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This is a guest post by the fabulous Henry!
We all want to enjoy our trips to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks but not everyone does a good job of it. I live just north of Yellowstone and help moderate TravelingMel’s Facebook planning group.
I’m going to do a quick list of the most obvious mistakes that other tourist guides have written about ad nauseam and then list my selections for worst bad behaviors and mistakes for national park visitors. Most of these apply to ANY national park but a couple may be specific to Yellowstone and that’s what I’ll have in my mind as I write.
First off, let’s list the obvious ones in no particular order that appear in almost every Yellowstone Visitors Guide. Do not do the following seemingly-obvious-yet-consistently-ignored-by-a-small-minority behaviors:
- approach the wildlife
- drive drunk
- hike without bear spray
- fail to drink water
- fail to wear layers
- use drones inside the park
- leave food in your tent
- defecate by the side of the road
- abuse rangers in any way
- throw things into the geysers
- fail to plan ahead
- take rocks, plants, or animals from the park.
Those are easy and others have discussed them a lot. Following is my personal list of mistakes too many visitors make. These range from “annoying to people who use the park a lot” to things that will detract from your trip to outright dangerous. There’s one thing most of them have in common which I’ll discuss at the end.
1. Taking excessive time at the entrance kiosk
This one gets me almost every time we go into the park and, living so close, we use the park pretty often.
The entrances to the parks are usually small and have only a few lanes. It’s common for traffic to back up for long waits, especially in summer. We saw the line in West Yellowstone, MT stretch from the entrance back into town several blocks, with feeder streets full as well, which is about a mile of traffic.
The single booth at the South Entrance to Yellowstone rarely goes quickly and almost always has a wait in the summer. We predominantly use the North Entrance, which the Park Service recently expanded.
Still, the interminable lines form. Why the slow process? Partly it results from the necessity of human interactions. Park Service personnel need to take payment, check passes, and hand out maps and newspapers.
However, many people take this opportunity to have a chat and ask loads of questions that they could have answered with a couple of quick google searches in your basic Yellowstone trip planning process.
Do your research and consider all the other visitors behind you waiting to start their visit. If you still have questions, by all means, ask them or wait until you get to a visitor center and ask there. They’ll have much more time to answer in full.
Also, please have your payment and/or park pass ready. Preferably, you’ve bought a pass. The pass must be signed prior to entrance and you must show a photo ID of one of the signatories (who also must be present). No sharing of passes.
Buy your America the Beautiful pass online and use it to get into 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country, including all our national parks.
If you are just paying for the week, please consider paying in cash. Running credit cards and getting signatures takes time which adds up. Again, you’ve probably got a bunch of other families and visitors who are chomping at the bit to see the wonders of Yellowstone too.
2. Putting trash in pit toilets
Are you even kidding me? The park is a semi-wild place and lacks a sewer system outside of the villages.
To deal with sanitation, the park uses pit toilets in various places in the park including pull-offs, trailheads, picnic areas, and parking lots. These must be pumped out a few times a year and when someone dumps trash in there, a human being must physically remove it somehow.
Would you want to do that? Me either. I’ve seen it happen and while it may be convenient to ditch your trash rather than wait to find a receptacle at one of the villages, it puts the onus on someone else to clean it out of a toilet. It also puts additional costs on the park and park workers.
While we are discussing it, please do NOT STAND on the seat. While this may be the customary technique in many other countries, these toilets are not designed for that style and will break. Use a seated or standing position and, when you are done, close the lid and the door to the building. This ensures proper ventilation, reduces odors, and helps minimize insects getting in there.
3. Blocking traffic when watching wildlife
This one I can empathize with. Wildlife encounters can be fleeting and brief, but they actually usually last a fair amount of time. If you stop in the middle of the road to take a picture of that bear on the hillside, everyone behind you has to wait and if someone comes speeding along without paying attention, they could run into you.
Simply pull off the road (ALL the way off the road) and watch from there. If there is enough distance between you and the animal, you can get out of the car and get a better look or take photos.
