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.
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.
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.