While Tom and I were waiting in the Veterans Affairs sitting area for our turn to be helped, we decided this would be a good time to figure out our lodging situation in Yellowstone. After all, our trip was less than a week away. We prefer having a place to stay for the first couple of days, but after that it’s flexible. Here’s how we did it, how the trip went, and a couple pointers from yours truly.
When Tom and I were looking for a place to stay, there was only one campground available. I believe the conversation when something like this: Jessica, there’s only once place available, do you want me to book it? I looked at him with a face that said, “really? I can’t believe you’re asking me this.” I told him yes. He told me it was booked, and then we both had a mini party while sitting in our chairs in the waiting room.
We stayed at Bay Bridge for a couple days and explored the southwest side of the park. Everywhere we went, we kept asking the rangers and volunteers about campgrounds: what they were like, what the availability was, etc. This gave us the inside scoop that there was a first come first serve campground opening the day our reservation at Bay Bridge ended. In other words, all the sites would be open and our chances of having a place to stay drastically increased. On the day of our move, we accidentally slept in. Since we were passing by Tower Campground, which we would have preferred to stay in anyway, we stopped there along the way just to see if something was available. We got the last spot… and didn’t have to wake up super early to get it! Double win!
While traditional lodging like cabins and hotels are available, we preferred camping. And since we wanted to cover a lot of area in a relatively short amount of time, we decided to stay in the larger, designated campgrounds instead of backcountry camping.
TIP: Stay somewhere close to the activities you want to do, and move to a different campground when you're ready to explore a different part of the park. This is a HUGE park: 2.2 million acres! While it’s very beautiful, I personally prefer not driving around the whole time. If you’re a planner, there are only five campgrounds that can be reserved ahead of time at the Yellowstone National Park Lodging website. All the rest are on a first come first serve basis.
Since Yellowstone is know for its hydrothermal activity, we decided to start our first day off with the Geyser Hill Walk guided tour. After watching the eruption of Old Faithful, we took a 1.25 mile walk around Geyser Hill with a park ranger to learn more about what makes Yellowstone so iconic.
Yellowstone is located in a caldera, the crater that’s formed after a violent volcanic eruption. In fact, the volcano is still active today with magma flowing underneath the earth, but no violent eruptions. It’s this magma that provides the heat for the thermal activity (geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles) of the park.
We talk about the marvels of technology, but nothing is quite as marvelous as Mother Nature. Las Vegas has the Fountains of Bellagio, but Yellowstone has the geysers and colored hot springs with pools of water colored by thermophiles, heat loving bacteria. The temperature of the water attracts a certain type of bacteria, which determine the color.
New York has tall sky scrapers, but Yellowstone has the Mammoth Hot Springs with its terraces that are continuously being built and redesigned with the help of tavertine that forms when limestone mixes with hot water that rises through the rocks.
TIP: If you’re short on time, but want to see all the different types of hydrothermal features, Fountain Paint Pot has them all in one half mile loop.
(from left to right, top to bottom: mud pot, geyser, fumarole, hot spring)
One of the most amazing things about Yellowstone is the large amount of animals you can see. They’re not in cages and are free to roam around the park whenever and wherever they please. It’s not unusual to see a bison cross the road or spot an elk around your camp site. We even spotted a fox chilling out in the campground!
TIP: Read on to find out how to see lots of animals with minimal effort.
- Ask around. If you want to know about the best place to see animals, you gotta ask. Talk to park rangers and people you meet. Especially talk to the people with the fancy camera lenses. They’ll know all about the places to get that perfect picture of a bear or any other animal.
- Know where you are. There are some areas that are known for having lots of a certain type of animal. For example, the Bear-muda Triangle is located around Tower Junction, and usually has a good amount of bear sightings.
- Prime time. In general, the prime animal viewing times are dusk and dawn. This is where there’s the most activity. Coincidentally, it’s also the “golden hour” for photo taking.
- Stopped cars. If you see cars stopped on the side of the road, chances are there’s an animal nearby. The question remains, which one is it. Remember to pull off onto the side of the road instead of stopping in the middle and blocking traffic. That being said, when planning a trip around the park, add in extra time for animal sightings or a bison/bear jam. It’s kinda like a traffic jam, only caused by bison crossing or people stopped to look at bears.
- Bring binoculars. Many times, there were cars lined up and stopped on the side of the road, but we could not see what they were looking at. The animals were too far away to see with the naked eye. I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a pair of binoculars to catch a glimpse of an eagle on her nest. She was beautiful.
Look out for Part 2 of "No planning? No problem. How to visit and enjoy Yellowstone with only one day of planning" where I share my experience and advice when it comes to doing two of my favorite outdoor activities in Yellowstone National Park.
Are you a “planner” or a “let’s see what happens” traveler? How has that worked out?