I was kind of dreading my family’s planned end-of-June trip to Yellowstone National Park. I normally avoid Yellowstone unless I’m headed into the backcountry, or it’s April or October. The thought of visiting in summer conjures up images of overflowing parking lots, throngs of people everywhere and traffic that moves at a crawl. After reporting on the impacts of a record 4 million people visiting the park last year, the trip sounded less like vacation and more like punishment.
But the weekend was a rare opportunity for my family to spend time together in the summer and we all love the park, minus the people. We made a plan to dodge the crowds and found that, even in the height of a record summer, you can still get a view and a boardwalk to yourself. Here’s how to do it.
Go early or late
Non-peak hours in the park are before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m., Charissa Reid, park spokeswoman said. The earlier you go or the later you visit, the fewer people you’ll see.
My family arrived at Old Faithful around 7 p.m. and it was almost deserted. We’d missed a recent eruption, but I was still stunned by the almost-empty boardwalk.
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We’d entered the West Entrance after dinner. There were no lines. After Old Faithful we stopped at other popular sites like Biscuit Basin, which we had entirely to ourselves. We saw fewer people there than we’d seen on our last winter trip when we stopped to look at the clear, jewel-colored Sapphire Pool. Plus the sunset over the steaming geysers was stunning.
The next morning we were through the gate and in the park before 8 a.m. There weren’t any traffic jams until about 10 a.m. when it seemed everyone arrived en masse.
Reserve your lodging
If you want to stay in iconic places in the park, like the Old Faithful Inn, you better plan your trip months or even a year in advance. Even the hotels in the gateway communities like Cody and West Yellowstone, Montana, fill up. Campgrounds in the park are almost always full in the summer. Sites at the seven campgrounds run by the Park Service are available on a first-come, first-served basis and it takes luck, as well as an early arrival and patience, to snag a spot.
However, park concessionaire Xanterra operates five campgrounds where you can secure a site in advance. Or consider camping outside the park where there are more options and more public land.
Find a less-traveled boardwalk
If you’ve never been to Yellowstone, you have to see some of the iconic sites like Old Faithful, no matter how crowded they may be. But if you’ve already seen the famous geyser, there are ways to explore the unique thermal features that make Yellowstone special without fighting the crowds.
Reid recommends West Thumb Geyser Basin and Norris Geyser Basin. While places like Midway Geyser Basin can get so crowded there isn’t parking, many people drive by these other spots giving you a chance to see different thermal features without the crowds.
Take to the trails
There’s an old saying that 97 percent of visitors use only 3 percent of the park. It might not be absolutely accurate, but you will avoid the crowds if you leave the pavement, Reid said. In 2012 I spent almost four days in the backcountry crossing the Mirror Plateau, and never saw a person outside our party.
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You don’t have to go to such extremes. There are backcountry campsites close to developed areas where you’ll find solitude without having to hike for days. You will need a backcountry permit. For those not wanting an overnight commitment, the park offers plenty of day hikes. You can find options in guidebooks, ask rangers in the park or check out the park’s day hike sampler.
Reid recommends starting a visit to the park at Old Faithful and planning to stay for two eruptions. During the first, visit with a ranger. It will offer a rare chance to have his or her undivided attention and you can get recommendations as well as the latest information on trail closures and conditions.
If you aren’t comfortable planning your own hike, consider a guided ranger hike. You’ll get a chance to explore some of the best hikes in the park with a knowledgeable guide who will describe the area’s ecology and natural history. You won’t have the trail all to yourself, but the groups are small, and in bear country there’s safety in numbers.
Almost every time I’ve been stuck on the road in Yellowstone I’ve noticed a lone figure casting contently in the water off to the side. They seem a world away. Fishing is a great way to experience the park. Get a permit, know the rules and you and your rod can share the water with just the wildlife.
Pack your patience – and a sandwich
If you decide to come the park this summer, even if you have a plan to escape the crowds, at some point you’ll probably get stuck in traffic. Plan for delays. Bring a book, podcast and snacks, whatever you need to keep you entertained and calm while you wait. Consider using stopped traffic as a time for someone in the car to read facts about the park and its wildlife. The more you know about the area, the more you’ll appreciate it and the wait will seem worth it.
Visit in the shoulder season
If you live in the area, you probably already know the best time to visit Yellowstone is April, May, September and October if you really want to avoid the crowds.
You can also visit the park in winter with Xanterra that runs a snow coach from Flagg Ranch to the Old Faithful winter Lodge, a kind of tour. You can stay at the lodge or less expensive cabins, snowshoe and ski. All this is quite expensive but if you join The Greater Yellowstone Association you get a discount, or at least that used to be true. The Association also offers terrific courses and cheap accommodations at their ranch in the Lamar Valley. I went on an off trail hike last June , something I couldn’t have done of my own due to bison everywhere. If you are diligent you can also discover off the beaten track sites in the Park ….
Be aware that September is the fastest growing visitation month. Late September/early October is time in fall. For spring, before the end of May. For either, be prepared for cool temperatures and snow sometimes.
As a one time resident of Wyoming we always took the the unbeaten paths in Yellowstone, the only way to visit it. Also never went during peak times of the year couldn’t stand all the people lol. Great story and have friends here in Missouri that are planning a trip to Yellowstone this year yet so this will be help them plan their trip.
Thank you for the insight. I will be visiting for the first time in the middle of September and had already heard about arriving either early or late. That is my plan. I would like to catch the sunrise and sunset at different point in the park.
I will make sure I have food, drink and entertainment if I get caught in traffic,.
You will have a wonderful time, Dave. If you see cars topped by the side of the road, take a look to see if they are all watching one direction since that is often the best way to see wildlife you may have otherwise driven past. Yesterday I was lucky to see a mom grizz and her cub digging for roots on the hill beside the highway.
I’ve been to Yellowstone in September, just after Labor Day, and enjoyed it. That’s about the time for the yellow tour cars to shut down, though, so you might not be able to experience them – supposed to be great, so they’re on my bucket list. Last time I was there was the week before Memorial Day. Not only was it beginning to be crowded, but we had snow/ice storms every day. Again, no yellow buses. Rangers have told me that you can expect snow in what this article calls the shoulder season, and some of the roads are closed during that period.
Absolutely plan for cold weather anytime. yesterday was cloudy and raining off and on. The open air buses are a delightful way to tour.
Was there in mid June 2016. My first trip to Yellowstone & Teton with 5 others in a rented SUV. Four full days. What a trip. Yes, we avoided the crowds 50% of the time & stretching the day. ….coming from Malaysia The sight of the brown bears, grizzly & wolves (Lamar) was awesome.
Been to all 5 continents & Yellowstone, Kruger (S Africa) & Taman Negara National Park Malaysia is to die for. Yosemite, next time. Cheers USA & my daughter Karen in Seattle & Arun, the organizers.
Thanks for the helpful info. Yellowstone is on my bucket list.