Many people are incredibly excited to see their first elk or bison. They should be; they are amazing animals. But, anyone who has been there for more than a day has likely seen dozens already and might be trying to get somewhere else.
The park is big and traveling takes time. Kids get hangry. Cars run out of gas. There are all sorts of reasons to let people pass. My experience is that most roadside bear encounters last 15 minutes to a half hour and longer. Bison and elk can linger for hours.
If you cannot safely pull off the road in that location, please pull forward until you find a place where you can. The rest of us will thank you.
4. Underestimating the scale of the place
This one’s in your own interest. Yellowstone spans almost 3500 square MILES. That’s bigger than two US States. It stretches about 63 miles north-south and 54 miles east-west. This doesn’t sound like much if you think in terms of interstate highways, but when you consider the speed limit is 45 mph maximum (more on that later), roads are narrow and curvy, bison don’t care about your schedule, and, oh yeah, those people who stop in the middle of the road, the minutes add up to hours.
The Yellowstone roads are laid out in a couple of loops and they are BIG. They take a long time to get around.
You will get much more enjoyment from the park if you give yourself plenty of time, fuel, and snacks to get to your destination without stress. Almost all roads are paved and fairly well maintained and the Park Service closes them if snow becomes a problem.
Expect to encounter at least one bison-jam on your visit and possibly a bear-jam. These are fun to see but if you are late for the Chuckwagon Dinner or meeting a tour guide, they can cause some anxiety.
5. Getting started late in the morning
Remember that traffic jam I mentioned seeing in West Yellowstone? That was at about 9:30 am. Many of those people probably didn’t get into the park until 10:30 or later. Then it’s another hour’s drive to Old Faithful Visitor Center, plus a 15-minute walk across the parking lot, which may be full.
You will see way more animals, have better access to parking, cooler weather, better light, and more time if you get started early. In the heat of the day, animals such as bears, wolves, moose, and others tend to bed down in the shade. They prefer moving around in the cool air of the early morning and late evening.
While everyone else is trying to convince their families to leave the breakfast restaurant, you will be happily parking in the small lots and pullouts at your preferred trailhead. You’ll share geyser boardwalks and viewpoints with the select few travelers who braved the sobs of sleepy children to have a crowdless experience (well, it’s Yellowstone, so it’s never really crowdless).
The steam from the geysers will be thicker in the cool air and the light will be better for photos. Hiking will be more pleasant as well. If you can, get your kids out of bed and get out there.
6. Relying on food from the grills and restaurants inside the Park
The grills and restaurants in the park are ok but they get crowded and are expensive for a family. The grill food equates to any other place trying to feed tens of thousands of people a day as rapidly as possible. I recommend you get a non-styrofoam cooler and load up on some snacks and picnic supplies before entering the park.
If you are staying in Yellowstone, stop at a grocery store in one of the gateway towns. Food is cheaper there and they have more variety. You can keep the cooler in your hard-sided car, hotel room, or one of the bear boxes in the campgrounds.
Yellowstone bears don’t seem to break into cars like in Yosemite. If you are staying outside the park, you can find many options for pre-made lunches and other options or just go the cooler route. You will find plenty of places to have a picnic in the park. They have multiple picnic areas with tables or you can just find a good pull-out.
Many people on the Facebook group ask about using a camp stove outside of the campgrounds. As long as you are using a gas stove, it’s my understanding you can cook in the picnic areas and pull-offs. Wood and charcoal stoves are restricted to fire rings. Wildfire is a serious concern in the parks, so please be careful. You can find ice in the stores in the various park villages and in the gateway towns.
Some people have purchased heated food warmers they can plug into their car but I just like a snack system. It gives us more flexibility on timing and makes cleaning up easier.
All that said, stopping for a cold drink or a delicious ice cream can make a nice topper to a long day of exploring and a treasured memory.
As always, police your litter and don’t feed the animals, even the little cute ones. The animal that causes the most injuries in Glacier National Park is the chipmunk. And, often as not, a fed animal is a dead animal. They are not accustomed to human food and if they become a nuisance, the park will euthanize them to keep people safe.
