yellowstone National Park. It’s right in the middle of the park. Unfortunately, this campsite did not work out for us. There was at least five feet of snow on the ground and most of the loops were still closed. Of the two loops that were open, small parking spots were shoveled out so people could camp on the pavement or park their RVs there. The fire pits were completely covered in snow, and the park rangers actually offered to loan us a shovel so we could find the “missing” fire pits! We were not interested in “camping” on the pavement with no access to a fire, so we decided to cancel this reservation and move to a less snowy location.
Camping – Norris Campground
We drove further west and arrived at the next campground that was suggested by the park ranger: Norris Campground. This site is first-come first-serve, but we didn’t have any problems finding an open spot here for overnight camping. During peak season in Yellowstone National Park, I can see this campsite filling up very quickly because of the convenient location. We were able to find a relatively secluded area and set up our camp there. This campground also had public bathrooms available, which is a nice convenience.
Sightseeing in Yellowstone
Don’t underestimate the size of Yellowstone National Park! If you look at a map of the park, you’ll notice that it is a VERY big national park. It takes around two hours to drive around the middle loop without stopping and without taking traffic into account. However, it is very easy to navigate since there are only a few intersections inside the park.
Of all the sights we visited in Yellowstone National Park, there are a few I would highly recommend (not in any particular order):
- Mammoth Hot Springs: This was one of my favorite sights in Yellowstone National Park. I would allocate at least an hour or two toward visiting this attraction. Walk the entire loop and visit both the top and bottom areas of the hot springs. They were very different from each other when I visited, and the hot springs are in a constant state of change.
- Old Faithful: Old Faithful is possibly the most famous attraction in Yellowstone National Park, and for a good reason. This geyser faithfully erupts every hour to hour and a half and shoots water over 100 feet into the air for five minutes. After you’ve toured most of Yellowstone National Park, chances are that you’ll be somewhat bored of seeing geysers and hot springs. However, if you only see one geyser, this is the one to see. You’ll know the geyser is about to erupt when it starts to shoot water into the air every few minutes. You can also ask a park ranger about the schedule of Old Faithful so you’ll have a general idea of when the geyser will erupt next.
- Tower Fall: This is a relatively big waterfall with a nice overlook a few hundred feet into the hiking trail. If you enjoy hiking, you can take the trail all the way down to the bottom of the falls. We did this short (and steep) hike, but I didn’t think there was much to see at the bottom. It looked like there was a trail that led toward the falls, but it was closed off when we were there. All we could see when we reached the bottom was the river, which was a bit disappointing for me.
- Fountain Paint Pot (and the geysers and hot springs around this area): This was a nice, relatively short walk around many different geysers, hot springs, and mud pots. They’re all different, and pictures don’t do most of them justice.
- Bisons, Wolves, Elks, and Bears: (binoculars recommended!)
– Bison / Buffalo: If you’ve never seen buffalo before in your life, Yellowstone National Park is the place to go. We saw hundreds of buffalos walking along the side of the road, crossing the street, eating grass, and sleeping in the pastures. They are generally non-aggressive animals unless provoked, but it is recommended that you keep a safe distance away from them. I saw some tourists getting much too close to these wild animals just for the sake of a picture. Buffalos DO charge, and you do not want to be in their way when they feel threatened!
– Wolves: I heard that wolf sightings are rare in Yellowstone National Park. During our trip, we stopped by one area where a bunch of people were gathered and saw an animal corpse. Apparently, a wolf had just attacked another animal and had just left the area.
– Elks: We saw a couple elks walking along the side of the road and some deer. We also saw some baby animals walking alongside their parents, which was a nice addition.
– Bears: We saw a family of bears (mother and her cubs) far off in the distance, but we needed binoculars to really be able to get a good look at them. Hopefully, you do not have any closer encounters with mother bears and their cubs. If you choose to do any backcountry hiking, be sure to attach a bell or some other noise-making device to your clothes so that you do not surprise any bears and cause them to feel threatened.
Connecting with Nature in Yellowstone National Park
I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Yellowstone National Park and thought it was definitely worth the 13-hour drive each way. It was amazing to see all these natural formations all in one place and be immersed in all the diversity that Yellowstone National Park has to offer. Where else in the world can you see such a accessible, dense collection of geysers, hot springs, mud pots, waterfalls, and wildlife? My favorite part of the trip was seeing the buffalo in their natural environment, but respecting humans as well. I remember at one point, I saw a buffalo cross the road and then continued to walk along the side of the road. When a small turn-off road appeared, the buffalo turned onto that road so that it wouldn’t block traffic. Smart animals.
I had a great trip to Yellowstone National Park and enjoyed the camping aspect of it as well, even with the unexpected snow on the ground. I would definitely recommend it as a destination that everyone should visit at least once in their life.