First Visit to Yellowstone? Tips for a Successful Visit

First Visit to Yellowstone? Tips for a Successful Visit

July 05, 2021

Is this your first visit to Yellowstone National Park? We are so glad to see you’ve chosen to go online to learn more about your destination—the world’s first national park, established in 1872 and the flagship of American public lands. We’re also excited to see you’ve chosen to learn a bit more about Gardiner, Montana, the park’s North Entrance, also known as “Nature’s Favorite Entrance to Yellowstone National Park” because of the wild animals that roam throughout our streets. Below are some approaches you can use to ensure you have a pleasant experience during your first visit to this very special area:

Prioritize What You Want to See and Plan Accordingly

Yellowstone is vast. Those who live here will attest you can spend a lifetime exploring the park and still not see it all—so don’t be disappointed if you can’t fit it all in during a single visit.

Between four and five days is ideal to spend time appreciating Yellowstone’s major highlights: Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone Lake, Lamar and Hayden valleys, and Mammoth Hot Springs and the Fort Yellowstone Historic District. Luckily all of these locations are within a few hours’ drive from Gardiner, which makes the North Entrance an ideal basecamp. If you only have a day or two to spend, consider focusing on one or two aspects of the park you find particularly interesting. For example, if you want to see geysers and hot springs, concentrate your time on the western part of the park at Norris and Old Faithful geyser basins. If you prefer wildlife, spend your time farther east near Lamar and Hayden valleys. Save some sights for later; it will simply whet your appetite for a future visit.

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Travel During Non-Peak Hours and Get Out and Explore

Yellowstone is popular, especially this year as Americans are getting out and stretching after last year’s Coronavirus lockdowns and local travel has increased due to international travel restrictions. However, this doesn’t mean you have to experience the park as “part of the pack.”

Consider departing for your days early—even as early as 6 a.m., which is better for viewing wildlife anyway—or later in the evening to avoid heavy traffic. (You can purchase a park pass online if the kiosk is closed.) Between the peak travel hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. try to be off the road and out of your car adventuring. This could mean parking your car at Old Faithful’s parking lot to view an early eruption and then taking the rest of the afternoon to meander along the basin’s widespread boardwalks. Yellowstone also features nearly 900 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult. Click here to read about some of our favorite excursions. Don’t forget to carry bear spray and know how to use it as all of Yellowstone and the surrounding area is considered bear country. 

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Prepare for a Successful Day the Night Before

Speaking of early mornings, do not spend time fighting morning traffic at Gardiner’s two gas stations, the Conoco Town Station and Gardiner Sinclair, as you’re trying to head into the park. Instead, fill up your gas tank the night before and have your vehicle ready to hit the road first thing in the morning.

We suggest you shop for snacks and beverages in advance at the Gardiner Market and have a cooler ready to fill. Pack your daypacks with layers, sunscreen, bear spray, medications, and full water bottles and have them sitting by the door and ready to place into the car. Have a good idea where you want to go and what you want to see before you start driving so you can plan your day accordingly. If you’re trying to maximize a full day of exploring consider a continental-style breakfast that won’t require you to spend time waiting in line. (Some restaurants offer grab-and-go.) Otherwise, if you prefer a leisurely morning before eventually heading into the park, be prepared to spend time enjoying a sit-down breakfast at one of Gardiner’s tasty dining establishments.

Engage Your Teens and Young Children

While many adults enjoy pondering the colorful depths of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, watching wildlife through binoculars and spotting scopes, and admiring the intricacies of various hot springs, many children can become quickly bored with these activities and easily distracted. Pair this with a lot of time in the car and you have high potential for cranky youth.

We suggest you research ways in advance to engage kids so everyone in your group has fun visiting Yellowstone. Consider enrolling children to become a Junior Ranger or a Young Scientist with the National Park Service (information available through Yellowstone’s website and visitor centers). These honorary positions include activities that encourage participants to observe nature, take notes, and use critical thinking skills. A “Wildlife Checklist” available for free at entrance gates will also keep youth busy and maybe even spur a little well-natured sibling rivalry. The Yellowstone Forever retail store on Park Street sells educational books and activities that may also help kids appreciate their time in Yellowstone, with books about local hikes that may appeal to older children and teenagers.

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Secure Lodging Well in Advance

Finding a place to stay in and around Gardiner can be tricky, especially between mid-May and late September when park visitation is at its highest, so we recommend as soon as you decide to visit the park you immediately set about securing lodging.

Most campgrounds in the area are on a first-come first-served basis and those that do accept reservations fill quickly. With only a couple RV parks in the area, finding a place to park campers and RVs for the night is hard, typically not something you can do at the last minute, and camping on the streets of Gardiner, at local trailheads, and at fishing accesses is illegal. To inform guests about local camping opportunities, rules, and “Leave No Trace” expectations, we’ve compiled information you can find by clicking here. Motels, hotels, vacation rentals, and other lodging opportunities in Gardiner can be found by clicking here. By arranging lodging first you’ll ensure you and your family or traveling companions have a comfortable place to rest your heads after a long day out in the park exploring.

We hope you find these ideas helpful while planning your first (and hopefully not last) visit to our quaint and friendly gateway community and your wild and breathtaking experiment in public lands. For up-to-date information on safety considerations, including mask and vaccine requirements and recommendations, fire restrictions, and roadway information, please visit the Yellowstone National Park website here.

Chelsea DeWeese writes from her hometown of Gardiner, Montana, the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

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