Yellowstone can be a difficult park to enjoy, to say the least. With nearly five million visitors a year, most of them in July and August, there are often just so many people that the popular and famous attractions are impossible to enjoy during daylight hours.
This raises the much-discussed question of how it is best to go about visiting the park. Some claim that winter is the best option, as tourism is at its lowest and many roadside attractions, such as Grand Prismatic Spring and Mammoth Hot Springs, become infinitely more enjoyable. While stories that claim that you will have the whole park to yourself are a little far-fetched and unlikely, there are for sure much fewer people for sure.
An unavoidable downside is that most of the park–generally around 95%–is very literally closed off and inaccessible by car or by foot. Rangers simply don’t have the resources to devote time and effort into cleaning up the roads and trails from snow enough to be used, and instead simply close them off for the winter. That means that while the famous attractions will be more accessible, everything else will be blocked off and you will be trapped on the roadside locations, unable to see the wilder side of the park. That is not to mention the temperature and the snow gear required for even the shortest of hikes, which only add to the problems with that solution.
Another common idea is to explore at dusk and dawn, thus avoiding the majority of tourism. However, this is not advisable practice for a number of reasons: first off, when would you sleep? And second, what do you intend to do during the day? The obvious solution is to sleep a few hours during the day and the night and be awake for a few at dusk and dawn, but that’s extremely problematic, as you would have much less time in each “day” or iteration, and your sleep cycle would be so disrupted by this unorthodox schedule, combined with possible jetlag, that you would very likely end up too exhausted to function within the first 48 hours. Unless you are okay with doing nothing for most of the day, that’s hardly going to work out.
There is another possibility though, and while it might sound unappealing at first, it can be the most rewarding option. The idea is to make the sacrifice of skipping popular places like Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, and instead go out farther into the wilder areas of the park, avoiding the masses and exploring places you won’t find in travel guides or road maps.
Typically, in Yellowstone if a place can be driven through or there are short boardwalk loops, it’s full of people. However, hiking trails over a mile long are generally much more solitary, as a surprisingly low percentage of people take the time to actually go on a longer hike. Often, the most rewarding hikes aren’t on maps or even recommended online. Small, random trails on the side of the road typically lead to something interesting, and they can be much more enjoyable than well-used trails in popular regions of the park.
Yellowstone is littered with geothermal features and wildlife hotspots, and the well-known ones are only a small sample. Arguably the best way to experience Yellowstone is to take chances and visit the more reclusive areas, driving headfirst into wilderness directly away from the masses. It takes some luck to find the best places, but it’s unlikely that the search will be fruitless. What very few people seem to grasp is that Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic are not what makes Yellowstone such a spectacular park–it’s the thousands of rarely explored places that offer the unexpected, be it a colorful geothermal pool or a face-to-face encounter with a pissed of moose, that make up the experience.
Check out my Yellowstone Travel Guide for more tips, suggestions, and recommendations.