Yellowstone National Park is crowded in summer. Honestly, there’s just no point in being subtle about it. Think Disney-during-Spring-Break crowd levels at the most popular sights. Throngs of people, limited parking, and Bison Jams are a terrible combination. Never fear! You can still make a few key choices that help you avoid crowds in Yellowstone and have still have a wonderful trip.
Tips To Avoid The Crowds in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States and the world in 1872. Now it chalks up just under 5 million visitors a year! Almost a quarter of those 5 million people come in July alone. We visited in late June and successfully used these tips to avoid the Yellowstone crowds. None of these ideas are a magic wand but hopefully will improve your experience, too.
Go Early and Stay Late
This is one of the easiest and most impactful decisions you can make to avoid the crowds in Yellowstone NP. Use the early morning and late evening to visit the most crowded sights, especially Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Mammoth Hot Springs. In between, you can drive to another area of the park, hike, swim, enjoy a picnic lunch, or take a nap. 🙂
The park entrances are busiest from 9:00-11:00 am and the park sights are busiest from 9:00-4:00 pm. Your goal is to avoid the busiest spots during those times.
Dawn to 9:30 am is your golden window. Most visitors eat breakfast in their hotel and then have a long drive into the park. By 9:30, the crowds have arrived and will stick around until dinnertime. Bonus, wildlife is most active at this time of day, the steam from hydrothermal features is more visible, and you have glorious light for photos. It’s a winning solution all around!
Don’t forget travel time! Driving distances in Yellowstone can be longer than you think. Make sure you plan travel time accordingly. If you’re trying to make an Old Faithful eruption, you don’t want to get up super early and then miss it by 5 minutes. Trust me, been there, done that.
Your next sweet spot is 6:30 pm to sunset. The geyser basins and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are perfect for this time of day. Hayden Valley is another good choice, but the animals may not be as active as the morning hours. Driving in the dark is dodgy in Yellowstone. It’s extremely hard to see the bison on the road. I would try to hit spots close enough to your lodging that you can make it home before full dark.
Stay Inside the Park
It’s much easier to arrive early and stay late if you stay inside the park. Unfortunately, lodging is not something you can book last minute. Much of the lodging books out one year in advance. I know! Crazy.
If you didn’t plan your Yellowstone vacation a year in advance, don’t give up. Because people book so far in advance, their plans often change and they cancel reservations. If you have time and persistence, you can keep checking the Yellowstone National Park Lodges website for cancellations. Don’t be afraid to book 1-night stays within your date range. I cobbled together our multi-night booking from a series of 1-night reservations.
Also, consider changing locations to use your driving time efficiently. We first stayed at Canyon Cabins and then moved to Mammoth Hot Springs Cabins.
Camping requires planning too! Yellowstone has 12 campgrounds with over 2,000 campsites. Sounds like tons, but it’s not enough. All of the campsites can (and will) be reserved in advance. The Park Service manages some campground reservations and Yellowstone Lodges (Xanterra) manages others. A complete list of campgrounds and how to reserve them is on the National Park Service website.
Stay More Days
Yellowstone is an enormous park with a lot to see and do. We recommend at least 3 days for your visit. If you can extend that to 4 or 5 days, you have less pressure to get things done during crowded hours. Our latest visit was 4 days during late June. The extra day let us comfortably see everything we planned, plus a few extras, without stressing when we hit delays or wanted to take a break.
Take a Hike
The vast majority of visitors to Yellowstone never seem to leave the boardwalk. If you take a short hike, the crowds melt away. One of our favorite “getaways” was Fairy Falls. The out and back 5-mile hike ends at a waterfall, but along the way is an elevated platform with views of Grand Prismatic Spring.
Of course, you should still use your early mornings and late evenings to see the big name sights like Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful. Just remember that they aren’t the only game in town. Half of the world’s geysers are in Yellowstone and the park has over 10,000 hydrothermal features. Here are a few of our easy to get to favorites with fewer people:
Great Fountain Geyser in Lower Geyser Basin. Arrive early for a front row seat (aka, dusty road edge). People who arrive last minute must move on due to lack of parking.
West Thumb Geyser Basin along the shore of Yellowstone Lake has colorful pools, geysers, and paint pots.
Have a Flexible Plan
The Yellowstone guide in the NPS app is your planning friend. Maps, anticipated geyser eruptions, self-guided tours, and more. Be sure to install the app and save Yellowstone NP for offline use. Cell access in the park is unreliable.
Plans are made to be broken. Something will disrupt your plan – a Bear or Bison Jam, a crowded parking lot, or an unexpectedly closed road. Bring your patience and be willing to enjoy what’s happening. Who knows, maybe you’ll have a surprise bear cub sighting, a chance to take up close bison photos from the safety of your car, or take an unplanned detour to somewhere memorable.
Take a Private Wildlife Tour in Lamar Valley
This one’s a splurge, but worth it! We did the 8-hour Bear and Wolf Watching Tour with Yellowstone Wild. We had a knowledgeable guide, epic wildlife viewing, and spots away from all the crowds. A tour can never promise wildlife sightings, but Yellowstone Wild knows their stuff, so a complete miss is unlikely. We saw black bears, grizzlies, wolf cubs, mountain goats, a hunting wolf pack, and more!
Visit Off-Season To Avoid Yellowstone Crowds
Locals always suggest visiting off-season, especially winter, when the park is essentially empty. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to visit Yellowstone in winter. However, the reality is that you see and do different things in winter. We wanted to see and do things that are only accessible when the snow melts. Plus, we needed a school holiday to have enough time for our trip.
If shoulder seasons works for you, that’s a great option. Early May and late September/early October are great options. No snow yet, but noticeably fewer visitors. I did a solo trip in late September and it was great!
Do you have any tips for avoiding the crowds in Yellowstone? Did any of our tips work particularly well for you? We would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.
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