7. Ignoring all the great activities and sites just outside the park
Visiting Yellowstone National Park fulfills a lifelong dream for many people. However, the surrounding areas provide a lot of amazing views and activities that rival the park but with fewer people. Many of these you will not find in the park at all, or have to get into the backcountry to access them.
The surrounding gateway towns have some really nice restaurants. You can take a rafting trip or a scenic float or learn to fly fish while floating a river. You cannot float the rivers inside the park, so this is nice. In Paradise Valley to the north of the park, you can soak in hot springs in two different places or stay in a glamping establishment or in a luxurious lodge. You can dig for gemstones or go mountain biking. You can visit museums and see live music or even go to a rodeo.
You might really add to your trip if you look into the fun activities just outside the park or even further.
See Things To Do Beyond Yellowstone’s Borders for more ideas on activities outside the park.
8. Not exploring far enough from the car
The Park Service estimates that 98% of Yellowstone tourists never get more than a half mile from their car. That means they never really see the wildness that makes up most of Yellowstone. You don’t have to go on a multi-day pack trip or backpacking expedition to get away from the crowds, although you can.
See Backpacking the Yellowstone River Trail for a fun and relatively easy trip.
The park has a myriad of well-maintained trails that most visitors can walk and explore. You can trade the sounds of crowds and vehicles for wind in the trees and birds in the sage. You can have otters poop on the trail only a few feet away (yeah, I’m speaking from personal experience). Perhaps you’ll find a lake not viewable from the road or a waterfall no one else made the effort to look for.
Grab a map, take your bear spray, plenty of water and food, dress in layers, and get hiking.
Note about footwear: You don’t need expensive hiking boots or outdoor gear for most day hikes. You can get by with the basics if you are aware and pay attention.
9. Walking on thermal areas
Do NOT walk on the thermal areas. Park rules absolutely prohibit you from leaving the trails and boardwalks provided in these areas.
Not only are you risking falling in and having your body dissolve as happened many times, but you are also damaging a fragile landscape that can take decades or even centuries to recover just for a selfie.
You can get great pictures from the safety of the trails. Doing otherwise also puts you at risk of a very serious Federal fine and possible arrest. Every year, a few tourists decide their selfie is worth more than their safety or the pristine nature of the park and locals find it infuriating.
In the backcountry, there are hot springs where you can soak but do your research and be careful. And, just because you don’t see a sign or barrier, doesn’t mean it’s ok to walk out to that thermal pool. It could be hundreds of degrees and deadly.
As mentioned above, the Park limits traffic speeds to 45 mph maximum with the exception of 191 on the west side between Big Sky and West Yellowstone which is 55 mph. There are many sections where the speed limit drops to 35 mph or even 25 mph.
Roadways are the most dangerous areas of the park for both humans and animals.
Every year 6% of wolf deaths in the park are caused by vehicles. There were 241 known collisions with large mammals in the park during the five years prior to 2021. That’s not counting the little squirrels, badgers, owls, and other critters. Also, do you really want to hit a 2000 lbs bison at high speed?
That’s not to mention the human injuries. Please, slow down and enjoy the park at a reasonable speed. Plan ahead so you aren’t in a hurry and take your time. It’s not worth killing an endangered animal or another person.
I mentioned that many of these bad behaviors have something in common. That is “not being considerate of others.” The national parks are owned by all of us. They are to be enjoyed and protected by all of us.
They are a place we hold in common and must share. That family that saved up for years for this trip wants the entrance line to go fast just as much as you do. They want to be safe on the roads like you. They want to see pristine thermal areas like you.
Please think about how your actions might affect others and the park around you as you recreate in this shared space. At 3,500 square miles, there’s plenty of room for everyone if we treat others how we’d want to be treated.
I think you’ll have a great time visiting the world’s first national park and a jewel of the National Park system. It has so much to offer if you plan ahead, think of others, and take your time.