Yellowstone is more than photo ops and zoos where the animals roam free. It's not a museum, either, where magnificent scenery is merely on display. The park, unlike a picture hanging lifelessly on the wall of a museum, is a work-in-progress; a living, breathing wilderness area. Plant your feet in a comfortable pair of walking or hiking shoes, find a trailhead, and set off into the woods with a sack lunch and a big bottle of water. Better yet, if you can afford the time, plan an excursion around Shoshone Lake or to the south end of Yellowstone Lake by boat to areas few visitors ever see.
If you're more adventurous, take a white-water trip down Snake River Canyon, sleep under the stars and listen to the wolves howl at Slough Creek Campground, or backpack for a week on the Thorofare Trail.
You'll never plumb the absolute depths of this park -- no one ever will. You could spend your whole life trying, though, and have a wonderful and illuminating time doing it.
It's no one's idea of a fun vacation to end up inhaling exhaust behind a long line of cars waiting for a break in construction at Yellowstone's east entrance. Few things can do more to ruin a much-anticipated vacation than poor planning. So look over some of this crucial information before you hit the road -- it might make the difference between a trip you'll never forget and one you'd rather not remember.
Nothing will ruin a trip to the parks faster than sore or wet feet. Bring comfortable walking shoes, even if you plan to keep walking to a minimum. Bring shoes that are broken in, and if you plan to do some serious hiking, get sturdy boots that support your ankles and wick away water. Early in the season, trails might be wet or muddy; late in the fall, you can get snowed on. The more popular trails are sometimes also used by horses, which can make stream crossings a mucky mess.
Wear your clothing in layers, and bring a small, empty backpack or fanny pack so that you have somewhere to put the clothes as you take those layers off and on as temperature, altitude, and your level of physical exertion change. Cotton is a no-no in the backcountry; synthetic fabrics are recommended because they dry much faster. Gloves or mittens are useful before the park heats up, or in the evening when it cools down again, even in summer.
The atmosphere is thin at higher altitudes, so protect your skin. Bring a strong sunblock, a hat with a brim, and sunglasses. I also recommend bringing insect repellent, water bottles, and a first-aid kit.
Take into account that elevations at the parks are between 5,000 and 11,000 feet; in campgrounds and on hiking trails, you'll want clothing appropriate to the temperatures -- in summer, 40°F (4°C) in the evening, 75°F (24°C) during the day.
Planning a Backcountry Trip
The theme in the backcountry is “leave no trace,” and that means packing out any garbage you take in, not taking pets, and avoiding leaving scars on the landscape by staying on designated trails and reusing existing campsites. Fires are allowed only in established fire rings, and only dead and downed material may be used for firewood; fires are prohibited in some areas, but backpacking stoves are allowed throughout the parks. You must have a park permit for overnight stays in the backcountry. There’s a complete list of do’s and don’ts in the Backcountry Trip Planner, available at most visitor centers. For more information on “leave no trace” ethics, see www.lnt.org.
Backpacking for Beginners
Be sure to wear comfortable, sturdy hiking shoes that will resist water if you’re planning an early-season hike; cotton socks are not a good idea because the material holds moisture, whereas wool and synthetics, such as fleece, wick it away from your body. Your sleeping bag should be rated for the low temperatures found at high elevations; if you bring a down bag, keep it dry or suffer the consequences. A lightweight sleeping pad is a must. An internal frame backpack with good padding, a lumbar support pad, and a wide hip belt helps ensure a comfortable trip. Be sure that you’ve tried out the pack and boots—wear them around the house!—before you take it on a long trip with heavy loads, so that you’ll have time to break them in.
Personal Safety Issues
It’s best not to backpack alone, but if you must, be sure that you have told park rangers and friends where you’ll be and how long you’ll be gone. Don’t leave the parking lot without the following gear: a compass, topographical maps, a first-aid kit, bug repellent, toilet paper, a headlamp, matches, a knife, food supplies, a bear-resistant food container if your campsite doesn’t have a bear pole, bear spray, as well as a tent, a stove, and a sleeping bag. At this altitude, sunscreen and sunglasses with UV protection are also wise. You’ll also need water treatment pills or a good water filter, because that seemingly clear stream could be filled with parasites that are likely to cause intestinal disorders. If you don’t have either, bring water to a boil before you drink it.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.